Monday, July 2, 2007

Housecleaning and Torture

The Cardigan family had some out of town extended family company visiting this weekend. If this were a different sort of blog, what follows would be a description of the event the family came in to town for, complete with pictures of the Cardigans surrounded by various family and friends.

Since this isn't that sort of blog, though, I thought I'd share with you some of the thoughts that occurred to me as I was vacuuming on Friday afternoon.

I was thinking about cleaning; specifically, I was thinking about cleaning for guests. I was pondering the fact that though I try to keep a 'clean' house, I'm not the world's greatest homemaker; my house isn't a delightful oasis filled with examples of my domestic arts, as I am a card-carrying M.I.S.C.R.E.A.N.T. (or would be, if we could get someone to make us the cards). I reflected, momentarily, on the Four Levels of Clean, and it struck me that in addition to different levels of clean, there are also vast differences between one person and another as to what "clean" means.

To a bachelor, for instance, "clean" may mean that he's vacuumed the living room of his tiny apartment, removed the empty pizza boxes, and stuffed all the clutter into his bedroom, closing the door to it securely before Mom and Dad arrive. His mother may notice the green slime in the kitchen sink, but the bachelor didn't forget to clean it; he's simply unaware that there's anything wrong with the kitchen as it is.

The bachelor example may be an extreme; but even among people whom you'd expect to agree on the concept of "clean" there may be some startling differences. One homeschooling mama out there might clean for average company the way I'd clean for the Pope, the President, or a realtor; another might be more laid back about it, and clean the same way she normally cleans for family. (As for the homeschooling moms whose homes are always perfect, I have a strong suspicion that they are really aliens from the planet Zaptar, with the secret ability to zap clutter and rematerialize it in someone else's home, which would explain the otherwise inexplicable piles of stuff that show up in my living room.)

At this point, as I rounded the corner of the living room and began to vacuum the bedroom hallway, I was struck by a sudden, horrifying thought: what, exactly, does "clean" mean?

Clearly it means more than the absence of dirt, or I wouldn't have been so committed to the clutter-removal stage of company preparation. But equally clearly, people can, and do, define "clean" differently, so at the deeply subjective level "clean" can mean different things to different people at different times and places. So, how do I know if I'm really "cleaning?" Is clutter-removal necessary? Is scrubbing the kitchen sink necessary?

Is this vacuuming even necessary?

I switched off the vacuum, but only to move the plug to a different outlet so I could reach the children's rooms. Logically, I knew there had to be a reason why I was doing what I was doing, and after a bit more rumination, I found it.

The principle, I thought, is not that I clean for my guests. The principle is that I'm committed to the ideals of good hospitality. If my focus is on good hospitality, then the exact definition of the word "clean" becomes supremely unimportant; even if my guests are the sort of people who dust their light fixtures daily (they weren't) it doesn't be come necessary to clean as they would; it is only necessary for me to clean as I would, when I'm having guests, in order to maximize their comfort and enjoyment of the time we spend together.

And suddenly, I found myself understanding exactly what Mark Shea has been saying all this time about torture.

I once was participating on a blog thread on a blog that wasn't Mark Shea's, and several of us were discussing the definition of torture. We were just mildly expressing an opinion that perhaps, at some point, the Church might come up with a definition of the word "torture" for the sake of moral theology, and speculating on what that definition might be, when all of a sudden Mark showed up on the thread, scolding all of us for trying to define "torture" and accusing us of wanting a definition of "torture" so we could tiptoe right up to the line and slap someone on the other side, or some such thing. Umbrage was taken, feathers were ruffled, fur began to fly, and several other metaphors were seriously mangled in the process; but when the dust settled, I spent some time reading what Mark had been saying about torture, and I understood where he was coming from, even if, privately, I thought that a nice clear definition might be helpful in the long run.

But now, having tried to come up with a single, clear definition of what it means to "clean" for guests, I realized that there are some things that simply can't be approached and solved through a mere definition of terms. Even if a good working definition of "clean" could be agreed upon, there would always be those who insisted that, for instance, dusting the miniblinds is crucial, while others would scoff at the miniblind minimalists and decree that a thorough window-washing, inside and out, is the minimum of decency when one is having guests to one's home.

Focusing on the principle of good hospitality instead of a (pardon the word) torturous definition of the word "clean" clears things up considerably. If we generally agree that we should practice good hospitality when it comes to having guests, and we further agree that part of being a good host means making sure our house is clean for them, then the important focus is placed where it should be, on the subjective intention of the hosts, not the accident involving, say, a young child, a permanent marker, and a light colored couch, which is discovered just as the guests are pulling up in the driveway.

Which means that Mark is right, and our focus on prisoners shouldn't be "But what if they might potentially Know Something Important??" or even "Well, how cold is too cold? Sixty-eight degrees? Sixty-five?" etc. Our focus, like the focus on good hospitality, should be on the principle of humane treatment of the incarcerated. If we are committed to the principle of humane treatment then we don't have to worry that humiliating photos involving exploited prisoners and people I'm embarrassed to share a country, and in at least one instance a gender, with, will show up on the evening news. It is possible that in the course of managing prisoners you might inadvertently cause or permit harm, injury, discomfort or embarrassment to them, but if you truly are committed to the principle of humane treatment of prisoners then you may rest easy: you will never torture someone by accident.

Let's take a silly pretend example. Suppose the head of a prison has a group of prisoners, some of whom are from Alaska, and some of whom are from Hawaii. The Hawaiians want the cell block to be kept at a toasty eighty degrees, while the Alaskans get extremely cranky when the temperature rises above sixty-five. The prison warden can decide where to set the thermostat based on several things: which group is larger, which group has the rowdier or more dangerous inmates, whether either group can agree on a compromise temperature, whether it costs too much to raise the heat (or the air conditioning) that much (which might negatively impact the prison budget in other ways) and even whether he might set the thermostat somewhere in the middle and allow the prisoners to earn the occasional raising or lowering of it based on good behavior. None of these would violate the principle of humane treatment; but if he decided he truly wants the Alaskans to suffer and therefore raises the thermostat to eighty-two degrees, he's in violation of that principle.

Look at the same type of situation from the "hospitality" standpoint: a homeschooling mom is having a group of other mothers over at the same time her great aunt is visiting. Great Aunt Janet likes to be warm, and shivers when you run the air conditioning; but the homeschooling mamas include several with nursing infants, who may get too uncomfortable if the house stays at eighty degrees. Whether the hostess keeps the house warm for Great Aunt Janet's sake, or lowers the home's temperature for the comfort of the visiting moms, as long as she's trying to be guided by the principles of good hospitality either decision will be perfectly valid and acceptable; but if she were to keep the house warm in hopes that the moms would leave early and not eat much, then she'd be in violation of the principle of good hospitality.

All of which is a long way to go to express the idea that intentions really do matter. And to apologize to Mr. Shea for my extended thick-headedness in not understanding the point he was trying to make; not until I was almost finished vacuuming for my company.

12 comments:

freddy said...

Excellent! And quite possibly why the Vatican hasn't (as far as I know) ever come out with a detailed definition of child abuse, either. Some things need to be approached from the other side, i.e. how does a loving parent treat his child, as opposed to the whole "spanking" vs. "non-spanking" thing.
BTW Happy Independance Day!

Ernie said...

Your heart is in the right place, but extreme caution is in order. Under the guise of following Church teaching, you have started down a path that leads to the postmodernist destruction of language and the substitution of moral relativism for moral clarity.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that the Church doesn't define "torture" with the precision that we would find helpful because it can't. Don't fool yourself into thinking that "torture" and "clean" are concepts lacking independent meaning. The Church could define "torture" with more precision if it wanted to, but it moves slowly, and has never seen the need to do so. To think otherwise is to embrace the lie that the Church has created a do-it-yourself approach to the Catechism, in which you or Mark or anyone else gets to define "torture" as he sees fit.

Mark makes this mistake, and in his eagerness to get to the "treat prisoners humanely" trump card, he gleefully skips past the threshhold question of "what are we doing imprisoning people in the first place?" It isn't particularly "humane" to take human beings and lock them up in little cages away from their friends, families, homes, and livelihoods. But we do it, and we don't even bother to ask why. When Mark says "treat prisoners humanely," I answer "what in blazes gives you the right to hold your fellow humans as prisoners?" and "what on Earth gives you the right to determine that a tiny cage, horrible food, and separation from family and friends is 'humane' without a second thought?"

Why does it matter? Because once you actually understand what torture is, and why platitudes about "treating prisoners humanely" are empty words, you'll see that the Church's prohibition on torture is a much harder cross to bear than you now realize. Perhaps some of the self-congratulation will stop, but I'm not holding my breath.

We just assume, arrogantly, that we can lock people up if we need them to talk. We can hold them in cells. No, that's not torture, we tell ourselves. Torture is when we stop treating these folks "humanely." We can use standard police trickery tactics on them. That's fine. We can interrogate them and prevent them from leaving our custody... as long as we do it "humanely."

What a crock.

No, the Church's prohibition on torture isn't meant to be distilled to "treat people humanely." If that's what the Church meant, it would leave it at that. What the prohibition on torture means is that we can't coerce anyone's will, even if we put them in a "humane" jail, a Mark Shea-approved jail, and give them three hots and a cot. That's inhumane per se. We can't lie, we can't deceive, we can't even offer a reward. If a terrorist doesn't want to talk, we can't do anything to him. We just have to let him go. Anything else is using physical or moral violence to coerce his will, and that's always wrong.

Red Cardigan said...

Ernie, I'm extremely puzzled by what you wrote. In the first place, I've certainly never said that the Church can't decide to define torture, and to define it quite clearly; I've just said that we don't have to wait around for the Church to do so before we decide that coercive interrogation techniques are wrong, just as I didn't have to define 'clean' in order to tidy things up for my company.

Is it really your contention that the Church sees all incarceration as torture and therefore intrinsically evil? I'd like to see documents to that effect, please.

If you mean that we can't incarcerate someone indefinitely on mere suspicion without formally charging them with a crime, I'd tend to agree. But there are reasonable amounts of time someone can be incarcerated without being charged; I believe the law here allows a certain amount of time where one may be held as a 'material witness' without being charged, after which he must either be charged with a crime or released. Provided we follow reasonable guidelines in the incarceration of suspected criminals I've never heard anyone in the Church claim that incarceration=torture, so again I'd like to see whatever references you can provide on this.

Thanks!

doubting thomas said...

Red Cardigan,

Aristotle said that while our definitions may not be perfect and that we can constantly refine them, we nonetheless must form definitions. For him, this was the first operation of logic upon which all else depended. Not knowing the meanings of the words A and B then meant you could not say a thing was or was not A, B or something else completely. Language and the judgements that depend on the meaning of words become mere whims at this point.
As Ernie points out, at this point you are in the realm of complete relativism without any hope of establishing any philosophical, and ultimately moral, anchor.

Elinor Dashwood said...

At last I find another mother who reads old poetry ("doth sometimes counsel take . . . ") and analyzes the philosophical aspects of vacuuming. As one who has, I suspect, been longer on this road, however, I assure you it ain't all lavender (do you like old music-hall songs, too?). A habit of thinking through the first principles and moral and cultural implications of every action is extremely exhausting, and it might actually help to start a simple embroidery project. Needlework is so soothing largely because it exists almost entirely outside the realm of morals and theology, and is beautifully uncomplicated. It's just one pretty flower after another, and you can listen to murder-mystery audiobooks while you do it. In any case, pop round to Mommentary some time.

My vote on the temperature question is to crank down the thermostat while the mothers are there, and lend Aunt Janet your cardigan.

doubting thomas said...

Red Cardigan,

Aristotle said that while our definitions may not be perfect and that we can constantly refine them, we nonetheless must form definitions. For him, this was the first operation of logic upon which all else depended. Not knowing the meanings of the words A and B then meant you could not say a thing was or was not A, B or something else completely. Language and the judgements that depend on the meaning of words become mere whims at this point.
As Ernie points out, at this point you are in the realm of complete relativism without any hope of establishing any philosophical, and ultimately moral, anchor.

doubting thomas said...

Oops, posted twice by mistake.

Ernie said...

Will the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church do?

Likewise ruled out is “the use of detention for the sole purpose of trying to obtain significant information for the trial”.

In other words, if someone doesn't want to testify in court, we can't lock him up to get him to do so. Let me restate this clearly: The western legal tradition of jailing someone for contempt for refusing to testify is morally wrong.

We can't jail someone to get him to talk, no matter how plush we make the accomodations. No matter how "reasonable" we might think it is. No matter how much we're concerned with "treating prisoners humanely." No matter if he's a terrorist. We can't hold a terrorist for any length of time to entice him to talk. If we're not going to charge him with a crime, we have to let him go. All the concern about "treating prisoners humanely" means nothing if we're not supposed to be holding them as prisoners in the first place.

Notice that the prohibition against coercive jailing comes immediately after the prohibition on torture. The former is forbidden because the latter is forbidden. You would have realized that if you were willing to define "torture." Instead, you skipped ahead to "treat prisoners humanely." But because you didn't define torture, you ended up taking a prisoner whom you shouldn't have taken in the first place. That's what happens when you don't think that definitions are important.

Red Cardigan said...

Elinor Dashwood, I like your suggestion re: the cardigan! :) As to your other idea, though, I'm afraid that my attempts at needlework are even more frustrating and fruitless as endless philosophical speculation.

Doubting Thomas, let me just clarify that I don't think we *shouldn't* define things--we should! However, while we're hammering out the whys and wherefores and settling the prodigious question of whether or not the miniblinds, windows, garage etc. have to be involved in a definition of "housecleaning" we can still clean, provided we're focused more on the ends than on the definition. The Church can, and probably will, come up with a thorough, exhaustive definition of torture that leaves no wiggle room--but even such people as apologist Jimmy Akin don't claim that the Church has a definition ready at hand. It will be the job of moral theologians to come up with such a definition, and while average Catholics can and should debate such things we should always be prepared to give the assent of faith to whatever the Church decides, on this and every other issue.

Ernie, I think you're imputing some bad motives to me when I don't have them; you might want to check out # 2477 of the Catechism on rash judgment:

http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s2c2a8.htm

and while you're there, check out #2476 on false witness and perjury.

Now, there's a difference between refusing to testify and testifying falsely, but what concerns me here is that the Church clearly seems to believe that we have a duty to testify to the truth in court; that to do otherwise is to "compromise the exercise of justice." How do we reconcile that with your statement that it is wrong to incarcerate someone for refusing to testify? Would the Church consider such a person guilty of grave sin for impeding the cause of justice?

Moreover, the Church does trust civil government to set and enforce laws. When someone is jailed for contempt of court, they are jailed not to get them to produce information (at least in a legal sense) but as punishment for the crime of refusing to speak the truth about what they know. To jail them for perjury is to punish them for a very similar crime.

Now, I read what you linked to from the Compendium as stating clearly that we can't jail people for extended time periods without charging them with anything, which is something I heartily agree with. Our practice of detaining people in other countries without filing charges against them is clearly wrong. But before you indite the entire history of English common law with the serious charge of grave immorality due to the 'contempt of court' laws I would think you'd want to double check with a moral theologian or two, just as a precaution.

Ernie said...

I don't presume to have any idea what your motives are. I think that you're making a fundamental logical error, but I wouldn't assign blame to you for doing so. From the outset I said that your heart was in the right place.

Of course perjury is a sin, and of course there's a duty to testify to truth. That doesn't transform an instrinsically immoral action designed to prevent perjury or compel testimony into a licit act.

When someone is jailed for contempt of court, they are jailed not to get them to produce information (at least in a legal sense) but as punishment for the crime of refusing to speak the truth about what they know.

That's half-right. There are criminal penalties for certain types of contempt of court, including failure to testify. These are subject to the standard Constitutional protections and privileges afforded all criminal defendants. Susan McDougal was tried for criminal contempt for her refusal to answer questions during the Whitewater investigation.

But when you're half-right, you're half-wrong. Direct contempt for failing to answer questions under oath is not punitive. It is designed to elicit testimony. It is said that the witness holds the keys to the jail, as he is released as soon as he agrees to testify. Judith Miller of the New York Times is a recent example. The laws differ by state, but those jurisdictions that have not abrogated the power of chancellors and common law judges to jail witnesses to compel them to testify can hold them for quite a long time under the federal constitution - at least until it's clear that additional jailing is unlikely to cause them to testify. Other states cap the maximum contempt time at six months (Maryland, for example), or other periods.

But ignore all that for a second. If you don't think that jailing someone for contempt of court is "the use of detention for the sole purpose of trying to obtain significant information for the trial," then please tell me what you think "the use of detention for the sole purpose of trying to obtain significant information for the trial" would look like.

When you give up on defining "torture" and take the easy way out ("treat prisoners humanely"), you don't walk through the logical steps that get to the prohibition on torture. You don't start where you should, with the Church's teaching on the Will, and how it may never be coerced. This is much more radical teaching than most people realize. Its full gravity cannot be summed up in the glib phrase "treat prisoners humanely." But if you begin and the beginning and don't skip steps, defining "torture" is relatively easy.

Red Cardigan said...

Sorry, Ernie; but I think that the sentence "That's what happens when you don't think that definitions are important." was a bit of a judgment. As I said to Doubting Thomas, I don't believe definitions are unimportant; I just believe that we are required to act for the good even when we *haven't* finished defining something!

Now, you claim above that if "you begin and the beginning and don't skip steps, defining "torture" is relatively easy." Okay, then: what is the Church's definition of torture? Where may I read it? If the Church hasn't written it down yet, how do I know that your definition will agree in every respect with what the Church eventually writes?

Take the contempt of court issue: does the Church in fact teach that unless someone is charged with contempt of court punitively and no amount of later testimony will in any way shorten the sentence they have received then they are being tortured and must be released at once? What about the incarceration of those awaiting trial? Just because someone has been accused of a serious charge--say, murder--it doesn't mean he's actually guilty, right? So isn't it torture to insist on incarcerating him until his trial?

And since we're talking about restricting people's movements as being torture and therefore intrinsically immoral, what about medical quarantines? Even if people are imprisoned in their own homes or in hospitals, isn't it just as unjust to coerce their wills in this way?

What about children? Are mandatory education laws the equivalent of torture, since the effect they have is to restrain a child's will and freedom of movement and association for at least six hours of every day?

I'm not being facetious here; you claim above that what we are talking about here is the "Church's teaching on the Will, and how it may never be coerced." All the examples I list above are examples of coercion; are they all proof that every society ever established on Earth has been in total violation of this key principle?

doubting thomas said...

"As I said to Doubting Thomas, I don't believe definitions are unimportant; I just believe that we are required to act for the good even when we *haven't* finished defining something!"

Red Cardigan,

The problem for many is that part of the good includes protecting society. This includes preventing further terrorist attacks. This good is a duty for politicians. Thus, if some coercive things are not torture but licit forms of coercion, then let's know what they are so we can use such coercion to prevent further attacks.
It doesn't do just to say let's do good until we have a good definition. Part of the good possibly includes using coercive, non-toture techniques.