The topic of torture and Christian ethics is now a heated discussion topic at Evangel over at the First Things blog cluster. I’d like to ask a (perhaps naive) question about torture. Where is the harm located? What ethical principles are being violated by torture?

Sixteen years ago, I contracted appendicitis and was in the hospital three days recovering from surgery. During that recovery, I was receiving intravenous pain medication (Demerol I believe) to ameliorate discomfort after the procedure. One one occasion my wife returned to the room after being out for some hours running errands. She asked me if I had any telephone calls in her absence. I replied in the affirmative. She asked who and inquired about details about what had been discussed. I had no clue. The pain medication had severely impacted my ability to retain memory of events. It is likely that if not present in the modern pharmacological arsenal there are drugs which completely block short/long term memory formation these drugs could quickly be developed given modern technology and reasonable expectations of the abilities of modern medical technology.

So my question is the following: How does memory relate to harm? Does memory have anything to do with the harm or wrong which we associate with what is wrong with torture?

An interrogator uses “waterboarding” or similar techniques which do no lasting physical damage. The subject breaks under the stress and confesses and talks freely for hours for questioning afterwards. Is the harm or evil we associate with that occurrence changed if the subject is incapable of recalling that it occurred? What if both the subject and the interrogator have no memory of the event … that only in some small corner of intelligence archives exist transcripts of the event afterwards. Does that change the moral calculus or not? Why?

What does continuing to say that this act is wrong imply about your meta-ethics? Are there non-deontological arguments that still hold this to be wrong? For it seems to be that consequential arguments against using this sort of drug and method is likely very weak, i.e., the consequences afterwards are negligible and are likely outweighed if there are any appreciable benefits.

Filed under: Ethics & MoralityMark O.

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