Recently, Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee for director of the CIA, has been criticized in the media for using torture during her career at the CIA, and then being involved in the destruction of the records of such torture. As CIA director, Haspel will be responsible for a collective; her actions will represent the entire country. Torture is considered a war crime and a violation of human rights and international treaties. Thus, according to some international treaties, Haspel should be considered a war criminal. However, some argue that at the time of her actions, torture was a legal tactic supported by the government to counter terrorism and therefore was acceptable in the name of the greater good. If the U.S. chooses to operate under moral absolutism and not consequentialism, Haspel is an inappropriate CIA director nominee, particularly if she represents a collective moral code of conduct.
Consider Haspel’s possible point of view in positions where individuals must torture or kill for a collective agenda. Some may choose to perform torture in the name of national security. This can be paralleled by considering the “Trolley Problem” thought experiment in ethics. In this experiment, imagine a trolley headed straight for five people who are tied on the tracks. If you pull the lever, the trolley will switch to a different track and kill one person. You have two options: 1) Do nothing. 2) Pull the lever. Many are unable to decide which would be considered the appropriate action. Those who believe that they are punishing others for the collective good, who would pull the lever believe they are doing the right thing for their society. The same can be said for people who choose to condone torture in the name of national security.
The collective good can be considered under either moral universalism or moral relativity. Moral universalism is the ethical position that a system of ethics applies universally regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or any other distinguishing feature. In contrast, moral relativity is the position that there are fundamental disagreements in courses of action even when the same facts hold true because different cultures have different moral standards.
One form of universalist ethical theory is utilitarianism which states that the best action is the one that maximizes universal positive utility. Universalism is also classified under a consequentialist theory, which says that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis of judgement regarding right and wrong. Additionally, consequentialists argue that the moral worth of an action does not follow a set of written edicts or laws, but instead follows the potential consequence.
However, the U.N. and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) tend to operate under moral absolutism, which is the ethical view that particular actions are intrinsically right or wrong. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture and freedom of opinion and expression. The UN recognizes human rights as deriving from the inherent dignity of the human person. Article 1 of the UN Convention Against Torture defines “torture” as any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining information from them. Additionally, the International Crimes and Accountability program by the ECCHR actively works to enforce human rights law and provide justice for violations made by the U.S., U.K. and their allies in the execution of their political agendas.
The rights to life and liberty and freedom from slavery and torture are violated when an individual is imprisoned, punished or tortured. Consequently, the U.S. appears to violate human rights if the wrongdoer is believed to have violated or placed the collective in a weak or damaged position. Frequently, people have ambiguous views on morality, but to survive in a global society and construct a code of conduct with allies and neighbors, moral absolutism is required. The U.S. cannot continue to act the way we do now.
As an organization, the CIA serves to protect the interests of U.S. civilians, and consequently the CIA will sacrifice global and universal interests, international treaties and human rights of foreign civilians for a national agenda. Although the U.S. justice system continues to demand equality, impose its own political viewpoints and implement international laws on other countries, it occasionally fails to implement these views within its own borders. Thus, if the U.S. attempts to impose moral absolutism internationally, it must also follow a code of moral absolutism.
If we operate under moral absolutism and abide by U.N. rules and code of conduct, Haspel was wrong to commit acts of torture, and hence should not be confirmed as CIA director. If we believe that all human beings, regardless of place of birth, should be treated with equal respect, then killing and torture are inappropriate regardless of circumstance.