Ethics, spirituality and religion: a debate on torture

August 23, 2007   

A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure of attending a small salon on ethics, spirituality and religion. I was humbled by the intelligence and insight of the attendees: public intellectuals, authors, a professor of religion, and numerous successful executives and entrepreneurs.

It was one of the few intellectual discussions I have attended where the atheists were balanced by an equal number of theists. A few brief presentations by keynote speakers included Girard’s explanation of religion (, the taxonomy of the religious debate, and the relevance of religion in the 21st century.

By far the most heated debate surrounded one theologian’s question: “Is it ever ok to do evil for good purposes?” and its corollary — a debate on torture. Instinctively, most people in the audience were against ever committing an act of torture. However, they recognized that Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler failed, and that the International Community could have limited genocide in Rwanda via the use of force. We would condone torture if the stakes are high enough, the outcome clear enough. In other words, most of us will “do evil” if we are sure it is “for good purpose,” such as saving a family member from imminent demise

As we tackled the theologian’s question on the merits of torture, we came to realize that our moral center is relative and highly dependent on the circumstances.

1. Framing & Ethics

If people are told: “There is an out of control train. It is about to run over 20 people. If you press this button, you divert the train and kill 1 person.” Most people press the button. If instead you say: “There is an out of control train. It is about to run over 20 people. If you push this 1 person in front of the train, you slow the train down enough to save the 20 people.” Most people do nothing. Yet the potential outcomes are identical in both cases.

2. Legality & Ethics

The definition of “torture” in international law differs from the definition of “torture” in domestic law,. Article 17 of the Third Geneva Convention states: “No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.” The United States has adopted a more permissive definition of torture; it “must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”

Perspective also influences the relevant ethics of torture. An individual may draw the conclusion that it is okay for them to do evil for good purposes. Simultaneously they may insist it is wrong for a society to legalize evil acts with a positive outcome. To illustrate, most individuals would engage in torture if they believed that the result would save family members from a certain demise. Yet a much small group would provide the government a carte blanche to institutionalize torture. Torture may be an example where personal ethics does not harmonize with a legal edict governing social conduct.

3. Efficacy

The most astute comment on the debate on torture came from one of the public intellectuals in the audience. He questioned whether the debate on torture should instead be a debate on efficacy rather than ethics.

He argued that we are uncomfortable with the use of torture because we are not convinced it works. We are not convinced the individuals we torture are guilty. We are not convinced that the people inflicting torture will necessarily extract information or instill fear. Moreover, even if we only torture guilty parties and effectively apply torture as an instrument, the very fact that we conduct torture publicly eviscerates our perceived respect for human rights and may actually be counterproductive to our long-term security.

Our ethical boundaries and beliefs were challenged. We left simultaneously enlightened and confused but at least having attempted to question the basis for our beliefs. And so the night ended.


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