Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What is torture?

The entire internet, including that part of it that constitutes the Catholic blogo-trapezoid, is awash with commentary on the Senate report on the C.I.A.'s detention and interrogation program. Much of the commentary strikes me as quite hysterical, which is why, in addition to apologizing in advance for weighing in, it is important to take up what we mean when we use the word "torture," which the magisterium of the Catholic Church condemns as intrinsically evil. While torture is unambiguously condemned by the Church in the Catechism and elsewhere, like in Gaudium et Spes (par. 27) and Veritatis Splendor (par. 80), Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (par 404), it is not precisely defined.

But an imprecise definition is still a definition: "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" (par 2297). Because torture is contrary to human dignity, that is, the dignity of the human person, it is intrinsically, as opposed to extrinsically, evil (more on this distinction to follow). An act that is intrinsically evil is an act that is always morally wrong for everyone regardless of intention or circumstance. On other hand, perhaps what we are given in the Catechism are criteria by which to judge acts.

It bears noting that it is her objective understanding of the nature of morality that most often puts the Church at odds with an increasingly relativistic world that, being what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in his still highly relevant book After Virtue, described as "emotivist," typically judges acts based on intention and/or consequences. In this regard, I cannot help but note that, at least when it comes to torture, many people who usually laugh at those of us who employ the moral category "intrinsically evil" do so now with great relish. But then ideology requires incoherence.

Judging from how both are treated in the Catechism, it seems that torture is as well-defined by the magisterium as pornography, which the Catechsim tells us, "consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties" (par 2354).

In my view it seems clear that most of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" described in the Senate report meet the definition of torture. The trouble is, given how wide the net is cast, so do many other acts that are not as extreme. At least for me, it would be interesting to analyze all of this through lens of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's ethics, which has always struck me as quite consequentialist in nature.

As previously noted, acts that are intrinsically evil may never be morally done by anyone, regardless of one's intention or the circumstances. Ends do not justify means and we may never do evil that good may come of it. By contrast, an extrinsically evil act is an act that is normally to be eschewed, but, under certain circumstances, may be justified. I think understanding this distinction is necessary, though not sufficient of itself, to arriving at any workable definition of torture. If some "enhanced interrogation technique" can, at least under certain circumstances, be justified, then it simply fails to meet the Church's definition of torture.

Given that torture is intrinsically evil, I do not think that how one defines it can be a matter of prudential judgment.

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