Consistency Check: Torture, Abortion, & the Individual Mandate

It’s easy to take an indignant moral position on a single issue.  “Torture is wrong.”  “Abortion is wrong.”  “Coerced transactions are wrong.”  Such positions aren’t rare, and thus not particularly interesting.  What is rare, however, is the ability to demonstrate consistency in taking several unequivocal moral positions.  That is, those who take an unequivocal moral stand with respect to torture, or abortion, or the individual mandate are less likely to purport to take such a fervent an unequivocal a position as to all three.  Yet, if we’re talking about objective morality and deontology—which we almost always are when we’re taking absolute, unequivocal positions—then we really have no excuse. 

For instance, a prototypical conservative might take unequivocal positions against abortion and the individual mandate, yet refrains from taking absolutist positions on the torture question, and instead offers ticking time bomb scenarios and subtle nuances as to why waterboarding isn’t torture, etc.1  Similarly, a prototypical libertarian might take unequivocal positions against torture and the individual mandate, yet offers subtle nuances explaining why a fetus isn’t a person, or why rights do not extend into the womb.  The prototypical liberal, like the libertarian, might categorically reject all mitigating factors offered in support of coercive interrogations, yet makes “the greater good” the centerpiece of his justification of the coercive individual mandate. 

On these and most every other important issue, we scoff at one another for pledging to principle on certain things, and excoriate one another for parsing principle on others.  This phenomenon—at work in many other examples, some of which I’ve listed previously—demonstrates how our underlying judgments about what is objective and what is merely instrumental define our reality.  For example, is economic liberty an end in itself, or merely an instrumentality?  I submit that the deviations in these sorts of judgments are the key to many if not most of our moral and political disagreements, and explain why we parse some principles yet stand indignant on others.  

[1] You can probably put me in this camp as to “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  I acknowledge that certain techniques that cross the line into “torture” are always morally unacceptable.  Assuming an appropriate showing is made that the interogatee is in possession of information concerning a threat to national security, one might say that interrogation techniques that are not torture are justified because, although they amount to coercion, it is coercion against a thing the interrogatee has no moral right to do in the first place: withhold information about immoral and illegal acts to harm or kill others.  This same approach permits one also to say that abortion is wrong (excepting certain extreme cases) because, while it arguably amounts to coercion, it is coercion against a thing no person has a moral right to do: kill an human being conceived through natural consensual relations. 

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at


  1. One of the wrinkles that you don’t mention here is there is a subtle difference between hypocrisy and principled stands that just don’t stand.

    One can be against something as “immoral” while still accepting that the thing is sometimes unavoidable.

    Example: I think war is immoral. No two ways about it; it’s immoral. If someone tried to invade my country, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t take up arms to defend it, commit atrocities in its defense, and regret it all for decades afterwards. I’m still perfectly comfortable calling it immoral.

    I think torture is immoral (I also am highly dubious as to its efficacy with regards to other methods). I think the ticking time-bomb scenario in particular is bunk, because if there’s any time a torture victim is highly motivated to hold out, it’s when he (or she) knows that the clock is running and they only need to hold out for *so long* to accomplish their goal. However, if I’m Jack Ryan and someone’s coming to kill me and my children, I’ll shoot the suspected leak in the leg to try and get intelligence out of him (Patriot Games, the movie), even if I don’t trust entirely what the guy is going to tell me. I’m perfectly willing to call that immoral, too. Feel free to put me on trial for that one, I’d even take the stand and take my lumps from a jury if they convicted me.

    Hypocrisy comes when I use a yardstick to measure immorality and then seek to provide myself absolution for the stuff I’m willing to do anyway and condemn you for the stuff you’re willing to do anyway.

    I can think that something is immoral, as well, without simultaneously thinking that the best way to end the immoral thing (whatever it is) is through the mechanism of the law, or the state. I could agree with pro-Life people that abortion is immoral without ceding the point that we ought to then empower the state to prevent them from happening. I could agree that child abuse is immoral without empowering a state agency to take children out of a home.

  2. Pat,

    I think I disagree with that approach. Is it always immoral to murder someone? Yes. Is it always immoral to kill someone? No. For example, it is legally justified to kill someone in self-defense if lethal force is reasonably necessary to prevent imminent lethal injury to oneself. More than legally justified, I say that killing in such circumstances is also morally justified. War can be justified under the same basic model. Thus, I’m not surprised when you suggest you are not opposed to wars of self-defense. But I don’t understand what you mean when you say you’d still call such a war “immoral.”

    For my part, once you get to the determination that an act is immoral, that’s the end of the analysis. You only get to pick one: deontology, or consequentialism. If something’s objectively wrong, there’s no redeeming it.

    Your point about immorality and state action, however, is well taken.

    • The key, as I suspect you’d acknowledge, is how to define, say, murder as opposed to killing.

      But as I believe, our fallen nature* suggests that no act of killing for self defense (for example) is sheerly an act of self-defense. In other words, maybe there’s a little bit “murder” in even the most justified acts of self-defense, because a life has been taken and because the optimal (but in this scenario unrealizable) situation would have been for the life not to have been taken.

      There are complications when it comes to defining what is immoral, too. Take your prototypical libertarian who, in your account, “offers subtle nuances explaining why a fetus isn’t a person” (I am not here for my example referring to the rest of this libertarian’s claim on “why rights do not extend into the womb”). It seems to me that the most urgent prolife argument against abortion resides in the claim of personhood (or some other state of being that requires us to recognize the living thing’s moral right to exist). This libertarian is not being hypocritical at all, but taking the position that the fetus is not a person. In other words, he or she is disputing the conclusion that abortion is wrong. (For the record, I’m aware of at least one self-described libertarian who takes a pro-life position.) If it can be conclusively established that the fetus is not a person or a being otherwise possessing the moral right to live, then the urgent moral argument against abortion would lose its force (in that case, there might be other arguments against the practice–abortion allegedly would cheapen sexuality and encourages promiscuity and irresponsibility, for example–but the urgent argument that it is the taking of a life with a moral right to live would be disproven).**

      *I consider myself an agnostic, but I find much of what Christianity says about original sin to be at least useful food for thought and in some ways quite compelling.

      **I should say I am not stating here my position on my abortion, just trying to refer to the argument you mentioned above.

    • > Yes. Is it always immoral to kill someone? No.
      > For example, it is legally justified…

      Don’t switch tracks. Legal justification and moral justification are at best loosely coupled.

      > War can be justified under the same basic model.

      This is Just War Theory. My problem is, it don’t scale. And every logic bomb I throw at Just War Theory blows it up, at least inside my own head.

      If you’re going to shoot me because you want to rape my dog and kill my wife, I might justifiably shoot you in self defense (depending upon how pacifist you want to be, granted).

      But modern war ain’t like that, and we can’t pretend that the analogy can stand up to the stressors that make it *not* like that.

      We have collateral damage. We have conscription. In the case of simple self-defense against aggression, I have a pretty reasonable case to say that the target of my violence is actually trying to harm *me*, directly, for evil purposes. I can’t say that in war. If I’m using a bomb, or an automatic weapon, I can hit civilians. I can kill a conscript who would gladly surrender if given any opportunity to do so. I can go on.

      Put another way, if you accept collateral damage and you accept intent to defend as reasonable propositions, it’s perfectly legitimate to nuke the crap out of a non-nuclear state if you’re at war. That’s just a matter of scale, right?

      Just War theorists argue against this interpretation because they argue that the intention of the defender is still to preserve his/her own life, not necessarily the negative side effects of that actual action. But I can’t disclaim that so easily. I think it’s cheap. That’s just me, though.

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