Some thoughts on Torture.

February 17, 2009

For torture to be condemned requires absolute morality.

Atheistic utilitarian ethics eliminates restraint in information gathering provided more lives are at stake than the one being tortured.

As we have seen with nations like China and Soviet Russia, when God is removed from the equation torture becomes a viable option.  Torture’s use can be for anything deemed a threat to the state, internal or external.

Deism will not do, the blind watchmaker who disappeared could care less about any of us, much less one of us.

Nations whose constitutions are declared under God, such as Canada or the U.S. must subscribe to absolute morality or forfeit honouring their constitution.

Nations with a constitutional directive to employ absolutes in their ethical processes cannot resort to Torture for information gathering.

(This is my first simul-blog with Deep and Meaningful for Dummies, an awesome project by my friend David.)



  1. Liam, I am really not sure where you pulled this from. Are you forgetting Guantanamo? Vietnam? The Devil’s Brigade? Both Canada and the US mention God in the preambles of their constitutions. This has stopped neither from engaging in torture when it suits their needs or objectives…or the British, or French, or Germans, nor any other power, people, or group with enough power that they can pull it off. Ethics unfortunately seem to be reserved solely for those who cannot make others comply with their will by force. New Zealand, Norway, Sweden…these countries practice ethical foreign behaviour and have ZERO record of torture…and they are never noted as particularly devout/religious countries. In fact, they are all social democratic countries, which some would relate to atheism.

  2. I don’t disagree with you about the realities of the situation. And I disagree with Guantanamo prison because I believe in the right to a fair trial, and waterboarding is torture. Vietnam was also needlessly horrific, (The Devil’s Brigade, hmm, I’m not sure what your problem with is, they were a special forces group in WW2 that conducted fairly standard operations) but I disagree because I believe people are given worth by being made in the image of God. I can like people, I can treat people well, I can be a decent person without believing in God, which I hope I would do if I didn’t. But for any of those actions to be morally binding on others God has to be a part of the equation otherwise the criticism can only be limited to whether the program in question fulfills the objectives of the nation that created it. Which in the case of Guantanamo the argument is that it is serving a needed role in preventing another terrorist attack. Something that has not occurred in the US thus far.

    My criticism of Waterboarding, which I was indirectly referring to here, is that by being willing to torture people you negate the constitutional idea that they are under God, and therefore worthy of treatment as such. For a state in these conditions to torture is to invalidate their commitment to their constitution.

  3. Oh, forget Donald Duck. This has the makings of a REALLY good debate.
    First things: the Devil’s Brigade was a special forces unit in WW2, correct. Something not published in most Canada Film board movies or history texts is that they engaged in interrogation methods that, to put it mildly, make waterboarding look like showering. I’ll see if I can find the names of some books that do document it. Unfortunately, the only one I own is in Toronto, so I can’t get to it now.
    Next: here’s something to consider. Your statement: “But for any of those actions to be morally binding on others God has to be a part of the equation otherwise the criticism can only be limited to whether the program in question fulfills the objectives of the nation that created it.” confused me. Why? Why does God have to be involved to make those behavioural norms binding? The same precepts of “do unto others” and “thou shalt no kill” (by extension, “do no harm”) exist in all major ethical codes, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Toaism, the Geneva Convention and other non-abrahamic traditions. For the most part, secular ethical codes follow religious ones, so they too include these precepts. Just about everyone would admit that they A) do not want to be tortured and B) don’t believe torture is a moral action. The best that can be said about it (and I’m not agreeing or defending it, just expressing the arguments others have tried against me) is that it can be justified under what you refered to as “utiliatarian ethics”…which by the way are pretty outdated. Check out Margaret Somerville’s “The Ethical Imagination” for a more modern formulation of secular ethics than Bentham or Mill.
    One does not need to be religious to respect humanity’s innate dignity or individual’s worth as ends in of themselves. Killing, torture, rape and related activities are repugnant , not because God created us and gave us laws, but because they offend us on an instinctual, sub-ego level. This is what gives rise to empathy and sympathy. I don’t care what God they believe in or who created them, torturing those in Guantanom is wrong. Full stop.
    Both our positions work as arguments against torture, which I am thankful for. But my problem with bringing God and nationalism/national identity/nations together is this: from “God created our people and wants us to behave a certain way” it is only a short jump to “God created all people and wants them all to behave a certain way, and they’re ignorant savages who don’t even call God by the right name, so let’s go make them behave as God wills.” I know, I know, a little dramatic…but historically accurate. The Colonial Empires, the Crusades, The Inquisition leap to mind.
    The only reason I can see to bring God into this debate on torture is the same reason as He is brought into any moral debate…as a deterrent. “God is watching you and will send you to hell.” But this carries it’s own set of issues, and that is another debate entirely. Cheers bro. Peace Love and Maple Syrup.

  4. Hey Matt,
    There’s a lot here to discuss. Here we go.

    I don’t disagree with you that there is a strange universality to ethics across cultural/religious lines. Peter Kreeft frequently discusses this as an argument for a universal ethics “built into” the system by God, I’ll leave that for another post. Why I bring it up here is that whether it is universal or not, it is not strong enough in and of itself to require adherence. Only if the most powerful are willing to abide by it is it so. It is easier to condemn the ~thousand killed by the Spanish Inquisition than the millions killed by Stalin because Stalin’s regime is one possible (not the only) outworking of a Godless regime. The inquisition by its nature contradicted the belief it espoused. Stalin’s regime, and to a lesser extent Lenin’s before it, were built into their system’s code. It is only because of my belief in God, and not some ephemeral “dignity of man,” that I condemn them both as being contrary to the telos of human existence.

    Where does Man’s innate dignity come from? I’m curious as to your use of the term sub-ego, as the Freudian use I’m familiar with would refer to the Id, which is anything but selfless. In Freud’s view the Ego was a device of the mind to keep our true instincts, embodied in the Id, to eat and to procreate, from destroying our ability to do those same things in the future. By this understanding we only superficially, at the level of the Ego, deplore kiling, torture, rape, and related activities. At an instinctual level we could care less so long as we get to eat and screw.

    Your short jump from “God created our people and wants us to behave a certain way” to “God created all people and wants them all to behave a certain way, and they’re ignorant savages who don’t even call God by the right name, so let’s go make them behave as God wills” is not borne out in all your examples. The brits actually fought to keep missionaries out of the colonies as their empire was primarily an economic exercise. The crusades had a spiritual aspect, but it was, ostensibly, to reclaim land of religious significance, this is borne out in the lack of any major proselytization efforts during the crusader states. Apart from tax discrimination. Only the inquisition fully carries this example out.

    The reality is that it is only a short jump from “I think this is the way it should be” to “I will kill and maim to make people behave this way.” This is what we see with or without God being brought into the equation. From the inquisition to the soviet pogrom, from eugenics to holocausts, people will always find a way to improve the world at the expense of others. When a constitution includes God we are provided with a clause that definitively answers why we should not use immoral means for our purposes. It is not in the form of the metaphysical deterrent, but in the reality that all men are imbued with dignity from their creator. When we kill or harm a creature made in God’s image we spit in the face of man’s worth and dignity. When we kill a chance product of billions of years of evolution we kill little more than a sentient ape.

  5. […] Liam Kinnon The thoughts of Liam Kinnon, Human « Best Ad Ever. Torture, Ethics, and God February 24, 2009 I haven’t had much time to blog, I’m on reading week, which is attempting to live up to its name.   I’ve finally gotten around to answering my good friend Matt’s (who should blog) response to my thought’s on torture.  I meant to keep it short but it kind of exploded.  You can read and add to the discussion here. […]

  6. It is easier to condemn Inquisition than Stalinism? I’m not touching that one, simply because I could go on for days about how many people have died throughout history as a result of religious conflicts. Both are/were atrocities. So, let’s not have that debate. But as per some other points you brought up…
    The inquisition did not counter the position that it espoused. If it had espoused what Jesus had said, namely live in peace with your neighbour and practice pacifism, then maybe it would’ve. Instead, it espoused the belief that Jews and Muslims were heathens, Islam and Judaism an offense against God, and it was the duty of Christians to drive them off the land. It was also declared, in a papal bull, that killing Muslims who would not convert wasn’t a sin; it was a religious responsibility. Furthermore, while exact historical figures are unavailable, many of those who did convert were assumed to be heretics or relapses and treated accordingly (murdered). While there were some elements of the Church that in fact opposed this approach, the monarchy, the Spanish Catholic Establishment and the Pope were all in favour. The actions taken during the Inquisition followed the religious and political beliefs of the time. Where they godly? I’d say absolutely not, but some would disagree. Were they done in the name of Christianity and God? Absolutely. That is historical fact. This is the danger in making someone’s importance relevant to God. Humans have never succeeded in not differentiating themselves along religious lines. More often than not, those who are not in your group are called enemies. On the other hand, ( and I do recognize the problems with this approach), humans having importance in of themselves, rather than in spiritual (or class, since your brought up communism) identity avoids the issue of who “belongs” to the correct group.
    As for sub-ego, I apologize for the confusion. I was going for more sub-rational: instinctive and emotional reactions. The type that comes from the horror at seeing children gunned down, for example. There is no rational process that allows me to be disgusted after carefully considering the facts and evidence, it is simply and automatically repugnant.
    As for my examples…okay, the Brits tried to keep missionaries out of their empire. The French, Spanish and Italians had no such compunctions. (I originally something on the Crusades, but deleted it when this post got too long.)
    Now to the good stuff. Here’s the central problem Liam. You saying that human life is important because God created it has the same worth as me saying human life is important, period. It depends on where your point of reference is. If God gives life meaning, your definition works. (I know several moral atheists.) But, here’s the problem. Several questions need to be answered. Unfortunately they are usually answered with AK-47s. Whose God? Or gods? Who’s creation story is valid? What is our purpose in life? For example, most Christians commonly hold that we are the children of God. Many Muslims however, often consider us His slaves. Right away, we have a difference of status in our religious views. Danger Will Robinson! Imagine throwing the polytheistic Hindus into the mix, or some semi-atheistic Buddhist sects? Where is the agreement on whose God gives human life importance supposed to come from? We can’t even practice the beliefs held in common, like for example, Do Not Kill. Furthermore, I am sure the Muslims in Guantanamo who were tortured would put a lot of stock into torture being wrong because Christ said so. You state: “When a constitution includes God we are provided with a clause that definitively answers why we should not use immoral means for our purposes.” Only if you believe in the God mentioned: a serious problem in the multi-ethnic, multi-spiritual nations of N.A.
    What I am trying to get at it is that it is all too easy to fall into religious identity rather than human identity. Some people say the Christian God has no moral value, Liam, but the Hindu divinities do. Where does that leave us? Both groups may believe life is sacred, but for entirely different reasons, and may not give the other’s religion much credence. From there, it is a slippery slope towards the group-religious-kill instinct discussed above. Perhaps I am overly cynical, but let’s start with a bare minimum denominator when it comes to cross cultural ethics. I would be very pleased to discuss/debate what that denominator should be with you whenever you have a moment.
    This was fun. Sorry for the length.
    Peace Love and Maple Syrup.

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