Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The moral backdrop of interrogations

Hanns Joachim Scharff was, by all accounts, a profoundly humane interrogator. The prisoners he interrogated described his demeanor as friendly and empathic. He didn’t use torture, threats, or intimidation. Instead, he engaged captured airmen in seemingly free-flowing conversation and created the impression that he already knew everything of importance. As a result, the prisoners he interrogated overestimated what he knew and failed to realize how much crucial new information they were in fact disclosing to Scharff. Compared to the typical accusatory interrogation, which is characterized by trickery and powerful social influence that are liable to induce innocent people to falsely confess to crimes they didn’t commit, Scharff’s techniques were quite benign [1]. There is much to say about his remarkable interrogation techniques, but Scharff’s skill as an interrogator is actually not my main concern here. When I co-wrote a book chapter on the ethics of interrogation with Maria Hartwig and Michael Skerker, we described Scharff as “active in World War II” – which may reasonably strike people as an inappropriately sanitary phrase, given that he was fighting for Nazi Germany. We more or less ignored the context in which Scharff was conducting his interrogations, even though we argued that the tactics he used were, by and large, likely morally defensible.

As far as I know, the social, political, and legal context in which questioning occurs has been largely unexplored in the moral analysis of interrogation. Perhaps this is because researchers who study interrogation and philosophers who have examined the ethics of interrogation have mostly focused on specific tactics, rather than the broader environment in which an interrogation might happen. This seems like a massive oversight. Interrogation under potentially adverse moral conditions is an interesting moral problem, and here, I wish to offer a brief (and admittedly, incomplete) analysis of the moral environment in which interrogations take place. (Readers interested in the ethics of specific interrogation tactics are referred to the aforementioned book chapter. Also, it’s worth noting that I’m a psychologist, not a philosopher – so this whole analysis might be fairly amateurish.)

There is much to admire about Hanns Scharff, perhaps in the same way that people often admire the famed German general Erwin Rommel – both as a talented professional and as a human being with an apparent moral core. This admiration is usually accompanied by a polite dismissal of the fact that they fought for Nazi Germany. After all, it wasn’t their choice to start or carry on fighting the war. But is it reasonable to compartmentalize their actions into what they did “on the ground” and broader effects of their service – namely supporting the Third Reich’s war effort?  Michael Walzer uses Rommel as an example of precisely this problem in his authoritative treatment of traditional just war theory. Can we shake Rommel’s hand? he asks metaphorically. Was his skilled service morally defensible, even laudable, despite it being a part of flagrantly unjust war? Or is the morality of his actions poisoned by the injustice of the larger purposes to which his service contributed?