We have often claimed that Krugman does not make the same sort of logical mistakes as our friends George Will, David Brooks, and Charles Krauthammer do. Might be time to see whether that is in fact true. Today Krugman gives us this explanation (sorry not free access) of the Bush administration’s fascination with violating the Geneva Convention:
>So why is the Bush administration so determined to torture people? To show that it can. The central drive of the Bush administration — more fundamental than any particular policy — has been the effort to eliminate all limits on the president’s power. Torture, I believe, appeals to the president and the vice president precisely because it’s a violation of both law and tradition. By making an illegal and immoral practice a key element of U.S. policy, they’re asserting their right to do whatever they claim is necessary.
This nicely illustrates some of the problems of interpreting and logical analysis. If we were to represent the text as an argument, we might say:
1. The central drive of the administration is eliminating all limits on president’s power.
2. The Geneva Convention is a limit on the president’s power.
3. Therefore, the administration wants to show that it can ignore the Geneva Convention.
It is a valid inference (if 1 and 2 are true, then 3 must be true) represented like that. Yet when we re-read the original passage something seems amiss.
Krugman takes for granted the conclusion as the initial fact and hence we are dealing with an explanation rather than an argument. (The difference between an argument and an explanation can generally be identified by asking the question whether the premises provide reason to believe the conclusion is true, or whether the “premises” answer the question “why the conclusion is true?”)
But then we must ask whether there is reason to believe that this explanation is the “best explanation.” And here we would expect some argument.
But Krugman doesn’t give it to us, instead he admits that this rests on his belief that
>”torture appeals to the president precisely because it’s a violation of both law and tradition.”
He doesn’t give any reason for this. He should. (But not to give an argument for one’s premises is not a a violation of the rules of logic. All arguments begin from premises that are unjustified within the argument. But one should be willing (and able) to provide justification of the premises when requested).
But the problem is that it is not a terribly persuasive explanation. And Krugman surely realizes that it is a controversial. He is, in effect, claiming that President Bush and Vice President Cheney are motivated primarily by a lust to expand the president’s power and that their policies on torture are motivated primarily by this lust.
There are, it seems to me, plenty of other more plausible explanations. For example, nothing more is needed than the claim that they don’t care about constraints, coupled with a claim about their rejection of the evidence that torture does not produce reliable intelligence is adequate to explain their motivations.
Of course, Krugman could reply that he has rejected this explanation by presenting the evidence that torture cannot provide reliable intelligence (as an argument from authority):
>Is torture a necessary evil in a post-9/11 world? No. People with actual knowledge of intelligence work tell us that reality isn’t like TV dramas, in which the good guys have to torture the bad guy to find out where he planted the ticking time bomb.
>What torture produces in practice is misinformation, as its victims, desperate to end the pain, tell interrogators whatever they want to hear. Thus Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi — who ABC News says was subjected to both the cold cell and water boarding — told his questioners that Saddam Hussein’s regime had trained members of Al Qaeda in the use of biochemical weapons. This “confession” became a key part of the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq — but it was pure invention.
But, for this to be an argument against the proposed explanation (mine above), we would need to believe that the Bush Administration listens to the relevant “authorities.” Recent history suggests that they do not. There seems to be good reason to believe that the Bush administration really really does believe that torturing suspects will make America safer, just as they seem to have believed that invading Iraq would make America safer.
Once again, it is important that this is a failure at the level not of logic (validity) but of truth (soundness). I may not find his argument sound, but I don’t think he commits any fallacies.