Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Ronald Dworkin on the "24 Scenario"

In his latest book, Is Democracy Possible Here?, legal scholar Ronald Dworkin proposes a framework for analyzing political issues that is based on two "principles of human dignity." Principle #1 – “the principle of intrinsic value – holds that each human life has a special kind of objective value. It has value as potentiality; once a human life has begun, it matters how it goes." Principle #2 – “the principle of personal responsibility – holds that each person has a special responsibility for realizing the success of his own life, a responsibility that includes exercising his judgment about what kind of life would be successful for him." In the book, he looks at how analyses based on these principles would play out for several important contemporary issues.

One of the issues he studies is the question of human rights for suspected terrorists. After a long analysis of the Guantanamo problem, he turns briefly to what I call the "24 Scenario." Suppose we have captured a terrorist, and we know he has planted a nuclear bomb, ready to explode. Is it permissible to let our hero, Jack Bauer, torture the villain in order to find the location of the bomb, so that millions could be saved? Dworkin's treatment is quite interesting:
Let us now accept, if only for the sake of this discussion, that it is morally permissible to violate human rights in a sufficiently grave emergency like this one. Then our question becomes: how grave must the emergency be?

Remember our premises. ...[We] damage ourselves, not just our victim, when we ignore his humanity, because in denigrating his intrinsic value we denigrate our own. We compromise our dignity and our self-respect. So we must put the hurdle of emergency very high indeed. We must take care not to define "emergency" as simply "great danger" or to suppose that any act that improves our own security, no matter how marginally, is for that reason justified. We must hold to a very different virtue: the old-fashioned virtue of courage. Sacrificing self-respect in the face of danger is a particularly shameful form of cowardice. We show courage in our domestic criminal law and practice: we increase the statistical risk that each of us will suffer from violent crime when we forbid preventive detention and insist on fair trials for everyone accused of crime. We must show parallel courage when the danger comes from abroad because our dignity is at stake in the same way. ...

We are in great danger of falling into the trap [of]… thinking that anything that improves America’s security, however marginally or speculatively, is wise policy. That makes a terrified prudence the only virtue we recognize; it sacrifices courage and dignity to a mean and cowardly prejudice that our own security is the only thing that matters. We do not make that mistake in our own lives or our own domestic law, and it is not plain that the danger from terrorism is greater, all in all, than the dangers from drugs, serial killers, and other crimes. But the threat to our dignity is certainly greater now, and we must stand together to defeat that greater danger. The metaphor of balancing rights against security is, as I have said, very misleading. A different metaphor would be much more appropriate: we must balance our security against our honor. Are we now so frightened that honor means nothing?

I am now convinced that "24" is a Fox Noise Channel tool to keep people afraid. Very afraid.
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