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.