Friday, December 26, 2014

Atheism, consequentialism, and torture

I notice that a number of atheists have been crowing about a new Washington Post/ABC News poll. According to the poll, white evangelicals are the group most likely to support CIA "torture" whereas atheists are the group most likely to oppose CIA "torture." 

The atheists I've read treat that as empirical vindication that you can be good without God. Indeed, you can be more moral without God. They take it for granted that "torture" is morally indefensible. 

There are, however, some glaring gaps in their logic, even from–or especially from–a secular standpoint:

i) What about prominent secular Jews like Richard Posner, Alan Dershowitz, and Charles Krauthammer who support torture in extreme situations to extract intel from terrorists? Likewise, secular philosopher Keith Burgess-Jackson supports torture under those circumstances. 

ii) Atheists keep insisting that atheism is not a philosophy. It's just disbelief in God or gods.

On that definition, atheism is consistent with moral nihilism, moral fictionalism, or consequentialism. Peter Singer is a famous (or infamous) secular utilitarian. Likewise:

There are those who argue in the affirmative and point to so-called ticking bomb scenarios to support their case. These theorists often adhere to some form of consequentialism, such as utilitarianism. They include Allhoff (2003), and Bagaric and Clarke (2007).

iii) And this is more than anecdotal. According to a sweeping survey of philosophers, secular philosophers espouse consequentialism at 3-1 ratio compared to theists:

Normative ethics:consequentialism0.218
consequentialismnot consequentialism
Response pairs: 789   p-value: < 0.001

Surely there are situations where torture is justifiable on utilitarian grounds. The ticking timebomb scenario and other suchlike. For instance:

(1) The police reasonably believe that torturing the terrorist will probably save thousands of innocent lives; (2) the police know that there is no other way to save those lives; (3) the threat to life is more or less imminent; (4) the thousands about to be murdered are innocent—the terrorist has no good, let alone decisive, justificatory moral reason for murdering them; (5) the terrorist is known to be (jointly with the other terrorists) morally responsible for planning, transporting, and arming the nuclear device and, if it explodes, he will be (jointly with the other terrorists) morally responsible for the murder of thousands. 
In addition to the above set of moral considerations, consider the following points. The terrorist is culpable on two counts. Firstly, the terrorist is forcing the police to choose between two evils, namely, torturing the terrorist or allowing thousands of lives to be lost. Were the terrorist to do what he ought to do, namely, disclose the location of the ticking bomb, the police could refrain from torturing him. This would be true of the terrorist, even if he were not actively participating in the bombing project. Secondly, the terrorist is in the process of completing his (jointly undertaken) action of murdering thousands of innocent people. He has already undertaken his individual actions of, say, transporting and arming the nuclear device; he has performed these individual actions (in the context of other individual actions performed by the other members of the terrorist cell) in order to realise the end (shared by the other members of the cell) of murdering thousands of Londoners. In refusing to disclose the location of the device the terrorist is preventing the police from preventing him from completing his (joint) action of murdering thousands of innocent people.[14] To this extent the terrorist is in a different situation from a bystander who happens to know where the bomb is planted but will not reveal its whereabouts, and in a different situation from someone who might have inadvertently put life at risk (Miller (2005); Hill (2007)).
My point is not to say whether this is right or wrong. Rather, my point is that atheism doesn't preclude this position, or even incline an atheist to reject it. Therefore, even on atheistic grounds, opposition to torture (under special circumstances) is not ipso facto virtuous. 


  1. The problem with your screed is that you do not address the poll findings; findings, by the way, which have been relatively consistent since the early 2000s. Just why are white American Evangelicals, as well as Catholics, more prone to justify torture than theological liberals and agnostics/atheists, if one requires to believe in God to be moral?

    First, as a very committed Evangelical, I would still grant that an agnostic/atheist can be moral. My critique is that such do not have a rational (empirical and existential) foundation to be so, other than a rather pliable and incoherent "moral sense". However, by the same token, O.T. Scriptures, non-Biblical history and reason evinces the truth that belief in God and Christian, even Evangelical self-identification is no guarantee for being moral.

    You would serve Christ better by rationally and scripturally repudiating those self-identified Christians and Evangelicals who support torture and thereby "The name of God is blasphemed among the [nations] because of you" (Romans 2:24 - nations, better translation than Gentiles - from the Greek ethnesin).

    Secondly, just because Christians declare their repudiation of consequentialism, it doesn't mean that they don't practice it. I read Gerson, Mohler and Tooley and they repeat the talking points of the secularists that you quote and the consequentialist arguments that they make, including the rationally incoherent (if one investigates the matter) "ticking bomb" hypotheticals.


    1. i) You haven't demonstrated that my post was a "screed."

      ii) You haven't demonstrated that a ticking timebomb scenario is unique to consequentialism.

      iii) It was never the purpose of my post to evaluate coercive interrogation.

      iv) Since you haven't presented anything resembling a rational argument for why Christians should repudiate coercive interrogation, your officious demand will remain unmet.