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.