A catalog of failed arguments

February 20, 2010 § 29 Comments

”For true and false will in no better way be revealed and uncovered than in resistance to a contradiction.” — St. Thomas Aquinas

This is going to be a live document listing failed arguments which contend that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture. It is the fifth article in a series of seven, which starts here.

An old story: the Knights of Columbus got so used to telling the same jokes to each other over and over again that they started referring to them by number. During a meeting, Sam called out “number seven!” and the whole room roared with laughter. Ted called out “number twelve!” Dead silence. The Knight sitting next to him whispered “Sorry Ted, you just aren’t as good at telling a joke as Sam”.

This will start out sparsely filled and I’ll just edit and publish as I go. Linked posts will contain the refutation, though they may not necessarily be about the refutation or only the refutation. I might (reluctantly — I’d rather work with existing material) write new posts focused specifically on a given refutation if I see a need; but this document will be the index, for now, unless I become convinced that it has to be done in another format (in which case I’ll link from here). (How is that for a run-on sentence?)

For any given argument there are probably tens or hundreds of discussions out there in the ether where it was demolished, so if you think there is a better already-existing refutation let me know. Some of them may be difficult to find, especially the ones in comboxes given the alteration of comment systems over the years. Feel free to make suggestions in the combox, including suggestions about the nosology (the categorization of the errors). I plan to finish up the series and publish a top-level post for it, and then this can be filled in at leisure, over time.

The kinds of errors, again, are catalogued in the previous post, which is also a “live document”. Where the argument in question is simply based on a false premise I’ll say “false premise”. Where it is based on a commonplace fallacy I may also name the fallacy. These are some of the actual erroneous arguments themselves.

It would seem that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture because …

  1. … CCC 2297 doesn’t list “to extract life-saving information”.
    Consequentialism, appeal to finer detail
  2. … executing the guilty is not intrinsically immoral. Omitting facts in an analogy, appeal to an incomplete definition
  3. … we waterboarded SERE trainees.
    Omitting facts in an analogy, equivocation. Furthermore, our own government has expressly said that “the SERE waterboard experience is so different from the subsequent Agency usage as to make it almost irrelevant.” (See the memorandum itself in PDF form here, page 43, footnote 51).
  4. … it gives Islamic prisoners an excuse to tell us what they know, under their religion.
    Appeal to an incomplete definition
  5. … Catholics are free to disagree about it.
    See no evil.
  6. … the Magisterium has not said so specifically.
    Appeal to finer detail, see no evil
  7. … ticking time bombs have really bad consequences if we don’t defuse them.
    Consequentialism, appeal to an incomplete definition.
  8. … you would do it if your own family was threatened.
    Consequentialism, ad hominem
  9. … the terrorist captive is an attacker, so waterboarding him is an act of self-defense
    False premise
  10. … it is justified under the principle of double-effect
    Consequentialism
  11. … spanking children is not torture
    Appeal to an incomplete definition, omitting facts in an analogy
  12. … we don’t have a single, authoritative, precise, and complete definition of torture.
    Appeal to an incomplete definition, appeal to finer detail, see no evil
  13. … it falls under the just war doctrine.
    Consequentialism
  14. … it does not cause permanent harm.
    Appeal to an incomplete definition
  15. … the CIA men who did it are brave, professional men protecting American lives.
    Ad hominem, begging the question
  16. … it works.
    Consequentialism, raving non-sequitur
  17. … to oppose it you have to be a radical pacifist.
    Raving nonsequitur, reverse ad-hominem
  18. … the only kind of people who think that are people who hate actual anti-abortion groups.
    Raving nonsequitur, reverse ad-hominem
  19. … modern waterboarding does not include some of the elaborations used by medieval waterboarders.
    Raving nonsequitur, appeal to an incomplete definition
  20. … because Christopher Hitchens agreed to be waterboarded, but did not agree to have his teeth pulled out with pliers.
    Raving nonsequitur, appeal to an incomplete definition
    See also the argument from SERE training.
  21. … we only did it three times to three high value targets.
    Raving nonsequitur. Also see here.
  22. … people who think so are insisting that we treat our enemies better than our own soldiers.
    This is just the old SERE argument already addressed above combined with an extra dash of raving nonsequitur and reverse ad-hominem.
  23. … you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
    Consequentialism, Matthew 16:26 gambit
  24. … Bob is a good Catholic and a daily communicant, and he doesn’t think waterboarding a prisoner for information is torture.
    Ad hominem
  25. … I’m a good Catholic and I don’t think waterboarding a prisoner for information is torture. How dare you suggest that I support something evil?
    Ad hominem
  26. … if you don’t waterboard, that’s revealing in that you don’t trust that you and God can come to a reconciliation. You’d rather maintain your spotless moral record than actually help people.
    Matthew 16:26 gambit, raving non-sequitur
  27. … it isn’t torture if you do it to illegal combatants.
    False premise, raving non-sequitur
  28. … waterboarding KSM stopped an attack on the Library Tower in LA.
    False premise, raving non-sequitur
  29. … a captured terrorist is an unjust aggressor who retains the power to kill many thousands by withholding information about planned attacks. Therefore waterboarding him for information falls under self-defense.
    False premise
  30. … it is only objected to by morally vain gentry liberals.
    Raving non-sequitur, reverse ad hominem
  31. … not doing mild stuff means we’ll have to let the Pakistanis do the real bad stuff.
    Raving non-sequitur, argument from dishonor
  32. … complaining about treatment of prisoners makes U.S. troops kill enemies rather than accept their surrender.
    Raving non-sequitur, argument from dishonor
  33. … if waterboarding is torture that must mean we can’t do anything but give milk and warm cookies to terrorists.
    Raving non-sequitur
  34. … the Church hasn’t absolutely prohibited mutilating the guilty, so mutilation isn’t inhumane treatment. Furthermore all mutilation is worse than waterboarding. Therefore waterboarding is not inhumane treatment, and cannot be torture.
    Appeal to an incomplete definition, appeal to finer detail, mutilated analogy
  35. … Saints have engaged in self-flagellation as penance.
    Raving non-sequitur, omitting facts in an analogy
  36. The terrorists get away with doing worse things to our people when they capture them.
    Double-clutching the standard
  37. … the argument.
    Link to refutation.

(Next in the series)

Tagged: ,

§ 29 Responses to A catalog of failed arguments

  • Excellent. I don't know if it worth adding, but there is certainly plenty of ad hominem of the sort that goes, “Waterboarding is not torture because if it was your family that was being threatened, you wouldn't hesitate to use it.”

  • Mark P. Shea says:

    Okay. Here's one for the Raw Consequentialism file, from the inimitable Greta in the comboxes at Coalition for Clarity:

    “I ask again to show me anywhere in the gospels Christ was taking his disciples on a protest march against crucifixion and everything done to him in the Passion. He was tortured and yet where was the protest. Yet there is no doubt that we would today call this torture in very plain terms and all would agree. Imagine if they had waterboarded Christ and let him go. Where would be our savlvation. Good can never come from evil some of you have said and I point to the Cross and the Passion of our Lord.”

    St. Judas Iscariot, pray for us.

  • Actually Mark I'd call that Colossal Scripture Comprehension Fail.

    She missed her saving throw against Wisdom.

    Scott W.

  • Anonymous says:

    Am I torturing my kids if I spank them in order to find out “Who did this?”

  • zippy says:

    Am I torturing my kids if I spank them in order to find out “Who did this?”

    Lets follow the same reasoning process as the series of posts.

    What is the verdict of history, law, and intuition on that question? I think that verdict is pretty clear: no, spanking children is not torture. (It may or may not be wrong, but it isn't torture).

    Then consult the half-decade of raging arguments on whether there is or is not a compelling argument opposed to that verdict. I haven't seen one, so I would conclude that spanking your children is not torture, though of course it could rise to the level of abuse.

  • Anonymous says:

    Cardinal Dulles said slavery was not intrinsically evil, therefore torture is not intrinsically evil.

    http://js-kit.com/api/static/pop_comments?ref=http%3A%2F%2Fmarkshea.blogspot.com&path=%2F116076709198444372

  • zippy says:

    The question of whether torture is or is not intrinsically evil is off topic in this series, though it is touched on briefly in the first post.

    This series specifically addresses the question of whether waterboarding prisoners for information is or is not torture.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    This post leads me to note that the world clearly lost an analytic philosopher when you decided to become something else, Zippy.

  • zippy says:

    At least I didn't use Godel-numbering for the list. =D

  • JohnMcG says:

    One addition might be, “The CIA investigators are brave professional men doing what they need to do to keep Americans safe, and real good guys as well, not evil men like the Nazis.”

    Thiessen seems to lean pretty heavily on the contrast between what we think a torturer looks like and the professional, dedicated men of the CIA.

  • zippy says:

    Thiessen seems to lean pretty heavily on the contrast between what we think a torturer looks like and the professional, dedicated men of the CIA.

    I guess I'd call that one begging the question and ad hominem. In this case the ad hominem is reversed: because it was done by good men, therefore it is a good act.

  • In addition to my intial response, I dredged up an old entry from my old blog that addresses the “your family” argument and put it on my current blog here: http://romishgraffiti.wordpress.com/2010/02/21/waterboarding-and-27-ninjas-scenario-mambo-5-what-if-it-was-your-family/

    If you think its any good, link it if you wish.

    Scott W.

  • Mark P. Shea says:

    19. …we only did it three times to three high value targets.

    20. …God can bring good out of evil as he did with the crucifixion, therefore those who call waterboarding torture are denying God's power to bring good out of evil. Imagine if Jesus had only been waterboarded and not tortured to death. Where would we be then?

    (Hey. I'm just repeating the argument. I'm not saying it's sane.)

  • Mark P. Shea says:

    21. ….because Christopher Hitchen agreed to be waterboarded, but did not agree to have his teeth pulled out with pliers. Ergo, it's not torture (even though Hitchens and the whole civilized world says it is).

  • Mark P. Shea says:

    22. …. I was in NYC on 9/11 and you can all to go to hell, you cowards!

    http://js-kit.com/api/static/pop_comments?ref=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.markshea.blogspot.com%2F&path=%2F5725474162336626066

    23. Modern waterboarding does not include some of the elaborations used by medieval waterboarders, so it's not torture.

    http://disputations.blogspot.com/2010_02_01_archive.html#7940542184663468172

  • zippy says:

    I already have a category called “raving nonsequitur”. I think I'll pass on a special one for “freaking nuts”.

  • zippy says:

    Kind of annoying that some of the new comment systems don't have permalinks for specific comments.

  • JohnMcG says:

    This was more of a one time thing, but there was the Anchoress's post that if you don't waterboard, that's revealing in that you don't trust that you and God can come to a reconciliation. You'd rather maintain your spotless moral record than actually help people.

    I wouldn't be surprised to see a reprise.

  • JohnMcG says:

    There's also the argument that eschewing waterboarding in the ticking-time bomb scenario definitely condemns a city to destruction.

    In addition to consequentailism, you have demonstrated that this conclusion relies on moral certainty about things that things we cannot possible be certain about.

  • zippy says:

    OK John, I've tweaked both the Grimoire and the list to reflect those. Let me know if you think I've missed any important substantive point.

  • Tom says:

    Who bears the cost of moral vanity?” is fundamentally #12 / #14.

    But it makes me wonder whether we should distinguish failed arguments contending that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture from failed arguments contending that waterboarding prisoners for information is not objectionable.

    The “only 3, 6 years ago” argument is probably more “not objectionable,” as are some of the ad hominems.

    In any case, the moral vanity post offers three variants on the “not objectionable” position:

    1. It's only objected to by morally vain gentry liberals.

    2. Not doing mild stuff means the Pakistanis will do the real bad stuff.

    3. Complaining about treatment of prisoners makes U.S. troops kill enemies rather than accept their surrender.

  • zippy says:

    The first seems like a riff related to #18 too: that is, only the morally vain could oppose waterboarding.

    But it makes me wonder whether we should distinguish failed arguments contending that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture from failed arguments contending that waterboarding prisoners for information is not objectionable.

    “Waterboarding isn't torture” and “torture is sometimes acceptable” are two different assertions, and I've tried to keep this particular series of posts focused on why no rational Catholic should believe the former. It is true though that they are often thrown in together in an attempt to avoid the conclusion: “it isn't torture because we would never torture, and anyway sometimes torture is necessary so it is OK when we do it” sums up the overall approach, as far as I can tell. That's why Marc Thiessen can cite Fr. Harrison without blinking, even though Harrison thinks torture might not be intrinsically immoral and Thiessen thinks it is but that waterboarding isn't torture. They disagree with each other about why, but since waterboarding wins they make nice bedfellows.

    The second and third ones are kind of an extortion from presumed dishonor: “if you don't let the CIA do this mildly evil thing our troops are gonna do this more evil thing”. Seems rather insulting to the honor of American troops to me. Probably worth putting in the Grimoire in addition to the catalog.

  • It seems there should be one for the false dichotomy that if we don't torture them, then the alternative is to give them milk and cookies, tuck them into bed and read them a bedtime story, but I'm not sure how it would be worded. I thought of it when jasper croaked, “I think lots of hugs and kisses is the answer…”

    Scott W.

  • Zippy says:

    I guess that strikes me as just a raving non-sequitur, related to the “if you think waterboarding is torture you must be a radical pacifist”.

  • Ok, I guess it is another raving non-sequitur, but it's a new one on me: The Corporal mortification dilemma

  • […] of grave intrinsic evil can and have taken eight years to make elaborate rationalizations for it.  And not just this one, but many others, all lousy. The only reason the argument stopped was because the GOP lost. And when they have had the chance, […]

  • […] all those years of Catholics arguing for the mortal sin of torture in my comboxes, twisting themselves in a vast catalog of logical pretzels to do it, it turns out that in addition to being gravely evil, torture (as we should have known all along) […]

  • […] updated my waterboarding catalog to include an argument we’ve all heard many times but that my series failed to […]

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