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Are Intrinsic Injustices Becoming Litmus Tests on the Right?

One exhibit among many in such an inquest might be James Bowman's American Spectator essay lambasting John McCain as a man lacking in the loyalty department. While I'm scarcely a fan of John McCain, the ambitious politician, questioning his loyalty and, by necessary implication, as loyalty is a component of honour, his integrity as well, strikes me as desperate and desperately misguided.

In context, the accusation is even worse:

But there are other parts of his record that bring him closer to the news media and (not, of course, coincidentally) the Democratic Party's presidential candidates in his understanding of honor. For such people, as Mr. Stephens says, "if it means anything at all to them, it seems to be mainly in the sense of the good opinion of America's traditional friends, many of whom opposed the Iraq venture from the start."

As an example, I would mention the countenance and the credibility that the senator's animadversions on "torture" by the Bush administration give to America's enemies, for whom the t-word is an invaluable propaganda tool. An essential element of honor has always been loyalty, and loyalty has never been Senator McCain's strongest suit. Rather, he has always been proud of being a "maverick" -- a man who likes to be thought of as one whose friends and comrades are less important to him than his own exquisite conscience.

So, John McCain is somehow lacking in loyalty because he has occasionally sought the counsel and opinions, the approbation of those skeptical of The War, the present Holy of Holies for the GOP - this, despite his ill-considered averral that America might have to remain in Iraq for a century in order to see the strategy through to its conclusion. This is baffling; or, rather, would be baffling were it not for the way warmongering has degraded conservative political discourse.

And, of course, McCain must be lacking in loyalty because his opposition to torture somehow impugns the dignity of the armed services and the nation, and lends "countenance and credibility" to the propaganda of our enemies. Bowman has inverted the realities in play here. Requiring, or even suggesting, that members of our armed services and intelligence agencies torture detainees and captives impugns both their dignity and that of the nation, inasmuch as there is nothing honourable in acts of torture, let alone those performed on helpless captives. Torture degrades those who order it, those who countenance it, those who play postmodernist with its definitions, and those who perform it, even more so than those who are subjected to it - this, because the former deprave themselves, while the latter endure, unwillingly, a degradation which does not necessarily touch the soul. And, finally, the policy and practice of torture itself lends "countenance and credibility" to the claims of our enemies. What is done in our name does not become not-torture merely because its moral reality is pointed out by self-interested jihadists who themselves engage in the practice; and it does not become not-torture merely because it is adverse to American interests for it to be torture.

A second exhibit might be a report issued by a panel of five senior military strategists, in which it is recommended that a nuclear first-strike option remain an integral aspect of Western strategic planning. In a luridly Orwellian turn of phrase, the authors asseverate that

"The first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction."

To be fair, I might be getting ahead of myself by associating this lunacy with the political right; perhaps this is not a current preoccupation in those precincts. Then again, what were all those conjectural analyses of the logic of escalation about, five and six years ago, if not that we might be pressed to the point of using nuclear weapons to solve certain problems definitively? We must contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction in order to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction. This is discourse on the level of, say, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it", or "We had to risk killing the children in order to save them." Being translated, it essentially claims that we must be prepared to commit atrocities in order to prevent atrocities from being committed, because some atrocities are OK while others are not.

God save us from utilitarians with cattleprods, waterboards, and nuclear weapons.

Comments (22)

It's dismaying the extent to which many on the right have hammered McCain because of his stance on torture. Waterboarding as a requirement for party purity deserves to be rewarded with a landslide defeat in November.

When I was a young boy, my little brother's blue ribbon-winning rabbit was stolen from her cage in our barn. Upon learning the identity of the thief, I rode my bicycle down the road to the culprit's house and found him sitting on his porch. I went up the steps, asked him numerous times for the location of the rabbit (which he denied knowing) so I decided that I'd use another tactic. I grabbed him by the arm, hauled him behind his house and proceeded to stuff his face into the dirt until he cried uncle and gave me the information I sought. I then retrieved my brother's rabbit with no regrets. Should I have?

The morality of any act depends not only on its character, but on the particular circumstances and motives involved. Some certain acts are at all times immoral. Torture is not one of them. Sometimes, the end does justify the means.

Torture is not one of them.

Yes it is.

Sometimes, the end does justify the means.

No it doesn't.

Good arguments guys.

Arguments about torture have been done to death over the past five years. If someone does the diligence and catches up on all that, and remains with the torturers, then a pox on him. I have about as much sympathy for Jack Bauer Republicans as I have for Planned Parenthood Democrats. Which is to say, not a bit.

They were at least as good as yours, which amounted to asserting that an evil is a good and then signing off.

It's a shame the right is focusing on this to criticize about McCain, when it's one of the only good things about him. (His opposition to torture, that is.) There are so many other things wrong with him that they could graciously acknowledge this one good thing and move on.

Exactly. Some segments of the mainstream right cannot be grateful for his disturbing willingness to transform Iraq into a new Hundred-Years War, but instead condemn him for being unwilling to give them one-hundred years of torture as well.

What of his attempts to silence pro-life advocates during political campaigns, his bizarre multicultural fetish, according to which Americans are not permitted to have a culture or identity, but Hispanics will bring fresh "blood and culture", his enthusiasm for misguided solutions to global warming, and so forth? All of these things have been criticized, to be certain, but it would appear that many are making their peace with them - while his opposition to torture continues to arouse considerable ire. For the love of all that is good, McCain - John McCain, who knows, experientially, what torture is - is disloyal and sketchy in the honour department because he doesn't believe in torturing helpless captives? Is wrong the new right?


Is it intrinsically evil to torture a man who has murdered innocent civilians?

George: yes.

But St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, in response to an objection against the right to kill a sinner:

By sinning man departs from the order of reason, and consequently falls away from the dignity of his manhood . . . and he falls into the slavish state of the beasts, by being disposed of according as he is useful to others. [Thomas had already shown that beasts could be treated in this manner] Hence, although it be evil in itself to kill a man so long as he preserve his dignity, yet it may be good to kill a man who has sinned, even as it is to kill a beast. For a bad man is worse than a beast, and is more harmful . . . [emphasis added]
So according to St. Thomas, evil men are like beasts and can be treated however may be useful to the innocent.

By the way, the above quote was from Summa Theologica II:II:64 Article 2.

The Aquinas quote really doesn't apply. Opposition to torture doesn't supervene over opposition to the death penalty, though that trope is common on the Jack Bauer right. Do you think Aquinas would say that it is licit to sodomize such a man? I think not: not because of the objective deserts of the sodomee himself, but because sodomizing offends the dignity of the man who does it.

I frankly doubt that you can find any direct support in Aquinas for torturing animals, let alone men. (Though you will find support in Aquinas for the idea that abortion is a merely venial sin prior to quickening, since Aquinas did not view the embryo before quickening as a person. [The point is that Aquinas can be wrong, not that I agree with him about abortion]).

To treat another man as nothing but a thing is, inter alia, also (and in every case without exception) to treat onesself as a thing not a man. That is why the new torture fetish on the Right is as bad as the pelvic fetishes on the Left: because they degrade us, treat us as subhuman. Jack Bauer's glorification of torture is every bit as offensive to our own dignity as a people as Dr. Drew's glorification of masturbation.

Opposition to torture doesn't supervene over opposition to the death penalty, though that trope is common on the Jack Bauer right.

So it's alright to kill a man, but it's not alright to hurt him?

you will find support in Aquinas for the idea that abortion is a merely venial sin prior to quickening

Aquinas would consider early abortion a mortal sin for the same reason onanism and birth control are mortal sins: They are violations of natural law.

To treat another man as nothing but a thing is, inter alia, also (and in every case without exception) to treat oneself as a thing not a man.

If you mean by this that a man can never be used as a means to an end, you are contradicting the spirit and letter of Aquinas' words which assert that an evil man may be "disposed of according as he is useful to others."

It seems clear to me that Aquinas would have no problem with our boys sticking a wet rag done some terrorist's throat in order get him tell us what he knows.

So it's alright to kill a man, but it's not alright to hurt him?

In certain circumstances it is morally licit to kill a man, yes. It is never morally licit to sodomize a man. Or torture him. That's right.

It seems clear to me that Aquinas would have no problem with ...

Notwithstanding your clairvoyance with respect to Aquinas, the subject has been done to death. People ultimately have to decide for themselves if they are with the moral onanists, or against them. Choose carefully.

(BTW, my previous comment wasn't intended - I hope obviously wasn't intended - to endorse George R's tendentious equation of "hurt a man" with torture).

It is never morally licit to sodomize a man.

I agree.

One should never sodomize a man -- not even a straw man.

One should never sodomize a man -- not even a straw man.

How is it a straw man? The joke would be more clever, and might actually make me laugh, if the shoe actually fit the argument. The very thing which is at issue is whether torture[*], like sodomy, is intrinsically immoral.

[*] (or, to be specific enough to avoid terminological objections, waterboarding a prisoner to extract information.)

"disposed of according as he is useful to others."

I read the passage in question, and how George gets an approval of torture out of it I have no idea. When a man sins badly enough, society can put him into a form of slavery, as when chain gangs dig ditches for us. He thereby becomes "useful to others."

Since George cites Aquinas, I assume he'd be interested in the Catachism's and Veritatis Splendor's condemnation of torture as "intrinsically evil." Just to assure one's self that Zippy isn't making it up.

When a man sins badly enough, society can put him into a form of slavery, as when chain gangs dig ditches for us. He thereby becomes "useful to others."

But you don't think that terrorists should be obliged to be useful by telling us what they know?

As for the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, below is the pertinent section. The quotation that lists the alleged intrinsically evil acts is from the Vatican II Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes. I’ve added my own gloss to certain items that I find curious:

80. Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that "there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object".
The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: "Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide [War, the death penalty, and lethal self-defense are, hereby, all deemed intrinsically evil.], genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation [And if you thought that, since you can no longer execute a criminal, you might be able to at least lop something off him, forget it.], physical and mental torture [Zippy’s in his glory.] and attempts to coerce the spirit [Could mean just about anything, which was probably the idea.]; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment [What is meant by “arbitrary?”], deportation [Sic!], slavery [I guess the chain gangs are out too, Bill.], prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator".

You don’t have any problem with anything on this list? Is deportation intrinsically evil? It seems to me that this excerpt from Gaudium et Spes is attempting to denigrate the powers of the sovereign state.

But you don't think that terrorists should be obliged to be useful by telling us what they know?

No matter what duties someone has, it is never licit to do something intrinsically immoral to him, because it is never licit to do something intrinsically immoral, period.

As for the rest, I've already said that I've had that discussion over and over again over a period of years, and I'm not starting it again here from scratch just for your benefit. You want to defend masturbation, or sodomy, or abortion, or waterboarding prisoners, you go ahead and be the kind of person who does that. There is plenty of room for that on the political Right, and has been for some time; what is new is that support for waterboarding has become a litmus test on the Right. And what that means - should mean even to someone on the fence about waterboarding - is that the Right as presently constituted has become what the Left has been for sigificantly longer - that is, no place for anyone with even a smidgen of self-respect.

But don't say I didn't warn you.

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