Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Secular vs Non-Secular Acceptance of Torture

A reader has called my attention to an article in the National Catholic Reporter that reports on the fact that "Americans, Especially Catholics, Approve of Torture."

I suspect that it may have been difficult for some Catholics to accept the results of this survey. The Church’s official position is that torture is never justified. Yet, this survey says that many Catholics have strayed from Church doctrine, embracing that which the Church condemns as evil. Indeed, they may even be embarrassed by the suggestion that non-Catholics make better Catholics than the Catholics themselves do on this issue.

On this matter, the author of the story, Tom Carney, deserves a note of praise. Typically, people condemn surveys that yield results that they do not like, preferring to attack the messenger with ad hominems and magnifying every little fault and imperfection they might find in the study. They do nothing but look for an excuse to ignore the findings and pretend the world is not the way that the survey describes it.

Mr. Carney showed no evidence of this. He accepted the survey and used it as his starting point. It is quite refreshing to read a writer who has that much intellectual integrity.


I have read other blogs in which writers have used this survey to assert that secular individuals are more moral than sectarian individuals.

This is actually a poor argument. It begs the question. Such a claim requires the assumption that the answer secular people are more likely to give is the right answer. However, if we assume this, then we are assuming that the secular answer is better than the sectarian answer. From this assumption we cannot legitimately infer that secular people are more moral than sectarian people without begging the question.

The argument is like having two people looking at a long column of numbers. The first person comes up with a total of 547,984,983. The other comes up with a total of 547,984,984 and asserts, "Ha, this proves that I can do math better than you." Whether the person's claim is true depends on what the real sum of numbers happens to be -- which is something that the story does not tell us.


Another problem with the poll concerns its ambiguity. What exactly qualifies as a "suspected terrorist"? Tell these people a story about a military unit that draws the name of a village out of a hat, sends in troops to round up all of the citizens, and locks them up as “suspected terrorists”. They plan on torturing every one of these citizens. Ask them if they would support the torture of these prisoners? Compare this to the person who interprets a "suspected terrorist" as somebody for whom the evidence of terrorism is overwhelming. To this person, nobody becomes a "suspected terrorist" until there is overwhelming evidence against them. He thinks he is being asked about the torture of such a person.

Given these possibilities, it is quite possible for the former person to say that torture is almost never justified (given the way people are indiscriminately rounded up), while the other says that torture is often justified (since we are talking about somebody has almost certainly just planted a bomb in a highly populated area that will otherwise soon take a huge number of innocent lives).

Perhaps the differences in numbers have more to do with how different groups tend to interpret the question than in any differences in moral beliefs. This makes it difficult to know what differences actually exist.

In Opposition to Torture

Putting these problems aside, I can give an argument to show that ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ are the correct answers.

Using desire utilitarianism, if you do not want to be tortured, and do not want those that you care about to be tortured, then the best thing to do is to promote an aversion to torture. The way to promote a universal aversion to torture is to stand ready to condemn and to punish those who would torture -- to react with harsh anger and criminal sanctions in the worst cases, and to encourage others to do the same. The more strongly torture is condemned, the less of it there should be.

In contrast, the Bush Administration, by its actions, is weakening the social aversion to torture. They do this by telling the world that torture is acceptable.

Using the principle of "do unto others", Bush and his friends are telling the rest of the world, “you may do unto us Americans that which we do unto you.” If any who support Bush should discover that he has been kidnapped and hauled off to a foreign prison, where he is tortured and brutalized without a lawyer or a trial, only to be released a year later when his captors finally believe he knew nothing; they would not be able to protest that they were treated unjustly without making themselves hypocrites. They have told the world, “This is okay.” Morality does not allow an individual to suddenly jump to a different principle when they are the recipient.

Those who want less torture, and think that they have a right to protest if they or those they love should be brutalized in this way, have reason to condemn torture. In addition, they have reason to show their contempt and anger for those who support the institution of torture.

Sure, I can come up with scenarios in which torturing somebody -- even torturing an innocent person -- may come out as a good thing. If I were abducted by aliens who assured me that they will destroy the Earth unless I torture some innocent child, I would probably torture the innocent child.

However, I can honestly say that I do not expect to ever find myself in a situation where torture would be acceptable. As a matter of philosophical reflection, I may say that torture is ‘rarely’ permissible because of the stories I can imagine where torture may be necessary. On the other hand, to the degree that I think of morality as a practical part of the real world, I recognize that there will almost certainly be no real-world situation where torture is a good thing. That is to say, torture in the real world is never justified.

I suspect that many who answer “never” see torture in this light. They fear that if they say ‘rarely,’ that others will assume that they have found one of those rare instances where they have not. It is better . . . safer . . . to say “never”. No innocent person will ever be tortured by somebody who believes that torture is never permissible. His torturer will always be somebody from one of the other groups. His torturer will more likely be somebody who thinks torture is “often” permissible than one who thinks it is “rarely” permissible.

If you never torture, then you will never risk torturing somebody who does not deserve it. This is true in just the same way that if you never kill anybody, you will never kill an innocent person.


Given all of this, the correct answer as to whether torture is permissible is "never" or "rarely". Since more secular people give the right answer, it would follow that secular people have a better understanding of morality than non-secular people. Those who seek to cast secular people as those who have divorced themselves from morality would have some explaining to do.

However, in order to reach this conclusion, one has to do more than point to the essay and say, “Here, I told you so!” One does have an obligation to say something as to why the answers that secular people are more likely to give are, in fact, the right answer. Without this, the argument that “more secular people say torture is rarely or ever permissible; therefore, secular people are more moral on average than non-secular people,” is circular. Yet, even this conclusion, when it is proved, has dangerous implications. It still remains the case that it is wrong to judge all Catholics by statistics. Any particular Catholic can still answer that torture is rarely or never permissible. It is the official doctrine of the Catholic Church that torture is never permissible. Such a person ought not to be judged immoral because he is Catholic and Catholics tend to favor torture more than others. This would be as immoral as saying that a particular man is a criminal because he is blacks and a larger portion of blacks are criminals than of whites. This is bigotry, and it has no place in the life of a morally good person.

A Catholic such as this ought to be judged moral because he holds that torture is rarely or never justified, which is the right answer. This is what matters.

A Catholic who opposes torture is not an enemy because he is Catholic. He is an allie because he is lending his voice to the battle to oppose torture.

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