Courting Inanity

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.

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§ 27 Responses to Courting Inanity

  • JohnMcG says:

    So, it looks like it's the Coalition For Fog's Greatest Hits 2003-2008, rather than any novel defense.

  • zippy says:

    It isn't so much the “Greatest Hits” as the “K-Tel Combox Fog Hits of the 2000's”. I read the entire (short) chapter (Chapter 6), entitled “Absolute Evil”, where Thiessen lays out his moral theology case, such as it is.

    I'm tempted to post the whole chapter, though I don't know if that runs afoul of copyright fair use. But Catholics really should know just how ignorant his arguments are — especially since EWTN's syncophantic interview. (If I was ever tempted to support EWTN the network's treatment of torture has convinced me otherwise).

    I've encountered far better arguments in comboxes. Thiessen doesn't seem to have even acquainted himself with the best arguments on his own side, let alone with any contrary arguments at all.

  • If this principle [of double-effect] applies to taking human life, it must certainly apply to coercive interrogation as well.

    OOO! Can I play?

    “If this principle of double-effect applies to taking food without permission to feed somone in immediate danger of starving, it must certainly apply to robbing a bank with gun.”

  • Tommy says:

    If this principle [of double-effect] applies to taking human life, it must certainly apply to coercive interrogation as well.

    Or, how about, IF double-effect applies to taking human life, then it applies even more to estopping idiot defenses of intrinsically evil acts under the guise of moral guidance before such idiocy is actually uttered. Therefore, Thiessen should be stopped from speaking before he attacks the common good again.

  • JohnMcG says:

    To be fair, I think Thiessen is considering only one continuum, and finding that torture lies to the left of killing on that continuum, so that if PDE can be used to justify killing, then it can also be used to justify torture.

    Perhaps a better parallel is that if PDE justified stealing food, it must also justify pirating software.

  • Tommy says:

    I think Thiessen is considering only one continuum, and finding that torture lies to the left of killing on that continuum,

    You mean that inflicting death is even beyond inflicting the kind of pain that can lead up to death, so if inflicting death is justifiable, then the latter must be. Right?

    Even within that limited continuum, that would only work if inflicting death through ANY sort of painful method was justifiable, wouldn't it? But even on his own assumption, that the “double effect” principle justifies killing, there is nothing in that principle that justifies killing under whatever painful method you happen to prefer.

  • JohnMcG says:

    I think that, in order for Thiessen's thesis to work, that causing pain < causing death, regardless of the intensity of the pain. You see this expressed sometimes as, “I'd rather be waterboarded than killed” which may be true. The problem is that the deliberate infliction of pain is, well, deliberate. It cannot be considered an unwanted side effect of a positive action. It may be the case that an act that, as a side effect, causes pain greater than or equal to the pain of waterboarding could be justified via PDE (though my imagination is failing to conjure one). But waterboarding itself cannot be, since the infliction of pain is the point of the act.

  • zippy says:

    It may be the case that an act that, as a side effect, causes pain greater than or equal to the pain of waterboarding could be justified via PDE (though my imagination is failing to conjure one).

    I suggested at one point that it might, in very contrived circumstances, be morally licit to execute KSM by drowning. But that in no way confers a moral license to use water torture to get him to sing.

    (That is part of what I mean when I suggest that Thiessen seems to be unfamiliar with the better arguments for his own position, let alone with the best arguments contra).

    In general, the intellectual state of affairs today is the pathetic opposite of the Middle Ages, when every self-respecting disputant considered it necessary to address the best arguments of his opponents. Courting Disaster and its Catholic promotional arm, EWTN, seem to be nothing but lightweight propaganda. The purpose seems to be to provide conscience novacaine and other reassurances for the already-convinced — I can hear Raymond Arroyo's smooth mockery as he puts words in the mouths of those who object, “…you are a brute for doing it and a lousy Catholic…” even now — rather than to advance a respectable argument.

  • William Luse says:

    I saw this Thiessen guy on TV a few nights ago. He's not just an inane apologist for water torture, but quite bubbly enthusiastic about it.

  • Tommy says:

    Urgh – was “bubbly” an innocent little accidental pun, or malice aforethought?

  • Tom says:

    The intent of the interrogator is not to cause harm to the detainee….

    Right. Causing harm to the detainee is the interrogator's object.

  • Andy says:

    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.

    How silly. First of all, strapping someone to a board and pouring water down their throat is a long stretch from saying “not intended to cause harm.”

    Second of all, I'm no theologian, but doesn't Double Effect assume that there's no alternative way other than the behavior chosen? There are obviously dozens of interrogation methods that work better than torture (though that doesn't matter in determining its intrinsic moral value).

  • JohnMcG says:

    If the harm is unintended, we can give the subject SCUBA gear beforehand so as to prevent the unintended side effect.

  • Tommy says:

    I think that the pro-waterboarding group understand “harm” in a more restrictive sense than what it ought to be taken as. For example, an intense cold for a short time doesn't cause any “harm” because no tissues are damaged. As soon as you stop the cold, the person is as good as new physically, so physically their body is not “harmed”, and thus the torture does not “harm” them. Same with putting them in a box that is too short to stand or lie down in.

    It's a pretty darn narrow way to slice up “harm”, I would say. Hey, I didn't do any harm to your daughter, I just poured water down her throat to make her feel like she was about to drown. Tip her right-side up, let her cough out her lungs, and she's as good as new! No harm done.

  • zippy says:

    I doubt those who favor waterboarding much care about harm to the terrorist. In fact, they probably reason that it would be OK to kill the terrorist as long as doing so had the effect of stopping some attack in which the terrorist was involved; and killing is certainly a form of harm. The discussion of “harm” is really just semantic fodder for the anti-torture sheeple, as they see it.

    At bottom, the view hinges on making sure nobody can tell the difference between (1) using force to prevent a free terrorist “in the wild” from perpetrating an attack, and (2) using force to break a captured terrorist's will and get him to betray someone else who is carrying out an attack that he happens to know about.

    Unfortunately for the Thiessens of the world, though, the difference is obvious. So if they wanted to argue with integrity they would have to argue that the torture is a kind of punishment, and the disclosure of information which the terrorist has a duty to disclose is a kind of plea-bargain. That of course raises the further issues that (e.g.) waterboarding is never authorized or used as a punishment, and that terrorists are not tried (either by civilian court or military tribunal) and sentenced to some fixed amount of waterboarding, which could be reduced by plea bargain.

    It isn't in itself an argument capable of getting any traction, in my view, for a whole host of reasons many of which have been discussed before on this blog and elsewhere. But at least it is a direction of argument that does not betray the ignorant imbecility on display in this pathetic little book.

  • George R says:

    Clearly this guy does not understand the principle of double-effect. For waterboarding (along with the pain caused by it) is an intentional act; but for PDE to apply the evil effect must be unintended. On the other hand, neither does Zippy understand PDE; for he denies that intentionality determines the object of the act; and without such determination, what is essential to the act cannot be distenguished from what is incidental.

  • zippy says:

    for he denies that intentionality determines the object of the act;

    No, I don't. The object of an act is the objective part of the act: the behavior chosen. As a chosen behavior it is always and necessarily intended, any protests to the contrary (Anscombe's “little speeches”) notwithstanding.

  • George R says:

    Right. One intends to do the act, but that’s not the intention that determines what specifically the act is. When I say the act is determined by intention, I do not mean the intention to do the act, but rather what is intended by the act. For example, the act of firing a gun is not specifically determined by the choice to fire the gun, but by what you’re aiming at.

  • zippy says:

    When I say the act is determined by intention, I do not mean the intention to do the act, but rather what is intended by the act.

    …which is a perfectly reasonable thing to say, as long as what is meant by the phrase “what is intended by the act” is “what objective behavior is being chosen in the choice to act”.

    There are (naturally) many (always incomplete) ways to use language to describe reality.

    If a behavior of species X – where “behavior of species X” refers to an objective species independent of intentions, and the actual (what Aquinas might call “signate”) action in question is of that species – is murder, though, and an acting subject knowingly chooses a behavior of species X, then he has committed murder, independent of whatever dancing he tries to do around his subjective intentions.

    In any event, working our way back to the subject of the post, the best one can say of your initial criticism – “[Zippy] denies that intentionality determines the object of the act;” – is that it is far from straightforwardly true.

    That doesn't mean that we don't disagree about the substance of the matter. We probably do. But a pithy criticism, intended by you to reinforce the polemical impression you would like to make — to wit that “neither does Zippy understand PDE” — doesn't really lend itself to illuminating those actual differences.

    To the extent my understanding of the PDE is wrong, if it is wrong, it is hardly ignorant in the same manner in which this ridiculous work of torture apologetics is ridiculously ignorant.

  • Tommy says:

    George R, we just had a discussion of the object of the act over at the Disputations blog. I think that we came to a mutual understanding (and I am sure Zippy will correct me where he disagrees), that the word “intention” is used to signify the act of the will that refers to the good that is the final cause of the act, and is typically in some sense a remote end. After the will adheres to the good that is the remote end, it selects a means to that end, which is an action here and now. The object of the act is just that chosen act, but chosen as means to the end intended. Then, after the means is chosen, the will sets the body and other faculties in motion in actually doing the act. So, in a complete human act there are typically 3 distinguishable operations by the will, and only one of them refers to the “object” of the act.

    The object determines the species of the human act: in a manner of speaking, it provides the “form” of the act while the physical activity is the “matter” of the act. Thus the object is not to be understood as given simply by stating the physical activity itself. The object cannot be stated without reflecting the knowledge of the human acting and what concrete choice he is making here and now as means to an end. But equally, the species of the act is not given by the end intended, as that end might have been achieved by several different means, some moral and some not, so the end is insufficient to determine the act.

    So the object must be understood as distinct from the “intention” where the intention is precisely defined, but is not understood as distinct from the will regarding a “means to” and therefore not absolutely independent of directedness towards. Which might make sense of JPII saying that the object is the proximate end of the act.

    Now, Zippy can hack away and correct whatever he thinks is stupid above.

  • zippy says:

    Tommy: I might quibble around the margins, but I would not call that account “stupid”!

    I think there are multiple “languages” which can be used to talk about the reality that is a human act, and languages never completely capture something in the real world. Aquinas, Anscombe, and JPII all used somewhat different language in discussing human acts. I have my own way of saying things which is a synthesis of them, though most heavily drawing on JPII.

    Importantly, I don't think it is necessary to adopt an Aristotlean metaphysics whole hog in order to understand and assent to the natural law. (It better not be: the Magisterium teaches this stuff about human acts as doctrine, and yet specifically disavows requiring any particular philosophy).

    So while I might suggest that the object of an act falls under both a species and a signate (i.e. particular), being in a particular case (say) both a specific (as in, of the species) act of torture and the actual particular thing done by that interrogator right there in that particular act, just as Socrates is both man by species and that man by signate, all of which are objective things; and I might further qualify that with an account of free will, intention, phenomenology, etc; yet I don't think it is strictly necessary for everyman to apprehend these kinds of distinctions – or even necessarily to agree with them – in order to understand the basic concepts of intrinsically evil acts and the PDE.

    In general, it really isn't as hard as people try to make it. If I deliberately, knowingly chose that behavior, and built into that behavior is torturing a prisoner or killing an innocent or any other kind of instrinsically immoral species, I've done evil — no matter why I did it, what I hoped to accomplish, how furrowed my brows were and how reluctantly I made my choice, what was at stake in the outcome, etc.

  • Tom says:

    After the will adheres to the good that is the remote end, it selects a means to that end, which is an action here and now.

    In a completely inconsequential aside, I think it's actually the intellect that selects the means, and the will wills the end, and then the means to the end, in two distinguishable operations.

  • Tommy says:

    Tom, that may be right. I thought the intellect proposes possible means, meaning possibly many, and the will makes a choice among them, (yes, in an operation distinct from willing the end). While the intellect proposes one means as more beneficial than another (quicker, easier, more certain, etc), the will is not bound to any intellectually “best” option, and can direct the intellect to cease to consider means A in favor of means B even if A would, intellectually, come out considered the better option. So the will does not choose anything that has not been proposed by the intellect, but the intellectual operation does not finally determine the will.

  • Tommy says:

    In general, it really isn't as hard as people try to make it. If I deliberately, knowingly chose that behavior, and built into that behavior is torturing a prisoner or killing an innocent or any other kind of instrinsically immoral species

    Zippy, I agree that 98% of the time, there is no difficulty ascertaining the right object of the act, or at least ascertaining it sufficiently to know that it is, or is not, evil in its species. But I also think that there are occasions where it is more difficult. For example (one that I used in another location):

    You are a SWAT team member and you have been kidnapped by a bad guy. You know the Hostage Rescue Team is coming to get you. You see that this guy has a hideout designed to destroy the standard HRT attack. You know your buddies are going to be chopped into mincemeat when they attack. You keep your eyes open, and end up with a precarious chance at an attempt to act, you grab for a gun that the other guy is holding. You get one hand on his gun hand, but he turns out to be considerably stronger than you, and you can feel him swinging the gun away from your grip. For one second the gun is pointing toward him, and you manage to pull the trigger. This kills the bad guy.

    Some would say that the object is obvious: to shoot the bad guy. The intention is to save the HRT members.

    Oh yes, I forgot to mention that the gun was also pointing at you when it was pointing at him – the shot went right through you to kill him.

    Does that change the object? I don't see why. But some people suggest that it is critical, and that the act is killing an innocent person in order to get at the kidnapper.

  • zippy says:

    Tommy,

    My archives and other comment threads around St Blogs are full of discussions of cases like that. My answer in the context of the present post is that I don't care: the cases substantively at issue are not hard cases, at all, and people should stop pretending that they are.

    See also JPII's discussion of casuistry in my previous post.

  • Tommy says:

    You mean this quote from JPII:

    Although the latter did witness the development of a casuistry which tried to assess the best ways to achieve the good in certain concrete situations, it is nonetheless true that this casuistry concerned only cases in which the law was uncertain, and thus the absolute validity of negative moral precepts, which oblige without exception, was not called into question.

    I totally agree that the principle as applied to the cases at hand is not in doubt. Nevertheless, I also feel that persuading people who are not closed to the truth (such as, for example, people who are inclined to accept that waterboarding is intrinsically wrong but who are confused by some of the opposing arguments) will benefit greatly by seeing that the concepts and principles can be applied appropriately even in complex and worrisome cases. If you don't feel the pull of laying out principles to exhibit such explanatory power, then I guess I am barking up the wrong tree.

  • zippy says:

    If you don't feel the pull of laying out principles to exhibit such explanatory power, then I guess I am barking up the wrong tree.

    Well, it is more of a “not this moment and in this post” deal, since I'm distracted by other things. It is out of scope for the present post, given my present bandwidth.

    But my archives are loaded with discussions of that sort. It isn't as if I'm uninterested — I'm a confirmed pedant on the issue, as documented in many past posts!

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