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Gerecht on the Virtue of Torturing

By Matthew Yglesias

"Gerecht on the Virtue of Torturing"

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Because Reuel Marc Gerecht adheres to an appalling and cruel ethical system and the people who decide what runs on major newspaper op-ed pages have no ethics whatsoever, yesterday’s New York Times published a Gerecht piece making the case for “extraordinary rendition” whereby terrorism suspects are kidnapped and tortured abroad with no due process. In the course of doing so, he offered the opinion that Barack Obama’s administration would join Bush, Cheney, and himself in the moral cesspool and that this would be a good thing:

If Mr. Obama’s Democrats get blown back into the ugly world that we live in, and resume rendition (and, of course, fib about it), then President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who have been vilified for besmirching America’s honor, may at least take some consolation in knowing that hypocrisy is always the homage vice pays to virtue.

Reader A.L. observes to me that Gerecht is completely mangling La Rouchfoucauld’s maxim here. His point was that even though human frailty often leads people into immoral behavior, the fact that people feel compelled to hypocritically condemn sins that they themselves may commit emphasizes the soundness of the underlying moral principle. For example, any normal parent is going to be a human being who sometimes acts in a greedy and selfish manner. But any decent parent is still going to teach his or her children that greed and selfishness are wrong and that those impulses ought to be resisted. This will, yet, make the parents somewhat hypocritical. But that’s the homage vice pays to virtue — the point being that we really should teach people to eschew greed and selfishness.

Gerecht is trying to make the reverse case, trying to claim that our inevitable tendency to fall short of our ethical aspirations indicates that the aspirations themselves are misguided. Thus, the principles undergirding humane liberal societies ought to be tossed overboard out of fear of terrorism. But if we’re too weak and cowardly to actually toss our principles overboard, we ought to at least wink and nod at those who violate them. Because for Gerecht cruelty and torture are the real virtues, and humanity and due process the vices.

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