Richard Dawkins Weighs in on the Sam Harris Vilification

After Sam Harris released what had to have been a lot of pent-up frustration at how people are mischaracterizing him for raising tough questions, Richard Dawkins has now come to his defense.

Dawkins doesn’t get into the torture/profiling arguments or offer his take on who’s right or wrong, he just notes that Harris is doing a good thing by getting people to think some very uncomfortable thoughts. (Interestingly enough, Dawkins also lauds PZ Myers for the same thing.)

[Sam Harris] was doing what moral philosophers do, and he does not deserve the vilification and viciousness that he has received in consequence. He is not a gung-ho pro-torture advocate, he was raising precisely the hypothetical, thought-experiment type of questions moral philosophers do raise, about whether there might be any circumstances in which torture might be the lesser of two evils – thought experiments such as the famous “ticking hydrogen bomb and only one man in the world knows how to stop it” thought experiment. I am not coming down on one side or the other in that argument. Only saying that it is a serious moral philosophic argument. Merely to take it seriously and engage in it, as moral philosophers do, should not be grounds for pillorying and personal insults.

You can read the full piece here.

(Thanks to Dennis for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Gme

    Please don’t feed the SharksHomo’s, Abortionist, and Atheist,seeks who they may devour. They roam to and fro,like a shark in the darkest hour.Especially after our blood,like our Daughter or Son.They care less for our tears,or faith with life we run.They circle our schools these sharks,and seek for kids away from home.They gnash teeth and growl with hunger,that we teach kids it’s safe to their roam.Death to America’s God,Death to the unborn.Death to prayers,Me, myself and I is the sharks adorn.Kids are such a sweet treat,and such an easy prey,Protection needs to stop, to devour without delay.I was twelve left in schools zone,where a Homo teacher attacked.I reached out for teachers help,that lead to more paddle whacks.Remembering this day,when my years were few.I have now grown old with scars,that warns what sharks will do.

  • 3lemenope

    I think this is correct for the torture discussion, but harder to apply to the profiling discussion. In the first, it really does seem like he was just exploring  a thought experiment, while the second really felt more like an actual policy suggestion, or at least was meant to be considered on a more practical “it could very well be done the way I’m talking about so why don’t we consider it” level. 

    It could just be me, though.

    • Pseudonym

      Both cases reveal a blindness to evidence and unwillingness to be persuaded by facts on Harris’ part.

      Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with metaphorically swimming out of your depth. But if you fall for the Dunning-Kruger effect, you will look ridiculous.

      What disturbs me, though, is that Dawkins seems to think that Harris is a moral philosopher.

      • 3lemenope

        Eh, I’d say he isn’t a very good moral philosopher. But he has occasionally forayed into some interesting territory with his exploration of attempting to collapse the Is/Ought distinction and the empirical exploration of moral intuitions (much like the x-phi movement, only sloppier). 

        I think calling him an amateur moral philosopher with an occasional interesting thing to say would hit closer to the mark. After all, I don’t think (and I could be wrong about this) he calls himself a philosopher, only that he explores philosophy.

        • thebigJ_A

          But then, charlatans like William Lane Craig call themselves philosophers, so…

          • 3lemenope

            Point of bringing up that he doesn’t call himself a philosopher is to point out that it is silly to criticize someone for not being what they don’t consider themselves to be.

      • Peter Eakin

        If Harris baked a cake, would it be wrong to call him a baker?

        • Andrew Brake

           It would be half-baked at best.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Asking tough questions is pointless if you don’t have the background.  The ethics of torture is something Sam should have a background in.  The profiling thing was way out in left field.  The ethical issues behind his profiling idea weren’t the reason he was just plain wrong.  It’s not like nobody had ever proposed the profiling idea.  A lot of lay people think it would be a great idea.

      That’s why we have ‘experts’.

  • Rich Rodgers

    I would definitely agree if he were responsible for setting policy. As it is, I’m not sure.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rogi.riverstone Rogi Riverstone

    Harris is not a philosopher. And what’s that “interestingly enough” re: Myers? Myers does great work and so do most FtBloggers. Don’t do that.

    • thebigJ_A

      It’s “interestingly enough” because PZ was on the opposite side of the bruha. You’re reading slander where none exists. Don’t do that.

    • kraken17

      Failed philosopher school, did he?

  • Dglas26

    Sam Harris is a moral realist trying to dress up absolutism in a lab coat, apparently completely unaware (or deliberately failing to notice) that science is a descriptive process, not a prescriptive one. 

    He is not a moral philosopher. His philosophical “credentials” would exclude him from any discussion of morality *by his own criteria.* And clearly, he has no education at all in analytic ethics – he cannot tell the difference in language functions between descriptions (statements of fact) and prescriptions (commands).

  • Dglas26

    The FTBlogs people (Brayton and his mouthpiece Myers) just excommunicated someone on the basis of orthodoxy requirements. Enough said.

    • CultOfReason

       I believe you are referring to Thunderf00t who was “excommunicated” from FTBlogs for a piece he wrote regarding his views on the sexual harassment brouhaha at conferences.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        They also “excommunicated” Greg Laden.  Greg didn’t cry about it though.  He just kept on blogging.

        It’s not like TF can’t continue to do his Youtube thing, or start his own blog.  He has a substantial following.  Although I suspect his foray in to sexism may have decreased his internet cred.  It sure as hell did for me.

        • CultOfReason

          I’m still a bit torn on the issue with FT.  I think both sides made some fair arguments.  But in the end, I prefer open dialogue over censorship or banishment.  Calling FT out on his views, like everyone is doing with Harris, is perfectly acceptable.  Kicking him off the blog after only his first post, not so cool.

  • http://twitter.com/alex_harris88 Alex Harris

    I hope this won’t be seen as spam, but I think it’s relevant, I have my own take on Harris’ ‘Wrestling the Trolls’ article, which you can read at 
    http://enduringengland.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/messiahs-versus-naughty-boys.html  and I’m interested to hear people’s thoughts. Thanks.

  • vexorian

    I think it is great to ask uncomfortable thought experiment questions.
    But it is also great to give uncomfortable criticisms to the thought
    experiments. The torture thought experiment is flawed in its foundation -
    It assumes that torture works. The second we verify that there is no
    evidence to believe that torture works and there are a lot of
    suggestions to believe it does not, the thought experiment stops really
    being an “uncomfortable thought-experiment” that makes us think the
    answers to hard questions, and it becomes an utterly unnecessary thought
    experiment which seems to have no motive other than advocating torture
    in special cases.

    We have seen him discuss these thought experiments. We have seen him
    reply to the article that calls him an awful atheist because in part of
    it. We have read tons of criticisms in all tones and forms. Yet has Sam
    Harris ever admitted that torture does not actually work?  I don’t know
    about you, but to me a person that keeps talking about torture, looking
    for thought experiments in which it could be justified and fails to
    acknowledge that it does not work regardless of all evidence and
    rational arguments against it. Sounds like might be an advocate of torture. Ok,
    call me crazy.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    So true!

    Indeed, how else can a moral relativist (which I think defines the
    majority of secular humanists) develop a sound ethos without asking and
    discussing just these sorts of tricky questions? Questions about the
    efficacy of torture and racial profiling have certainly not been settled
    with any absolute certainty, so they remain valid questions, both
    pragmatically and philosophically. The only position I’d hold to be
    absolutely invalid is one which does not admit to the possibility that
    it’s wrong… and I don’t think Harris has made that claim. I made this post earlier, but it ended up on the wrong article… but looking at some of the other comments, I’d like to add this:It doesn’t matter if Harris’s position is purely as a philosopher, asking rhetorical questions. He’s entitled to the opinion that torture is acceptable in some cases, and he’s entitled to the opinion that racial profiling is acceptable in some cases (I’m not saying if he does or does not have those views). Neither opinion is a matter of fact, and there are experts who take all possible positions on these matters. This isn’t a matter of fact, but of philosophy. Even if Harris’s views are different from the majority of people here, that doesn’t make him an unethical person. Neither do such views mean a person is a sadist or a racist. That clearly isn’t the case.I frequently find Harris’s arguments flawed, and his style questionable. But he deals with questions of philosophy and of morality, and that means it’s fair to call him a moral philosopher. We can all decide for ourselves whether he’s “good” at it (which personally, I define as regularly presenting arguments that make me think… or even change my mind about something).
     

  • http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/ Garren

    This reminds me of the furor over the paper “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/medethics-2011-100411

    People were outraged that someone would take a candidate ethical principle and talk about some of the consequences of applying it. The paper’s authors were vilified and called incompetent to discuss ethics. The journal’s editors had to respond by saying something very much like the Dawkins quote above.

    I would hope freethinkers would be the people most prepared to go beyond their initial emotional response and be willing to engage intellectually with someone they think has gotten off into a wrong direction.

    Personally, I wish Harris would engage more often at the metaethical level, but then I wish the same thing about the scores of professional ethicists who largely ignore metaethics in favor of testing principles against their gut feelings.

  • http://www.holyblasphemy.net Derek Murphy

    I don’t know how Sam Harris and Penn Jillette can end up on the same list. I just read “Trust me I’m Lying” which displays in detail the way bullshit stories spread up the blogosphere until they create reality and become real news. I’m glad Dawkins came to
    Harris’ defense; it’s hard to be so public and do philosophy, without crossing the sheep mentality of moral indignation.

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    I’m not quite so familiar with Harris’ views on torture, but I spent a bit of time on the profiling farrago, and I’m afraid that this characterisation is not accurate. Sam Harris was not raising an interesting, if difficult, question; he was advocating  for one particular answer to it, and for practical policy to be based on that (wrong) answer. The criticism he received was not for raising the question, but for both advocating a view that was utterly morally bankrupt, and for continuing to push a conclusion that flies in the face of the evidence even after it had been laboriously and repeatedly pointed out, by both a large number of ‘ordinary’ people and notable experts like Bruce Schneier.

    It’s also either dishonest or staggeringly ignorant to claim to be ‘raising a question’ when it’s already been widely raised, thought about, and answered. Maybe Harris would next like to ‘raise the question’ of future NASA planning being based on a geocentric model? Or deregulating tobacco because cigarettes don’t kill people, lung cancer does? Or whether women’s place really is in the kitchen (it’s ‘uncomfortable’, sure, but no-one should have a problem with a ‘thought experiment’, right?)?

    No. Not all right. Not at all.

    • sijd

      Teaching the controversy ?

  • Denis Robert

    Yet again, Hemant: NO ONE IS MISCHARACTERIZING HARRIS. He dug his own grave, and has shown himself, repeatedly, to be a lazy thinker and a racist. The very fact that he called on muslims to accept “ethnic profiling” (his words) shows this: there is no muslim “ethnicity”.

    Stop defending the indefensible, Hemant. When one of our own steps over the line, advocating genocide (however qualified; you can’t qualify genocide), and justifying first nuclear strikes (if doesn’t matter if he doesn’t actively advocate for it; justifying it is enough), WE MUST CALL THEM OUT ON IT. You can’t protect him because you like some of what he has to say. Someone can be right on many things, but be dead wrong on others, and be so dead wrong that he needs to be taken down a notch. This is the case with Harris.

    His view of muslims is not of people following a religion he disagrees with. It’s of a single people, with a single purpose: to destroy the West (funny, most muslims I’ve ever met had a more prosaic primary purpose: to feed their families). To call this a racist over-simplification is to be far too generous. It’s the very kind of irrational demonization that allowed the Nazis to commit their atrocities.

    It’s fine to criticize a group’s views. But when one does this through straw-manning, over-generalization, over-simplification, all with the clear purpose to mark a people as sub-human, it can no longer stand. Harris has lost his marbles, and protecting him won’t help him come to his senses.

    • http://pramod.myid.net/ pramod

       Well said.

      I hadn’t read much of what Harris wrote until about 10 minutes ago. So I just googled the phrase “Harris on Islam” and read two articles by him. Here are a couple of choice extracts:

      “Yes, the Bible contains its own sadistic lunacy—but the above quotations can be fairly said to convey the central
      message of the Qur’an—and of Islam at nearly every moment in its
      history. The Qur’an does not contain anything like a Sermon on the
      Mount. Nor is it a vast and self-contradictory book like the Old
      Testament, in which whole sections (like Leviticus and Deuteronomy) can
      be easily ignored and forgotten. The result is a unified message of
      triumphalism, otherworldliness, and religious hatred that has become a
      problem for the entire world. And the world still waits for moderate
      Muslims to speak honestly about it.”

      So how is this to be interpreted other than my religion is better than yours? (I’m aware Harris is an atheist, but he is clearly attached to his Jewish ancestry.)

      “As a secularist and a nonbeliever—and as a Jew—I find the idea of a
      Jewish state obnoxious. But if ever a state organized around a religion
      was justified, it is the Jewish state of Israel, given the world’s
      propensity for genocidal anti-Semitism. And if ever criticism of a
      religious state was unjustified, it is the criticism of Israel that
      ceaselessly flows from every corner of the Muslim world, given the
      genocidal aspirations so many Muslims freely confess regarding the Jews.
      Those who see moral parity between the two sides of Israeli-Palestinian
      conflict are ignoring rather obvious differences in intent.”

      Riiiiiigght. The Israelis are morally superior to the Palestianians and anyone who doesn’t agree “is ignoring obvious differences in intent.” What are these obvious differences? Someone please educate me.

      Here’s some shit that could be straight out of a wing-nutters scaremongering pamphlet.

      “Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe.  The demographic trends
      are ominous: Given current birthrates, France could be a majority
      Muslim country in 25 years, and that is if immigration were to stop
      tomorrow. Throughout Western Europe, Muslim immigrants show little
      inclination to acquire the secular and civil values of their host
      countries, and yet exploit these values to the utmost—demanding
      tolerance for their backwardness, their misogyny, their anti-Semitism,
      and the genocidal hatred that is regularly preached in their mosques.”

      I see all this and it’s hard for me to think Harris has any appreciation of the history of Islam or the economic and political difficulties that Muslims face. Let me make it clear that I do think many Muslim countries clearly have problems with misogyny, secularism and basic human rights but it’s important to take a nuanced view of this situation, for instance, one needs to account for the fact that the vast majority of muslims are clearly undereducated (if not downright uneducated) and have little or no experience of a secular state and brainwashed in believing that such states are evil.

      Harris may think freedom and justice and equality are self-evident truths, but all that shows is that he is a tremendously privliged individual.

      The fact that Harris ignores all this and simply damns Muslims for being Muslims, at least to me, indicates that he is not interested in really understanding why some Muslims behave the way they do.

      The most likely explanation for all this, at least in my mind, is that Harris is a racist.


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