Jonah Goldberg and the Torture Taboo

November 16, 2007 § 26 Comments

The video is fairly lengthy but may be of interest.

In a nutshell, Goldberg may be coming around to a sane moral position. I don’t follow him enough to know if he believes in exceptionless moral norms or is at bottom a moral relativist; if the latter then “taboo” understood as a positive thing may be as close as his moral philosophy allows him to come to placing something morally off-limits. In any event there is movement in the right direction.

Faster, please.


§ 26 Responses to Jonah Goldberg and the Torture Taboo

  • c matt says:

    I haven’t read ol’ Jonah in a while, but he always struck me as someone who might get caught up in things for a while, but then eventually seems to find his way even if it takes a while and involves quite a bit of meandering.

  • Scott says:

    Go for it. Send JG an email and perhaps he will come around.

  • JohnMcG says:

    Yeah — Beinart didn’t quite address what I thought was the easiest objection — why the universal condmemnation against torture but not killing, when killing’s impact is worse than torture’s?Torture is necessarily intentional, whereas killing need not be. We universally condemn murder; we don’t universally condemn causing bodily harm. Killing:murder = Causing harm:tortureGoldberg makes another point, with which I have some sympathy that goes something like: (Hitler/Pol Pot tortured), Bush tortured; ergot Bush = Hitler. This is the < HREF="" REL="nofollow">reverse Mussolini fallacy<>. Andrew Sullivan and Mark Shea slip into this one occasionally, though Sullivan as late has made it clear that these are the actions those regimes were condemned for doing, which makes a stronger case for its moral unacceptability.

  • SM says:

    johnmcg, I just don’t think your answer to the objection–that torture is necessarily intentional–is at all sufficient, and for a very simple reason: Killing can be entirely intentional, yet still be justified. You have a hidden assumption here, that is intentional killing = murder = always unjustified.Not so.For the record, I’m Catholic and therefore assent to the Catholic Church’s teaching on this issue–torture is intrinsically evil. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t define what constitutes torture, and it doesn’t mean that efforts to do so are somehow inherently corrupt. Shea is incredibly obnoxious on this point, insisting that it’s all a bunch of angels-dancing-on-a-pin hooey designed to obfuscate the issue and make excuses for torture. In his typically contemptuous, dismissive way, Shea accuses people who are tasked with knowing where the lines are drawn of intellectual bad faith.As somebody who could very well find himself in a position to make these kinds of distinctions, I’m interested in answering questions like what exactly is per se “torture”–precisely <>because<> I want to obey God’s law, not because I want to shirk it.

  • Kyle R. Cupp says:

    Goldberg does seem to be moving in the right direction on torture, but he’s still too immersed in consequentialist thinking: saying that torture is wrong but saying there are rare circumstances that justify doing wrong. Within all the discussion of whether or not torture can save lives, we need more talk about how torture damages souls.

  • zippy says:

    <>But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t define what constitutes torture, and it doesn’t mean that efforts to do so are somehow inherently corrupt.<>It isn’t attempts to define torture that are inherently corrupt, but rather attempts to avoid defining torture in a context in which our government has actually been torturing prisoners. What happens quite often, it seems to me, is that many people simply assume that waterboarding a helpless prisoner to extract information is not always torture, and those people will invalidate any attempt to understand/define torture based on that a priori assumption.So it isn’t attempting to define torture that as an objective matter provides intellectual cover for our government’s documented torturing of prisoners. Rather it is attempts to resist defining torture that are the problem: the a priori rejection of any understanding of torture which might result in the conclusion that it was a war crime to waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and that the death-by-strappado of Manadel-al-Jamadi also occured in the context of a war crime (the death itself was apparently accidental, but the torture which led to it was not).The difference between torture and punishment has always seemed fairly obvious as a matter of common sense, although an infinite number of words can be spilled discussing it. Torture is when we make a helpless prisoner suffer in order to get something material out of him as opposed to punishing him as a matter of justice: when we make him suffer as <>nothing but<> a means to some material end of ours, irrespective of the importance of that material end. I’ve discussed this rather extensively here and elsewhere; a search on the word “torture” in the search box above will reveal any number of lengthy discussions on it.

  • zippy says:

    <>Within all the discussion of whether or not torture can save lives, we need more talk about how torture damages souls.<>Indeed, and in particular the soul of the one who does it. Even if we stipulate that a prisoner objectively deserved to be sodomized we wouldn’t sodomize him, even as a punishment after a fair trial, because of what doing so would both reveal about us and make us become. Waterboarding a helpless prisoner is the same sort of thing. We wouldn’t sentence a prisoner to waterboarding as a <>punishment<>, independent of what information he does or doesn’t provide to us. That is because of the kind of act waterboarding a prisoner <>is<> in itself: an act of torture.

  • JohnMcG says:

    Hmm, I don’t see anywhere in my post where I criticized efforts to define torture, and I even acknowledged that some of the arguments against torture are a tad obnoxious and fallacious.And for that, I get lectured about the need to make distinctions.Methinks someone’s a bit touchy and defensive on this issue.

  • Rodak says:

    “I’m interested in answering questions like what exactly is per se “torture”–precisely because I want to obey God’s law”SM–If you have to ask, don’t do it. If the thought of having it done to you is horrifying, don’t do it to your brother.

  • Anonymous says:

    IMHO, Johnmcg came off the best in these comments. He seems the one most interested in the truth and without the typical braggadocio that most ascribe to themselves by virtue of their being “correct” on an issue. (And no I don’t know John nor have been paid by him yto say this.)

  • JohnMcG says:

    The check’s in the mail (;-)

  • Sage says:

    john, I can honestly say I have no idea what you’re talking about. I had no intention of lecturing you about the need to make distinctions, and if it seemed that you were somehow being targeted for scolding by my post, I apologize. You didn’t say anything about defining torture, and I never thought you did. I was talking more about Mark Shea and others who argue in his vein. Only my first paragraph was directed at you, since I thought your argument didn’t prove what you seem to think it did. I thought I was clear on that, but if I wasn’t, I’m sorry.I’m not defensive about this–I just don’t like moral bullying of the anti-intellectual type exhibited by certain people. That’s all. But in so far as my comments about your post in particular are concerned, I sand by my comments.rodak–the problem I have with your formula is that it would make just war theory a useless enterprise. As Christians in a fallen world, we are, unfortunately, obliged to “ask.”

  • Sage says:

    Thanks, Zippy, for the response. It’s the only one that a) was substantive, and b) didn’t contain some kind of accusation.

  • Rodak says:

    Sage–My point was that, in the case of torture (which I think can be differentiated from war in several important ways) the very asking *is* the answer.

  • Mark says:

    sage:I don’t know you and so I don’t know what you are reacting to in my writings. As Zippy himself has chronicled, I did not object to attempts to define torture. Indeed, I offered four different definitions, all of which were slapped away by multiple readers who seemed strangely uninterested in offering their own definition and eager to conclude that there *was* no definition of torture by which we could possibly say whether or not a given act was ever torture.One detects a certain note of insincerity in this after a while: what Tom Kreitzberg referred to as “making the case for fog”. It almost begins to look like, if one is bound and determined to excuse whatever it is the Administration is doing, the quickest way to do it is to shroud it all in semantic confusion.I’m not saying everybody who wants a definition is doing this and I take your word for it that you are trying to obey the Church. I’m merely saying that this is what prompted my eventual tedium and exhaustion with people who clearly were pretending to want a definition, but really seeking perpetual semantic confusion. I’m happy you are not one of them.I eventually came to the conclusion that the entire attempt to find the Bright Line between torture and not-torture was wrong-headed. There is no bright line. So it’s better to do what the catechism reccomends: treat prisoners humanely. Aim for that and nobody will be accidently tortured, because nobody will be trying to tiptoe up to a non-existent bright line without crossing it.

  • Tony M says:

    Rodak, I don’t agree at all that “if you have to ask, don’t do it” works, even though I am against torture categorically. The problem is that the category seems to some people to include acts which others (well intentioned and at least willing to be led aright) don’t, or didn’t, see as included in the category. In order for the one group to engage the other, they have to ASK, is it in the category, and why? Mark, last year I saw in blogging what I thought was an interesting attempt to define it in a way consistent with Church condemnations of it. Roughly, torture is any treatment intended to cause pain or suffering, either for its own sake alone, or for the sake of moving the sufferer to abandon his principles. The first is intrinsically evil because it is doing evil for evil’s sake. The second is wrong in a different way, because it is trying to change someone’s mind in a way which violates the integrity of mind itself, using not argument but coercion. I liked this, because it <> clearly <> shows that torture is intrinsically disordered, but it leaves room for treatment intended as punishment of known, convicted wrongdoers, which is a separate class of act. So coercion in forcing criminals to work on a chain gang is clearly causing them suffering, but its object is not to change their minds or get them to act against their principles, nor sadism. It is to punish their offenses. Thus penal treatment is left untouched by the condemnation of torture (which was the main defect of most attempts to define). But it still leaves room for asking: can I ever do X to a prisoner without it falling into the category of torture because it automatically cannot belong in the category of punishment (or other licit treatments which also cause pain)?

  • Rodak says:

    “The first is intrinsically evil because it is doing evil for evil’s sake.”Tony M.–If you’ve already decided that an act would be “evil”, you can’t do it, whether you define it as torture, or a night at the opera. So this doesn’t help us, if there are people out there who don’t believe, say, waterboarding, to be “evil” because it doesn’t do “permanent damage”, etc.“…its object is not to change their minds or get them to act against their principles, nor sadism. It is to punish their offenses. Thus penal treatment is left untouched…”If you hang a prisoner by his thumbs, not to coerce his will, and not to obtain personal kicks and giggles, but simply because you believe it to be just punishment for his particular crime, are you not, in the event, still torturing him?I stick by my contention that definition is not the way to go, if the goal is to disqualify the use of a given technique which <>might be<> torture, rather than to justify it. If you have to ask “Can I do this licitly?”–you can’t; you’ve answered your question by having to ask it. And, if you can’t answer the question “Would it be licit that this be done to me, were our roles reversed?”–you can’t do it.

  • zippy says:

    <>The first is intrinsically evil because it is doing evil for evil’s sake.<>I don’t think many behaviors are chosen <>for evil’s sake<>, though I do think that people tend to feel more comfortable characterizing evil acts that way. It is easier to think that Hitler wanted to be evil than that he did despicable evil in the pursuit of what he believed to be good ends. The problem is that it isn’t <>true<>, pretty much any of the time, that evil is done for its own sake in human acts.An intrinsically evil act isn’t a matter of <>choosing a behavior for the sake of evil<>. An intrinsically evil act is a matter of <>choosing a behavior that is evil<> for the sake of any end whatsoever, including very good ends like saving lives, etc. The “for the sake of” formulation seems to me to be a consequentialist formula: that is, it displaces the object (chosen behavior) in an intrinsically evil act and attempts to substitute an intended end for it. But that doesn’t work: not only doesn’t it work, it amounts to a denial that the immorality of an intrinsically evil act consists in its object, that is, in the behavior that is chosen by the acting subject independent of his intentions or the circumstances.

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy, Yes, you are right that nobody chooses to do evil for evil’s sake, <> in the order of intention.<> They always choose for a good (at least perceived). So my comment needs clarification. When we respond to a hurt in anger, and as revenge we simply hit back, we are imposing evil on the other person. Simply imposing evil (i.e. a hurt that they suffer) is not intrinsically morally evil, as there are lots of cases where it is appropriate (amputation to save a life, for one example). But the motive here is critical. If we say “he hurt me so I want to hurt him” then our object is evil. That is, the thing we view as good is that he suffer evil, simply. We do harm simply so that he suffer, without having any motive beyond that. This, then, is the normal situation of personal revenge: doing evil for evil’s sake because we have no good intended <> beyond <> the evil. Psychologically, we see simply doing evil <> to him <> as a good. Good for us precisely because evil for him. That is our perception and intent. This is distinct from the punishment imposed by the state or (as in St. Paul) by the prince, by one who has care of the common good, for 3 reasons: first, the penal suffering is imposed not by the person who suffered, and therefore there is no personal motive. Second, the penalty corrects not an individual’s harm, but the harm to the common good. Third, the penalty is a correlative to the offense itself, because in the offense the offender satisfied his own will where he was obliged to obey the law, so that the corrective is that he suffer something that would be against his own will. This is taken directly from St. Thomas. Rodak, I agree with your point about hanging someone by his thumbs. That is why I ended my post by asking “Can I ever do X to a prisoner” because it seems that (for a certain sort of act) by its very nature it cannot properly be used as punishment in justice: if its use cannot be penal properly understood, then the real motive for the pain inflicted cannot be that of punishment and must be to impose evil simply. The question would be, what kinds of acts cannot constitute just and moral punishment, properly understood? Our founding fathers started down that road in the 8th amendment – no cruel and unusual punishments. The issue is, by what principle do we recognize things that are licit as punishment from things that are not? Tony M

  • Rodak says:

    Tony M–When all is said and done, it seems to me that you continue to ask “What’s the <>worst thing<> that I can do to a fellow human being without jeopardizing God’s good opinion of <>me<>?And I continue to insist that if this question even crosses your mind in connection with a particular technique that you are considering using on that man, <>you can’t use it<>.

  • Tony M says:

    Rodak, Ok, then: What do you answer to someone who says putting people in prison constitutes torture? (There are indeed such people around.) They say we don’t have any right to impose our will on them, and taking away their liberty reduces them to objects, and imposes upon them a kind of suffering inappropriate to the human spirit. Or, what do you say to the person who disapproves of your (a) spanking, or (b) slapping the wrist, or (c) putting in the corner, or (d) ANY restraint of little Junior by an imposed condition of discipline, as being immoral? It seems to me that you MUST allow that there are <> principles <> by which we distinguish impositions which are torture from those which are not, or you end up unable to punish in any manner at all.

  • Rodak says:

    “What do you answer to someone who says putting people in prison constitutes torture?”I say that, in principle, they’re wrong. That said, prisons should be humane environments. The punishment should be isolation from society and the benefits thereof, not the endurance of the kind of things we associate with the word “dungeon.” By “humane” I mean only clean, dry, safe, and with adequate food. I don’t mean gymnasiums, cable TV, and internet access. I do approve of libraries.I have no objection to light spanking of children who are failing to respond to verbal commands; but only as a device to get their attention, i.e. not with the intention of inflicting pain as punishment. Standing a kid in the corner, briefly, is fine with me. Locking a kid in a dark closet is not. I wouldn’t do anything to my children that I would be infuriated by if some other adult–including a teacher–did it to them.I, btw, raised two daughters to college age without ever having to spank them. I’m pretty sure that my wife never had to spank them either. Showing my displeaure and disappointment with their conduct verbally was always enough to bring them around.

  • zippy says:

    Tony: I’ve posted < HREF="" REL="nofollow">quite a few times<> about torture here, including exploration of the principles you are looking for. In a nutshell, at least heuristically, when we punish someone legitimately what we are doing is at least in principle independent of whether he “delivers up” some fungible commodity that we find materially useful (yes, including “useful” in the sense of saving the world from total destruction). In self-defense we are acting to stop the person from physically attacking us; any suffering on his part is incidental and ununtended, and neither of those apply to a helpless physically subdued prisoner. It all starts with treating persons as things: we can’t morally do that, ever.

  • Tony says:

    OK, so for both of you: is putting someone on a chain gang torture, or not? It is clearly not necessary for getting them under restraint. But it is (a) useful, and (b) most distasteful / uncomfortable. Does the fact that it accomplishes useful work take it out of a category of “penal without legitimacy”? Does the fact that it is stressful make it torture, in spite of the fact that the actual work involved is exactly equivalent to the work 99.9% of farmers during 98% of history had to do to live? Is it treating him not as a person? If not, how bad does the treatment have to get before it constitutes not treating him as a person? Zippy, fungibility only applies to some reasons for torture. What if the point is to get the recipient to stop being insubordinate? (Actually, this is exactly the reason we subject soldiers to severe conditions – to get them to learn to submit their will to that of officers. )

  • Rodak says:

    To the extent that forced labor on a chain gang constitutes uses human beings like machines, or farm animals, well…you make the call. Labor camps worked pretty well for the Soviets and the Nazis, I guess.

  • zippy says:

    <>Does the fact that it accomplishes useful work take it out of a category of “penal without legitimacy”?<>No (assuming I understand the question correctly). But then I never said it did.Take waterboarding. (Please, take it). We don’t do it as a punishment: we stop doing it as soon as we get something useful/fungible – information – out of the victim.Now it is possible to punish sadistically. In such a case what we are doing is getting a fungible thing – satisfaction of our conscupiscient desire for revenge, etc – out of the victim.<>What if the point is to get the recipient to stop being insubordinate?<>It depends on what you mean by “being insubordinate”. To restrain a prisoner to keep him from throwing feces at the guards is clearly not torture, even if he has to be (for example) tasered.As with anything – e.g. abortion, dropping bombs, etc – we can engage in endless casuistry. There isn’t anything unique about torture in this respect. What differs from one kind of case to another most of the time is merely the particular conscupiscience and lack of faith in Providence driving the inquiry.

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