Obama on Torture: The Right Decision for the Wrong Reason


President Obama’s recent decision on ending waterboarding has caused its fair share of controversy. And for good reason. The question of whether we should use any means necessary to obtain vital information that can save thousands, even millions of lives is a difficult one to navigate. It is the perennial “one-for-the-many” or the “many-for-the-one”. But in this case, the “one” is a cold-blooded do-or-die terrorist who will gladly take you and all your fellow countrymen down in a burning flame of Jihad.

The question that needs to be asked is not simply whether or not we should use torture. The question must be whether torture is morally wrong, and if so, are we going to do what is morally wrong to achieve what we believe is “the greater good”. A similar debate that is raging in our culture today surrounds the issue of abortion. The comparisons and similarities are strong. The question with abortion cannot be defined as what is good for the mother/family/society. This wrongly frames and misguides the discussion. Abortion will win 90% of the time because many of those seeking an abortion are bringing a child into a hostile environment. The question of abortion, as with torture, is whether it is an action morally wrong in itself, and if so, are we going to do what is morally wrong to achieve what we believe is “the greater good”.

Our President has made this quote concerning the closing of Guantanamo Bay,

We uphold our fundamental principles and values not just because we choose to, but because we swear to — not because they feel good, but because they help keep us safe

He begins in the right direction, saying that we must uphold our “principles and values” because we have sworn to do so. Compromising our integrity is not something that can ever be done in any situation – once integrity is lost, all other issues of right and wrong are then able to be called into question. Our President goes even further in the right direction stating something that must be heard loud and clear. We must do what is right even if it doesn’t feel good. Certainly the prospect of the well-being of thousands of lives being brought into question because we choose not to torture is not something that “feels good”. I praise our President for choosing this course, in doing what is right, even when it hurts. But our President utterly fails in his ultimate reason for why we should not torture: because it helps keep us safe.

In an odd turn, we are drawn away from a discussion about moral, objective right and wrong, and instead led into a contradiction of terms. Obama is widely inconsistent here. Ultimately, what Obama is stating here is that our “fundamental principle and value” is that we are to be “kept safe”. The overarching reason as to why we should not torture does not have to do with the moral objectivity of this issue, but is rather an issue of national security. Our President has backed himself into a corner. I for one am quick to acknowledge that the best way to maintain national security is to continue torture. In fact, certifying torture will have a positive effect on our opponents. There are thousands of willing Jihadists who will certainly be turned away from running planes into buildings and blowing up cars outside of shopping malls when they are aware that, if caught, they will face certain torture in order to obtain vital information. Our national security was maintained by the use of torture under the previous administration. By torturing the three terrorists that they did, they were able to thwart several planned terrorist attacks. President Obama has failed to remain consistent with his own beliefs.

It goes deeper even still. We are in fact doing what “feels good” in this issue. The American culture more than anything wants to be safe. And if not torturing means that we will be safer, then we are ultimately doing what “feels good”. It feels good not to torture because oddly we believe that by not doing so our enemies are less inclined to hate or even attack us. Somehow, though we know not how, our enemies will respect our decision to not torture and “go easy on us.” I’m not going to spend the time exposing the faults in this kind of thinking, they seems to be readily apparent.

But the ultimate issue at stake here is not an issue of national security. What is at stake here is an issue of morality and justice. What is at stake here is not whether or not we are going to do what keeps us safe. The decision to not torture is a step in the opposite direction of national security. The decision of torture must come down to us doing what is right, what is moral and what is good, whether it “feels good”, whether we are safe or not. Behind the issue of torture lies the issue of human worth. What is value of a human? Has a man or a woman surrendered all their inherent dignity by their crimes? Are they now able to be subjected to any and all kinds of mutilation – physical, mental or emotional – because they have acted contrary to the laws of nature?

Humans are not commodities to be done with what we please. Torturing is to place a human to the lowest status imaginable, below animals and beasts. When we torture, we are making a statement about the value, dignity and worth of a human being. But behind this, because Man has been made in the image of God, we are making a statement about the value, dignity, and worth of God himself. When we subject a human to the degrading practice of waterboarding, we are making an explicit statement about our view of God. In essence, we are making a statement to our Creator that this is how much we value him. We are saying to God, “If I am willing to put your beloved creation on this table and to bring him near to death, then I am willing to put you, God, on this table and do with you as I please as well.” We are stating to God that what he has instilled with his glory and worth is now our own commodity and that we are free to do with his honorable objects whatever we please, so long as it serves our own ends. In doing with man as we please, we are doing with God as please. We are exchanging the glory of the immortal God.

Torture is wrong, not because it compromises our  national security, but because it subverts and undoes the created order and is a manifestation of rebellion against our Creator. We must never torture because it is inherently wrong. Whatever the perceived good that may come as a result of torture is negated at once by the fact that the ends do not justify the means. Torture is never justified because it is wrong – not because it is an “unsafe practice” or because by stopping our enemies will calm down. We must show respect to our enemies, not because they are deserving for what they have done, but because they are fellow bearers of the image of God. Justice must be carried out upon those who carry out acts of evil and terror, but in our process of justice we must not undermine the very thing we are trying to uphold. We need not treat them as though they are free citizens who have lived honorably. A criminal is to be treated as a criminal. But at the same time we must always remember that criminals are humans, and as humans we must treat them so.

This must be the terms in which our President casts this debate. President Obama has certainly made the right decision, but he has done it for the wrong reasons. It is not that we must discontinue torture because then we are kept safe.

We must not torture because we must do what is right, what is God-honoring. Even if it doesn’t feel good.

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4 thoughts on “Obama on Torture: The Right Decision for the Wrong Reason

  1. Hi Nate, hope you don’t mind me chiming in.

    Ethicists often talk about prima facie duties. For example, I have a prima facie duty not to break my promise to you, but (to take an extraordinary case) if by keeping my promise to you, it would cause the world to explode, I should not keep my promise. (Or think about lying to the Gestapo to spare the lives of the Jews in your basement, etc., etc.,) This of course does not mean that either promise-breaking or lying is not morally wrong, indeed, there is a general presumption both. But often, as we weigh our reasons for action, we discover we have conflicting duties. Doing what we have most reason to do will often result in violating some prima facie duty, in service to the more pressing or “weighty” duty.

    Now I agree that we have a prima facie duty not to tortue. And indeed, the reasons against torture are so strong that such reasons are rarely (if ever) outweighed by further real-world considerations. But I think it is false to claim that “torture is never justified because it is wrong.” Here’s one counterexample. Suppose if you don’t torture Hitler, he pushes a little red button which will result in the slow and excruciating death of every child under the age of ten. That, it seems to me, is a clear case in which torture would be justified. And once we allow for the fact that the duty not to torture is prima facie (a la Ross) and not absolute (a la Kant) then the hard work begins of trying to figure out under what conditions torture could be morally permissible.

    • Thank you Brandon for you comments. I am posting a response/reconsideration soon. By the way, good reasoning.

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