When Christ asked rhetorically “what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” the first image that suggests itself is the tyrant gathering all the goods of the world to himself by immoral means, or the person whose willing to sacrifice principle to gain wealth and power. But Christ is clearly condemning anyone who would sacrifice his soul for any good, which includes the safety and benefit of others. I was reminded of this when I read this quotation from Donald Rumsfeld:
“Anyone who suggests that the enhanced techniques — let’s be blunt: waterboarding — did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence just isn’t facing the truth,” former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that evening on Fox News’s Hannity program. “Three people were waterboarded by the CIA away from Guantanamo and then later brought to Guantanamo,” Rumsfeld continued. “The information that came from those individuals was critically important.”
Crucially important information. Great. All Rumsfeld had to do to get it was perform an operation (and involve others in it) that anyone could immediately spot as wicked and degrading to everyone involved if it were done to a farm animal, irrespective of any desirable outcome we might get from drowning an animal (like a pelt).
Moral autonomy and the absolute value of the individual can be misunderstood in a thousand different ways, but one way in which the individual really is absolute is in this: there is simply no outcome that justifies making oneself a monster. Anyone can see this about outcomes that are merely self- interested or carnal, but it’s just as true with ones that benefit others or are done for the good of the nation. This is the one sense in which we can never choose another good before our own good, even the good of a nation.