March 18, 2013
Torture: Weber vs. Durkheim (By Stephen Lukes)
-He wrote an intellectual biography on Durkheim, and locates the thought of Durkheim in the life and
social context of the thinker.
-2005 is just after the Gulf war. The UA had been in Iraq for 4 years. Shocking prison photos were
released, and it was clear the US was engaged in torture. There was debate as to whether or not torture
can ever be justified. The article deals with the question of moral authority, and it also pits Weber against
Durkheim, and hence looks sort of like a position paper. Thus, it shows how we can extract thought from
thinkers and apply them to burning affairs.
-Lukes, in the beginning of his article, takes a jab at some political philosophers who argue that even to
consider whether or not torture is right under certain circumstances is wrong. The question shouldn’t be
raised, because doing so leaves it open to charges of morality. He doesn’t have patience for this
argument. We shouldn’t have good faith at all times when it comes to politics. We don’t always act in goof
faith in politics, and it may even be that the very fact of being a political leader means making
questionable or unethical decisions.
1. Torture: Some recent examples
-In addition to the Second Gulf War and Iraq example just mentioned, we will see examples of US
military practices in Iraq. They use stuff to prevent people from seeing or breathing clearly. They
would handcuff with plastic tie tabs, which often casued skin lesions and long term effects like nerve
damage. Beatings with hard objects, slapping, punching, and being paraded naked also happened.
They would attack prisoners for multiple days, they would expose them to loud music while hooded,
and expose them to the hot sun while hooded. This is US military intelligence from Iraq.
-In the Phillipines in the mid 1990’s, the Phillipino authorities forced information out of people.
Through torture, they justify it because they were able to uncover terrorist attacks. They beat a
suspect with a chair and a long piece of wood. They broke his ribs, put out cigarettes on his private
parts and so on. After this, they turned him over to American authorities, along with the new
information they gathered.
2. Torture as Concept
-Here, he will offer a seemingly acceptable definition of torture by Lukes in his comparison with
Weber. Torture is the infliction of excruciating pain. We have to be more precise, however, because
private individuals may inflict excruciating pain against each other. Here, however, we are talking
about torture inflicted by states against criminals.
-An example is from Algeria. There was a rebellion against the French, and the French engages in
systematic torture at that time. With the British authorities, they caught members of the IRA and
tortured them. The Israelis will sometimes catch opponents and engage in state torture. Also the US
-Further, torture can be psychological or physical. This means, that to humiliate someone may be a
form of mental or psychological torture, even in the absence of physical pain.
3. Can Torture be Justified?
-The central question that Lukes is asking (while he is interested in liberal democratic states) is
whether there are circumstances under which liberal democratic states can be justified in torturing.
Some may think yes. Amnesty international is on principle, on the other hand, opposed to all forms of
torture. Lukes doesn’t really like the question to begin with.
-Consider the ticking bomb argument, which may provide a justification for torture in the Philliopino
case. Consider that authorities may have a suspect in custody, and that they might believe an attack
is about to happen. They believe that the suspect knows about the attack, and if they get the
information from him, they can save the attack from happening. Some may say that according to this
argument, it is conceivable that torture could be justified. It is weighing the lesser of two evils because
they could save many people.
-Well Lukes raises this possibility and argument (the ticking bomb argument that has been used as a
justification), but Lukes says this is a bad way of posing the problem. This is because in practice, it isn’t likely that prisoners held by states will ever have such information. It is very difficult for those who
might be considering torture to know what lives might be saved if they were to extract certain
information. Lukes thus says this argument shouldn’t be taken to seriously. Thus he proceeds to a
more theoretical argument…
4. A Weberian Argument
-We read a part of Weber. Think of his definition of the state. Right away, he says the state is an
association that has a monopoly over the use of violence in a given territory, and thus holds violence
as central to the definition of a state. If we were to read the end of Politics as Vocation, we would also
find he has a tragic view of politics in that he believed that those who become involved in politics with
loving visions of what lies ahead of their country, often have to accept that in order to achieve that
vision, they have to adopt unsavory (dirty) means. This is a reality of political life.
-Here is what Lukes has to say, and Weber as well in illustrating this tragic view of politics. Lukes
summarizing Weber: For Weber, there is no consolation to be had in the thought of pursuing politics.
one who chooses to engages in politics, lets himself in for the diabolical use of violence. Weber says:
The world is governed by demons, and those who let themselves in politics, for power and force,
contracts this force (they enter a deal with the devil). In other words, as a politician, don’t think that
good will follow good actions and evil will follow evil actions. We have to recognize that sometimes
doing things that are good can have evil consequences and vice versa. No ethics in the world can
escape the fact that often good ends are bound to the fact that one must pay the price of using
morally dangerous means. Further, evil consequences are often probable and possible. We cannot
justify when the ethically good purpose justifies the ethically bad means. We fool ourselves into
thinking that by adopting clean methods will lead to clean results. The implication (according to
Lukes) is that if one is a serious politician, they have to prepare that they may have to use evil means
to achieve good ends.
-If this is the case, and a politician has to use dirty means to achieve good ends, it would imply that
torture can be justified under certain circumstances. It may be that torturing some people may be
needed to establish order in society and so on.
5. A Durkheimian Counter-Argument
-Lukes sets forth a Durkheimian counter-argument. Lukes draws on an episode of French history in
which Durkheim was involved, and extracts a lesson from it that Durkheim would have taken and
applies it today.
-In 1892-1894, a Jewish army Captain names Dreyfus was found guilty of treason in France. He was
found guilty of passing secrets to the enemy. Dreyfus was sent to an island. In 1896, new evidence
emerged and pointed to a different culprit, another general in the army, not Drweyfus. A new trial was
held, and the new general was immediately acquitted. One issue is the question of who did it. the
second question is one of anti-semitism. Were the courts who found him guilty and then the other guy
not guilty courts in which a Jew couldn’t have a fair trial? This is a question that eventually divided
French society. It was a divisive issue. On the one side were those who were anti-Dreyficides, who
were often royalists or monarchists, military people, people on the right, and those who believed in
the authority of the church, and hence felt he was guilty. The Drefusards thought he was innocent,
unfairly tried, they were on the left, the socialists, those who thought the French church had too much
power, anti-traditionalists and secularists, didn’t think the military could be trusted, hence they
thought he was simply guilty of being a Jew. The argument of those against Dreyfus was that even if
he was innocent, he did a disservice to reopen the affair because it causes conflicts. So his guilt or
innocence was secondary, and instead, they wanted to maintain the unity of France by not calling into
question the authority of the military and so on. They wanted to preserve the unity of French society
by upholding the unity of its institutions.
-Zola in 1898 wrote an article accusing the authorities of a cover-up, and accused judges of obeying
the orders of the military and hence said Dreyfus didn’t have a fair trial. Zola, as a consequence of
what he wrote was sent to jail, and had to flee to England to stay out of jail.
-In 1906, there was a new trial, and Dreyfus was found innocent. It was found that there were
documents forged that proved his guilt. So eventually, he was vindicated, but it was 12 years later.
-Back to the anti-Drefusar argument ,they argue that it is a mistake to believe that Dreyfus has to be
respected. According to conservatives, national interests trump individual interests. National interests are maintaining the respect of traditional institutions in France, not promoting civil conflict, etc. Keep
in mind however, that the French has just had a war with the Prussians, and WW1 was about to hit.
So you can understand their desire to maintain unity. They had multiple French revolutions, and
hence it is an internally unstable France, at the same time that Europe is losing its predominance in
global affairs. So Prof says that these are the kinds of preoccupations that nationalists had.
-Durkheim entered the debate and wrote that the antis had it wrong when talking about the
importance of traditional institutions for maintaining unity. Durkheim says those days are gone. The
new civil religion is one of… The church, aristocracy and so on don’t have the same moral authority
they used to have. It is outdated, and hence not feasible to think they will have the same sway in
bringing people together as in the past. At the same time that these institutions are losing power,
there is a new belief however. this is the religion of individualism. It is not a religion in a church, but