Andrew Sullivan vs Andrew Sullivan: Torture vs. Theodicy

Blogger Andrew Sullivan finds torture to be ethically abhorrent, even as a means to a supposedly greater end. His arguments against it are passionate and compelling. That’s laudable.

But this laudably resolute stance is precisely why his occasional forays into theodicy (the debate over whether all the suffering and misery in the world is consistent with a perfectly good and powerful God) are so baffling. Because, really, he seems to be coming down on different sides of the same argument, depending on whether the chief architect of the suffering is named George Bush or Jesus.

Now, there are probably some very good reasons why one wouldn’t want to trust the moral instincts of the mundane and flawed George Bush over those of a hypothetically perfect and omniscient savior. Unfortunately, Sullivan has never premised his arguments against torture on the idea that the person orchestrating the suffering would be insufficiently wise or trustworthy.

Indeed, when it comes to torture, it’s never been good enough for Sullivan when people argue “well, there are pressing reasons of National Security that you may not understand as to why this was necessary.” Sullivan believes that there are no known reasons that can justify the use of torture: it’s a means that’s just too socially corrosive and unethical to be worth nearly any end. And if you really claim otherwise… if you have some as yet appreciated moral innovation: well then you’d better spit it out. Until then, we should consider torture monstrous.

And yet, when it comes to the much greater suffering of, say, earthquake or tsunami victims, Sullivan seems perfectly happy to throw up his hands and declare the impossibly cruel (and note: designed to be cruel) workings of the natural world all to be a grand, possibly even wondrous, mystery. At times he even comes close to implying that it somehow maybe enriches us all as humans to have a natural world that wreaks such havoc so indiscriminately.

This argument is, however, clearly wrong. Even if a base level of pain and suffering can be said to play some important purpose in our lives, the actual amount of suffering clearly exceeds it quite regularly, and with no appreciable benefit to anyone.

One way we can be sure of this is simply because levels of suffering are vastly different life to life, era to era. The majority of people in, say medieval France once lived lives characterized by truly awful suffering. But nowadays the majority are reasonably comfortable. Certainly there are still tragedies in the lives of modern day Frenchmen, still plenty of pain. But huge quantities of suffering have been eliminated from the lives of an entire society with no appreciable detrimental affect on anyone’s soul. On the contrary: far more people are able to live long enough and well-educated enough to contemplate and explore and appreciate deeper meanings instead of spending their aching days starving and diseased. Most people alive today can’t even imagine, much less appreciate, how much better off they are.

Some of these advances in misery reduction were, of course, due to improvements in human society and political culture. But some were also due simply to improvements in technology: i.e. the natural world was altered to make it much less hellish on human beings than it was in its original “designed” state. So why was the previous status quo necessary in the first place? Why not larger crop yields and less disease from the start, if we can live deep and meaningful lives just as easily without, say, polio?

The fact of the matter is that we did not (and perhaps one day, thanks to human ingenuity, will not) have to live in a world where earthquakes are as common as we are, or have such devastating consequences for so many. But we do. And if an actual thinking, feeling someone specifically chose this exact state of affairs (not simply a world containing some suffering, but a world with a very specific and clearly excessive amount), then that being would have some serious ethical explaining to do.

All of this seems to be an exceedingly clear and unavoidable moral conclusion, and I just don’t feel enriched or transported (as Sullivan claims to be) by denying or moderating my stance on it. Making moral excuses is bad. And doing so when we don’t even know how the behavior could possibly excused or redeemed, even in theory, is deeply compromising and degrading.

Andrew Sullivan has, many times, attacked people for being too chicken to call torture torture, and too deeply in moral denial to call it evil.

Why does he have such a hard time applying this ethical standard to the physical world?


~ by Drew on 2009/09/23.

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