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4.5.04

Natural Law Or Social Conditioning?

Joe Carter brings up an interesting point with regard to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.

Most everyone has simply stated that these soldiers “should have known” not to act the way they did. They seem to be under the impression that it is both obvious and beyond dispute and, therefore, no argument even needs to be made. Essentially, they're making an appeal to natural law. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, they agree that good and evil is intrinsic and knowable by all people (ST IaIIae 94, 4). These reservists should have known that such actions were wrong because all humans are endowed with the same moral intuition that humiliation and torture are evil acts.


Joe agrees that there is a natural law, but some degree of social conditioning is necessary to properly develop it. While the military builds a strong moral orientation into its members, reservists (such as the Abu Ghraib torturers) are exposed to the moral relativism of civilian culture that erodes their moral intuition. While not entirely sold on the idea that having the Geneva convention explained to them would have led the torturers to act right, he says "solid training on both the laws of war and the consequences for violating them might have been just the thing to stir their moral conscience."

There are two things I want to pick out of this argument. First is the question of implied natural law. I'm skeptical that humans share much more than a rudimentary inherent conscience (and that things that appear to spring from that inherent conscience are necessarily proper guides to action*). However, I don't think that one needs to presume a natural law framework in order to argue that the soldiers "should have known" not to torture. Though conservatives make a big deal out of the supposed moral relativism of modern life, there is a largely shared ethos -- as evidenced by the practically universal condemnation of the Abu Ghraib torture. Whatever its origin, the idea that you should not wantonly humiliate and torture anyone, even enemy soldiers of a different race and culture, is pretty well entrenched in American culture. So to say the soldiers "should have known" can refer to an element of "nuture" we expect them to share, not necessarily an element of "nature." The soldiers "should have known" not to torture in the same way that they "should have known" that you make words plural by adding "-s."

Second, the possibilities in Carter's post for the source of moral guidance are set up as either conscience or training. Either they just know that torture is wrong, or they should be taught that it's wrong. Both of these are individualistic notions -- either you look within your own heart, or you learn the principles in a rational manner.

What these options leave out is the importance of social reinforcement. People acquire their moral orientations from acting them out, playing the part of a moral person in interactions with others while having morality modeled for them by those who they admire or see as comrades. Eventually, the orientation becomes a habit, a role played effortlessly and subconsciously. This is how the military inculates the ethos that Carter claims non-reservists acquire -- indeed, "total institutions" like the military, or like the fraternities Carter talks about in his nice follow-up post, are especially likely to be scenes of this social production of morality. At Abu Ghraib, acting in accordance with the Geneva convention wasn't "how it's done." In fact, it's not just that they failed to assimilate non-torture morals. As per Carter's example of fraternities, the culture of Abu Ghraib likely reinforced a counter-morality that said that torture was not just acceptable but the proper way to treat prisoners. The same social mechanisms that have instilled in most of us an aversion to torture were twisted into promoting it. In such a scenario, individual conscience would have been swamped (unless it could ally with other consciences -- a classic collective action problem -- or reach out to outside sources of power, as the soldier who publicized the photos did).

*To link it back to my previous exchange with Carter, an evolved conscience is not as trustworthy as a God-given one.

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