Religion and Ethics Weekly: The Moral Debate About Torture

Dr. JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN (Professor of Social and Political Ethics, University of Chicago Divinity School and Georgetown University): Well, the underlying principle for me is what I would call an “ethic of responsibility.” That’s an ethic that is especially important when we’re talking about statesmen and stateswomen who often have the lives of thousands in their hands, quite literally.

ABERNETHY: So they have a different rule, a different ethic, a different moral standard than somebody would if he’s just acting as an individual?

Dr. ELSHTAIN: Not entirely different. We don’t want a huge chasm to emerge. But I would say that there are extraordinary circumstances when harrowing judgments must be made by those we tax with the responsibility of keeping us safe, and at those times there may be a “lesser evil” kind of calculation to be made.

Dr. [SHAUN] CASEY: We have about a 60-year tradition of international law and domestic law that regulates the behavior of those who, in fact, are called to be our political leaders and there is a consistent prohibition of the use of torture. In fact, the United States has been a leading catalyst in that international movement, so I agree with that. But I think we have some rules that are in place that prohibit torture.

Read it all.


Posted in * Culture-Watch, * Economics, Politics, Ethics / Moral Theology, Military / Armed Forces, Terrorism, Theology

8 comments on “Religion and Ethics Weekly: The Moral Debate About Torture

  1. robroy says:

    Let’s prosecute Nancy Pelosi who knew about the waterboarding.

  2. Dave B says:

    What evidence does Dr Casey have that tens of thousands were tortured? Bush did try to establish clear lines about what was acceptable and allowed and ran it by the House and Senate intelligence committees for approval (these committees have over site of the CIA). There were imminant attacks pending and cells were found and the attacks stopped saving US lives.
    The referance to Churchill by Obama is from a sloppy article by Andrew Sullivan and no such reference attributable to Churchill can be found! The British did torture during World War Two in at least one place called the cage ran by a LTC Scotland. A Col “tin eye” Stephens used extreme psychological torture threatening executions, starvation and sleep deperavation. Supposedly one of Obama’s grand parents in AFrica were tortured by the British when Churchill was in office! Whether Churchill knew about the cage or not is subject to speculation!

  3. Katherine says:

    The whole discussion is worth reading; it’s not terribly long. Dr. Casey’s answers are far less sensible, in my opinion, than Dr. Elshtain’s. I am glad the journal gave her opinions a space and a hearing. Their web page has a photo indicating that they might be prejudiced, since this piece is headed with a photo from, I presume, Abu Ghraib, where the misdeeds of the guards were not authorized by the Army or the administration, where the command officers who failed to properly supervise the guards have been punished, and which has nothing to do with the recently released memos.

    I agree with #2 on the “tens of thousands of tortured” line. Where’s the documentation for that?

  4. Fr. Dale says:

    I think there is frequently a difference between what we would do as individuals and what we would allow others to do on our behalf. People eat meat but many would not kill an animal to provide the meat for themselves. People may allow for capital punishment but would not personally kill another human being. An individual may believe that using torture in extreme cases of interrogation is something they would not do but they would allow others to do it on their behalf. How many who approved of the killing of the pirates would have pulled the trigger themselves? Thus, My question is, “Are there different levels or concepts of moral conduct/accountability based on whether there is a single agent or an agent acting on behalf of a nation or a society”? If this question cannot be answered “Yes”, then do we have a moral right as a nation to send our young men to war.

  5. David Fischler says:

    Casey’s reference to “tens of thousands” tortured is a wonderful example of the dishonesty of a lot of those engaged in this debate. There haven’t even been tens of thousands captured or imprisoned in the course of the struggle with al-Qaeda or the war in Iraq, much less tortured. I suspect Casey knows that, but throws numbers like this around for emotional effect, confident that the media (for instance, Abernethy, who didn’t challenge the figure or give Elshtain an opportunity to do so) will cover his backside.

  6. Jeffersonian says:

    [blockquote]I agree with #2 on the “tens of thousands of tortured” line. Where’s the documentation for that? [/blockquote]

    The CIA has come clean and said it waterboarded three (3) of the head honchos in al-Qaeda. Mr. Casey seems to be rounding up.

  7. libraryjim says:

    Bush prosecuted in Military court-martials soldiers who abused prisoners in Iraq. There is no evidence that he sanctioned ill-treatment of prisoners.

  8. abishag says:

    Over 30,000 prisoners went through Abu Ghraib prison. It was one of six or seven such prisons the US maintained in Iraq. That is where the tens of thousands number came from. The Army’s own investigation revealed horrific conditions there.