Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Comic book apologetics

One of the things I've noticed in my encounters with Catholics who either a) aren't sure waterboarding is torture, b) aren't sure torture is evil, or c) both, is that they're rather fond of concocting ridiculously implausible or downright impossible scenarios in a game of "gotcha!" aimed at those who say that torture is evil and that waterboarding is torture.

An example of this is going on in the comments below this post. Here's what the anonymous poster originally had to say:

Red,

what would you do if a terrorsist group had your children captive with the threat of being killed, and you had one of those terrorists in your possession and he knew where your children were but he wasn't telling.

What would you do to that terrorist?

My response:

Well, Anonymous, since I'm a 5'2" tall woman who is only in shape if we consider "round" a shape, I certainly hope I'd have the good sense to hand the terrorist over to the proper authorities.

Having done that, I would then duck out to the nearest retail department store's dressing room (since phone booths are no longer even remotely private) and change into my secret superhero costume, at which point I would apply my broad array of superpowers to rescue my children, thwart the terrorists, solve health care and save the economy before returning to my disguise as a mild-mannered and out-of-shape Catholic blogger.

Which is about as likely as my children ever winding up in the hands of terrorists in the first place.

The conversation continues, and at present the anonymous poster is quite distressed, because no one who has engaged him has, apparently, the proper male reproductive organs (his criteria for a qualified answer, not mine) to give him the answer he apparently thinks is the only one that makes sense, which is that of course any decent Catholic God-fearing red-blooded American would not only waterboard such an impossibly fictional creation, but also rape him, burn off his fingers or genitals, make an incision in his abdomen and allow trained vultures to feast on his living entrails, dismember his five-year-old in front of him, or whatever else was necessary to force this expletive deleted to give up the location of my or anyone else's innocent children (because of course Al Qaeda is known for their habit of kidnapping the children of almost completely unknown Catholic bloggers and rigging them up to the Ticking Time Bomb/Doomsday Device of the hour).

That the anonymous poster apparently imagines all of these horrors taking place in my innocuous suburban living room is, I'm afraid, an appeal to the worst side of my sense of humor. I'm looking around wondering where exactly we ought to put the torture-table, and whether the cat would mind his climbing tower being pushed aside to make room for a sinister collection of the instruments of torture, and whether my statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary ought to be relocated lest it become spattered with the blood and bile of this helpless fictional evil dude whom the anonymous poster is so terribly certain I'd torture mercilessly given half the chance.

The sad thing is that the logic here is so twisted. It goes like this:

1. Sure, in our safe everyday world, we have the luxury of saying that torture is evil.
2. But out there in the real world, real men, with real-man reproductive parts, are torturing the expletive deleteds who want to kill us all, saving our lives by the countless thousands, and in their place we'd do the same thing.
3. Therefore, torture must not be evil. Because we wouldn't want to do it if it were.

The truth is that morality is never determined by what we would or would not do or want to do in various bizarre hypothetical situations. It's not even determined by what we would or would not do in various real-world situations. To take a very obvious example, a whole lot of people violate the sixth commandment through acts like fornication or adultery. Others would like to violate this commandment this way if given the chance. But saying, "Hey, but what you do if you were stranded on a desert island with a beautiful and uninhibited supermodel who was terribly grateful to you for saving her life?" doesn't in any way make fornication (or adultery, as the case might be) any less morally evil, even if the person being asked the question would have to admit that under those circumstances chastity would be a pretty difficult struggle.

And if some terrorist group had my children, and I'd somehow managed to track down one of them and kidnap him all by myself and then called Mark Shea and Sean Dailey and Tom at Disputations and a half-dozen other anti-torture types to come on over and help me out, I can't say for certain that all of us would virtuously avoid treating the terrorist inhumanely. Heck, just kidnapping the guy and not calling the police would already be a couple of major sins, not to mention extremely reckless and quite likely to put my children in graver danger, etc. But scenarios like that properly belong in comic books, where the impossibly evil is fought triumphantly by the superhumanly good on a daily basis.

The trouble with Doomsday Weapon/Ticking Time Bomb/Innocent Kidnapped Children scenarios is that they want to bend the real, every-day rules of morality on the grounds of absurdly impossible situations--and then to keep the kink in the morality in situations that are normal and everyday. But that's making Eve's old bargain with evil, seeing it as situationally good so long as we can convince ourselves that God didn't really mean what He said about good and evil. It's a game people play every day, with issues ranging from abortion (where the impossible scenario might a single mother of four for whom another pregnancy would be fatal who has been raped by an HIV-positive criminal and who is now carrying anencephalic twins) to torture (where the many variations of the Jack Bauer ticking-time-bomb world-about-to-end scenarios will make perfectly sane and rational people insist that if the only way we can get the terrorist to talk is by murdering his two-year-old in front of him, why, then, we owe it to humanity to do exactly that).

But the most Real Man Who ever came among us asks, " For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?" That question doesn't become any less relevant just because we've concocted a ridiculously impossible comic-book scenario in which we must commit a terribly grave sin in order to save the world.

UPDATE: Greater thinkers than I have covered this ground before; go and read!

A Real Bomb

Certain Challenges

Hypothetical Sin and Pure Evil

11 comments:

  1. If I may, A Real Bomb and Certain Challenges are my main contributions on this question.

    Also, Zippy has an ancient post, Hypothetical Sin and Pure Evil, that challenges "what would you do?" questions from a moral perspective.

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  2. Thanks! I've updated the post to include these.

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  3. What is worse sin or death? These questions always seem to assume that death is worse than the sin committed. That we can offend God and sin against human dignity just as long as the situation is desperate enough.

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  4. "The conversation continues, and at present the anonymous poster is quite distressed, because no one who has engaged him has, apparently, the proper male reproductive organs (his criteria for a qualified answer, not mine) to give him the answer he apparently thinks is the only one that makes sense, which is that of course any decent Catholic God-fearing red-blooded American would not only waterboard such an impossibly fictional creation, but also rape him, burn off his fingers or genitals, make an incision in his abdomen and allow trained vultures to feast on his living entrails, dismember his five-year-old in front of him"

    wow Erin, that's not true. Go back and read what I said. You're comletely missing my point. I'm trying to put you in a position of making these kinds of descisions, I'm not saying that you will find yourelf in this position. Government officials (especially in a time of war, quite often do). Does everybody have to agree on this blog? Can other ask questions without moderators replying with snarky, sarcastic posts.

    You people play dirty here. Go to confession.

    Steven Dube

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  5. I apologize if it seems like I was playing dirty, Steven, but I should tell you that I wasn't only responding to what you wrote.

    The scenario where I was told that it would be morally fine to murder a terrorist's two-year-old in front of him occurred in a comment thread under a post I wrote for the Creative Minority Report blog last week. The comments about "doing whatever it takes" including "minor" amputations come from self-proclaimed Christians at a conservative website I sometimes visit (though I don't participate there). I am guilty of associating you with these other people and of hyperbole, for which I hope you'll forgive me.

    But you must see that this is where this kind of hypothetical end-of-the-world situation ends up. If you are the man in the room full of people all bent on extracting the truth from a terrorist, and you say, "No, we can waterboard him or punch him or slap him around, but we can't do any of those other things," then I guarantee you that suddenly you're going to be the one on the defensive. "Why not?" some of these people will say, as they hint that you lack some sort of qualification to make the really tough decisions.

    That's why it's so important to get this right, and to make sure that we put the line against torture in the right place. I've come to believe that there's no more such a thing as "a little bit of torture" as there is "a little bit pregnant."

    You are more than welcome to continue to post here and to disagree; I respect you for trying to work all of this out. Where you are today, I was myself not so many years ago.

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  6. Ok thanks for explaining.

    Steven

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  7. "You people play dirty here. Go to confession"

    I wonder if I will find myself in line behind our official US Government torturers?

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

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  8. "I wonder if I will find myself in line behind our official US Government torturers?"

    Let's hope, for thier soul's sake, that you do find them there.

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  9. A while back, someone put a clever twist on these "torture, or your children get it" scenarios. The kidnapper of your wife and children is a beautiful woman who says she will reveal their location if you commit adultery with her. Otherwise, you and your family will be killed. What do you do?

    One reader remarked that he asked his wife: "Let us all die."

    There is a bit of dishonor in making these scenarios personal, and in a way illuminates the parallels between torture defenses and abortion defenses. You will notice that abortionists don't like to talk about the act of taking a pair of forceps and dismembering an innocent human beings. They would rather talk about the shortcomings of people who protest that this act is wrong. So we hear lots of gas about how if we were really pro-life, we'd do x and believe y. "How many children are YOU willing to adopt? and what not. Same with torture. It's "Let's put these anti-torture people in a scenario with maximum temptation to torture and if they fail, that proves torture is acceptable." Nonsense.

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  10. Of course we do have direct scenarios with KSM waterboarding and gaining information that directly resulted in saving lives. Waterboarding him 100 times saved lives.

    You guys seem to want to keep saying that enhanced interrogation does not work but it has worked. Cheney asked Barry to go ahead and release the information on what we got from KSM that saved lives but Barry has not done it yet. Too busy setting up a civilian trial in NYC. Oh yeah, got his hat handed to him on that stupid move.

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  11. RE: KSM

    So far no human being who was actaully present during the torture of KSM or video or audio recording have surfaced. We rely on professional politicla pundits, who claims to have interviwed our official US Government torturers, for teh wonderful news tha tthe torture of KSM saved teh day just like in a Jack Bauer movie.

    However there are a couple of things wrong with the KSM saga. The PAK ISI claimed to have killed him in 2002. Then, 6-months later, in 2003 the same PAK ISA claims it captured him...this time alive. KSM, or someone else, gets handed over to the official US Government torturers. KSM, or someone else, under torture admits to every major terrorist incident over the past 20-years. And, in so doing, gives legal cover to the real perpetrators.

    There is not an intelligence service in the world which trains its officers that torture, as an interrogation tool, is effective

    BTW the U.S. Department of Defense prohibits so called EIT's as illegal and counter productive; or in your terms - they do not work.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

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