Friday, May 22, 2009

I Am More Conservative Than Dick Cheney

As we inside-the-Beltway folks thrill to the duel of words between the current President and the former Vice President over the issue of "enhanced interrogation techniques," what strikes me as most interesting about the debate is the inversion of the usual liberal/conservative moral divide.

According to the pattern as it's generally expressed within conservative culture, liberals are consequentialists. That means that we progressives are morally relativistic, adapting ourselves to the needs of the moment rather than sticking to a set of clear moral principles that permit no wiggle room. Under such an ethical system, there are no absolutes. We basically do whatever the heck we want. Gay marriage, cats and dogs living together, that sort of thing.

Conservatives, by that same metric, are generally assumed by other conservatives to hew to what is known as a deontological morality. That means that ethics are duty based. There are laws and governing rules by which one lives, and they cannot be bent or broken. You must adhere to them, no matter what happens. Morality is not determined by context. It is an absolute, and as such it bears great resemblance to faith, which also orients itself towards an absolute. That, within the self-understanding of conservatism, is what gives an individual or a nation integrity. It's what imbues us with nobility.

What is most striking about Cheney's recent defense of the use of torture is how eloquently he articulates a consequentialist ethic. When he describes the actions of his administration towards detainees as “, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do,” that rightness is not measured against any other standard than that of perceived efficacy.

When he says engaging in these acts was "essential," he is describing torture as necessary for maintaining the security of the populace. When he says it was justified, he does so for the same reason. It maintained security. We would not have been safe without the use of torture. It was "successful" because it purportedly generated actionable intelligence. Finally, it was the "right thing to do" because, in Cheney's eyes and in those of his fellow conservatives, it had the desired effect. We were made safe. We were protected. That is proof, in and of itself, that it was the correct course of action. It worked.

Even in the unlikely circumstance that all of those things are true, and if that policy of sustained and systematic physical abuse of prisoners yielded actionable intelligence, what Cheney is articulating at best is a morality of expediency. We'll do whatever it takes to protect ourselves.

To counter this, some conservatives have argued that the legal opinions written to justify this approach were a sign that those actions were being held against a higher standard. What they were, though, was a tacit admission that what for many was a core value within a democratic society was being violated. In seeking wiggle room around the issue of torture, and in endeavoring to redefine it, the former administration moved away from the idea that there are some inviolable values that define our society and make it both noble and worth defending.

Measured against the standards of faith, particularly Christian faith, Cheney's defense fails. Measured against the unchanging values that are supposedly the bedrock foundation of a conservative morality, such actions cannot be justified. They are fundamentally ignoble, and that a significant portion of American conservatism has risen up to defend them is a sign of a movement that has lost sight of its moral integrity.