Monday, December 29, 2014

The semantics of "torture"

Here's a follow-up to an earlier post. I'm struck by how many critics of "torture," including some Christians, think they can win the argument by definition. 
i) There's nothing wrong with defining your terms. Indeed, some opponents of "torture" never define what they mean. 
ii) At the same time, we need to avoid the danger of tendentious definitions. Take Hume's definition of miracles. Or the claim that, "by definition," the scientific method must be atheistic. Or the claim that, "by definition," faith is belief without evidence. 
iii) Apropos (ii), definitions are typically descriptive, not prescriptive or proscriptive. They simply give the meaning of a word, based on popular or specialized usage. Definitions don't typically determine what ought to be the case. 
iv) The problem with asserting that some interrogative technique is immoral "by definition" is that your claim is purely semantic. The ethics of "torture" or coercive interrogation is a normative question, not a semantic question. 
Here's the fallacy:

a) Exploiting a terrorist's nyctophobia is torture

b) Electroshocking a terrorist is torture

c) Ergo, (a) is morally equivalent to (b)

But that's a semantic ruse. In reality, the two actions are hardly interchangeable. You may choose to condemn both, but if so, don't pretend that by subsuming them under a common definition you have made them equivalent actions. You may say they mean the same thing because you say both are cases of "torture," but that's a verbal gimmick. A horse and a dog are both quadrupeds, but that doesn't make a horse a dog. And that doesn't mean what's appropriate for a horse is appropriate for a dog. 
v) Another example of winning by definition is when opponents of "torture" say it's immoral because it violates human "dignity." Once again, this reduces a moral issue to a semantic debate. It detours us into a disquisition on what constitutes human dignity. 
vi) Incidentally, I notice that's how Catholic ethicists frame the issue. However, evangelicals shouldn't rubberstamp a Catholic framework, as if that's a given.
"Personal integrity" is another category that's used to leverage the answer. 
vi) Apropos (iv), you can't begin with a definition as a normative claim. Although it may be useful for you to define your terms at the outset, you're not entitled to preemptively classify a particular method as "torture." You need to take the preliminary step of justifying your classification. 
vii) Apropos (vi), since "torture" has invidious connotations, many proponents of coercive interrogation will reject your circular usage inasmuch as they don't think the techniques in question are invidious in this particular context. In other words, if you use "torture" as synonymous with something abhorrent, the opposing side will automatically reject your prejudicial definition.  
ix) If you're going to mount an intellectually serious argument against torture or coercive interrogation, you should discuss various techniques on a case-by-case basis. If you think waterboarding a high-value terrorist is immoral, give specific reasons for why that specific method is wrong. Don't take intellectual shortcuts. That's only persuasive for people who already agree with you. 
I don't necessarily object to saying that some things are wrong "by definition" (although I don't think that's the best way of putting it). Rather, I object to disputants who shirk their burden of proof. If they have already made an effort to establish their presuppositions, then they can reenter the discussion at a later stage in the argument. But they need to have the earlier stage of the argument to back up their starting point. 
x) And, of course, there are other considerations. For instance, does the moral status of a terrorist affect the treatment he's entitled to receive? 

1 comment:

  1. Yet another reason why T-blogue is "must read" material. Even if folks oppose the viewpoints expressed here, they still need to deal with the arguments (assuming they care about things such as intellectual honesty, logic, and the rational consistency of discourse).

    I have personally appreciated and benefited from the clear headed thinking you've been providing on the topic of "torture" in various recent threads, steve. Thank you and please keep up the good work.

    P.S. - although I think you've dealt with it in the past, I'd be interested in your thoughts about how the concept of eternal perdition ties back to the "torture" meme. Presumably the same people who decry water boarding and sleep deprivation being employed against terrorists and/or would-be terrorists and their enablers also oppose God's promise to deliver His enemies over to eternal conscious torments in hell on similar grounds.

    This conclusion would seem unavoidable arguing from the lesser to the greater.