Dilbert Blog Jumps the Shark

The Dilbert Blog recently moved from its normal humorous focus of pointing out human stupidity to consideration of one of the most basic issues in human rights, the right not to be tortured. Frankly that right’s so basic we usually don’t even state it as such, but Scott Adams think it’s open for debate. However rather than seriously considering it he raises it as a ridiculous, hypothetical question, “would you accept the nuclear destruction of NYC (for example) to avoid torturing one known terrorist?” and just in case anyone calls him on how silly the question is, or tries to fight back with their own hypothetical he adds, “No fair extending my question to more ambiguous hypotheticals.” Then he claims he wins the debate by knockout because people tried to address reality instead of his false hypothetical. I’m not sure if my comment will get through moderation so I thought I’d post a slightly edited version of it here.

Scott, you knocked yourself out with a ridiculous question before the match started. Creating a hypothetical to get the answer you want may help win a debate, but never gets you the truth. If you seriously want to think about torture, you need to consider what actually happens, not hypotheticals. The real question isn’t torturing a terrorist to prevent the nuclear destruction of New York. Asking whether someone would do that is as relevant as the old joke asking whether the Pope should sleep with a woman to save the Church.

Here’s the reality: Al Qaeda higher-up Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi is send by the C.I.A to Egypt to be tortured. To get it to stop he makes up a story about Iraq training Al Qaeda in the use of biological and chemical weapons. We go to war and more than 100,000 people die. That’s not a hypothetical. That happened. It’s still happening.

As to your question of why interrogation works if torture doesn’t, you should probably talk to some real interrogators to find out. For example, according to ex-F.B.I. agent Dan Coleman in in the New Yorker:

Coleman was angry that lawyers in Washington were redefining the parameters of counter-terrorism interrogations. “Have any of these guys ever tried to talk to someone who’s been deprived of his clothes?” he asked. “He’s going to be ashamed, and humiliated, and cold. He’ll tell you anything you want to hear to get his clothes back. There’s no value in it.” Coleman said that he had learned to treat even the most despicable suspects as if there were “a personal relationship, even if you can’t stand them.” He said that many of the suspects he had interrogated expected to be tortured, and were stunned to learn that they had rights under the American system. Due process made detainees more compliant, not less, Coleman said. He had also found that a defendant’s right to legal counsel was beneficial not only to suspects but also to law-enforcement officers. Defense lawyers frequently persuaded detainees to cooperate with prosecutors, in exchange for plea agreements. “The lawyers show these guys there’s a way out,” Coleman said. “It’s human nature. People don’t cooperate with you unless they have some reason to.” He added, “Brutalization doesn’t work. We know that. Besides, you lose your soul.”

4 Responses to “Dilbert Blog Jumps the Shark”

  1. Scott Adams Says:

    My hypothetical question was designed to find out if people were holding their opinion on torture based on morality or on a difference in opinion about what is practical. To that end, it worked perfectly.

    Being baffled by the Dilbert Blog puts you in the majority.

  2. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    Morality is situational. It must take into account what is practical. We have to live, judge, and act in the real world. Basing moral argument on counterfactual hypotheticals leads to bad argument and bad morals. When moralists start resorting to ridiculous hypotheticals, it’s normally a sign that they’ve lost the argument in the real world, and rather than changing their principles to fit the facts, they want to change the facts to justify their principles. The problem is facts are rather resistant to change.

    Often this occurs because they’re embarrassed by or incognizant of the real foundation for their principles. Torture’s a classic case. It has almost nothing to do with extracting useful information, and quite a lot to do with terrorizing groups and taking vengeance on individuals. Of course, as soon as you admit that’s the real reason for torture, you’ve lost the argument so instead torture defenders like Alan Dershowitz propose hypothetical situations that don’t exist.

    Counterfactual hypotheticals are actively harmful to understanding. They serve merely to muddy the water and support rhetoric. They are sophistic arguments for justifying conclusions one has already reached; but they are not part of an honest and informed rational discourse.

  3. Sean Henry Says:

    The bizarre thing about all of this is that I just saw the exact same example (i.e. terrorist being tortured in Egypt and would the same objections be raised to this if he were to be about to blow up a US city) being used on an old episode of JAG. So actually not a lot of this is particularly original unless of course JAG nicked it from the relevant blog.

  4. Scott Adams Says:

    Hypotheticals aren’t that tricky for anyone who understands the reasoning behind his own opinion. In this case it separated the two questions that people get muddled up.

    1. If torture works, is there EVER a moral reason to use it?

    2. Does torture work?

    3. If it’s common knowledge that interrogation works better than torture, why do the people who are professional interrogators often torture? Are they just bad at their jobs?

    Those are three reasonable questions. If you can’t answer them independently, even in a hypothetical, you probably aren’t thinking clearly.

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