Ethics of Torture

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A while back, Joe Carter wrote about the vile practice of hazing, i.e. torturing one's own soldiers for the sake of combat readiness. One thing he wants to say is that this doesn't just violate principles deontological ethicists will emphasize (though it does). It also goes against a very different strain of ethical thought, virtue ethics. For those unfamiliar with ethical theory (or lack thereof, in the case of the latter view), deontological views focus on duty, moral obligation, and commands, which sounds very military. Virtue ethics focuses not so much on the action to be done and the obligation to do it but on the character of the person and the character traits worthy of developing as part of what a good person should be like. Joe says this sort of thing is a good example of what sorts of character traits a military formed on the basis of concerns of justice should not seek to inclulcate in their recruits, since it shapes their character negatively by providing bad role models from the outset. I agree. This set me off toward thinking about a number of other issues related to torture and ethical theory.

What Joe didn't say that I think should be added is that torture of any sort might have similar features, and officers and NCOs ordering torture may well fall short in the same sort of way, not by condoning it through modeling it but by explicitly telling someone to do it. Which is worse? Living it so others may see it and do likewise, or actually telling someone to do it (in a military context in which orders are to be followed)? I wonder if some of the commenters were suggesting this. Unfortunately, almost all the commenters who mentioned torture in general made some fallacious step in moral reasoning or simply weren't addressing the question at hand.

Two non-relativist ethical viewpoints that I can think of at the moment might allow torture. Consequentialists care only about whether an action leads to the best consequences (or whether following a certain rule leads to the best consequences, though I think that sort of view is just a non-starter, but that would take a whole post). The most famous kind of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which concerns itself with maximizing happiness in the world. Other consequentialist views care about things besides just happiness, but it's still only in terms of good consequences. The most important criticism of consequentialism is that it's too easy to allow a good consequence that outweighs the negative consequences of an action, and a lot of happiness (or other good) can then outweigh the fact that someone's rights are violated or the fact that all the good is caused by torturing one person. This view really does allow torture if the amount of good created by the torture is enough. Some people just think that's a reason not to be a consequentialist (and I agree). Some things just shouldn't be done to anyone, at least not by us (I'll allow that it might be just for God to do it). Maybe some torture could sometimes be morally ok, but I can't allow it on consequentialist grounds, because allowing that will allow the worst forms of torture if the effect is good enough, and that just can't be right.

A weaker way of allowing torture, however, comes from a deontological view that doesn't have some of the crucial features of the most well-known deontological theory, that of Immanuel Kant. Kant was an absolutist. Something wrong is wrong in absolutely every circumstance. For example, lying is always wrong, as is breaking of a promises. (I've discussed lying at length here.) To avoid the conclusion Kant's theory requires that it must be wrong to lie to protect the Jews you're hiding when the Nazis come, some people simply abandon duty-based views and adopt consequence-based theories of ethics. W.D. Ross took a different sort of view. He thought there to be a number of ethical principles that constitute prima facie duties. This allows that some principles will conflict. Kant had to insist that there would never be a situation when one moral obligation would interfere with another.

Some people just think it's obvious, however, that there are moral dilemmas, in which one principle that's normally true conflicts with a different principle that's normally true. Ross's point is that sometimes a moral principle might outweigh another one. Sometimes what obligates us to do something renders another principle inapplicable. Saving a life might then trump the duty not to lie. We really do have a duty not to lie, at least on the face of it. However, in a particular situation some other principle may also apply that conflicts with that prima facie duty. Killing a relative innocent in combat is wrong. However, sometimes the moral ground for taking an action that has the known effect of killing a relative innocent might create a strong enough obligation that the duty not to kill an innocent is trumped. This allows for some principles to outweigh others without simply valuing people as a means to an end the way consequentialism does. We're not valuing someone merely for the amount of happiness that will be created or pain saved by, say, dropping an atomic bomb on a Japanese city. If the obligation to end the war quickly is a higher obligation, then that duty is removed. It's only a prima facie duty. (For the record, I don't think this is the case. I think Truman committed a terrorist act that was morally horrendous. I'm just explaining the structure of how this could go if you thought the duty to end the war quickly was a higher duty.)

Then what about torture? I think Ross's theory better explains why someone might allow torture without accepting the utilitarian or consequentialist means-to-end mentality. If there were somehow a duty strong enough to require torturing someone, then the obligation not to do that to anyone would be removed. I think this is the best case for torture anyone can give. It might be hard to find good cases that I think would fit this. One controversial example would be if torturing a terrorist's son or daughter would be the only way to get him to admit where he put the nuke in the middle of New York City, then some might think the duty to stop the bomb is enough. I'm not sure. What if torturing the terrorist himself is the only way? That seems much more tolerable to me. What they were doing at Abu Ghraib just has a lower obligation that they thought they were acting according to, and most people think it was just too high a degree of torture for the duty to defeat terrorists to trump the duty not to torture.

So what do I think in the end? I don't think there are going to be very many circumstances when torturing is ok. Since I do think the virtue conception of ethics is an important part of the right way to think about moral obligation (but incomplete), I think what Joe is saying is right. We need to think about what character traits we should encourage and help to inclulcate in others. We should think about how to develop our own character in certain ways. At the same time, I think we have duties, which are of a prima facie sort that can (with moral dilemmas) be removed due to higher obligations. I consider the duty not to torture to be fairly high on the list, but I don't have much patience for those who will insist that anyone who ever tolerates torture either denies morality or is just a very bad person, as people have been insinuating about the Bush Administration's resistance to defining 'torture' in the broadly-sweeping way many people are calling for them to do. There seem to me to be enough ways for a fairly well thought-out ethical theory to allow something that we might ordinarily want to call torture that I can' t insist that it's got to be an absolute prohibition.

5 Comments

I have often wondered about the application of Hebrews 12:4-13 to this argument. Today, we would consider scourging to be torture. I am not saying I have any answers, or even know how to interface this scripture (or others in like context) with modern ethical concepts and demands, but I can say that as biblically driven people, these kinds of passages are significant to our development of both theology and biblical ethics.

My understanding is that God intends to torture most of humanity forever. Presumably torture stands in no need of defense.

Actually, that's not so clear, in three different ways. John Stott, for instance, argues that the biblical view of hell is annihilation, i.e. ceasing to exist. There is some merit to that argument, and there are problems with the traditional view of a conscious existence for eternity in hell, though I'm not convinced at this point.

I suppose it also depends on what you mean by torture. Most evangelicals think of hell as eternal separation from God, because the Bible does describe it that way in a few places. If you're thinking of a literal burning in fire, then I think your sense of hell is at odds with most evangelicals' views. Many have made the point that if hell is simply the logical extension of the choices people make in life, the isolation and rebellion that sin really amounts to, then they'll be torturing themselves.

It's also not clear that it's most of humanity. One important eschatological position (not mine) says that the number of people who are Christians will grow until most of the world is Christian. I think this is at odds with the way the Bible describes it, but postmillenialism is incredibly common among evangelicals. Probably about half of Reformed believers in America are postmillenial in their eschatology.

Killing in war, a permanent form of torture must be wrong also then?

Tim, I'm not following you. First, I was presenting ways of saying that torture is not always wrong.

Second, I'm not sure why you think war is permanent.

Third, why is killing supposed to be torture? I would think that killing in war is usually fairly quick much of the time and thus not torture, but even when it's not quick it's not going to be counted as torture, which is usually something done for the sake of the pain (or because the pain accomplishes something else). Killing in war is not done because of the pain, and it's not using the pain as a means to an end. It's simply killing in war.

Whether it's right or wrong from the point of view of those making the big decisions depends on whether it's a just war and whether they made the decision with the right attitude and for the right reasons. Whether it's right or wrong from the point of view of the soldier may not even depend on whether the war is just (and it might depend on how unjust the war is). Many cases of killing in war are justified cases of following orders even if the war itself wasn't a good idea to get into. Many other cases of killing in war are simply self-defense once you're out there on the battlefield. That amounts to a somewhat complex set of factors that affect the moral status of killing in war, but it doesn't seem to me to be the same set of factors involved in the moral status of torture.

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