On Torture

There has been much talk about torture since Osama Bin Laden’s death.

Those who advocate for torture cite Bin Laden’s death as evidence that torture works, while those against deny that torture led to the discovery of Bin Laden’s lair. Both sides are missing the point.

It doesn’t matter whether torture led to Bin Laden’s death. Torture  obviously works, if by “works” we mean it makes people more likely to give up information they would not otherwise disclose. But that’s not the issue.

We could institute the death penalty for parking violations and it would make double parking a thing of the past. But just because something works doesn’t make it right. The issue is whether torture is moral, and, if so, in what circumstances.

Some say torture is always wrong. Others would judge the ethics of torture by its ends. I believe a Christian approach is more nuanced.

The issue of torture should not be analyzed from an absolutist or relativist position, but from a graded absolutist paradigm. I’ve addressed graded absolutism in another post, but it posits that sometimes moral prohibitions and moral imperatives contradict and decisions should be made based on which prohibition or imperative is more important.

If a terrorist is about to commit mass murder by detonating a nuclear weapon, and a detainee is refusing to provide information that could stop it, the decision should be easy. The moral imperative to save lives is more important than the prohibition against torture.

When the danger is not imminent and the information sought less important, the decisions get more difficult. In such situations where what is right is driven by a context with many permutations, law is an unwieldy and imprecise alternative to a good man who can make the right decision.

Unfortunately, instead of producing good men and women who can make moral decisions in complex situations, we seem to be producing more people who are morally retarded and who give us Abu Gharib instead. GS

4 thoughts on “On Torture”

  1. If torture is justifible to prevent a major disaster. then speaking from the Christian perspective, would lying be justifable seeing that in Christian belief a lie is always sinful and nothing can excuse it? A Baptist minister for who I have very high regard told me once that for the Christian, the end does not justify the means.

    1. Great question, and yes, I believe sometimes lying is justifiable. An example is Rahab. For an analysis of this issue, see the link in this post on graded absolutism. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Gregory Scott, I believe that you are in error in saying that lying is justifiable albeit in urgent pressing circumstances. It is certainly UNDERSTANDABLE in such positions and how often have I lied myself as a denfense mechanism for issues less than emergency but a dogmatic Christian stace is that the end does not justify the means. Rahab lied because she knew no better. Sarah, Abraham’s wife lied: “I didn’t laugh!” but The Lord replyed to her: ” Oh, but you did laugh” He let things go there and did not press the matter with her but He did wag His finger and draw it to her attention. . More to the point here, I can’t go along with the contension that torture is ever justifable and besides, what if the person lies under interogation as I believe often happens?

    In the Catholic Church, the seal of the confessional is ABSOLUTLY INVOIABLE to the priest. If a penitant tells the confessor of a major crime impending, the priest is silenced without compromise.

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