Plumb Lines

April 27, 2009

Why Torture is Wrong

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 2:40 pm

Jim Manzi, who has written a very good utilitarian case against torture, asks: why is torture wrong?

The central moral evil in interrogating someone by means of torture is that it overrides the victim’s moral agency. That is, the whole point of the exercise is to render the victim incapable of moral self-governance, so that your will, the will of the torturer, becomes entirely sovereign. This is intrinsically wrong both in Aristotelian/Thomist thought and the various moral philosophies derived from Kant. Since, in classical moral philosophy (and indeed in the moral reasoning we use in everyday life) you can’t perform an action that is intrinsically evil in order than good may come about, you can’t torture someone to get information out of him even if that information would save many lives.

There are more factors at play, including what kinds of violence are morally permissible in wartime, but respecting everyone’s moral agency is the most basic moral principle at stake.

As a side note, you would think that this would all be clear to the good people at First Things, who’ve read their Aquinas and their dogmatic constitutions. I know First Things is against torture. I hope we hear some clarification from them soon.

-David Schaengold

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21 Comments »

  1. Well said, David.

    Comment by E.D. Kain — April 27, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

  2. There is a philosophical literature on this question that trades in suggestive, helpful, but imprecise metaphors: Hijacking of agency, perversely turning the self into its own enemy by manipulation of affects, dramatizing a vast assymetry of power, etc. I still haven’t found an adequate definition of torture or an adequate account of what is wrong with it, but I have never for a second doubted that it is indeed wrong, and one of the worst things a man can do.

    Comment by Keith Staples — April 27, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

  3. I don’t know – there are lots of good reasons why we should not torture. The problem is we are trying to make complex something that is in fact quite simple.

    Comment by E.D. Kain — April 27, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

  4. In case you’re wondering why I don’t think David’s explanation is quite enough, I’ll probably write more on it soon.

    Comment by Keith Staples — April 27, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

  5. […] in any of its guises is simply baffling to me.  It’s not a hard question.  It’s not a moral conundrum.  There’s no nuanced theological considerations to mull […]

    Pingback by Our Sins | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen — April 27, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

  6. To respond to E.D.,

    I actually was in a debate about torture with my roommate yesterday. Though he was playing Devil’s advocate for the torture side, he suggested that in Byzantium torture was allowed because “it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.” (Mark 9:47)

    Torture was used to elicit a confession, which they believed better for the soul than physical harm. While this has obvious faults, the least of which is bearing false witness against oneself if innocent, it is still a Biblical. We cannot distance ourselves from torture through Scripture alone, but need the reason of a Beccaria, Kant, or Aristotle to help us out.

    Comment by Michael E. van Landingham — April 27, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

  7. True, Michael – I suppose this is inherently the problem with citing scripture as it can always be turned against you in the end. Nevertheless, I feel that the very core aspect of Christian faith – the crucifixion, salvation – speak to the utter horror and immoral nature of torture…

    But indeed, I’d rather also have Kant and Aristotle to back me up on all of this…

    Comment by E.D. Kain — April 27, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

  8. It sounds good, but does it mean anything? It doesn’t take physical violence to make a person compromise his moral agency.

    The US government threatens me with prison if I don’t pay my taxes. I am afraid of going to prison, therefore I pay my taxes. Does that mean I have given up my moral agency? If torture is something that makes me do something I wouldn’t do of my own volition, then every government, and every form of government, is evil because it makes laws that must be obeyed on threat of punishment. As a matter of fact, one of the purposes of government is to decide how much individual “moral agency” is compatible with the general welfare.

    The question isn’t “is torture wrong” (I assume that by using a loaded word we all agree that, whatever it is, it is wrong). The question is “what constitutes torture”? I am not versed in the literature and philosophy of torture, but it is pretty clear that it involves some violence against the body. So my ears will prick up when, instead of preening about some vague “moral agency”, I hear someone explaining why waterboarding or sleep deprevation or being stuck in a small dark space with fuzzy bugs is an inherent violation of the human person, perhaps taking a riff off of JPII’s “Theology of the Body”.

    Comment by Guy Murdoch — April 27, 2009 @ 11:12 pm

  9. […] have been encouraged to see a strong chorus including  John Schwenkler, E.D. Kain, David, MEvL, and now First Things express the truth that torture is wrong. One thing that we have to […]

    Pingback by Torture and the Lies We Tell « Plumb Lines — April 28, 2009 @ 1:06 am

  10. Guy, thanks for commenting. There is a difference between a capacity for something and the effective exercise of that capacity. Sending someone to prison might be overriding an agent’s ability to exercise his capacity for moral judgment effectively, but it does not override or even diminish that capacity as such, at all. What I meant to say (and said unclearly) is that any action that overrides the very capacity of an autonomous moral agent to make moral judgments is intrinsically wrong.

    This isn’t all that’s wrong with torture, I think, just the most central problem. Truth serums, for instance, are also ruled out by this logic, and that’s as it should be, to my mind. Since torture also involves inflicting massive suffering as a means to an intrinsic evil, I suspect it’s a good deal more wrong than using a truth serum.

    This also helps us figure out what torture is. If the purpose of any action is to “break” someone, whether in immediate agony or psychologically over time, then it’s torture by my standards.

    Anyways, of course I’d also recommend philosopher Chris Tollefson’s contribution that Matthew links to in the post above.

    Comment by David Schaengold — April 28, 2009 @ 8:10 am

  11. I’d like to highlight this passage from Chris Tollefson’s piece on why torture is wrong:

    “Yet taken en masse, the range of enhanced interrogation techniques looks very much like a strategy for breaking down hardened characters bit by bit; standing naked, shackled, deprived of sleep, kept awake with cold water and loud noise, prevented from cleaning oneself after defecation, and subject to painful (though not physically damaging) slaps and disorienting smacks against a wall—and then subject to repeated waterboarding over a course of weeks or months: this looks like precisely the sort of choice described by Lee and myself (though I do not, of course, speak for Lee in drawing my conclusions), viz., the choice to disrupt an agent’s capacities for personal integrity by disrupting his control over his emotions, choices, self-awareness and self-image, connection to other human beings, and judgments.”

    Tollefson believes in the New Natural Law, so his terminology is different, but this argument runs along more or less the same grounds as mine (which isn’t actually mine, of course — it’s just the straightforward Kantian answer).

    Comment by David Schaengold — April 28, 2009 @ 9:07 am

  12. […] Much online “ink” has been spilled already on this topic, including posts by David Schaengold, E.D. Kain, Daniel Larison, and John […]

    Pingback by Torture’s Wrong, but What About Lying? « This Ringing Bell — April 28, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

  13. David, thanks for taking the time to expand on your thoughts.

    I’d like to comment more, but I find it almost impossible, in a blog, to capture the nuance necessary for such a subject. It requires beer and shouting.

    Best wishes

    Comment by Guy Murdoch — April 28, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

  14. What kind of moral agency are we respecting when we bomb civilians, accidentally or otherwise ?

    Comment by FappingMoralist — April 29, 2009 @ 8:33 am

  15. Well, in traditional just war theory you’re not allowed to intend to harm civilians at all. If you intend to harm only soldiers and you can foresee that some civilians will be harmed as well, you can take that action, but only if the harm to civilians is proportional to the good gained by the action. So, utilitarian calculus does enter in, but as a kind of subjunctive mood of moral grammar.
    Fapping Moralist, you might think this is still too minimal a standard, but I think that you’re then committed to total pacifism (which is a reasonable position in my book, to be clear). You can’t fight a war without accidentally harming some civilians.

    Comment by David Schaengold — April 29, 2009 @ 8:42 am

  16. “You can’t fight a war without accidentally harming some civilians.”

    There was nothing accidental about August 6th, 1945. For example.

    “…but only if the harm to civilians is proportional to the good gained by the action.”

    vs.

    “you can’t perform an action that is intrinsically evil in order than good may come about”

    How can you possibly reconcile those two statements ?

    Comment by FappingMoralist — April 29, 2009 @ 9:10 am

  17. “There was nothing accidental about August 6th, 1945. For example.”

    I agree entirely.

    To your second point: Harming civilians accidentally isn’t intrinsically evil, unlike harming them intentionally. If you foresee that you might harm them accidentally you have to make sure you’re not being reckless with their safety. What defines “reckless” in this case is a prudential judgment. We foresee that having an interstate highway system causes the deaths of many thousands of Americans ever year, for example, but the builders of the highway system didn’t intend those deaths, even if they foresaw them. They had to make a judgment about whether those deaths would be proportional to the good gained by having such a system

    Comment by David Schaengold — April 29, 2009 @ 9:22 am

  18. “To your second point: Harming civilians accidentally isn’t intrinsically evil”

    I think you’re leaning too hard on “accidental”. We have purposely killed civilians by the hundreds of thousands. And we rationalize those actions by telling each other that these killings were necessary to stop the greater evil of the war (or to stop communism, etc.). And yet: “you can’t perform an action that is intrinsically evil in order than good may come about”. I don’t see a way around concluding that the US has committed great evil.

    If you disagree with that, and therefore agree with the utilitarian argument that civilian massacres are sometimes necessary to end wars, then I don’t see how your statement that “you can’t perform an action that is intrinsically evil in order than good may come about” argues against torture.

    Comment by FappingMoralist — April 29, 2009 @ 9:46 am

  19. “We have purposely killed civilians by the hundreds of thousands. And we rationalize those actions by telling each other that these killings were necessary to stop the greater evil of the war (or to stop communism, etc.)”

    We sure have. Fire-bombing Dresden, strafing villages in Vietnam — it seems clear to me that these were unjust.

    Comment by David Schaengold — April 29, 2009 @ 11:46 am

  20. […] wrote some posts about torture last Spring when the whole blogosphere was talking about it, but like most bloggers I […]

    Pingback by Torture Fatigue | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen — February 24, 2010 @ 10:06 am


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