Torture and the Utilitarian Default

As a Ph.D. candidate in political science, I have been offered the opportunity to teach my own introductory courses. This past semester, I had the pleasure of teaching Introduction to Political Theory; it is a course that I have taught before, but every class is different because the individual students are different. However, one thing never changes: when the class reaches the end of the semester and we discuss utilitarianism and Kantian ethics, students almost always gravitate towards Bentham and JS Mill; they embrace the idea of sacrificing one for the benefit of the many. I take advantage of the overused example of the bomb about to go off in Time Square, with the FBI holding the individual who planted the bomb. I pose the question to my students, “Should the FBI torture the bomber to get the information?” The students respond, “Of course!” “If it works to get valuable information to save the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people, then why not do it?!” argue some of my students.

Given that this occurs in the context of Mill versus Kant, I respond with a Kantian argument that torture cannot ever be justified because it fails to treat human beings with the dignity that they deserve as human beings. Students tend to not buy the Kantian argument. While David Cloutier at Catholic Moral Theology has rightly pointed out the “libertarian default” that is typical of college students, I have found another disturbing default—the utilitarian default. What matters is if something works, not if it’s right or wrong, just or unjust; what matters is if it provides utility to the community, not if it’s potentially destructive to human rights or the dignity of people; what matters is if the cost-benefit scale tips in the right direction.

The utilitarian default is what is so disturbing about the release of the torture report, and the various responses to it. On the side of delusional conservative defenders of various torture techniques, there is Dick Cheney, who emphasizes that what matters is that the techniques worked to keep the United States safe from future terrorist attacks. Despite the fact that innocent people were tortured, Cheney claimed that he had no problem with the use of torture because it helped America achieve her objectives in the war on terror. On the other side seem to be self-congratulatory liberals who seem content to point out that torture did not work, something many liberals have been arguing for years, and that this is the lesson to be learned from the torture report. It is not working, it did not work, it could not work, so there was no point in doing it because it has damaged our credibility—utilitarian arguments all around.

While there have been some who publically point to the moral aspects of the torture debate, they have been few and far between. In fact, a majority of Catholics support the use of torture because of the potential benefits they believe it can deliver. This is highly disturbing, because the Catholic Church teaches that torture is intrinsically evil; moreover, the Church, along with St. Thomas Aquinas, teaches it is never about the ends justifying the means, but the means must be as pure as the end being sought. The problem with torture is not that it has degraded America’s standing in the world (though that is a problem, of course), rather, the most significant problem is that it is degrading to the human person; it is an open assault on the dignity of human life as a whole. It degrades the torturer as well as the tortured. The United States of America tortured innocent people. The United States of America implemented a policy of breaking the religious faith of detainees by using religion as a weapon in psychological warfare.

The problem with torture is not that is has damaged America’s image; the problem is that the United States, Americans, and American Catholics became complicit in acts of evil because the perceived costs were seemingly outnumbered by the apparent benefits. The ethical dilemma was swept aside because what mattered was the end result, no matter how we got there. Unlike some American exceptionalists who believe that America is exceptional, there are some of us who are exceptionalists because we believe that America ought to be exceptional. She ought to be the beacon of hope and be that shining light.

Some may ask, why is it morally wrong to torture suspected terrorists in order to get crucial information which might save the lives of innocent civilians, but it is perfectly acceptable to kill terrorists with targeted drone strikes? This issue is a controversial and complicated one that requires further exploration and analysis, and, while this article cannot do full justice to the ethical dilemma, the problem must be addressed. The Catholic Church has laid out Her ethical roadmap for what constitutes just actions in war—jus in bello. The Church’s criteria for the justness of the conduct of the war include: all military action must be necessary to achieve the just end, all actions are done for the right intention, the military actions demonstrate proportionality in the good achieved as compared the harm inflicted on the enemy, and innocent civilians should be protected from unnecessary harm.

The use of drones to target specific individuals who are identified as a direct and serious threat to US civilians or military personnel, such as top al Qaeda commanders, does a good job of passing the jus in bello test, if the strikes are discriminate. Msgr. Stuart Swetland compares the use of drones to police attacks on kidnappers: “In fact, the intent is to sever the command, control and communication (CCC) ability of these terror groups by striking at their key leaders and command posts. Each terror leader is a walking CCC nerve center vital to the enemy’s ability to continue their threat to innocent human life. The intent of any attack in these cases is morally similar to a police attack on kidnappers in a hostage situation who refuse to surrender and continue to threaten others. There seems to be a right intention here.” His analysis is persuasive. Torture, on the other hand, can never be justified under just war theory and Catholic teaching, nor could it be justified under the international laws of war (which is quite similar to Catholic just war theory). It is neither a civilized nor ethical means for achieving the ends it is designed to achieve.

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the Brother Zossima, before he dies, urges his followers to take responsibility for the sins of all men because “as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that it is really so and that you are to blame for every one and for all things.” We are all culpable and all have equal share in the sins that are committed. We must all ask for forgiveness and work to ensure that such evil never happens again.