Teresa and I have been trying to work out where to draw the line between torture and coercion, and whether there are legitimate forms of the latter. Teresa is now certain that torture is always morally evil (whether it is intrinsically evil or not is a separate question, which she has not yet fully considered). While I remain just as uncertain about whether even torture is always wrong as I was when Teresa held the position quite the opposite to the one she holds now, I am pleased at the change because although I don’t know what to think about all torture per se, I know how I feel about most torture in general. I hate it with a passion, regardless of the arguments adduced in its defense. Coercion is another matter, and they need to be distinguished from each other, but there is more than one way to draw a line between them.
Our friend Kyle Cupp of Journeys In Alterity (a sub-blog within the League of Ordinary Gentlemen blog) and Vox Nova, draws a distinction between torture and coercion, but it is a conceptual one, not a moral one. Morally, he sees them both as evil, and more over, torture is evil, by his lights, not because of the degree of pain involved, but because it is a “type of coercion.” For Kyle, coercion is intrinsically evil because it is depersonalizing. It forces people to act contrary to their nature as persons – a nature which includes free agency, morally responsible decision-making, as an essential element. I have my doubts about this way of understanding coercion, and I think my doubts about torture are not unrelated to my belief that coercion is not always evil.
As a younger man I spent some time (nearly a decade) away from the Church as an agnostic, hostile to traditional Christianity. When I returned to the faith, I did so with my whole heart and mind. I accept the ancient faith of the Church straight up, with no ice. Sometimes, when I compare Catholicism today, especially post-Vatican II even under the papacy that took up most of my lifetime, that of Blessed John Paul II, to the old Catholicism of the Patristics and pre-20th century popes, I cannot help but feel that much of 20th and now 21st century Catholicism, even the most faithful sort, is engaged in adding ice cubes and watering down what it inherited. When there is an apparent difference of opinion, I tend to trust the older, more traditional answer to the new, modern, compromised, liberal fashionable one.
I have a policy – when in doubt, consult Aquinas. I am a Thomist because the Church is Thomistic. St. Thomas Aquinas is admittedly not infallible, and the Church never said he was, but She made him the Common Doctor for a reason, and I am of the belief that she did so infallibly. If that means anything at all, it must mean that St. Thomas is right quite a lot, and if the Church has not taken a definite stand on an issue one way or another, but St. Thomas Aquinas is, in the absence of any compelling reason to do otherwise, the Common Doctor who can be trusted. So my understanding of the idea of coercion is informed by the work of the Angelic Doctor Tomaso de Aquino, and I feel confident that if there is a contradiction between Kyle’s understanding of the idea of coercion and St. Thomas’, I can count on St. Thomas to light the way to a clarity that no one should expect from someone as openly sympathetic with postmodernity as Kyle.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the State is the societal agency entitled to the legitimate use of coercion to uphold law and order for the common good. Law is not, for St. Thomas, intrinsically and essentially coercive, because a society of saints would still have to be a society of laws, but saints would not require coercion to obey the law. Ours, however, is not a society of saints. Law requires the threat of force and the recourse to the use of force in order to be sufficiently obeyed by sinful people in a fallen world. It is not, however, morally evil for legitimate public authorities to use force to uphold the law. In fact, it is not merely the right, but rather the duty, of he or she in whom divine providence has entrusted the care of the community, to use force when it is necessary to keep the peace and maintain social order for the common good.
Kyle may not be using the word coercion in the same way St. Thomas used it. Kyle says, “Coercing someone differs from motivating someone, even when painful possibilities or realities are used as instruments of motivation.” But are threats coercive? I can think of only two ways to use painful possibilities as instruments of motivations: warnings and threats. They are not the same. Threats are not warnings and warnings are not threats. Often traditional Christians are wrongly accused threatening unbelievers with hell, but a threat is present when the person making the threat is claiming that he or she would be an agent of unpleasant consequences for the one threatened by some decision to act or not act in a particular way. Christians do not send unrepentant unbelievers to hell, nor do those who go to hell end up their because of anything done or not done by Christians as a result of a certain response or lack thereof to information about the possibility of impending damnation, so the danger of hell would be more rightly understood as a warning. “Touch this electrified fence and you die” is a warning. “Cross my property line and I will shoot you” is a threat. So I ask more meaningfully – is the threat of the use of force a form of coercion? If not, then what exactly would constitute coercion without torture? If so, then how can the State employ the threat to use force to stop violent crime and imprison those guilty of breaking the law if coercion is always wrong? How can it meet the threat of violence by criminals preying on the innocent with the force of law? What, indeed, is the force of law if it is not the threat of coercion and coercive force?
I am reminded of a scene from a movie that Kyle and I liked to watch back when we were apartment mates at Franciscan University. The movie was “Out of Sight” with George Clooney as the Elmore Leonard character Jack Foley. Clooney’s Foley declares that he will never go back to prison no matter what. Ving Rhames says, “When they hold a gun to your head, you’ll go” or words to that effect. Foley replies, “Even when you have a gun to your head you still have a choice.”