The Torture Debate and Culturally Mature Policy

When a major new policy debate hits the front-page news, people invariably begin asking me what, precisely, culturally mature policy would look like. It is a perfectly good question, but as framed, it also often misses the particular kind of benefit—and precision—that culturally mature perspective provides. The recent debate around the effectiveness and moral legitimacy of torture following the release of new information on the extent of “enhanced interrogation” by the United States provides a good illustration of the difference and its implications for effective policy.

It has been fascinating to hear the contrasting conclusions put forward not just by political commentators, but by “experts” with considerable experience in the field. Some such experts argued that such enhanced interrogation consistently provides intelligence very difficult to get any other way (and essential given the dangers modern terrorism presents). Other equally informed experts argued that such methods yield nothing but distorted information (and only inflame animosities and result in further terrorist acts). Note that even though articulated by people with extensive experience and arguably the best of intensions, these are polar opposite conclusions that certainly cannot both be correct. I heard very little commentary that expressed what is most likely the more accurate reality: In certain limited circumstances torture can provides information that can be very helpful, though often, too, the result is often distorted information, and the precedent torture sets removes any moral high ground when addressing torture done by others.

How does culturally mature perspective benefit us? It helps us recognize what are ultimately ideological interpretations so that we at least better ask the correct questions. It also helps us see situations in ways that better recognize the important systemic variables involved. It doesn’t, however, tell us exactly what right policy should look like. It also requires that we let go of the notion that we can find perfect policy options if we just look closely enough. It simply gets us into the perceptual territory where useful policy choices can be found.

For example, with torture, I can think of a variety of culturally mature policy options—each imperfect, but each reflective of a mature systemic vantage. We could choose simply not to do it (feeling that the cost of the moral precedent set was simply too high). We could continue to use torture within clearly defined limits but keep that we are doing so secret (as we have attempted to do in the past but without such clearly defined limits). Or we could continue use torture—now with clearly defined limits—but be transparent about what we do (with the hope that the limits would provide at least some degree of moral example). Which would be the best policy? I could offer an opinion, but it would not be based on one being more culturally mature than the other.

That I might claim that each of these could represent culturally mature policy might imply that what culturally mature perspective offers is an extremely limited kind of precision. And certainly the result is very different from the dogmatic kinds of “precision” we get with ideological advocacy. But I would argue that this is in fact the kind of precision we need for today. Ultimately, in our time, it is what defines effective leadership (of every sort).

I’ve argued that while Barach Obama often upsets both the political right and the political right, he has in fact been remarkable consistent in bringing at least first-step culturally mature perspective to his presidential decision-making. This does not at all mean that I always agree with him when it comes to particular policy choices. I disagree on specifics quite frequently and often in major ways. But I think where here is “coming from” most often takes into account what needs to be considered and avoids at least the worst of ideological traps. I think the capacity for that kind of “precision” is what we want to use as the defining measure when choosing leaders. It is also the defining measure we need to use when evaluating the leadership we take in our personal choices.