Defining Torture?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines torture as the following:

1.) the act of causing severe physical pain as a form of punishment or as a way to force someone to do or say something

2.) something that causes mental or physical suffering : a very painful or unpleasant experience

When we think of torture, we tend to think along the lines of the first definition:  everything from the rack and other medieval devices to breaking fingers to (perhaps) waterboarding.

What about sensory, sleep, and food deprivation?  Sensory overload?  Confinement in small spaces?  These don’t necessarily cause any physical pain, but many of us insist that they are torture and they do fall under its second definition.

What about imprisonment?  It is an effective deterrent precisely because it is so undesirable, at least for extended periods of time.  For many prisoners, imprisonment would meet the second definition of torture:  a very unpleasant experience that causes mental suffering.  And yet virtually no one describes it as such.

Note also that the dictionary’s definitions say nothing about how long the experience has to last before it is considered torture.

But perhaps the dictionary definition misses the point.  Let’s consider the Geneva Convention:

“For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

So mental suffering does indeed count according to international law.  Fortunately, suffering related to “lawful sanctions” doesn’t count, so that settles the issue!

Well, not really.

Forget about these definitions of torture.  The real question is what separates acceptable harmful actions from unacceptable harmful actions, as applied to criminals or suspected criminals.  Whether the suffering comes from a “lawful” sanction or not is irrelevant.

Given the choice between 10 years of torture and 10 years of imprisonment, everyone would choose 10 years of imprisonment–and not just because torture entails imprisonment as well.  In a 1:1 comparison, the undesirability of constant physical pain and the accompanying psychological trauma outweighs the undesirability of confinement.  But what if the torture only went on for a month or less?  What if it weren’t constant, but only for a minute per day?  What if the torture only entailed exposure to the cold?  If we change the parameters of torture, we can make it much more desirable than long periods of imprisonment.

This wouldn’t really matter if no one held the absolutist anti-torture position that even, say, a minute of waterboarding crosses some significant moral line and renders us uncivilized monsters.  But people do hold that position.  After all, debates over torture tend to focus on whether or not torture is appropriate at all, not on how much torture is appropriate.  These same people also hold, like the rest of us, that imprisonment is an appropriate punishment and/or means of keeping our society safe.  Given that we would prefer brief torture to extended imprisonment, it seems to me that accepting the latter and forbidding the former on the grounds that it is monstrous makes the least sense.  Otherwise, on what do we base the notion that torture is so uniquely bad and worse than imprisonment?

In practice, of course, torture is not used for a minute at a time as a substitute for imprisonment.  It is used as the torturers see fit in addition to imprisonment, though that imprisonment is not necessarily permanent.  But this is irrelevant to the point that we are morally inconsistent and imprecise in our definitions, which has allowed some of us to pretend that “enhanced interrogation” is something else entirely and others to pretend that using the force of government to imprison people for years is so different from torture as to be uncomparable.  We can talk all we want about the ability of torture to produce reliable information or about its necessity, but if we are comparing the evils of torture and imprisonment as actions, then the most important aspect to consider by far is their desirability to the people who have to endure them.  Once we do that, we can’t hide behind words and definitions.  We have to consider what we are actually doing to people.

I don’t write this to argue that we should torture, as that subject must take other details into account.  I also don’t write this to argue that we must do away with imprisonment.  I write this to point out what seems to me to be a case of hypocrisy based on a moral argument that is disconnected from reality.  I find the idea that even a little torture crosses a moral line that extended imprisonment does not cross to be comparable to many of the “X is just wrong” arguments that I have dealt with on this blog.  If we are to oppose torture, then we should do so for other reasons.


Filed under Applied Ethics

Common Core Math

There is much talk lately of the horrors of the Common Core methods of solving math problems.

From my own Facebook feed:

“Math is impossible now. Our school now sends home a ‘teaching packet’ so you can help your child at the beginning of each lesson. You can’t teach them to ‘carry’ the one for adding, or double digit multiplication. It’s insane and takes forever!!!”

“Our school sends home a parent page to read with each math homework assignment too- this “new math” is mind boggling. And I was really good at math… makes me scream.”

“Amen to that! Makes no sense whatsoever. Three flippin steps to get to the same answer!”

“Totally agree with you. Parents or grandparents should not have to go back to school to learn how to help a child with homework. It’s no wonder that parents opt out of helping. So sad.”

These criticisms boil down to:  parents have to learn as well, children can’t use the old methods, the new methods take too long, and parents don’t understand the new methods.  Continue reading


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Quick Thoughts 17: Religious Exemptions

A religious exemption is effectively a reward for having a conviction that
(1) happens to fall within the guidelines of an institution rather arbitrarily defined as a religion,
(2) is usually based on a set of unprovable assumptions, and
(3) is statistically likely to be wrong, assuming that most religions are mutually exclusive and do not share the conviction in question.

On top of that, since
(1) it is not necessary for one to prove that he actually has or strictly adheres to this conviction and
(2) there does not appear to be any real legal consequence if he does either subtly or obviously neglect that conviction,
it is really a farce anyway.

Those of us who object to a law on the basis of mere (!) reason (or on the basis of some philosophy that has not earned the elusive label of “religion”) must still follow that law.  Those of us who object to a law on the basis of faith alone, provided that our government recognize it as worthy, need not worry.  This seems perfectly fair and right.

May religious conviction guide us all to prosperity.

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Religious Exceptions: Questions to Consider

With the Supreme Court reviewing the Hobby Lobby case, which may have implications for religious legal exceptions in the future, it is worthwhile to consider a few related questions.

1.) What makes a religious belief worthy of a legal exception?

If it were wrong in my religion to support war, I could argue that it is against my religious beliefs to pay taxes that support a military that engages in it.  In fact, I could argue my way out of anything on the grounds of religious beliefs.  There needs to be some sort of standard by which we decide that an exception is appropriate.

2.) How does one prove that he sincerely holds a religious belief?

We don’t want to make exceptions for people who are simply opportunistic or who are willing to violate their religion’s tenets whenever it is convenient to do so.  Therefore, we need a way to be sure that someone who claims an exception is dedicated to his values.

3.) Should we allow non-religious (conscientious) exceptions?  If not, why not?

It seems wrong to deny non-religious people an exception afforded to religious people.  That religious people associate their values with a god or with absolute truth (some religions do neither) is not reason enough to give them special treatment.

4.) Why do we allow religious exceptions in the first place?

Are we concerned that the people who take advantage of the exceptions would cause trouble if they had to act against their beliefs?  Do we want people to be able to put their loyalty to their beliefs ahead of their loyalty to the law?  Are we simply out to make sure that religious people aren’t offended?

Every rule needs a justification, but if the rule is good, then its exceptions need justifications as well.


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On Hatred of Politicians

Everyone seems to agree:  politicians are terrible.  But few people take the time to consider the politician’s perspective.

Criticism #1:  Politicians are loyal to special interests, disloyal to their constituents

Part of getting votes is getting money for one’s campaign; part of completing one’s agenda is getting support from others, including groups who have the power to pressure other politicians into supporting bills.  There is little sense in complaining about the failure of our leaders to represent us if we accept and support a system in which they must consider other loyalties first in order to keep their jobs and get work done.

Criticism #2:  Politicians are too concerned about being re-elected

The continuation of a politician’s agenda–the reason for which people voted for him–depends upon him having his job and, in some cases, having that job long enough to have developed clout and legislative support.

Criticism #3:  Politicians engage in secret deals and add pork to bills

If (1) a politician’s constituents want him to actually get work done and (2) the only way to pass a bill that he wants in a bitterly divided legislature is to make some concessions to the opposition, then this is how it must be.

Criticism #4:  Politicians play dirty in ad campaigns

They play dirty because it works:  they criticize because people delight in hearing about what’s wrong with their enemies; they lie because people don’t bother with fact checking.  Even if there were no practical reason for it, they would likely do it anyway because so many of us do it ourselves.

Criticism #5:  Politicians are disconnected from average people

It is often pointed out that, because politicians who want to last must

(1) have spotless records or the ability to conceal them,
(2) have the money to campaign or cater to those who do,
(3) lie to support their party,
(4) regularly endure the spotlight, under which they must be able to convince us that they have nothing better to do than listen to us whine, and
(5) avoid making any mistakes, including slips of the tongue,

our pool of candidates consists of many people who are ill-motivated, effectively deceptive, insincere, and wealthy or well-connected.  In short, average people just don’t meet our standards, especially if we also demand thorough education and either experience in politics or great success in the private sector.

Criticism #6:  Politicians think that they know better than we do

Unless one believes that the job of a representative is simply to do whatever the majority of his constituents want him to do, one has to accept that politicians will sometimes make judgments at odds with our own.  Ideally, they take advantage of their position to hear experts (generals, scientists, etc.) out on subjects with which they are unfamiliar and consult the actual numbers on economic matters.  To the extent that they fail to do so and instead seek to impose their uninformed beliefs upon us, this criticism is valid.  Otherwise, it just goes with the territory of leadership.  Sometimes our desires and our best interests are in conflict.

Criticism #7:  Politicians refuse to compromise

By this, of course, we mean that the opposition’s politicians refuse to compromise, by which we mean that they refuse to do everything that we want.  We want the ideal scenario in which our side sticks to its principles and triumphs in the end because truth and justice always win–not the typical scenario in which both sides stick to their principles and get nothing done or in which neither side sticks to its principles, making progress but earning criticism.

Politicians are responsible for the choices that they make, but those choices have to be understood in context.  If we are going to criticize them, we need to understand how we enable their behavior and look seriously at the sorts of reforms that would be necessary to discourage them.  And it wouldn’t hurt for us to consider the possibility that our leaders  are just our own collective reflection.

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The End Is Near

It has been over half of a year since I last updated.  The truth is that, while I never ran out of subjects to address, I did (1) mostly run out of subjects truly relevant to secular ethics, either because they had little to do with secular ethics in particular or because they had little to do with ethics in general; (2) lose interest and patience in updating a blog; and (3) hit a dead end in growth in understanding ethics, which was my primary goal when I began this blog.

So, I am announcing that this blog will soon come to an end.  I will write on a few more subjects before permanently ceasing to update it, except perhaps to respond to comments.  The only reason for which I probably will not delete the blog is that my posts on fallacies, which are arguably the most useful posts that I’ve written, still get regular views.  If I do decide to delete it, I will make an official announcement to give people time to save anything that I’ve written for their personal… amusement.

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Quick Thoughts 16: Limbaugh on Global Warming

According to Rush Limbaugh:

“See, in my humble opinion, folks, if you believe in God, then intellectually you cannot believe in manmade global warming.  You must be either agnostic or atheistic to believe that man controls something that he can’t create.”

By his own logic, even atheists and agnostics can’t believe it, since we don’t believe that we can create our planet or that we actually control the climate.

More importantly, this fairly common “common sense” position that the climate is too great a force for us to influence is based not on evidence, but on a feeling.  We are so insignificant, the thinking goes, that we “just can’t” (more of that “just-so” knowledge!) be able to affect something of that magnitude.  In reality, as we come to understand the parts and processes that make up the forces around us, we come to understand how we could affect them and whether or not we already are, based on actual evidence.

Limbaugh isn’t just wrong about manmade global warming.  His argument is ridiculous:  it is poorly reasoned, it is unsupported, and it even suggests that we will never be able to influence the climate, no matter what technology we develop.  El Rushbo should stick to what he knows–whatever that is.

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Filed under Bad Religious Ethics, Cognitive Bias, Quick Thoughts, Responses