The use of harsh interrogative techniques by the U.S. government has been a hotly debated topic in the global media in recent months. The debate is especially intense with respect to the moral significance of such techniques. As significant is the controversy about the veracity of the information acquired through the application of these techniques.
These two issues are often considered to be related. The weight of our moral considerations is likely to be inversely related to the utility of the practice (though followers of Kant would reject this claim). In other words, if we find that reliable and crucial information can only be obtained by inflicting significant harm to a single purportedly depraved individual, our moral responsibility towards that individual seems diminished. If, on the other hand, milder techniques are just as effective, our reasons for employing harsh interrogation seem morally suspect.
New research reported on the BBC website indicates that the harsh interrogative techniques in question are not only ineffective at eliciting reliable and crucial information, but also that they have a negative long-term effect on the possibility of obtaining that information. The research shows that, under conditions of extremely high stress, detainees will associate talking with safety. As a result, such conditions are extremely useful in getting the detainee to talk – but, that does not guarantee that what is being said is of any value whatsoever. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, such sustained conditions of stress result in the release of hormones that have a detrimental effect on the brain mechanisms underlying memory functions. As a result, detainees that have undergone intensive interrogation, become even less able to provide reliable information in any future interrogation.
This research sheds new light on a debate that is tremendously controversial both in the philosophical world and in the global community.
A pre-print version of the original article by Shane O’Mara, published in Trends in Cognitive Science, is available here.
Moral Rationalism vs. Moral Sentimentalism: Is Morality More Like Math or Beauty?
By Michael B. Gill, University of Arizona
(Vol. 1, November 2006)