Tuesday, November 28, 2006

More Tortured Debate

The debate in Catholic circles over the use of torture is an interesting one, and I've touched on this before. If you dip into the debate (both Catholic and non-Catholic) you will see frequent references to "ticking bomb" scenarios and how torture may be necessary to save countless lives. Jack Bauer suddenly becomes the moral standard. But this is consequentialism, the idea that the end justifies the means, and can never be defended. It would be very wrong to torture somebody even if doing so would save a million lives. Likewise, Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities was an evil one, no matter how many lives were saved through an early end to the war.

Now, Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin has jumped into the fray, and tries to define torture here, here, and here. What's interesting about Akin is that he is one of the guys behind the Catholic Answers voter guides, those of the infamous five non-negotiable principles. As I've noted many times, there is no clear reason why torture is excluded from this list, based on their own criteria: issues that "involve principles that never admit of exceptions and.... are currently being debated in U.S. politics." But, of course, adding torture which change the hue of the message, which, as it stands, is a subtle (or not-so-subtle) exhortation to vote Republican. Until now, Akin and Catholic Answers pretty much ignored torture, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it had become one of the defining issues of the Bush administration. So Akin's large-scale attempt to belatedly delve into the topic is of great interest.

Sadly, Akin disappoints. Starting off on the wrong path, he states the issue as follows: "The sin of torture consists in the disproportionate infliction of pain." He recognizes, validly, that inflicting pain can be sometimes be licit, such as to save a person's life, or even for the purpose of punishment (think of spanking a child). For Akin, the key is "disproportionate". If the alarm bells are ringing by now, it is for good reason. To quote Akin directly, "torture is intrinsically evil because it is the infliction of disproportionate pain on a subject." But what is "disproportionate"? For Akin, the action becomes disproportionate (and hence torture) if there is no other way to save lives. So, he argues that waterboarding is not torture "if it is being used in a ticking time bomb scenario and there is no other, less painful way to save lives."

This is flirting dangerously with consequentialism and proportionalism. Fortunately, a blogger named Zippy does all the heavy lifting and explains exactly how Akin goes astray. Appealing to John Paul II's Veritatis Splendour, Zippy notes that an intrinsically evil act is one that is evil in itself, and can never be justified by appealing to a host of good intentions. The act is evil in its object, independent of intent or circumstance. It cannot be justified by using a proportionate reason to do it, or as a proportionate response to some circumstance. As the late pope says: "circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act "subjectively" good or defensible as a choice."

Torture is listed as an example of something that is intrinsically evil in Veritatis Splendour. Why? Well, torture is intrinsically evil if since it violates the God given dignity and integrity (the intrinsic worth) of human beings. Or, as Zippy phrases it, "the intrinsic evil in torture would inhere in treating a human being as nothing but a means to some end: in exchanging his suffering for a fungible commodity." In other words, you are treating the person solely as the means to an end, here, the extraction of a confession or information, or even to exact retribution. Licit punishment never treats a person in such a manner. Zippy ties this to the other intrinsic evils listed in Veritatis Splendour (taken largely from Gaudium Et Spes), including "treating persons as nothing but property (slavery), treating persons as nothing but an impediment to some political goal (arbitrary deportation)... treating persons as nothing but objects to satisfy our lust for vengeance (torture as punishment), treating persons as nothing but machines to manufacture our products and maximize our profits (subhuman living conditions)". It all fits together, and, viewed through this lens, clarifies what John Paul was getting at in his encyclical, and shows quite clearly that torture is always intrinsically evil.

Now, Akin is an erudite guy, well-versed in theology and moral reasoning. Why would he make such an elementary error? Is it because of his political leanings? One thing is for sure: do not expect Catholic Answers to list torture as a non-negotiable principle any time soon.

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