Monday, May 12, 2014

Why Torture is so Deeply Wrong

Four years ago I was very naive.

In 2010 when I began blogging seriously and using Facebook regularly I actually thought that reasoned arguments could happen on the internet.  Now, of course, I know better.

The Torture Debate was the first issue I engaged at the time.  The Torture Enthusiasts, who since they Dissent from Church Teaching I will henceforth call Dissenters (though clear terminology makes them furious - see below), were using this approach ...

  • They denied that the Church forbid Torture, or else they claimed that Church teaching forbidding Torture in any and all circumstances was not Magisterial or was still in flux.

  • They claimed that the act they were defending (in this case waterboarding) was not in fact Torture.

I later discovered that this handy template is the only one that's used by right wing Dissenters on all their precious issues.  Just fill in the blank and you're good to go.  And go and go and go.  If you're a Dissenter and your opponent demonstrates that the Church forbids, for example, LYING in any and all circumstances, you can claim that the act you're defending is not LYING.  If your opponent demonstrates that the act in question is undoubtedly LYING, you can jump back to claiming the Church does not forbid LYING.  Or USURY, or TORTURE or what have you.  And you keep this up ad nauseum, jumping from tactic one to tactic two until your opponent gives up in frustration.

But now it gets interesting.  Let's say in defending the teachings on faith and morals of the Catholic Church, which we Catholics maintain are the teachings of Jesus Christ as defended by the Holy Spirit, your opponent is bold enough to make an appeal to CONSCIENCE.  

Suppose your opponent says to you, "Oh, let's get off this merry-go-round.  How can you call yourself a Christian and advocate for the torture of one human being by another?"

All you have to do is memorize this handy bit of dialogue and deliver each exclamation in whatever order suits you ... 

"You're being uncharitable!  You're using circular reasoning!  You are the most hateful person I've ever met!  How can you expect to win this argument when you're obviously so childish!  You need to go to confession!"

... add a sneering and contemptuous tone for bonus points.


Now, back in 2010, it seemed to me that the defenders of Torture had one very big argument on their side.  If Dissenters rely on two things - 1. the denial of Magisterial authority on the subject and 2. vagueness of definition - then the Dissenters on Torture had a point with #2. 

For, while it was clear that the Magisterium had condemned Torture as intrinsically evil (evil in any and all circumstances), the working definition of Torture was inadequate.  Everyone was assuming that Torture was simply extreme corporal punishment, and as Fr. Brian Harrison rightly pointed out, if an act differs from other acts merely by degree and not by kind, then it cannot be intrinsically evil. 

And yet it is obvious to us what Torture is.  We know it when we see it, and we know that it is something quite different from mere corporal punishment, regardless of the severity of pain such punishment may inflict.  We know that it differs in kind from corporal punishment and not merely by degree.  We know, in fact, that the object or aim of Torture is different from the object or aim of mere corporal punishment.  We know as well that Torture can achieve its aim even without the use of corporal punishment.  Psychological Torture can be inflicted without causing physical pain.  

This means that physical pain, even torment, is a means to an end in the act of Torture.  If a torturer can achieve his object without the means of inflicting physical pain, he will.  Torture, then, is not severe corporal punishment, though severe corporal punishment can be a method torturers use.

What, then, is the object (the aim, end, goal, intention) of Torture - what characterizes it as an act differing in kind from other acts?  What makes it intrinsically evil and how can we put that into words?

Well, Paul Rhodes achieved this in my backyard one summer's evening during a meeting of the ChesterBelloc Drinking and Debating Club.  He said, simply, ... 

TORTURE is the attempt to destroy the Image of God in another.

I will let Paul himself elaborate on that (my emphasis) ...

It should be added that torture, because it is an attempt to destroy one's free will and thereby destroy his rational soul--i.e. that which makes the special creation of the human being special--, constitutes an attack on the dignity of man. According to Catholic Theology the dignity of man, our free will, is the Imago Dei, the Image of God. Torture then is the attempt to destroy the Image of God. And this is the ultimate reason why it is always wrong everywhere in all circumstances, even when the ticking time bomb is a bomb that will destroy the entire world. No defense of a transient good, even if that transient good is the whole world, can justify a deliberate and concerted attempt to destroy the image of God. 
Put another way, human dignity is the foundation of human rights. If torture can be justified even in one instance, then that means that human dignity is dispensable, and that means that human rights are not rights at all but mere privileges we have only at the whim of a transient tyrant. If you think torture can be justified, then you simply cannot think that our Creator has endowed us with Inalienable Rights. 
My claim is that torture is wrong even if it is the only means to save all the lives of the entire world for the reason that the attempt to destroy the Imago Dei is far more evil than the destruction of human corporeal life. So, obviously I reject [a] utilitarian calculus. Either you believe that God must be revered, honored, and worshipped even to the point of agonizing sacrifice or you don't.

This is it, friends, in a nutshell.

And if you think about it, stepping back from Torture for a moment, the worst things that we suffer at the hands of others during our earthly pilgrimage all have this element of an attack against, or a denial of, our dignity as persons.

Even mundane and trivial sleights can illustrate this.  Standing in line for hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles only to be told dismissively that you've brought the wrong paperwork makes us angry not just because of the time wasted but because it's dehumanizing: it denies the dignity of man.  Being used by someone for sex or money in a romantic relationship stings so deeply not just because of the lying and treason involved, but because when one person does this to another, he or she is denying the dignity of man.  The trauma inflicted upon victims of sex abuse or other violent crimes comes not so much from the physical harm suffered, but from the psychological fact being conveyed by the victimizer, whose act tells the victim: you are worthless, you have no dignity, you are a mere tool for my use.

Torture is the most extreme example of this, and Torture also contains something that no one in this debate has yet admitted: sadistic pleasure.  The power we feel when we dismantle the Image of God is the lust of Satan - if we can kill God in another, we become gods ourselves.

This is why Torture is possibly the worst thing a person can do.

And this is why any Catholic who supports it should be utterly and deeply ashamed.


Mark Holgate said...

I'd love to see you treat the issue of usury Kevin. It's one of those forgotten sins, but one of real relevance to us. Do you know of anyone writing lucid material on it?

Tom Leith said...

Hmmm. Bonus points are always good. How does one have a sneering and contemptuous tone on the internet? This is why I've never become a writer -- I'm tone deaf -- I can only write technical manuals.

Thomas Storck writes quite a bit on usury -- here's an example published in Communio. The paragraphs in the CCC on the topic seem very thin to me -- I'd love to see an authoritative (i.e. magisterial) treatment of the topic that specifically addresses this question: "If it be licit to collect rent on four walls and a roof, why isn't it licit to collect rent on the means to acquire four walls and a roof?"

Kevin O'Brien said...


It seems to me that if it's an encyclical you want on this issue, Pope Francis could indeed be your guy. It could indeed come from this particular pontiff, I think.

Mark, I had delved into usury a bit on this blog, and Tom was involved in the comboxes at the time.

It is a difficult issue, but it is worth treating seriously. Maybe I'll be foolish enough to do so.

Paul Stilwell said...

Good post.

I ask some questions relating to corporal punishment in the "UPDATE" to this post here:

Tom Leith said...

I rather hope he does -- I like seeing my traddie acquaintances go all apoplectic. It is most amusing.

Patrick Kinsale said...

Forget torture. How does one join the ChesterBelloc Drinking and Debating Club?

Gerard Plourde said...

This is one of the clearest and most rational explanations of the intrinsic evil of torture that I've encountered. It's sad that the dissenters have closed their ears (and apparently their hearts).

scholasticorum said...

Does your argument here amount to an argument against the possibility of capital punishment, as well?

"...torture, because it is an attempt to destroy one's free will and thereby destroy his rational soul--i.e. that which makes the special creation of the human being special--, constitutes an attack on the dignity of man."

One could replace 'torture' with 'capital punishment' to similar effect. But capital punishment is not *in principle* forbidden by the Church. So, this cannot be the reason why the Church forbids torture (if it does).


Sebonde said...

Killing the body, as grave as that action is, does not kill the soul. Matthew 10:28

StevenD-Jasper said...

nobody gives a shit about your stupid torture arguments. It's just liberal nonsense..

Scott W. said...

nobody gives a shit about your stupid torture arguments. It's just liberal nonsense

That man is made in the Image of God is not a liberal argument.

Stephen Lowe said...

I see Tom leith has the authentic catholic spirit that you so relish. Is smugness a sin brother?

Tucker said...

great post. I couldn't help thinking of a kid twisting the arm of another, or pinning him down, and demanding the one under pressure cry out "uncle" before he is released. We learn to use (and love) torture early in life don't we?

Anonymous said...

Tom, straw man arguments are for the lazy and untruthful. There are lots of traddies who recoil from unrestrained economic liberalism.


Kevin O'Brien said...

... and lots of traddies who get apoplectic with any mention of a critique of capitalism, or for that matter libertarianism.

It's not a straw man argument. It may be a stereotype, but some stereotypes are valid.