Torture, Execution, and Conservative Morality

December 8, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mark Kleiman, prime mover of The Reality-Based Community, asks why it is that people on the Hard Right reject candidates who have reservations about torture and capital punishment. What is it about these practices that they find so appealing?

To his credit, Mark doesn’t merely dismiss them as sadists, at least not all of them. Instead, he writes:
But even people who take no personal joy in imagining the torture of enemies may take support for torture as a positive sign in evaluating a candidate. A candidate who supports torture (1) displays an unlimited, as opposed to a merely conditional, willingness to fight terrorism and (2) displays andreia, “manliness.”

He’s not wrong, but I think Jonathan Haidt’s work on morality provides a more complete way of understanding the problem. Liberals in the Western industrialized world, says Haidt, evaluate morality on two dimensions:
  • harm/care
  • fairness/justice
But Haidt’s reading of most other societies, past and present, reveals three other dimensions that provide the bases of morality:
  • ingroup/loyalty
  • authority/respect
  • purity/sanctity
Conservatives in the US, have retained these three bases for morality, and they often outweigh the first two.

My own hunch is that ingroup/loyalty is the most important, especially in the debate over torture and the death penalty. The terrorist and the convicted killer stand on the other side of our society’s moral boundary. They are not part of our group; in fact, they are a danger to it. They are, therefore, not protected by the morality that we apply to people within our group – the loyalty factor trumps all others – so anything we do to them in the name of protecting our group is morally justified.

And, as Kleiman notes, ideology takes precedence over evidence of actual effectiveness.
the consequentialist arguments (the death penalty deters/torture extracts useful information) are largely afterthoughts.
Purity, loyalty, respect – basically it’s Mafia morality, a morality which, as I blogged a while ago, has a deep appeal to many Americans.

No comments: