Swans Commentary » swans.com March 14, 2005  



Profiling, Torture & Knowledge


by Francis Raven




(Swans - March 14, 2005)   Both profiling and torture are techniques used to prevent crime. However, both methods are often overprovided by the state. Therefore, the use of both procedures needs to be bounded by robust ethical standards. The roots of these ethical standards might be found in a study of how torture and profiling relate to knowledge. That is, it is possible that in this case the ethical might helpfully intersect with the epistemic. In this essay, I will explore the relationship between knowledge and torture, between knowledge and profiling, and between these two types of knowledge. In so doing, I will distinguish between the use and acquisition of knowledge and between particular and generalized (or scientific) knowledge. However, most of the questions raised by this essay end up being outside of its scope and perhaps all that it has to offer are a few distinctions and few new refined questions.

To begin, the first difference between torture and profiling with regard to knowledge is that to profile effectively we need knowledge, whereas if torture is ever justified it supplies us (that is, the state) with knowledge. That is, successful torture will obtain knowledge whereas successful profiling will use knowledge. The knowledge of and the knowledge needed intersect in the state's knowledge regime.

The asymmetry between the acquisition and the use of knowledge alters the ethical requirements placed on torture and profiling. This is because, to generalize, the ethical standards for use are stricter when the substance (or activity) being used affects more people than just the user; whereas, the ethical standards for acquisition (or production) are stricter when use only affects the user (that is, when the use of the substance constitutes a "victimless crime"). The question remains: should the ethical standards for using knowledge be more or less strict than the ethical standards for acquiring knowledge? I will not answer this question, for its answer lies outside the scope of this short paper.

Presently, I will turn to the state's twin tasks regarding knowledge: torture and profiling. Torture is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "infliction of severe physical pain as a means of punishment or coercion." Let's not quibble with the definition as some politicians might as a means of dodging International Treaty obligations. Let's just accept a naïve definition in the meantime, at least for the sake of this essay. The justification for torture is typically utilitarian as opposed to retributivist (the belief that we should punish criminals because they are guilty; that is, "an eye for an eye"). In other words, we don't torture criminals because they're guilty, but because of some good we could gain from their torture. Simply put, utilitarianism is an ethical framework based on the quantitative maximization of some good. So, a utilitarian justification for an action (let's call this action X) takes the form: doing X provides more of a certain good than not doing X. As we all know from the horrific events in Abu Ghraib, knowledge (or intelligence) is often seen as the good torture provides.

As a result of its utilitarian justification, if torture did not produce knowledge then the utilitarian calculus in its favor would fail and torture would thus be left with no justification to speak of. If you want to justify torture, then, you must show that it produces knowledge. The way to do this is to idealize torture. The idealized structure of torture is known as the Ticking Time-Bomb Example: You hold a prisoner in custody. The prisoner knows the location of a hidden ticking time bomb that will soon explode and kill many people. And you know that the prisoner holds this information. Given these circumstances, many people believe that torture is justified. There are, of course, many problems with this idealized example, all of which circle around the fact that it never actually occurs. But what if it did?

Obviously, torture will not produce scientific (or generalized) knowledge, but will instead procure particular knowledge. That is, the torturer doesn't want the tortured to spout some theory about how things are or how they might be. He does not want to know the theory behind terrorism or how bombs work. The torturer wants to know specifics, not generalizations; actualities, not potentialities or probabilities. He wants to know that a bomb will explode the Thursday after next in the Starbucks at 53rd and 3rd, or that the Foreign Minister of Iran will be assassinated on Thanksgiving. This type of knowledge is not general or generalizable, but is instead particular. It is not a scientific theory and, as such, cannot be applied except in the circumstance indicated.

This particular type of knowledge might not even count as knowledge. Instead, following Plato, we might say that it is a "true belief," which is untethered and likely to fly from its source. That is, the particular piece of information might not be attached to a theoretical system of knowledge (which is what actually counts as knowledge). The difference between (1) a particular piece of knowledge and (2) a science (a theoretical framework for knowledge) may be seen by comparing the difference between a person being wrong about (1) and (2). If a person is wrong about (1) she will just move on, but if a person is wrong about (2) (for instance, modern physics) she will be forced to change the way she lives. Being mistaken about a particular instance of knowledge will lead a person to change her views about that piece of knowledge (for instance, if the bomb turned out not to be in the school cafeteria, she would not persist in believing that it was). Whereas, being wrong about a system of knowledge (or science) will either lead a person to radically change her entire belief system (that is, maybe if the next criminal the police officer catches isn't a young black man then the police officer will cease to be such a racist) or, alternately, it could lead the person's invalid belief system to become more entrenched. This entrenchment might result from the person's understanding of the enormous costs of changing one's belief system. Of course, a lengthier discussion of this phenomenon is outside the narrow parameters of this paper. Now I must move onto the other side of the equation: profiling.

One of the definitions given for "profile" in the American Heritage Dictionary is "a representation of an object or structure seen from the side." In terms of law enforcement, the subject is seen from the side of his race, class, gender, or neighborhood. That is, his silhouette is viewed through that lens so that the law enforcement officer can prevent crimes from occurring. Profiling has the inverse relationship with knowledge that torture has. It is the use of generalized knowledge, as opposed to the acquisition of particular knowledge. To profile is to use generalized (or schematic) knowledge in order to either prevent a future crime or to catch a criminal in the commission of a crime.

What happens when an official, such as a police officer, racially (or otherwise) profiles another individual? First, there is a theory such as "African American youths commit more crimes than white youths." (Of course, there is the question of whether "commit" should be replaced with "are caught committing," but this paper is not the place for that discussion.) Next, there is the action that results from the police officer believing the theory: pulling more young black men over than young white men. The element that the official is using to profile is brought to the forefront. So, the official asks: is this person black? Is this person male? Is this person young? These three questions, of course, are each layers in the overdetermined profiling of an individual. Overdetermination is another realm of profiling that should be investigated in relation to knowledge. Unfortunately, this investigation will have to wait for another paper.

Simply put, knowledge is needed on several levels in order to effectively profile. First, (1) a general theory is needed. Second, (2) the profiler needs to know if people belong to class that has been theorized about. Interestingly, (1) is a piece of scientific knowledge -- a schema in which to place other knowledge, while (2) is a piece of empirical knowledge. (2) is particular knowledge, as is the type of knowledge acquired with torture; however, it is a different subcategory of particular knowledge than is acquired using torture. (2) is public particular knowledge, whereas the type of knowledge acquired with torture is private particular knowledge. (2) fits into (1) and if (2) does not fit into (1), that is, if the black man pulled over is not committing a crime, this does not disprove (1) since overarching scientific knowledge is not disproved with counterexamples. And in fact, as I have noted previously, further entrenchment of an invalid belief system often results from alleged empirical disproof of that belief system.

It is obviously always ethical to acquire (2) since it is public and every person has access to it. And it is also ethical to use scientific (generalized) knowledge when it is correct and when it does not infringe upon the basic civil liberties and rights we Americans hold so dear. But this is the problem with profiling. It often uses erroneous generalized knowledge and applies it to publicly available particular information. An example of erroneous generalized knowledge is the theory that Martians are more likely to commit crimes than Caucasians. In addition, the use of generalized knowledge is not always ethical, because the user could be wrong (1) about its validity or (2) about whether it applies in a particular instance. For example, it may be true that Martians commit crimes at higher rates than do Caucasians, but that does not mean that the individual Muslim the police officer pulls over is more likely to commit a crime than the Caucasian he sees on the corner.

However, even if it turned out that this theory were correct, most people would not want politicians to enact policies with such a repellant theory in mind. This is because we hold the rights of the individual more dearly than we hold scientific theories. We value human rights above scientific knowledge, no matter how correct this knowledge is. In the political realm, all citizens are supposedly viewed equally. What this means is that any scientific theory that negates individual rights must not be used in the public sphere. In addition, we need to remind our elected officials that this is the case. However, in the end, it is the interaction of scientific and particular knowledge that is especially intriguing, but this is again outside the scope of this slim paper.

To connect torture and profiling through their relationships to knowledge would be to say that they fit at jagged edges to each other. To profile is to work from probabilities and statistics to individuals; whereas torture uses the individual to generate particular knowledge. The torturer really doesn't want the type of knowledge needed to profile (this is obtained through assiduous research), but instead requires knowledge that will be acted upon and will be subsequently thrown to the wind. However, the knowledge obtained from torture, the specific knowledge of bombings, prison breaks, coups, etc., can be a contribution to the research projects that may subsequently be used to profile various groups. Once this occurs, if any member of a profiled group happens to commit a crime the researcher is given further knowledge since confirmation of a theory is itself knowledge. In this way, the use and acquisition of knowledge become mixed up along with the ethical standards binding them to humanity.

The ethical limitations on torture and profiling are connected to their respective relationships with knowledge. Particular knowledge is typically ethical to use. For instance, if a police officer knows that Tommy Hilfiger is going to blow up the Empire State Building most people would agree that it is ethical for the police officer to intervene before Hilfiger has the opportunity to detonate his bomb. However, particular knowledge is not always ethical to obtain. This is often the case regarding torture. On the other hand, the production of generalized knowledge (science) is normally viewed as ethical. But, as I have shown, generalized knowledge often has no place in the public sphere, at least to the extent that we believe civil liberties to be fundamental and inviolable. So, the dilemma becomes: (1) it is typically ethical to use particular knowledge, but not necessarily to obtain it; and (2) it is not always ethical to use generalized knowledge, but it is generally ethical to produce it. An understanding of this dilemma and of the distinctions outlined in this essay (between the use and acquisition of knowledge and between particular and generalized knowledge) will help activists generate a better position to argue against the state's unlimited use of torture and profiling. However, the actual positions of these activists must, again, be excluded from this short essay.

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About the Author

Francis Raven's first novel, Inverted Curvatures, will be published this fall by Spuyten Duyvil. Poems of his have been published in Mudlark, Conundrum, Pindeldyboz, Big Bridge, Le Petite Zine, and Can We Have Our Ball Back? Essays and articles of his have been published in Jacket, Clamor, In These Times, The Fulcrum Annual, and Rain Taxi. Raven's "Sonnets to Renew Your Subscription," written in collaboration with Jeff Bacon, were published as an electronic chapbook by Beard of Bees, viewable online as a PDF file.



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Published March 14, 2005