A Catholic-themed opinion blog about various topics, including theology, philosophy, politics and culture, from a Thomistic perspective.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Philosophy of Torture

Over the past decade, a debate has stirred regarding the US government's use of "waterboarding" - specifically, whether or not it is torture. This has led to a larger discussion about the validity of torture in general. Naturally, the political Left and Right, and everything in between, have different takes on it. As Catholics, we know that the Church disapproves of torture. But what is their reasoning, and is torture wrong even if it gives good results like saving lives? This is a difficult question to answer, like many philosophical questions, but it is one we as Catholics should all have an answer for, ready to "always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence“, as St. Peter said in his first Biblical Encyclical (1 Peter 3:15 RSV-CE)

As I said, the Left and Right approach this issue differently. Though there are individual views within those parties, there is usually a general consensus on certain "big topics" like abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty - and torture. From my experience, it seems that most Leftists disapprove of torture in all cases, whereas the Right tends to either approve of it when it gives good results, or leave it up to the lawyers. But as we know, law does not always equate to morality, as in the case of abortion and pornography.

The Right often proposes a pragmatic response to the topic of torture, saying that if it can lead to good ends, the "means" of torture, while normally wrong, are justified by the results. This is especially true in cases of criminality or war. All bets are off towards a criminal or prisoner of war, particularly if good could come from torturing them. By committing a crime or threatening America, they lose their rights as a human. Normal people don't deserve torture, but these people do. For many in the Right, the law does indeed equate to morality, with lawyers and judges as the ecclesial dictators and interpreters of that moral code. While many lawyers and judges themselves don't share this sentiment, many people - religious or not - do.

Despite their difference in philosophical visage, the Left and Right share a common ideology here: moral pragmatism. For most in the Left, torture is absolutely wrong, but not really because it is morally or principally wrong. Rather, they often employ the same pragmatic argument used by the Right: to them, since torture puts the victim in a traumatized mental state, the victim will admit to anything. And so, since torture in this scenario doesn't yield good results, it should be avoided. Not because it's wrong - but because it is impractical.

The problem here is not political, or practical, or economic, or even ethical. The real problem is philosophical. And this is also the reason so many Catholics feel confused over this topic, especially the particular subject of waterboarding, even when provided the Church's views on torture and their explanation. This happens with many Church teachings and leads many Catholics to follow a "situational" morality, where good and evil change based on the amount of pain the victim goes through, or a "privatized" morality - basically saying, as long as I don't see it, go for it. Obviously, neither is right, but more often derive from laziness or confusion.

The teachings of the Church, both moral and theological, are applications of the Church's dogma. This dogma is comprised of God's revelation in all its sources - nature, reason, conscience, the Bible, Tradition, etc. The Church studies this dogma and Tradition, prayerfully and wisely, interprets it with the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit, and then applies it as Canon Law. This interpretation also comprises Tradition, catechesis and liturgical practice.

But everything in the Church - from application, to interpretation, Tradition and God's personal revelation - is based in philosophy. More specifically, it is founded in certain specific philosophies, the truths of God. Philosophy is simply love of wisdom; wisdom is knowledge of truth; and God is Truth. God communicates His Truth in many different ways, but fundamentally, His Truth is philosophical. Catholic teaching is rooted in certain specific philosophies, ways of seeing and understanding the world which are gleaned from God's revelation. Teachings such as prohibition of contraception, environmental harm and torture derive from these philosophies.

The Church has a very different philosophical foundation for its views on torture than either the Left or Right. For the Church, torture is wrong because of the inherent dignity of all people, as we are made in the image of God. This dignity requires respect, and this dignity is irrevocable. Even the most evil people retain their innate dignity as people. Not everyone believes this, and even many who espouse it do not follow it in practice or principle.

As I said earlier, to the Right, a criminal or prisoner of war forfeited their rights as a human - including inherent dignity. This removes the rights which extend from dignity, including life, liberty, respect and fairness. Obviously, one must wonder if the hatred of terrorists which burns so deeply in the hearts of many soldiers contributes to their fervent desire to torture war criminals - alongside the wounded pride of politicians.

The Left, on the other hand, has no sense of human dignity going in. They desire convenience and security, but are eager to change when the stakes are high. As I remember, but have heard few others recount, the entire country was fanatically inspired when President Bush decided to invade Afghanistan just after 9/11, with the purpose of hunting down Bin Laden and exacting revenge, while protecting against further attack simultaneously. But when he invaded Iraq, without prior provocation but retaining half of his motivation for attacking Afghanistan - security - everyone was enflamed, especially the Left. They saw no practical reason to help the Iraqi people, and further, they felt it was being conducted improperly. Was it right or wrong? Who knows; neither party bothered to say. That wasn't the issue, for the proper Left or righteous Right (no pun intended).

Despite many Leftists being atheistic, they often follow a form of the "prosperity Gospel". They believe being good will yield good material results - success, power, money, security and honesty. Further, they believe bad actions can never give good results. While in the long run this is true, as God leads everything to good in the end, the immediate results are not necessarily this way. Because the world is in a state of sin, being inherently damaged by original sin, it is often in conflict with the good. Being good does not always lead to success - in fact, it rarely does. Yet many people who willingly pursue greed, vanity and ruthless arrogance are wealthy, healthy and safe. This is not a coincidence - the Prince of this world prefers sin, and so he tries to accommodate it whenever he can, making it as alluring as possible. Even manna from Heaven was dry and light - yet infinitely nourishing and filling.

Living as a Catholic isn't about practicality, success, prosperity or even security. It is about principle - living a life which echoes the philosophical ideals of Christ. Even if something we do, think or feel does absolutely nothing, it means something in principle, and thus, it means something to God. Every action, every thing has a spiritual meaning, and that is the highest priority to God. So, what else should we live by then God's own standard? A life of principle means not using torture because it is wrong, following the Christian philosophy that ends never justify the means - if something is wrong, it is always wrong, period. Even if practical result could come from using torture, and even if harm could come from not using it, we should avoid it on principle, because we love God and wish to follow His Will. Even terrorists deserve the dignity promised to all people, for "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23 RSV-CE)