Monday, May 8, 2006

A Natural Law Case Against Torture

A friend directs our attention to a piece by Dane Shelly at the Institute For Global Engagement in which he outlines an argument which concludes that torture is an absolute moral wrong. After using the piano to illustrate that there are both proper and improper uses to which anything can be put, he writes:

Humans, no less than pianos, are created for a purpose. Treating them in ways that do not conform to that purpose is simply wrong. For this reason, torture is always wrong because that is not what we were created for.

God created humans in a way that gives moral weight to how we treat others. Torture, then, offends the natural order (and its Creator) for two reasons: Humans were not created to torture others, and humans were not created to be tortured.

The problem with Shelly's argument is that one can agree with everything he says without being compelled to accept his conclusion that torture is absolutely wrong. A couple of counterexamples may serve to show why.

Humans were not created to live in prison, or to imprison others, and therefore it would be wrong to incarcerate someone, unless there is just cause for doing so. The fact that imprisonment is a state of affairs for which we were not designed does not make it absolutely wrong.

I don't know how Shelly feels about gay marriage, but his premises would demand that he find it absolutely wrong since we were not created for homoerotic sex. Indeed, humans were not designed for anal intercourse, so Shelly would have to say that it's absolutely immoral for couples, whether homo or heterosexual, to engage in it. Shelly may in fact hold to that position, but if he doesn't then he's acknowledging that just because a certain behavior is not one for which we were created or designed doesn't necessarily make it wrong.

There is a danger in seeking to absolutize particular behavioral acts, whether it be capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, torture or whatever. There are certainly acts which are absolutely wrong (beating or burning a child, for example), but they are wrong because they always violate one or more of the absolute principles given to us in Scripture.

The Bible commands us absolutely to love God, do justice, and show compassion. Any act which is wrong is wrong because it violates one of these three imperatives. Torture, like killing, is almost always either unjust or uncompassionate, but there may be times, as there is with killing, when torture may be just and/or compassionate. In the same way that it may be both just and compassionate to kill a terrorist in order to save other peoples' lives, so, too, it may be both just and/or compassionate to torture him to save other peoples' lives. Of course, the terrorist himself might fail to see the compassion in it (Both justice and compassion constrain us to never inflict any more pain or suffering than what is necessary to elicit the life-saving information), but the would-be victims would certainly see it.

The existential burden of a thoughtful Christian life lies in trying to find the fulcrum around which justice and compassion balance. In the search for that pivot there are few easy answers.

Running Low on Resources

Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that George Bush recently got some encouraging news from one of his biggest critics, General Barry McCaffery:

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who served as President Clinton's drug czar and has been sharply critical of the Bush administration's conduct of the war, recently returned from a trip to Iraq.

He concluded: "The foreign jihadist fighters have been defeated as a strategic and operational threat to creation of an Iraqi government."

Kelly's article outlines the late misfortunes of al-Qaeda in Iraq and points out that their most effective weapon against the Iraqis, the suicide bomber, is a dwindling asset which, by its nature, is a non-renewable resource. In Kelly's view al-Qaeda is likely to have a diminishing role to play in the insurgency in Iraq. It's an interesting column.

Educating Characters

This news report contains an interesting nugget:

MT. LEBANON, Pa. -- The Mt. Lebanon School District is responding to a list of raunchy ratings about its students. The "Top 25" list of 2006 grades high school girls on their body parts, and it also describes in crude detail sexual information about the girls. In one case, a racial slur was used.

Channel 11 News learned a 17-year-old boy has been suspended in connection with the list. It's not clear how long that student will be suspended or if other students will be punished.

The superintendent, George Wilson, said he was appalled to hear about the list and assured parents the situation is being treated very seriously. In his statement Thursday, Wilson said, "No one can begin to understand the hurt, embarrassment and humiliation these young women have had to endure. Those proven to be responsible will receive consequences that include disciplinary action, a requirement for atonement and character education."

The nugget is those last two words. How, we wonder, is this student going to have his character educated in a public school setting? Exactly what will the education consist of? Will he simply be told that it's wrong to be disrespectful of others? What if he asks why it is wrong? I suspect that that question will call forth a lot of hemming and hawing and "everybody knows" type answers and such like, all of which will likely be very unpersuasive to the young miscreant.

When the courts required public schools to expel God from their classrooms and hallways they forced them to abandon the sole meaningful and effective basis for character education they had. The only approaches left to them now are either an appeal to force (e.g."Treat others with respect or else"), or an appeal to sentiment ("Don't you see how much you've hurt these girls?"). Of course, the problem may well be that the adolescent playboy doesn't much care that he's hurt these girls, and the appeal to force doesn't teach what's right, it only teaches what's prudent. Besides, there is something doubtful about a society which abhors the idea of people imposing their values on others letting Superintendent Wilson get away with doing exactly that at public expense.

Superintendent Wilson may think he can teach character, but if the young pervert asks any questions at all about why he should believe or accept anything he's being told, that'll be the end of the lesson. Good character, he will have learned, consists in doing what those who are in authority arbitrarily tell you to do.