Consult: Charles Young, PhD


An Ethics Consultation on

The Psychology and Military Intelligence Casebook on Interrogation Ethics

Charles Young, PhD

September 25, 2008

Claremont Graduate University

Reported by Jean Maria Arrigo

Commentary by Martha Davis

Professor Charles Young is an Aristotelian moral philosopher at Claremont Graduate University.  He is generally familiar with Casebook themes because his father was a career officer at the time of the Nazi war crimes trials and later held a position with NATO.  In 2000, Charles and I co-organized  The Pilot Workshop on the Ethics of Political and Military Intelligence for Insiders and Outsiders  at Claremont Graduate University.

Participants:  Jean Maria Arrigo, Charles Young

Selective Summary of Consultation with Dr. Young on

The Psychology and Military Intelligence Casebook on Interrogation Ethics

Dr. Young read the 8-24-08 PMIC notice for the PsySR web site and agreed that foundational ethics questions were needed and ours are generally of the right sort:

How can psychological ethics accommodate patriotism, nationalism, secrecy, obedience to authority, and career protection in national security settings?  Can psychological ethics realistically be construed as independent of political context?  What constitutes an ethical relationship between the APA and a defense agency?  On what terms can the APA ethically admit members whose work cannot be held accountable to the ethics code due to secrecy requirements of defense agencies?  

     There are major obstacles though to producing a consistent set of ethical principles to address such questions, including:  (1) the cross-level problems, i.e., incompatibilities between individual goods or virtues and system-level goods or virtues; (2) conflicts between incommensurable world views (Islam v Christianity); and (3) competing stakeholders with commensurable world views (pacifists v. militarists or Democrats v Republicans).

     For political philosophy in a pluralistic system, Dr. Young said the big question is whether we can partition the legal or ethical domain in a practical (surely inconsistent) way that conflicting factions can tolerate.   Within the U.S, he gave the example of conflicts between certain minorities and politically dominant traditional Christians.  Some Native American tribes believe that taking peyote is important, and some Mormons believe that polygamy is important.  But the Native Americans are permitted to act on their belief; the Mormons are not.  For an interstate example, Western nations revile polygamy and female circumcision practiced in some Islamic nations.  Western nations can tolerate polygamy in those nations but not female circumcision.  From the US perspective, there are really three lines to drawn, he says:  tolerable v. intolerable by the US in the US, tolerable v. intolerable by the US in other nations, and tolerable by the US in other nations v. intolerable by the US in the US. The question is whether any such lines can be drawn in a principled way.

     On this model, our job with the Casebook is not to develop first principles (e.g., do no harm) from which all the ethical rules follow but to draw the lines of moral conduct between psychology or psychologists in civilian settings (CivPsy) and psychology or psychologists in military and intelligence settings (MilPsy).  Four basic lines of moral conduct must be drawn between:

     1.  tolerable versus intolerable for CivPsy in CivPsy (e.g. the problem of APA staff opposing the 2008 Referendum),

     2.  tolerable versus  intolerable for CivPsy in MilPsy (e.g., the problem of psychologist Martin Seligman, PhD,

          instructing the CIA and SERE trainers on his theory of “learned helplessness”)

     3.  tolerable versus intolerable for MilPsy in CivPsy (e.g., the problem of the military and intelligence employees on

          the June 2005 APA PENS task force that established APA policy for psychologists in interrogations); and

          tolerable versus intolerable for MilPsy in MilPsy (e.g., the problem of Behavioral Science Consultation Team

          ((BSCT)) psychologists advising on abusive interrogations).

     The key, said Dr. Young, is to draw lines that will allow the competitors to resolve all, or most, or the most serious, of their disagreements if, for the purpose of getting along, they hold in abeyance (or “bracket,” as philosophers say) some of the principles they don't share.  The resulting system would sacrifice logical coherence or ideological unity in favor of political agreement sufficient for practical implementation (with the attendant problems of cognitive dissonance).

     He added that the rhetoric of explanation of changes in policy is very important.  For example, in advocating "enhanced interrogations" one could either say (a) the standards have changed because the enemy is qualitatively different that those the Geneva Conventions addressed (ref. Bush administration) or (b) the standards have temporarily been suspended because of a state of supreme emergency (ref. Walzer and just war theory).

     Finally, Dr. Young reminded us of our place as casebook writers in the evolution of psychological ethics in national security settings.  We are at an early stage of demonstrating the range of cases, the complexities, the unexpected causal connections, and so on.  The grand theorists usually arrive after this groundwork has been done.  He gave the example of a generation of animal rights data collectors and activists preceding the eminent Princeton animal rights theorist Peter Singer.

     Nevertheless, taken individually, analysis of the big issues in psychological ethics is essential.  He gave the example of the military requirement of obedience to authority, which even some military professionals have sought to mitigate for the sake of military effectiveness.  There is a rich literature on obedience to the state going back to Socrates, from which lessons might be drawn for the intersection of psychological and military ethics.  We could thus draw from the moral tradition for our newly articulated topic of psychological ethics in national security settings.

     We should consider whether we are in the business of policy design and implementation with this Casebook or strictly in the business of ethics. 

Commentary by Martha Davis

October 8, 2008

     Conceptually, I miss a discussion of the organization/power relationship issues (for want of a better term).  But somewhere, somehow don't the realities of power and authority take over and shape everything?  We have a situation where the domestic professional organizations prohibit BSCTs but the Army and Surgeon General just keep using them anyway, their authority so far outweighing the professional organizations (let alone the individual health care providers who balk), there's hardly anything to talk about.  All they have to do is cry "national security" and everything falls into line.  Will there be a section on enforcement of ethics proposals?