In case you weren’t paying attention, the lively and smart web magazine The Federalist just turned one year old about one month ago and many of us here couldn’t be happier for the exciting new voice for “the broad center-right”. As a recent profile of the website explained:
“The Federalist exists because we believe there was an audience for smart cultural-opinion writing speaking to a center-right audience,” founder Domenech told the Washington Examiner. “While there are a number of excellent media entities on the right, most of them focus on horse-race politics and policy arguments. That's secondary for us.”
One goal, he added, is to avoid the bubble mentality so common with writers in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
“Most people speak about issues through the lens of culture, sports, and relationships, not based on elections and legislation,” the 32-year-old said. “That's why our most popular stories are about sex, pop culture, faith, child-rearing, and more, and why we don't write gauzy profiles of congressmen.”
The Federalist aims to appeal to readers from all backgrounds, but there’s also a specific focus on attracting millennial and female readers.
“The idea was a web magazine for a broad audience where culture was not an afterthought, where women would be sought after as writers and readers, and where inside-the-beltway thinking was viewed skeptically,” senior editor Mollie Hemingway told the Washington Examiner.
Further, according to senior editor David Harsanyi, formerly of the Denver Post and Human Events, the Federalist also offers a forum for social conservative and libertarian authors to hash out ideological discussions and differences.
It’s “a space where libertarians and conservatives can debate policy,” Harsanyi told the Washington Examiner.
Indeed, our own social conservative, Lydia McGrew, wrote an article for the website detailing some of the flaws with an IUD/contraceptive implant study that was characteristic of her usual detailed incisive commentary.
But, speaking of a “space where libertarians and conservatives can debate policy,” the website recently hosted two interesting essays on the interminable topic of torture – the first called “Torture is Unacceptable; But What is Torture?” by Rachael Lu who I think considers herself a traditional social conservative and the second called “Yes, Christians Can Support Torture” by D.C. McAllister who identifies herself as a libertarian. Both pieces are flawed, but I will focus on the more egregious of the two, the obviously wrong Ms. McAllister.
Non-Sequiturs and Intrinsically Evil Acts
McAllister begins her piece with a bunch of statistics that are irrelevant to the actual question: she cites a poll that suggests 79% of evangelical Americans as well as 78% of Catholic Americans support the use of torture. Yes, well at least in the Catholic Church, we don’t define orthodox moral theory by democratic vote (or by polling) and I’m sure serious evangelicals would agree with me and simply shake their heads in disappointment in those polls – we need to do a better job in teaching basic Christian morality to the American public!
Next she provides a pretty good definition of torture that I’m happy to use for the purposes of this blog post (although like our old friend Zippy Catholic, I think it is important not to get bogged down in the “appeal to the incomplete definition”): “Torture is the infliction of severe pain on a defenseless person for the purpose of breaking his or her will.” McAllister then decides to create a special moral category separate and distinct from your run-of-the-mill authoritarian despot who tortures for fun and/or to keep his enemies in check: the kinder, gentler torture known as “interrogative torture”:
Interrogative torture is minimal, acute, and designed to gain necessary information to protect society. Some might not feel comfortable using the term torture, but for the sake of this post, I will. It is sometimes morally justified to use pain to break a terrorist’s will in order to save lives. Interrogative torture is not prolonged, maximal, pleasurable, vengeful, or punitive, and it does not have long-term debilitating consequences that completely disrupt a person’s ability to function normally.
This kind of torture is a “lesser evil” than death. While torture does involve the exercise of control over another human being for a time, it does not end their autonomy as death does. When someone is dead, they have no autonomy, no hope of life, and no dignity. They’re dead. However, when a person is tortured in a minimal way, they have not completely lost all autonomy—even in the moment of intense pain. They can still give up information and end the interrogation, or they can remain silent and suffer. There will come a time when the pain will end, when they will regain their autonomy, and they will continue their lives. There is no such hope for a dead person.
So there seem to be two key issues to Ms. McAllister’s definition here: the “interrogative torturer” wants to save lives (in other words, the torturer’s intent is key) and she compares this form of torture to killing someone, presumably in the context of administering the death penalty for a terrible crime; and she place great importance on the fact that at least the person tortured can go on with life in comparison to those punished with death.
I’ll go on in a minute, but if alarm bells aren’t going off in your head already they should be: a basic, orthodox Christian teaching for millennia is that we don’t do evil so that good may come of it. Period, end of story. We don’t rape a woman or cut off someone’s arm if that is the only way we can save a city of millions from destruction – a hard Christian teaching but remember Christ’s words to us: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Of course, if you are Catholic you also have the Magisterium to guide your thinking on these matters including the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Papal Encyclicals. What do they say about torture and the death penalty? As the blog “Disputations” blog once noted [my emphasis]:
The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults offers a take on the three elements characterizing moral acts that may be a bit easier to grasp than the Catechism of the Catholic Church's presentation.
Under "Life in Christ/The Foundations of Christian Morality/We are Moral Beings: Fundamental Elements of Christian Morality," we find the subsection "The Understanding of Moral Acts":
Another important foundation of Christian morality is the understanding of moral acts. Every moral act consists of three parts: the objective act (what we do), the subjective goal or intention (why we do the act), and the concrete situation or circumstances in which we perform the act (where, when, how, with whom, the consequences, etc.)
For an individual act to be morally good, the object, or what we are doing, must be objectively good. Some acts, apart from the intention or reason for doing them, are always wrong because they go against a fundamental or basic human good that ought never to be compromised. Direct killing of the innocent, torture, and rape are examples of acts that are always wrong. Such acts are referred to as intrinsically evil acts, meaning that they are wrong in themselves, apart from the reason they are done or the circumstances surrounding them.
The goal, end, or intention is the part of the moral act that lies within the person. For this reason, we say that the intention is the subjective element of the moral act. For an act to be morally good, one's intention must be good. If we are motivated to do something by a bad intention -- even something that is objectively good -- our action is morally evil. It must also be recognized that a good intention cannot make a bad action (something intrinsically evil) good. We can never do something wrong or evil in order to bring about a good. This is the meaning of the saying, "the end does not justify the means." (cf. CCC, nos. 1749-1761)
Or if you prefer a more detailed analysis of the subject, here is Pope Saint John Paul II on the matter:
"Intrinsic evil": it is not licit to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8)
79. One must therefore reject the thesis, characteristic of teleological and proportionalist theories, which holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species — its "object" — the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned.
The primary and decisive element for moral judgment is the object of the human act, which establishes whether it is capable of being ordered to the good and to the ultimate end, which is God. This capability is grasped by reason in the very being of man, considered in his integral truth, and therefore in his natural inclinations, his motivations and his finalities, which always have a spiritual dimension as well. It is precisely these which are the contents of the natural law and hence that ordered complex of "personal goods" which serve the "good of the person": the good which is the person himself and his perfection. These are the goods safeguarded by the commandments, which, according to Saint Thomas, contain the whole natural law.130
80. Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that "there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object".131 The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: "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; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator".132
And on the subject of the death penalty versus torture, the "Disputations" blog again provides a concise analysis:
Execution, si; torture, no
I've seen several variations of this argument recently:
It would seem that every act of torture cannot be evil in its object. For every act of execution is not evil in its object. But execution is a greater punishment than torture. And since life itself is fundamental to all aspects of personal dignity, torture cannot be more contrary to personal dignity than execution. Therefore, all torture cannot be evil in its object.
To respond to this, I will first point out that the Catechism deals with both execution and torture in the section on the Fifth Commandment. But execution is mentioned in the subsection "Respect for Life," while torture is covered in the subsection "Respect for the Dignity of Persons." So, while life itself may be fundamental to all aspects of personal dignity, issues of personal dignity are not wholly subsumed by issues of life. In other words, a thing may be consistent with respect for life yet contrary to respect for the dignity of persons.
The problem with the argument is that it presents execution as the upper limit of a continuum of punishment. But that's not actually the case. Once you execute someone, he's dead. With patience and care, though, there's no fixed limit to how much torment you can inflict upon him.
And I'm not saying that torture can surpass execution on the continuum of punishment. I'm saying that there is no continuum of punishment, because a continuum assumes a single dimension and punishment has at least the two dimensions of life and dignity.
So the fact that execution need not be contrary to the personal dignity of the one executed does not imply that torture need not be contrary to the personal dignity of the one tortured.
I couldn't have said it better myself! McAllister therefore is simply wrong about execution – it does not represent the be all and end in with respect to punishment that destroys the dignity of the human person – indeed, it is not even a punishment when deployed in the context of trying to coerce a prisoner to give his captors information. Grouping corporal execution with torture is a category error and confuses the issue rather than illuminates the problem of consequentialism related to torture.
Old Testament Punishment and Human Dignity
Now Ms. McAllister’s argument takes a particularly interesting turn for What’s Wrong with the World readers – because she attempts at this point to use the examples of Old Testament punishments as contrasts to the use of torture (much as she compared and contrasted the death penalty with torture). Here she is essentially saying – what about the ancient Israelites of the Bible – they stoned people for sorts of crimes including idolatry! Didn’t those ancient Israelites violate the dignity of those sinners who were being punished?
Well, no they didn’t (even if we wouldn’t use those same punishments today deeming them cruel and unusual). The sinners themselves lost their dignity via their sin – this is the whole point of the Saint Thomas quote she provides:
“A bad man is worse than a beast, and is more harmful.” Aquinas’ words are definitely in line with how God treats criminals in Scripture. Human dignity is not seen as an absolute, but as conditional. This makes it morally justifiable to kill people who have violated the law—man’s law and God’s law.”
All of that is true – and all of that refers to the appropriate punishment for someone who sins. Not the appropriate way to interrogate someone to get information from them. There is a difference, even if a criminal terrorist owes us the truth; we also owe the terrorist the obligation to treat him morally due to his inherent dignity. I agree that the terrorist has lost his own dignity via whatever sins he may have committed, but we can’t further violate that human dignity via “infliction of severe pain on a defenseless person for the purpose of breaking his or her will.” We cannot do evil so that good may triumph.
Then we get to What’s Wrong With the World’s favorite Biblical Old Testament passages: McAllister trots out the Joshua passages dealing with the slaughter of the people in Jericho. Needless to say, we here at this blog agree that Christians should have a problem with those passages; not with the clear teaching of the natural moral law and the rest of the Biblical and Christian witness on what “Thou Shall Not Murder” really means!
Finally, McAllister concludes with some irrelevant thoughts about how to make torture safer if we indeed decide that torture is justified to save lives. Shifting quickly to Rachael Lu’s piece: We find it is mostly focused on the question of how to define torture. I agree with Ms. Lu that there are some grey areas: is all sleep deprivation torture? No, but clearly, past a certain point sleep deprivation does become cruel and dangerous. Could you slap a prisoner who acts contemptuously or perhaps spits at you during an interrogation? I would say yes, and that would not be torture – but if you slapped the prisoner non-stop over a period of days with the intent to inflect severe pain, well remember our previous definition! So there are indeed grey areas, but unfortunately for the global war on terror and the United States, we often crossed the bright lines of black and white and committed what can clearly be agreed upon by all right thinking adults as torture. Hopefully, there will come a day when all right thinking Christians will reject torture as immoral and unacceptable to civilized societies.