"And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"
-- Micah 6:8

"The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict."
-- American Bar Association Standard 3-1.2(c)

"There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
--Pope Benedict XVI, June 2004

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Pounding the Table

There's an old lawyer's yarn about trial argumentation: when you don't have the facts, pound the law; when you don't have the law, pound the facts; when you have neither, pound the table.

“Consequentialism”-- this is the term that is supposed to neatly and quickly dispose of anyone who disagrees with Mark Shea or others on the Catholic left who insist that “torture” has been condemned by the Catholic Church as intrinsically evil.

Consequentialism in the pejorative sense meant by this group means basing one’s conclusion about the morality of an action solely by reference to the good end supposedly achieved by the action. In modern times, consequentialism of this kind derives from the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, which holds that an action’s practical effects on society are the sole criterion for judging its morality.

This type of utilitarian or consequentialist thinking has wreaked havoc on society, and is used to justify all varities of immoral actions on the grounds that some perceived good lies at the end of the action. So, for example, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are viewed as morally good because although they directly resulted in indiscriminate loss of non-combatant life, they shortened the Pacific war and saved perhaps thousands of lives of U.S. troops. Or, the “hard case” of a pregnant mother who will die of complications if the child is brought to term; the child is aborted to avoid the mother’s death; or homosexual marriage, where the "good" of the parties' loving union or the value of "equality" is said to outweigh the societal benefits of traditional marriage.

So it is no surprise to find that some who support the use of methods that might constitute torture resort to straight-out improper consequentialist thinking; it seems to be a common moral error, even among Catholics, probably due to the pervasive influence of this error in society at large.

Sadly some in the torture "absolutist" camp have resorted to shabby straw-man argumentation, claiming that the whole “religious right” (i.e., those who deny that torture is intrinsically immoral) share the same consequentialist rationale as the worst example that can be dug up of that rationale. It’s the simple logical fallacy of guilt by association: If this guy supports torture on consequentialist grounds, all who believe that torture is not intrinsically evil also are guilty of consequentialism.

In this same category of straw man illogical argumentation is the attempt to paint all who support enhanced interrogation methods with the broadest brush possible by citing Charles Krauthammer’s untenable standard, "if you have the slightest belief" torture will save a life, a moral duty exists to use it.

Of course, no orthodox Catholic is suggesting or adopting a consequentialist rationale for enhanced interrogation, that is, that despite the inherent evil of the act, the good end makes the act morally acceptable. Rather, the point they make is simple: the Church has not clearly ruled out torture as an intrinsic evil. The task before us then, is the tough work of moral theology, which is to delineate exactly when and under what circumstances could enhanced methods of interrogation be morally permissible. This analysis of circumstances, proportionality of means, and intent, is the bread and butter of Catholic moral theology, and is used to evaluate use of force in just war and self-defense, what economic practices are moral, and a vast array of moral questions where an act can be moral or not, depending on the intent of the actor, the circumstances, and whether the means are proportional to the ends.

I suspect (for reasons beyond the scope of this posting) that with respect to enhanced interrogation or torture, the conclusion is these methods are moral “only rarely, when other methods have not worked, when an imminent and reasonably discernible threat to life is present, and using methods narrowly tailored to achieve the information sought.”

That's not consequentialism. Quit pounding the table.

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