Monday, June 21, 2010

New topic, old news: Pius XII and bioethics

Our reader Matthew pointed me toward an address given by Pope Pius XII to a group of psychologists and neuroscientists a-way back in 1952. In that address, the Holy Father proposes to
draw your attention to the limits of this field-not the limits of medical possibilities, of theoretical and practical medical knowledge, but the limits of moral rights and duties. ... We would like to set forth briefly the essential principles which permit an answer to be given to this question. (Emphasis in the original)

He distinguishes very clearly between the role of the Church and the role of doctors: the doctors are medical experts, and are responsible for the final judgment in particular cases. But the Church is the moral expert, providing the principles by which such a judgment can properly be made.

He also makes it clear that, just because the doctors possess moral expertise and even authority to make such judgments, their judgments are not infallible. They themselves must face a higher Judge who looks into the heart.

I wish I had time to comment on this address thoroughly, but for the present I will merely recommend it to anyone with questions about bioethical matters. While I'm not a big fan of "deontological" language, his presentation is clear and comprehensive. It forms an excellent foundation for all sorts of questions.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Two questions

With the firing squad execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner less than two hours away, I want to ask two questions here:

1. Does the execution of Mr. Gardner meet the conditions specified in the Catechism for the use of the death penalty?

2. Is the use a firing squad today "cruel and unusual" as a method of execution?

Comment thread open for discussion.

UPDATE: Comments now closed.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thinking out loud

I'm thinking out loud in this post, so please bear with me.

Yesterday I started to think about the similarities and differences between parental punishment of children and the State's legitimate punishment of offenders. While there are, of course, important differences, some of the principles are the same: parents may not be cruel or abusive, the punishment, to be effective, ought to be suitable to the offense, and the punishment should have a twofold purpose: to restore order, and to provide the opportunity for the child to repent and be "rehabilitated" from his infraction.

To look at an example, suppose a child is playing with several other children and begins behaving badly (snatching toys away, pushing, yelling etc.). The mother enters the room, and conducts a sort of "mini trial," in which the infraction is investigated, blame assigned, and the guilty party identified. She then "sentences" the naughty child to sit on a chair by himself in another room for a specific period of time. He does not wish to do this--but he complies, knowing that the punishment will be worse if he does not. When his time of "incarceration" is over he returns to the game, and now the choice is his: to play by the rules and behave himself, or to act up again and risk further punishment.

Now, while the arrest and imprisonment of a grown man or woman is different in many ways, you still have a just authority, a trial to determine the truth, a sentence pronounced, and, usually, a prison sentence or other punishment determined. Again, the punishment is geared toward both justice and mercy, toward both removing the offender from society, the way the child was isolated from his peers, and toward giving the offender the opportunity to repent and be rehabilitated, and thus return to and remain in society.

How does the death penalty fit into this? The way I see it presently (though I'm open to correction), the death penalty is to be used when the State determines that only thus can society really be protected from the offender--that the offender has been an aggressor against innocent life, and has lost all his "chances" of the kind of rehabilitation that will allow him to return to society or even to continue his life among the society of the prison. I may be wrong, but I think it is possible that the death penalty's claim to consider the prisoner and be merciful to him lies in the notion that the final and severest mercy one can have toward the truly incorrigible aggressor is to force him to face his mortality in the light of his crimes and sins. This is not the reason the state may execute; the reason remains only to protect everyone else from this incorrigible aggressor who will not stop attacking and threatening his fellow men. But the Church would not, I think, condone a use of the death penalty which cut off the prisoner from spiritual guidance, from the Sacraments (if he is Catholic), or from similar exhortations to repent before repentance is forever impossible--which, to me, means that mercy to the prisoner is still, if somewhat paradoxically, intended.

But this sentence from CCC 2267 is important, too: "If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person."

From this I get that the Church sees non-lethal means as "...more in conformity to the dignity of the human person..." which implies that the death penalty is necessarily less in conformity to that dignity. Far from being some kind of perfect means of punishment which ought to serve as the standard by which we measure all other means of punishment, the death penalty is a sorrowful necessity caused by our fallen nature, and by the possibility of incorrigible depravity and viciousness that lurks in the human soul.

How does this relate to torture?

I think that some people argue this way:

a) the Church permits the death penalty, to protect society.
b) there are times when torture (or something not-torture that would be torture if it were not justly necessary) would also protect society.
c) Torture (or the not-torture which is exactly like torture) is less extreme than putting someone to death.
d) Therefore, if the extreme of putting someone to death may be used to protect society, it follows that torture (or not-torture) must be permissible if it is being used in limited situations to protect society.

But the way the Church writes about the death penalty, she makes it clear that non-lethal means are "...
more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person..." than the death penalty is. Like I said, then, the death penalty isn't the "model" of how we ought to punish the guilty--it is something sadly necessary because of our fallenness, but not something to be used indiscriminately, celebrated, or elevated as the standard of Christian punishment.

What should be the standard, to me, are those punishments that are more visibly ordered toward both justice and mercy, toward the protection of society and, simultaneously, toward the possibility of the repentance and rehabilitation of the prisoner.

And this means that so far from seeing a sort of "If the Church permits the death penalty, then the Church must permit torture..." framework, we could instead see it as "Though the Church must permit the death penalty in rare circumstances, we should remain mindful that the ordinary purpose of punishment, formed by considerations of justice and mercy, is to protect society from the aggressor while offering to the prisoner the opportunity for repentance and rehabilitation."

Thoughts? Clarifications?


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.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Docs in the torture chamber?

The NYTimes reports on a statement from Physicians for Human Rights regarding the roles of medical personnel during C.I.A. waterboarding sessions. The accusation is that the doctors and others were engaging in illicit research on human subjects. The doctors were monitoring the prisoners during waterboarding and making suggestions as to how to increase and "calibrate" the "effectiveness" of the techniques.
That meant that the medical professionals crossed the line from treating the detainees as patients to treating them as research subjects, the report asserted.

Seems to me that calling it "research" can be misleading; these were not laboratory conditions, and no one seems eager to publish any "findings."

But the point is well made: these doctors are not treating patients. They are advising and assisting in the torture of prisoners. Somehow, I don't think that's in keeping with the Hippocratic Oath.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Bagram airbase's "black prison"

Here's a quick history and status report on the prison at the U.S. Army airfield at Bagram, Afghanistan.

After all, it's Torture Awareness Month all month long! Let's keep ourselves aware: the waterboarding may have stopped, but other highly questionable techniques are known to remain in place, e.g., sleep deprivation and "isolation."

It's not clear to me whether this "isolation" is a temporary solitary confinement (which could have, under certain circumstances, a legitimate penal use) or whether it's a long-term isolation from human contact, which attacks the fundamentally social nature of the human person.

In any case, extended and involuntary sleep deprivation is definitely an attack on the dignity of the human person.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Pro-torture people: post your best pro-torture argument here

Okay, so apparently some of the people who think that the Church is wrong about torture and that torture ought to remain a morally legitimate option for the State to use feel as though their arguments have not been addressed. I'm opening this thread for pro-torture people to put their best arguments forward in answer to the following question:

The Catholic Church teaches, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the following:
"2297 Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. 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. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law."
If you believe that the use of torture by the State is not gravely evil, but instead, a property of the State's authority to defend its citizens, to punish the guilty, etc., how do you read the Catechism passage above, and other, similar Church statements, and how does the notion that torture is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity fit with your view that torture nonetheless remains a morally valid option to be used by State authorities?

As arguments are posted, I will do my best to collect from the best responses by Zippy, Mark Shea, and others that address each argument. In the event that someone proposes a truly innovative and new argument, I will highlight that argument and ask for responses from Coalition members.

It's Torture Awareness Month - and I wasn't even aware of it!

According to a couple different sources, June is Torture Awareness Month.

Now, anyone can simply declare any month "Something-or-other Month" and I haven't figured out who has declared June to be Torture Awareness Month. But I'm guessing it's intended to highlight June 26th as the anniversary of the U.N. Convention against Torture.

So I'm all in favor of raising awareness of torture issues this month. Let's all be aware!

Bush would waterboard again

Former president George W. Bush says he'd waterboard KSM again:
GEORGE Bush has admitted that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded during his administration and said he wouldn't hesitate to give the order again.

“Yeah, we waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” the former US President told the Economic Club of Grand Rapids in Michigan.

“I’d do it again to save lives.”

Mr Bush also defended his decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003, calling the attacks on September 11, 2001 “a declaration of war on our country”.

“Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do and the world is a better place without him,” he said.

Amazing.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What is the role of the State?

I'm cross-posting this both on my personal blog and on the Coalition for Clarity, because it's the rare topic that fits both topics pretty well.

On Virtue Quest, I've been blogging about my reading of Alisdair MacIntyre's "classic," After Virtue. At the Coalition, I've raised the question of what the basis is for actions permitted to agents of the State that are forbidden to private citizens, such as capital punishment and war. So, toward the end of After Virtue, I ran across this passage:
But my present point is not that patriotism is good or bad as a sentiment, but that the practice of patriotism is in advanced societies no longer possible in the way that it once was. In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear. Patriotism is or was a virtue founded on attachment primarily to a political and moral community and only secondarily to the government of that community; but it is characteristically exercised in discharging responsibility to and in such government. ... Loyalty to my country, to my community - which remains unalterably a central virtue - becomes detached from obedience to the government which happens to rule me.

Now, I'm far from being in easy agreement with everything that MacIntyre says - or even with most of it. But his distinction between "political community" and "government" struck me as exactly the sort of thing that I have argued in saying that the State as embodied in modern nation-states is not necessarily the same kind of beast as the State as embodied in the variety of forms known to, e.g., Thomas Aquinas.

Here is how the very modern Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1910) describes the role of the State:
It is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies.

I'm still reading through what Thomas has to say about the State, but my impression thus far is that the power of the State derives from its responsibility for goods that are common to society and therefore beyond the power of any single person as such. And the Catechism agrees, at least insofar as its authority is bound to the common good and does not bind whenever an agent of the State acts against the common good. Or, in a saying at least as old as Augustine of Hippo, an unjust law is no law at all.

Now, the first thing that almost everything I've read says about the authority of the State is that is "orders" things to the common good. That is, it resolves what is otherwise disordered and chaotic when left to individual persons or families. This is clearly the source of authority for laws and lawmaking. It also is fairly clearly the source of authority to tax or conscript, that is, to call individuals to a duty owed to society.

Now, I myself have to this point held the opinion that war and capital punishment are simply "public" forms of self-defense. In other words, I've assumed that the State does not have any "rights" or authority that is essentially beyond what is given to individuals; the authority of the State is simply exercised on a larger scale, with broader consequences. Yet almost everything I am reading implies or assumes that the State's role of ordering things to the common good extends to acts that are different in kind from the moral responsibilities of individuals.

So I'm left with a couple questions at the end of this rather rambling post:

First, does a radical difference in the structure of government make a real difference in the relationship of individual persons to the State (such that Patriotism is no longer the same thing, for example), and in the role or authority of the State itself?

Second, does responsibility for the common good extend to acts that are beyond the normal scope of morality as applied to persons taken singly?