Friday, March 24, 2006

Christian support of torture

An October 2005 Pew poll shows that American Christians (and Catholics in particular) have remarkably strong support for the use of torture, while secular Americans more strongly oppose it. This is another piece of evidence against the common claim that morality requires religion, or that religious people are more moral than nonreligious people.

More details at the Secular Outpost.

UPDATE (March 25, 2006): Steve Hays at Triablogue has chimed in with some highly critical comments on my post, mostly based on incorrect inferences about what I was arguing. (I didn't actually spell out an argument in any detail, so I'll accept some of the blame for that--but it's funny to see positions attributed to me that I don't hold.) I've posted comments in response to him on his blog, and spelled out an actual argument in the comments at the Secular Outpost:
1. Torture is prima facie wrong; it is only justifiable, if ever, in rare circumstances.

2. Those who advocate widespread, common use of torture against suspected terrorists are less moral than those who oppose most or all use of torture against suspected terrorists. (I could also insert here some premises about the use of the word "suspected" here--I believe the intent of the use of the term is to make the point that we don't know that these are terrorists and probably wouldn't have sufficient grounds to convict them in a court of law--e.g., like many of those being held in Guantanamo Bay).

3. Those who describe themselves as secular are more likely to oppose torture than those who describe themselves as Christians.

4. Those self-descriptions are mostly accurate.

5. Therefore, with respect to the subject of torture of suspected terrorists, those who are secular tend to be more moral than those who are Christian.

6. This is a point of evidence against the thesis that those who are Christian are more moral than those who are secular.
Steve's main three points of criticism on my original post were these (he has more to say at his blog):
i) Notice how he assumes, without benefit of argument, that “torture” is always wrong. That’s the nice part of being a secular rationalist. You don’t have to give reasons for your rationalism. [...]

ii) He also doesn’t bring any critical thinking skills to bear on whether we should frame the issue of interrogation in terms of torture. Surely there’s a continuum here, is there not? There are many degrees and kinds of coercion.

In addition, if we capture a high-level terrorist, and he doesn’t want to talk, should we do absolutely nothing to extract actionable information from him?

If that’s the position of secular humanism, then secular humanism is one of those useless ideologies like pacifism which is incapable of meeting the challenges of a real world situation.

iii) Then there’s his position that belief in use of “torture” under any circumstances makes you a worse person than someone who rejects the use of “torture” under any circumstances.
To which I responded in comments on the post:


Your post is a bit heavy on the ad hominem and you have drawn inferences about my position and circumstances that aren't based on what I actually wrote. If you read the comments on my original post at the Secular Outpost, you'll see that my own answer to the survey question is "rarely" rather than "never."

So, to address your points in order, your claim in (i) that I assume without argument that torture is always wrong is mistaken. I neither said nor implied that--the most you can infer from what I wrote is that leaning in favor of widespread use of torture is less moral than opposition to most use of torture. For the record, I do think that torture is prima facie wrong, and as a public policy matter should be prohibited across the board. There are possible circumstances where the use of torture to obtain information may be the best possible course of action on utilitarian grounds, just as there are possible circumstances where murder or cannibalism may be the best possible course of action--but I don't think that calls for a revision of public policy to have anything other than an absolute prohibition on them. There is always the necessity defense in a court of law. I happen to think that the U.S. should abide by the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, and UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) which the U.S. Senate ratified in 1994. What do you think?

In response to (ii), I agree that there are interrogation techniques that fall short of torture, which also have the added benefit of being more reliable--recipients of torture tend to say what they think their torturers want to hear. You say I don't bring my critical thinking skills to bear on a topic that I didn't even discuss.

In response to (iii), again you've fabricated a position for me to disagree with (i.e., you've engaged in the straw man fallacy). My actual position is that those who fall on the end of the spectrum of endorsing widespread use of torture are less moral than those who fall on the end of the spectrum of opposing most or all uses of torture. Likewise for murder.

To bring home a more specific example--Bush administration advisor John Yoo (who, along with Alberto Gonzales, was the primary architect of the Bush administration's position on torture) has said that the president has the authority to order that the child of a terrorist be tortured, by crushing his testicles, in order to get the terrorist to talk.

Do you think that such an action could be moral? I don't, and I think it not only should be [illegal] but is illegal as well (I strongly disagree with the "unitary executive" arguments for expansive presidential powers that seem to have completely lost sight of the fact that the judiciary and legislature are supposed to have equal weight to the executive branch).

Also, you stated as a premise in your argument to the erroneous conclusion that I'm "intellectually isolated" in the sense of not having any non-like-minded friends that I have posted "many ill-informed or ill-reasoned posts." Which posts are you referring to, can you point out a few of the many, and possibly explain why you characterize them as such?

Finally, why didn't you link to the post on the Secular Outpost you are responding to? That reduced the likelihood that I (or other Secular Outpost readers) would see your comment. Fortunately, Sean Choi pointed it out, encouraging some cross-blog and cross-worldview interaction, which I welcome.
Steve made reference to some other posts he made on the topic of torture and coercive interrogation, including this one, where he debates someone named Shamgar in the comments. I think Shamgar, who has the last word, has the better argument.


jm said...

Very interesting data indeed. I would like to point out a statistical figure that is lacking from the poll. Namely, the number of each categorical group polled, ie. the number of individuals that declared themselves 'secular', 'catholic', 'white protestant' or 'white evangelical.' The poll only lists the overall number of individuals questioned: "2,006 adults between October 12-24, 2005." It occurs to me, that of the 2,006 total, an uneven representation of each group could have easily occurred, quite feasibly skewing the per-category opinion percentages. A fairer representation would have been to poll an equal number of each individual respective category.

That being said, I think the roughly 30% of the current president's steadfast "religious right" supporters (quite possibly some of the 'white protestants' polled) do Christians a great injustice by placing their support of the president and his political agenda above the principals Jesus exemplified in the New Testament of the Bible. Clearly torture not being one of those..

Jim Lippard said...

JM: Thanks for the post, glad to see you here!

The biggest problem with polling an equal number of each category is that it would be difficult to find as many of the "secular" category; if the sample size is large enough and the random selection is done effectively, that should control for the kind of skewing of results you suggest. Since the researchers said that approximately 3% of the population fall into the "secular" category, we can infer that about 60 of the 2,006 sample were "secular."

BTW, you might want to check out the Steve Hays post I've now linked to.