At her blog Hullabaloo, the always excellent Digby asks someone “who knows more about theology than [she does] to explain” Gary Bauer’s following remarks to her:

For Christians, intent is integral to determining whether and when certain techniques, including water-boarding, are morally permissible.

Actually, although I find Bauer unpleasant and his attempt to justify the US’s torture regime despicable, I don’t think what he says here is necessarily wrong. Nor, indeed, is it just for Christians or does it require a knowledge of theology to appreciate.

If you take a child to the dentist to have some teeth removed, just to make her suffer, you have done something morally impermissible. If you take the same child to the dentist to have some teeth removed because you reasonably think they are rotten, you have not acted impermissibly. And these judgments hold even if, in the first case, it turned out that the removed teeth just happened to be rotten; and in the second case, it turned out that the teeth were not rotten after all. So the difference in the morality of the actions in the two scenarios is exclusively a matter of intention.

Now it may be that what puzzles Digby is not the general principle that the morality of an action may be determined by the intention with which it was performed, but the idea that this extends even to such actions as waterboarding or other types of torture. Why should this be so? Perhaps Digby is thinking something like this: when we describe certain actions as torture, we are already building in to the description of what was done some element of intention on the part of the agent. Torturing someone is inflicting pain on them, with the intention of causing suffering. So perhaps one might think that it is impossible that some further element of intent could, as it were, cancel the moral impermissibility of an action of torture that derives from the inbuilt intention of causing suffering. But I don’t see why this should be so. Take an action like punishing someone. It might be thought that, like torturing, punishing someone is doing something to them with the intention of causing some suffering. But suppose, for example, one’s child rushes to take a seat on a bus ahead of an elderly person trying to occupy the same seat. Punishing one’s child (perhaps mildly) with the intention of making them aware of the error of their behavior is surely quite morally permissible. The inbuilt negative intention in the punishing, of causing some suffering in the child, is integral to one’s educational purpose and the moral impermissibility it might endow the action with in other circumstances is canceled by the further element of intention here, to educate one’s child and make them more sensitive to the needs of the elderly.

I am aware that any attempt to consider issues like torture in terms of general principles about action and morality and in terms of constructed examples that are designed to make certain things stand out more clearly, is to invite the accusation that one is ‘soft’ on torture or temporizing on behalf of torturers. So let me stress once again, these remarks do not imply that I think that the torture regime of the US is morally acceptable. I think it is morally unacceptable. But I don’t think it helps anyone to look for what makes it unacceptable in the wrong place. I have written further on this matter here.