Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Examining Torture

The question of how to properly interrogate prisoners is one that has dominated certain corners of the blogsphere for quite a while. The 'torture bills' currently going through congress have refocused the debate on this topic once again, and for those interested in a clear (though as a result rather long) explication of the moral issues involved, Scott Carson of An Examined Life works through all the basic moral and philosophical issues.


Anonymous said...

This is a hard one. I keep thinking of what to do if we get word that there is a nuclear device planted in mid town Manhattan, and we capture the guy who planted it, and we have a couple of days before it goes off.

Do we eschew torture, and take the chance of millions of Americans dying? Or do we pull out the stops and use coercion, torture and chemical means to extract the information?

Even as a Catholic, I lean toward the latter. I can choose to give up my life so that a terrorist will not be tortured, but I don't think I can make that decision for the other 999,999 people.

Darwin said...

Three thoughts on that, which is I think the thing that troubles most people about this whole debate:

1) While there are those out there who insist that compelling someone to do something (which for the sake of argument we'll assume is a massive common good such as revealing the location of a time bomb) against his wishes is necessarily morally wrong, I don't think that Catholic moral theology needs to be interpreted in that way by a long shot. There may be some ways of attempting to change someone's mind which are morally unacceptable (namely, torture), but that doesn't mean that compelling the person is itself immoral.

2) There is a long history in Catholic thought of believing that while it is not impossible for a person "in the world" to gain heaven, that there is at the same time an extent to which the "a man cannot serve two masters" dictum is true. Someone who has pledged himself in the deepest sense to protect a city, nation, or tribe (in the sense of keeping them safe, free and comparatively well off) will almost certainly run into situations where this set of duties seems to collide with his personal moral duties. This shouldn't be taken as an unlimitted license to violate moral law, but Dante at least, with his Valley of the Rulers in Purgatorio, saw a possibility that denial of self to protect and earthly realm might be smiled on by God, though such leaders might still need a time or purification to reorient themselves towards heavenly priorities.

3) Although the ticking time bomb scenario is perhaps the ultimate mental test case, I can't help thinking it's exceedingly unlikely that we'd succeeding cathing a perpetrator with real knowledge of it and yet not have more reliable ways of finding the bomb than asking the suspect.

Anonymous said...

The whole "I wouldn't torture to save my own life, but I would to save my children/mother/girlfriend/puppy" argument has always reminded me of the bit in Gaudy Night where the academics are discussing the case of a scholar falsifying his research because he needs money for his family, and which set of obligations is stronger. And then one of them brings up the question of how the wife and children would feel.

Because honestly, to have someone say to you, "I have done abominable and inhuman things to prisoners because I love you so and it's all for your own good"--I have a hard time thinking of anything more ghastly.

kipwatson said...

There's also the $64,000 dollar question.

'If I gave you $64,000 dollars would you let me tie you upsaide down with a cloth round your head and splash water in your face OR keep you awake for several days with loud rock music OR etc...'

Sure, why not, would I have to pay tax on that?

'If I gave you $64,000 dollars, would you let me break your sinews on the rack OR beat you until you were permanently disabled OR slash you with razors until you died OR etc...'

Clearly these two categories are distinct. Why can't we dicuss them as such?

Anonymous said...

What, you mean the distinction between practices that leave permanent physical damage and those that don't?

It's a real and often relevant distinction, I'll admit. However, there are non-physically damaging methods of coercion (Scott Carson brings up the idea of electrodes) which could produce excruciating pain and be clearly offensive to human dignity.

Also, I think that "would you do this for money?" is a bad way to test interrogation methods because the harm and evil of torture do not lie solely in the amount of pain they induce. For instance, I'm sure that some cancer patients undergoing heavy chemo and radiation therapy experience more and longer actual pain than some people under torture. Yet they are not considered torture victims--and they do not have to deal with the psychological effects of being tortured--because their pain comes from their disease and the treatments being applied to it. A fundamental part of torture is that it is done by someone in power to break the will of someone helpless.

Anonymous said...

However, what I really want to know is: if there were telepaths, would it be immoral to use them in interrogations?

Anonymous said...

The core is mother, the core is father...

kipwatson said...

I have no problem with the debate. Note that Mr Rumsfeld has banned the use of many rough and coercive interrogation techniques ('waterboarding' included).

I just think it's stupid, and frankly more than a little Marxist, to bandy around terms like 'torture' in a grossly overbroad manner in an attempt to win the argument without debate.

Darwin said...


There's a certain moral blackmail which goes on: What, you want to argue about what's torture? Why you're just trying to get away with it!

And yet if the term is definely loosely enough, it can mean anything, and thus nothing.

Which I think only serves to cheapen the term and start to make people comfortable with the word torture, and perhaps eventually the practice of it.

Anonymous said...

I'm a little hesitant to get involved in this after writing such a long and admittedly boring post at my own blog about it, but the threat of seeming boring has never stopped me before, so....

I agree with Darwin that the term needs to be defined first and only then can we get into arguments about what we're going to accept as morally licit and what not. This was the upshot of my own blog post on the subject.

But I also agree with Rose, if I understand her correctly, because, as a Christian, I firmly believe that all violence is a falling away from the good, and to use violence to achieve one's ends is already to do something that, in a perfect world, one would not choose to do. Of course, we don't live in a perfect world, and violence is sometimes required in defense of the common good and, hence, morally licit. But there is a clear difference between what is morally licit and what is morally good. Some things are permitted not because they are good in themselves but because they are necessary in defense of the good. Violence falls in this category.

For me, a chief concern is that I not become like my enemy, who uses violence indiscriminately in order to obtain whatever end seems best to him. It may very well be that there are some things worth dying for, and certain moral principles might be among those things.

However, not everyone agrees that there are some things worth dying for. If you believe that there is literally nothing worth dying for, then you will have no trouble arguing for the moral licitness of just about anything you like, including torture. If you are a Christian, however, and accept the idea of martyrdom (that is, the idea that dying for Christ's sake is in itself a good thing, though not something that one ordinarily chooses to do [that is, it is not the same thing as suicide]), then you are already committed to the principle that some things are worth dying for.