You’d have to have been living under a rock not to know that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) has released the 525 page executive summary of a damning report about U.S. torture practices from 2001-2009 (http://www.intelligence.senate.gov/study2014/sscistudy1.pdf ), while simultaneously a group of former high level officials of the CIA have defended the agency’s activities against the findings of the Committee (http://ciasavedlives.com ). The report of the SSCI has also revealed that two LDS psychologists helped develop the regimen of enhanced interrogation methods to be used by the CIA, and then created a business, which operated from 2005-2009, which was paid over $80 million by the CIA to conduct approximately 85% of the enhanced interrogations performed during that time period.  As an editorial board, we are interested in hearing from our readers about their reactions to these revelations and the ensuring discussion.  Please send in your thoughts, and we will publish them in the space below!


Full Citation for this Article: Editorial Board (2014) "Readers' Puzzle for Fall 2014: The Torture Report," SquareTwo, Vol. 7 No. 3 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ReadersPuzzleFall2014.html, accessed <give access date>

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 200 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 4 Comments

1. George Handley

It has been one of the most valuable educational experiences of my life to have visited Auschwitz many years ago and to have traveled through many countries behind what was then called the Iron Curtain. I have also spent time in Cuba and seen even more evidence of the dangers of a distrusting government. More recently I spent time interviewing people in Chile who were affected by the abuses of the Pinochet dictatorship. All of this has taught me a deep revulsion toward governments that become fearful and distrustful of people and that convince themselves that more “creative” and “enhanced” efforts are necessary to protect themselves from their enemies. Nothing seems to me to be more profoundly unchristian and unfaithful than to imagine that, instead of trust in God and his principles, the mistreatment of another human being (created in the image of God) is necessary for the sake of protecting our own. I don’t know why any Christian would want to step closer to the edge of torture in order to justify methods and techniques that, with enough distance and common sense can be seen to clearly violate the sanctity and dignity of another human being. If Christians are adamant that we should avoid the logic of the proverbial “slippery slope” when it comes to other questions of morality, I can’t for the life of me understand otherwise well meaning Christians who would want to flirt with ideas and justifications for practices that start the slide down to the particularly pernicious form of evil we know as torture. I don’t pretend to understand all of the motives of those involved in the development of our government’s interrogation policies following 9/11, but even the very possibility that some members of our church might have played a role in developing and justifying these practices deeply offends my Mormon sensibility. That we are apparently no longer firmly committed to avoiding even the appearance of this evil causes me intense shame and disappointment.


2. Erik Linton

It is a long standing predicament that a group of people, when isolated from sufficient critical evaluation, easily fall subject to extremism or at least moral relativity.

Recent revelations about the involvement of LDS psycologists in determining torture policies are not the first instances where members of the LDS faith have come under scrutiny for unethical and even horrific behavior. Mountain Meadow Massacre, atrocities in Vietnam, involvement in the Watergate scandal, and unethical interrogation practices are some of the more popular and obvious examples.

Looking beyond the LDS faith, religion, business, and politics tend to be rich breading grounds for people falling subject to contorted moral conduct and ethics. The crusades, the Spanish inquisition, slavery, Nazism, the Waco Davidians, Muslim extremism, and the banks role in the Great Recession are all examples of groups of people being misguided because there was a lack of real critical evaluation and introspection.

It should not be surprising that there is scriptural and modern revelation that provides principles for avoiding the danger of shifting moral standards. In 1831 the Lord said the following to his church:

For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.

Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;

For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.

But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned. (D&C 58: 26-29)
When Joseph Smith was asked how he governed so many people he responded, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” (John Taylor, “The Organization of the Church,” Millennial Star, Nov. 15, 1851, p. 339.)

When Brigham Young was asked how he controlled so many people so easily he said, “I do not govern them all. The Lord has revealed principles from the heavens by which we are to live in these latter days. The time is drawing near when the Lord is going to gather out His people from the wicked, and He is going to cut short His work in righteousness, and the principles which He has revealed I have taught to the people and they are trying to live according to them, and they control themselves.” (Brigham Young, Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, June 7, 1870, p. 3.)

True revelation has always taught that men are responsible for themselves, their own ideas, their own conscience, their own morals. The LDS religion does not seek to dictate how the members of the church should act in any circumstance. When such expectations exist, navigating through a moral quagmire such as Watergate or even questionable business practices leaves men and women left “wandering in strange roads” (1 Nephi 8: 32).

Members of the LDS church are not immune to the threat of groupthink and moral relativity. Simply because we belong to an organization with a desire for certain outcomes we should take greater precautions to not isolate ourselves from different opinions and criticism. A great emphasis should be put on governing ourselves by principles and not only by strict commandments. King Mosiah in the Book of Mormon helped his people avoid the pharisaical trap by saying, “I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them (Mosiah 4: 29).”  Our standards should not be dictated by what is  momentarily deemed politically correct or popular (within or outside of the church). Neither should we expect to have strict commandments for every moral predicament. Members of the church should learn from sad experiences that power and influence without a dialogue or persuasion, without gentleness, meekness, love, and without allowing reproving with sharpness when necessary, is a recipe for spiritual and moral darkness  (D&C 121).  


3. Janille Stearmer

We study ethics for several reasons. As sentient human beings we understand that our behavior impacts others in positive or negative ways. We recognize that we have a choice about our behavior - often described as free agency - and whether or not it will help or harm others. Additionally, we can tell when we are behaving in a helpful or harmful manner. Unfortunately, it is also in our nature as humans to justify our own behavior if it is our self-interest to do so. Thus, the main impediment to ethical reasoning is egocentrism. Humans tend to be inwardly focused -- the individual is most important followed by the individual’s immediate community. Others outside that individual or community have less priority when it comes to ethical behavior and we tend to justify that exclusion in various ways. It is very common, even among the most well-intentioned people, to behave unethically through simple means of rationalization or other types of self-deception. It is uncomfortable to examine one’s motives through a purely ethical lens. Self-centered thinking and the tendency towards unethical behavior can be combated, though, through the development of critical thinking skills applied to ethical reasoning.

Some news and government reports in the last few years have focused on US torture policy, which some people have decried as grossly unethical while others apply situational justifications for it. I think it is safe to say, given the national conversation over the issue, that all sides of the issue probably identify themselves as being rational. Paul and Elder (2013) outline two types of ethical questions, simple and complex, and a subject such as a government torture policy falls, I believe, under a more complex ethical question than simple. A simple ethical question could be answered outright with no debate -- the answer is self-evident. And perhaps if we were discussing torture for the purpose of forcing someone to say something you want them to say or torture just for the sake of inflicting harm on another, the answer then is very simple. However, people justify all manner of unethical policies when national defense and war are mixed in.

What is particularly interesting about the US torture policy is that it was designed and legally justified, in part, by two very religious men, bringing pseudo-ethics into the debate as well. Likely more than two people with strong religious backgrounds participated in the development and implementation of the torture policy in question, since the US is a largely Christian nation. Of particular LDS interest are Bruce Jessen and Jay Bybee. There has been significant debate within the LDS religious community for some time about the role religion and religious persons play in ethical issues like torture. Bruce Jessen, a Washington psychologist, helped to develop the techniques; Jay Bybee, whom Time magazine once called “The Man Behind Waterboarding,” authorized the use of torture when he was a Justice Department official. He is now a judge in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A link to one news article in regards to them, their religion, anda link to this issue is posted below my comment. I think both men could easily be described as nice people, and also rational and well-educated. Bybee, in fact, told Meridian magazine in 2003 that he hopes his tombstone someday reads, “He always tried to do the right thing.”

The thing about justification in the case of US torture policy is that due process - a full set of steps that should be taken to determine the truth of a case before any consequences are applied - is completely bypassed (Svara 2015). We ASSUME that these people have done terrible things but in fact we do not know and after the fact it has been found that many people subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques were innocent of any wrongdoing. The policy itself further comes under scrutiny when it is noted that more ethical methods of interrogation are more effective anyway. For what purpose, then, are enhanced interrogation techniques needed? Even in the case of people whom are known to have committed unethical acts, our own unethical behavior cannot be excused as "right." It is simply a choice we make. We must become more self-aware of our own behavior and not assume that we are behaving ethically just because we can justify something or its serves our (or our nation's) self-interest. "Inalienable" rights are something that cannot be taken away - treating someone ethically does not mean that their actions, if they can be found to be criminal/immoral/unethical, are without consequences. It simply means that whatever consequences are applied to that unethical behavior, and whomever applies them, must still be ethical.



Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2013). The Thinker’s Guide to Understanding the Foundations of Ethical Reasoning. (1st ed.). Tomales, California: Foundations for Critical Thinking Press.

Svara. J. (2015). The Ethics Primer for Public Administrators in Government and Nonprofit Organizations. (2nd ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.


4. Anonymous

(The following was contributed by a Latter-day Saint national security professional who, because of the position of public trust he currently occupies, cannot comment by name.)

The moral argument concerning torture as a practice can be approached from the standpoint of identifying the standard “moral category” to which the discussion belongs, to wit:  morally obligatory, morally permissible, or morally forbidden.  In point of fact, there are those who argue in the affirmative for all three categories: 

Viewed in this light, the question of whether Latter-day Saints should have been involved in tortures authorized (rightly or wrongly) by the government seems to be rather a secondary question.  If torture itself is wrong, then it should not matter whether the person conducting it is a Latter-day Saint or a Buddhist, or a Methodist or a Muslim or an atheist.  If, on the other hand, torture is at least morally permissible, then the question could be asked whether the Latter-day Saints involved operated within morally permissible bounds.  If so, what they did was morally permissible; if not, it wasn’t—it’s just that simple.  However, as argued above, the more fundamental issue must be resolved before genuine clarity can obtain on second-order questions.