instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, January 10, 2015

We haven't reached disagreement about torture yet

Mark Shea writes about "more wearying attempts to avoid the bleeding obvious" about the CIA enhanced interrogation program. It could also be called the same wearying attempt that's been repeated over and over for a dozen years.

Directly countering a bad argument rarely changes the mind of the one offering the bad argument. It might, though, sway an undecided onlooker.

But if I might introduce one of my King Charles's heads into the discussion, I wonder if part of the problem is that a lot of people think of morality in terms of rules. If your idea of a good Catholic is a Catholic who follows the rules, and you are or try to be a good Catholic yourself, then you'll want to follow the rule, "Torture is prohibited."

If you've ever met a human being, you know what we do to rules. We get around them when we want to. "Torture is prohibited" offers two broad avenues for getting around. To the left we have "torture" and the endless arguments about definitions and fine lines and boundaries and splashing water in faces and making prisoners uncomfortable for a few hours. To the right we have "prohibited" and the endless arguments about exceptions and circumstances and differences in objectives and historical examples that overthrow the soft-hearted heresies of the last fifty years.

The arguments are endless because the counterarguments don't get at the actual point of disagreement. The one side says, "The rule 'Torture is prohibited' has not been broken," while the other side says, "No! Torture is objectively evil!"

If that's right, then the way out isn't to keep showing the logical weaknesses of the one side. It's to walk them past the rule-based morality to the more fundamental questions of virtues, vices, and the goods of human nature. Find some behavior everyone in the conversation agrees to call torture, find out whether everyone in the conversation agrees that that behavior is objectively evil and therefore always prohibited, and then -- rather than testing the rule just agreed to with real-world or hypothetical examples -- go into why that behavior is objectively evil, what makes it everywhere and always contrary to the good of a human being and God's will for him.

If you can get that far, then you can start looking at other real-world or hypothetical examples, not for whether they follow the rule, but for whether they are objectively evil. And when you reach disagreement, you have a chance of understanding why.

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