Waterboarding Debate: Dr. Edward Feser vs. Mark Shea

Waterboarding Debate: Dr. Edward Feser vs. Mark Shea January 1, 2015
 “Debate and Oratory”. Image for first page of “Debate and Oratory” section of 1909 Tyee (yearbook of the University of Washington). [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
The following excerpts are from the combox of the article, “It’s Just So Obvious!”: The Case of Torture (Edward Feser, What’s Wrong With the World, 2 May 2009). Mark Shea’s words will be in blue; Francis Beckwith’s in green.* * * * *
You seem to me simply to be ignoring everything I said about why we need to get clear on what “torture” means before we can pull out these citations as if they were trump cards that should shut off all discussion. Would you say that the Church and the Holy Father are contradicting Scripture, since (as the citations I gave above show) it explicitly says that “torture” can be permissible in principle as a way of punishing the guilty? Presumably not; and neither would I.But how can they fail to be contradicting it? The answer is that they are evidently not using the word “torture” in exactly the same sense as that in which Scripture uses it. But in that case we need to work out exactly what is meant if we are properly to understand the force of the statements in question. . . .
Re: my alleged “contradictions,” if you would make some attempt to read what I wrote fair-mindedly and carefully, and in particular to note the distinctions I make between (a) what is intrinsically moral or immoral, (b) what is moral or immoral not intrinsically but only given certain conditions, (c) what is not immoral at all, either intrinsically or given current conditions, and (d) what may arguably be defensible in the light of the total body of evidence from Scripture, tradition, the teaching of the popes, etc., then I think you’ll see that there are no contradictions in what I’ve said. In short, I think you would see this if you would try to engage in a serious debate rather than looking for ways to score cheap rhetorical
Re: whether I have contradicted myself vis-a-vis the specific question of whether waterboarding is torture, here too you are simply playing rhetorical games and not even trying seriously to grapple with my argument. . . .For example, you have yet to address the question of how to reconcile what you say about torture with Scriptural passages like the ones from Sirach. In the non-normative sense of “torture,” what these passages allow for is obviously torture. But it cannot be said that they allow for torture in the newer, normative sense, since Scripture cannot teach moral error. (I’m assuming you agree with this. Or do you think that Sirach is teaching error?) If you acknowledge that passages like Sirach are not teaching error, then you must also acknowledge that inflicting severe pain as a means of punishment is not intrinsically wrong (but at most wrong under certain conditions). And in that case, since one of the purposes of punishment is to deter future disobedience, the U.N. definition of torture you cite is surely inadequate. For isn’t Sirach telling us it is OK to “use someone as a means” to secure an end (i.e. future obedience)? Even if you think not, it is hardly obvious that he isn’t: These questions aren’t as cut and dried as you think, so that it is not appropriate to go around accusing people who disagree with you of being in conflict with Church teaching.

Furthermore, no one is claiming that we have to provide a definition that will cover every single case before we can say anything about the subject of waterboarding. The claim is rather that we have to provide a definition that at least is consistent with everything that Scripture and tradition tell us about the subject. Jimmy Akin proposes one possible definition when he describes torture as “the disproportionate infliction of pain” (thereby incorporating the modern tendency to use “torture” in an inherently normative sense). He argues that this definition best fits all the evidence, and also thinks that there are some cases in which waterboarding a known terrorist to extract life-saving information would not count as torture in this sense. Is he right? I don’t know, but his proposal is worth taking seriously, and is an honest attempt to do justice to everything that the Magisterium has taught.


One more point in response to this silly “I guess some people think that not all torture is really torture” nonsense. One finds the same rhetorical game being played by people who think that colleges and universities who require their faculty to refrain from homosexual acts are comparable to racists. “Oh, I see, so some discrimination is not really discrimination, huh?” Checkmate, right?

Of course not. The fallacy here is failing to see that “discrimination” has come to have a normative sense in addition to its older, non-normative sense. The original meaning was just something like “treating people differently.” Because some differential treatment is unjust, the word has now come to have a second, normative sense of “unjustly treating people differently.” When this is kept in mind, it is obvious that people who oppose racial discrimination but not the faculty hiring policy in question are not contradicting themselves. They might agree that both cases involve discrimination in the older, non-normative sense, but not that they both involve discrimination in the newer, normative sense. To insist that they must be contradicting themselves is just to commit the fallacy of equivocation.

The “Ah, so you think some torture isn’t torture, huh?” shtick is no more respectable than this. Everyone agrees that waterboarding is torture in the older, non-normative, descriptive sense. What they disagree about is whether it is torture in the newer, normative, “immoral by definition” sense. Here too, to insist that those who deny that waterboarding is immoral must be contradicting themselves is simply to commit the fallacy of equivocation.

I know this basic point of logic and language robs some folks of a favorite rhetorical move, but them’s the breaks.


Dr. Feser says he is begging for light from the Church’s teachers. They offer it. If, like you, he now objects that the light offered is unacceptable since it has not been prefaced with “Simon Peter says” then I have to conclude that the burning need for the Church to give guidance in this matter is not all that burning after all.

Man are you a nasty piece of work. I think I’m done trying to have a discussion with you, civil or otherwise, thank you very much.


Several parables evidently presuppose that severe corporal punishment can be just — certainly that seems to be the way they were traditionally understood (and for my money, I trust older interpreters over recent ones any day). And then there are all the even more explicit OT texts. I am NOT saying “Therefore waterboarding is OK.” I AM saying “Therefore any Christian had better think twice before saying that inflicting severe corporal punishment is ‘inherently contrary to human dignity.'” That premise is simply not available to him in the debate over waterboarding. This should be even more obvious when we consider that if capital punishment is in principle just — as I assume you’d agree the Bible makes crystal clear — then a fortiori severe corporal punishment can in principle be just. I don’t see why you think there is any Protestant/Catholic issue here. Sirach aside, the specific point I am making (about what premises are available in thedebate) applies to Protestants as well as Catholics.

I agree with you that both sides of this debate lump all sorts of things together that shouldn’t be lumped together. That’s part of my point in this discussion. There’s way too much moralistic preening and way too little careful conceptual or theological analysis. And the minute someone attempts such an analysis, some jackass accuses him of hair-splitting, or dissenting from the Magisterium, of denying the  “obvious,” or whatever. It’s disgusting and depressing, which is why I mainly try to stay out of the debate.


[Relevant verses in Sirach]:

E.g. here’s RSV:

33:26: Yoke and thong will bow the neck, and for a wicked servant there are racks and tortures.
33:28: Set him to work, as is fitting for him, and if he does not obey, make his fetters heavy.
42: 1, 5: Of the following things do not be ashamed… of whipping a wicked servant severely.

And here’s NAB (a post-Vatican II Catholic version — note that some
of the verses are numbered slightly differently, given the translators’


33: 27: Food, correction, and work for a slave; and for a wicked slave, punishment in the stocks.
33:29: Put him to work, for that is what befits him; if he becomes unruly, load him with chains.
42:1, 5: But of these things be not ashamed… of beating the sides of a disloyal servant.

And finally, just for fun, Today’s English Version:

33: 26: You can use a harness and yoke to tame an animal, and a slave can be tortured in the stocks.
33:28: Work is what he needs. If he won’t obey you, put him in chains.
42:1, 5: Here are some things you should not be ashamed of… beating a disloyal slave until the blood flows.


Since you remain absolutely baffled about what the definition of torture even is,

Yeah, that’s what I’ve been saying. I’m absolutely baffled. Totally at sea. Don’t know which end is up. Just what I said, spot on. When you can bring yourself to the point of attacking even just a plausible caricature of what I’ve said, Mr. Shea, and restrain yourself from indulging your taste for the ad hominem, maybe then I’ll buy your earlier “Aw shucks, I didn’t mean nothin'” routine and return to conversing with you.

I’m sorry you refuse to grant forgiveness

I don’t refuse. I forgive you. The reason is that I really do think that you “know not what you do.”

Judging from this and other exchanges I’ve seen, you really, honestly, do not seem to be aware how unfair and needlessly offensive you are. So, I forgive you. But for the same reason, I just don’t see much  point in trying to have a discussion with you. The fact that you seriously continue to think that I and others haven’t answered, or even tried to answer, your points is one good piece of evidence that there’s no point. Why continue when the evidence shows you’re just going to continue ignoring, ridiculing, caricaturing, making unfounded accusations, etc. and then expressing shock when someone objects to this?


[Then Francis Beckwith intervenes (referring to the above) with an even more wonderful reply to Mark’s nefarious antics (this is what happens when Mark tangles with two great Catholic philosophers)]:

Ed is spot on here. The main reason for my own self-imposed detachment from this conversation–found on this entry and elsewhere–is Shea’s apparent inability to entertain two possibilities:

(1) that one can honestly disagree with him while attempting to be true to Church doctrine, and

(2) that queries about definitions and distinctions are not Jesuitical inventions of the inauthentic sadist employed to excuse evil, but rather, serious attempts to advance the common good.


[Mark continued to badger on, so Dr. Feser had to resort to sarcasm, for lack of anything better to do in the face of “dialogical intransigence”]:

OK, I’ll take the bait one more time. I know I’ll regret it.

The answer to Pope Mark’s latest question is No, of course not. The girl is innocent. Not just because she hasn’t committed any evil act in the past, but because even if she was somehow “involved” in planning the future act in question, she does not have the level of maturity to be held responsible the way an adult would. So, no, of course she cannot be waterboarded. If that means NYC is toast, then yes, we’ll have to accept that, horrific as it is. Because as I’ve made clear already, like Mark, I believe that we must never do evil that good may come.

Sorry it took me so long to answer. Such a tough question for us pro-torture dissenters, you know. Had to sweat out whatever desperate, half-assed response I could come up with. (Though I see you did generously give us all of 14 minutes before deciding we were stumped.)

Well, either that or it just took me all this time to leave work, pick up my kid from school, and fire up the computer to see what Mark’s latest zinger would be.

OK, Mark, your turn. Caricature and condemn away…


This would comport with your earlier remarks that torture to extract confessions is illegitimate but torture to punish may be admissible. I’m still confused by the direct conflict between you and Fr. Harrison who says that torture to obtain information might be fine, but torture to punish is intrinsically immoral.

Dr. Feser: Apparently you’ve read Harrison as carefully as you’ve read me. That is, not carefully at all. Fr. Harrison explicitly says:

I do not think that the direct infliction of severe physical pain, as a punishment for duly convicted delinquents carried out by public authority in accord with a norm of law, can be categorized as intrinsically evil.

He then goes on to say that he thinks that in practice it should nevertheless not be used. I agree with both of these judgments. So, there is no conflict between me and Fr. Harrison on this particular point at all. I’ve made this clear several times, but you keep refusing to read what’s in black and white in front of you. Go to the end of part II of Harrison’s article and read it for yourself if you don’t believe me. I look forward to your acknowledgement of your misreading. It would be a good first step to acknowledging all your other ones.

You’ll notice that neither I, nor Harrison in that particular quote, refer to “torture.” That’s because, as I keep saying, the word is ambiguous. In one sense it just means “the infliction of severe bodily pain.” In that sense of the word, and only in that sense, it can’t be intrinsically immoral, because Scripture and tradition, never contradicted by the Magisterium or any pope, says that in that sense it isn’t immoral. But there is another sense of the word “torture” — the sense that is evidently being used in Veritatis Splendor, and which Jimmy Akin has plausibly argued is something along the lines of “the disproportionate infliction of pain” — on which torture is intrinsically immoral, and which I, like you, therefore condemn.

It seems to me that the dispute between us is essentially over whether or not waterboarding, specifically, counts as torture in this second sense. You say that it does, though I have yet to see an argument, or certainly any good argument, for this particular claim. My position is that whether it is torture in this second sense is not clear. It might be, but I haven’t seen a compelling argument for that claim. It might also be at least wrong all things considered, even if not intrinsically — I can certainly see strong arguments for that claim. But until I have a chance to pursue this issue in more depth, I don’t have a settled view. I have also said, though, that until the Church clarifies this issue, waterboarding shouldn’t be used.

Furthermore, I have never said that what counts as “torture” is a mystery. Like you, I think that there are many clear cases and some not so clear ones. As far as I can tell, we may disagree only about the specific question of whether waterboarding counts as torture in the second sense. But neither of us defends it.

Now how all this makes me “pro-torture” or in conflict with the Magisterium, I have no idea. Anyway, I thought it worthwhile yet one more time to summarize what I’ve already said here many times already, in the hope that you might finally see that you have been unfair in characterizing my views.

Re: the “Pope Mark” stuff, I think if you’ll go back and read through our exchange, you’ll find that the sarcasm did not begin with me. So I flung a little back your way. Sue me, I’m only human…

[Feser opposed the mantra of someone else (one that we have seen over and over in this debate)]:

“If the thesis is that water torture is not obviously torture”

William, if even men of good will like yourself still cannot muster even enough fairness and objectivity to acknowledge that no one is defending such a silly, self-contradictory claim, then it’s no surprise that little “headway” is being made — nor any mystery about whose fault that is.

* * * * * 

Browse Our Archives