Keith, thank you for your very informative article regarding torture on TCS Daily. It has been quite awhile since we have corresponded, but my own training has been a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a Master of Divinity, and I have just defended a Doctor of Ministry dissertation successfully in October and hope to have my revisions complete in the very near term. I make my living as an engineer at a nuclear power plant and practice my Christian vocation as a Presbyterian minister as well. All that to say that my training in ethics has been in Christian ethics by nature of my training. The framework I learned considered deontological and teleological ethics primarily, and because I studied H. Richard Niebuhr in more detail, I also picked up what he termed “responsibilist” ethics in his book, The Responsible Self. He proposed that for the Christian, “the good” came from seeking to discern God’s action in the world and then seeking to “respond” to that action.
As such, that scheme is not particularly useful on a practical level to the discussion of torture other than to suggest that as one who was himself tortured and then executed in a torturous manner, Jesus might have some opinion on the matter, presupposing, of course, the resurrection. However, in a secular context, it is by no means clear how that is helpful in having a discussion of the ethics of torture.
For those purposes, your framework is much more helpful to me. I can, with this framework, identify myself as a moderate deontologist, albeit closer to the absolute deontologist than to the consequentialist in varying degrees depending on the issue at hand. With regard to the morality of torture, as a consequence of my starting with the concept of humanity created in the image of God, torture, like most of the consequences of that flawed image, is injurious to the being of the person who bears that image. In that statement I have already presupposed that most of what we encounter in life is injurious to that image by degree, so why would torture be any more or less so?
That’s where I think your framework is helpful, first, by acknowledging as you did that in order for a productive discussion to occur, we have to agree on at least some premises. Second, your argument that the moderate deontologist might say that torture is intrinsically wrong, but that there might be justifying circumstances resonates with my own gut reaction that generally speaking, torture should always be wrong, but to the extent that we find ourselves with the less than perfect, morally ambiguous “ticking bomb” scenario so often cited these days, should one choose the option of torture, then one should also be prepared to bear the legal consequences of that act, stoically so, I would suggest. Let the justice system sort that out.
Obviously, I have only scratched the surface here, but nonetheless, I found your article very helpful in validating the elements I have been considering regardless of what I end up concluding. Again, thank you for your contribution to the discussion.
Michael L. Murdock, P.E.
Catawba Nuclear Station
Note from KBJ: Thanks for writing, Michael, and thanks for the kind words. If you’re a moderate deontologist (as I am), then you should enjoy reading W. D. Ross, The Right and the Good (1930), especially chapters 1 and 2. Ross is a wonderfully clear and precise writer. I have learned much from him over the years.