Ethical Puzzle of the Day: Torture

Zoe:  You sanguine about the kinda reception we’re apt to receive on an Alliance ship, Captain?

Mal: Absolutely.  What’s sanguine mean?

Zoe:  Sanguine.  Hopeful.  Plus–point of interest–it also means bloody.

Mal:  Well, that pretty much covers all the options, don’t it?

–Firefly aka thebestshoweverI’mstillinmourningtheragestillburns

First thing’s first–I have survived my second quarter of seminary!  Huzzahs all around.  For a while there I thought I’d be DOA, but nay!  Nay, my friends!  All the papers have been turned in, and all the tests have been taken, and now I have a week before I start all over again.  Apparently I am Sisyphus by choice–a glutton for punishment.

Speaking of punishment, for today I figured I’d think through the ethical problem of torture.  Is torture ever justified?  Now I want to warn you from the start that I don’t yet have a satisfying answer.  I’ve been trying to work this out since the first week of my ethics class when we debated this question in our small groups.  These sorts of quandaries distress me quite a bit because I prefer my philosophies to stay neat and tidy.  So I figured as long as I’m bothered and bewildered, I might as well share my befuddlement with my nearest and dearest.

Here goes!  Is torture ever justified?  My immediate response is no.  First of all, I can’t imagine Jesus ever torturing anybody, and since I believe His humanity is normative, that means torture is off the table for me too.  (Not that I ever would, because gross!  But for the sake of the thought experiment…)  However–and here’s where it gets tricky–I do believe it’s permissible to use force to defend others, and I can imagine at least one circumstance where torture could fit my criteria for resorting to violence.


Lately I’ve been reading a lot of pacifist literature, and while I appreciate their philosophies of non-violence, I haven’t yet been persuaded toward pacifism myself.  For one thing, it seems to me that pacifism would rule out prisons and a police force as they are just implements of outsourced violence.  This would leave everyone at the mercy of criminals, and while I tend to eschew consequentialist reasoning, I just can’t imagine a world like that being functional.

So for now I adhere to the non-aggression principle (i.e., do not initiate or threaten violence toward anyone who has not been violent himself) with the caveat that it is very possible that for Christians even self-defense is not allowable.  The life of Christ seems to bear this out, as does what I understand of the the early and very persecuted church.  For most things, this ideology serves very well.  War?  A big no due to the inevitable civilian casualties.  Drone strikes?  No for the same reason.  Taxation?  Vice laws?  Immigration bans?  No, no, and no.  It’s blissfully simple, really.

But…what if an arch-villain has kidnapped a child and buried her underground in an unspecified location where she is sure to run out of oxygen before too long?  Then is torture permissible?  (To meet the requirement of the non-aggression principle it’s important that the one being tortured is the actual villain and not just someone who might know something about the child’s whereabouts.  Knowing things isn’t aggression.)  Part of me would like to say no because torture is yucky.  It’s really hard to envision Jesus putting bamboo shoots under someone’s fingernails or shooting kneecaps or even waterboarding.  Yet, if a man were holding a gun on a child I would say that it’s perfectly fine to shoot him in order to preserve the child’s life and end the threat.  All things considered, is the torture case really that different?  The criminal isn’t holding a gun, but he has put the child’s life in jeopardy, and his death won’t save the kid, but maybe cutting off his finger will.



I guess I’m in search of a brightline on this.  Would Jesus torture, even in this instance?  I don’t think so, but does that mean He wouldn’t shoot a rampaging gunman either, given the chance?  If I believe that then would that make me a (gulp!) hippy pacifist?  Or is there something especially vile about torture which crosses a line that merely killing someone does not?  After weeks of going round and round about this, I don’t feel I’m any closer to an answer.  (I do want to note that B’s version of Jesus is part Jack Bauer and has no problem putting the hurt on bad guys.  If only I could be sanguine…)

These are the sorts of things that keep me up at night.  You know, in case the president ever calls me up and asks my opinion on torturing some poor sot.  For now, given this scenario, I’d have to say, “I have no idea, Mr. President, but if you’d like I can explicate some Chaucer for you.  You know, just because it’s a national emergency and all.”  Thankfully, that’s unlikely to happen because my explication skills are muy rusty, but for my own peace of mind I’d like to know where I stand.

The good news is that so far this is the only contingency I’ve yet dreamed up where my go-to philosophy regarding violence is confuzzled when it comes to torture.  The bad news is that it’s at the margins where purist ideologies like mine break down.  I don’t want to break down.  I want to emerge triumphant!  There has to be something I’m missing.  I just haven’t found it yet.  If you find it before I do, be a lamb and make a present of it to me, ‘kay?  Okay.


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