Russell Blackford on Sam Harris

Sam Harris (whose recent spat with Glenn Greenwald I blogged about here) has updated his response to controversy page. Russell Blackford comments:

I do think that Harris sometimes makes a point in an unnecessarily provocative way…

As you go through the web page, Harris defends himself against accusations by quoting numerous passages at sufficient length to provide context. In many of these cases, I want to support him, but I have to acknowledge that choices of expression – usually aimed at being provocative – give some excuse to the critics. I’d like them to be more careful and charitable, but some responsibility also falls on Harris to be cautious with his rhetoric on such hot-button topics.

My point is not to condemn Harris so much as to draw attention to his own acknowledgment that he has brought the problem on himself to an extent, making it easier than it had to be to distort his views (or simply not understand them). Provocative rhetoric for dramatic impact makes up part of this problem, as does another thing that Harris acknowledges: just because something is worth saying does not mean that it is worth saying by him (or by any of us in some particular situation where it may give a false impression of the overall message that we’re trying to convey).

But at the same time, it does seem that some of his critics are, as he says, without scruples – prepared to pile on libellous accusations about what he thinks and what he is saying even after he has explained himself. As always, language is slippery. I know from long and sometimes bitter experience that no matter how cautiously and painstakingly you explain yourself there will always be room for a variety of interpretations from others. Sooner or later, though, you need to speak or write. Otherwise, you will never get your message out.

In some cases (Chris Hedges is one), it appears to me that the commentators on Harris are more motivated by a wish to destroy his credibility, and so neutralise him in public debate, than to discuss the merits of the actual issues. If they don’t think that’s a fair inference … well, maybe they ought to think about their own inferences that they are willing to draw.

Harris has copped to being deliberately provocative on occasion, though I wonder whether that’s what always going on. Sometimes, I suspect, it’s a matter of him saying what’s on his mind with a total disregard for the fact that some would regard the thought he’s expressing is taboo. It’s an undoubtedly valuable trait–Harris wouldn’t be Harris without it–but there’s a cost.

It’s worth comparing Harris’ statements on torture to those of Peter Singer, whose views on torture are identical in substance but expresses them more carefully:

“Once we start having a debate about torture, people always say—of course they’ve said this long before 9/11—‘What if you’ve got a terrorist who has planted a nuclear bomb in a Manhattan basement, and you only have a few hours to find out where it is? Are you saying you wouldn’t torture him if you’ve got some psychologist who’s standing around and says, ‘Look, you’re going to have to torture him; there’s no other way to find where this bomb is’”…

“The problem with bringing that philosophical debate out to the public arena is that people say: ‘You see, professors of philosophy say this is what we should do, so we shouldn’t have restrictions on what the CIA should be able to do to captured terrorists.’ But I think that is a really different situation, and you must be careful about moving from what is essentially a science-fiction scenario to what are real-world scenarios.

“The conclusion that I would come to is that we should have strict rules saying that the U.S. government and its employees, whether in the Army, or in the CIA or FBI or whatever, do not engage in torture. If you have rules that are less strict than that, you have people exploiting those rules to torture people who, in many cases, aren’t enemy terrorists at all and are innocent of what they’re accused of being; and in other cases will not have any useful knowledge to give up; and in further cases, may be persuaded to give up the information more effectively by different methods that do not involve torture. So that’s why I think we should have strict rules against it.

“Now, if you have those strict rules and then, amazingly, something happens when you do find yourself with a terrorist who’s planted a bomb in a Manhattan basement, I still say you break the rules, you go ahead and torture him, and you’re liable for the consequences. If you get the bomb and you save Manhattan from being blown up, you’re probably going to be a hero, and I don’t think anyone is going to punish you severely for having broken the rules. If, on the other hand, it turns out you don’t get the information, there wasn’t a bomb, or there wasn’t even a terrorist, and you break the rules, then you might have to pay the price for doing so.”

I think the things Singer emphasizes–that torture needs to be illegal, and we need to be careful about moving from hypothetical cases to real-world cases–are where the emphasis needs to be.

I don’t think Sam Harris personally had any impact on Bush administration policies, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the appalling Bush torture policies were due in part to people thinking about extreme hypotheticals and not being clear about how extremely hypothetical they were. In such cases, being careful how you express a thought becomes extremely important.

That said, I strongly recommend reading the current version of Harris’ “response to controversy” on torture. One part, in particular, could even fit nicely into a Glenn Greenwald post:

There are journalists who have volunteered to be water-boarded. Where are the journalists who have volunteered to have a 5000-pound bomb dropped on their homes with their families inside?