Torture, Part 2

A guy named Joe, responds to this post on torture, at “You don’t really need to read this“. Be that as it may, I nevertheless read it. I appreciate his comments, accusations of naivete notwithstanding. The title of his post seems to imply that he has been through this before. I will no doubt benefit from his wisdom, then. As I have said in the first post, I am attempting to come to terms with the Church’s teaching on torture, and I appreciate Joe’s help in getting there. I know no better way to respond than to…respond. My comments will be interspersed within Joe’s text.

The entry discusses the Church’s stance on torture and the author sums it up thusly:
‘This paragraph, Veritatis Splendor 80, makes very clear what the Church’s current teaching is. Namely, “physical and mental torture” is “always” “intrinsically evil”. Period. End of story.’
Except that it doesn’t and it’s not (the end of the story). There’s two really big problems with the above statement. One is that torture is not defined here, and without a definition, a ban on torture is meaningless.

Firstly, I would note that it seems to fly in the face of the purpose of a teaching document of the Church to state that a particular action is intrisically evil, of all things, if the Church thinks that providing that teaching will be meaningless to the people on the street. Obviously, the Church expects someone to be able to do something with the teaching, otherwise she wouldn’t teach it. Secondly, I would note that, though there may be actions of an uncertain nature that would require a philosophically precise definition to readily ascertain whether they are torture or not, there do remain certain actions that are quite clearly torture. For at least those actions, I am confident that Joe would reject them as intrinsically evil. Now. What about those gray areas? Is it really true that there exists no definition of torture? Certainly, the Church hasn’t provided one. But the Church does seem to lead us to places like the Geneva Conventions for a better understanding of what does and does not constitute torture:

Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes… (CCC 2313)

The question becomes, these Conventions have been sufficient for at least the last 50 years, so why is it all of a sudden that we simply cannot know what is and isn’t torture? True, I don’t know the contents of those Conventions (and I don’t need to, thankfully), but the people in the field whose responsibility it is to interrogate prisoners certainly do. Why cannot those regulations govern what is and is not torture, those actions being intrinsically evil?

I know some of you will probably get grumpy with me for that, but I’ll address this whole issue in a minute. The other problem with the statement becomes apparent if you read all of Veritatis Splendor 80. VS 80 quotes “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object” and gives some examples: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit…” Do you see the problem? VS 80 is, by the blog author’s interpretation, saying that homicide of any kind is wrong, independent of the circumstances. Now, if you look up homicide in the dictionary you will find a definition like this: “a killing of one human being by another” and I can think of many possible scenarios in which killing another human being would not only be moral, but a moral imperative. So, either Veritatis Splendor is very much wrong, or the “common sense” interpretation of VS 80 is wrong. Thus I would, and do, object to any naive interpretation of the Veritatis Splendor statements on torture.

Maybe Paul will get grumpy. That guy has a real temper problem 🙂 But not your naive interlocutor. Using your definition of homicide as a starting point, first I will note that common law seems to regard “homicide” as a malum in se crime, that is, wrong in itself. Which is, actually, pretty close to the definition of “intrinsically evil”. I would argue that, yes, what VS 80 appears to be saying, it is, in fact, saying. Homicide is intrinsically evil. There are certainly circumstances where the killing of another person can be justified, but that would seem to fall primarily under the law of double effect. I confess that the only example I can think of is legitimate self-defense, in war or in peace, in which the object of the action is not actually homicide, but defense of the good of one’s life, with a secondary unintended effect of killing the aggressor. And even in the case of self-defense, our killing of the aggressor, if disproportionate to the actual threat, is intrinsically evil. Capital punishment is clearly not homicide, so that’s not a valid example. I welcome any attention to any holes or flat-out errors in anything I have said so far, or will say.

The author does, eventually, address the issue of the definition of torture, but he pulls his definition from a different source, the Catechism. The Catechism says this, “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity” (CCC 2297).

I retain the right to alter my views at any time, because, as I say I am trying to come to an understanding of the Church. My own view is of no consequence. I certainly did imply that the above quote of the CCC is a definition of torture, but, to be honest, I can’t even remember if I thought it was or not. To be clear, I do not think that the Church is here trying to define torture. Like I said earlier, I think the Church sends us to people who are qualified for that definition.

If we take this as the definition of torture and combine it with the prohibition on torture from VS as the author of the blog seems to, we run into a whole myriad of new issues. The first is that I don’t have a clue what “moral violence” is and I defy anyone reading this to give me a good definition.

Good point. I have no idea what “moral violence” would entail, but I note that the United Nations Human Rights Committee uses the term as if the people who need to know what it means know what it means. In other words, it’s not just some piece of post-Vatican 2 techno-speak mumbo-jumbo. It is a phrase that has a meaning. That you or I do not know what it means does not mean that nobody knows what it means. More to the point, it is thoroughly unimportant if we know what it means, though it is crucial for interrogators to know what it means, lest they end up torturing someone by accident. But I think the Church’s teaching that prisoners should be treated humanely and with respect would, de facto, rule out the possibility of someone slipping on a banana peel and accidentally torturing someone.

The second is the idea that violence cannot be used to punish the guilty. This prohibition would outlaw spanking a child, cracking a ruler over a child’s knuckles, or hard labor as punishment but more importantly it would outlaw the very act of incarceration. Unless, of course, we use a definition of violence which does not include the forceful confinement of individuals against their will.

I actually read this quote differently. I don’t think it says what Joe says it says (!). Let’s clear away the chaff. “Torture which uses physical violence to punish the guilty is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.” Maybe we can clear away even more chaff. “Torture to punish the guilty is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.” Torture, including the physically violent kind, may not be used as a means of punishment. Rather, other forms of punishment should be sought, which do not constitute torture. I am going to hazard a guess here, being unfamiliar with the Conventions, that spanking a child, cracking a child’s knuckles, hard labor and incarceration do not constitute torture. I think trying to equivocate just punishments with torture is to lead the conversation down a rabbit hole.

Now. Saying that “torture may not be used as a means of punishment” invites the question, what may it be used for? But that answer has already been answered by VS 80, when it refers to torture as intrinsically evil. The answer is: nothing.

The third issue is that this definition does not address the question that’s been at the heart of our debates: Is it moral to inflict physical and/or mental violence upon a guilty individual in order to obtain information from him that would allow one to remove the imminent threat that he poses to innocent individuals?

If according to the Geneva Conventions, and other bodies of information that interrogators have been using for the last 50 years, such “violence” constitutes torture, then the answer is: no. Behind these questions seems to lurk the idea that some amount of violence is necessary to extract information from a person. And maybe it is. It does seem that it might get someone some information, but whether it’s real information or not is another question. And furtermore, we don’t know until after the fact, if ever, whether the person had information. And many times we don’t even know if they are a threat. This seems like another reason to avoid violence. But that is an argument from utilitarianism, and I will drop it. Certainly, we need the information to protect the common good. But why, again, are the Geneva Conventions of no use anymore? Why is it that people suddenly don’t know what torture is? I submit that the answer is that more people are now thinking about torture, for reasons that need no explanation. The people who need to know specifically what does and does not constitute torture have always known what it is and still do know what it is. The trouble is, they’re off somewhere in some secret detainee camp. Which means that all the people engaged in the “torture conversation” are akin to baseball players commenting on neurosurgery. As neurosurgeons, they make good baseball players. As an interrogator, I make a good toxicologist. But the people who need to know do know what is torture. And the Church protects their souls by reminding them that such acts are intrinsically evil.

For the rest of us, whose day-to-day lives do not generally bring with them much opportunity for things like waterboarding, I submit that the Golden Rule will guide us with sufficient precision to steer us clear of the danger of mortal sin.

I’ll give props to the author for bringing together pretty much all the information I’ve seen from the Church on torture, but I take issue with his conclusions.

Hey, I’ll take props anyday. Thanks.

I also take particular issue with this comment: “It’s not about a list of things you can or can’t do. Rather, it’s about loving your neighbor.” I don’t like this comment because it’s a cop out

It seems that would more appropriately be taken up with the quote’s original speaker.

but more importantly I don’t like it because I think it’s the wrong attitude. How can one love one’s neighbor without first making an earnest effort to know how to love.

Seems to me that’s what this endeavor is all about. And I think I made that quite clear in the original post.

Certainly understanding the correct position on many of the issues that we face as Catholics is difficult, but that doesn’t mean we just give up. Our command, our duty on this Earth is to know, love and serve. Notice that ‘know’ comes first.

Certainly. Hopefully this post will act as a reinforcer that I have, contrary to claims, not given up.


~ by Rob on November 2, 2006.

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