The Gasping Grimoire

February 20, 2010 § 14 Comments

And so. The reasons from history and law lead to the conclusion that waterboarding prisoners for information[1] is torture. The reasons from intuition lead to the conclusion that waterboarding prisoners for information is torture. I think these in themselves are quite conclusive, and further demonstration is not necessary. But still we are often presented arguments that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture.

I can’t possibly estimate how many of these not-T arguments have presented themselves over more than half a decade. It has been quite a few. These arguments have been presented by highly motivated and intelligent interlocutors. I have yet to see a single one which held up to scrutiny. (Sometimes they even conflict with each other; but the sheer volume of fallacy at work here already puts that beyond the scope of the current series of posts).

If half a decade of highly motivated disputation cannot produce a single valid argument with true premises that waterboarding is not torture, contrary to the verdict of law, history, and intuition – if there is no respectable argument that despite all the quacking and waddling and the right genetic sequence what we have is not, as it turns out, a duck – then we simply must conclude that waterboarding prisoners for information is torture. In the abstract, yes, it is possible that the Lost Argument is out there somewhere, just as it is possible that the duck is a robot sent by the betazoids to spy on us. But it isn’t one, trust me: it’s a duck.

These arguments fall into many different categories or modes. These modes of error are often combined into a single argument: this makes the argument doubly invalid, since it fails on both modes.

Consequentialism, or an appeal to the reasons why the prisoner is waterboarded, may be the most common. The canonical example is the argument that while waterboarding for punishment (say) might be torture, waterboarding for information to save lives is not. This is consequentialism because no intrinsically immoral act can become a not-intrinsically-immoral act simply by changing the reason why you do it. A sub-genre is the classic ad hominem, to wit, would you really let your own family die screaming in pain rather than waterboard a hardened terrorist? Needless to say, this challenge performs no work in terms of assigning moral categories.

The Matthew 16:26 gambit takes this a step further. The consequences of failing to waterboard the prisoner are proposed to be enormously large; the certainty that doing so will save the day complete. Those who maintain the claim that it is still torture and therefore still wrong are often said to be obsessed with the strict letter of the law, at the (putative) expense of permitting a terrible event to unfold, in order to maintain a psychological sense of purity. Sometimes it is argued that one simply must waterboard the prisoner in such a case, and trust in God’s forgiveness.

One problem with this argument is that it proves too much: it applies just as much to methodical evisceration as to waterboarding. Another is that the certainties involved are purely hypothetical. But in any event it boils down to consequentialism with large doses of drama to help it go down.

A brief note about ad hominem, even though it is a standard fallacy covered elsewhere: An argument of the form “Q because Bob is a good guy and he believes Q” is just as much an ad hominem as the more common “not Q because Bob is a bad guy and he believes Q.” What ad hominem represents is an attempt to redirect attention onto various personalities and away from the substantive matter at hand. While that may often lead to colorful discussion, it performs no work in terms of demonstrating that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture.

Appeals to an incomplete definition are an interesting variation. For all these years it has supposedly been a weakness of the anti-torture position that there is no single, authoritative, precise and complete definition of torture. In point of fact this works against the pro-waterboarding arguments, not in their favor, now that we are discussing a concrete act. Shoe, meet other foot. In casting this spell, the person arguing that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture commits (implicitly or explicitly, because his argument depends on this commitment whether he realizes it or not) to some particular definition and then proposes that waterboarding a prisoner for information does not meet that definition. But unless the definition he proposes can distinguish between torture and not-torture in every case, the move is vacuous. All that needs to be done to falsify it is to provide a single example where his definition fails to distinguish between torture and not-torture.

Taking a typical example, the notion seems to be that by adding “because there is a ticking time bomb” as a fact about the act, what would otherwise be defined as torture becomes not-torture. But it is obvious that this change in circumstances cannot make an act of torture into not-torture: surely the fact that it is done while a bomb is ticking cannot change crucifixion from torture into not-torture.

Maybe another example will help, since this one is a bit subtle. Marc Thiessen argues that waterboarding Islamic prisoners gives them an excuse to cooperate. (In fact this extends the irony of waterboarding-as-baptism-parody: Islamic prisoners receive absolution for betraying their consciences through the anti-sacrament). But surely the fact that it gives them an excuse to sing like canaries wouldn’t justify crucifying them: crucifixion doesn’t go from torture to not-torture by mixing in a little “it gives him an excuse to talk”. The distinction in question is clearly incapable of conjuring the desired category change.

Omitting facts in an analogy is common, often combined with an equivocation. Two factually different acts are given the same label, setting up a supposed if-then relation. If “waterboarding” troops to train them to resist torture is not torture, then “waterboarding” prisoners for information is not torture: even though (just as some examples of factual distinctions) trainees are volunteers in friendly hands who can end the session at any time through a special signal; while prisoners are captives in hostile hands upon whom the procedure is repeated until they break down and start singing. Under this form of argument asserting the same label somehow magically transforms two very distinct kinds of acts into the same thing, despite clear factual differences.

Another canonical example is the notion that because execution of a tried and convicted criminal meets the requirement for humane treatment, waterboarding must also be humane treatment, and therefore not torture. Yet clearly the analogy to execution doesn’t work. As Tom of Disputations has pointed out, the idea seems to be that because we can chop off a particular man’s head, therefore we can chop off his toes; we can electrocute a man’s heart, so why not his genitals? Responses to pointing out the failure in the analogy tend to be very verbose forms of “my thoughts exactly: if we can execute him, why can’t we do any of these other things to him?” Since this analogy, if valid, would permit many specific acts which clearly are torture, “waterboarding is not torture” isn’t a valid conclusion from it. An inadequate analogy is every bit as incapable of distinguishing torture from not-torture as an incomplete definition.

When the analogy and its putative concomitants are pressed to the point of elaborate confusion, we might call it a mutilated analogy[2]. For example, there are those who would claim that some forms of mutilation are licit punishment, and that therefore (!) waterboarding is not torture. Lets grant the premise for the sake of argument: stipulate that there exists some form of mutilation which is a licit punishment. (Presumably the person making this argument would not say that all forms of mutilation are licit punishment). The problem with the analogy to this specific form of mutilation, whatever it happens to be (I haven’t seen a specific form of mutilation proposed to fill in this place in the argument), is basically the same as the problem with the analogy to execution in the previous paragraph. Even if we could say “X is a licit form of mutilation for punishment”, it doesn’t follow from this that it is impossible to torture through something other than mutilation, or that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture. Shocking a man’s genitals with electricity until he tells us what we want to know is torture, even if we do it in such a way as to cause no mutilation of his body. The presumption seems to be that if some unspecified mutilation X is licit as punishment, anything “less than” X cannot be inhumane treatment; that waterboarding is “less than” X, and therefore not torture. The best one can say of this argument is that it is grossly incomplete: it gives us no reason to believe that there is some number line (?) of “badness” (?) of acts upon which we can place all forms of mutilation, with waterboarding on that same number line, where waterboarding is “less than” all forms of mutilation, and torture is defined as such by the position of the act on that number line, etc. It probably goes without saying at this point, but “waterboarding is not torture” doesn’t follow from an incomplete jumble of analogies and assertions which we have clear reasons to disbelieve.

A classic in the history of the St. Blogs torture wars is the see no evil: the contention that torture doesn’t signify anything definite other than the disapproval of the person making the accusation of torture. Yes, this argument was actually made at one point. A more subtle variation is the claim that Catholics are free to disagree, as if that automatically ends every discussion over what is true. Er, ok. Just realize that “free to disagree” is indistinguishable from “I’m shutting up now, and I wish you would too”. And “I’m shutting up now, and I wish you would too” does not have the capacity to make waterboarding prisoners not-torture.

Another fallacious mode of argument is Magisterial positivism, or more colloquially an appeal to finer detail. Waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture because the Magisterium has not specifically said that it is. But of course the Magisterium has not said that suction aspiration of a living fetus is an abortion either. On the one hand, the Magisterium imposes latae sententiae excommunication on anyone who procures or performs an abortion. On the other hand, how can we know that the person procured an abortion if the Magisterium hasn’t defined suction aspiration as abortion? The appeal to finer detail is one of those gifts that keep on giving: like a small child saying “why” over and over again, there is no answering it. Even if the Pope himself declared ex cathedra that waterboarding is torture, some Catholic would claim — indeed some Catholic has already claimed — that, you see, there is waterboarding, and then there is waterboarding. (Er, ok).

The argument from dishonor suggests that if we don’t waterboard prisoners our troops will respond by violating rules of engagement and summarily executing combatants in the field who try to surrender, and further that we will render prisoners to others (like Pakistan) who are willing to perform worse tortures on them than we would. Obviously this argument is incapable of making waterboarding not-torture. In addition it represents a kind of extortion to evil: if you don’t let us do this mildly evil thing, you are going to “force” us to do this much worse thing. Apparently the folks who advance this argument are capable of simultaneously holding in their heads a genuine support for our troops intermingled with contempt for them.

Then we have, for lack of a better term, the raving non-sequitur. A premise is followed by a putative conclusion which does not follow from the premise. Often this is stated in the form of a reverse ad-hominem, where it is suggested not that the conclusion is ludicrous because of the man but the man is ludicrous because of the conclusion. The problem, of course, is that the conclusion doesn’t in fact follow from the premise. The suggestion that anyone who thinks waterboarding is torture is thereby a radical pacifist is a canonical example.

Double-clutching the standard is when the existence of a putative double-standard is invoked as an excuse for doing moral wrong.  This is a form of the raving non-sequitur.  A canonical example is the claim that what the terrorists do to our people is worse than what we do to theirs.  It goes without saying that this fails to establish that waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture.

I am going to make an “open post” of this: that is, I’ll add modes of error to it over time, if it makes sense to do that, and tweak existing ones. The next post will also be an open post: in it I’ll catalogue some of the more interesting arguments by summarizing the argument and either briefly stating or linking to what makes it invalid; and I’ll add to the list as more come up or (as is more likely) old ones rear their heads again.

My bottom line motivation, as usual, is laziness. The next time someone asks me why he should believe that waterboarding prisoners for information is torture, and why it matters, I’ll just have to pass on a link.


[1] I state it that way because some of the arguments that it is not torture depend on the “for information” part, so it is only fair to include that fact in the description.

[2] I considered “assuming a single dimension and transitivity” as the name of this invalid argument form; but part of the goal here is to make the arguments as easy to understand as possible, and most people respond “huh?” when I say things like that.


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§ 14 Responses to The Gasping Grimoire

  • Mark P. Shea says:

    First rate. I'm linking this from here on in.

    Oh, and though, of course, *I* totally know what a “grimoire” is, I'm asking for, uh, all those *other* people who don't know, “Er, what's a grimoire?”

  • zippy says:

    A book of spells, Grasshopper. :)

  • Mark failed his saving throw on nerdy Dungeons & Dragons-speak. :)

    Scott W.

    P.S. And before someone asks: Saving Throw.

  • Tommy says:

    Appeals to an incomplete definition are an interesting variation. For all these years it has supposedly been a weakness of the anti-torture position that there is no single, authoritative, precise and complete definition of torture.

    Zippy, I am not sure you have captured the essence of this argument adequately. At least, the more subtle form of it. Let me see if I can re-construct it:

    The definitions of torture are not only incomplete, they are somewhat muddled. Some of the definitions out there focus mainly on the degree of pain imposed: critical to the meaning of the word is severe pain. From this stance, crucifixion would be torture par excellence, chopping off a limb would be right in there, and tickling someone until they are can't breathe just ain't in the running. The claim from at least a portion of this group is that things that are unpleasant but are not physically painful are not torture, although they can be a form of abuse. So, this group contends that putting a gun to your wife and threatening her life unless you talk is a different category of evil than torture, it is a different kind of abuse of human dignity, because it is not imposing severe pain. The contention about waterboarding, then, is that however unpleasant it may feel, that unpleasantness is not the unpleasantness of severe pain, and therefore is something other than torture.

    The second half of the argument is that some definitions of torture seem to incorporate intention into the very meaning of the word: it is pain inflicted for revenge, or for confession, or for sadistic pleasure of the torturer, or to terrorize populations, etc. This part of the argument contends that “for extracting information” is not one of the intentions that is included in the list of things that make the imposing of pain into torture.

    The third part of the problem is the muddling of definitions that I referred to (because either of the defining categories above, standing alone, do not appear to be adequate to really define torture). It appears from various attempts in the direction defining torture that some things are torture if they impose moderately significant pain or other kind of suffering (including mental anguish) for revenge, or confession, etc, while _other_ things are torture if they impose severe pain REGARDLESS of the intention. From this angle, they say, waterboarding escapes either prong: it does impose significant suffering, but not for one of the intentions that makes it torture (so it's not under the first) and it does NOT impose severe pain (so it's not under the second).

  • Tommy says:

    All wrapped up in the argument as a kind of backdrop is the notion that there are acts that constitute imposing unpleasantness on someone that simply don't arise to the gravity that is implied by the word “torture.” Under this backdrop, those who don't classify waterboarding as torture suppose that any distress that is mainly mental in nature could not be considered torture unless it were of such a nature as to literally drive the person insane.

    I am not sure why they think that any lesser kinds of mental suffering imposed don't present the gravity needed for “torture,” but at a guess perhaps it is because with lesser kinds of mental suffering if you stop the treatment and let him go, the suffering ceases altogether and the prisoner is not damaged. Whereas (in their notion) the sorts of things that make torture to be torture are things that damage the person, either in his body or in his spirit, and therefore the gravity of the act is includes not only the momentary distress, but also the expected continuation. (From which they receive some support from Zippy's contention that one of the things that makes torture distinct from punishment is that torture may go on forever and has no inherent limit, and the prisoner knows it has no limit.) And then they contend that the physical aspect of waterboarding alone, while it is significantly unpleasant, is not severely painful, and the mental aspect, while greatly distressing, is not of such a nature as to drive a person mad. And so does not present the gravity implied by “torture.”

    Personally, I don't know that I would call the physical aspect “not severely painful”, because it sounds pretty nasty to me, but it is also the case that those who have been rescued from drowning don't usually talk about how painful the process of drowning is, at least not the part before they are rescued.

    In any case, I think that in order to adequately deal with this “argument from incomplete definition” it is necessary to deal with categorizing acts that don't cause any sort of lasting damage, and for which the distress is not severe physical pain, as torture.

    Arguing, for example, that merely adding “ticking time-bomb” cannot make the act not to be torture because it wouldn't do so for crucifixion, does not quite work: under the two-prong definition above, crucifixion falls under the second prong of the definition whereas waterboarding does not.

  • Zippy says:

    Those are great comments, Tommy. (Keep in mind that this post isn't about particular arguments as much as it is about the kinds of spells cast to turn waterboarding into not-torture: this post isn't intended to address every nuance of every argument. The actual catalogue of bad arguments comes next.)

    I am going to tweak the post based on them, since I am doing a kind of “poor man's wiki” thing here.

    Here is the original section before edits, to stay fair to Tommy's comments (I don't know if I'll be able to do this continuously though: in this thread, you've gotta realize that what you are responding to in the main post may be tweaked or modified after your comment, so the comment may not correspond to the current article text):

    Appeals to an incomplete definition are an interesting variation. For all these years it has supposedly been a weakness of the anti-torture position that there is no single, authoritative, precise and complete definition of torture. In point of fact this works against the pro-waterboarding arguments, not in their favor, now that we are discussing a concrete act. Shoe, meet other foot. Taking the same example, the notion seems to be that by adding “because there is a ticking time bomb” as a fact about the act, what would otherwise be defined as torture becomes not-torture. But it is obvious that this change in circumstances cannot make an act of torture into not-torture: surely the fact that it is done while a bomb is ticking cannot change crucifixion from torture into not-torture.

    Maybe another example will help, since this one is a bit subtle. Marc Thiessen argues that waterboarding Islamic prisoners gives them an excuse to cooperate. (In fact this extends the irony of the waterboarding-as-baptism-parody: Islamic prisoners receive absolution for betraying their consciences through the anti-sacrament). But surely the fact that it gives them an excuse to sing like canaries wouldn't justify crucifying them: crucifixion doesn't go from torture to not-torture by mixing in a little “it gives him an excuse to talk”. The distinction in question is clearly incapable of conjuring the desired category change.

  • zippy says:

    Oh, and Tommy, in my nosology of pathological arguments, the argument “it isn't torture because it doesn't cause permanent harm” is an example of an argument from incomplete definition. We'll address it in the actual catalogue, when I get to that, because it is indeed one of the common ones.

  • Mark P. Shea says:

    Tommy:

    You have forgotten that there is one form of pain which, for torture defenders, *does* rise to the level of torture.

    It is the horrendous pain of “impatience with torture defenders”. Rare indeed is the torture defender who does no curl up in a ball of woundedness and whimper about Lack of Charity when you plainly state that they are torture defenders. I've never seen people so sensitive to pain themselves as those so eager to inflict it on others.

    Seriously though, good addition to a great post.

  • Tommy says:

    Ok, sorry, I forgot that you had more to come. Carry on.

  • Zippy says:

    Tommy: don't apologize for a comment that helped me significantly improve that section of the post! But yes, on we are carrying. :)

  • Katy says:

    Zippy, I followed your link from Mark Shea's blog and I love this.

    You guys keep up the good work. You won't convince everyone, but at least you're a voice against the scandal that is going on.

    “You pro-lifers defend torture, so I don't need to listen to anything you say about Life” is a scandal and somebody has to speak up!

  • [...] as a rhetorical device to mean “shut up” (I’ve referred to this tactic as the appeal to finer detail in a different context),  it is also true that a concept has to be reasonably definite before it [...]

  • [...] pointed out before that there is more than one form of ad hominem fallacy, the fallacy of truth-status-by-association. [...]

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