Re-evaluating Policy as an Atheist #2: Torture

In the past year in particular, the notion of torture has held an interesting place in American politics. This ambiguous tactic (what exactly is torture, anyway) resurfaces from time to time in American politics. Opinions on the topic of torture have very serious implications for ethics and public policy. As a Christian, I found the idea of torture appalling. Completely repugnant was the idea that a civilized government (or non-governmental organization) would employ the tactics of torture on citizens or foreigners for any reason. Something that still surprises me to this day, I was in the minority opinion (to the best of my knowledge) among my fellow Christians.

So what is torture? Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture define it this way: “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.” (emphasis mine)

As a Christian, this issue seemed simple. Under no circumstances would torture be acceptable. The utilitarian concept of using any individual as a means to an end, in this instance, seemed unacceptable. If human life is sacred, after all, under what authority would any man be justified in demeaning that human life? Since I have lived in America my entire life, it is normal form me to interpret issues and events through the paradigm of my national identity. As an American, it seemed almost unpatriotic to surrender the moral high ground and employ those tactics which I might expect from a terrorist abroad.

When I first left the faith, my opinions on this issue did not immediately change. The idea itself is still reprehensible. But utilitarian ethics make more sense to me now. Individuals seem to have potential value rather than innate value. The danger here is that this can become very subjective, but in my eyes Hitler surrendered much of his own rights, liberties, and indeed human value. In much the same way that I believe a nation-state can surrender its rights to sovereignty, I believe an individual can surrender their rights, even to life. Perhaps.

What I often come back to is the so-called “ticking time bomb scenario” thought experiment. If authorities have in custody a suspect who possesses knowledge of the location of a time bomb expected to explode imminently, would it not be acceptable to use whatever means necessary to extract from the suspect the information needed to save innocent lives? The obvious, if uncomfortable, choice for me would be to employ methods of torture on the suspect.

On the other hand, this seems to be a simplistic, and perhaps misleading, scenario. It fails to take into consideration several issues that I see as relevant.

  1. The suspect may be innocent – just because the authorities have a suspect in custody, does not mean that the suspect actually knows anything. To employ methods of torture on the subject may be entirely unjustified.
  2. The single act of torture undermines all anti-torture international law – Upon deciding to indulge in acts of torture, a nation-state is setting a very dangerous precedent. For example, if the American CIA were to torture an Iranian citizen who they believe to have immediately pertinent information, what is to stop the Iranian government from making the same claim if they were to capture an American military officer?
  3. There is some evidence to indicate that torture is not effective – Even under torture, the information given may not be true. In that case, the acting nation-state would have wasted valuable time to receive faulty information that could result in the very consequence they were hoping to avoid. I recognize that this argument is inconclusive, but
  4. To quote Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would sacrifice essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security.” The idealist in me would argue that the most well-intentioned decision to employ torture has chosen to sacrifice moral grounds upon which to wage the war.

Position as a Christian: Anti-torture under any circumstances.

Re-evaluated position: Tentatively remain anti-torture under any circumstances. Open to further review.

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8 Responses to “Re-evaluating Policy as an Atheist #2: Torture”

  1. Samuel Skinner Says:

    So what you’re saying is that opposition to torture belongs as a moral law, but when two moral laws collide one has to give.

    In the case of the US we signed an agreement (Geneva Convention) stating we wouldn’t torture people so in addition to “is torture justified?” we also have “is breaking a situation where everyone benefits for our benefit acceptable?”

  2. I really like this series – it is very smart to re-evaluate your ethics and moral stands after leaving Christianity. I did something very similar, and it is amazing to me how little my moral stands on controversial issues has actually changed after leaving Christianity.

  3. wilybadger Says:

    Yeah, torture is a Bad Thing. How can we possibly condem other countries using it if we practice it ourselves? I’d like to think we have the moral high ground on at least a few things, even after the last few years.

    I am also reminded of something “60 Minutes” aired recently. It was an interview with the FBI agent tasked with interrogating Saddam Hussien. Interestingly, not once did he use torture, and he got plenty of info. I also saw something months ago (I think on “60 Minutes”, but I’m not sure), where they were interviewing Americans who had interrogated German POWs during World War II. Strangely, despite the fact that the Nazis were a real menace to the entire world, and certainly a greater external threat than Al Qaeda, they never once tortured anyone for information. Instead they used proven, effective, interrogation techniques (like playing cards and befriending them).

    Lastly, tt’s worth reemphasizing the point: information obtained under torture is NOT reliatble. If you’re being tortured, you’ll likely tell your interrogater anything they want to know, just to get them to stop. That’s hardly the best way to get information.

  4. Here is my belief, despite my live-and-let-live belief for all sentient beings.

    If you kill someone, you give up your right to life, and the party responsible for your death can be those closest to the one you killed, and I don’t think those involved should have to die if they decide to end your life.

    If you torture someone (under your own free will, not some command from your superiors), you are now allowed to be tortured yourself, with the same logic as followed above.

    Anything you subject others to forcefully and against their will, in essence, you yourself are now allowed to be subject to such as well.

  5. Of course, we need to do trial by jury to find you guilty first. Innocent till proven guilty, right? Sorry for not adding that as well. 🙂

  6. No, no. If you kill someone, you only end up with a corpse. Besides, violence only begats more violence. Far better to simply lock someone up and let them stay behind bars for the rest of their life. Perhaps they’ll learn the error of their ways, perhaps not. We need to at least give them the chance to learn from thier mistakes.

  7. audaciousman Says:

    “Open to further review.”

    – Isn’t this the essence of honesty?

    “it is amazing to me how little my moral stands on controversial issues has actually changed after leaving Christianity.”

    – My suspicion is that one reason we leave the fold is that our morals/values/ethics demand it after a time, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t change as they are what prompted the move in the first place. Or did for me anyway.

    Oh, and for what it’s worth, if a thing is bad, it’s bad. I believe torture is bad, so I cannot condone it without compromising my integrity.

  8. I found it interesting that, in your opposition to torture, “I was in the minority opinion (to the best of my knowledge) among my fellow Christians.” I think what those Christians are worshipping is not Jesus Christ (who himself was a victim of torture), but the idol of state power. But it’s an idol that goes unexamined and unrecognized.

    At another level, as a member of Amnesty International, I continue to sense the damage that the Bush administration has done to our profile as a nation. It wasn’t so long ago that the US was considered a beacon of respect for human rights. I’m used to it being countries like Burma and Sudan (not to mention the former Soviet Union) who have secret prisons, people detained for months and years without charges, and leaders who defy constitutional restraint.

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