Plumb Lines

April 28, 2009

Torture and the Lies We Tell

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 1:06 am

Writing in Public Discourse (of which I am managing editor) Christopher Tollefsen, a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, says that our nation’s decision to torture may have come in part from to a false and narrow idea of what health is:

Effectively, we have here entered the realm of the larger sense of health: the subject’s health in the larger sense sometimes designated “personal integrity”—a coordinated functioning of the various capacities and psychic subconditions necessary for person’s integrity in the moral sense—would have been so compromised that he is no longer fully, and in some cases even partly, in control of his actions. At this point, he might feel compelled to say what he knows, not because he desires to avoid further damage, but precisely because he is already so damaged.

This kind of damage to health, broadly construed, might well be incurred without significant, or noticeable, physical damage. And it might be compatible with an eventual return to more or less full psycho-somatic functioning in the future (as are many other forms of damage to health). So the moral wrongness of either form of action—intending to damage the integrity of another so as to provide a motive for confession, or so as to break down that subject and induce confession—might be obscured, especially if an overly physical or bodily conception of health were governing our considerations.

I 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 need to avoid at this point is imputing bad motives to torture advocates; when we do so we cease to do the important work of figuring out how so many well-intentioned people ended up supporting an abominable practice. As recent debates have shown, torture advocates used the ends to justify the means. But this justification was only part of the story, because the advocates never full acknowledged the moral reality, the evil, of what they were doing. They didn’t say, “I will do a profoundly evil thing to avert a massive loss of life.” They still felt the need to find a difference between what they were doing and torture. They said, “This isn’t torture, it’s just advanced interrogation.” Had they been unable to falsely describe what they were doing, the argument would have fallen apart.

Matthew Schmitz



  1. Matt,
    Rick almost outed you for the right-wing Catholic torture apologist that you really are!: Thankfully, he cloaks it with sarcasm, takes a swipe at Sullivan, and all is well with the world.

    Comment by P. Langdale Hough — April 28, 2009 @ 9:22 am

  2. “One thing that we need to avoid at this point is imputing bad motives to torture advocates.”

    Why? Supposing the purpose of all this publication and commentary is ascertaining the historical record with better clarity, isn’t it just as harmful to an honest, thorough investigation to assume good intentions prior to studying the evidence, as you do, as to “impute bad motives,” as you criticize?

    I say this because with so much discussion in the media and blogosphere, one of the several narratives taking shape is that torture methods were used excessively on detainees in situations where the interrogators were not sure that much more worthwhile information was to be had, because of pressure from above to build a stronger case for the connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda. In 2003, the existence of this connection was one of the central justifications for invasion.

    This theory – which certainly falls into the category of “bad motives” – is persuasive, but the question of whether it is confirmed or rejected depends on what further evidence comes out. If everyone donned the blinders you suggest, it would never be answered.

    Comment by Matt Drecun — April 29, 2009 @ 5:48 am

  3. Well said, Matt. The point I was trying to make–which I think you would agree with–is that we must at the outset have a presumption of good intentions. If the evidence shows that they had evil intentions all along, we should by all means follow it. I also do not want to rule out a bipartisan effort at prosecutions or of somehow achieving truth and reconciliation. Of course, neither of these things is very likely to happen.

    Comment by Matthew Schmitz — April 29, 2009 @ 8:28 am

  4. We should avoid imputing motives except when guided by overwhelming evidence, because such imputations are too often wrong, misleading, and unnecessary.

    We aren’t mind-readers, after all.

    And the strong statements about torture that we should be making don’t require us to demonise torture advocates; that even when torturers are well-meaning good guys, on our side, doing it for all the “right” reasons–

    that torture is *still* wrong.

    Comment by Adrian L. Charles — May 3, 2009 @ 10:54 am

  5. We should not presume that torture advocates proceed from bad motives, but then neither should we proceed from the assumption that their motives were good or well-intentioned.

    So many well-intentioned people advocate for torture. They are the torturers. They are here to help.

    What is wrong with that logic?

    Let us not assume that people are well-intentioned just because they are Americans commanding a large military.

    Let us not substitute the squishy self-justification of claims to good intentions for the more relevant questions about context. The context was more important than the goodness of the intention behind the decision to waterboard Zubaydah and KSM.

    What was the context of the war in Iraq and its justification by claiming links to Al Qaeda, which seems increasingly to have been the subject of the questioning under torture?

    What was the context surrounding the 73rd and 112th waterboarding session of these prisoners, respectively?

    Those questions about context are far more important than isolated attention to proclamations of good intent.

    Comment by patriot games — May 3, 2009 @ 11:59 am

  6. […] Culpable Ignorance Via Andrew, Matthew Schmitz of Plumb Lines doesn’t think we should be imputing bad motives to torture advocates: … when we do so we cease to do the important work of figuring out how so many well-intentioned […]

    Pingback by Torture, Bad Faith, and Culpable Ignorance « Upturned Earth — May 3, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

  7. To not impune the people who are not apologetic for an evil act regardless of the motive would be evil itself no?They need to be shown as the depraved,shameless,sociopaths that they are.I have had many arguments on different blogs and with people who are PRO-TORTURE and the level of bloodlust and sadism has been disgusting and frightening.The irony is how many of these cretins call themselves christians.

    Comment by truthynesslover — May 3, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

  8. I don’t care one bit what motivates a person to torture someone, or to egg on others to do the evil deed. I also don’t care what motivates rapists and pedophiles to inflict harm on others. The act is vile and so are those who do it.

    Those plangent cries of foul from torture apologists are proof that the truth hurts. Deal with it.

    Comment by Jelperman — May 3, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

  9. […] Matthew Schmitz, on the other hand, thinks we should not shut down debate on motives: […]

    Pingback by A Good Idea at the Time « Just Above Sunset — May 4, 2009 @ 2:13 am

  10. […] Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 2:45 pm After Andrew Sullivan highlighted my post on why we should not impute bad motives to torture advocates, John Schwenkler had a thoughtful and […]

    Pingback by Are “We” Guilty of Torture? « Plumb Lines — May 4, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

  11. […] M&#97&#116&#116hew Schmitz, on the other hand, thinks we should n&#111&#116&#32shut down debate on motives: […]

    Pingback by A Good Idea at the Time | freda lewis hall — May 5, 2009 @ 4:20 am

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