A Moral Calculus for Torture

Brian Zahnd, the author of this article, “You Cannot Be Christian and Support Torture“, offers a naive and surprisingly shallow view of the moral issues involved in deciding whether torture is ever justifiable, much less moral — beginning with the observation that he never defines what it means to torture. He cites no theological reflection of those who have thought deeply on this topic and who would profoundly disagree. He narrows the definition of love by limiting its application only to the terrorist being tortured. His reflection selfishly ignores the equal requirement to show love and compassion for the potential victims of the terrorist who knows where the bomb is and when it’s to be detonated. His absolutist argument is of no use to those responsible for finding the bomb before its detonation and the subsequent mass murder of thousands.

This author is a morally unserious man with a child’s view of the tough, heart-rending choices faced by those people responsible for the safety of others. In the end, his article is nothing more than moral preening.

However, if you are serious about the moral issues involved in torture a good place to start would be here – an article I wrote some years ago called “A Moral Calculus for Torture: The case for Defensive Interrogatory Coercion“.

Biblical Support

The question is simply this:

Do the Judeo-Christian biblical traditions impose on a nation state a moral obligation to use treatment that causes discomfort and even pain in order to compel an enemy to do what is morally right? In the ticking time bomb scenerio, for example, the question can be made more specific, i.e., can a state seek to force the terrorist to divulge the location of the bomb before it detonates and murders an untold number of innocent people.

Psalm 82:4-5 teaches that God expects us to deliver from the wicked those that cannot fend for themselves either because they are too weak to defend themselves or simply unaware of the danger. Accordingly, God established nation states with governing authority to protect its citizens from evil

Romans 13 describes the reciprocal obligations of the nation’s governing authority and its citizens. Specifically, the governing authority is to be exercised in the defense of its citizens1)Defense is broadly defined in scripture. Specifically, to defend another person means not only to protect a citizen from external aggression, but also to protect its citizens from lawlessness caused by other citizens.. In turn, its citizens are to obey its laws. In this regard, 13:4 is especially important because St. Paul makes no distinction between citizens and foreigners who would jeopardize or threaten a nation’s citizens and therefore bring the state’s authority into view.

  • 13:1 A nation’s citizens are subject to the nation’s governing authority because that authority is granted by God.
  • 13:4 The state is not to exercise its authority for its own interests, but in the interests of its citizens.
  • 13:8 Those who fulfill the laws [of their nations] are those who love (ἀγαπῶν2)Refers not to emotional love, but sacrificial love. A love whose actions put the love of neighbor above that of oneself. their neighbor.
  • 13:10 The proper exercise of love does no harm to one’s neighbor.

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