Meta-Ethics, Memory, and the Torture Question

The topic of torture and Christian ethics is now a heated discussion topic at Evangel over at the First Things blog cluster. I’d like to ask a (perhaps naive) question about torture. Where is the harm located? What ethical principles are being violated by torture?

Sixteen years ago, I contracted appendicitis and was in the hospital three days recovering from surgery. During that recovery, I was receiving intravenous pain medication (Demerol I believe) to ameliorate discomfort after the procedure. One one occasion my wife returned to the room after being out for some hours running errands. She asked me if I had any telephone calls in her absence. I replied in the affirmative. She asked who and inquired about details about what had been discussed. I had no clue. The pain medication had severely impacted my ability to retain memory of events. It is likely that if not present in the modern pharmacological arsenal there are drugs which completely block short/long term memory formation these drugs could quickly be developed given modern technology and reasonable expectations of the abilities of modern medical technology.

So my question is the following: How does memory relate to harm? Does memory have anything to do with the harm or wrong which we associate with what is wrong with torture?

An interrogator uses “waterboarding” or similar techniques which do no lasting physical damage. The subject breaks under the stress and confesses and talks freely for hours for questioning afterwards. Is the harm or evil we associate with that occurrence changed if the subject is incapable of recalling that it occurred? What if both the subject and the interrogator have no memory of the event … that only in some small corner of intelligence archives exist transcripts of the event afterwards. Does that change the moral calculus or not? Why?

What does continuing to say that this act is wrong imply about your meta-ethics? Are there non-deontological arguments that still hold this to be wrong? For it seems to be that consequential arguments against using this sort of drug and method is likely very weak, i.e., the consequences afterwards are negligible and are likely outweighed if there are any appreciable benefits.

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  1. Boonton says:

    Is it wrong to steal something if the person you steal from will never notice he is missing it?

    A while ago an interesting man died. He had an operation decades ago to stop seizures and lost his memory. He had excellent memory of everything that happened until the operation, but every day since then he could keep no new memories. His doctor would have to re-introduce himself every day to him…..

    Say a woman had such a condition. Would it be ok to rape her given that she would never remember it?

    The lack of memory may mitgate the damage done to the victim but it doesn’t alter the wrongness of the act.

  2. 1) Didn’t you already post this question/idea?
    2) If a woman is too drunk to remember, and you are sterile and disease-free, is it wrong to have sex with her knowing she wouldn’t consent?

  3. Mark says:

    A professor in the department I was in at graduate school had a similar accident. I’m not sure what the cause was, but the upshot was he could not form new memories.

    Look, I’m not arguing that this is doesn’t make the act right, I think torture remains wrong. The question is why? Under what principle do you locate the harm done? And, if you don’t hold to a deontological meta-ethic … how does that work?

    Yes I did previously post this. It’s just that I’m a co-contributor at Evangel now and torture is a hot topic. So … I threw this out there to see if it stirs up any discussion.

    Again the question isn’t primarily “if it is wrong”, but for example in your case as an atheist who does not believe he will meet his Judge at the eschaton … why is it wrong? Why is “no harm, no foul” not the over-arching principle?

    Or to finish the #2 analogy, what if you too don’t remember because you were to drunk as well. Does that change the moral calculus?

  4. Boonton says:

    You wrote:
    Does that change the moral calculus or not? Why?

    My answer is no. You harm someone not in the past or future but in the present because that is where all your actions take place. To use a more Buddhist idea, your present actions generate karma which basically means that range of decisions you make in the future are constrained by your past actions (choosing to rip someone off today means they will guard their money from your tomorrow, for example).

    All harms, though, eventually disappear. We forget just about everything that happens to us and if we don’t forget the casket will finish the job for us. So your hypothetical is simply one where the harm you do someone else disappears a bit faster because the person has a very poor memory.

    Consider child molesting. Today victims of molesting have theraputic options to help support them that mostly didn’t exist 50 years ago. From a solely ‘harm calculus’, molesting today is technically less harmful since the victim is more likely to be helped. If you were a time traveling child molestor, you should set your machine more towards 2009 rather 1959. Yet no one thinks that way. If anything they feel more strongly about it today than then because today we are more aware of the harm it does.

    Because people are more aware of the harm that is done, they are more outraged by a person who chooses to molest someone today. The choice is made in the present moment which is where its wrongness occurs. If there’s a way to make the harm of that choice less, then that’s great but it doesn’t alter the moral calculus of the choice.

    If you don’t like child molesting as an example consider DWI’s. Drunk driving was no big deal 40 years ago even though cars were less safe then. Today drunk driving is less likely to kill someone but we are all the more critical of someone who committs it.

  5. Mark says:

    Are you using karma as an analogy or is that the principle by which you locate the harm? I’m hunting for your principle.

    Note the molesting example, you locate the harm in the memory of the child (which then requires therapy). In the absence of memory no therapy would be required.

    If an interrogator does his thing (questions and torture) but has no memory of the same, how are his future choices constrained or his karma affected?

  6. Boonton says:

    I think karma is more of a dynamic here. The future is clearly shaped by what happens now. Likewise you have freedom of action now but you can’t deny your circumstances today make some choices easier, others harder…those circumstances were driven by previous actions and choices both of your own and others such as your parents, grand parents, all the way back to Columbus going from Europe to the New World and before that.

    So from that dynamic, stuff hangs around besides ‘memory’ of the harm you do. For example, consider stealing a $5 bill from an old woman who has plenty of money and doesn’t notice it is missing. There is little or no harm to her since she doesn’t even have a memory of the loss to forget! Yet you choosing theft today will set in motion a chain of events that will shape tomorrow. You will be more inclined to steal tomorrow because you stole today. In that sense your decision carries with it harm that you are responsible for even if your supposed victim never experiences any of it.

    This is not to say consquences are not choatic and unpredictable. You may help a begger out with $5 today and that will set in motion a crazy chain of events that will result in a dozen people getting killed. Likewise stealing $5 today might set off a chain of events that leaves the world a better place. But more often than not bad choices lead to predictably bad consquences. Accepting responsibility for that is maturity IMO….but we also are responsible for good choices that lead to bad unintended consquences as well.

    Here’s a challenge for you, would you allow a child molestor to have his way with your daughter in exchange for him agreeing to make a sizeable contribution to her college fund? Assume for the sake of argument:

    * We have perfect ‘Star Trek’ like memory inhibitors that can erase harmful memories with 100% perfection. But during the actual event you will hear her screams.

    * The molestor will leave no physical damage or indications after the event is over.

    I suspect you can barely consider the question without revulsion. Yet your logic would imply that not only should you consider this but saying no would actually be ethically wrong.

  7. Boonton says:

    I like this thread even though its a bit of a retread. Let me put my stance into a very condense form:

    1. From a moral calculus, all actions happen in the present. The future or past exist as a type of optical illusion as reality is right now and nothing else. Hence doing wrong is doing wrong, imagining a future state where that wrong either has ceased to exist or its harm is rectified is ultimately a delusion. Toss a world like karma into the mix and you open the door to a lot of potential confusion since it implies the past and future matters a lot. Paradoxically they don’t matter at all. If you accepted the hypothetical I offered in the previous comment, you soul would burn as you listened to your daughter’s screams. That in some future state you would see her happily graduate college, while it may in fact be the karma created by your choice, would not alter the consquences of your choice in Reality which is RIGHT NOW.

    2. The use of karma in the analysis is an aid in that we are all operating in one degree or another in a state of delusion and confusion. Since we insist on seeing the world not as it is right now but in an imaginary future state that has yet to happen we talk about karma as a way to link us to what really matters, which is right now. Hence we say make the right choice today so tomorrow will be good. It’s a bit of a soft lie, kinda like telling children to be good so Santa will give them toys. The reality is we make the right choice today so today is good….we think about it as tomorrow being good because we operate in the confusion that we control tomorrow rather than today. Like any type of bending of the truth this opens the door to potential problems. Tomorrow may not be good. The good child may not get toys (say his parents loose their jobs before Christmas). Make too much of the delusional ‘linkage tool’ between today and tomorrow and you could end up doing harm by cultivatng cynicism.

  8. Mark says:

    Actually it occurred to me the person without memory you cited above. You asked whether your actions toward him are harmful. But consider this. How about a society of people like that? Can they sin? Nobody in that society has memory of yesterday at all. A harm done yesterday, does not have the consequence today that it does here.

    The harm you note in the daughter example is not in her memory, but in the memory of me and perpetrator. What if none of the three of us have memory of the event (and assume that there is no lasting physical damage nor pregnancy). And I might add that “barely consider it without revulsion” is somewhat ironic because paedophile/child + money was the other example I had used in the previous post on memory blocking drugs and torture.

    The point is it looks like you’re either locating harm in consequence and in memory. In your model, in the absence of memory (and my bank account is benefitted) … where is the harm. There is of course the question of motivation for the perpetrator. Would you pay for a night which you won’t remember? For example, when you cite:

    Yet you choosing theft today will set in motion a chain of events that will shape tomorrow. You will be more inclined to steal tomorrow because you stole today.

    Why is it easier for me to steal tomorrow? Because of my memory of doing it previously.

    I think reality is real … and 4 dimensional. Both the past and future light cones exist. That is to say, I don’t ascribe to your notion that only NOW exists.

  9. Boonton says:

    Well it’s not quite that only now exists, it’s that only now exists now 😉 Your vision of what might exist tomorrow remains just that, a vision. The error I think we make is assuming the vision is real and ‘now’ is just some sort of annoying line we have to wait in until tomorrow gets here. A choice to do harm now is a choice to do harm even if some future point may somehow result in all negative consquences of that harm being reversed.

    So let’s say that your memory eraser works perfectly and will be applied not only to your daughter but also to you and the perp. It would seem to be that you have a moral obligation to accept the bargain.

    But why? Why does the ‘now’ of your daughter happily finishing college ten years from now trump the ‘now’ of your daughter right now being terrorized? If the ‘now’ of your daughter 50 years from now is forgetting college and many other happy memories due to dementia from old age does that reverse the good you’ve done just as the original ‘memory zapper’ reverses the harm? In a 4 dimensional view of the reality shouldn’t all these different daughter’s of yours be considered equal?

    If do then we can rephrase the question as imagining you have 75 daughters. One is 1 year old, the next 2, the next 3 etc. You choose to harm daughter 10 in exchange for daughter’s 19-72 finding their lots improved by varying degrees. Now your question seems to be more about crass utilitarianism. Can I beat someone up if I also agree to help a dozen other people enough that the combined ‘pleasure’ of the people I help trumps the pain of the person I hurt?

  10. When you do somebody wrong, you are causing them harm. It’s true that if they forget the harmful action and there are no lasting effects, less harm is done. Less harm is not no harm, though. And in the long run, we’re all dead anyway.

  11. Boonton says:

    Here’s something else to consider. Don’t we own our own memories? Wouldn’t taking someone’s memory of something from them without their knowledge consist of what is essentially theft?

    Final twister for the evening…..if its ‘ok’ to rape someone provided you could eliminate their memory of it with no other ill effects then would implanting a false memory of a rape be equally bad as an actual rape? hMMmmmmmm

  12. Mark says:


    So let’s say that your memory eraser works perfectly and will be applied not only to your daughter but also to you and the perp. It would seem to be that you have a moral obligation to accept the bargain.

    Only if I am consequentialist. I am not. I believe I am accountable for my choices and actions irrespective of man’s memory. If you follow the consequentialism link above, you’ll find that “perfect” anticipation of events is a John Rawls criticism of consequentialism.

    Only the structure of the past light cone is determined and non-mutable.

    Locate the harm in the absence of any memory of the event. And … “in the long run, we’re all dead anyway” … adds what to your moral calculation?

  13. Mark,

    Locate the harm in the absence of any memory of the event.

    At that point, the harm is in the past.

    And … “in the long run, we’re all dead anyway” … adds what to your moral calculation?

    It points out that this isn’t necessarily a hypothetical. You could just as easily argue that 100 years from now, none of us is going to remember anything anyway.

  14. Boonton says:

    Only if I am consequentialist. I am not.

    I think one implication of this discussion is that it is clear the consequentialist idea can be restated in a form that removes the future. Just imagine all future states to be individual people so the 4th dimension collapses out of the equation. Instead of considering your daughter’s life of about 75 years imagine 75 different people each representing your daughter at one particular year. You can even incorporate uncertainity into this by adding probability into the mix (a scan on daughter 25 has a 1% chance of helping daughters 35-55 but a 0.05% chance of causing cancer in daughters 65-75 etc.)

    Deontology, as far as I understand it, is not particularly relevant here. One can imagine a duty to opt for the ‘best consquences’ and you have become a detonological consquentialist. I’m not sure my ethics are detonological here. I think one has the unavoidable responsibility to accept the consquences of their decisions. In this case your daughter may hate you if she learns you accepted the deal many years ago. Likewise your daughter may hate you if she learns you had rejected such a deal and as a result doomed her to a much harsher life that she could have avoided with no lasting psychological damage to contend with. The fact that NOW exists, though, dominates the ethics of the decision. Whether future daughter agrees or disagrees the only choice that exists is the one that exists now and opting to inflict or be complicit in suffering now would be unethical. The ethical question is an optical illusion IMO by forcing one to bring a non-existent element into ‘NOW’ to make the wrong decision seem more appealing. As you say the ‘light cone’ of the future is indeterminate. Barring the use of time machines, one’s ethical duties are to act in the NOW since that is the only place one has any capacity to act.

  15. Mark says:

    I say deontology because, if I recall correctly, Kant argues extensively (and forecefully) that if one has a rule such as “lying is wrong” then lying is wrong regardless of the circumstance. Thus I was taking this by extension that if torture or paedophilia is wrong it is wrong regardless of the circumstance.

    Oh, btw, although I thought the ending a little unsatisfactory, the movie Memento has some relevance.

    It’s unclear to me that future consent to paedophilia (or torture) has any bearing on the ethics “NOW”. My point on space-time is that the event is there whether or not anyone remembers it or not. I was thinking more of the reality of the past, not the alternatives in the future.

    At that point, the harm is in the past.

    Absent memory … what harm?

  16. Absent memory … what harm?

    In the present… none. That’s why I said in the past. 🙂

  17. Mark says:

    So would this then be an acceptable solution to the larger torture question? After all, on the day after the event you find no harm.

  18. No more than it’s an acceptable solution to the “larger rape question.”

  19. Mark says:

    I’m unclear on why you find the “larger rape question” (in the presence of external benefits, i.e., monetary compensation) problematic if there is no harm except in an inaccessible (that is forgotten) past.

  20. I’m unclear on why you find the “larger rape question” (in the presence of external benefits, i.e., monetary compensation) problematic if there is no harm except in an inaccessible (that is forgotten) past.

    What? Are you really arguing that it’s not immoral to rape someone who cannot form memories if you compensate them?

  21. Mark says:


    Are you really arguing that it’s not immoral to rape someone who cannot form memories if you compensate them?

    No, that’s where I thought were the consequences of your argument lead. As you yourself wrote in the context of torture

    In the present… none. That’s why I said in the past.

    If the harm is in the past and it is inaccessible (or absent) on the next day, at that point there is no harm. Therefore if there is any lasting benefit it seems to follow that therefore on the following day, there is no problem … thus the reason not to act is what?

  22. Mark, at the time the action was committed, harm was done. That’s the reason not to act. The fact that 5 minutes from now she won’t remember doesn’t make it any more ok than the fact that you won’t remember in a hundred years if I tortured you now does.