In my philosophy class we talk about love, distinguishing the sort of love we have for our fellow man from eros or romantic love. We define the former as treating people with dignity, respect, and kindness.
With that background I was asked the other day by a student how I reconcile the notion that we owe that kind of love to others with my belief that torture is not absolutely wrong.
This is a fair question and deserved an answer. Here's how, had I had the time, I would have replied:
Our obligation to love is a prima facie obligation. By that I mean that we owe respect and kindness to every individual until such time as the obligation to treat one person with love comes in conflict with our obligation to others who also have a claim, perhaps a greater claim, on our love.
When a man threatens the lives of others, particularly those I have a special obligation to protect and for whom I have a special bond of love, then it would be unloving to fail to do everything in my power to stop him. He has nullified my obligation to treat him with respect and kindness and forced me to choose between loving him and loving those he threatens. The moral course in such a circumstance, the course that I believe is demanded by the obligation to love, is to protect the innocent and to stop those who would harm them.
If stopping the guilty entails doing him harm then so be it, but the harm done should, whenever possible, be never greater than what's necessary to remove the threat. Nor should it ever be something one feels good about inflicting. A government which feels compelled to use "torture" (I use quotes because the definition of torture is so broad as to include almost any kind of incivility - a fact which really renders the word almost meaningless) to save the lives of its people is justified in doing so as long as that's the only reason it's used and so long as it's never continued beyond the point where it accomplishes its purpose.
Love is not a warm feeling toward other people, nor is it sentimentality. Sometimes, as in the case of a surgeon operating in a Civil War field hospital without anesthetics, doing the right thing means causing great pain. Sometimes, as in dealing with modern terrorism, doing the right thing for one person entails causing pain to another.
Perhaps you disagree and would argue that "torture" is absolutely wrong, that there's never any justification for it. Before you commit to such a view ask yourself whether you would condemn a man who saved the life of your child by causing her abductor pain in order to coax him to reveal where his accomplices were holding her. Before you say that the man was wrong to do this, imagine looking your child in the eyes after she has been rescued from people who were abusing her and preparing to murder her or sell her into child slavery or the sex trade, and telling her that you would rather she not have been rescued than for her to be rescued by causing pain to the man who kidnapped, molested and planned to kill her.
Perhaps you could say that to your child, but if not, then you agree that torture is not absolutely wrong. If that's your position then the question that needs to be answered is not "should we torture?" but rather, "how should we define torture?" and "under what circumstances is torture justified?" The sooner we have that debate the better off we'll be as a nation.RLC