February 10, 2010 § 27 Comments
From Courting Disaster:
If this principle [of double-effect] applies to taking human life, it must certainly apply to coercive interrogation as well. A captured terrorist is an unjust aggressor who retains the power to kill many thousands by withholding information about planned attacks. The intent of the interrogator is not to cause harm to the detainee; rather, it is to render the aggressor unable to cause harm to society. The act of coercive interrogation can have a double effect (to protect society and to cause harm to the terrorist), but one is intended, the other is not.
Well, just where does one begin?
First, the principle of double-effect does not apply to the taking of innocent human life. Thiessen, like a newbie combox critter, is simply wrong that the fifth commandment forbids all killing, and that the principle of double-effect creates exceptions to the rule. The fifth commandment forbids killing the innocent, that is, those who are not and have not engaged in attacking behaviors. Nevertheless, the terrorist in question is not innocent, so it is true that killing the terrorist – say in a licit execution after trial and conviction – is not absolutely prohibited by the moral law. (That doesn’t make it automatically licit independent of intentions and circumstances; but it is not intrinsically evil to kill the guilty).
Second, the argument that because it is not absolutely prohibited to kill a terrorist it therefore must be licit to torture that same terrorist is nonsensical on its face. Just because it is (stipulated) morally licit to execute a particular man, it does not follow that it is morally licit to do anything to him at all. For example, I think even Thiessen might agree (though who knows?) that it is not morally licit to sodomize terrorist captives even if that is the only means available to get them to disclose information to save (say) thousands of lives.
Third, the argument that a captured terrorist is capable of launching attacks “by withholding information about planned attacks” is nonsense on stilts. A simple rule of thumb can demonstrate: if killing captured Terrorist Bob right now will not in any way prevent X, then we are not doing what we are doing to Bob because he is capable of doing X. A helpless captive, whatever information he may know, is not capable of carrying out any attacks. Indeed, the fact that we don’t kill Bob immediately to stop the putative attacks is proof that it isn’t what he is capable of doing, but rather what we want to coerce him to do, that is at issue.
I could go on. And on, and on. There is so much ignorance packed into such a tight little package here that responding to it all could take ten or a hundred times the space it took to say it in the first place. But the arguments are so bad, so manifestly ignorant, so locked into a little hermetic bubble of cluelessness, that this may be one of those cases where maximal airing of those bad arguments in public is the best response to them.