Torture and Global Warming: Can a moral argument succeed in an immoral world?

Al Gore has famously said of global warming:

“This is not a political issue. This is a moral issue — it affects the survival of human civilization. Put simply, it is wrong to destroy the habitability of our planet and ruin the prospects of every generation that follows ours.”

I strongly agreement with that sentiment — and view our climate policy, China’s, and even Canada’s as immoral. But is Gore’s approach a winning strategy in an immoral world?

You can take your pick of where you think the most immoral things are happening — with the world either standing by and doing nothing, or actively contributing to the problem: Burma, China, Darfur, Iraq, Russia….

waterboarding-small.jpgFor me, this line of thought was triggered by two recent events. First, our Attorney General nominee, Michael Mukasey, is unwilling to call waterboarding torture — yet is defended by President Bush and the conservatives, and he still might be confirmed! As the New York Times explained:

Waterboarding is torture and was prosecuted as such as far back as 1902 by the United States military when used in a slightly different form on insurgents in the Philippines. It meets the definition of torture that existed in American law and international treaties until Mr. Bush changed those rules.

If you still have doubts, listen to this NPR story on “drowning torture” or watch this demonstration.

rumsfeld.jpgWhat message does this send to the world, on top of all the renditions, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib — the latter resulting in no senior Pentagon officials (i.e. Rumsfeld) being punished?

The message sent is that, at least during this administration, the United States has lost any claim to moral superiority.

Second, the weekend box office report revealed that the most popular movie in the land is, by far, Saw IV — the fourth in a series of torture-fests, which have broken all records for Halloween movies:

For the third year in a row, Halloween weekend was dominated by a Saw movie. The horror series didn’t dull much in its fourth entry, Saw IV, snaring $31.8 million on approximately 4,600 screens at 3,183 theaters. That was the second-highest grossing Halloween opening behind Saw III‘s $33.6 million and slightly ahead of Saw IIs $31.7 million. The first Saw kicked off with $18.3 million in 2004.

Is the movie any good? One disappointed online viewer writes:

The Saw movies always feature people stuck in terrible trap in which to survive, they must go through excruciating torture. The latest installment in the series, Saw IV, is one of these traps itself, in which you will either suffer through 95 minutes of excruciating torture or commit suicide before the end credits come up.

The first Saw was an accomplished horror movie. It was new and interesting, as well as very unsettling. Most of the film was spent in a single room and it focused more on suspense, rather than gore. As new installments came to theaters, there was a gradual decline of suspense and the focus was put more on gore and torture. By the time Saw III rolled around, the entire movie was basically disturbing torture, but there were at least a few scenes that attempted to be frightening….

[Saw IV] director, Darren Lynn Bousman, just tries to cram as much torture into the film as he can.

Sheesh! Nothing worse than a poorly directed torture-fest.

The Saw movies are, I guess, a cinematic metaphor for the Bush Administration.

But the glorification of torture by Hollywood extends much further, most notably into the popular TV series 24, where the hero (and darling of conservatives) Jack Bauer, never hesitates to torture people in his very time-driven desire to save the world — and the torture always works. [I wonder what conservatives will do when the series starts to “incorporate environmentally-friendly messages into episodes”.]

So, I repeat, in an immoral world, can an appeal to morality be expected to work?

Well, it remains to be seen, but if it doesn’t work, if we don’t end up taking the strong action needed to avoid an immoral destruction of our climate, I suspect it will be because such action was blocked by conservatives — supported by the ironically-named “values voters” and “moral majority.”

Then again, if an appeal to morality won’t work, what will?

12 Responses to Torture and Global Warming: Can a moral argument succeed in an immoral world?

  1. IANVS says:

    RENDITION shows how immoral the world can be. Bring boxes of tissues for mama.

  2. paulm says:

    morality make way for survival….things are heating up!

  3. Ron says:


    You’re losing it.

    I agree with you, of course, that torture is immoral, and the government is immoral, but trying to draw parallels between torture and your anti-global warming campaign is an extreme stretch, especially when you want to use that same government to tax the hell out of everybody to fight your fight.

    Taxation is immoral, too.

    This sort of twisted, murky ‘morality’ is a lot like Hillary Clinton’s praise for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and her glossing over of the killing fields because it somewhat advanced women’s rights.

    The end does not justify the means. That is true whether we are talking about gathering intelligence, overthrowing evil governments, or fighting pollution.

    Al Gore couches it in language of faith and morality because he has neither full scientific support nor sufficient political support.


    Human civilization cannot long survive without morality. But I must say that your comment would make an eye-catching bumpersticker for Joe’s propaganda campaign.

  4. Joe says:


    1) I am not particularly in favor of carbon or gasoline taxes.
    2) It is absurd to compare taxation and torture — or to call taxation immoral. Government could not function without taxation, and without government we would have anarchy, which is immoral.
    3) Al Gore uses the moral argument in part because no amount of science will convince some people (e.g you).

  5. Ron says:


    1) You may not be particularly in favor of carbon or gasoline taxes, but your ‘fixes’ for our ‘problem’ do generally involve government spending, and that spending money, of course, comes from taxation in some form(unless they just print up extra money, which is a whole other problem).

    2) It’s not absurd to compare two immoral things. Taxation is legalized robbery. It is immoral. Just because something is legal does not make it right. Torture under Bush might be ‘legal’, but you agree that it’s not moral.

    Government OUGHT to operate without robbery.

    And ‘anarchy’ isn’t necessarily the same thing as ‘chaos in the streets’. The word means an absence of rulers. If you desire rulers, why not pay them voluntarily?

    3) Not even all scientists are convinced. There is no consensus. And if this was only about science, convincing people wouldn’t be a necessity. Politicians need to be convinced of the necessity of new regulations and ‘the people’ of the wisdom of the new regualtions, hence the need for propaganda. The shriller the propaganda, however, the more people begin to tune out the message.

  6. Joe says:

    As long as you hold the untenable belief that taxation is robbery — I love your oxymoron “legalized robbery” — we don’t have enough in common to form the basis of real debate.

    You can leave this country any time and go to one of those countries with much, much lower taxation. Until you do that, I can’t talk your robbery talk as serious.

  7. Paul K says:

    We do live under a social contract. Even if the federal government was limited to its expressly constitutional activities of building roads, delivering the mail, conducting a census, providing for the common defense, regulating interstate trade and promoting – not to say paying for – the general welfare, some system of funding would be necessary. In the late seventies Milton Friedman’s son co-authored a very interesting book outlining a plan to voluntarily fund the federal government. This could apply to the issue at hand. I believe the only way we can quickly move to alternative energy sourcing is through direct subsidies for production startup and installation. At the bottom of the 1040 form, there should be a box for those willing to pay additional taxes to directly fund alternative energy projects. If as few as 25% of taxpayers added as little as a dollar or two on their return, why the country would soon be lousy with alternative energy. Oops, I may have done the near impossible- come up with an idea with which both Joe and Ron can agree.

  8. Ron says:


    I like the voluntary contribution part of your idea, but the income tax itself is a very insidious tax.

    I’ve also heard ideas like replacing the income tax with a carbon tax or somesuch. But again, it’s taxation. the lesser of two evils is still an evil.

    I don’t really much care what the mugger calls it or what he plans to spend the money on. Taxation is still robbery.

    And it’s not an oxymoron to call taxation legalized robbery. It’s money taken by force or the threat of force. That makes it robbery by definition.

    As I said before, just because something is legal, does not make it right. It was the under Hitler that Jews be rounded up and many killed – legalised murder. Is that an oxymoron?

  9. Joe says:

    Ron — the income tax is purely voluntary: No one is forcing you to live in the U.S. So why don’t you leave? I see two possible reasons. Either the benefits of taxation in this country exceed the costs, or you are a masochist.

  10. Ron says:


    It should be obvious, but apparently it’s not to you: If it were “purely voluntary” there would be a way to opt out, other than leaving the country.

    I can, by the way, empathize with you on your ‘love it or leave it’ stance, but I’d like to point out to you that you do an awful lot of complaining about things yourself. Maybe you would be happier somewhere in the EU where they pay a lot more lip service to the AGW hypothesis than Bush & Company do.


    There is no ‘social contract’.

    I was born, not contracted, into this country and, according to our laws, couldn’t enter into a contract until the age of 18 anyway. You might be able to make a bit of an argument that immigrants are covered by some sort of social contract, but the fact is law is established and maintained by force. There is no contract. And if there was, the terms of the contract change (by force) so often that it would become null and void in no time.

    It may sound nice to say, but the idea crumbles under the barest scrutiny.

  11. Joe says:

    I love this country. I complain bitterly about the policy choices of our leaders. You bitterly complain about a fundamental aspect of our civil society.

    My complaints are targeted at change that, while significant, is fundamentally compatible with American democracy. The only way to escape taxes of the kind you label criminal would be to leave the country.

  12. Ron says:


    Are you awake?

    First, I carefully did not say ‘criminal’. I said the robbery was legalized. By defintion, unfortunately, that makes it non-criminal. Immoral, but ‘perfectly’ legal.

    And I’m sure I would have a tough time finding another country to live in that did not also fund its government through robbery. You, however, could probably find alternatives fairly easy. You just need to find leaders who share your vision of building a better world through taxation.

    You bet I complain bitterly about a fundamental aspect of our society. Power corrupts (the old truism is still true) and the power to tax, to take wealth from people to fund a government, is an insidious power. When you build something with that as its foundation, it starts out corrupt and can only get worse.

    What is the alternative? I certainly don’t know how to have the huge, bloated government we have without robbing people, but it doesn’t change the fact of what taxation is or the fact that the system is corrupt.

    You seem to want more government, which as you rightly say is fundamentally compatible with democracy, but it doesn’t make it right, good, or desirable.

    Remember what Ben Franklin had to say about democracy? “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for supper.”

    And the bottom line is: you want to fix a problem that probably doesn’t exist, by a means that we can’t afford, is immoral, and probably won’t work.