Richard Dawkins and other atheists defend Sam Harris

Richard Dawkins just published a piece titled “It’s What Moral Philosophers Do,” which sketches a bit of moral philosophy and then ends by saying:

That is what Sam Harris was doing in his notorious discussions of torture and of profiling in airport security. He 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.

Similarly, Hemant Mehta recently responded to a piece about “The 5 Most Awful Atheists” by saying (I’ll just quote what he wrote about Harris, but his points about the others are good too):

Sam Harris’ The End of Faith ushered in an atheist revolution in publishing; it was the first “New Atheist” book that went viral and it made atheism sexy and ok to talk about. Even if he never wrote another word, his contribution to our movement is monumental. This is speculation, but of all the people who know who Sam Harris is, I would guess relatively few of them are even aware that he has opinions on racial profiling.

In a separate post, Hemant adds:

said it before and I’ll say it again: I read all of Harris’ posts about profiling Muslims at the airport, and none of them came across as “racist” to me. Racism implies an undercurrent of intolerance, and I suspect Harris has no problem with Muslims peacefully practicing their faith (other than the fact that their beliefs are wrong) or people like me sitting next to him on a plane. So I can understand his frustration with people reducing his argument down to “racial profiling.” It’s far more complicated than that. (For what it’s worth, I also didn’t think his argument for religious profiling was very persuasive.)

Well said, all of it, except that I suspect that Harris may be a bit bothered by Muslims who don’t bother anyone but privately teach all kinds of nasty things about unbelievers. Certainly I’m bothered by it, just as I have a problem with evangelical leaders who teach that I and many of my friends going to Hell for eternity, even when they avoid airing that odious doctrine too loudly.

Russell Blackford’s recent post on Harris is also worth reading–though I won’t quote it, because I recommend reading it in full.

  • estraven

    Well, I found Harris’s thoughts on profiling to be problematic. For one thing, how the heck do you determine who’s a Muslim? I think people have well thought out objections to some of the things he’s written, and I think sometimes he’s defended himself in a kind of knee-jerk way when it might have been to his benefit to take people’s objections seriously and address them. Then again, I haven’t read every word he’s written. Seems to me he’s a little thin-skinned, though, and when he objected to PZ Myers, I had to wonder if he even read what PZ had to say on the “5 worst atheists” thing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Well, no one I quoted disputed that Harris’ views on profiling were problematic. I’ve previously said that his comments “anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim” don’t make any sense. But that’s a separate question from whether he deserves to be vilified for his comments.

    • r2dbag

      I recommend reading “every word he’s written” on profiling first. But to answer one thing: Harris’ isn’t concerned with figuring out who’s Muslim. He argues profiling people who have the look of the most common terrorists. And, since he confines his argument to airports, he cites the FBI’s most wanted list; 9/10 (IIRC) have the stereotypical “Muslim” look (i.e. scraggly beard, turbin, male, etc). His strongest point, I believe, is that someone like Betty White should never be screened at an airport. He fully admits that himself, along with someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali (spelling) should absolutely be screened, or watched, in an airport. He also says profiling should be coupled with behavioral analysis (which we already do). Simply put, he argues a “random sample” is less effective than a profiling system. I don’t agree with everything he argues, but he makes a very valid point. Well worth the read.

      http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/to-profile-or-not-to-profile

      • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

        Simply put, he argues a “random sample” is less effective than a profiling system. I don’t agree with everything he argues, but he makes a very valid point.

        And yet, funnily enough, experts in the area seem to pretty much uniformly disagree with him.

        • James M.

          That is true, and he hosted on his blog one such response. It’s one thing to say that someone is wrong. It’s another to vilify them.

        • Kevin

          Are you referring to Bruce Schneier’s response to Harris? I am just curious if you thought that was the take home message from the conversation. Bruce’s strongest point was that the number of false positives from Harris’ suggestion would be too costly for the returned benefit, not that it wouldn’t have had a higher true positive detection rate. He did make one argument for random screening, that a terrorist wouldn’t plan an attack that doesn’t have a high probability of success (i.e., screen %50 of passengers, terrorists wouldn’t attack because each individual attack only has a %50 success rate rather than sending multiple teams to exploit the percentages). I don’t know the predisposition of terrorists so it is hard to evaluate that point. Mostly, Bruce argued from a cost perspective, not about which method was more effective at catching terrorists.

      • eric

        His strongest point, I believe, is that someone like Betty White should never be screened at an airport.

        Funny, I consider that one of his weakest points. Terrorists already take advantage of our biases by trying to use and recruit people that western security agents might flinch from investigating or bend the rules for. Why would anyone want to make this flaw a formal, methodolgical part of our system?

      • http://sinmantyx.wordpress.com M. A. Melby

        His profiling piece was horrible. “Problematic” is a euphemism. I’m sorry, once you start talking about “looking Muslim” and putting HIMSELF in that category (because he is brown and no other reason) is racist. It’s not burning a cross on your yard racist, but adopting his suggestions would lead to profiling based on race and he seems okay with that.

        No, he isn’t a “racist”. However, he said something racist.

        • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

          I didn’t know Muslim was a race.

          • insipidmoniker

            And as soon as Harris can list visual characteristics of Muslims that are not racial that will be a valid point.

  • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

    So he was “doing what moral philosophers do.” So what? This doesn’t excuse him from criticism for doing it exceptionally poorly. His “thought experiments” about torture do not illuminate any unthought-of or unheard-of aspects of the ethics of torture, they do not clarify the distinctions between different situations, they are old and tired arguments that should have been discarded the minute empirical evidence began to suggest that torture is ineffective. Everything we know says it isn’t, except in very rare situations, but thought experiments like Harris’ (particularly the one he linked to in his recent piece) never take this into account: they assume the choice is between not-torture-and-don’t-find-the-bomb and torture-and-find-the-bomb, when the second is instead almost always torture-and-get-sent-on-a-wild-goose-chase. Ignoring this incredibly important fact results in terribly done moral philosophy.

    So, yes, sure, he was doing moral philosophy. But he was really just repeating very old arguments about torture (Montesquieu was rebutting them in the early 18th century) while ignoring extremely relevant evidence. This doesn’t serve to advance our understanding of morality (again, 18th century), nor our understanding of torture. It serves only to lock us into the same old debate, with the same bad, poorly drawn thought experiments.

    I fail to see why I should afford him any respect for “doing moral philosophy.”

    • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

      Also: Dawkins’ comparison to PZ’s abortion stance or some of Peter Singer’s views is a false analogy. Both PZ and Singer were proposing things that were truly counter-intuitive, and that are also almost certainly believed to be suspect if not immoral by the majority of the population. On the other hand, Harris’ views on torture, while seemingly extremely controversial, are in fact quite mainstream. Mainstream enough, at least, that presidents and presidential candidates can hold them and that won’t turn most of the population away from them.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      You’re missing the point of a thought experiment. Thought experiments don’t have to involve the world as it usually is–see PZ’s musings on fetuses writing poetry. Nor was Harris claiming that torture is usually the right thing to do in the real world.

      Now, you can question the wisdom of dwelling on hypotheticals like that, on the grounds that they might corrupt our judgments about more realistic cases. But such dwelling on hypotheticals is totally standard procedure for philosophers.

      • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

        Um, no. I get the point of a thought experiment. My criticism was that his thought experiments have involved the unstated assumption that torture works. Whether you are designing a thought experiment as a pure hypothetical or as an attempt to comment on real-world ethical choices (I honestly think Harris was doing the latter), it is incredibly important to be precise in stating all assumptions of the thought experiment — because it turns out completely differently if torture does not work (which it doesn’t) than if torture does.

        So, no, I don’t have a problem with addressing hypotheticals like “what if torture did work? would it then be ok?” although I don’t think that’s particularly useful. My objection is ignoring that that is the thought you are experimenting with, and instead claiming that you are experimenting with just “could torture be justified”, not “could torture that worked be justified.” It is misleading, it hides a basic assumption, it is a terrible thought experiment.

        Moreover, like I said, it isn’t a thought experiment that is, as Dawkins’ claimed, exploring something counterfactual or counterintuitive. The idea that torture works and is justified in those instances is a very old idea, one central to our governmental operations in the US, one, clearly, many people don’t consider important enough to be a deciding factor in things like presidential elections. So the idea that he’s presenting this daring question, pushing the boundaries of moral thought, and should be respected for that is nonsense. He isn’t, and he shouldn’t be.

        • Gingerbaker

          “… it turns out completely differently if torture does not work (which it doesn’t) …”

          And another false internet meme gets bandied about like it is gospel. Torture works – just not reliably.

          And if I recall correctly, Sam provided a link to a pretty definitive Atlantic essay that, through interviews with people who actually have used torture, gives evidence that it *does*, in fact, work.

          The fact that torture also often gets used by bad actors to inflict terror on populations is a different point altogether.

      • eric

        Now, you can question the wisdom of dwelling on hypotheticals like that, on the grounds that they might corrupt our judgments about more realistic cases.

        Isn’t that the gist of the complaints about Harris’ positions, though?

        I don’t think anyone is complaining about him doing a spherical cow problem in the comfort of his own office. They are complaining about him justifying a real-world position, with impacts on people’s lives, based on nothing better than his spherical cow calculation.

        Part of being intelligent and educated is knowing how to appropriately apply classroom models to real life. The mis-application of a concept can be just as grevious an error as a mis-understanding of the underlying concept. Defending Harris by saying he didn’t do the latter (i.e. misunderstand moral philosophy) is inadequate.

        • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

          Torturing spherical cows is never justifiable — they’re already suffering enough.

  • KG

    Yeah, I mean Harris’s “ticking bomb” scenario is just such an original and thought-provoking piece of moral philosophy, isn’t it? Though I rather think Jack Bauer went deeper into it. As for his profiling crap, read his debate with someone who actually knows something about profiling, security expert Bruce Schneier, and watch Harris’s dishonest evasions. And as for him not having a problem with Muslims, he’s announced that we are “at war with Islam”. How do you think the average Muslim “peacefully practicing their faith” would feel about that?

    • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

      And speaking of Islam, I remember Harris saying that the Taliban represented “the true face of Islam.” Since when did the most isolated, war-torn, sparsely populated and backward region of the Islamic world (if not the whole world) represent the “true face” of a religion that includes over a billion people from Morocco to Malaysia to Dearborn to Aldgate? And since when did an atheist, who has probably never even visited any Muslim country, get to decide who is or is not the “true face” of a religion he himself never embraced?

      Harris is a very sloppy thinker, if not a bigot. “It’s what moral philosophners do” is not an excuse when you’re doing it badly.

      • dereksmear

        You know, I believe bin Laden said the same thing about the Taliban. It’s funny how Sam Harris has the same interpretation of Islam as the fundamentalists.

        • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

          I know what you mean. And you know what else bin Laden did? He WATCHED TV!!!

          • dereksmear

            Need to work on those links, champ.

          • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

            Fix’d!

          • dereksmear

            Jesus wept. Yes, clearly, I have argued that Harris is as evil as bin Laden.

    • Lucian Monk

      “Yeah, I mean Harris’s “ticking bomb” scenario is just such an original and thought-provoking piece of moral philosophy, isn’t it? Though I rather think Jack Bauer went deeper into it.”

      Yet, it is still moral to torture in ticking bomb scenarios. There is nothing wrong with stating this truth.

      “As for his profiling crap, read his debate with someone who actually knows something about profiling, security expert Bruce Schneier, and watch Harris’s dishonest evasions. And as for him not having a problem with Muslims, he’s announced that we are “at war with Islam”. How do you think the average Muslim “peacefully practicing their faith” would feel about that?”

      Islam has certain tenets, when taken at face value, are incompatible with liberal democracies. Yes, metaphors, loop-holes, qualifications, redescriptions, silences, and creative acts of forgetting are all tried and tested methods for religious communities to change their relationship to sacred text. Yet, the text remains. And Islam, in text form, when read in straightforward way, has shitty ideas. I am at war with these ideas.

      • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

        Yet, it is still moral to torture in ticking bomb scenarios. There is nothing wrong with stating this truth.

        No. It is not moral to torture in those situations when you include the knowledge that torture only very, very rarely works. Harris’ justification (although, I note again, his is not new, that argument has existed for centuries) for torture is on of numbers: save millions from the bomb by torturing one. But when it is extraordinarily unlikely (less likely, indeed, than almost any other avenue of investigation) that you will save millions by torturing, the ethical implications are completely different. He is not stating a truth, he is stating something which seems like truth because he ignores relevant information about the real world.

      • dereksmear

        Well, best of luck to you in your war, my friend. Has this war started yet, or do you have a future date in mind?

        • anat

          From this Pharyngula thread

          Insurgents/terrorists are a supremely practical bunch. There is no ticking time bomb. There is no convenient red flashing countdown that tells the bomb disposal guys how long they have to disarm the device. (And usually the EOD guys just blow the thing up.) There is a pressure device of some sort, or there is some lookout with a cheap cell phone, poised to dial a number. The bomb placer guy is expendable; the bombmaker is not. For everybody who defends waterboarding, too, I have to say: everyone wants to talk. Whether to brag or to confess, it has to come out. All you have to do is find that chink, and they’ll talk, but it’s not fast, and you get them to talk by treating them like a human being. For some of them, it’s a novel experience in that it’s new.

        • Lucian Monk

          Thanks for the well-wishes bro.

      • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

        Islam has certain tenets, when taken at face value, are incompatible with liberal democracies. Yes, metaphors, loop-holes, qualifications, redescriptions, silences, and creative acts of forgetting are all tried and tested methods for religious communities to change their relationship to sacred text. Yet, the text remains. And Islam, in text form, when read in straightforward way, has shitty ideas. I am at war with these ideas.

        I note that you say you are at (presumably metaphorical) war with (non-typically literally read Islamic) beliefs.

        Was Sam Harris’ statement that we are at LITERAL war with what he considers to be ACTUAL Islam equivalent at all to your claim?

        Are you also, then, at war with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.?

        More to the point: has Harris written high-profile articles asking “where are the Christian moderates?” like he has with Muslims? Has he written such posts about any other religion? Has he said we should be “at war with [insert other religion]“? No, he hasn’t. He ignores the evidence, which is that, just like with Christianity, the overwhelming majority of Muslims unequivocally condemn terrorism, and spouts off about how it is so hard to find moderate Muslims.

        • dereksmear

          When Harris says things like “We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas” it srongly implies where he is going.

        • Lucian Monk

          “Was Sam Harris’ statement that we are at LITERAL war with what he considers to be ACTUAL Islam equivalent at all to your claim?”

          Sam Harris believes we have to win a war of ideas. Sam Harris and I have very similar beliefs on the matter.

          “Are you also, then, at war with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.?”

          To a lesser extent. Jainism, for instance, is less of a problem than Islam. I don’t have to spend identical time critiquing all religions with the same fervor. Also, even if I only wanted to critique Islam, there is nothing wrong with pointing out what is wrong with Islam. If I only wanted to critique the bad ideas in Jainism, there is nothing wrong with that either. Critiquing bad ideas is a good thing.

          “The overwhelming majority of Muslims unequivocally condemn terrorism, and spouts off about how it is so hard to find moderate Muslims.”

          Sam Harris sedulously quotes pew polls about rates of support for killing innocent civilians in defense of Islam, or support of suicide bombing. The numbers are often terrifying.

          • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

            Sam Harris sedulously quotes pew polls about rates of support for killing innocent civilians in defense of Islam, or support of suicide bombing. The numbers are often terrifying.

            You mean like this pew poll which found that “majorities or pluralities among eight of the nine Muslim publics surveyed this year say that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians can never be justified to defend Islam”

            Or perhaps this one which found that in every area surveyed with one exception (Palestine) terrorism was considered rarely or never acceptable?

            Ah, but Sam Harris posts sedulously so he just MUST be right.

          • Lucian_Monk

            No… I mean the pew polls he does cite…

            Are you claiming that Sam Harris does not quote Pew polls in the End of Faith? IS THAT WHAT YOU ARE CLAIMING? BECAUSE IF IT WAS IT WOULD BE SOMEWHAT STUPID.

          • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

            No. My point was this:

            I pointed out that, contrary to Sam Harris’ position, most polls I’m aware of show that the majority of Muslims explicitly condemn terrorist actions. Which seems to speak against Harris’ claim that we are at war with Islam, when most of Islam doesn’t support what we are, ostensibly, at war at. Moreover, Sam Harris has never called, for example, for Christians to be profiled*, despite the majority of recent (post 9-11) terrorist attacks in the US being done by Christians.

            You rebut my claim by saying that Sam Harris sedulously quoted Pew Polls.

            I point out that that may be the case, however the most recent Pew Polls on the subject disagree with his claim.

            Now we get to your response:

            No… I mean the pew polls he does cite…

            Yes, this is exactly my point. He quotes polls that support him. But firstly, any polls he quoted in the End of Faith are now outdated, secondly, at this point, if he thinks Pew polls are accurate, he should deal with the fact that they say the opposite of what he is wont to claim.

      • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

        Islam has certain tenets…

        “Islam” is not an intelligent entity that chooses to take actions and then takes responsibility for the consequences of said actions. PEOPLE make choices and act on them, and just because a huge number of people share one particular characteristic — such as the label “Muslim” — does not mean they all act the same.

        • Lucian Monk

          ““Islam” is not an intelligent entity that chooses to take actions and then takes responsibility for the consequences of said actions. PEOPLE make choices and act on them, and just because a huge number of people share one particular characteristic — such as the label “Muslim” — does not mean they all act the same.”

          Pure sophistry. Certain beliefs have obvious behavioral corollaries. If I had a book that said, “Redheads should all have their toes cut off,” it is perfectly fair to say the book has certain awful tenets. Yes, the people who read the book and believe the book also have shitty beliefs. However, it is perfectly reasonable to describe the book as containing bad ideas. It is casuistic nonsense to object to my describing Islam as having certain tenets.

          • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

            Certain beliefs have obvious behavioral corollaries.

            Those corollaries are not uniform, predetermined or predictable among all the people who share the beliefs. More people read Leviticus than apply every one of its teachings. For policy purposes, the question is not what the book says, but which people are acting on it and what, specifically, they’re doing.

            Oh, and do I need to remind you that not all people who commit violent crimes or seek to deprive us of our freedoms are Muslims?

          • Lucian_Monk

            “Those corollaries are not uniform, predetermined or predictable among all the people who share the beliefs. More people read Leviticus than apply every one of its teachings. For policy purposes, the question is not what the book says, but which people are acting on it and what, specifically, they’re doing.

            Oh, and do I need to remind you that not all people who commit violent crimes or seek to deprive us of our freedoms are Muslims?”

            All of this is irrelevant. We were discussing whether it is sensible to say “Islam” has bad ideas.

      • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

        Yet, it is still moral to torture in ticking bomb scenarios. There is nothing wrong with stating this truth.

        Calling something a “truth,” after so many credible doubts have been raised about it, is wrong.

        • Lucian Monk

          If a super-powerful alien credibly said, “Torture this person or I will destroy all life on earth.” Not torturing the person would be evil. It is not hard to think of situations where torture would be the only choice moral. So, this categorical Torture Is Always Bad stance is intellectually dishonest.

          • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

            If a super-powerful alien credibly said…

            That would not make torture justifiable; it would only make the alien evil. (And how would we know the alien could be trusted to keep its promise?)

            And if you have to resort to a scenario that ridiculous, you’re pretty much admitted your “thought experiment” isn’t applicable in the real world.

          • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

            Also, we’re not talking about torture in general; we’re talking about torture for the purpose of extracting useful information in a timely manner. So your evil-alien example is so irrelevant it’s — like I already said — ridiculous.

          • Lucian_Monk

            Sam Harris’ discussion of torture was comparing the evils of torture to the evils of collateral damage. He made good arguments that we should consider collateral damage more immoral than torture.

            Further, not all instances of torture to get information in a timely manner are immoral.

            Read section 3.1 of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
            http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/torture/

            “Consider the following points: (1) The police reasonably believe that torturing the car thief will probably save an innocent life; (2) the police know that there is no other way to save the life; (3) the threat to life is more or less imminent; (4) the baby is innocent; (5) the car thief is known not to be an innocent—his action is known to have caused the threat to the baby, and he is refusing to allow the baby’s life to be saved.”

  • MNb0

    As I haven’t read much by and about Harris I might be wrong, but it’s my impression that his discussion of torture is a bit more than a thought experiment. It’s disappointing that Dawkins, with his scientifically trained mind, doesn’t consider the outcomes of empirical studies of torture, which quite convincingly show that the perceived aims are never reached.

    “it made atheism sexy and ok to talk about.”
    Perhaps in the USA. In The Netherlands I’d rather mention

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferdinand_Domela_Nieuwenhuis

    “To derive a divine world from a concrete world is a salto mortale.”
    He has a statue in Amsterdam.

    Another Dutch one worth mentioning is

    http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton_Constandse

    A 1923 publication is titled “The misery of religion”.

  • ChasCPeterson

    He was doing what moral philosophers do

    bullshitting, then?

  • Simone

    The raging criticisms of Harris’ work never made no sense to me. I’m so glad Dawkins defended him.

    • Simone

      “Never made sense to me”, sorry.

    • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

      Wow, thanks for the thoughtful, informed and carefully reasoned defense of Harris. Wouldn’t want to think Harris’ defenders are just emotional fans who aren’t following what’s actually being said, would we?

      • 13

        Come on dude. It’s a comment thread. Some one wanted to express something so they did. I hardly think that particular comment deserves that snarky reply.

      • xtog

        Maybe they just wanted to log their opinion — I feel the same way. They don’t owe you a detailed explanation, nor do I, since so often the time spent posting one is totally wasted on people who when they aren’t ignoring the point made to make personal attacks, are misrepresenting the points and attacking strawmen like TF has demonstrated thoroughly.

  • Kevin

    When arguing against theistic ideas of morality, is it then blameworthy to point out that morality doesn’t deal with absolutes, even in the most extreme examples such as torture? This is the entire point, on a consequentialist view of morality, torture can be justified if the outcome is outweighed by the means. Empirically, torture is not justified as a general principle, but it could be in a limited number of instances; instances so rare that they probably won’t occur during our specie’s lifespan. If you are arguing against someone offering up moral absolutes, this is a valid counterpoint; namely, that morality isn’t absolute.

    I find it odd that people are criticizing him for saying something that isn’t new. Do people criticize every atheist publication that refers to the Euthyphro dilemma since it is nothing new to moral philosophy? When the arguments for theism haven’t changed, the same rebuttals are still valid and still worth making for those who weren’t around in Ancient Greece to hear them the first time.

    • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

      I find it odd that people are criticizing him for saying something that isn’t new.

      The problem isn’t that it isn’t new. The problem is that when you have an old argument (I can definitely say at least 4 centuries old, but probably older), an argument that has been repeated over and over again, an argument that is accepted at the highest levels of government, and when that argument is *bad* in the sense that it uses unstated assumptions to reach its conclusions, you cannot then defend its use with the claims that it is merely presenting a counter-intuitive thought experiment. In order for a thought experiment to be counterintuitive, it must be counterintuitive. Yet Harris’ argument is *not* counter-intuitive, it is an argument that seems to be accepted, intuitively, by a lot of people. In fact, torture in even less extreme instances than Harris’ common example is supported by the US public.

      The problem is not, I repeat, merely that it is an old argument. The problem is in the dishonest presentation of it as a productive thought experiment, the defense of Harris presenting it uncritically as that he is just “doing moral philosophy” — when what he is in fact doing is merely repeating a common argument, believed by a lot of people, without any critical examination of its unstated assumptions, and without responding to *any* of the centuries of philosophical criticism of it. (That point is particularly important. It is intellectual dishonest, if he was in fact doing moral philosophy, to engage in this debate without acknowledging these criticisms, which have been around since at least as early as Montesquieu).

      • Simone

        I personally found it to be a productive thought experiment. It was well-reflected upon, it did address criticisms of it, and it was meant to stir up in the reader’s head a topic which is way too easily dismissed by many without thought. I don’t think anyone can seriously accuse Harris of being “intellectualy dishonest” and trying to persuade people to assume torture as a necessary mean to an end without any further investigation into the matter. It certainly didn’t do that to me and i believe the loathing it caused was merely a consequence of Harris touching of a subject which many consider “taboo”.

        • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

          I don’t think anyone can seriously accuse Harris of being “intellectualy dishonest” and trying to persuade people to assume torture as a necessary mean to an end without any further investigation into the matter.

          Assuming you are referring to me, please reread my comment more carefully. I did not accuse Harris of being intellectually dishonest. I said that *if* he were doing moral philosophy as claimed, engaging in an abstract thought experiment (which I don’t think he was: I think he was making a political statement), then it would have been dishonest to claim that he had presented a meaningful philosophical argument while not addressing the many philosophical criticisms of his argument. He addresses only one – that torture is unreliable — and then affords it merely a sentence.

          But I’m not attached to this point. I don’t think he was doing an abstract thought experiment detached from reality: he was very explicitly tying his argument to the question of whether or not it is ethical to torture as the US pursues its war on terror.

          • Kevin

            “I don’t think he was doing an abstract thought experiment detached from reality: he was very explicitly tying his argument to the question of whether or not it is ethical to torture as the US pursues its war on terror.”

            I recall Harris saying that torture should be illegal so I would strongly reject this conclusion. The reason he thinks it should be illegal is that he does think torture in the general sense is wrong. If he were trying to justify the current practices of the administration, I don’t see why he would disagree with legal aspects of it. I fail to see his stance as anyway supportive of the US’s practice of torture.

          • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

            You shifted the goalposts here. We were discussing moral philosophy and Harris’ ethical stance, not legal philosophy and his legal stance.

            Sam Harris disagrees with you with regards to the former, saying about himself:

            I am one of the few people I know of who has argued in print that torture may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror.

            Sure,he hedges with “may” — but even he admits his arguments are clearly an examination of whether torture is ethically necessary in our actual, concrete war on terror, not in some abstract sense.

          • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

            Sorry, I think you misunderstood me — I didn’t say what I meant to say clearly enough.

            What I meant was not that Sam Harris was examining the ethics of *how the US uses torture in its war on terror*, but rather that he was examining the ethics of *how torture might be used by the US ethically during its war on terror.*

            I didn’t mean to imply that Harris thinks that the US government’s current stance on torture is ethical.

          • Kevin

            In my own view, moral and legal philosophy should overlap, but that’s besides the point; let’s go back to what Harris actually says on the subject. Have you looked at Harris’s followup to that article (There is a link at the top of the article) explaining his more recent views on the matter?

            Harris explaining the intention of the thought experiment:
            “I am not alone in thinking that there are potential circumstances in which the use of torture would be ethically justifiable. Liberal Senator Charles Schumer has publicly stated that most U.S. senators would support torture to find out the location of a ticking time bomb. Such “ticking-bomb” scenarios have been widely criticized as unrealistic. But realism is not the point of such thought experiments. The point is that unless you have an argument that rules out torture in idealized cases, you don’t have a categorical argument against the use of torture.”

            I’m not sure what gave you an idea that Harris is trying to help the US find ways to torture people ethically? It’s not like you can manufacture cases where the enemy hid an atomic bomb in a giant city and you caught them red-handed. He’s said he’s against the US’s current practices and that he thinks it should be illegal. I’m not sure what you think Harris is saying that is objectionable when it comes to the practice of the US administration.

          • eric

            Kevin quoting Harris: “The point is that unless you have an argument that rules out torture in idealized cases, you don’t have a categorical argument against the use of torture.”

            Substitute in “theft” and you see the immediate problem with Harris’ argument. We don’t need a categorical argument against something to make it illegal. The fact that there may be some case, in principle, where it is morally good to do X does not mean we must make it legal for the government or citizenry to do X.

            In fact, the US legal system has a way with dealing with truly exceptional cases: jury nullification. So there is no more need to build our laws around the possibility that some instances of torture may be justified, than there is a need to build our laws around the possibilty that some thefts of food may be justified.

            Unless you are willing to argue that we should also legalize theft due to the fact that it can be justified in some cases. Are you willing to do that?

          • Kevin

            “Substitute in “theft” and you see the immediate problem with Harris’ argument.”

            I don’t see an immediate problem here. We don’t have a categorical problem with theft. We think theft is wrong based on certain conditions and acceptable on others. For example, we see no harm when the government uses the threat of force to make its citizens hand over their money when it comes to pay taxes. It is perfectly legal to do so and is written into the law and we have other methods of theft that are unethical written into law as being illegal. As for making something illegal that is ethical, I can’t see a reason why we should intentionally do that.

            “We don’t need a categorical argument against something to make it illegal. The fact that there may be some case, in principle, where it is morally good to do X does not mean we must make it legal for the government or citizenry to do X.”

            Harris hasn’t said anything contrary to this. He even suggested that torture should be illegal. No disagreement here. You have assumed that he and I have taken a position on this issue that we haven’t.

          • Simone

            Noted. I agree with you that he was specifically tying the argument with the situation the U.S. with muslim terrorism, and i believe it was a fair point to stir up. People who support torture almost always do this without much thought but the same goes for those who reject it. Raising the subject was a fine touch and i don’t blame him for not having covered more counter-arguments on the topic, i believe he was just trying to provoke thought into his readers, and hope for them to further investigate it. Still my main point was that the loathing raised against him was not about whether he gave or not the necessary space to the torture topic but simply for raising it.

    • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

      When arguing against theistic ideas of morality, is it then blameworthy to point out that morality doesn’t deal with absolutes, even in the most extreme examples such as torture?

      Actually, morality DOES deal with absolutes, to the extent that it is (or at least should be) informed by objective facts of what is beneficial and what is harmful to people and other living creatures.

      I’m getting a little tired of people just lazily parroting the “morality doesn’t deal with absolutes” crap. That’s standard anti-atheist propaganda, and it’s clearly disproven every single time an atheist or skeptic points out the stupidity of some religious rule, using objective facts to show how the rule is not beneficial to people. (Example: we attack religion-based homophobia by pointing out that homosexuality is not as harmful in the real world as the religious bigots say it is.)

      • Kevin

        Facts aren’t absolutes. Facts can change. A practice in one situation can be harmless while in another situation it can be harmful. The ethical stance on that practice would then be conditional, not absolute. Absolute morality usually refers to categorical imperatives. As in, it is wrong to do X, all the time, no matter what. If you think otherwise, then you don’t think that X is absolutely wrong.

        You are thinking about it in a consequentialist manner, but not all moral theories deal with consequences. Point out to a divine command theorist that homosexuality harms no one and they won’t care. Also, notice how you are pointing out something that is able to change. You are implying that if that practice suddenly caused substantial harm, then it would no longer be acceptable. This is not an absolute stance, but a stance that is conditional based on the outcome of said practice. In other words, I don’t think you understood what I meant by ‘absolute’.

        • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

          Facts aren’t absolutes. Facts can change. A practice in one situation can be harmless while in another situation it can be harmful.

          Just because facts are complex does not make them less absolute, nor does it make them a less objective basis for moral reasoning.

          • dereksmear

            Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!
            – Homer Simpson

          • Kevin

            I agree that facts can form complex relations and can form an objective basis for moral reasoning, but that doesn’t make them absolute. For example, our preferences, which basically form our moral reasoning change over time (i.e. conditional on time), they are not absolute. What we prefer as children and what we prefer as adults usually doesn’t match. This then has moral implications since morality is conditional, not absolute.

            I think you should acquaint yourself with what moral absolutes refers to:

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_absolutism

            “Moral absolutism is an ethical view that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of other contexts such as their consequences or the intentions behind them.”

            Moral absolutism is not my position so I don’t believe in moral absolutes and I have no problem with others describing my position as such. This has nothing to do with anti-atheistic propaganda, it is merely a fact. The propaganda comes in when they denigrate a system that is open to change; it is a feature, not a bug.

  • didgen

    I haven’t read much of Harris’ work, I read his response to PZ’s article. My problem is that I felt he mischaracterized what was said in PZ’s article. The comments belong to the commenters.
    his article that he linked to was problematic both with being so narrowly focused on a specific look and religion. As we should well know, our own country is producing terrorists at an increasingly rapid pace. Saying that Muslims are the most likely group to attempt to use a plane full of people is only true until someone else does it.
    I can’t see where it makes any sense to do anything but random searches, and include Betty White, just because you got old doesn’t make you a better person, or one less consumed with hate. Just old.

    • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

      The porno-scans are supposed to resolve the profiling/random search problem by making it easier to search everyone — which makes the invasive security both fairer (by applying to everyone equally) and more likely to prevent incidents.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Now, you can question the wisdom of dwelling on hypotheticals like that, on the grounds that they might corrupt our judgments about more realistic cases.

    This is a very relevant criticism, especially when we’re talking about actions that people have had an obvious propensity to do throughout history, like torturing prisoners to get information. Once you get large numbers of people thinking that torture might be okay in a “ticking nuke” scenario, to save a few million people in a city, then the idea starts to creep downward into situations where fewer lives are at stake: if torture is okay to save New York or London, what about a smaller city…the Pentagon…a heavily populated naval base…a single carrier group…a single military unit under the command of a colonel who wants to keep his men alive any way he can…my ethnic group…my extended family… And when people like Harris come up with “thought experiments” to supposedly show how torture can be justified, lots of less scrupulous people, not working in sterile debates where there’s no downside to being wrong, will take all that sophistry as justification for them to do things out of fear and anger under pressure of real events and threats.

    In cases like torture, “thought experiments” can have real-world consequences, whether or not the experimenter understands or intends them. Harris is, at best, irresponsibly spouting ignorant nonsense about an issue he doesn’t understand, and whose consequences he doesn’t really seem to care about; and he’s giving some unscrupulous people a shiny-sounding excuse to do some pretty vile things.

  • Annatar

    My 2 cents: I generally like Sam Harris, and while I disagree with some of his views re: profiling and free-will, he is obviously a smart guy. I don’t get the demonizing he has to endure from fellow secularists. I guess some folks just need someone to scream at.

    Btw, I’ve been to Israel and have a funny story about security/profiling: A couple of people on the tour group i was with had bought some stuff from the Dead Sea Spa store, and when asked if they got anything while going through security at the airport to return to the US, they–with apparent obliviousness–started listing all the lotions, salts, “elixers,” etc. they bought at the store. Combined with how weird the stuff looked going through the machine, they ended up being detained and interrogated for a while. I’m sure it wasn’t funny to them at the time, but in retrospect the rest of us couldn’t stop cracking jokes about these two white, blonde, California girls apparently trying as hard as they could to be put on the list of known terrorists.
    A point Harris likes to bring up is that the Israelis do airport security very well. One might argue TOO well: El Al, the Israeli airline, is SO high security that Israeli politicians don’t even use it cause it’s so inconvenient.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Yeah. Talking about the Israelis as having the “best” airport security is confused. There needs to be a cost-benefit analysis, and that may shake out differently for Israel vs. America, given the higher risk of terrorism the Israelis are facing.

  • dereksmear

    “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.”

    Really?

    “Given what many of us believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the PRACTICE of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible, but necessary.” —The End of Faith, p. 199

    • Kevin

      Yes, really.

      “Given what many of us believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the PRACTICE of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible, but necessary.” —The End of Faith, p. 199

      I think you missed the important qualifier. He has specified those certain circumstances (those unrealistic, though possible, hypotheticals) and has gone on further to say that he does not support the current usage of torture by the US administration, which makes him not a gung-ho advocate for torture.

      • dereksmear

        Not really, why make reference to the war on terror if it issupposed to be just an abstract thought experiment? Notably, he also makes a sneering reference to the “scrofulous young men” at Guantánamo Bay, “many of whom were caught in the very act of trying to kill our soldiers” ( End of Faith p.194)

        • Kevin

          Again, read the sentences around it. He is comparing the differences between the collateral damage of bombing and the collateral damage of torture. With bombing, we would be harming people who have zero chance of being an enemy (he specifically refers to infants). With torture, we would be harming people who could be an enemy (captured young men). He is simply pointing out that when compared to the collateral damage of bombings, the collateral damage of torture appears to be favorable. He is not advocating the use of torture in that passage as a general principle. He is on the record of saying:

          “It is important to point out that my argument for the restricted use of torture does not make travesties like Abu Ghraib look any less sadistic or stupid. I considered our mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to be patently unethical. I also think it was one of the most damaging blunders to occur in the last century of U.S. foreign policy. Nor have I ever seen the wisdom or necessity of denying proper legal counsel (and access to evidence) to prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Indeed, I consider much of what occurred under Bush and Cheney—the routine abuse of ordinary prisoners, the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” etc.—to be a terrible stain upon the conscience of our nation.”

          To suggest that his views are contrary to this suggests that the reader should refresh their reading comprehension skills.

          • dereksmear

            Yeah and he can’t even be consistent, because his ethical argument for torture breaks the logic he employs to criticise Chomsky.

            “Nothing in Chomsky’s account acknowledges the difference between intending to kill a child, because of the effect you hope to produce on its parents (we call this “terrorism”), and inadvertently killing a child in an attempt to capture or kill an avowed child murderer (we call this “collateral damage”). In both cases a child has died, and in both cases it is a tragedy. But the ethical status of the perpetrators, be they individuals or states, could not be more distinct… For Chomsky, intentions do not seem to matter. Body count is all.”


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