When Morals and Surviving Clash (Torture, War, Terrorism, etc.)


#1

I saw an article about torture, terrorism, and ISIS on the news site MercatorNet. It got me thinking about the Church’s moral teachings, especially as it relates to war and surviving. Often, I find myself frustrated with Church teaching on such things. It seems that the Church is too concerned with honor and a hazy idea of superior morals instead of the lives of human beings. The Church seems to teach that it’s better for a known, remorseless terrorist to go free and/or live unharmed, when torturing them could gain vital information to global security, or executing them could stop a planned attack or disillusion their followers.

Yes, I know, we call this utilitarianism, and I am aware of its problems, so I do not identify as a utilitarian. But there comes a point, IMO, when it becomes “your principles or your life” (or the lives of other people). As Dick Cheney once said, “principle does you no good if you lose”.

To use an analogy, maybe some here have watched or read Game of Thrones. One of the main characters, Eddard Stark, is known for being an honorable man and always “playing by the rules”. Unfortunately, because he does so, the family that is out to destroy him and his family gains massive political power, and he ultimately ends up with his head on a spike.

The point I’m making is that just because you play by the rules doesn’t mean those who want you dead will too. I am not, trying to argue that the ends justify the means. Rather, I am saying that survival (not prosperity) sometimes depends on suspending your ideals and getting your hands dirty. I’m not saying it’s okay, I am saying it is necessary.

Finally, it reminds me of something Aquinas said: you should not be merciful if mercy amounts to enabling someone to sin. Then you are causing scandal by teaching them that crime pays. It is not that you hate the person you are torturing or executing, it is that they (or their cohorts) need to be stopped, and that is the only way to do so.

Somebody prove me wrong?


#2

At the individual level, the simplified answer would be that keeping to moral rectitude is more important than surviving, as we all must die anyhow and moral rectitude leads to eternity.

However, this is not enough for those holding responsibility for the common good, ie, those acting for the security of a civil state.

Our LORD never instituted a civil state nor the rubrics for one, possibly so that human life would have some moral wiggle-room in so doing.

ICXC NIKA


#3

No!

It is never, ever “necessary” to commit an intrinsically evil act.

And you ARE arguing that the ends justify the means. Saying that torture is acceptable when you need information to help the country is saying that the ends justifies the means. You are bending the moral code to suit your own “needs”.

This issue is getting all muddied and clouded by the news media. There is no justification for the torture of another human being.

The good guys value ALL LIFE! And that includes the life of the enemy. That is what makes them the GOOD guys.


#4

It is not that the Church is more concerned about “honor and a hazy idea of superior morals” than human lives but that the Church is more concerned about our souls, and where we will spend eternity. The Church sees that eternity is more mportant than our physical life here in this world. This is a theme throughout the Bible, too.

The Church seems to teach that it’s better for a known, remorseless terrorist to go free and/or live unharmed, when torturing them could gain vital information to global security, or executing them could stop a planned attack or disillusion their followers.

Yes, we should not torture people to obtain information, because that would imperil our souls. the Church teaches that it would be better for the whole world to die than that a sin be committed: sin is *that bad. *

Yes, I know, we call this utilitarianism, and I am aware of its problems, so I do not identify as a utilitarian. But there comes a point, IMO, when it becomes “your principles or your life” (or the lives of other people). As Dick Cheney once said, “principle does you no good if you lose”.

Yes, there are times when it does come down to one’s love for God, one’s gratitude to Christ Who died on the cross for us, and our lives. The Church has been nourished by the blood of martyrs for over 2,000 years.

(For a clear example, consider St Thomas More.)

To use an analogy, maybe some here have watched or read Game of Thrones. One of the main characters, Eddard Stark, is known for being an honorable man and always “playing by the rules”. Unfortunately, because he does so, the family that is out to destroy him and his family gains massive political power, and he ultimately ends up with his head on a spike.

What do you think Eddard Stark thought about this? Did he die thinking, Gee, I should have compromised my principles so they would not kill me? Or did he die knowing he had not stooped to the level of his enemies?

The point I’m making is that just because you play by the rules doesn’t mean those who want you dead will too.

True.

I am not, trying to argue that the ends justify the means. Rather, I am saying that survival (not prosperity) sometimes depends on suspending your ideals and getting your hands dirty. I’m not saying it’s okay, I am saying it is necessary.

What does the Church teach is more important: our short physical life in this world, or our infinite lives in the next world?

Yes, for someone whose *first priority *is to preserve his physical life, there are no limits to what he will do to preserve it. But is that the way God wants us to be?

Finally, it reminds me of something Aquinas said: you should not be merciful if mercy amounts to enabling someone to sin.

I don’t want to comment on what St Thomas Aquinas wrote since you did not cite a reference for this, but as to the ideas you are putting forward: 1. yes, it would be wrong to show mercy to someone if that enabled someone to sin. But mercy is for the contrite, and without an intention to avoid sin, a person is not contrite enough to receive mercy.

Then you are causing scandal by teaching them that crime pays.

Yes, if you allow someone over whom you have authority to sin with only good consequences, then that is the lesson they will learn.

However, again it is a question of priorities. Is it our priority to act in a sinful way in order to stop another person from sinning? Would that be a *sensible *thing to do?

It is not that you hate the person you are torturing or executing, it is that they (or their cohorts) need to be stopped, and that is the only way to do so.

You’re a little all over the place here: 1. you are justifying torture on the grounds that life is more important than avoiding sin, and 2. that by avoiding torturing the enemy, you are enabling him to sin.

No… that is not how it works. I hope I have answered the first point. The second point is moot, because the person has committed the sin in his will.

If I put a bomb in a bank and you found it, you might realize that your trying to disarm it might cause it to go off, so you decide to leave it alone until the bomb squad arrives.

Then the bomb goes off (luckily because you found it the building had already been evacuated so no one was hurt).

Is it your fault that the bomb went off because you did not disarm it? Or is it my fault because I placed the bomb?

If the bomb squad arrives and disarms the bomb before it goes off, does that make me less morally guilty of having set the bomb in the first place?

Somebody prove me wrong?

I think you erred because you do not know all the moral principles involved. Some of them are indeed difficult to adjust to!


#5

Here is what the Catholic Church teaches regarding the treatment of human beings during war.

This is from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Paragraphs 2312-2313 under “Safeguarding Peace” which is in the section regarding the Fifth Commandment.

2312 The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. "The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties."108

2313 Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.
Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out. Thus the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide

The underline and coloring is my addition trying to stress the main points I am trying to land. This is not “Game of Thrones”. Yes, the enemy does not always play by the rules, but abandoning the moral law given to us by God is in effect abandoning God. (John 14:23-24)


#6

"It is vanity (worthless/futile)* to wish for long life and to care little about a well-spent life."* Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis


#7

God Bless

Thank you for reading
Josh


#8

I can’t help but notice that this is the exact same rhetoric used by those who try to justify abortion, or contraception or whatever the particular sin is. Basically, the Church is out of touch and has unrealistic standards. It should just shut up and let us do what needs to be done.

The problem is, these standards aren’t the Church’s invention. They are God’s commands. We can’t ignore them.

The Church seems to teach that it’s better for a known, remorseless terrorist to go free and/or live unharmed, when torturing them could gain vital information to global security, or executing them could stop a planned attack or disillusion their followers.

The Church never says it’s better to free them. It does say ALL human beings are made in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity. Yes. Even our enemies. This is the demand of the Gospel.

Besides, it’s a myth that unless we torture terrorists, people will die. Torture has been proven over and over and over and over again to lead to unreliable and/or useless information. It’s simply not a practical policy. The recent report from the CIA even admits that torture didn’t give them good information:

KSM had only admitted to plots that had been abandoned or already disrupted; that KSM fabricated information in order to tell CIA interrogators “what he thought they wanted to hear”; and that KSM generally only provided information when “boxed in” by information already known to CIA debriefers. This information was not included in CIA representations to policy makers later that month.(pg 212)

But there comes a point, IMO, when it becomes “your principles or your life” (or the lives of other people). As Dick Cheney once said, “principle does you no good if you lose”.

He who loves his life, loses it, he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”(Jn 12:25)

“25** For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or **what shall a man give in return for his life? 27 For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done” (Matt 16:25-27)

Jesus says the opposite. Sorry. When it comes down to listening to Cheney or Christ, we have to choose Christ.

The point I’m making is that just because you play by the rules doesn’t mean those who want you dead will too. I am not, trying to argue that the ends justify the means. Rather, I am saying that survival (not prosperity) sometimes depends on suspending your ideals and getting your hands dirty. I’m not saying it’s okay, I am saying it is necessary.

This is exactly the rationale used to justify every single atrocity mankind has ever committed. This is dangerous.

You keep saying it’s necessary. I say that’s debatable. No, we don’t have to be doormats, but we can’t do intrinsic evils like torture (which again, doesn’t even work.) or murder innocent civilians, or threaten to rape a man’s mother and kill his children.
(Yes. The CIA did that.)

What good does surviving do if we become the very thing we are fighting against? The enemy has already won.

It is not that you hate the person you are torturing or executing, it is that they (or their cohorts) need to be stopped, and that is the only way to do so.

Somebody prove me wrong?

Let’s say I brought in an old lady from Iraq to you. I tell you I am certain she has vital information about an impending attack. She won’t talk. Would torture be permissible? Would you hang her naked in a freezing roomr? Would you wrap cellophane around her mouth and nose, hang her upside down, pour water over her face, and cause her to think she is drowning? Why not? If it’s just about stopping an attack by doing what needs to be done, then why shouldn’t we torture this woman, who we know is withholding vital information that could save lives? Sometimes we need to get our hands dirty to do what’s necessary right? It’s about surviving.

Do you see the problem here? If torture is not about hate or vengeance, but obtaining info, it shouldn’t matter whether the person we are torturing is innocent or guilty, whether they have personally killed Americans or only aided in it. Yet I don’t know a single person who would approve of the above situation. It’s obviously wrong, because torture is evil. There’s no other word for it.

BTW I’m sorry if I come across like I am angry at you. I’m not. I feel pretty strongly about this though, obviously. :wink: I just hate that we as a country, and as Catholics, have resorted to defending evils that two generations ago would have been unthinkable. We have faced and defeated worse threats (Nazism, Communism) without having to use torture.

Bottom line, righteousness isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. And as soon as we forget that, we’ve lost.


#9

The Church seems to teach that it’s better for a known, remorseless terrorist to go free and/or live unharmed, when torturing them could gain vital information to global security, or executing them could stop a planned attack or disillusion their followers.

That’s a false dichotomy. And wouldn’t torture galvanize the followers of a terrorist group, or at least encourage them to have the means to commit suicide when they are captured. I am much less averse to military execution, particularly if the detainees have committed war crimes and are part of the leadership of the group.

The point I’m making is that just because you play by the rules doesn’t mean those who want you dead will too. I am not, trying to argue that the ends justify the means. Rather, I am saying that survival (not prosperity) sometimes depends on suspending your ideals and getting your hands dirty. I’m not saying it’s okay, I am saying it is necessary.

My secular sense of ethics is not a priori opposed to torture, although there needs to be a compelling justification to inflict an immense amount of physical and psychological suffering to another human being. I do not think that there is a cogent case to demonstrate that torture is necessary to extract vital information or serve as a deterrent. In other words, from a secular perspective, there is a high threshold to justify the use of torture (theoretically), and it seems unlike that there would be a practical scenario where it would be imperative and not just punitive. It just seems rather too primitive, and I do not want to be insouciant and inured to the suffering of another human being.

Just remember that the “terrorists” are human beings too, and most of them are not psychopaths who are innately incapable of remorse, but have some legitimate economic, social, cultural grievances. Furthermore, the US foreign policy interests (beyond the physical safety of its citizens) are not all magnanimous, and “global security” is often a euphemism for making the world safe for US economic hegemony.


#10

As the US accepts torture of foreigners, this could provide an excuse for the foreign country to to reciprocate and torture American hostages.


#11

No, it’s fine. I wrote a lot of contentious statements in the first post. I do that quite often here on CAF because I’m expressing my honest concerns. I am often looking to be refuted (hence my last sentence, “somebody prove me wrong?”

Thank you


#12

On a practical level, you’re asking about something we shouldn’t be in a position of having to answer. Torture doesn’t work. If the decision makers would learn this, the question wouldn’t need to be asked.


#13

I heat talk about the “legal” definition of torture. WHat is it?

Here is what I am finding:

(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—
(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
© the threat of imminent death; or
(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and
(3) “United States” means the several States of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.

law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2340

The most widely accepted definition of torture internationally is that set out by Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT):

“… ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

irct.org/what-is-torture/defining-torture.aspx

These pillars are most
vividly depicted in article 1 of the UN
Declaration against Torture (the first instrument to provide a definition of torture):

  1. For the purpose of this Declaration, torture means any act by which severe pain or
    suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of
    a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating him or other persons. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to, lawful sanctions to the extent consistent with the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
  2. Torture constitutes an aggravated and deliberate form of cruel, inhuman or
    degrading treatment or punishment.

corteidh.or.cr/tablas/r08113.pdf

It seems pretty clear. Doesn’t it?


#14

The burden of proof lies on the advocate of torture, since it would seem that extraordinary circumstances and benefits would be needed to even consider justifying it. You need to demonstrate that torture has some positive expected value in a given context. That is the burden of someone using a utilitarian justification for torture, unless you justify it using some other non-egocentric system of ethics (as torture is condoned by its proponents using “utilitarian” considerations).

Finally, it reminds me of something Aquinas said: you should not be merciful if mercy amounts to enabling someone to sin. Then you are causing scandal by teaching them that crime pays. It is not that you hate the person you are torturing or executing, it is that they (or their cohorts) need to be stopped, and that is the only way to do so.

That is not a unique insight by Aquinas, since it is obvious that a regime of tolerance would ultimately be self-defeating if it permits an environment conducive for groups to plan and orchestrate a coup to depose the tolerant regime and establish an intolerant regime that would infringe upon the liberty and freedoms of its citizens. Still, incapacitating the terrorists, such conducting surveillance on their electronic communication and imprisoning them, would prevent harm to the common welfare.

Again, you need to demonstrate that it is the “only way” to stop them, rather just insisting that it is. Perhaps, you should provide a detailed hypothetical exam or one based on a historical case to provide some contest. I am probably the person most receptive to utilitarian reasoning here, and I am not a moralistic woman, but you are the one advocating the controversial position about the necessity of torture.


#15

This is exactly the rationale used to justify every single atrocity mankind has ever committed. This is dangerous.

You keep saying it’s necessary. I say that’s debatable. No, we don’t have to be doormats, but we can’t do intrinsic evils like torture (which again, doesn’t even work.) or murder innocent civilians, or threaten to rape a man’s mother and kill his children.
(Yes. The CIA did that.)

What good does surviving do if we become the very thing we are fighting against? The enemy has already won.

Robyn P, great points!

I think the OP is being swayed by the idea that terrorists being detained an suspected of atrocities somehow “deserves” to be subjected to atrocities themselves. For if this was truly about saving lives or protecting your homeland, then the fact that the terrorists’ children are innocent (even if you argue adult family members likely support the terrorists and therefore are just as guilty), wouldn’t matter at all.

So, if were to actually use a strictly utilitarian analysis, then if a CIA agent actually HAD raped a man’s mother and killed his children in front of him, not merely threatened to do so, and this caused the man to break and give up information, then the agent would have done something moral by committing not just torture, but rape and murder too! I find it very hard to justify such a finding.

As for Eddard Stark, the story is not as simple as “he tried to do the right thing and wound up dead”. He wound up dead not just because of his ethics, but because (1) the other side succeeded in a very risky assassination of a king just before their crimes would have been revealed and (2) he trusted a sociopath (Littlefinger) to do the right thing and help him when he had absolutely no motivation do so; ironically, he actually authorized LF
to commit bribery (a sin) in order to bring about this good ending.

We could also argue that the ends Stark sought to bring about weren’t actually good ends to begin with. He is seeking to keep a putative heir off the throne NOT because he is a depraved sadist (although he happens to be one) but because he just happens to not actually be the legitimate son of the king, even though the king himself attained his position by rebelling and usurping the crown from the king prior to him.

So we are dealing with two completely different issues here.


#16

Every immoral act you undertake is not only an act against yourself or the person you are acting against, but also an act against God. All your above boils down to “I’m more important than God, so I don’t care if what I’m doing is harmful to Him because doing it benefits me.”


#17

Thank you, everyone, for your responses. No, I don’t think a terrorist “deserves” torture. (In fact, because God’s grace is a free gift, I have become annoyed with the word “deserve”; it has the connotation of an entitlement mentality, in my mind).

Really, I was looking for a counterpoint to the idea of realpolitik. I had, in my mind, a notion that morality is inherently a good way to wind up pushing daisies (which would seem to be a paradox of the Church’s pro-human life rhetoric), and I wanted that notion dispelled.

I apologize if I came off as ruthless or unforgiving. I was trying to play devil’s advocate, so I could understand the issue better.

(P.S. tip o’ the hat to ToeInTheWater for clarifying the Game of Thrones nod. I knew it was more complex than that, I just couldn’t articulate it).


#18

To be honest, I am beginning to see a problem with the use of the term pro-life, which is that it gives people the wrong impression that human life is the number one top priority. Pro-life is about the obligation people have not to kill innocent human beings; it in no way puts maintaining human life above refraining from sin.

I apologize if I came off as ruthless or unforgiving. I was trying to play devil’s advocate, so I could understand the issue better.

I try to say something like, some people say… What’s a good Catholic response?

(P.S. tip o’ the hat to ToeInTheWater for clarifying the Game of Thrones nod. I knew it was more complex than that, I just couldn’t articulate it).


#19

The Church isn’t pro-human, it’s pro-God. For pro-human look to atheistic humanism.


#20

I would be careful with your wording there. Just because we are pro-God doesn’t necessarily mean we have to be misanthropes. Being pro-human and pro-God need not be mutually exclusive. IMHO, true humanism is found in God, for humans are made in God’s image and likeness.


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