Sunday, November 11, 2007

Reply to Steve on Torture

Steve: I didn't equate morality with legality. I said that if an action is a contravention of international law, then we need strong justification for doing it. It is conceivable, for example, that the right thing to do for me today is to hold up the Bank of America inside Fry's. But I'd need some very strong justification for doing so. You can't say that legality is irrelevant to morality. Romans 13 is sufficient to show that. And yes, the Romans tortured people. Paul wasn't saying that Christians should obey an order to torture. And yes, when the Romans outlawed Christian public worship, Christians had an overriding reason for disobeying the law. What I am saying is that illegality is evidence of illegality that imposes a burden of proof on the lawbreaker to show that lawbreaking is moral. We had that justification in the case of Jim Crow. I don't see anything like it here.

Do you, or do you not, believe that illegality generates a presumption of immorality? I'm not saying a presumption that can't be overridden, I mean a presumption. Or perhaps you don't think international law is real law, that the only "Caesar" that counts is good ole American law.

You know, it might be fun to go smoke a joint right now. There's nothing in the Bible about not smoking pot. But it's against the law, and I don't have a good enough reason to smoke pot to override the moral status the law against pot provides. So I'm going to blog instead.

I don't agree with everything the allies did in WWII, especially the bombing of civilian populations. Neither, by the way, did C. S. Lewis. But we didn't waterboard Nazis when we captured them. So even though we didn't live up to "just war" standards in WWII, we still didn't torture the Nazis or the Japanese. And we convicted someone of war crimes for waterboarding one of us.

MI5 does it, so it must be OK. Two wrongs don't make a right, you need at least three. Is this your argument? Some of us would call this lame.

My focus was on waterboarding, because it seems to me to be a clear case of torture. You want to deny that it is torture? I didn't say all coercive interrogation tactics are torture, I said we had good reason to suppose that we do use tactics like waterboarding that fit within the legal definition of torture.

Does everyone in the Arab world approve of torture, including moderate Arabs? Does the Qu'ran command it? If the Islamic people we are dealing with are total barbarians why in the world are we trying to help set up a democratic government in one of their countries, and spilling all sorts of blood on both sides in doing so?

Does international law count for something? Does the fact that we signed off on the Geneva accords and promised to follow certain rules count for something?

Let's recap my argument:

1. Waterboarding contravenes the Geneva conventions, being thereby defined as torture by international law.

2. Waterboarding also injures our reputation as a civilized nation in the world community.

3. If something is defined as torture by international law, then it should be done only if there is very strong presumptive evidence that much more good than harm, all told, will come from it. For Christians, Romans 13 helps to show this.

4. However, given 2 and other considerations concerning the effectiveness of waterboarding, this seems unlikely in the extreme to be the case.

5. Therefore, our practice of waterboarding is immoral and should be eliminated.

Does this make my reasoning at all clearer?


steve said...

steve said...

Mike Darus said...

You and Steve are having a fine discussion even if you are talking past each other occasionally and slipping into unproductive rabbit trails. Steve also linked a very good article :Human Rights and Justice in an Age of Terror An evangelical critique of An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture. by Keith Pavlischek. I hope it is not rude to jump in with some observations.

1) It is good for theologians and philosophers to serve as a moral compass on political issues. There should be analysis on other than utilitarian grounds that are free to explore the moral implications. However, we should expect this type of analysis to be complex and difficult.
2) I think Victor is correct in giving importance to legality on the issue of determining the morality of conduct regarding torture or other expressions of warfare. Legality can serve as the minimal ethical benchmark, but it cannot be trusted as the positive standard of morality. If our political and utilitarian legal system outlaws an action as torture, we can be sure that this action is abhorrent. However, other actions that may be legal may not be moral. Steve says much the same thing in his option 2 “.Is there a moral presumption that we have no right to break a law absent some overriding consideration?”
3) I don’t consider America’s international reputation to be a powerful argument against using torture. I am afraid that our reputation is too sullied to protect. When the issue was treatment of prisoners of war, I preferred the argument that refusing to participate in torture provides some measure of protection our military personnel (and in the case of terrorism perhaps civilians) through the pressure exerted by the positive example. Unfortunately, this does not work at all with terrorism. In fact, the list of things we don’t do would likely become their list of things they will do.
4) The article mentioned above makes the point that the Geneva convention does not apply to non-military combatants. An important feature of the Geneva accords is to differentiate between civilians and military. There is no legal basis for your argument when dealing with non-military terrorists. I am not ready to agree with the article that terrorists are also not criminals with rights of due process.
5) We need to acknowledge the very real political requirement that our leaders are under an obligation to make sure that a terrorist attack like 9-11 does not occur again. I think this is an unfair burden for our government to bear. As long as public opinion maintains this requirement, our government will be pressured to deny human rights to those they view as threats to security. If we want freedom, we cannot insist on absolute safety.
6) Your point 3 undermines your argument. If we permit the government to use your standard that torture can be used if it does more harm than good, torture will be easily and often justified. It is only when we are willing to sacrifice the welfare of the many to protect the rights of the few that we will be willing to limit our interrogation techniques to humane methods.

Victor Reppert said...

I appreciate your comment Mike. I think that suspect the key point here is to just deny the claim that the end justifies the means. I tried to emphasize the fact that the means-end relationship is dubious because torture tends to result in the subject telling the captors what they want to hear rather than the truth.

If I am being tortured, and they think I know where a bomb is hidden, and the truth is I don't, then I have a reason to tell them where that bomb is hidden (especially if I give them a spot that will be difficult to find). Of course, I may get tortured again later if they find no bomb, but at that moment the only way to stop the pain, at least temporarily, is to give some false information.