Wednesday, May 06, 2009

I know you think you understand what I said....

One other observation about the torture memos:

The techniques used were, all agree, "reverse engineered" from SERE techniques, which were themselves taken from experiences of captives in the Korean war. Not that many of these techniques were new, or even original. But the effort was made to involve as many bodies of knowledge as possible, as many disciplines as possible. And all such knowledge was used to engage techne, knowledge for making or doing, as opposed to episteme, knowledge engaged in understanding. The techniques SERE trained soldiers in were used by the Koreans for the reasons torture has always been used: to extract "confessions." But there are at least three different meanings of the word confession. In our allegiance to techne over episteme, we've lost sight of that, too.

Techne is the knowledge we esteem today. Episteme is the knowledge we deride. Distinctions between the two barely exist, for techne is the key to understanding how the world works (if something performs its designed function, that is further evidence of our mastery over the world through knowledge), and episteme is merely "theory" that fails to do anything other than obscure our grasp of techne. Theology was once the "mother" of the sciences, not because it provided the literal grounding for understanding the universe, but because it provided the episteme for our understanding. Now we denigrate theology because it is not empiricism and praise, neither science nor empiricism, but their products, as the highest and best use of human reason.

And the problem with this?

First, we lose sight of the ambiguity of words in our insistence that, like the right tool for technology, words have only one meaning, one usage, and that is the one we value most. "Confession" in theology and religion means a public dedication to a deity and a system of belief. "Confession" in the legal realm means admission of guilt to a crime. But "confession" in the common usage means an admission of truth, an absolute telling of what is. With more episteme, we might understand the complexity of a concept like "confession." Wed to our techne, though, we are quite sure we know how words work, and that they work in only one way, and that "truth" is an object hidden in the human psyche which fear and pain will ferret out. It isn't true, of course; but we fill in our ignorance with whatever knowledge lies at hand; and more often than not, the knowledge is techne, not episteme.

Second, we denigrate our humanity in the process. Is torture wrong because it fails the test of utility? Is it right, because it provides the greatest good for the greatest number? The result of advancing techne over episteme is that we discuss torture, not in terms of its morality, but of its efficacy. The central claim of morality, the one even the 19th century agnostics and existential philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre feared losing, was its position as final arbiter of human behavior in all cases. Even as he argued all ethics are a matter of personal choice because personal choice is all that is possible in an existential universe, Sartre understood the importance of the right choice (he did not champion amorality). But in a society that values technology over all, even over human life, the only moral authority is utilitarianism: does the the outcome provide the greatest good for the greatest number?

Thus are the ends made to justify the means. Thus has technology has made moral relativists of us (almost) all.

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