Sunday, February 01, 2015

Informing Your Conscience Appropriately

I posted an explanation of why waterboarding constitutes torture several weeks ago here. Unfortunately, the controversy continues to rage, and I suspect that some official body (maybe the USCCB) will eventually have to speak up in a more definitive way. However, I want to suggest first that people consider what has already been said. Here is a passage from the Catechism concerning the use of torture, which I excerpted in my last post.

UPDATE: I think there is still some confusion on how we are to respond to fallible teachings and what prudential judgment actually entails. Please refer to my post on that subject here.


The specific prohibition against torture is in CCC paragraph 2297: "Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity" (condensed formula in the Compendium 477).

So the operational definition of torture, according to the Church, is "use of physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred." It is morally wrong because it "is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity." In other words, it treats a person as a thing and not as a person.


Now the Catechism and Magisterium in general do not give long lists of practices that are morally evil. They do on occasion, but they simply cannot address every immoral act in detail. Humanity's capacity for evil is sadly far too creative, despite the touted banality of evil. They rely on others (catechists, priests, deacons, moral theologians, and other teachers) to teach and form us through methodologies that help us learn to think with the Church. In this case, the Church has given us two pieces of information that should be forming our consciences about this subject: the definition of torture, and the reason for its prohibition.

The definition of torture is "physical or moral violence" used "to extract confessions," etc. The reason it is wrong because it "is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity."
  • So does the action being taken, whatever that action may be, use physical or moral violence to extract a confession? *
  • Is the action contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity?
These are the two questions we should be asking ourselves. We should not have to search for specific mention of the action in a list of forbidden actions because we are given the criteria for discernment right here.

So if we apply this to waterboarding, what are our answers?

It is clear that waterboarding uses physical or moral violence to extract a confession. Violence is defined simply as "rough or injurious use of physical force, action, or treatment." If you don't think that waterboarding is "rough use of physical force," then you have not exposed yourself to a realistic description of waterboarding. It is not just splashing water in someone's face, or dunking their head very briefly under water. It requires physical restraint (force), it involves a simulation of drowning that lasts (in each instance) long enough to induce terror in the subject (moral violence), and it results in quick capitulation. Even the hardest people break under it within about 14 seconds. That is why most SERE programs stopped using even though they used it in very controlled circumstances.** Imagine, then, it being used by someone who really wants something from you and most likely doesn't think well of you.

So it is clearly rough physical treatment or force. You can't perform the technique without the use of force.

So the next question is, does it treat the subject with respect for the person and for human dignity? Is it respectful to compel someone by force to say what they know? Is it treating them with human dignity? Is it dignified to by forced to beg for mercy, to vomit and choke, to say anything no matter how preposterous just to make someone stop performing an action on you because you are in fear for your life? Is it dignified to be intentionally reduced to a crying, shivering wreck? Because that's what happens with waterboarding in a real situation (not in training or movies).

People who have been through training in controlled environments should known full well that their instructors are not going to kill them. But people under true interrogation by enemies have no such guarantees. In some cases, the odds may very well be against such a guarantee.You cannot slightly waterboard someone and expect to get results. To work, it must be done in excess. That is why it works (inasmuch as it causes people to confess).

I don't see how anyone with a properly formed conscience can say that such an action is in accord with human dignity. 

So that treats the object or action of the matter, and that should be enough to clearly establish that waterboarding is torture according to the two criteria provided by the Catechism. 

But many people have brought up the matter of consequence. So let's talk about that. First, consequence never changes an immoral act into a good act. An intrinsically immoral act is is always immoral regardless of whether it produces results. To claim that torture can be morally good given circumstances is to engage in consequentialist reasoning at worst or proportionalist reasoning at best.

Another good explanation of proportionalism is here on the website of my alma mater. But let me outline the two primary points
Proportionalists argue this [some act] could be a morally good choice (and therefore a good act) if:
a) some greater good is achievable by this act (i.e. brings about greater good consequences); or,
b) some truly proportionate reason is present to justify this choice (after weighing various positive and negative values).
As the article states, this theory goes against the clear teaching set down in the Catechism (1756), Veritatis Splendor (47, 78, and 80), and Gaudium et Spes (n. 27). So proportionalism as a methodology for moral formation does not accord with the official teaching of the Church expressed over the last 50 years. Both Benedict XVI and Pope St. John Paul II have condemned it. So to use that methodology to justify actions is not morally in accord with the current teaching of the Church.

Second, the results of waterboarding are dubious. Torture in general frequently results in misleading and false information jumbled together with elements of the truth, for the very simple reason that people will say anything under extreme duress. So in a ticking time-bomb scenario, when an interrogator has to verify facts quickly, is the use of waterboarding likely to result in accurate information that will allow them to immediately address an emergency? Your guess is as good as mine. I'm guessing not. It will result in a grab bag of details that will have to be separately verified. Many professional interrogators dislike and dismiss the use of torture for this very reason. They get better information if they treat prisoners with respect and compassion.

We have a doctrine about the use of force in national defense called the Just War theory. One of the conditions for Just War is that the action will have the likelihood of succeeding. A doomed or doubtful effort disqualifies such action as just as it may cause more harm than good. By this criterion, the use of waterboarding should also be considered unjust in that the results are dubious.

So to summarize, the two criteria given in the Catechism to use to determine the moral liciety of a technique in interrogation are:
  • Does the action being taken, whatever that action may be, use physical or moral violence to extract a confession? *
  • Is the action contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity?
The results do not enter into the question, but even if you do consider them, waterboarding doesn't pass muster.

Finally, I would like to charitably say that we should not be guided by individual voices who might argue persuasively and convincingly in support of this practice. We should be guided by the Church's official teaching. Catholic philosophers and theologians might need to debate these matters to get clarity, but the Church is the authority here. As one theologian friend of mine said, we're getting a glimpse of the sausage factory that is the method of theological dialogue. It is unpalatable to most of us who are not used to it. So if you aren't a theologian or moral philosopher, it is not the best place for you to form your mind on the subject. Trust the guidance of the Church instead, even if you find it uncomfortable.

Grace and peace to all of you.

* A confession is not necessarily a matter of personal guilt, mind you, but simply confessing knowledge of something. 

** The DOD actually came out against this practice when it was discovered that the SERE training facility was still using this technique a few years back. See the notes in my last blog post.
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