Strauss and Torture
Damon Linker uses Strauss and Artistotle to discuss the morality of torture in TNR:
Strauss begins by noting that Aristotle (in Book 5 of the Nicomachean Ethics) asserts, with little explanation, that natural right is changeable — in other words, that standards of what is right and wrong vary from time to time and place to place. According to Strauss, this claim follows not from historical relativism but rather from the multi-faceted and ambiguous character of political morality itself. Simply put, political morality sometimes means commutative and distributive justice (what the parts of the political community deserve or are owed according to commonly accepted standards of fairness), while at other times political morality means the common good (what is required for the political community as a whole to survive and thrive).
This, in Strauss’s view, is what Aristotle meant when he asserted that natural right is changeable. Under normal circumstances, the common rules of political morality tell us that torture is simply wrong. (The example of torture is mine; Strauss focuses on espionage.) But in a sufficiently extreme situation — when faced with an “an absolutely unscrupulous and savage enemy” — torture may become not merely a permissible evil but a positive good that is necessary to fulfill the highest law of political morality (which is the defense of the common good).
Under normal circumstances, the two parts of political morality cohere enough that the tensions between them rarely show themselves. But in extreme situations — situations in which (in Strauss’s words) “the very existence or independence of a society is at stake” — there may be “conflicts between what the self-preservation of society requires and the requirements of commutative and distributive justice. In such situations, and only in such situations, it can justly be said that the public safety is the highest law.”
And the complication:
But the need for statesmen to make a decision about when to deviate from what is normally right creates a massive problem for decent politics in dark times. As Strauss writes,
‘There is no principle which defines clearly in what type of cases the public safety, and in what type of cases the precise rules of justice, have priority. For it is not possible to define precisely what constitutes an extreme situation in contradistinction to a normal situation.’
In the end, the statesman needs to rely on his judgment — on what Aristotle called practical wisdom (phronesis) and President Bush (and Stephen Colbert) called his “gut” — in making the decision about whether and when and for how long and in what ways to deviate from what is normally right in order to “preserve the mere existence or independence of society” against its mortal enemies