Saturday, May 16, 2009

Peter Kreeft on Torture

Peter Kreeft spoke in Dallas last night and commented on the question, "Is torture ever justified?" Suprisingly, his answer was yes.

His answer was given within the context of the ticking time bomb situation: If you knew a bomb was in a city and about to go off, would you torture a person who knew the whereabouts of the bomb? Kreeft's reply is you can torture a GUILTY person in such a situation in order to get the information. A guilty person has forfeited his rights in this scenario. This qualification does not imply that you could torture innocents, e.g. the person's loved ones.

This answer resolves the concern I had, namely, an interrogator would harm the a detainee's child or spouse in order to acquire the high value information. Practically speaking it is unlikely to happen, but I didn't want to hold a position that could justify it.

This isn't to say Kreeft's answer is problem free. I detect two:
1) If human dignity is intrinsic or absolute, then how can a person forfeit it? Forfeiture suggests it is conditional or relative.

2) This problem resembles the thought experiment about whether you should lie to the Nazis if they knock on the door and you're hiding Jews in the basement. Kreeft's answer is you should lie because the Nazis have forfeited their right to the truth. My concern with such answers is that they suggest the rightness or wrongess of an act depends upon its recipient. One would think it would depend upon the intrisnic nature of the act itself, not upon external circumstances. Lying and torture should be right or wrong per se, not because of the situation. Kreeft's way of thinking seems to say, "Whether lying or torturing is wrong depends upon whom you are doing it to." I sound awfully Kantian here...


  1. The catechism actually addresses the question of whether torture is permissible, which i think makes more problems for Kreeft's answer : in 2297-2298

    " 2297 Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity.
    Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.[90]

    2298 In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors. "

  2. I notice that section 2297 of the Catechism only mentions torture used in specified situations. It does not explicitly rule out torture in the situation mentioned by Kreeft, where it is used to extract information that will prevent a crime and save many lives.

  3. David,

    You're right that it lists the instances when torture would be wrong (extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred), but it goes on to list the possibilities when it might be okay (therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations). 'Extraction of info' is not on the list of exceptions.

  4. Utilitarianism isn't a part of Catholic doctrine. Taking a life to save others is wrong. I don't see how inflicting cruel punishments that may or may not provide reliable information is any better.