Defining Torture: Two Parameters

by Jimmy Akin

in Moral Theology

Recently Christopher at Against the Grain asked me to take a stab at defining torture, so I’ll do my best. The Magisterium has not given us a definition, so individual thinkers are at this point left to their own devices to come up with one.

In producing a definition, I’d like to start with two basic parameters:

Parameter 1: The definition should correspond as much as possible to our pre-reflective sense of what constitutes torture.

Parameter 2: The definition should point to something that is intrinsically evil.

The reason for Parameter 1 is that you should always start with a commonsense understanding of a term in attempting to give it a technical definition. The technical definition should capture as much of the commonsense understanding as possible. Otherwise you get linguistic chaos.

The reason for Parameter 2 is that I think the Magisterium would want the word "torture" used in a way that points to something intrinsically evil.

In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II quoted a list of social evils–including torture–from Gaudium et Spes and seemed to apply the label "intrinsically evil" to this list. This does not strike me as sufficient to settle the question, though, for as His Awesomeness Cardinal Dulles has pointed out, John Paul II’s use of this passage from Gaudium et Spes appears to have important unstated qualifiers and thus some of the items on the list (e.g., deportations) do not on their face appear to be intrinsically evil without further qualification. The possibility is thus raised (and I view Dulles’s article as turning the possibility into a probability) that the pope was speaking in a general rather than a technical way and without further qualification we cannot simply say that every item on the list is intrinsically immoral.

So I don’t think Veritatis Splendor is decisive on this question. Instead, I think that the evolution of the word "torture" will unfold in such a way in the future that the Magisterium will want it used of intrinsic evil.

The reason is this: The history of an institution can constrain the way that institution uses words. A classic example of this is the development of the Roman Empire out of the Roman Republic. Prior to the Republic, the Romans had kings, and getting rid of the kings and establishing a Republic was one of their proudest achievements. Consequently, Romans of that era could never allow themselves to have a king. This meant that, even when the Caesars were given king-like powers and were clearly functioning as kings (as in "We have no king but Caesar"), the Romans themselves couldn’t call them kings. So Augustus Caesar asked instead for the title "Imperator" ("commander"), which is how Rome got its emperors.

Americans, because they threw off the rule of both a king and an empire, likewise can have neither kings nor an empire. Even if the presidency were one day morphed into a functional monarchy, we couldn’t call it that. Similarly, even if we acquire a functional empire (I don’t perceive us as having one, though I know others do), we will not in the foreseeable future get to the point that you have Congress and the president referring to "our empire" the way the Romans did.

A similar situation applies with regard to the history of the Church: The fact that Church authorities once used torture, in keeping with the legal custom of the day in secular society, is a matter of intense shame. To make it clear that this chapter of history is definitively over and that the Church has thoroughly broken with and renounced this practice, it will want to issue vigorous condemnations of torture–as indeed, it has.

And that constrains the way that the word "torture" is likely to be used.

If "torture" is not restricted to things that are intrinsically immoral (always wrong) then the Church–or at least moral theologians–would be put in the position of having to say that sometimes torture is not wrong.

Given its history, that is not something the Church will want itself–or its moral theologians–to be saying. The Church would be a lot happier if Catholic thinkers proposed definitions of "torture" that point to things that are intrinsically immoral, so I will seek to develop such a definition.

The inclusion of Parameter 2 may mean that our definition may not capture the full range of what has historically been called torture. Historically, the word has not been subject to the requirement of Parameter 2, and as a result, our commonsense understanding of torture likely covers things that are not intrinsically wrong but only extrinsically wrong.

This is normal whenever you try to give a technical definition for something that previously has only had a commonsense understanding: The technical definition never corrsponds fully to the previous, non-technical usage.

There thus may be some things that would historically have been thought of as torture that are not intrinsically wrong and thus can be justified in at least extreme circumstances. Indeed, this seems to be a large part of what is prompting the present theological and social debate about torture: Some people feel that due to the War on Terror we are in a situation in which some things that would historically have fallen under our commonsense understanding of torture (Parameter 1) may now be justified, but there is also a contemporary impulse to say that torture is always wrong (Parameter 2).

In harmonizing the two parameters, our resulting definition will attempt to capture as much of the traditional understanding of torture as possible, but only those elements that are intrinsically immoral. If something can in some circumstances be justified then we won’t call it torture.

And now for,

THE BIG RED DISCLAIMER: Just because something can be justified in at least some circumstances DOES NOT MEAN THAT WE ARE IN THOSE CIRCUMSTANCES and thus DOES NOT MEAN THAT YOU CAN GO AHEAD AND DO IT. There may be many things that, while not intrinsically evil, are extrinsically evil in the vast majority of circumstances and cannot be done as part of the War on Terror.

One note about the future evolution of the term "torture": If Catholic moral theology and/or the Magisterium follow the course I suggest that they will and begin using torture to refer to things that are intrinsically evil then this will mean that its technical definition of torture will begin to diverge from the popular, commonsense understanding.

That’s not surprising. Technical definitions always diverse from popular ones since the populus isn’t composed of theological experts.

I see the situation as analogous to the use of the term "theft." There is a popular understanding of the term "theft" that would include taking food from someone who has plenty if you are starving and cannot buy food. According to the popular usage, that would count as theft, and an ordinary person might say, "Sometimes theft is okay." The Church does not want to say that sometimes theft is okay, and so it defines the sin of theft in such a way that this is precluded (i.e., taking property against the reasonable will of its owner). The Church would thus say that theft is always wrong, but taking food in the above circumstances does not count as the sin of theft.

In the same way, there may be things that would count as torture under the popular understanding and yet be justified, leading an ordinary person to want to say "Sometimes torture is okay." But the Church will not want to say that and so–if my thesis is correct–it will instead define torture such that those things which are potentially justifiable do not count as torture.

When the Magisterium might do that, of course, I have no idea. Maybe not for centuries–if ever–but I suspect that Parameter 2 will be a factor in the future evolution of the term.

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SDG November 27, 2006 at 5:56 am

Perhaps ironically, Parameter 2, though consistent with the Church’s approach to this and other moral issues, seems to be somewhat at odds with Parameter 1.
For example, take the case of a poor man who is starving to death and has no other way to feed himself than to help himself to his rich neighbor’s crops. Most people would describe this situation by saying that the man has no choice but to steal in order to live; they would say that it is stealing, but it is justified.
But Catholic moral theology says that theft is always a sin, and if it is justified, it is not the sin of theft, and thus not stealing at all (even though legally it may be theft). Catholic moral theology defines theft as taking another person’s private property against the reasonable will of the owner, and in view of the universal destination of goods, a rich man cannot reasonably refuse food to a poor man dying of starvation.
It looks like something similar will be the case with regard to torture. In some cases, it may be justifiable to do some things that most people would call torture, but which would not count as torture in a moral system that defines torture as intrinsically wrong.
Ultimately, though, the semantic issue doesn’t really alter the substantial moral issue. Whether we call it “theft” when a starving man helps himself to a rich man’s crops, the substantial moral issue is when helping yourself to another person’s private property is, or is not, a sin, and why.
Likewise, however we choose to use the word “torture,” the substantial moral issue is how you can and can’t treat prisoners, under what circumstances, and why.
Looking forward to the posts following….

Christopher November 27, 2006 at 11:04 am

LOL. Granted it will be “torturous” to some, but as the person who raised the question, I appreciate your taking the time to work through this with the patience and skill that is characteristic of this blog. I’ll be focusing on B16′s trip to Turkey this week but will likewise be following this endeavor as well. Thanks again, Jimmy!

Zippy November 27, 2006 at 1:42 pm

…this passage from Gaudium et Spes appears to have important unstated qualifiers…
No, it doesn’t. “Deportations” is qualified – with a stated qualifier – by the word “arbitrary”.

Rick Lugari November 27, 2006 at 4:30 pm

I’m not so sure about your reading of that, Zippy. I’m not the greatest when it comes to language, but it seems to me that “arbitrary” is being used to qualify “imprisonment” and only imprisonment.
…such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children…
If we assume that “arbitrary” is jumping the comma to be applied to “deportation” then it would have to be applied to slavery, prostitution, and the selling of women and children, which simply doesn’t make sense. But then again, I ain’t got good grammar skilz. ;)

Zippy November 27, 2006 at 4:51 pm

Rick: this has been discussed by people who know latin a lot better than I do (especially since I don’t know anything beyond the responses during Mass) in (e.g.) the CAEI threads. The English translation may introduce an ambiguity if we want there to be one, but the most straightforward interpretation of VS is that “arbitrary” modifies “deportations” in addition to “imprisonments” (both of which are plural in the latin).
“Subhuman living conditions” is actually the more difficult one prima facie, but even it is pretty obvious if you read it in the context of the whole encyclical not as an isolated proof-text. To choose for another person to live in subhuman living conditions in the object of your act (as, say, a slum lord might do to save money, choosing to treat another person as an object for monetary profit) is also evil in its object.
I’ve said in other threads that I don’t think the live issue here is the definition of torture as much as it is that people simply haven’t studied Veritatis Splendour enough to understand what it says about intrinsically evil acts.
As I said on my blog, it is entirely possible that my personal understanding/position on torture and the intentional infliction of suffering is wrong. But it does have the benefit of being compatible with what Pope John Paul II teaches in Veritatis Splendour about intrinsically evil acts in general and torture specifically. It also has the benefit of tying together and making coherent the development of doctrine on many other particular issues: treating persons as nothing but property (slavery), treating persons as nothing but an impediment to some political goal (arbitrary deportation), treating persons as nothing but an impediment to worry-free sexual pleasure (abortion and contraception), treating persons as nothing but objects to satisfy our lust for vengeance (torture as punishment), treating persons as nothing but machines to manufacure our products and maximize our profits (subhuman living conditions), treating persons as nothing but material for scientific experiments (ESCR), treating persons as nothing but an accessory we can add to our lifestyle whenever we choose (IVF).

Esau December 1, 2006 at 10:15 am

I had a terribly interesting evening last night when I happened to learn just how awful a person Jimmy Akin really was.
I encountered the following comments concerning Jimmy Akin in Mark Shea’s blog:

At this juncture, it is customary to complain about my unfairness and mischaracterization of the position of people like Jeff and the Coalition for Fog. “We’re *not* defending torture!” goes the protest. We are defending, er, aggressive interrogation. Totally different! Maybe, however, in this case what is being defended are acts which *would* be called torture if the circumstances were not desperate. For that is precisely what Jimmy argues for when he says, “I would not say that it [waterboarding] is torture if it is being used in a ticking time bomb scenario and there is no other, less painful way to save lives (it is proportionate since there is not a better solution).”
The logic of the argument is entirely understandable and even emotionally appealing. Some weirdo has kidnapped your kid and buried him alive in a box. He won’t talk. Why not use torture to make him talk? You can hardly fault the parent who would beat the living daylights out of the guy. As a parent myself, I am not immune to the persuasiveness of such arguments.
Nonetheless, I agree with Zippy that Jimmy’s argument is a bad one, both for Zippy’s reasons and reasons of my own. If an act is intrinsically evil, then it does not become proportional and just when circumstances change.

Okay, from this, had I not read Jimmy’s entire post on his website, by the way he’s painted here, that Jimmy is actually for the torture of terrorists, but the other following comments happen to paint an even darker picture of him:

Another problem with Jimmy’s argument is that it seems to me to be extremely subjective. How, precisely, is proportionalism to be determined? If it’s proportional to torture at all, then how do you measure the proportion? Waterboarding if 100 lives are at stake? Pliers to the testicles for 200? Blowtorch to the eyes for 1000? If a city is endangered, then in what sense can we be “proportional”? How can the suffering of one man *ever* match the suffering of a million? And since those millions have families, why not threaten the family of the suspect? Indeed, why stop with waterboarding when you can gouge eyes, castrate and pull fingernails and not even come close to the suffering your (assumed) terrorist will inflict (assuming he knows something, which you are torturing him to discover). Of course, if it turns out your suspect knows nothing, then what? It turns out you have committed an intrinsically immoral act against an innocent man and you could well go to hell for it.

And yet, here in cyberspace, no small effort, ranging from the Coalition for Fog, to Against the Grain, to (now) Jimmy’s blog has been put into figuring out some way to redefine it so that it’s not torture, or shout down those who oppose it as “Pharisees” or otherwise figure out a way to overlook the bleedin’ obvious in favor of the highly abstract and hypothetical. Virtually *no* effort has gone in to pursuing the question, “How do we treat prisoners humanely while still getting the intelligence we need?”.

So, here, it seems that Jimmy Akin is nothing more than a heartless hypocrite who lives to Catholic morals when it suits him, but, under certain desperate circumstances, Jimmy’s the kind of horrible person who would actually abandon his morals, his very Catholic identity – no wait, he’s more sinister than that! – Jimmy would redefine Catholicism itself in order to weave arguments that would actually suit his vengeful purpose in such circumstances!
What’s interesting to note is that my post happen to come up as well:

Of course, Zippy couldn’t care less that even if the hundreds of innocent victims of the 9/11 attacks could have been saved by the simple capture and rigid interrogation of terrorist(s) prior to the time of the attacks, the life of that terrorist is far more precious than those innocent people and shouldn’t even undergo a smidgen of psychological interrogation tactics since even these are considered “torture”.
See, it’s so easy when folks can simply reflect such issues in an ivory tower, with an “holier-than-thou” attitude, looking down from an almighty throne on those who should even dare cross what they’ve declared to be the moral threshold, without even being in the actual trenches.
Yet, there are those of us who suffered greatly from the tragic events of 9/11 and have, in fact, lost people close to us.
To actually witness folks giving such “preferred” treatment to terrorists, of all things (even ordinary criminals aren’t treated with such esteem and have to undergo a barrage of even the most rigid psychological tests), even at the cost of innocent lives, is just too repulsive.
Not to wish any harm on such folks, but it seems that the only way they could ever feel the pain of the tragic events of 9/11, is to suffer personal lost themselves. It’s sometimes about walking in someone else’s shoes until they come to terms with the other perspective.
In point of cool, rational fact much of this outburst has nothing to do with anything Zippy has ever said, or anything any opponent of torture has said. It has nothing to do with the reality of torture opponents. It has to do with pain and fear–pain and fear I readily acknowledge. But the fact remains, torture would not have stopped 9/11, except on “24″. Zippy is not the heartless bastard this commenter declares and he certainly does not think a terrorist’s life is *more* precious than an innocent man’s. He simply does not think a terrorist’s life is worthless. And he emphatically does not think Caesar will keep us safe by being granted the power to commit intrinsically immoral acts against those Caesar deems to be enemies. In this, at the end of the day, he has Veritatis Splendor to back him up

From what’s said here, I am made to appear as if I, myself, actually endorse torture – after all, I did know people who died on 9/11, and, therefore, I, myself, must be harboring some vengeful feelings toward such people! Yet, in fact, in much of the things I’ve said in other posts, I have made it clear that I do not endorse the actual torture of these terrorists, but that it *seemed* to me that there are those who would not even have these people go through even the same rigid interrogation tactics common criminals undergo since even this is considered “TORTURE” in their eyes – a point that would’ve been reached by readers actually interested in the truth had it not just been the *isolated* quote above.
Although, what had been said?
…*torture* would not have stopped 9/11, except on “24″.
If there was any misunderstanding on my part, wouldn’t Christian charity have been for them to simply clarify my misunderstanding? Further, perhaps to even clarify Jimmy’s misunderstanding, if there was actually any on his part as well? Or perhaps even actually dialogue with Jimmy should there even be (God forbid!) a misunderstanding on *their* part, too!
Instead, what was done was folks (fellow Catholics-those who actually profess such high Catholic ideals!) actually engaged in vicious back-stabbing rather than confront their assumed opponents and deal with this misunderstanding.
I would’ve expected such devoted Catholics to have done what Christian charity would have called for in this case!
Was there perhaps some trace of intellectual pride and the “high and mighty ways” on their end that may have played a part?
It is said in the Prayer of St. Francis:
“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as *to understand*…”
But, I guess that’s all thrown out the window should such a noble cause arise!
Interestingly enough, isn’t that what’s being implied here about Jimmy? That he would actually throw out his Catholic morals for the *noble cause* of saving the lives of innocents from terrorists?
Though, those who actually know the full story, this is not the case at all!
Love Thy Enemies except if they are fellow Catholics and appear to oppose you.
Treat terrorists with human dignity because they’re in the image of God, but I guess this doesn’t apply to fellow Catholics.
Condemning innocent men? Well, suspected terrorists may end up being innocent people certainly, but those suspected to be against you, no way! In fact, when duty calls for it, engage in character assassinations by all means!
So, thank you Mark Shea et al, for confirming what some may have suspected all along, that this “Love Thy Enemies” routine might end up being all an act to flaunt that “Holier-than-Thou” attitude that some feel the need to pull over their fellow Catholics in such an underhanded way!
Could there be an ulterior political motive in this as well?
I would not have gone ahead and posted the preceding message, but, obviously, Jimmy being the stand-up person that he is, I don’t think he would have retaliated the least on his blog since he actually *lives out* his Catholic beliefs rather than merely *leave it to words*.
I wished that in some cases, I could be the same kind of person, but I am still a “work-in-progress” (so-to-speak), entirely fallible and but human and can only rely on God’s mercy and goodness. In the end, I can only pray he guides me to do the right thing in life and that I can ultimately live out the Catholic Faith in all aspects of life.

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