Understanding Niebuhr Essay

1515 words - 6 pages

The title of the chapter, “Love as a Possibility for the Individual,” had me hopeful that Niebuhr was going to finally give us something to latch on to, perhaps a method of implementing the impossible ideal of love into a fallen and sinful world. Unfortunately, I came away from reading and thinking about this chapter unsure about the implied meaning of the title. Is Niebuhr implying that love is indeed a possibility for the individual, and subsequently describing how, or is he merely addressing the issue of whether or not it is possible? Let us see which one of these two possibilities is indeed the correct one.
First, I want to use a somewhat divergent yet ultimately beneficial (hopefully) test case for understanding Niebuhr. I want to take one of the current issues of our time and test it within Niebuhr’s scheme, or at least how I understand Niebuhr’s scheme. Lets use the example of the use of torture. By all regards, torture is perhaps one of the most inhumane and despicable things that can be done by one individual to another. Its very definition illuminates this – torture, as defined by the UN Convention Against Torture, is “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person…” It should be noted that use of torture is illegal by international law, is considered to be a violation of basic human rights, is unacceptable according to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is in direct violation of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions. Simply put, torture is wrong and immoral. In Niebuhrian terms, and for the purpose of this test case, let us set up the illegality of the use of torture as a transcendental and then see how this plays out within the current political climate.
The United States is not only aware of the illegality and immorality of torture but is also a signatory of the various conventions that have outlawed its use. We are aware that torture is wrong, that the absence of torture is the ideal that should govern our battlefield and intelligence operations. Yet, the entire torture debate now centers on the ability of the United States to use these sorts of tactics in extreme cases (perhaps not even extreme), in spite of these injunctions against it. The definition of torture itself has even been challenged, and certain methods have been justified based on the amount of pain they do or do not actually inflict. As a transcendental, the idea of torture as immoral has been equivocated amid a myriad of legal and situational justifications. We say that the use of torture in a specific wartime situation was warranted due to the specific circumstances of that situation while simultaneously holding to the illegality and immorality of...

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