Monday, May 4, 2009

Open letter to Mark Shea (quoted from What's Wrong with the World)

I now see that our redoubtable Mark Shea has tried to mix it up with Dr. Feser himself at What's Wrong with the World. Here is my latest letter to him, as quoted from that site.

Mark Shea wrote:

"I was quite sincere in my apology, as I am in my understanding that you seem to be completely baffled about what torture is. I'm sorry you refuse to grant forgiveness, but my conscience is quite clear so I won't worry about it any further."

If you would have confined yourself to making statements about what your own conscience tells you, then everyone would have agreed that your private opinion is quite respectable and no one would have bothered you about it. But you claim that your views are backed up by fully authoritative Church teachings, so that everyone who has a different take on the matter is either ignorant of the teachings or guilty of a sin. This is wrong. The argument made by folks like me, Dr. Feser, Francis Beckwith, and many others has met the burden of proving that the real situation is not that simple.

As you've stated above, your principle reason for banging this drum so loudly seems to be a deep-seated fear that once the state is "allowed" to torture anybody, nothing will prevent it from torturing you, your relations, practicing Christians, and anybody else whom it finds unsavory. In this you are in need not so much of a lesson in moral theology but of an awareness of Oswald Spengler's distinction between truth and facts. Positive law does not by itself restrain what an agent, and especially a state, is able to do. If it did, there would be no crimes, no criminals, no treaty violations, no political revolutions, no regime changes, not now or ever. We would all live in Immanuel Kant's republic, which, through the perfection of reason, is suitable even for devils. The reality is that while positive law places de jure restrictions on the behavior of individuals and governments, their de facto capabilities are limited by nothing but the exhaustion of their power. To make a long story short, a proscription against "torture," as you define it, would in no wise prevent it from happening anyway, as you must admit if you believe both A) That the U.S. has tortured detainees and B) That the Church, federal law, and international law has already forbidden this. In other words, you are in danger of that which you fear. There is a certain irreducible risk that you will suffer torture in this life no matter what anybody has to say about it. Welcome to the Valley of Tears.

By the way, I've noticed that you've made some attempt to refine your style when dealing with a worthy opponent like Dr. Feser. You were rather less kind to me on your blog, as I've taken care to document. Apparently you think I am someone who can be dismissed with nothing more than cheap rhetoric and slander, someone to whom it is not necessary to afford even the pretense of a charitable argument. I shall not forget that, and I will take appropriate measures should I need to correspond with you in the future.

Now, changing the subject. For a definition that can distinguish between the normative and non-normative uses of the word "torture," I propose something like the following: Torture (the intrinsically immoral kind) occurs whenever the subject suffers or has reason to fear the arbitrary use of power directed against him, or power directed against him incommensurate with his crimes. This obviously includes all cases wherein the punisher does not have the lawful authority to inflict the punishment. It also includes any sort of sadistic abuse doled out for the sake of thrills. It precludes any claim of torture on the part of a guilty person, so long as there is positive law stipulating what sort of punishments may be meted out for what offenses, and if the punishment was administered accordingly.

I've always been fond of Frank Herbert's dictum, "Thou shalt not disfigure the soul." It seems to sum up the thrust of all genuine morality rather nicely, and could be useful as a practical rule of thumb for both diagnosing crime and assigning punishment.


  1. Great post

    I have simliar thoughts here at

  2. James,

    I appreciate your kind words, and I thank you for the link. Fine blog you have, by the way.


  3. Although I'm a regular reader of his blog, I've pretty much ignored Shea's little crusade, skimming past any posts where he's on an anti-"torture" diatribe. Still, good job on standing up to him; it's a fascinating thread Feser started at What's Wrong. I'm finding aristocles point about self-defense to be new and clarifying for me. At any rate, it's beyond me how anyone couldn't see the difference between waterboarding and *real* torture.

    I see it like this:

  4. Hi Matteo,

    Thanks for the link, and I appreciate your kind words. Mar Shea is evidently beyond the reach of reason on this subject.