Ignorance as a License

October 31, 2006 § 7 Comments

The “we don’t have a precise philosophical definition of torture” mantra is part of a larger phenomenon, it seems to me. That phenomenon involves how ignorance is sometimes employed in certain moral questions.

When the proposition “we don’t have a precise philosophical definition of torture” is raised, Mark Shea suggests a three-fold approach to answering it. The first is for the person who is genuinely puzzled about the meaning of the word to consult the dictionary. (People might find that answer patronizing or insulting, but I suspect that is more a function of the question it addresses than of the answer). The second is to review the established law and practices of the past 50 years or so: the Geneva Conventions, etc. When it is asserted that this will not do, Mark proposes the Golden Rule (or simple consistency): if we would consider it torture if it were done to our troops, it is also torture when we do it to captives in the War on Terror. Many have responded to Mark’s systematic approach to providing a definition by claiming that he is against talking about definitions of torture. It is an odd thing at first glance, for so many to accuse a guy who has talked endlessly about definitions of torture of refusing to talk about them.

As I observed in a previous post, this situation is accompanied by an absolutely deafening silence on the part of the very same people who insist that a more precise definition is crucial. The thesis seems to be that we are incapable of obeying the absolute prohibition of torture and treating prisoners humanely without better definitions. Yet in a full year or more of debates, covering thousands of blog entries and comments, I have yet to see a single person – not one – simultaneously assert that a better definition is needed (that is, is required as prerequisite to us actually treating prisoners humanely) and at the same time (or at any time at all, for that matter) actually propose one.

This situation is accompanied by tremendous offense taken at Mark Shea. Lots of people seem to be badly scandalized by the fact that being “anti-anti-torture” (to quote the expressly stated position of the Coalition for Fog blog) is every bit as wicked as being “anti-anti-abortion”. But it is.

The impression all this leaves is inescapable. If we pass through all four stages of attempts at defining how to treat prisoners humanely as the Church commands – dictionary, common practice for the last 50 years, consistency with how we would insist on our soldiers being treated (independent of how they are actually treated), and finally appeal to the person saying we need more to actually propose more – if we pass through all of those stages and get nowhere, with the insistence that we need a definition continuing still, then it is pretty clear that the person we are discussing the issue with is not really invested in getting to a better definition so that we can be sure to treat prisoners humanely. It is pretty clear that what they are doing is planting a flag in a particular piece of moral territory: a piece of moral territory where the prohibition of torture cannot touch us because we don’t know what it means.

And like it or not, whether it scandalizes certain people or not, this is exactly the same kind of thing done by other dissenters on other moral issues: plant a flag in ignorance in order to license what it is we want to excuse.

UPDATE: Tom McKenna points out in the comments that he isn’t a simultaneous definition-insister and definition-denier by referring to two of his blog posts. I think there are issues with his approach that I discuss in the comments, but denying that the understandings we have are sufficient to know how to treat prisoners humanely isn’t one of them. In other words, while I take issue with his substantive understanding – and specifically with the fact that it doesn’t take into account what we know about intrinsic evils – he is nevertheless confronting the issue of definitions, not invoking a putative and never-to-be-resolved lack of them as a moral license. That’s a good thing.

The post wasn’t about “everyone who disagrees with Zippy”, it was about a specific phenomenon of license-through-appeal-to-ignorance. Zippy disagrees with Tom rather strenuously, but Tom ain’t participating in that phenomenon.

Zero-Sum Justice?

October 31, 2006 § Leave a comment

If a policeman is doing something to a criminal that the criminal in objective fact deserves, is it possible for the policeman to be doing wrong?


Say the policeman issues speeding tickets whenever the town coffers start to get empty, and otherwise he hangs out at the donut shop. It seems pretty obvious to me that he is doing wrong, even though the speeders actually do deserve their tickets.

Practical justice is not, it seems to me, a zero-sum game. Just because the bad guy is getting what he deserves, that is no guarantee that those of us who are giving it to him are doing right. Some people may well, as an objective matter of fact, have hanging coming to them. But that doesn’t make the act of the lynch mob into a good act.

Where is the Beef?

October 30, 2006 § 2 Comments

There is this overwhelming insistence on the part of so many in the Catholic blogosphere that in order to know how to treat prisoners humanely, we need a philosophically precise definition of torture. Sure, torture is intrinsically evil, but that is a meaningless statement of fluff without a precise definition of what torture means.

The funny thing is, though, that with all the roundups, all the blog posts, all the flame wars galore, and all this pent up insistence that we need a more precise definition, I have yet to see a single person who insists that we need one attempt to actually provide one. If we really need a more precise definition as a prerequisite to treating prisoners humanely (I am not at all convinced that we do, but so very many people seem to think that we do), it ought to be priority one to provide one. Yet I haven’t seen a single attempt, not one, on the part of any one of the loud voices insisting on a definition, to actually provide a definition and its justification. The only people I’ve seen attempt definitions are not the same people who are insisting that we have to have one before we can treat prisoners humanely.

It is difficult to keep from concluding that when all of these someones insist “we desperately need a precise definition of torture,” they aren’t really saying that we desperately need a precise definition of torture.

Priestly Celibacy…

October 30, 2006 § Leave a comment

…not just for post- Second Laterans.

(HT: Sacramentum Vitae)

The Church of the Jabberwock

October 29, 2006 § 5 Comments

The Church has taught definitively that torture is intrinsically evil, like abortion, adultery, pornography, and euthenasia. At the same time, the Church has not provided a precise definition of torture. (Or any of those other things, for that matter).

This gives rise to two possibilities.

Either the Church takes it for granted that we know what torture is already and can avoid doing it; or the Church is a trickster Church which has definitively prohibited gyring and gimbaling on the wabe without telling us what that means.

So I ask my fellow Catholics: do you believe in a trickster Church of the Jabberwock, or do you believe in the Holy Roman Catholic Church, sure guide to the truths of faith and morals?

Imaginary Morality

October 28, 2006 § 4 Comments

The following idea seems to me to be fairly prevalent: that if there exists in the abstract a justification for doing a thing, we are automatically justified in doing that category of thing even though we are actually motivated to act by other purposes. The notion seems to be that what justifies an act can be sawed off from the act itself: that the legitimate existence of an abstract justification for an imagined act means that the thing we actually chose to do was justified. I think this confuses an abstract imagined act with the actual act.

Maybe we would be justified in executing KSM by drowning, for example. (Probably not: we are probably obligated to carry out executions more humanely as long as we have the means to do so. But lets stipulate it to see where it goes). We did in fact waterboard him, which is just like drowning him only (presumably) not as bad because he isn’t dead at the end of the process.

But the justification of an actual concrete act is not an abstraction which can be sawed away from the actual act itself and treated as independent of the act itself. The justification is included in the act: it is part of what we are choosing to do. That a certain counterfactual act might have been justified says nothing whatsoever about whether the actual act was justified. That we might have been justified in going to war to defend Iraqis from Hussein is irrelevant, because that isn’t what we actually did. That was a desirable/desired side effect of what we did, not a sufficient actual justification (that is, both sufficient in the abstract analysis and sufficient to have made us actually act).

At bottom there is a difference between an invalid rationalization and a valid justification, and this difference lies exactly in the integrity of the justification as connected to the object of the act: correspondence between what we are choosing to do and what makes us actually choose to do it is necessary, it seems to me, not optional.

On what is said, and on what the ears hear

October 27, 2006 § 5 Comments

I want to make something crystal clear.

I’ve said any number of times in comboxes, particularly at Mark Shea’s blog, that modern day torture-apologist Catholics are on the exact same footing as modern day abortion-apologist Catholics like Francis Kissling and Charles Curran. Any number of people, even people who agree with my basic argument that for a Catholic to deny that torture is intrinsically evil in the face of Veritatis Splendour is ludicrous, seem to find that statement offensive.

I am beginning to suspect that this is because those who find it offensive are judging the state of the souls of Kissling and Curran rather than, or in addition to, judging the state of their arguments.

The state of their souls, like the state of the souls of modern-day Catholic torture apologists, (thankfully) isn’t mine to judge. The state of their arguments, like the state of modern-day Catholic torture apologist arguments, is that they are obviously, manifestly wrong.

Where Am I?

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