Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The art of the vacuous concept

Some people can't seem to understand that it doesn't suffice to say "I believe X," where X is a conceptual nonentity. It reminds me of Nestorius: "No, I don't believe that Christ is two persons; I believe that he is the prosopon of the union." Same things happening here: "I believe torture is intrinsically evil, but I believe that you determine the desperation of the situation on a case-by-case basis" or "the key here for me when determining the porportionality is the extremity of the situation, which as a practical matter has to be worked out according to a case-by-case basis." Another example, to show I am not simply a blatant partisan, would be "The definition [of torture] should point to something that is intrinsically evil" conjoined with "The sin of torture consists in the disproportionate infliction of pain" (see also "more pain than was necessary"; "necessary" for what exactly?).

Mark Shea has been right from DAY ONE on this subject. The term "torture" in VS and GS must mean SOMETHING that cannot be done under any circumstances, and his opponents have offered definitions that are, in fact, conceptually vacuous (and note, pace Fr. Harrison, that Shea never said that deliberate infliction of pain, even severe bodily pain, was intrinsically evil, only that there must clearly be some cases that are). And Shea is entirely right to demand that someone who claims to answer him articulate some sort of meaningful counter-position, either by finding a clear paradigm case for the method of casuistry (which appears to be Shea's preference) or by articulating a clear moral principle (Zippy's preference), even if, as Fr. Harrison asserts, the question of the infliction of severe bodily pain as a method of interrogation is in some sense still open.

Contrary to the numerous "oh, poor me!" assertions that have been made about Shea's failure of understanding or imagination, he isn't obliged to believe nonsense or to protect the feelings of those who have chosen to believe it. And that's all the aptly-named Coalition for Fog appears to have: nonsense. It is not charity to allow people who to mistakenly cling to nonsense as if it actually meant something (which billions of people, many of them quite intelligent, have done throughout history and will no doubt continue to do). The example of Nestorius alone should suffice as a glaring example of just how far adherence to a vacuous concept can go.

If there has been an error on Mark Shea's part (and I think it is an error, not a lie), it has been to posit that there is some real political motivation behind this. I doubt that is the case. It seems to follow the pattern of Nestorius: one makes a major mistake early, and then spends the rest of the time trying to convince himself that he was too smart to have made such an obvious mistake. I'm just amazed by the demand for "accurate representation" by people who publicly state their own position in terms of absolutely meaningless circumlocutions like "the desperation of the situation," "case-by-case" or "the extremity of the circumstances," as if the mere utterance gives them conceptual content.

It's all the more incredible from people who then accuse Shea of being too vague, as in "Using the term 'terror suspect' is far too vague because we have no idea what the individual in question is suspected of doing. Are they a cell leader? A bombmaker? A chemical weapons expert? A member of the al-Qaeda ruling council?" What on earth does what the person is suspected of doing or who the person is have anything to do with anything? They won't even articulate why it is that these factors have anything to do with it. One could just as easily say "What is the person wearing? Does he have a green bandana or a red one?" Absent some link to the moral act in question (and this is that "object" issue that Zippy keeps harping on), these are all mere circumstances that cannot justify an intrinsic evil. (Incidentally, Jimmy Akin's justification that "there is no other, less painful way to save lives" is equally poor, as there is no intrinsic link between the act of torture and the information that is used to save lives.)

The fact that torture happens to get information out of people is morally irrelevant unless you can explain why it is that torture produces information so as to morally justify its use. Is it like the case of threatening to kill a child, so that the instinctive and natural horror at such a depraved and perverted act produces a natural response to avoid it, in which case torture produces information only by a grossly unnatural and immoral mechanism? Sure seems like it to me. But this sort of moral analysis, the very thing that would be required to give these sorts of definitions any sort of coherent conceptual content, is utterly absent. And that is ultimately where the F in CfF comes from. They are throwing mere words out there without doing the work to give them substance, and then complaining when somebody points out that their "position" is nothing but mist and shadow. I find it extraordinarily frustrating that someone resorts to "it's an open question" as a defense without bothering to formulate a tight, logical justification for that position. You're obliged to morally justify the acts you take or formally endorse whether or not the Magisterium has spoken on a subject, so you can't get away with saying "well, it's an open question, so no Catholic can tell me I'm wrong."

Consequently, I will have to respectfully dissent from my friends Dave Armstrong and Diane Kamer on this one. It is entirely possible for someone to say "I mean X and not Y," where X refers to some vacuous concept. That's more or less what Nestorianism was, so it's hard to say that someone can't honestly believe in nonsense. People have to be pushed not just to SAY that they don't have a certain belief but to explain WHY they don't have that belief. It's perfectly right to say "well, you say you believe X, but X is nonsense, so you really believe Y." Incidentally, I think that this has produced an inordinate amount of friction in Catholic/Orthodox debates, and we (on both sides) need to start moving past the "well, I said I didn't believe that, so you can't say that I do" position and get to a point where we can objectively demonstrate that apparent contradictions are not, in fact, contradictions. And that is what the CfF has consistently failed to do.