2016 Best List

Let those with enough time to consume all the media in a field decide on the objective bests-of-2016. What follows is a completely subjective list of bests, idiosyncratically limited by what I’ve actually had time to watch, read, or listen to:

Best New Book in Philosophy:

We don’t think hard enough about the metaphysics that underwrites the social sciences. Epstein is more reductionist than he lets on, but this was the book that had me thinking hardest this year.

Runner-up: Nussbaum’s Anger and ForgivenessIt’s pretty great, but I think it loses steam in the speculative last section.

Best New Book in Political Science:

What if democratic theory is a bit too idealistic? The next issue of The Good Society will have a review by Celia Paris.

Runner-up: Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment.

Best Article:

The Unnecessariat,” by anonymous blogger More Crows Than Eagles helped me formulate some things I’ve been trying to say about superfluousness for a while. I think it was the first time a lot of urban liberals in my circles sat down to think hard about non-college-educated whites.

Runners-up: “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield” and “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard.”

Best Post (here at anotherpanacea.com):

“Arendt’s Metaphysical Deflation” hit the front page of the philosophy subreddit briefly, which was weird.

Ironically, large parts of that article are drawn from my dissertation, so I guess I do deserve this Ph.D.!

Runner-up: “Imperialism as a Response to Surpluses and Superfluousness,” where I start to work out the Arendtian critique of finance capitalism.

Best television series:

Fully-realized far-future worlds, with fascinating characters and an interesting set of mysteries.

Runners-up include The Good Place, Luke Cageand The Magicians.

Best Movie:

I didn’t watch many movies, and I certainly didn’t watch many good movies. But this was the best movie I saw.

No Award Given:

I didn’t read a single science fiction novel written in 2016, but I’m going to crack open this list ASAP. 2016 was the year we realized how bad it was going to be to have lost Annalee Newitz at io9. The best novel I read this year was Naomi Novik’s Uprooted.

So what did I miss?

Is Moral Progress Due to Moral Imagination or Condemnation?

Throughout the nineties, and to some extent in the last decade, there has been a certain brand of political thinker who just can’t imagine the motivation for cruelty. So alien is the concept that these folks (Richard Rorty and Judith Butler, for instance) have developed a deflationary theory of moral philosophy that simply advises us to identify with the Other. Perhaps driven by their emigration to literature and rhetoric departments, they advocated the substitution of fiction (think Precious or Slumdog Millionaire) for ethical inquiry. The novel and the memoir were meant to replace Mill and Kant.

On this topic, my friend Michael Sigrist at Ends of Thought writes that the latest bloggingheads.tv has it wrong. Where Robert Wright and Steve Pinker hold that the moral progress we’ve seen has been due to our growing technological and institutional capacity to imagine ourselves as someone else and to understand that they suffer when we are cruel to them, Sigrist counters that any moral progress can only be attributed to the growth of norms of outrage and condemnation for cruelty. Though I think this is right, I would add that condemnation is a luxury, literally, in the sense that moral progress is a side effect of affluence, and the casualty of poverty.

Sigrist is certainly right in his evaluation of the moral psychology. The theory of moral progress through an ‘enlarged mentality’ enabled by increased access to images and narratives that force us to acknowledge the humanity of the Other is pure bunk. The impetus for decency does not come from imagined access to another’s mental states. Empathy just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be:

In cruel acts, I take pleasure in the fact that I can empathize with your pain, helplessness and humiliation, I put myself in your shoes, understand that you are suffering, and delight in being the agent of that suffering. Such cruelty is not a failure of moral imagination or empathy, but a result.

That’s obviously true. Cruelty is a pointless waste of effort if the perpetrator doesn’t even acknowledge the suffering she’s causing. Yet we continue to assure ourselves otherwise, because empathy combined with decency is an asset in our culture. We remind ourselves just how incomprehensible cruelty is, and that all evil acts are the result of a kind of ignorance. Thus we fail to comprehend it and are left in the dark about the very phenomenon under investigation. In fact, it’s really our failure to imagine the mindset of the torturer or the genocidaire that allows us to maintain this premise. I find it supremely ironic that proponents of moral imagination are so bad at it. In a way, it’s laudable. We tell ourselves that human beings are basically decent, because we want to signal to ourselves and others just how decent we are.

Unfortunately, I think that Sigrist is a little too Pollyanna-ish in his claim that cruelty has become truly rare, even though Steven Pinker is clearly right that the population-wide incidence has dropped off. Sigrist takes this a bit too far:

Only in the darkest depths of Hitler’s genocide in Eastern Europe or Stalin’s in the Soviet Russian Empire has anything approaching routine standards of ancient cruelty been witnessed by any living human.

This just isn’t true, but the error is illuminating. We don’t see that kind of routine cruelty IN EUROPE except under totalitarian regimes, but this mass cruelty has popped up throughout the globe in the last century with pretty jarring regularity. The genocide of ethnic minorities in Cambodia and the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, the brutal genocide of Tutsi minorities in Rwanda, the use of amputation as a terror tactic in Ivory Coast and Somalia, disappearances and political torture in Chile, Argentina, and South Africa, rape camps in Bosnia, the janjaweed in Sudan, our own use of torture in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq. (The worst thing is that in making this list I’m sure I’m leaving things out….)

It doesn’t really make sense for Sigrist to ignore most of these because they’re not acts of out-group cruelty: with the exception of the behavior of the Indonesians in East Timor and our own behavior in Iraq, they seem to prove his thesis: they are all examples of people who have had plenty of opportunities to get to know each other, people who ought, by rights, to have the requisite moral imagination to see that the people they were torturing and killing were human beings who suffered like themselves. Each of these moments are moments in which our condemnations broke down, when new allegiances formed new in-groups, deserving respect and especially revenge, and out-groups against whom acts of cruelty were no longer morally relevant or shameful.

If we’re looking for a generic explanation for these acts of cruelty, we’ll be doing a disservice to each of them, which is something a decent person generally shouldn’t do. But I think we’re obligated by decency to quell our desire to seem decent, and so I’ll repeat my claim (grounded in work done by Paul Collier) that condemnation-free cruelty occurs in transitional democracies where absolute poverty levels are too great:

We so want to believe that elections foster peace that we assume it must be true. Unfortunately, the effect of democracy on the risk of political violence depends on a country’s income. Above $2,700 per capita, democracies are less prone to violence than are autocracies. But most political violence happens in countries where income is far below that threshold; there, democracy is associated with a greater risk of bloodshed.

Rich countries that transition to democratic institutions after having created relative wealth simply don’t treat each other the same way as poor countries forced into elections and allegedly democratic institutions without any of the prerequisites like parties or a public sphere.

One reason that most human rights activists eschew any heavy metaphysics in favor of mobilizing outrage, is that there doesn’t seem to be any non-moral reason for moral obligations not to torture each other. Without a rational basis, we’re thrown back onto the moral imagination, which Sigrist rightly notes oculd just as easily lead to cruelty as decency. If it’s shame that does the work in preventing cruelty, and only condemnation can produce shame, the question is: what produces condemnation? What causes an in-group authority to condemn cruelty against out-group victims without actually inviting them into our in-group? Which comes first, the empathy or the condemnation?

Here it helps to note that all moral imagination theories are not created equal. Martha Nussbaum’s version of the moral imagination, as articulated in her essay “Finely Aware and Richly Responsible,” uses Henry James’ fiction to demonstrate the way in which ethical reasoning begins with examples and particular cases before it can work up to rules and principles. That’s a much better and more subtle claim than Rorty’s assertion that reading novels teaches empathy, but that teaching human rights doesn’t. Thinking about moral questions in a selfish mode leads to the development of principles with an obvious extension to others, and the challenges of generalizing our own rights-demands leads to a willingness to condemn. (This is what we call reflective equilibrium.)

Robert Goodin has also taken a swing at the role of imagination, in his case in the development of adequate prerequisites for democratic deliberation. He proposes a kind of internal dialogue with the imagined Other in his essay “Democratic Deliberation Within,” but he concludes that reading fiction or seeing news reports won’t do nearly the kind of work of actual encounters:

It is obviously far easier to imagine what the world looks like from the perspective of a black person or an immigrant or a person from some religious minority if you actually know people like that personally. [S]ocial mixing… constitutes a necessary first step towards firing the imagination in the ways that ‘democratic deliberation within’ would require.

This is known as the ‘contact theory’ and its been largely discredited in school desegregation, at least in the short term. ‘Social mixing’ doesn’t produce empathy all by itself, and at the margins it appears to exacerbate interracial mistrust. Because group members come to each other as competitors for the scarce resource of respect and deference, with ready-made in-group solidarities in the marked differences of race, national origin, or religious affiliation, predictable game theoretical competition results.

Though contact generally leads to an increase in negative judgments of out-groups, there is some evidence that a properly structured school with opportunities for dialogue may be able to trump the general distrust that attends busing. There is also evidence that affluent school districts where bused students suffer wealth inequalities do much, much worse. The structured opportunity for racial dialogue  requires more than just rubbing elbows, it requires students to exchange reasons and engage in full blown ‘external’ deliberation, and it requires moderation, with condemnation for hate speech so that the opportunities for dialogue don’t really model affective moral imagination at all: they model norm setting and rationality!

Obviously, I side with Habermas in these issues: the prerequisite for decency is a reasonably accessible public sphere where widespread agreement on normative standards can emerge. That space can’t work if participants are weighed down by absolute poverty or massive relative inequality. Deliberation is a luxury, available only in relatively affluent societies, which produces consensus on cruelty as shameful. Recognizing that forces us to confront just how contingent our anti-cruelty feelings really are. Predictably, the contingency of our decency standards is what drives so much of this attempt to identify a middle-ground theory based in moral psychology or speech act theory. The result of all this contingency is also predictable: such middle-ground theories inevitably fail. Without any effort to think consistently about what a right is, rights-claims and the attendant outrage can attach as a free-floating signifier to almost anything, including mutually incommensurable rights. Though deliberation can produce a widespread consensus on the existence of outrageous rights-violations, it ends up asserting a dogmatic overlapping consensus and treating theoretical disagreements, including efforts to point out its contingency, as if they undermine the anti-cruelty standards we’ve bought ourselves with our affluence. The terrible thing about these condemnations of further inquiry is that they just might be right: cruelty is entirely too easy to imagine if you are willing to try.


A candidate trying to decide between graduate schools recently asked me which

“types of public administration, political, or civic problems you are attempting to provide solutions to with your research?  For example, which questions are you tackling right now?”

Of course, right now I’m grading. But in a slightly more general sense of “right now,” I’d say that I’m interested in these questions:

  1. Does the bureaucratization of public policy sap its legitimacy? What can be done to preserve administrative institutions’ efficiency and egalitarianism while rendering them responsive to citizen concerns? How important are concerns about ‘psuedo-consultation’ or top down mobilizations that create the appearance of legitimacy while squelching dissent?
  2. What is the source of legitimacy, in general? Is it consensus? Fair procedures? Just policies? Citizen participation?
  3. How should we think of the relationship between global poverty and domestic politics? What role does inequality play within a polity? What role does it play in international relations? What can be done to reduce the intense suffering associated with global poverty? Are some strategies self-defeating?
  4. Which is more important: having one’s needs met, or having unhindered access to the political process? When they’re equally important, is it acceptable to forgo the meeting of some needs for the least advantaged in order to bolster political accountability to the middle class?
  5. Can participatory democracy (either activist or deliberativist varieties) adequately plan for, and respond to, risks and hazards? If constitutional essentials are regularly at risk, are we obligated to rely on experts to properly manage such risks?
  6. What problems typically face transitional democracies? What kinds of lessons can established democracies learn from these newly minted republics?
  7. What role does pluralism play in bolstering (or weakening) civic engagement?
  8. How should we think about the relationship between market-oriented solutions and institutional solutions? Can the market’s tendency to exacerbate inequality (both economic and political) be resolved adequately with the use of transfer payments and guaranteed services?
  9. I’m hoping to start working more on policing and punishment. One aspect of that interest has to do with the question of testimonial privilege and the culture of deception in police departments. The other aspect is related to the hidden costs of over-incarceration and the status of Pell Grants for prisoners.
  10. Do Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum supply a solution to conflicting accounts of political justice in their accounts of entitlement and capabilities?

This list is hardly exhaustive, but it captures many of my concerns. Because of the nature of the request, these questions are primarily in public policy. There’s a related set of questions in philosophy proper having to do with things like identity and authenticity, the relationship between one and many, the metaphysics of personhood and freedom, the distinction between rights and privileges, and the difference between what evolutionary psychogists and x-phi types call ‘moral intuitions’ and the traditional use of intuition in epistemology.

This is not to mention various authorial questions in the history of philosophy, primarily related to Hannah Arendt and the Frankfurt School, Plato and Aristotle, Plotinus and Augustine, and the classic “M” civic republicans: Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Madison, and Marx. What’s striking, however, is how often those questions now seem to be subsidiary to the general policy and normative questions, rather than primary as they did when I first began to pursue philosophy.

Interference, Coercion, Domination, & Powerlessness

[What follows is some dissertation-writing that I think is accessible to my blog readers. I had begun to amend it for SPEP before I gave up on the dual-submission idea, but it was close enough to the blog format that I thought I’d keep going and see what happens. Though I acknowledge this is a longer and drier than my usual fare, I’d really appreciate comments. I’m going to start doing this more regularly unless there are howls of protest or, worse, complete silence.]

 In the 20th Century we saw several definitions of freedom arise, all of which focus on the deprivation of some fundamental or inherent right for their definition. The most important privative accounts were Isaiah Berlin’s conception of liberty as non-interference, Robert Nozick’s conception of freedom as non-coercion, and Philip Pettit’s of freedom as non-domination or antipower. Yet as I shall argue, the best accounts of freedom are positive, active accounts of liberty that mix the work of Hannah Arendt with that of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum.

As I understand it, most of the contending concepts of freedom draw in some way on the Christian notion of psychological freedom: the untrammeled individual will or volition that chooses between salvation and damnation. That decision is already stacked heavily against the choice of non-belief (a la Pascal’s wager) but we must continue to imagine it as free for theological reasons that have long since ceased to trouble most modern believers and non-believers alike. Yet we continue to fight it out on this ground: was his conversion free? Do I deserve damnation? Etc Since the sovereign stands in for the Judeo-Christian God, we’re seeking an account of political freedom between sovereing and subject that preserves the hierarchical relationship between creator and creature.

Q: Can you play the piano?

A: I don’t know, I’ve never tried.

One compaint about positive conceptions of freedom is that they cannot appropriately distinguish between an un-exercised option (being free to speak but choosing to remain silent) and a deprecated option (remaining silent because the social, political, or economic costs of speech are too high.) Privative definitions of freedom benefit from allowing us to avoid the problem of potentiality: they seek constraints and limits and declare freedom where none are present. Yet the major theorists of privative theories of freedom were ultimately just as interested in the acts of subjects unencumbered by state intervention as they were by the avoidance of that interference or coercion itself. As we shall see, skepticism of the state plays a much larger role in motivating these privative theorists than their basic theories might lead us to believe.

For Isaiah Berlin, all laws are ‘fetters’ even when they protect us from ‘heavier chains’ such as chaos or despotism. Negative liberty as non-interference or non-coercion locates zones in which we are free to do what we are able, and does not inquire too far into what makes us able to do them.  In order to violate my freedom understood as negative liberty, an interference must come from a third party who is conscious of and responsible for her act of interference. As most of my readers probably know, Berlin moves from his celebration of negative liberty to consider the case for ‘positive’ liberty which supplies the means of accomplishing what many are unable to do for stuctural reasons. Because of the Cold War context in which he was writing, Berlin’s primary concerns were political freedoms and contraints imposed by the state, and he argues that positive liberties usually conceal authoritarian or totalitarian impulses, and have historically been justifications for curtailing the zones of negative liberty in which we can do what we are able without measurably improving positive liberties. Berlin tells us that positive conceptions of liberty that emphasize self-government tend to divide the human personality into two: one part that rules the other. Depending on how we divide that personality, we may find that the state has thrown its weight behind a part of ourselves that we do not even recognize. We ought to prefer the negative conception of liberty to the positive one, he says, because it reduces the state’s overall capacity to coerce us, it weakens the fetters it might otherwise put on the individual in the name of some principle we know not, and it avoids the risk that the state will suppress our plural and incommensurable prefernences through reference to some comprehensive theory of the human person that pretends to justify its interference.

For Robert Nozick, freedom from coercion requires not simply externality and agency, but also a certain kind of rebalancing of the options presented to the one coerced: unlike interference, coercion occurs whenever a choice is rendered more or less desirable through threats and incentives. This is somewhat counter-intuitive, since it proposes to render offers and promises coercive. Any change from the baseline desirability of an option counts as coercion:  for instance, though I do not currently want to work for Catholic University, I might agree to do so if they ‘sweeten the pot’ by offering me more money or fewer teaching duties.  Because of this we can speak of ‘justified’ and ‘unjustified’ coercion: it is justified to make some actions, such as drug use, less desirable, just as it is justified to make some options, like charity or wearing a helmet, more desirable. In addition to acts and threats, deception can also be coercive, because it renders a choice more or less desirable even if it does not change the acutal benefit or detriment to be gained. (None of these examples are particularly Nozickian, however: we ought to concentrate on pollution and theft to preserve the tenor of the minimal state.)

Using Nozick’s account rather than Berlin’s, we can at least acknowledge the coerciveness of the choice between joblessness and labor, or between salvation and damnation, and we can then enter into democratic deliberations about state action (or theological deliberations about Church doctrine) with the understanding that these are coercive institutions with various techniques of rebalancing desires and preferences, and treat citizens (or souls) like rational choosers who (Nozick argues) ought not to be coerced to achieve public goods. We do so, according to Nozick, recognizing that while coercion is not inherently or indefeasibly wrong, it must meet the same standard of justification as interference because it is effectively the same activity: violation of a right. Thus, for instance, we should be just as cautious of taxation as criminalization.

One of the problems here is that Nozick seems to lack perspective, as evidenced by his claim that taxes are paramount to slavery: if I must pay one-third of my income to the government or else face imprisonment, this is allegedly akin to a slave who spends one-third of her time working for a master who will otherwise beat her.  Another problem is that Nozick’s view of coercion contains a success provision: I am not coerced if I choose the option that my coercer was attempting to make less desirable. Thus, I am not coerced when threatened if I do not heed the threat, even if the threatener carries out her threat, and I am not coerced by price-gouging or monopolistic market practices if my demand (for urgent life-saving medications, for instance) is not reduced by the change in price. These are counter-intuitive claims, to say the least, and they tend to bolster the state-oriented objections to coercion while weakening our objections to apparent coercion on the part of private parties, especially corporations. 

Using Philip Pettit’s signature brand of civic republicanism, we can better navigate the disjunct between negative liberty and coercion. For Pettit, freedom is specifically freedom from domination, and domination is understood to encompass force and the threat of force,  like coercion, and restraint and obstruction, like interference. In addition, it includes the (sometimes coercive, somtimes interfering) practices of manipulation and deception directed to alter or prevent choices and actions of the dominated subject.

Now Pettit differs from Nozick for several reasons. First, he argues that domination requires a substantive detriminent in the wefare of that subject, such that incentives, offers, and promises are not understood as domination or subjugation so long as they improve her standing or welfare. Catholic University’s hypothetical job offer can hardly be called subjugation, after all. In order to dominate someone, you must know what is good for her, and enforce the opposite. Second, Pettit argues that domination requires that interference be absolutely arbitrary, that it occur (1) with impunity, i.e. without punishment or accountability, and (2) at will, i.e. without the assistance, consent, or approval of a legitimating agency but rather at the dominator’s pleasure. Third, Pettit asserts that domination need not be total, as it would be for a slave, but might extend only to woman’s intimate life (an abusive husband) or an employee’s workplace (an asshole boss.) The spheres of domination are not then limited to one’s public life or one’s relationship to the state, though domination by agents of the state (as in the military or a prison) is certainly a very troubling and pervasive brand of un-freedom.

Pettit’s acount of domination is a marked improvement on Berlin and Nozick because of its emphasis on the arbitrary and detrimental exercise or non-exercise of power. Judicial review, institutional protections, the support of social movements, and any other situation in which a power to interfere is checked and balanced, will not count as domination for Pettit. Nor will the the dominator’s choice not to interfere in a particular decision render the choice free: to live under a benign or merciful master is still to live under domination. This locates domination in its proper place: the arbiter of arbitary interference, the one in whom the decision to interfere rests, is the one with whom we have a quarrel. This is particularly important because it allows us to better parse the relationship between the non-arbitrary imposition of prejudicial or discriminatory force.

In Pettit’s example, a police officer who enforces an unjust rule over which she has no discretion is not, herself, an agent of domination: rather, that domination inheres in the parliament or bureaucrat who actually did have the at-will and with-impunity power to author the unjust law or regulation. At the same time, these laws or rules may also facilitate the domination by said police officer insofar as she can arbitrarily decide to enforce the rule or not, doubling the subjugation of the person against whom the rule is targeted.

For Pettit, the best way to achieve non-domination is not through the reduction of the power to interfere, but rather through the multiplication and equitable distribution of opportunities for interference. In this way, the arbitrariness of interference is sapped because the ‘at-will’ and ‘with-impunity’ conditions are progressively eliminated. He calls this checking and balancing ‘anti-power.’ Thus, for instance, we do not eliminate spousal abuse by reducing the husband’s capacity to triumph physically over his partner, but by supplying the partner with countervailing legal or economic resources that allow his abused partner to retaliate. Similarly, we can reduce the dominating quality of state interference either by limiting its powers in a libertarian mode or subjecting them to oversight and regulation. We can also render interference non-dominating by subjecting it to the  deliberative approval or veto of those who will be hampered or constrained. Finally, we can render interference non-dominating when it benefits or increases the welfare and standing of the one with whom we interfere. In contrast with Berlin’s claim that all laws are ‘fetters,’ Pettit can argue that laws that reduce our total fetters are no fetter at all.

One of the things that troubles me most about contemporary definitions of freedom are that they usually speak of this deprivation in terms of deprivations that result from the decisions of other agents, and never of the deprivations that are built into the physical world. Arendt, however, would acknowledge that powerlessness can just as easily result from a natural disaster as from human action, and that we ought to mourn the acts that go undone because of earthquake or tsunami just as much as we do those that are lost to genocide or oppression. In this, she is joined by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, who take a kind of modified utilitarian approach to these questions, seeking institutions and policies that will maximise ‘human beings and doings’ instead of merely enhancing the balance of pleasure and pain. Freed of the burden of discovering a guilty party, they can move directly to amelioration and harm reduction. 

Where it is difficult to see what basis privative conceptions of freedom, even Pettit’s, would give us to prefer a constitutionally-checked democracy to an equitable anarcho-syndicalism, Arendt and her followers are able to adjudicate that choice by supplying a positive conception of freedom. This requires us to sign on to the double privative of freedom as non-powerlessness, i.e. freedom as power. For Arendt, it’s important that we actually engage in certain activities in order to flourish as human beings. Simply living an unfettered life will not suffice, no matter how joyous is may be, because there are certain activities that are required to make a life worth living. Specifically, for Arendt, we must appear to our community in public acts regarding the basic constitution of our political world if we are achieve the singularization that only public acts can supply. 

Many people, including Sen and Nussbaum, find this kind of phenomenological essentialism troubling. How can we sign on to the notion that a life lived without political engagement is less good or worthwhile than a political one? Doesn’t this seem presumptuous, even prejudicial? Valuing political life over family life has tended to feed patriarchal institutions justifications for their misogyny. Valuing work over play feeds into our protestant capitalist obsession with productivity. That is why Sen and Nussbaum retreat to capabilities: a truly full life is very difficult for most people to accomplish, so a better way to think about power and justice is to measure our various capabilities, both exercised and left fallow. To be capable is to have access to ‘beings and doings’ without necessarily having to accomplished each and every one of them. I am able to have children, for instance, but I am not less capable because I have chosen a life without offspring, even though that choice is made under constraints and so as to maximise my other capabilities. This also grants some leeway to individuals in their pursuit of personally fulfilling good lives rather than mandating one good life that most people will fail to achieve.

I think Sen and Nussbaum likely supply the best version of positive freedom for political philosophy because of the demands of reasonable pluralism. That said, I don’t find any of those falliblist and pluralist reasons for retreating from a substantive and demanding conception of the Good Life really sufficient, which is why I’m constantly drawn back to Arendt even though Nussbaum and Sen are (professionally) safer and more popular advocates of a very amenable positive concept of freedom.

Confessions of a Torturer

Just pulled this off Metafilter. A St. John’s grad turned interrogator speaks about what he did to innocents in Iraq: Confessions of a Torturer. There goes Martha Nussbaum’s thesis that the study of the liberal arts will cultivate an ethical sensibility, right out the window. That said, Mr. Lagouranis has a lot more to tell us about how you go from studying the classics to torturing people for information you’re quite sure they don’t possess. First there’s the coverups:

A relative of a high-level Baathist complained to Lagouranis that he’d been tortured. “He told me that when he was arrested he was beaten and forced to stand against a wall and kneel for days, and he was kept from sleeping, and they’d come in occasionally and beat him up and kick him…. “I filed an abuse report on this guy. They had like a standard form, like a memo someone had made up internally at Abu Ghraib, and so I asked my superior for that form, and I went in and did a specific interrogation to ask this guy about that abuse. The guy was really reluctant to talk about it, he said to forget it, he just didn’t want any more trouble for himself. But I got it out of him. I wrote the abuse report and gave it to my superior. And that abuse report, as far as I know, has disappeared. It doesn’t exist anymore.”

Then there’s some descriptions of approved tactics, like ‘environmental manipulation’:

“We had three different strobe lights going at once, and the prisoner would be in a stress position, and it was cold, so he’d be freezing.” At times the detainees were exposed directly to the strobe lighting, but at other times they wore goggles that obscured vision but allowed the pulsating light to enter. The music in the shipping container was applied by means of a boom box turned up to maximum volume. “We were supposed to be in there the entire time with the prisoner, but we could walk out and shut the door if we wanted. I would go outside and just sit down, outside the shipping container. I wouldn’t hear it that much. We started out using this heavy metal music that we got from the MPs, but at two in the morning I’d put on James Taylor ’cause I just didn’t want to hear shit like that anymore.”

The idea that the conditions were so uncomfortable that the torturers couldn’t take it any more sort of indicates that you’re probably doing something wrong, don’t you think? But to Lagouranis, it seemed pretty mild:

“We were getting prisoners from the navy SEALs who were using a lot of the same techniques we were using, except they were a little more harsh. They would actually have the detainee stripped nude, laying on the floor, pouring ice water over his body. They were taking his temperature with a rectal thermometer. We had one guy who had been burned by the navy SEALs. He looked like he had a lighter held up to his legs. One guy’s feet were like huge and black and blue, his toes were obviously all broken, he couldn’t walk. And so they got to us and we were playing James Taylor for them—I think they probably weren’t that upset about what we were doing. Not that I’m excusing what I’m doing, but their reaction was not very severe to it.”

In his defense, the marines were apparently using much more recognizably cruel and inhumane tactics. But the argument that my guilt is lessened by the extremity of another’s guilt is so clearly spurious that I’m surprised anyone ever accepts it.

“The marines had a location—they called it the ‘meat factory’—they would bring them there and they would torture them for 24 or 48 hours before they brought them to us, and they were using techniques like water boarding, mock execution, they were beating them up, breaking their bones, whatever…. Every time they went on a raid it didn’t matter who they were bringing back, they would just fuck these guys up. Old men, 15-year-old kids, they all came with bruises and broken bones. One guy came with a blister on the back of his leg. It was big, it was horrible, a burn blister. They’d made him sit on the exhaust pipe of a running truck.”

At the same time, none of this intelligence was doing any good. The results of interrogations were not being shared, and a lot of the intelligence was falsified or misused:

“I would write intelligence reports and someone would mention the name of somebody, a neighbor, with no incriminating information at all. And the analyst would get ahold of that and that person would become a target and I would be talking to that person the next week—and for what? And I would call up the analyst and say, ‘Why am I talking to this guy?’ And he would quote my report out of context and tell me this was why. It just made no sense.”

According to Lagouranis, this sort of self-deception was common place. The resources for interrogation far outstripped the supply of valuable interrogees, so they just made up reasons to bring people in! Of course, the system doesn’t work every well if most everyone is a complete innocent; there’s no reason to comply with the interrogation even if you are an insurgent, since you know so many true innocents who have been treated cruelly for no reason.

Lagouranis says he once interrogated four brothers who’d been arrested during a general search because soldiers had found a pole in their house that they’d argued could be used for sighting targets for mortars. The brothers, interrogated separately by Lagouranis, contended they used it to measure the depth of water in a canal, and there was nothing incriminating in the house. Though he was convinced they were telling the truth, his superiors would not release the men. A man arrested because he had a cell phone and a shovel met a similar fate. The army contended the shovel could be used to plant an IED and the cell phone could be used to help set it off, and though Lagouranis bought his explanation, nothing he said shook that belief. The army wanted to be able to boast about the number of terrorists apprehended, and the four brothers with the striped stick, the two who ran the aid station at the potato factory, and the man with the shovel were close enough.

For all his self-justification, he does provide a good deal of insight into the efficacy of current torture practices:

Another thing that made it easier was that I felt—and I think this is a flawed argument too—that it was all environmental things that were happening to this person. Like it was gravity that was making his knees hurt, it was the fact that it was cold outside that was making him uncomfortable, it wasn’t me, you know what I mean? As I said, those are flawed arguments, but it makes it easier to do it if you think of it that way.

Sickening… but probably sort of appealing for a disaffected scholar stuck half-way across the world hurting people for no good reason. I encourage you to read the whole interview… it’s stunning, but also matter-of-fact. This is what we do. This is why we do it. This is why it doesn’t work. This is me screaming NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. This is business as usual.