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?

  • DrVanNostrand

    While following this controversy, I find a lot of the rhetoric used against Harris to be lacking in nuance, but I still can’t really bring myself to entirely defend him either. Part of this has to do with the context of his “philosophical hypotheticals”. When you write about justifications for torture at a time when our country is engaging in a worldwide torture regime, that has real consequences in terms of public opinion, and therefore public policy. In the mid-2000s people routinely used arguments very similar to Harris’ to justify our actual torture program. Saying it’s OK because you don’t think anyone in the Bush administration was personally persuaded by Harris seems like a ridiculously high bar. And your quote by Peter Singer pretty clearly shows that these hypotheticals can be addressed without contributing to the toxic, torture-defending culture of the time.

    Also, while there’s a small kernel of truth to the last statement, it’s fairly disingenuous. Several reporters volunteered to be waterboarded, but they sure as hell didn’t volunteer to be waterboarded in the same context as it occurred in our government’s torture program. Waterboarding was done repeatedly, combined with sleep deprivation, prolonged solitary confinement, stress positions, and a variety of other methods of physical and psychological torture. The waterboarded journalists knew there would be brief and intense discomfort, but that they would then go back to their jobs, homes, and families. I can’t imagine even the most extreme masochist volunteering for the type of torture that was routinely practiced by the US government.

    • Chris Hallquist

      You’re missing the context of the 5000 pound bomb quote. It was in the context of talking about what an awful euphemism “collateral damage” is. Journalists might not volunteer to be water boarded in the exact same context that the US gov water boarded people, but they aren’t volunteering to have 5000 pound bombs dropped on them in *any* context.

      • DrVanNostrand

        I understood the context and I agree that “collateral damage” is a terrible euphemism and is an even bigger concern than torture. However, it’s not that the waterboarding isn’t done in the “same exact” context, it’s that it’s not done in an even remotely similar context, which makes for a shitty analogy. Everyone would prefer the brief waterboarding experienced by the journalists to certain death. However, a not insignificant number of people experiencing the type of torture performed by the US govt prefer death. We know this because of the frequency of suicide and attempted suicide during the torture regime. It’s just a bad analogy.

  • http://www.jamesalan.ca James Alan

    The Russell Blackford comments make me uncomfortable. They parallel a bit too closely people who defend rapists by saying that their target was dressed in a provocative outfit. If Sam says something it will be true or false independent of whether or not it was phrased diplomatically. It also seems to circle back to the notion that these people somehow have a right to not be criticized or offended.

    • smrnda

      I think there is a world of difference between saying dressing provocatively encourages rape and writing in a provocative or sensationalist tone encourages harsher criticism or dismissal of your work.

      People (women or men, since men do get raped) don’t really dress intending to get sexual reactions from people. They put on clothes and hope to go about their business. There is never any excuse for rape.

      There is, however, an excuse to criticize writing. People write to promote certain ideas and encourage debate. Writers want some criticism, if only for the sake of vetting their own arguments among people who already agree with them.

      Writing is also not just a business of making flat, factual statements. The tone a person uses says a lot about what they think and is sometimes just as much a part of the argument as the factual points. Let’s take two sentences:

      “Black males are more likely to be stopped by the police, arrested and incarcerated.”
      “Black males have a propensity to criminality.”

      Those two sentences are actually NOT similar at all. The first one doesn’t even imply that Black males commit more crime. It almost suggests that it’s just the propensity of police to want to arrest them that puts them in jail. The second clearly implies that Black males are predisposed to being criminals. It doesn’t even say “are more likely to commit crimes” (which can be a factor of circumstances) but it makes it seem that it’s some sort of inborn trait.

      Now, if we’re having a discussion about race and crime, we ought to choose our words very carefully, because our actual position will be ambiguous to readers if we don’t clear it up. A well meaning person who uses outdated words is going to be panned no matter how noble their intentions.

      So when it comes to writing, people don’t owe a writer any charity in terms of believing they mean well. It’s a writer’s job to make a good case, which does include issues like tone.

      If I write about (hypothetically) using torture, but make it very clear that I think torture is horrible and barbaric, that’s one thing. If I simply do thought experiments and I throw out torture as a possibility without showing any sort of innate disgust, I can be making what someone could say is the same argument with different words that sound different, but I think legitimately, I could be said in the latter case to be using tone to show greater approval.

      Overall, I just think privileged people should watch it when they make thought experiments out of things likely to be done to *other people.* A white guy should probably watch how he proposes a thought experiment about the usefulness of racial profiling, since he has nothing to lose is his ideas end up resulting in racial profiling.

      • smrnda

        Also wanted to add, I do think some people just want to bash Harris for no good reason, as if some else said the same thing, they’d probably ignore it.

  • Elddim Eman

    It’s highly unfair to Peter Singer to liken his analysis of the “ticking time bomb” scenario to Harris’s. They’re substantially different. Harris argues that the act of torture may be justified in such a situation. Singer, however, argues that the time bomb situation may mitigate the punishment for the act of torture (“I don’t think anyone is going to punish you severely for having broken the rules”). The difference between these arguments goes beyond a mere difference in rhetorical style.

    • Dan

      How are they different? If anything Harris’s point is less inflammatory than Singer’s.

      Harris also says torture should always be illegal, but says it may be ethical in extremely rare, contrived hypothetical situations to torture someone, but that the torturer should be willing to accept the consequences of breaking the law. I haven’t read Singer, but as you are expressing his views he seems to think that in some instances illegal acts of torture shouldn’t be punished. I don’t think Harris has said they shouldn’t be punished, but if he has then his point is exactly like Singers, and if not then Harris is less accepting of torture than Singer.

  • Elddim Eman

    Dan, I do not see where in the text of Singer’s statement (from which I derived my description of his position) that you see the argument that he, as you say, “seems to think that in some instances illegal acts of torture shouldn’t be punished.” I even included a quote from him in parentheses to avoid exactly this confusion. It looks like I have to use the same quote *in context* so it will be as clear as day. Singer stated:

    “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.”

    You see? He said in any case the torturer is “liable for the consequences.” If the torturer saves Manhattan, he’ll “probably” be a hero, and Singer doesn’t think the torturer would be punished “severely.” But that hardly makes the torture itself “ethically justifiable,” as Harris often describes it.

    Compare, now, the above-quoted paragraph to Harris’s views on torture here: http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2#torture. Is Singer’s view “identical” to Harris’s (as Christopher Hallquist argues)? Is Harris’s view, as you say, even “less inflammatory than Singer’s”? Here’s Harris, from the link I’ve provided:

    “Although I think that torture should remain illegal, it is not clear that having a torture provision in our laws would create as slippery a slope as many people imagine. We have a capital punishment provision, but it has not led to our killing prisoners at random because we can’t control ourselves. While I am strongly opposed to capital punishment, I can readily concede that our executing about five people every month hasn’t led to total moral chaos. Perhaps a rule regarding torture could be applied with equal restraint.”

    Do you think, Dan, that the above view is “identical” to Singer’s? Harris is arguing pretty clearly (a) that torture should be illegal, but (b) that there probably would be relatively little harm in having a “provision” for it in our law. Harris is self-contradictory here. How is including a “provision” for it simultaneously a way of keeping it illegal?

    Moreover, Harris ignores the fact that provisions for capital punishment are definitively about punishment, after the guilt of the subject has been decided through a series of legal procedures. (For the sake of argument, we leave aside questions of the reliability of those legal procedures from state-to-state.) Provisions for torture, however, would be entirely different. They’d be about investigatory procedure, prior to the determination of guilt. Harris has made a fallacious, albeit clever, argument using a false equivalence. I hope Harris wouldn’t accuse me of “defamation” for saying such a thing about him.


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