Is Torture intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral? Part 1

Here’s the news story: Most Americans think torture is OK and links to the Pew Poll. The AP Poll [a PDF file] has this to say:

“Americans are divided on the use of torture against suspected terrorists to obtain information about terrorist activities, and their opinions on this topic remain relatively unchanged since 2011. Fifty percent of respondents today say the use of torture can sometimes or often be justified while 47 percent say it can rarely or never be justified.”

So the precise issue is the use of torture against terrorists or suspected terrorists. Considered in the light of the three fonts of morality, we should phrase it this way:

Is torture intrinsically evil and therefore always immoral? Or might torture be used with a good intention, such as to save many lives, and in dire circumstances, such as when an attack is imminent? The three fonts of morality are (1) intention, (2) moral object, (3) circumstances. All three fonts must be good for any act to be moral.

When the moral object is bad, the act is intrinsically evil and therefore always wrong to choose. But whether or not torture is intrinsically evil depends on its definition. I’ve already written on this topic in The Catechism of Catholic Ethics. Here are some excerpts:

Setting aside the more common uses of the term torture, a narrow definition of torture could be applied only to the innocent, regardless of intention. Murder is intrinsically evil because it is the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being, not merely any killing. Similarly, we can define torture narrowly as the direct and voluntary infliction of severe suffering on the innocent. But like the maiming of the innocent, this definition is a type of direct and deliberate violence against the innocent, which is intrinsically evil.

This narrow definition of torture would also include a punishment of the guilty that was both severe and excessive. For to punish the guilty beyond an extent proportional to their guilt is a type of violence against the innocent (and so it is no longer properly called punishment). Even a person who is guilty of a serious crime is innocent beyond the limits of that crime.

This narrow definition of torture, as the direct and voluntary infliction of severe violence against the innocent, is intrinsically evil, despite having the circumstance of degree (because torture is severe) as part of its definition. For when the degree is too small to be called torture, the act remains intrinsically evil, as the direct and voluntary harm of the innocent. Similarly, the definition of the intrinsically evil act of euthanasia includes the intention (first font) to relieve all suffering; but when that intention is not present, the second font remains intrinsically evil, as a type of murder.

On the topic of terrorism, some persons claim that we are justified in denying known or suspected terrorists fundamental human rights, or that we are justified in using any degree or type of torture against them. The justification is then said to be national security, or the prevention of a severe terrorist attack, or simply the saving of many lives. This argument claims that the means (the denial of fundamental human rights, torture) is justified by the intended end, which is also said to be the most weighty consequential end, of saving lives.

To the contrary, the end of saving lives does not justify any act, used as a means to that end, which is immoral. Even if the means is an act that is not intrinsically evil, but is immoral under the first or third fonts, such an immoral act cannot be justified by reference to a good end. No immorality is ever justified. And if the act itself is intrinsically evil, then nothing can justify the knowing choice of such an act, regardless of the intention or the circumstances, no matter how many lives are saved.

Therefore, if a human person is a known or suspected terrorist, he cannot morally be denied fundamental human rights, such as food, medical care, freedom of worship, and the right to a fair trial before a proportional punishment for his crimes. A known or suspected terrorist cannot be morally held indefinitely without trial, nor under inhumane living conditions. All human persons, regardless of what crimes or sins they may have committed, must be treated as human persons.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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