05/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Another Reason to Get to the Bottom of Waterboarding

Ray Anderson founded and runs a very successful carpet tile company called Interface. Several years ago, after reading Paul Hawken's book, The Ecology of Commerce, Anderson had a revelation. Though Interface could expect growth and profitability as far as the eye could see, its production process left a huge ecological footprint. Anderson decided that instead of focusing on leaving his grandchildren piles of money, he would try to leave them a livable planet. He launched a complete overhaul of the production process, with the aim of having no negative environmental footprint by 2020.

This was a risky move, but thus far, it has been wildly successful. It is ahead of its timetable for achieving environmental responsibility, and profits are up! One reason why profits are up is that Anderson's workforce has approached its task with incredible enthusiasm and dedication. Everyone is on a mission, and this new goal has inspired everyone to work harder and smarter. They are working not just for a paycheck, but for the world's future.

I think that people like Ray Anderson are a big reason why the Obama administration should welcome -- even encourage -- an inquiry into the interrogation techniques authorized and facilitated by high-level officials in the Bush administration. President Obama wants us to be looking forward, not backward. He seems worried that a broad inquiry will have us refighting battles about the Iraq war instead of thinking about how to work together to solve our current problems. He is worried that looking backward will widen the partisan divide that he is trying so hard to bridge.

These are legitimate worries, but I think that a serious inquiry about torture is looking forward, and not just with respect to the relatively narrow concern with preventing torture in the future. I think the stakes are higher, and Ray Anderson shows us why. Anderson did not embark on his new path because he expected to make more money that way. He did it because he thought that taking care of the planet was the right thing to do. He was even willing to sacrifice some profit to do the right thing, if it came to that. And many of President Obama's objectives depend on people's willingness to do the right thing. Obama told the bankers, in December, that they should be asking themselves "not just is it profitable, but is it right." Just last week, he scolded the credit card companies for some of their current practices, not because they are illegal, and certainly not because they are unprofitable, but because they are unfair -- they are wrong. He is urging young people to get themselves involved in the service of others, and is expanding Americorp's budget to make that happen. In each of these examples, and in many more, President Obama is asking us to "get over ourselves" -- to think about our interests a little less, and to think about the well being of others a little more. He is asking everyone to ask "not just is it profitable, but is it right."

Achieving this shift in focus is a big task, especially after almost two generations of "me-first" thinking. But I think it is an essential task. Carbon trading and regulation will contribute to making the U.S. a more responsible steward of the environment, but we will also need some people to emulate Ray Anderson, and change what they do just because it's right. Tougher regulation and smarter incentives will prevent a future collapse of the financial system that exactly mirrors the current one, but unless there are some people who, like Vanguard founder John Bogle, do the right thing because it's the right thing, no regulation, no matter how stringent, and no incentives, no matter how clever, will prevent a new and different financial collapse at some point in the future.

In short, our financial crisis is in part a moral crisis. Our environmental irresponsibility is in part moral irresponsibility. And though individuals like Ray Anderson and John Bogle may provide models that inspire some of us to take doing the right thing more seriously, there is no doubt that the most significant model we have is the government. If our national leaders are not serious about doing the right thing, why should we be? And by failing to get to the bottom of waterboarding and other despicable practices, the government shows its citizens that it is not serious about doing the right thing.

And so, a thorough investigation of torture is about the future, at least as much as it is about the past. It is a way to set an example that the rest of us can follow. It will facilitate the achievement of President Obama's other objectives rather than detracting from them. And this is true whether or not the "guilty" are "punished." Punishment is not the point; moral clarity and moral seriousness is.

The need to achieve moral clarity and moral seriousness is for me reflected in the tenor of most of the debate about torture that I've seen thus far. Much of the argument has been what philosophers call "consequentialist." "Waterboarding worked." "It kept us safe." "Waterboarding didn't get us anything we couldn't have gotten with conventional interrogation techniques." "For every terrorist it helped us catch, it created 100 new ones." Though no one has suggested that torture is a moral good, those who argue that it is evil feel the need to add, sotto voce, "and it doesn't work." But our official, national stance regarding torture is not "don't torture prisoners unless it works." And so, to a large degree, it doesn't matter whether the documents Cheney wants declassified ever are declassified, or if they are, whether they actually show what he tells us they show. We already know that the U.S. violated its moral commitments. And investigation may tell us how and why this happened. Who knows how many more Ray Andersons will emerge as a result.