Problems in Epistemology

The NY Times has an article this morning about the second Republican presidential debate. Or scary clown show.
The scenario presented to the 10 Republican presidential candidates was chilling: Three American shopping malls had been bombed, producing scores of casualties. Terrorists with detailed knowledge of another imminent and deadlier attack had been captured and taken to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The question: How far can the authorities go in interrogating the terrorists to get information to avert a fourth attack?
The leading candidates all tried to out-tough each other, though John McCain, who has actually been tortured, said to his credit, “It’s not about the terrorists, it’s about us. It’s about what kind of country we are.” It's the we're-better-than-them argument. Would that it were true. But what struck me about the Times piece was not so much the answers given, but the question. The question makes (at least) two assumptions:
  1. That there is a moral warrant to "do anything" under certain circumstances;
  2. that there are cases in which one knows that another person knows a particular thing.
The problem with the first assumption is that the person making it can know what circumstances lead to such a warrant. The problem with the second is that we have know way of knowing that terrorist x knows the information that, if we knew it, would help us prevent another terrorist act; in fact, if we knew that the terrorist knew, it is very likely we would know what he knew as well. But none of this leads to the desired narrative with its warrant for torture.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.