On (metaphysical) Self-Mutilation

Biased animals as we are, it is a rare thing for us to see an argument we vehemently disagree with* that we recognize nonetheless sums up the stakes of said argument quite well. Over on Zombie Contentions, CK MacLeod brings up just such a rarity. Focusing on the philosophical aspects of war, in this case spinning off of the U.S. government’s use of torture, he describes a possible mindset being taken advantage of by the ones giving the orders:

As individuals and individualists, we react viscerally, if vicariously, to the very essence of torture and to the principle of its effectiveness: which last need not be considered strictly in regard to its supposed sole justifying purpose, the acquisition of so-called actionable intelligence, but may, in the very uncertainty of its utility, even at the outset of the “enhanced interrogation” program, rely primarily on demonstration of the torturer’s own unequivocal faith, love of country, love of fellow citizens or members of a community, willingness to fight for and defend them by any means necessary and available, up to and including one’s own destruction. This intelligence about ourselves, on the dependency and relative insignificance of the individual, converted by war into one sheddable cell among others in an arisen national body, the Casablanca determination2, stands as the first and most important, most fervently sought secret proven by torture.

Ah yes, the “civic duty” chestnut. I remember it well, though in this case it goes beyond seeking something bigger than yourself and somehow ending up at a military recruiters office. FAR beyond. This is that hapless recruit years later, now standing in a room, in a secret building, in Gawd Knows Where, with CIA agents & a captive, holding a bucket & awaiting orders.

Downright terrible as I find the practice, considering the optics direction of harm seems obvious: the person being tortured. That is there, but CK suggests that deep down the real object of torture is breaking the torturer. Rather than the “ticking time bomb” 24 horseshit we were fed at the time we found out about adoption of a Khmer Rouge tactic (as if that would’ve justified it somehow), the prisoner is a prop in the submission of self to The Cause, adding yet another layer of sickness to what was already a disgusting demonstration of what government authority does to people. Reminds me of how 1984 ended — the book, not the year.

As Jeremy Weiland mentioned at the time of my initial observation against civic-duty-as-state-theater, we’re already part of a greater whole, one that doesn’t ask us to destroy each other. That isn’t the only place where the formulation in the mind of this hypothetical soldier rings false though, far from it:

No war is ever, ever has been, or ever will be fought purely for family, community, & country. No warrior is ever, ever has been, or ever will be given orders by family, community, or country.

Those orders come from certain people, people aligned with a certain class, with particular interests of their own. They are not the country, they are not your neighbors, they are not your family. And you are not an empty vessel waiting to be filled by the rulers.

You are you. Without what makes each of us I, We are meaningless. Disobey.

(* – Far as my reading of him goes, question of For or Against isn’t CK’s bag, so it’s more of an “it’s complicated” thing. What I take issue with is that it strikes me as highly useful for people who would argue the For side. Complexity as reason to submit to elite authority rears its head a lot.)


About b-psycho

Left-libertarian blogger & occasional musician.
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17 Responses to On (metaphysical) Self-Mutilation

  1. CK MacLeod says:

    I think you put the notion very well and economically – that the purpose of torture is (also) to “break” the torture – but where I think we differ is that you put responsibility entirely on “the system” as in our particular political system or the state rather than apportioning any responsibility at all to the designated enemy represented by the captive. In a way, you complete the latter’s de-humanization. He spends and uses up his and other lives attacking that state and as many of its citizens as he can kill, and he, his comrades, his cause, and their exploits, past and planned, don’t even merit a mention. Without them, it would be much more difficult to convert the operative into a torturer, even presuming someone somewhere would be interested in the attempt. I refer to a terror-torture cycle, but it’s the product of a two-stroke friend/enemy engine whose functioning can’t be understood without reference to both sides, as well as to the vehicle and its intended destination.

    As for my non-partisanship, I take that as a compliment, and I think you get me pretty well, though I’m not absolutely against being for or against. I just want to be for or against what it makes sense to me to be for or against. I’d suggest that an analysis aimed at understanding rather than at promoting is not evidently any more or less useful to either notional side than a perspective that imagines itself as engaged either “for” or “against,” but is effectively utopian or at most minimally influential. In this way, you and I may end up on the same non-side, which may partly explain why we manage to understand each other despite our other differences.

  2. CK MacLeod says:

    (shoulda writ “‘break’ the torturer“)

  3. B Psycho says:

    The captive has a system too of course, but how do the ones doing the torturing approach its relevance? Do they even?

    I’d think consideration of the other person’s cause, their reason for ending up in the situation where they’re about to be tortured, would if taken beyond stereotypes make going through with the torture difficult, to say the least. Risk of understanding or even sympathizing in that scenario…awkward.

  4. CK MacLeod says:

    Understanding the captive’s rationale is one thing – and typically quite useful to an interrogator – but having a sense of what the captive or the captive’s comrades actually did is another. Without 9/11 or other shock to the system, it becomes much more difficult to explain substantially greater militarization of counter-terrorism, many more extra-legal detentions, many more intrusions on everyday freedoms (TSA)… “enhanced interrogations,” too. The same set of facts is what induces a certain kind of mindset to go the conspiracism route: They understand a certain truth, that this is “the way of the world” not simply a “bolt from the blue,” but then they recoil from apparent defeat of one causal chain – “foreign bad men attacked us because they are bad and we are good” – to an even more tenuous causal chain – “our evil leaders attacked us by stealthy conspiracy because they are evil.” Both are radical oversimplifications, though you have to squint a lot harder to see one than the other unless your eyes are already built that way.

  5. Todd S. says:

    He spends and uses up his and other lives attacking that state and as many of its citizens as he can kill, and he, his comrades, his cause, and their exploits, past and planned, don’t even merit a mention.

    While I suppose torture can be used as a mere means of punishment, it doesn’t really exist for that purpose. I’d wager there are at least as many being tortured that haven’t engaged in these activities as have. People get tortured for what they (might) know, not what they’ve done.

  6. CK MacLeod says:

    The point was that awareness of certain well-known spectacular mass murderous acts and a reasonable belief that additional ones were planned prepared the interrogators to go over the edge against individuals whom they strongly believed were accomplices, and who generally were quite proud of their roles, in some cases quite central roles. Mr. Psycho’s description left that part out.

  7. B Psycho says:

    Honestly, I think on an individual level the respective combatants are much more similar in their reasons than either side cares to admit. I’ve made the argument in the past on message boards w/r/t U.S. intervention in the Middle East in form of a hypothetical:

    Imagine if for decades a foreign power — say, China — interfered in U.S. affairs for their own interests, with zero regard for the people whose lives they were affecting. Is it so hard to believe that, after awhile, some folks in places like Texas or Alabama would likely start thinking of what they’d do to a plane over Beijing?

    I emphasize the systems because, from my understanding, they are the reason why thinking about this results in more violence rather than questioning & subsequently stopping the violence already occurring.

  8. CK MacLeod says:

    As a general rule, a populace that sees itself as under occupation by an unwanted foreign power is going to develop modes of resistance, but we don’t need to imagine alternative histories to get there. We have plenty of real history, including America’s own history as celebrated on July 4th. I don’t have any trouble accepting that 9/11 and AQ didn’t come out of nowhere, and that people are more alike than not. But the point I’m trying to make is that we don’t live in abstract or ideal histories. We live in the aftermath of that same July 4th and world history as it really has developed, not the one where China took over North America. “We” opt for “us” because we are ourselves, not because we are good. I’ve said this before at my blog, and I didn’t make it up my own lonesome. If another dog attacks my dog (this is when my dogs were alive!), I don’t inquire as the other dog’s pedigree or history and determine whether the other dog is a better dog, has better genes or is a famous life-saving dog, I kick the damn dog away and defend my dog. Period. Keep your lifesaving best in show dog away from my dog, OK? I took responsibility for my dog. It’s real to me. Your lifesaving best in show dog is real to you, but not to me. Same for Americans and other Americans to the extent they deep down believe in America or recognize themselves as Americans as opposed to Islamists who views themselves as part of the great Muslim body on whatever basis. I can go on and on on this theme, but the short version is that radicals, leftists, outsiders, people just born ornery, whoever, have historically vastly underestimated the power of identity formations of this type, and the underestimation often goes hand in hand with dubious assumptions about their validity or about how one might go around establishing, proving, or denying it.

  9. B Psycho says:

    CK: Is it, in your opinion, possible to accurately see the power of the identity formations you emphasize without accepting them as legitimate?

    If not…then it seems the argument is that the Left cannot succeed without dropping what makes it Left. Accepting nationalism as legit without caveats of some sort deletes the critique, which is that things are being done in the name of such that actually harm the construct people seek to protect.

  10. dL says:

    Note to CK MacLeod:

    the methodological error in your example above is that it is not you who “kicks” or retaliates against the offending dog. It is a third agency.

    Your point seems to be the sociology(or as I would term, the sociopathy) of identifying with this third agency thereby legitimizes this third agency. That may or may not be, but as I would counter, sociology (or sociopathy) notwithstanding, this identification one way does not imply a return identification the other way(that is, the agency identifies with the ends of its subjects).

    Your empirical test that non-legitimacy should imply a popular nonresistance movement is countered by many counterfactuals in human history and is given a sound theoretical underpinning by the likes of George Orwell and Anthony de Jasay(a former political refugee from Communist Hungary who gives the definitive rational choice account in “The State” why States with absolutely no popular consent, which are hated even by the rulers, nonetheless persist).

    That the State is merely us(whether this has a sociopathic basis or not) is countered by the vast, interlocking array of the security force that would have to imply that we view ourselves as our own enemy. The better empirical test of what you have identified as a “legitimacy test” is simply the size and scope of the security force which serves to turn the collective action problem of revolution into an intractable one. An intractable problem of revolution serving as the basis of the ‘social contract” would be a novel political theory, albeit, a thoroughly honest one. Definitely authoritarian. Certainly not liberal.

  11. CK MacLeod says:

    I don’t understand what you’re saying, DL. I can’t parse the first sentence of the 4th paragraph concerning a “popular nonresistance,” for instance. I also don’t see where I’ve offered or identified a “legitimacy test.” I have not used the word “legitimacy” or variations. I avoid them since in a sense “legitimacy” or conflict between competing legitimacies or notions and sources of legitimacy is the central question at issue. So I would not employ the word without seeking a careful definition. “Legitimacy” often seems to be a reference for people who want to invoke some notion of moral law or, not the same thing, legality, without specifying, explaining, or having to defend their own preferred bases or sources of “legitimation.” I expect to have further comments on this topic at my own blog, in answer to B-Psycho’s question above.

    One last time on the dog example: It was intended narrowly as illustrative for the nature of commitment or accepted responsibility, relating to politics as a in the dimension of will and identity rather than abstract universal reason or some disembodied concept of legitimacy. My dog right or wrong, like my country right or wrong: I referred to the claim that we love our children and our dogs and possibly our countries and our gods, not because they are good, but because they are ours. Or we could say they are “good” to and for us as we really our because they are ours and we know them, not because they fit anybody else’s perhaps higher standards of good dogs or good kids or good countries, better dogs for better people than we happen to be in the better opinions of those better people.

    This notion is definitional for love. Anyone who would try to exchange his real child for some other “rationally preferable” child would be taken as a monster by us, though perhaps not in some perfect rational political state that perhaps you, but not necessarily I, would prefer to live in. When we say that family members or even pets are ours, we mean that they or our relationships to them are integral to our identities or self-identities. If we simply abandoned our children or our dogs or possibly our countries or are gods we would become unrecognizable to ourselves, we would be different people or we would reveal ourselves to be different people than we thought we were.

    How identity formation or possible concepts of (the) human being relate to the “state” is a foundational question of political philosophy. I was just addressing it peripherally in the comment thread under the the post B-Psycho excerpted: http://zombiecontentions.com/2013/02/15/torture-as-individualized-war-war-as-socialized-torture/comment-page-1/#comment-72842 “State” is a term even more confusingly and imprecisely used than “legitimate,” up there with “liberal.”

  12. CK MacLeod says:

    (I find my are/our typos amusing, since I think we’re trying to discuss the “are-ness” of “our,” and the “our-ness” of “are” – how we cannot help but take “what is” for “what should be,” or “is” for “ought,” or what we are for who we are or would be, etc.)

  13. dL says:


    There shouldn’t be any misunderstanding here. You put forth how people behave. I didn’t dispute that. I just noted how States behave.

    I’m not a believer in philosophy as a means of obfuscation. Liberal political theory can be cogently defined. State and politics are artificial constructs(as opposed to the more ancient view that considered state and politics–the polis–as organic components of human nature) to secure human collective action ends. I would counter that, contrary to liberal political theory prediction, the “perfectly rational political state” is an agency that inevitably counters the ends of its own citizens(or subjects).

    How can this be demonstrated? Its not difficult. If this agency enacts a volume of laws that makes each and every citizen or individual a criminal X times every day and forges a massive security/intelligence apparatus that views its own population as wellspring of the enemy, then that which needs to be demonstrated has been demonstrated. Otherwise, there really isn’t any meaning of the term “demonstration” or empirical proof.

    Frankly, the reason one should study philosophy and logic is not to establish eternal truths for oneself but to be able to identify the logical fallacies of bad arguments. And your argument is a bad one. It is bad, for one, because the United States is a signatory to a number of treaties that “legally bind” it to recognizing “crimes against humanity,’ rendering your above sociological defense legally inert. The Nuremberg Trials and the Nuremberg principal established that a defense of “taking orders” or “acting in accordance to expected human nature’ was no defense for executable war crimes.

    Sociological arguments like “the appeal to common practice” and the “appeal to the consequences of belief'”(i wouldn’t want to live in a world that rejects my argument) are universally considered logical fallacies.

    Third, it is a straw man fallacy to assign a position to someone who actually does not hold the position that he is accused of holding. I’m actually a moral non-contractarian. I assure I do not hold to whatever “ideal normative human behavior” position you claimed that I likely hold to. I would point out that trick is a typical diversion to take the focus off your actual position.

    In the end, I don’t think philosophy should be meant to be that difficult. The Socratic method takes your argument to a choice of two conclusions:one, human agency bears no burden of a legal constraint against it’s own agency. That is, the State is not rationally justified or two, state agency is morally and legally distinct from human agency. They are two entirely different things

  14. dL says:

    note: i have to laugh at my own air-headedness. the above should read moral non-cognitivist(meaning, in my case, moral statements aren’t of a boolean type). moral non contractarian is a brain fart on the keyboard, and i have no idea what it is supposed to represent, other than it sounds like a fundamentalist

  15. CK MacLeod says:

    dL, I still don’t understand the sentence about “should imply a popular nonresistance movement.”

    The following sentence is a logical circle: “State and politics are artificial constructs(as opposed to the more ancient view that considered state and politics–the polis–as organic components of human nature) to secure human collective action ends.” It de-naturalizes “state and politics” as opposed to naturalized “secure[-ing of human collective action ends.” “State and politics” and “securing of human collective action ends” are two expressions for the same thing. It’s like saying “state and politics are artificial constructs for state and politics.” We can also ask what the meaning of “artificial” can be in such a context, since the “artificial” may be “natural” to the human or what “naturally” distinguishes the human from the non-human. This problem is also a very old one, one of the oldest, in philosophy.

    Of course, I’m not really clear how the definition is supposed to function in your larger argument. Your “simple demonstration” simply demonstrates for me that possible presumptions that you are either supporting or simply discussing remain intact for you throughout, because they are not actually considered meaningfully. For sake of argument accepting your depiction of the functioning of the political state, we still would not know that that there actually is any alternative, or that we have available any governance for a mass society “securing collective human action ends” that will not involve numerous seemingly imperfect laws and a robust security apparatus. If “mass society” is a problem, we do not know that there is a solution we – either you and I or you and I as representative members of the “mass” – would find preferable and implementable. We know only that some people like to think so or say so (or seem to imply that they might like to say so).

    All we know from your “demonstration” is that some types of human ends, ends which we have not demonstrated to be actually “collective action ends,” would appear to exist in contradiction with some unidentified laws and that some citizens or perhaps types of citizens may be treated as hostile by a state security apparatus. Perhaps there are other collective action ends, many times more numerous and of much greater magnitude even than the apparently somewhat numerous, but possibly relatively trivial daily “criminal” or unlawful acts you mention. Maybe it is completely insignificant as to the collective action ends of greatest importance to the citizenry whether some laws are frequently broken or are unenforced, or maybe the citizenry is happy with just such an imperfectly rendered and applied body of law. Maybe the state security apparatus or overlapping security organs at different levels serve numerous purposes, and is “just the right size” and has just the right level of hostility, or is nowhere near as hostile as it could be, or in fact has not really been properly described at all. But how would we know? How do or would we know what the best-sized security apparatus would be, or what it’s proper level of hostility would be, given whatever collective action ends we wish to pursue? Is there a certain number of security operatives relative to the size of a population good for all times and places? Perhaps not. In any event I see no reason to presume that the existence of numerous acts of unspecified lawbreaking and the existence of a security apparatus with some level of hostility toward some sectors of the populace is an unnatural or undesirable condition, or worse than conceivable alternatives – e.g., a society of “perfect laws,” or a totally lawless society, or a society without a security apparatus, or a society with an all-pervasive security apparatus, or a society that relied on “informal” or “popular” security methods, etc.

    The meaning and legal significance of the Nuremberg principles is a separate question, though not unrelated. Invoking them and then putting forward the notion of the “legally inert” in response to the larger argument suggests that you do not understand the larger argument, which concerns specifically those realms of experience that the law has difficulty reaching, because in reaching them the law attempts to grasp its own origins outside of itself. The Nuremberg Tribunals can be seen as a foundational moment in the post-WW2 phase in the development of international human rights law, but we are specifically inquiring as to possible insufficiency or defect in the universal human rights concept.

    To say that the concept may not be entirely sound or as “universal” as it and related legal regimes want to be does not mean we have a better one in mind, only that a certain type of contradiction or problem with it may tend to recur and threaten to undermine it. It is not to say that the United States should not have sponsored the legal regime or should not still support it – as it claims to and in fact has claimed to do all along – just as to acknowledge the inevitability of torture, terror, and other so-called war crimes, or war, or crime is not to speak up in favor of torture, terror, war crimes, war, or crime. It is to say that if these are diseases of the body politic, legal positivism and legal idealism may not be adequate medicines, and in some circumstances may even worsen the diseases.

    We know that the appeal to common practice and appeal to consequences of belief are not universally considered logical fallacies because apparently those appeals are being made, or is it that not everyone considers logical fallacy to be a prime consideration? I’m not sure. In any event the relevance of common practice when the topic is common practice – both in the sense of practices that are common and in the sense of those practices that are undertaken “in common” – should be obvious. Same for the question of the consequences of belief: What else are we discussing here or attempting to discuss other than the “consequences of belief”? Now obviously there are contexts where appeals to common practices or consequences of belief undermine an argument, but merely as illustration of why a political position may seem unlikely to be accepted by the people for whom it is intended, or of how a certain concept of human nature differs from another, there is no “logical” problem at all.

    Finally, I have not assigned an “ideal normative human behavior” position to you at all. My main point was that I do not understand your position if you have one or acknowledge one. You appear to me to make some ill-founded arguments, and there are others you make that I cannot make out at all, such as the ones already mentioned or your final statements that you say are somehow Socratic and obligatory, regarding the “bearing of a burden of a legal constraint” and two different concepts of a “rational justification” of the state vs a “state agency” distinct from a “human agency.”

  16. Pingback: Identifying Our Identity and Legitimizing Our Legitimacy » CK MacLeod's

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