The Invaluable Zippy Observes:

“Prudential judgement is to right-liberals what primacy of conscience is to left-liberals.”

Very true. The Thing That Used to be Conservatism spends endless oceans of electrons making itself stupid pretending it is impossible to know what torture is or whether it is evil while the Thing that Used to be Liberalism does exactly the same thing pretending its impossible to know if a baby full of human DNA is human and whether it is evil to murder it.

So much fake confusion could be avoided if people just applied a bit of common sense and listened to the Church.  It’s like this: if you obeyed the Church and sought to treat your prisoner humanely instead of seeking to get as close to torture as you can possibly get, you would not torture him and all your BS about “prudential judgment” would not even be necessary.  Likewise, if you aren’t sure when human life begins, then how’s about you not prattle about “primacy of conscience” while being utterly uncertain of whether you are committing murder or not.  If the Church says human life is sacred from conception and you aren’t sure, then defer to the Church and you won’t accident murder somebody.  This isn’t even complicated.

One of the marks of evil is that the devil loves to introduce fake complexity into divine simplicity and over-simplify what God warns is complex.  Ideology is the simplifying part of the lie.  The excuses ideologues come up with for rationalizing evil is the complexificating part of the lie.  The key word here is “lie.”

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  • In any government system, where the rubber meets the road, there’s an SOP (standard operating procedure, the name and acronym can vary by department) to be written. It is dense, uses jargon far more than is easily understood, and is meticulous about what is and is not to be done. For example the specifications on the milspec paper clip and ashtray are often used as wonders of the art in procurement. Common sense often has little to do with such documents. It is not unreasonable to seek guidance sufficient to write such documents. *That* is common sense because no matter what the subject, somebody’s going to have to write those SOPs and everybody else is going to have to follow them or resign in protest/do other forms of resistance that may endanger themselves. People’s lives and careers can end on mistakes in these documents.

    There is a level of complexity beyond that where, you are absolutely right, the devil does lurk and sophists hide their arguments’ weakness. Just get your detail of what should be done past that first bar of sufficient to write procedures and you’ll find a lot more people agreeing with you.

  • J. H. M. Ortiz

    One has to be careful about generalizations, which are often overdrawn. But here, the balanced generalization is accurate, I think, that “the devil loves to introduce fake complexity into divine simplicity and over-simplify what God warns is complex”.

  • Kristen inDallas

    This is probably one of those instances of over rationalization leading to evil, but a thought occured to me this morning and I have to ask. Was deliberating between abstaining and writing in a candidate when I wondered… would it be morally ok to vote for someone who supports a grave evil (like say, Jill Stein or Gary J) if I did so with a great confidence that he/she could not win or become successful in that goal, but that if the party could acheive 5% of the vote it could substantially weaken one of the major parties on the next go-round?

    On rereading… this looks a lot like: Is it moral to corroberate with evil, present false motives, and sabotage that which I don’t like. I may have anwsered my own question….

    Darn back to feeling guilty for “not doing anything” which may be my best option this year.

    • Conscientious objection is not “not doing anything”. It is disproportionately loud, which is why so many people are constantly telling conscientious objectors – especially those of us who think that everyone ought to join in conscientious objection – to shut up.

  • Mike Petrik

    Basically, primacy of conscience differs from prudence in that it seeks to trump Church teaching, whereas the exercise of prudence seeks to achieve it.

    I’m not aware of conservatives claiming prudential judgment as a justification for the support of torture. Instead, I’ve hear strikingly weak arguments such as (i) the Church’s teaching on torture is not sufficiently developed to be binding or (ii) waterboarding is not torture.

    I continue to disagree with the idea that the definition of torture doesn’t matter. We have a moral obligation to protect innocents and should undertake efforts to do so, but those efforts cannot be intrinsically evil such as torture. It is fair to make good faith efforts to discern the boundaries of torture so that they are not breached even in the heroic and morally admirable efforts to protect innocent lives.

    The right’s reliance on prudential judgment is mostly associated with the role of government in achieving certain social goods, such as access to basic health care. Prudential judgment is necessary when analyzing these questions.

    In contrast, the Catholic Left’s reliance on primacy of conscience usually involves Church teachings (abortion, contraception, homosexual acts) with which they simply disagree.

    • Mark Shea

      Nah. “Prudential judgement” is, in common conservative parlance, code for “ignore the Church if it points in a direction you don’t like”. Sorry, but I’ve heard it invoked to justify everything from nuking civilian populations to justifying the use of torture to running roughshod over the bishop in order to launch our stupid war in Iraq to completely blowing off perfectly sound episcopal guidance (unanimous guidance, by the way) on the death penalty. It’s Conservativese for exactly the same kind of contempt for Church teaching that lefties display when they brandish the words “primacy of conscience”. The whole “What *is* torture? It’s sooooo confusing!” wheeze is typical. Aim to treat your prisoners humanely (as the Church commands) and you won’t accidently torture them. The bullshit about “definitions” is just excusemaking for ignoring that obvious guidance from the Church.

      • Mercury

        Mark, I am against waterboarding and most of the more outré practices of our government, including the outsourcing of torture. But I have yet to see any of the loudest voices on this matter define what torture indeed is and is not.

        Is it any and all physical or mental coercion to obtain vital information? Any an all corporal punishment (which would logically include spanking children)? Sleep deprivation? Good cop / bad cop routines? What is punishment then? Should we not imprison criminals, because it is “torture” to be in prison? Should we just put detained terrorists with life-sain information in the Ritz-Carlton and hope they give us the info in time? What about the deliberate invocation of guilt and fear of consequences in children and others?

        I can see how waterboarding clearly crosses the line – but twisting a guy’s arm after a firefight and shouting “where are the hostages?” or making a prisoner sleep in a bare cell, whipping a child’s behind – what IS and what is not torture? What punishment is not torture if broadly defined?

        • But I have yet to see any of the loudest voices on this matter define what torture indeed is and is not.

          A single, precise, authoritative, and complete definition of torture does not exist. Lots of definitions exist which do not meet all of those criteria.

          In my waterboarding series I did provide a heuristic procedure that you can follow to determine if a particular act is torture. (I provided it in the context of answering the question “is spanking children torture”?)

          Perhaps you will find it useful.

          • Mercury

            I read it, but I really do not follow your argument. Waterboarding is obviously torture. But when does one cross the line from roughness and coercive or punitive measures to torture? I have never seen anyone get into the details of this.

            • Mark Shea

              I think you are setting yourself up for another case of completely unproductive scruples. A better use of your time is to focus on something productive.

            • S. Murphy

              Obviously, you can’t pin down every specification that counts as torture, because people are endlessly creative and will come up with something that you haven’t mentioned, and say, “See, I didn’t torture the BAD GUY (TM): I just made him uncomfortable! It’s all good, and in the service of security adn safety, and how can you contemplate letting the terrorists win by being soft on BAD GUYS (TM)?”

              So, if detainee handling is done in accordance with existing laws, regulations and orders concerning the use of force, from the Geneva Conventions to service-level regs governing EPW-handling, the detainee should only suffer rough handling proportional to his own attempts to escape or injure his guards and interrogators (if any).

              • Standard operating procedures (SOPs) actually work the other way. They authorize and instruct the universe of what is to be done. The original Bush guidelines were of this nature with an escalating scale that failure at lower levels unlocked a higher level of intense interrogation. They got progressively closer to abuse and torture until the end of the line which is waterboarding and all the lovely discussions over whether that was actually over the line. All that is outside the SOP comes under strict scrutiny. You innovate in the bureaucracy at your risk. Go invent another objection, this one doesn’t fit how the world works.

                The reasonable request of the Church and those who are her apologists is to give enough information so that a person could accurately draw a line between icky proposed technique 8 and out of bounds proposed technique 9 and say “here we stop” and be able to defend that. This means that you’re going to have to say yes from 1-8 and be able to defend that too. Or maybe you just stop at the army manual? But why is that one ok? In the real world, there’s always a boundary condition waiting to be delineated and we need to draw the line correctly or we do harm.

                • S. Murphy

                  TM, we’re talking about two different things, and then cross-contaminating them so that we’re talking past each other. I think. In my second paragraph, I was talking about the military. In my first, I was talking about why the catechism, or Mark, or anybody doesn’t define torture down to the nitnoid level. Someone always wants a list of specific acts. Someone else always thinks of somethign that’s not on that list. The Catechism is establishign a moral principle, not cataloguing everything that could physically be done that might amount to torture. The Army manual sets guidlines for how to interrogate prisoners. Existing orders, international law, etc concerning prisoner-handling are pretty clear about the captors being responsible for the captives’ safety. There’s a continuum of force. If the prisoner tries to get away, you restrain him. If he tries to punch and kick, you restrain him more, and you may use non-lethal stikes, and joint locks, depending how energetically he is attacking you. If he grabs a weapon and tries to shoot you, you may respond with deadly force

                  The actual, existing laws the military is subject to, combined with the ideology that we don’t torture people, were good enough, before Bush subverted that idealism. It’s still fundamental, and taught in boot camp and OCS and all that, that when you take someone prisoner, you’re responsible for his safety. So yes, bad SOPs give people latitude to do bad things, usually resulting in another page being added to the SOP, saying “Don’t do this, either.” If the order set the tone with a commander’s intent that we’re going to treat the enemy with basic human dignity, even granted that we have to take security precautions for our own safety, and then went on to discuss prisoner handling and interrogation, it wouldn’t prevent every lapse or abuse, any more than the drill instructor’s oath to treat recruits with firmness, fairness, and dignity prevents every abuse or SOP violation on Parris Island, but it would set the tone, and give subordinate commanders and NCOs the guidance they need to make intelligent judgments about what is and isn’t in accordance with the commander’s intent. A good, clear commander’s intent, and leadership to enforce it, got farther than a nitnoid-level micromanaged SOP sometimes. That leadership, at the company-grade and field-grade level, was missing at abu Ghraib, although it was also at a disadvantage, because the commander in chief had set a clear commander’s intent that all that Geneva stuff, and all that pre-9-11 morality didn’t apply. The laws and regs that existed before that were and remain pretty good. So yeah, if you’re an MP, or a military interrogator, follow the Army manual, like you’re supposed to. If you’re a police officer, follow the law. If you’re a Catholic, and you find that the law or the Army manual fall short of the moral imperative expressed in the Catechism, then hold yourself to the higher standard.

                  The Church’s definition of torture is a guideline, not an SOP, and as Mark has repeatedly pointed out, it’s clear enough, unless you are looking to walk up to the line, hang ten toes, wriggle a little farther across, and are not looking to stear a path clear of the sin, but rather, figure out how close you can get before you *really* have to go to confession.

        • And the essence of torture is “destroying the Image of God in another”, in other words, overpowering someone’s will and reason, crushing the thing that makes him human. This can be done through physical pain, psychological assault, starvation or sleep deprivation, etc. This is what separates spanking from torture. If you spank your son, you are trying to train his will and reason, not obliterate it. When you waterboard your prisoner, you are trying to demolish his ability to reason and his ability to use his own will; you are trying to crush his spirit so that you can control it. That is the essence of torture.

          This is the best definition I know of. Paul Rhodes and I suggested it long ago. It may not be comprehensive, and one must be discerning in seeing this element of power and domination in an act of corporal punishment.

          • Mercury

            So what kinds of pressure or coercion ARE licit for obtaining vital and necessary information from combatants / terrorists? Just drinkin tea and asking questions? Obviously knowing what IS licit in such cases is important, especially when the lives of others may depend on it.

            Also, are all kinds of physical, emotional, or psychological punishment, including deprivation of comfort, – is all of this torture?

            • This conversation is so last decade.

              • Mercury

                I’m sorry.

                Forgive me for honestly asking a question that bothers me.

            • S. Murphy

              According to an FBI interrogator who objected the CIA’s detainee-interrogation tactics, yes, drinking tea and asking questions gets you farther than hurting, scaring, and pissing off the detainee to where he tells you all sorts of random crap, hoping you’ll leave him alone.


        • Mark Shea

          I think obvious distinctions need to be made in the heat of battle or when, say, a cop is trying to pacify a violent criminal. What we are discussing is “How do you treat a human being when he is completely in your power?” The Church is clear and obvious: treat him humanely. Aim for that and you won’t accidently torture or abuse anybody.

          • Mercury

            Yes, but I have never seen anyone recommend what CAN be done in the case of “we know this guy in our custody knows information that can save lives.” I really have never seen anyone offer an answer to that, only accuse others of wanting to commit torture and find an excuse for it.

            This has bothered me so much because I think there has to be SOMETHING besides “give him a place to stay and food to eat until he decides on his own to reveal the information if he wants to”. But if any and all coercion is torture, then oh well.

            I really have never seen anyone offer an answer – just a whole lot of fighting.

            • Mark Shea

              The way it’s always been done by skilled, intelligent interrogators:,8599,1863053,00.html

              The way you get useful information is by forming relationships so that the subject tells you the truth. Violence is a bad way to get information. So is inducing mental derangement. Notice how seldom actual interrogators have been included in these discussions. Typically it is the ignorant brutal politician like Cheney, who orders the torture, or some disgusting shill like Marc Thiessen, who is paid to excuse his boss, or a bunch of talking hairdos on FOX or talk radio, or people in comboxes who get all the information from these sources and 24 reruns. Real interrogators? Almost never.

              • Mercury

                Very good points indeed. 24 reruns, hah!

              • EMS

                What I find so dismaying about the “Is this really torture?” agruements today is that the past had no problem with defining torture. Last week, I saw a movie made in the early 50s on TCM starring Dana Andrews where he was subjected to sleep deprivation by the bad guys and there was zero doubt by anyone, good guys/bad guys that he was tortured. Even further back in the late 19th century, one of the Scarlet Pimpernal novels had the hero subjected to sleep deprivation by the bad guys of Robespierre’s government and everyone of the good guys was appalled by the inhuman treatment the hero had to suffer. So why in God’s name is it suddenly so difficult for us “enlightened” 21st century types to not understand what torture is when it’s the “good guys” committing it?

                • Mark Shea

                  Every regime that wants to torture suddenly invents fake confusion and euphemism in order to cover its bloody fingerprints and “Catholic conservatives” defending the Bush torture regime (and the GOP’s deep love of torture) have done the same work. It was a filthy shameful business. And if Romney wins, they will all be back with the same old lies.

                • Mercury

                  You are certainly right, and those are good points above.

                  But it does bother me that the Church herself, while never enthusiastic about torture, DID see it as something useful and essential, and did not denounce the state in using it. Furthermore, the Church never had anything to say, as far as I know, about the myriad methods of execution that were designed to make the pain last as long as possible – in fact, it routinely condemned certain criminals to be burned to death, an many churchmen of the medieval and early modern periods considered this a fitting punishment.

                  This is not to mention how the Bible itself commands flogging as well as death by burning and death by other torturous methods, designed to inflict maximum pain, most notably stoning. Yes, we do not live under such law, thank God, but how can an unchanging God not just allow, but command, intrinsic evil? Whether or not flogging is intrinsically evil depends on whether all corporal punishment of adults is intrinsically evil (I’d be interested in seeing what y’all have to say), but certainly *stoning* and *burning to death* must be intrinsically evil according to the CCC, wouldn’t they?

    • J. H. M. Ortiz

      But the Church DOES define torture, in CCC # 2297: “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.” Thus, “torture” is defined as “use of physical or moral violence in order to extract confessions, punish persons reckoned “guilty”, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred”. (By contrast, use of not-deliberately-excessive physical violence in order to defend self from an aggressor, being for another purpose than any of those the Catechism lists, doesn’t come under this definition.)

      • Mercury

        Again, that is a very, very vague definition and broadly interpreted it can include making loud noise to scare one’s enemies in war. It also mentions nothing about extracting *information*.

        I’m not defending waterboarding or what the government does. But a broad interpretation of the CCC here seems to indicate that any coercion of any kind and that any physical punishment of any kind of adults (except death) is intrinsically evil. THAT is what needs sorting out.

        What is the difference between corporal punishment and torture, for example? Is the former always torture? What about punishment that involves deprivation of comfort?

        • Mark Shea

          “confessions” = “information”. A human being’s fundamental human dignity does not vanish when we suspect they might know something we want to know. When we say torture is intrinsically immoral, that means there is no circumstance ever under which is it justifiable. An act that is torture does not become “not torture” simply by the torturer declaring that he is doing it to extract information.

          And no, not all coercion is torture. Go here: You are not going to find bright lines here, any more than you will find them between art and pornography. Nonetheless, just as there is a real difference between Michaelangelo’s David and Debbie Does Dallas even though both involve nudity. Some common sense is required. Coercion is necessary in self-defense. But coercion which assaults human dignity (like nudity that exploits rather than exalting human dignity) is wrong.

          • Mercury

            I’m sorry, I answered below before reading this.

          • Mercury

            That’s a very good response to the kind of stuff I have wondered. Thanks, Mark.

            The commenter below does ask some interesting questions, though.

        • J. H. M. Ortiz

          A definition is not necessarily “vague” just because it is general. And “loud noises to frighten opponents” are not “violence”, as the definition requires. It is non-idle threats (as in a harrassing phone call) which can frighten an adversary by “moral violence”– a phrase I take as equivalent to “mental or psychological violence”. And corporal punishment, even a simple spanking, can amount to torture if it’s in order to satiate hatred. And “deprivation of comfort” can amount to torture if it amounts to violence. And even supposing a justifiable instance of capital punishment, using a deliberately more painful means than necessary to kill the one punished, would amount to “satiating a hatred”, and would thus be torture.

      • Mark Shea

        You’d be amazed at the pretzelfications the “faithful conservative Catholic” mind can invent in order to lawyer his way into a state of complete fake confusion over what that means. I listened for *years* to Catholics feign total confusion over what torture was. A skilled Catholic sophist bound and determined to excuse grave evil has a massive arsenal of sophistries up his sleeve. Go here to see some of the amazing BS “faithful” Catholics concocted to lie that waterboarding is not torture, for instance:

        • Mercury

          Oh, I have seen it. and waterboarding, as well as other measures, CAN get no justification. All I’m saying is that a broad interpretation of the CCC’s definition seems to make everything except sharing milk and cookies illicit.

          So I was just wondering if anyone has ever taken the time to write about what kinds of techniques for interrogation under stress or time pressure, or what kinds of punishment ARE licit. Because it seems to be saying ALL punishment that inflicts pain of any kind is intrinsically immoral, with no distinction between waterboarding, making someone sleep ion a hard bed, flogging, or not letting guys have televisions.

          Why, for example, would you all say flogging is intrinsically evil, yet death is not? And if flogging and inflicting painful death are *intrinsically* evil, what does that say of Scripture, and the Church’s own past? (No, I am not at all arguing for these practices, just having trouble squaring things).

      • Thank you for the pointer to CCC#2297, that was… not what I expected and leads to a peculiar result. Since intelligence information of prisoners of war (is there going to be another attack, who else is in your cell) are generally not used in courts and do not constitute confessions or anything else in the list in 2297, the waterboarding of AQ prisoners in a war is licit as far as the CCC#2297 standard is concerned so long as they don’t use it at any trial which turns it into self-incriminating confessions. This would actually not be that hard a sell on the right. I am fully aware that this may not be the full sum of relevant teaching.

        Is there any further guidance or development available that hones things down finer?

        • S. Murphy

          I think the best way to read it is as Mark did – read “information” under “confessions.” The Catechism isn’t trying to be a legal document; it’s trying to explain a moral principle. I see ‘confessions’ as an example, rather than the one and only kind of verbal response for which a captor might be torturing a captive. Had the Catechism been written after 2003, perhaps it would have been more careful to generalize about ‘information’ rather than ‘confessions.’ I see your point that such an argument won’t satisfy sea-lawyers, especially when they tell themselves they’re protecting the Shire.

  • j. blum

    How many (fallen) angels can dance on the head of a pin that is being shoved under a captive’s fingernail? The answer must be judged prudentially.

    • S. Murphy

      As long as it’s a thought-experiment, and not being tested with actual pins and fingernails, you speculate and syllogize away…

  • Mark, regarding torture, I would offer this post by philosopher James Chastek, who, in my estimation, adequately defines torture per se:

    From the post:
    “I’ve watched a few rounds of the debate over torture and was struck by how early and often the demand comes up to “define torture”. There seems to be some sort of silent agreement on both sides that this is an impossible thing to do. I’m missing something here since the action doesn’t seem that hard to define: the use of physical pain to break the will of another, where “breaking the will” (which can mean more than one thing) means “breaking ones self possession”. The definition manifests why such an action would be intrinsically evil, since to be in possession of ones own power to choose or of ones own will is necessary for human dignity. A man is a lord of his action, so much so that to attempt to break this lordship is, in a very real sense, worse than murder. It is the attempt to kill what is most of all human in a human being.”

    • Mark Shea

      Yep. That works. Of course, a clever “conservative Catholic” sophist can always find an ingenious way to create clouds of fake confusion about that definition too. The trick, as ever, is to find a way to support monstrous evil with the warm approval of one’s own conscience as a “faithful orthodox Catholic”. You’d be amazed at the ingenuity that people are capable of.

  • David Davies

    In this day and age with the information technology we have it should be quite easy to determine whether or not a certain practice is ‘torture’ or not.

    Just e-mail Mark and ask him about it. If he says it is torture then it is. Seattle has Spoken, the Practice is Prohibited.

    • Mark Shea

      I almost deleted this for the snark, but I decided to keep it here as a sample of the sheer stupidity that “faithful conservative Catholics” are capable of when they are making their bullshit excuses for torture.

    • Chris M

      Actually, I’d be ok with that. Mark seems like an earnestly well-meaning Catholic guy. I’d rather have HIM define it than some amoral CIA bureaucrat.

      • S. Murphy

        Hear, hear!

        The question is ‘Would you want to, on pain of eternal damnation, have to forgive someone who did this to your kid?’ If the answer is no, don’t do it.

  • Mike Petrik

    Please do not delete comments for snark. If you did, you’d be out of business.

  • tz

    The parallel is not so much conscience as the “Seamless Garment” though I will accept conscience. That is rent almost in half and otherwise shredded by abortion and only has a few holes from war. Somewhere in Hell is an antiphonal choir where succubi with pom-poms have tormented souls say “Prudential Judgement”, on one side, only to be answered “Seamless Garment” in reply, much like “tastes great, less filling”.

    E.g.: “I have formed my conscience and it says torture, war, pornographic scans and masturbation [enhanced pat-downs], Leaders supporting abortion (Santorum, Thatcher, for the latter check out, are OK”.