Isn’t it curious that the former Vice President wants to justify the practice of torture by saying, well, it works. It is curious. I think I can explain his argument, if not his thinking exactly.
It has to do with the arguments and the concerns of the philosophers. One may wonder, why go there? Why do we need to look into the ivy tower to understand the seemingly practical but Oh-so-criminal statements of one of our past leaders?
The answer, I believe, has to do with the fact that many people, for some reason, support the Vice President and want to defend him from criminal prosecution. They not only believe that he has done nothing wrong, but that he is correct. There are large numbers of people who think, along with Cheney, that in the war on evil, or terrorism, you have to do what works in order to protect the United States and its people.
Some people may also wonder whether torture works. They might point out that torture in counter-productive. You make more enemies with it than without it, for example. Or, you don’t get reliable intelligence, say, because people will say anything in order to make it stop. Or, you can get better intel from your enemies if you make them think you are their friend.
But, when you have this kind of evidence showing all kinds of things, I suspect the issue is about what one might mean by saying torture ‘works.’ Does it get what we want in the short run, or the long run? Do we stop immediate problems, but make more enemies in the long run?
All of this cries out for an explanation. The explanation that I’d like to give starts out with the concerns of the philosophers. It starts there because torturing people is something that reflects on issues about who we are, or what we are, and what we are thus willing to do. These are central concerns for philosophers. Philosophers are concerned about questions like that. They take sides and argue that those who disagree with them have problems. Their critics don’t understand, don’t get it, don’t care about what’s important. If one philosopher thinks that you have to torture your enemies in order to get information, and another philosopher has a problem with that, then, the philosophers make the case for themselves. This is important to us because people like Cheney take sides in these disputes. We all do. The Vice President committed himself, and the fortunes of the United States, on his estimation that one philosopher was correct on this matter and others, e.g., those who think torture is immoral, or illegal, or not efficacious, were wrong.
I want to say a little bit about that argument.
Philosophers are engaged in a big debate about whether or not they support Socrates, or his nemesis, a philosopher I call the Teacher, over what should be the ends and means of our lives. One part of that dispute is the issue of what anyone should make of skeptics, philosophers who point out that the claims made by the Socratic position lead to dead ends. That is, given the Socratic commitments, we cannot understand things like knowledge and morality.
Dick Cheney takes a position on that issue. He goes along with David Hume. Hume says there’s a position that he finds so true, it’s just common sense. That position has its critics, but, according to Hume, no argument that these skeptical critics make is enough, or should be enough, to make any person who has to live in the world, and make decisions about such things as how to make wealth, or to protect one’s family or one’s country, give up that position. It is just so much common sense.
The problem for philosophers since Socrates has been that anyone who has committed themselves to this bit of common sense has to explain the conflict between their common sense and the way people go about understanding their lives and how things work. There’s a conflict, you see, because according to Socrates, David Hume, and Dick Cheney, people are zombies, walking creatures driven by either their insatiable hungers, or the commands of their ‘voodoo masters’, and yet they don’t think of themselves this way.
When philosophers have tried to disabuse people of their illusions, they have been mostly ignored. Sometimes, the philosophers have suffered. Socrates himself was one of the first to suffer from his ‘noble’ effort to enlighten people and to wash away the illusions that clouded their judgments. He was brought up on charges and convicted of ‘crimes against children,’ and ‘abusing the Gods.’ Plato tells us that, despite the claims made by his accusers, Socrates should be considered a martyr to the cause of truth. The question then as now has been to explain exactly what Socrates was doing and whether or not he was correct to push his argument - to children or anyone else.
In defense of Socrates, Plato devised a metaphor called the ‘Allegory of the Cave,’ to explain how people could be zombies but carry on their lives thinking, falsely – according to Plato, - that they were something else. All of our problems, according to Plato, are caused by the fact that we are zombies but don’t realize that fact and accept its implications. We make problems for ourselves by trying to act on false views of ourselves.
One of Plato’s solutions was to have philosophers, young one’s specifically trained for this task, climb out of the cave, reconnoiter the way things are from outside its confines, and then return with their true understanding of what’s what. This process, involving rule by ‘philosopher-kings,’ would allow said philosophers to rule society knowing the true zombie nature of people and thereby having appropriate ways to accomplish their tasks. An alternative solution involved, on the one hand the realization that the ‘philosopher-king’ scenario would never be accepted, and the resulting expectation that those who lived outside the cave were Gods and that they would out of pity, perhaps, send someone into the cave in order to help us out. These Gods would find ways to save us from ourselves, so to speak.
Descartes was the kind of philosopher who examined the way that Socrates set up the cave, making it something that Plato thought made it necessary, saying that on this view we shouldn’t be able to understand many of the things about our lives that we take for granted. For example, on the view we get from Socrates, knowledge does not seem to be possible.
He was on the verge of suggesting, therefore, that maybe we should reject the account of ourselves that Socrates gave us. Just before he does that, though, Descartes claims that Socrates was correct about how we understand ourselves, and any problems we might have are resolved by God. That is, God is powerful enough to make everything turn out alright in the end. According Descartes’ understanding of God, he would not allow us to go through life without knowledge or any of the other necessary tools of existence.
David Hume came along, afterwards, and was concerned to give a different answer to the skeptical arguments that Descartes had developed. Hume was concerned to show that no matter what arguments you might come up with that seemed to caste doubt on the Socratic account of people and the way the world worked, none of them could ever make a reasonable or sensible person reject it. That is, for Hume, Descartes and all other philosophical skeptics are just pissing in the wind. Their arguments can never get us to reject the Socratic core beliefs.
For one thing, according to Hume, Descartes’ arguments were based on faulty reasoning. They are faulty because Descartes did not pay attention to the evidence that stares all of us in the face all the time. He made certain assumptions about the world, and without checking out whether his assumptions had any evidence to back them up, proceeded to make arguments that ended with his skeptical conclusions.
Secondly, the truth of what Socrates told us about ourselves is proven to us all the time and that evidence is the experience we have of ourselves and the way of the world because of how we are.
The truth that Socrates claimed about people, of course, is the observation that we are zombies understood as creatures shuffling across the planet - driven by either their insatiable hungers or the commands of their betters, otherwise known to be their ‘voodoo masters.’ According to Hume, if we only look at ourselves we would see that people walk like zombies, talk like zombies, smell like zombies, and even eat brains like zombies. Therefore, despite any illusions to the contrary, we are zombies.
According to Hume, all our experience supports the common sense truth of Socratic philosophy, that people are zombies.
The fact is, however, most people do not think of themselves as zombies. They have another view of themselves. The idea of what a zombie is or what the idea implies has become confused, even in the time of Socrates, but much more so afterwards. One of the things people think about zombies is that they are dead, whereas people are living. There’s a difference in that one has a ‘life force’ whereas the other does not. One has a ‘free will,’ where the other does not. One is capable of having a language, along with all its fruits, whereas the other is not. According to Socrates, and David Hume, the problems we have in this life arise out of our paying too much attention to the mythologies that we have about ourselves, where we have a ‘living force,’ a ‘free will,’ have a language, involving ‘knowledge,’ ‘morality,’ the ability to make decisions or compromises, and so forth, and not enough attention to the basic common sense truth that we are only zombies.
So, again, there will be troubling arguments to be made about people, as there is not enough appreciation of our zombie natures, but none of those arguments can ever undermine the fact that we are zombies.
Many people are concerned that it seems the Socratic account of people creates a seemingly inexplicable world. The business about ‘free will,’ the ‘living forces,’ the ‘social contract,’ whatever we are to make of ‘morality,’ ‘God,’ and so forth, makes for unending and seemingly irresolvable moral, religious, causal, political and legal arguments about what we should do, or think, and what is important.
Hume has been understood to be on the side of the skeptics in these matters. His own writing includes arguments that make it seem that we should be worried that we cannot account for ourselves, the way the world works, God, and so forth. And, because we have not separated out the core common sense truths about our zombie natures from the mythologies that govern our day to day thinking about ourselves, Hume has been misunderstood as being himself a skeptic because he shows how easy it is to be skeptical. And so, by being a skeptic about the ways that our myths tell us to understand the world, Hume is supposed to leave us with nothing. This argument forgets the main point that Hume was trying to make about Descartes and all other skeptics. All arguments that seem to make us care about having no ‘knowledge,’ ‘morality,’ ‘language,’ and so on, fail to acknowledge the distinction Hume makes between the truths about our zombiness, from the myths about us that philosophers have tried used to deceive us.
Hume’s own position is that whatever we are, or however we think or behave, is different and distinct from whatever the philosophers say about these things based on their metaphors. Philosophers like Plato, for example, say we should understand ourselves in terms of these metaphors, where our moral, religious, causal, political, or legal reasonings are based on some metaphorical account of ourselves. We are told,we are like the people who live in the Allegorical cave.
The suggestion here is made to caste a spell over us to make us believe that we are something we are not. The Allegory makes us think that we are really endowed with strange abilities and magical powers, a ‘free will’ and a ‘life force,’ and have the possibility of not only ‘communicating’ with others, but also with a powerful being from outside our cave of existence. If we reject the metaphorical understanding of ourselves that this argument gives us, we will be able to get back to the true account of ourselves. We are actually zombies. We should give up the illusion that we are something else.
To give up metaphors like the Allegory of the Cave, for Hume, is just our facing facts. We are zombies and life as a zombie is all about doing what works, to realize that the end does justify the means, and that one always does exactly what one is told by those who know best.
Since we are here to survive, doing what’s necessary to survive will often involve violence, stealth, and deception. There will always be people who don’t get the picture correctly and who have been under the spell of one metaphor or another. The message Hume gives us is that there are often unpleasant things we have to do in order to accomplish our goals, but we need not be concerned about how we feel. Those feelings are based on the same faulty reasoning involving moral, religious, causal, political, and legal issues that Hume has exposed in Descartes. As we can easily dismiss the skeptical concerns of Descartes as being faulty and ignoring the evidence of experience, we can equally ignore the confused preachments of so-called moral, religious, causal, political, and legal scholars.
We should not allow their vulgar pandering to get in the way of what must be done to survive.
Dick Cheney is a Humean in this sense. The former Vice President is an advocate of torture and murder as what is necessary for us to survive as a people and a country and an opponent of the confused arguments of his philosophical opponents who get in the way of these things that must be done.
Of course, Cheney understands that people will resist what he advocates. They will bring up some kind of moral, religious, causal, political, or legal consideration against him. He understands that he may be scorned, reviled, or even convicted of crimes, for what he has done. He understands that his opponents are deluded, however, and cannot see that there is no reasonable basis to object to what he has done because, in fact, torture and murder work to accomplish what everyone should want done for themselves and their country.
Socrates was harassed for doing the same thing. He argued that since people are zombies, but don’t want to acknowledge that fact, it is understandable that they would want to do away with anyone who would try to take the blindfolds off their eyes and make them see the truth. Hume argued that it may not make sense to people so deluded, but when you take an unvarnished look at the evidence, people are zombies. Dick Cheney and the rest of us who support him go along with these same hard-to-face truths.
Zombies are what zombies do.
"...it's not who i am underneath, but what i do that defines me..."- Batman