May 2, 2009

torture, ethics, and the state

I commented at the end of my last post about a survey which shows Christians are more likely to support torture than non-church goers. Here is what my friend Matt has to say:

The Truth As Best I Know It: The Danger of Supporting Torture: "We can give all the lip-service we want to the name of Jesus, but when we sanction the cruel treatment of God's children in the defense of the security of the nation-state, we are giving our first loyalty to something that is much less than God. The Bible has a word for that: idolatry. And the two major complaints of the Hebrew prophets were idolatry and injustice. We're clearly guilty on both counts."

Usually when I hear people around me who are Christian wanting to support the idea that these tactics were acceptable in the instance of these three people, they are arguing not at all out of their Christian perspective, but rather flip into a consequentialist ethic in which the good which comes out of any particular action is determined not by the individual being harmed, but by how great the good is that can occur. The ends are justified by the means. Sure, torture one person if thousands of lives are saved. In my mind - that is the same ethic that led the Jewish leadership to hand over Jesus to Pilate.

I would be willing to hear of them and would love to find out who they might be, but I am not familiar with hardly any Christian consequentialist thinkers. As I was searching via google, the closest I cam was Neibuhr's pragmatism - but in articles I explored, even in his pragmatism, the options are arrived at deontologically (or based on our duties and responsibilities - or in the Christian tradition, based upon God's commands).

Besides the duty based ethics - in which we act ethically and morally when we follow God's will (as in love your neighbor as yourself, pray for those who persecute you, do not murder), there are virtue ethics. In this ethical strain, it is the character of who we are that determines the ethical action, not the consequences of said action. We ask ourselves, what kind of person do I become if I commit such actions? What kind of nation do we become if we permit such actions? Are we more loving? More just? More faithful? I'm not sure that "safe" is a virtue - but most of the arguments I am hearing is that we are more "safe" because of what we have done. I would argue, we are probably less safe. Yes, particular terrorist actions may have been prevented - but have we bred hatred abroad that will only be fuel for cell recruitment? What was our response when we learned that our own were being tortured? Anger, hatred, resentment.

The last kind of argument I have been hearing is probably more of a deontological ethics than anything else. It claims that the state is given to us by God for a reason and that it is the state's duty to protect its citizenry. Because that was the state's duty - it performed these acts of tortuous interrogation in order to protect the people. The Christian response to this is that since the state is there by God, and it is simply performing its duty, we need to support it.

This is where we have to do some careful weighing of our ethical priorities. Because I believe here is where we have ethical principles that conflict. Yes, perhaps in some cases we would want to support the state as it makes its decisions. The bible gives us room to do so. BUT - when what the state is doing conflicts with other ethical principles, like love and justice, then it is our duty AS CHRISTIANS to stand up and speak out against such ethical violations.

Now, I'm not sure at all about prosecution and guilt in this matter. That in many ways is a state issue. But we have to clearly and inequivocally say that what happened was wrong and that it will not happen again. Period. End of story. And as Christians, we need to hold the state fast to those promises.

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