Throughout most of human history the principle that all human beings are morally equal is largely unique to the Jewish and Christian traditions. This blog, "The Moral Christian", explores the clash between those whose lives are ordered according to the transcendent teachings of God as expressed in the Hebrew scriptures and Christian Gospels and those for whom no transcendent moral authority exists

Monday, May 04, 2009

Defining Dignity Down


Russell E. Saltzman, associate editor of First Things, has taken the position that torture is immoral. In his article titled The Mental Murder of Torture, Saltzman writes, in so many words, that no justification exists for the kind of torture committed by the United States in its enhanced interrogation techniques. Saltzman advances two arguments in support of this claim, neither of which are compelling.

First, he claims the moral high ground by wrapping himself in the cloak of ecclesial authority:
I'm a pastor. I think as a pastor, which is to say as a parish theologian. I don't care if these guys shrieked like little girls on the playground and blubbered out plots for everything from the St. Valentine's Day Massacre to knocking over Bagdad candy stores as juvenile delinquents. Torture is morally wrong.
I would hope that other pastors would hide their faces in embarrassment. This is not moral reasoning. This is argument by authority. Who cares if he's a pastor. Saltzman simply asserts that torture is morally wrong because, well, he has moral insight evidently not available to the laity. Anyway, let's do something he does not and examine his assertion. To this end, I offer a thought experiement that posits two scenarios:

Predicate: We know the hideout of three suspected terrorists whom we know for a certainty are plotting the bombing of an elementary school while the classes are in session. We do not know the details of the plot, however,. For example, we do not know the target's location nor the means by which the bomb is to be delivered. However, history shows that the organization to which these terrorists belong have always used suicide bombers.

Scenario 1: Late one night the terrorist's hideout is raided. After waterboarding all three we learn that, indeed, they were to deliver the bomb the next day to the suicide bomber. The necessary steps are taken and the bombing is prevented.

Scenario 2: A predator drone observes the three terrorists leave their hideout driving a white van labeled Acme Janitorial Service. A predator drone is called in and the van, along with its occupants, are blown to smithereens. Subsequent investigation confirms their identity as terrorists and their intent to deliver a bomb to a suicide bomber.

What are the moral differences, if any, between these two scenarios? We shall use, as our moral authority, three institutions - (1) God, (2) the U.N. and Nato, and (3) the mother of those the terrorist intended to murder.

We begin by asking God: Referring to slander, Vayikra 19:16 teaches  "... do not stand aside while your brother's blood is shed - I am Hashem". This is based on the belief that God views the immorality of slander as akin to that of murder. Therefore, to turn away while another's reputation is falsely besmirched (or an innocent is murdered) is to take on a portion of the guilt that would otherwise be due the slanderer. No less applicable is the Rabbinic understanding of Exodus 22 and the Law of Rodef (the Pursuer). It seems that Leviticus and Rodef contemplate circumstances in which preemptive killing is a moral obligation. Torture, as conducted by the United States, is explicitly designed to seek the same ends -- just as do Rodef and Leviticus -- without the death of the terrorist.

Thus, the answer from God is explicit: Those with the power and authority to prevent a murder and do not, are themselves guilty of murder.

Next, let's ask what the U.N and NATO have to say: Both of these organizations recognize the morality of preemptively killing terrorists. Accordingly, they (and we) have been bombing terrorists in cars and vans using predator drones since the inception of the war on terror. 

Somehow, the preemptive killing of the three terrorists escapes Pastor Saltzman's critical eye. Apparently, medically supervised interrogation techniques that preserve the lives of the terrorists and and manifestly save the lives of their [intended] victims is of greater insult to the Pastor's moral values. 

Finally, how might the mother of the intended victims  view Pastor Saltzman's moral reasoning?


First, the mother observes that Pastor Saltzman makes the argument that honoring human dignity as conferred by the imago dei, precludes the use of torture. Lamenting the waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Pastor Saltzman writes...
Along with an account of Khalid's crimes also must come an account of his humanity. Personhood carries an elementary dignity, even when the person carrying it is one of our cruelest enemies.
Of course, but so what? What does dignity have to do with an issue that, in its moral essence, is a justice issue. 

Nevertheless, suppose Pastor Saltzman insists that we contemplate only the dignity argument. the mother's response is to ask whether Pastor Saltzman really believes that saving Khalid from embarrassment is a higher moral act than preventing the murder of an innocent child? 

For amusement, let's imagine a dialog between Pastor Saltzman and the mom:

Pastor Saltzman: Excuse me, Ma'am, but which is the higher moral act - Making Khalid stand naked in a pool of his own urine in order to save the life of your precious child, or allowing your child to be murdered so as not to risk embarrassing the Sheik?

Mother: Huh? You went to what seminary?

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

To: "The Moral Christian"
From: "The Immoral Heathen"

Simply substitute the word "criminal" for the word "terrorist" and you will have an answer to your loaded hypothetical. Situational ethics or moral relativism never sounded so sweet!

Really looking forward to our FBI and police departments adopting torture, as I'm sure you are too! For someone who claims to be a Vietnam era soldier, you must have been AWOL (like Lt. Bush) on the day they taught us never to violate the Geneva Convention.

Michael said...

I don't understand what you mean by situational ethics or moral relativism. Perhaps you could explain.

As for the comment about the police and FBI adopting torture. You may recall that a sheriff in Florida tortured a prisoner in order to obtain the location of a child the guy had buried alive. The torture worked. The child was rescued. The Sheriff was fired.

I am sincerely interested in your moral justification for NOT torturing this guy.

My point is simply that torture is not always and everywhere immoral. If you do not agree, I challenge you to provide a philosophical or theological basis to the contrary.

Cheers,

Anonymous said...

Since you are the one asserting that torture is acceptable behavior, contrary to the Geneva Convention, a litany of U.S. and international laws and the pastor you have disparaged, it would behoove you to justify your amoral argument on theological and/or philosophical tenets. Perhaps you'll find it in the Old Testament in the text where slavery is sanctioned. And Google situational ethics and moral relativism while you're at it, you might be surprised what you find.

Michael said...

(1) FACT: The Geneva conventions do not apply to terrorists. They apply only to soldiers in uniform under the authority of a nation-state. Period! Moreover, the international laws to which you refer have a similar purview and they most assuredly do not apply to terrorism.

(2)Nevertheless, if you insist on applying them, note that NATO and the Geneva conventions heartily approve of killing terrorists before they can commit a terrorist act. The nations of NATO and the coalition have been preemptively killing terrorists since the 1980s. To this end, the incoherence of your argument is manifest when you insist that it's ok to prevent a terrorist attack by preemptively killing the terrorist(s), but it's wrong to prevent a terrorist attack by using a tool that accomplishes the same goal while keeping the terrorist(s) alive and free from any long term physical or emotional damage. Surely you recognize the foolishness of such an argument?

(3) The pastor's argument (and the argument of the Christian and Jewish faiths) is that torture is a violation of human dignity -- a position with which I heartily agree. However, as is so often the case in moral conflicts, competing claims have to be balanced. In the case of violating the human dignity of a terrorist in order to save the human dignity of the innocent, I think the moral claims of the innocent ought to win. If you don't, why not?

Anonymous said...

1. Your sheriff in Florida story is a load of crap. For one who claims to heartily agrees that torture is a violation of human dignity you are over anxious to sanction it even down to our local police departments! !
2. The Viet Cong met every definition of terrorist but we upheld the Geneva Convention when they were captured, as we did with the NVA, but as a Cobra pilot you'd know that.
3.Killing on a battle field (your drone nonsense) bears no relation to torturing your captives and the rules of war have always differentiated between the two. But not you! And talk about argument by authority, look in the mirror.
2. You owe the pastor an apology for your torturous, bloodthirsty medically unsupervised reasoning. Americans don't use torture, we're the good guys, remember? We're Americans.

Dom said...

I'm not sure if you know what Saltzman means by dignity.
The thing about torture is that it isn't the mere inflicting of pain on someone. What is perverted about torture is that it pits the victim against himself. It dehumanizes the victim, as well as the torturer.

Another point I'd like to raise. Your argument seems to rest on the idea that torturing is justified in saving many lives. You also point out that not torturing in some cases might be the greater evil (standing aside while my brother's blood is spilled).

Now what if the terrorist we've captured is an extremely tough one and refuses to divulge anything, even after rigorous torture. Do you now stand aside and let your brother's blood be spilled? Or could you try and raise the stakes? Would you perhaps torture members of the terrorist's family? The thing is, where do you stop?

What if the victim is in fact innocent? Aren't there also more effective and moral ways of obtaining information? Skillful interrogation I've heard is just as effective, chemicals, etc.

If someone believes that torture is a moral perversion - and many people do: scientists, academicians, soldiers, politicians as well as pastors - then taking an absolute stance against it isn't that preposterous an idea.

Michael said...

Dom,

I'm not sure if you know what Saltzman means by dignity.

It doesn't really matter one way or another since Saltzman doesn't take the time to define it. I define human dignity to be violated when the humanity of a person is diminished in some way. For example, pro-abortion advocates diminish the human dignity of the unborn in order to justify the withholding of their human rights.

... It dehumanizes the victim, as well as the torturer.

From where does your claim originate? There certainly is no Biblical warrant that you can cite, can you? In any case, the prudent choice of when and who to torture is, at its essence, a justice issue - not one of dignity. But, if you insist on making torture a dignity issue, then how do you arbitrate between the demands of justice and demands of dignity? Your position (and Saltzman's) seem to be that human dignity trumps justice in all cases. Again, I find no Biblical or theological warrant for such a position.

Your argument seems to rest on the idea that torturing is justified in saving many lives.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but it is the belief that torture may result in the saving of innocent lives. To this end, note carefully the use of the words"belief", "may", and "innocent". Nothing in what I've written can legitimally be taken as absolute. To this end, whether and when to torture ought to be determined by a process of moral reflection that parallels Just War Thinking. In this way, I argue that not all torture is moral, not all torture is immoral, and situations exist in which we are morally obligated to resort to torture. As an exercise in understanding, replace the word 'torture' in the previous sentence with the word 'war', and let me know whether you agree.

You also point out that not torturing in some cases might be the greater evil (standing aside while my brother's blood is spilled).

See previous rebuttal, above

Now what if the terrorist we've captured is an extremely tough one and refuses to divulge anything, even after rigorous torture. Do you now stand aside and let your brother's blood be spilled?

According to my moral calculus, one would have no choice but to "stand by". Like war, torture is a last resort. When there are no other options, then nothing more can be done. Ok? Thus, your scenario misses the point.

Moreover, the Biblical injunction applies only to those who can prevent their brother's blood from being spilt. In the case where the last resort fails then by construction nothing can be done. So, the nuclear suitcase will explode and thousands of innocents are murdered.

...Or could you try and raise the stakes?

Depends on what the stakes might be.

Would you perhaps torture members of the terrorist's family?

Only if one knew of a certainty that a member of the terrorist's family knew where the suitcase was hidden. In that case, the member of the terrorist's family is himself a terrorist and subject to the justice of torture.

What if the victim is in fact innocent?

I suspect you are against capital punishment. As for myself, I do not object to capital punishment. The arguments are the same. Some innocents will die (or be tortured) by mistake.

Aren't there also more effective and moral ways of obtaining information? Skillful interrogation I've heard is just as effective, chemicals, etc.

Of course there are. You make an absurd argument here. One that assumes that I support torture as an option other than the last resort. If torture is the last resort, then all of the other techniques have failed. OK?

If someone believes that torture is a moral perversion - and many people do: scientists, academicians, soldiers, politicians as well as pastors - then taking an absolute stance against it isn't that preposterous an idea.

Yes, it is a preposterous idea. But I would remind you that Saltzman takes the absolute position against torture, not me.