Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Moral principles

I'm mainly writing this new post because I'm tired of scrolling through over 100 comments on Red's challenge below. So please feel free to continue here other discussions started there.

In the comments, reader Matthew offers the following suggested definition as an alternative to those already offered on this blog and elsewhere:
"Torture is the unjust use of extreme mental or physical violence which degrades the human person. Examples of this would be the use of physical and mental violence against prisoners when the end is not justified, for reasons such as revenge, humiliation or to extract information from someone when their probable guilt to immediate threats to innocent human life are not at stake. This would not include proportionate means of physical and mental violence done by the State for the just purposes of self defense or for exacting retributive punishment, including Capital Punishment. Even the just use of physical and moral violence would be limited to the proportion of the crime committed in the classification of the State's right and obligation to keep the moral order and to exact retributive punishment. In the case of the State' right to protect innocents in the act of self defense, actions such as amputating limbs or taking the violence past the rational faculties can never be done."

Now, I love the first sentence of this definition. I agree with it one hundred percent. I find it concise, clear, and useful for practical application.

Then it turns consequentialist. That is to say, it stipulates that the end justifies the means. The end of preventing "immediate threats to innocent human life" allows us to "degrade the human person" of whomever happens to be in custody at the moment.

This same Matthew also asks for discussion of moral principles. So I will lay out my own understanding of foundational Catholic moral principles, which I hope will show exactly why consequentialism is a serious problem. I'll try not to be too long-winded.

First, I start where St. Thomas Aquinas started, and where the Catechism starts: with the purpose of human life. Our entire reason for being is to enter into that eternal communion with God which is usually called Heaven. In a word: happiness.

Our happiness entails acting according to our nature as God created us, and answering our supernatural call. Morality is the entire realm of human activity. A "moral" act is one that accords with nature and answers our vocation. An "immoral" act is one that is contrary to nature and/or to God's call.

Virtues are habits of action that support us in our natural and supernatural life. Vices are habits that reinforce the damage and stain of original sin, separating us from Life Himself.

Sin is a particular act that separates us, either venially or mortally, from God.

Law is a support to virtue in (at least) three ways: first, making known the order and purpose of creation, and of ourselves within it; second, warning us against acts that threaten our happiness; third, providing direct consequence for such vicious actions.

I know this is a cursory and abstract presentation, but I hope it is enough to keep the conversation moving forward.

Let me just leap over all the intervening steps and say, the reason torture is intrinsically evil is that it is impossible to degrade any human person and at the same time be acting in accordance with the nature God gave us, or the supernatural life to which he calls us. It is always and unchangeably sinful.


  1. Excellently stated, Robert, and a good way to bring the discussion back to the roots, so to speak.

    Just to reiterate something I posted below, I would say that there's a difference between saying that yes, torture is evil, but this or that act is not torture (and then further explaining, defining, etc.) and saying no, torture is not evil in every instance.

    It is possible to argue the first sincerely from a Catholic perspective, even if one is ultimately wrong (e.g., a person might argue that waterboarding is not torture, where another might argue that incarceration is, and each might be wrong). It is not possible, I think, to argue the second--that is, to say that torture is not always evil.

  2. Continuing the discussion from here.

    Matthew -

    This is the first time I have seen your argument stated so clearly. I too have not understood what you were saying until this point. So please, do not treat Red as if she were an idiot; she most certainly is not. It is simply that we have been talking past one another.

    So, to make sure I understand you clearly, you are saying that:

    A) Torture, as you define it, is indeed evil.

    B) Acts of violence by the State against criminals, i.e. persons "guilty of a present ongoing crime against innocent people (and they are materially and formally co-operating in the crime)," is never torture unless it pushes the prisoner beyond the use of reason.

    Is this correct?

  3. Red -

    Good distinction. I often lose sight of it in the heat of the argument. Thanks!

  4. Matthew's newest explication of his position is indeed helpful. But I still think there's some dodgy stuff going on, in re: "pushes the prisoner beyond the use of reason."

    Waterboarding certainly does so. Those who have experienced it when it is done for training, etc., have described the unreasoning panic which oversets them the minute the water begins flowing into their air supply--and these are people who have the ability to end the session and know they are in no danger of harm. How much more this procedure overrules reason in a person who doesn't know if his interrogators will kill him is hard to imagine.

    Sleep deprivation also deprives a person of reason--that's the whole point of it. Studies of the effects of sleep deprivation show that the longer a person goes without sleep, the more the effects are similar to intoxication (another thing which deprives a person of reason). Sleep deprivation may even play a role in severe postpartum depression, the sort where a woman irrationally lashes out against her child, causing injury or even death to the baby.

    Putting a prisoner naked or mostly naked into a cell whose temperature is in the 40s, and then dousing him repeatedly with ice-cold water, is another technique that is ordered toward depriving the prisoner of reason. Hypothermia causes confusion and disorientation by the "moderate" stage, which is certainly going to be present in a scenario like the one described; by the time hypothermia progresses to the "severe" stage, irrational behavior, amnesia, etc. are present.

    All of these techniques are designed to push a prisoner beyond the point of reason, so he will do *anything* to make the experience stop. That's why they "work," so to speak.

    I have an additional quibble with the phrase "beyond the use of reason." Few if any of the photos from Abu Ghraib showed prisoners being pushed past the point of reason. What they did show was prisoners being subjected to *moral* violence, something which is mentioned as wrong in the Catechism's definition. If we decide that the pain or suffering inflicted has to push a prisoner beyond the point of reason for it to be torture, we have pretty much declared moral violence to be fine. Placing no food but pork in front of Muslim prisoners and forcing them to choose between death by starvation and the violation of their religion would be a perfectly allowable technique, as would violations of sexual morality etc. Yet the Church condemns moral violence as well as physical, so it would seem that some criteria in addition to "beyond the use of reason" must be added.

  5. Just to reiterate something I posted below, I would say that there's a difference between saying that yes, torture is evil, but this or that act is not torture (and then further explaining, defining, etc.) and saying no, torture is not evil in every instance.

    I think you are still missing the point. Both instances depend on how torture is defined. I could agree with both statements depending upon who I was talking to. It essentially entails what one has in mind when they talk about torture. I could say that I agree with the former because I agree with the Church. I agree with the second proposition depending upon how torture is defined.

  6. Red, why do you keep forgetting the rest of the definition? Did you not remember the part that said that any physical or moral violence done unjustly is also immoral, or did you forget that part? Why do I have to keep repeating myself? I never said that that the physical or moral violence has to extend past the rational faculties only, I said that you can never take it past that point regardless, but thee is also the fact of any physical or mental violence being used against someone unjustly. That would include humiliating people in prison. I feel like I am having a conversation with a Alzheimer patient. Its like you only grab on to one part of a sentence and you forget everything else that was said.

  7. Gosh, Matthew, I know how you feel--because I still can't figure out what you're saying.

    So, let's see if we can simplify:

    1. Torture, which you define as unjust physical or moral violence, is evil.

    2. Not-torture, which is just physical violence used by just authorities for just reasons, but which can't push a prisoner past the point of reason, is not evil.

    This leads to my question: do you mean to define all moral violence as always evil? In other words, would you agree that there's no such thing as just *moral* violence that may justly be used by just authorities for just reasons? E.g., if the terrorist knows where the TTB is, you could smack him around a little (justly, and not depriving him of his use of reason) but couldn't force him to renounce Allah or eat pork? Not even if it saves untold numbers of innocent lives, etc.?

    I hope you can see where I might be confused about where you stand on this--you've already said that the just authority for just reason can use some just level of physical violence so long as it doesn't deprive the prisoner of his use of reason. So, I want to be absolutely clear as to where you think moral violence fits in to this. Would you place moral violence in the "always torture" category, or are there levels of moral violence which could be put into the "not-torture" category?

    If you think there's no such thing as "just moral violence," I would, of course, agree. But that leaves you in the position of claiming that it might be fine for just authorities for just reasons to justly beat somebody up (so long as we're not pushing him past the point of reason) but that it's NOT okay to make him violate his Islamic beliefs in some way.

  8. Just as an aside. Why are all these conversations predicated on the notion that the only form of torture is water boarding. When prisoners die from "enhanced interrogation" (some of them innocent detainees who were never charged with anything) then I think even those who are constantly assuring us of their expertise in "Thomistic thought" and sighing loudly over the rampant ignorance of the unwashed herd might suspect that just the teensiest bit of torture has occurred.

    Also, a little clue might be sparked when it is revealed that American doctors performed experiments on detainees to figure out way to torture them *without* killing them. General rule of thumb: when you force detainees to be the subject of experimentation againt their will and and tiptoe as close as you can to killing them without quite doing it, you are torturing.

    Yet still, all of Bellisario's ammo is directed toward the claim that it's practically impossible to define torture in a way that indicts our behavior and that the Magisterium basically doesn't know what it's talking about in condemning the use of torture.


  9. Matthew, I deleted your last comment. Rephrase it without insulting Mark, please. I've had enough of your bullying and condescension, and will delete any of your comments that tell people to "go away" or otherwise insult them.

  10. I am tired of having people put words in my mouth Red, get a grip on your people.

  11. Oh, good Lord. "My people?" That's just...hysterically funny, actually.

    Matthew, nobody's putting words in your mouth. Mark didn't even say that *you* were talking about waterboarding. For someone who insults everyone here for not reading him properly, you sure don't seem to read anyone else's actual comments.

    I'd like to address this, which Mark wrote: "Yet still, all of Bellisario's ammo is directed toward the claim that it's practically impossible to define torture in a way that indicts our behavior and that the Magisterium basically doesn't know what it's talking about in condemning the use of torture."

    I would agree with Mark. Your definition leaves the idea of what is just and what is unjust up to the person engaging in the physical violence. Are you willing to take the U.S. Government's word that it has never ever tortured anybody, because, of course, the force used was just and the cause was just and the guys we did stuff to justly deserved it, etc.?

    You say you're just talking about principles. Well, according to your principle *no one* can say whether an act is torture or not until after it happens (e.g., after the person being "not-tortured" suddenly loses his use of reason, at which point, oops, we tortured him). Somehow I don't think St. Thomas would be all that happy with that...

  12. I could care less what you or Mark thinks. I never said it was impossible to define torture, and anyone who says that I hold to that position is a liar.

  13. Red:

    Guide me!


    Learn to read. And grow up. I didn't say you claimed it impossible to define tortture. What I said was ""Yet still, all of Bellisario's ammo is directed toward the claim that it's practically impossible to define torture in a way that indicts our behavior and that the Magisterium basically doesn't know what it's talking about in condemning the use of torture."

    The combination of your hissy attitude, your condescension, and your urgent drive to justify all the actual torture that has taken place is repulsive.

  14. Okay, Matthew, your last comment really did cross the line for the final time: simultaneously demanding an apology from Mark while slinging some calumny in his direction. You are a bully, and I'm done dealing with you. Go muck up your own sandbox--you're not welcome here anymore. Clearly you're not interested in discussing anything--so bye now.

  15. You just did that because you were wriggling in the crushing grip of logic, Red. You're running scared and you know it! All torture opponents know that, at the end of the day, the Church doesn't *really* oppose drowning, beating, suffocating, experimenting on and ocassionally murdering US detainees. So long as the Church permits the death penalty it is self-contradictory to say she prohibits torture, even when she says she does.

  16. Mark: :)

    Hey, Matthew did call you one of "my people," you know. Does that make the Dark Lord...one of MY minions?


    Kidding aside, I'm sorry I had to take that step with Matthew. But the conversation had clearly deteriorated, and nothing new was being said anyway. To be fair, Matthew never actually *said* he thought the U.S. Government was in the right to be using "enhanced interrogation" techniques on detainees--but I have to reject the principle that says that torture is evil, but something that involves pain and suffering (just not the kind that makes you irrational) which we can call "not-torture" is fine.

  17. I've been thinking about this, and what I've got so far is that there are some who defend either torture, or "not-torture," or enhanced interrogation, or whatever the Euphemism of the Day might be this way: "I want to hurt you not out of hatred or cruelty or evil desires, but only so that you will give up the information you justly owe me so I can save lives." The problem with that kind of thinking is NOT that the motivation to save lives or to punish the guilty is unjust. The problem is that "I want to hurt you..." is always and everywhere a statement of the will to do what is evil.

    It doesn't matter if you twist it so that you are saying, "I don't want to hurt you, but you leave me no choice, etc." or "I don't really want to hurt you, but I *have* to hurt you so the TTB doesn't go off and kill the whole city," etc. You are still giving the consent of the will to the action, "Now I will hurt you, because..." etc.

    Does this mean that every willful infliction of pain = torture? No, because the infliction of pain *can* be ordered toward the salutary benefit of the one on whom pain is being inflicted. A shot in the back during childbirth is painful (trust me!) but that pain is momentary compared to the relief from pain that will come if the medicines work properly. Staying after school for detention might be painful in some ways, too--but the intent is also medicinal, the correction of behavior for the benefit of the student. In no case does the doctor or the teacher begin by saying "I want to hurt you..." etc. There is no will to cause pain, even if pain is caused.

    This is what I think all the torture (enhanced interrogation, not-torture, etc.) defenders miss. When pain is inflicted upon a prisoner to make him give information, the pain is chosen without regard as to what is good for the prisoner. A doctor who chose to use painful methods on his patients when painless ones would work would be sued out of business; a teacher who is cruel to his students because he enjoys his power over them is breaking the moral law. But an interrogator who acquiesces in the use of pain against his prisoner agrees that his prisoner is an object, that he is to be used to produce information, and that the pain and suffering that will be inflicted on him is being chosen for its own sake, not merely allowed as a "side-effect" of some truly good purpose.

    The only remotely possible way the Church could see the infliction of pain as something that might be good for a prisoner would be if the pain was part of a punishment that was ordered toward the prisoner's rehabilitation(e.g., no information, no interrogation etc.)--and yet the Church has *specifically* closed that possible "loophole" in the Catechism, by listing the punishment of the guilty as one of the things for which we may not torture!

    Even in punishment, then, the pain must not be willed for its own sake, but can exist only as a "side-effect" of a legitimate punishment--e.g., a prisoner's sore muscles from doing some mandatory and necessary work inside the prison complex would not be torture, while beating him for not working fast enough or hard enough would be.

    It seems to me that we may not choose to cause pain--that it is the deliberate and willful choice to hurt someone that forms the basis of the evil act. It's like mothers tell their children: hurting someone on purpose for no good reason is always, always wrong. Hurting someone accidentally, or with good reason (bumping into one's baby sister, perhaps, or shoving one's baby sister away from the hot stove, not meaning for her to fall but trying to keep her from placing a hand on the glowing burner) is not the same thing as hurting someone on purpose. We may use the same word, "hurting," but we're describing two different kinds of actions.

  18. And I should just clarify that what mothers mean by "good reason" is that the good is for the benefit of the person who suffers the pain--thus, pushing your sister away from a hot stove is good because it is good *for her*, but pushing your sister to get her to tell you where she hid your toy which she justly owes you and to which you have a right is bad.

    Children learn this distinction. I think adults can, too.

  19. That's just beautiful, Red. I wish I could have said it so clearly myself!

  20. "This is what I think all the torture (enhanced interrogation, not-torture, etc.) defenders miss. When pain is inflicted upon a prisoner to make him give information, the pain is chosen without regard as to what is good for the prisoner."

    Coming late to this conversation and perhaps this has been answered already, but how is the death penalty for the good of the prisoner?

  21. Phillip, the way I'd look at it is this: all punishment has at least a twofold purpose, the restoration of order (which implies the protection of the innocent) and the repentance/rehabilitation of the one being punished.

    Though I do believe that the death penalty should only be resorted to rarely, if at all, the idea of the death penalty does not interfere with this twofold purpose. The prisoner retains the ability to repent, and some argue that the imminence of death may actually be a help to this process of repentance and rehabilitation.

    Now, the prisoner may still not choose to repent, just as a child being punished may not apologize even when he faces further penalty for not doing so. But the process is *ordered* toward that penitence and rehabilitation nonetheless.

    Torture is not ordered toward a prisoner's repentance or rehabilitation--it is ordered toward getting what the torturer wants out of him.

    I plan to put up a post later today going into some of these issues, for those who are interested.

  22. Though the church allows the death penalty not for punishement (which implies rehabilitation) but for the defense of society. In fact, in the first edition of the Catechism, the Church did accept the death penalty as punishment and thus perhaps as a means of rehab as you note. But now, in its revision, it has its purpose (solely?) for the purpose of defense.

  23. See, Philip, I keep saying that, too! :) But every time I do, I get lectured as to how we can't just go by the Catechism, and the Church has always allowed the death penalty as a just punishment, etc.

    I do understand (I think) that the reason the State can resort to the death penalty is that the State can justly punish people up to and including death--at least, historically, that's what the Church appears to have taught. But I find the death penalty a complicated issue, and at the very least think it ought to be extremely rare.

    The way I'd parse this for now is to say that even though the Catechism speaks of the death penalty as valid only when necessary for the defense of society, it is still always going to be a punishment for the individual involved--that is, the State may justly be *choosing* the death penalty only to protect society, but at its core a death sentence is a punishment for the person who is going to be executed.

    Does that make sense? I don't mind discussing this further, as I'm admittedly not terribly well-versed in this issue.

  24. "See, Philip, I keep saying that, too! :) But every time I do, I get lectured as to how we can't just go by the Catechism, and the Church has always allowed the death penalty as a just punishment, etc."

    Though one runs into a problem there if one is quoting the Catechism (and other Church documents) to say that torture is wrong. Especially since the Church has in the past allowed torture - even if not formally endorsed.

    Some argue that the change in the Catechism (and it is a change as I noted above) is a development in doctrine. Just as the prohibition of torture would seem to be a development of doctrine.

  25. Perhaps one way to look at the difference:


  26. Some argue that the change in the Catechism (and it is a change as I noted above) is a development in doctrine.

    The Apostolic Constitution promulgating the Catechism pretty much states outright both (1) the Catechism's Apostolic authority, and (2) that it contains developments of doctrine.

    On (1):
    "The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I approved 25 June last and the publication of which I today order by virtue of my Apostolic Authority, is a statement of the Church's faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the Church's Magisterium. I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion."

    On (2):
    "This catechism will thus contain both the new and the old (cf. Mt 13:52), because the faith is always the same yet the source of ever new light."

    Furthermore, the Catechism expressly addresses the history of the Church's juridical involvement in torture:

    "2298 In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors."

    Much of the dissent on the issue of torture comes from Catholics who put their politics before their faith. But a theological source of dissent seems to come from traddish hermeneutic-of-discontinuity types who are reluctant to grant the Apostolic authority that the Pope expressly invoked in promulgating the Catechism, because to do so would be to fully accept a hermeneutic of continuity. In other words, the Magisterium of today simply does not have the authority, in the eyes of these kinds of trads, as the Magisterium of yesterday; and since saying that outright it objectionable, it is argued that trying to interpret the befuddling Magisterium of today is hopeless. Instead of effort in making sense of the Magisterium, effort is expended to make nonsense of the Magisterium.

    While progressives prejudicially privilege the present over the past in the pursuit of pelvic perogatives, trads tend to entitle tradition tantamount to transforming torture into a trustworthy taught tenet. The fact that the pertinent Magisterial documents were (for the most part) issued in the modern era by Pope John Paul II means they are invalid, or at best hopelessly confused enough that they can be discounted.

  27. trads tend to entitle tradition tantamount to transforming torture into a trustworthy taught tenet.

    Totally true and alliterative, trooper.

  28. I suspect I was wrong the last time I was here, I highly doubt the specific difference of torture is irrationality caused by violence. I suspect it's much closer to the distinction between mud and very wet dirt.

    Given that torture is an intrinsic evil, I don't see how it could not have an immediately recognizable specific difference, but the transition appears to have the character of a quality such as slowly adding water to dirt to where at some point the dirt becomes mud.