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The killing of Osama bin Laden – some further thoughts

May 6, 2011

A couple of days ago I posted on the ethics of killing Osama bin Laden. I’m not going to revisit that topic, but rather make a few points about two related ethical issues that are being widely discussed in relation to the killing – firstly, should President Obama release the photographs of the dead bin Laden? And secondly, given that it appears that some of the information that led to the raid was obtained from prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, does this give us reason to look more favourably on what went one there (particularly the torture of prisoners)?

To a degree these issues can also be addressed with reference to the ideas I introduced in my last post. Let’s take the release of the photos first, since this seems to me to be the least troubling (at least from an ethical perspective). Those who might object to the release on principle could appeal to something such as bin Laden’s right to be treated with dignity in death or a prohibition on triumphalism in victory (note Obama’s comment on the photos of bin Laden not being a trophy); on the other hand principled argument for releasing the photos could appeal to society’s right to freedom of information, or something similar.

Approaches that favoured appealing primarily to a weighing of the good vs. bad effects would have to decide how this balance cashed out; for example the benefits of convincing people he really is dead against the risks of inciting global unrest and violence. For what it’s worth, the principled arguments seem quite weak to me set against the potential effects of the decision on global society, and I think the likely harm outweighed the good – Obama got it right.

The question of whether finding bin Laden in some sense retrospectively adds justification to ‘rough’ interrogation techniques (i.e. torture) is potentially a more difficult question. If you held a principled moral objection to torture then, by the nature of this position your views are unlikely to change because, as it turned out, something positive came of breaking that principle. If on, the other hand, you objected to torture based on a judgment of how good results balanced against harms then it is possible that you might be swayed.

In some ways the torture that preceded the killing is harder to justify than the killing itself – as I pointed out in my last post, the killing is much more easily justified if you can argue that the US was in a state of war with al-Qaeda. This defence, however, is not open in the case of torture which is prohibited by the ethics (and laws) of war as well as by the ethics of peace and civil laws.

True, these rules are typically formulated in absolutist terms that would not necessarily hold sway with those willing to countenance the possibility of exceptions in extreme circumstances. In this way we come back to some of the questions I touched on with regards to the killing: (1) was this an extreme enough circumstance and (2) how should we think such circumstances through? One way, again, is to appeal to the idea of ‘dirty hands’. This, if anything, seems even more appropriate in the case of torture, a practice which is often held up as a paradigm case of immorality. Those who want to defend the interrogation of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay as justified or acceptable in light of the information it provided might also be able to, and perhaps should, admit that it was nonetheless immoral.

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