Back to Torture Again

There was a horrendous report of child abuse in the news today — a man has been arrested for waterboarding his 4-year-old daughter because she couldn’t recite the alphabet.

After reading this horror story, I made a comment about it in an email I send out to some of my friends.  I said, “This is where it leads when one obfuscates the moral law, and shades the truth about intrinsically evil acts…  So, it’s criminal if you do it to a child, but permissible “enhanced interrogation” when you do it to a prisoner?”

Well, one of my friends challenged me for making this argument about my “hobby horse” of torture, and I thought that the exchange would be interesting to share more generally.  In his reply, my friend noted that there is a significant difference between the way that we treat children in the law and the way we treat adults, in particular where moral and legal culpability and punishment are concerned.   For example, we are legally and morally permitted to inflict punishments on adults (e.g., imprisonment and even execution) that we would never impose upon children.  He also noted that waterboarding is similar to the training we give to soldiers, which tends to undermine the argument that it is always “torture”.

My response began by pointing out that the starting point of any discussion of morality is to remind ourselves that there are three fonts of morality — the moral object (the objective nature of the act), the intention of the actor, and the relevant circumstances. (Catechism 1750)

The problem with the debate over torture is that the focus is not on the moral object of torture, but has instead concentrated on other factors — the intention of the actors (some writers’ theme that the waterboarders are “honorable men”), or the usefulness of torture (the Jack Bauer, er, I mean Dick Cheney consequentialist argument that “it works”).  But none of those factors will render the act good, since the moral object of torture is intrinsically evil.

Remember, the moral object is not just the physical act alone.  It represents the object that is freely chosen by the actor, and thus involves not just a physical act but also an end that is chosen. (See Veritatis Splendor 78)   The distinction between the physical act and the moral object is essential.

Here’s the definition of the moral object in question: “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred” (Catechism 2297), in violation of the affirmative duty that “Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely” (Catechism 2313).  In Veritatis Splendor 80, Pope John Paul listed  torture among those acts that are “”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”.

Once we recognize the intrinsic evil of such an act, the intentions of the actor (honorable or otherwise) and the circumstances (the victim is a really bad person, the bomb is ticking, etc.) are irrelevant to the moral analysis — they cannot render an intrinsically evil act good or neutral.  Using the physical and moral violence of inflicting the sensation of drowning and the terror of dying upon a bound prisoner in order to extract information cannot, under any circumstances, be a good or neutral act.

Other moral objects are morally neutral or good, and are not intrinsically evil.  Thus the circumstances and intention must be consulted to see if the act is good or evil.  So, a parent’s striking a child to teach them discipline (i.e., the infliction of corporal punishment) can be a good act (but can also be evil if overdone, or done for the wrong reason).

We also have to be precise in how we define our moral objects, especially in situations where two physical acts are superficially similar.  For example, what happens in military training may resemble the physical act of waterboarding, but it is not the same moral object as waterboarding, because the end that is sought by the actor is fundamentally different.  This training is not “physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred” in violation of a duty to treat a prisoner humanely.  It is instead the consensual infliction of physical distress in order to prepare a soldier to endure mistreatment (i.e., torture) by an enemy.  It is a different moral object entirely, and cannot be used to justify torturing a prisoner.

This may seem like splitting hairs in the way we define acts, but it is essential to a comprehensive analysis of moral activity.  We must keep in mind that there are some acts that are always intrinsically evil, regardless of the circumstances or intention of the actor.

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One Response to “Back to Torture Again”

  1. M Fortier says:

    I appreciate your thoughts on this issue especially as Marc Thiessen appears on EWTN and justifies the use of torture as compatible with Catholic faith. Where are the bishops on this?