Reppert on Harris on Killing People for What They Believe

On his Dangerous Idea blog, Victor Reppert takes Sam Harris to task for his statement that ““Some beliefs are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

I haven’t read Harris’s book. With that said, based solely on the quotation provided by Reppert, I find Harris’s (apparent?) statement appalling. If it’s true, Harris had better hope his opponents don’t adopt his ethical principle and then decide his beliefs are “too dangerous.”


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About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Hiero5ant

    Wow, this quote-mine was dealt with five years ago and it just won't stay down.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Thanks, Hiero5ant. Based on the link you provided, it appears Reppert may have quoted Harris out of context.

    I don't find Harris's commentary satisfying, however. Harris writes:

    When one asks why it would be ethical to drop a bomb on Osama bin Laden or Ayman Al Zawahiri, the answer cannot be, “because they have killed so many people in the past.” These men haven’t, to my knowledge, killed anyone personally. However, they are likely to get a lot of innocent people killed because of what they and their followers believe about jihad, martyrdom, the ascendancy of Islam, etc.

    Bin Laden did a lot more than simply hold beliefs about jihad, martyrdom, and the like. He organized and led a group of individuals who committed terrorist acts, resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent people. The relationship between his beliefs and his actions strikes me as irrelevant for the sake of this discussion. Having a belief that it is God's will to murder people is, to the best of my knowledge, not a crime. Acting on that belief and actually killing innocent people is a crime. So, contrary to Harris, the answer absolutely can be, "because they have killed so many people in the past."

  • Stan

    Jeffrey, I had that same thought in reading Harris' defense. The justification of killing bin Laden most certainly was based on his past crimes. However, his past crimes and related beliefs also justify doing whatever was necessary to stop his all-but-certain future crimes from occurring. His "personal" involvement in the killings, if that means individually "pulling the trigger," is irrelevant.

  • Stan

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Keith Parsons


    Thanks much for posting to SO. If we could get all of the qualified people who can post to SO to do so, we would soon have unquestionably the best site on the Internet for nontheist reflection. As it is, generally only Taner, Bradley, and I are left to "hold down the fort." Admittedly, we are all very busy, and at year's end when I report my activities for the year to the dean, I don't get a lot of credit for blog postings. Still, I think that people who have expertise in areas that are vital to public discussion do have a responsibility to be "public intellectuals" to some extent, and not to publish solely for the benefit of other experts. Well,that is my sermon for today.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I don’t think that Sam Harris’s reasoning ( is sound. As always a good exercise is to turn the table. So consider the following argument:

    Israel has nuclear weapons. Israel is also a country were rapid religionists yield extraordinary power. Up until now Israeli prime ministers have been more or less rational people, but it can well come to pass that some ultraorthodox comes to power. The Old Testament contains stories where God commanded genocide for what appears to be Israeli nationalist reasons, or perhaps for protecting Israel from spiritual contamination, and such. A Jewish regime may come to believe that God is today commanding it to take similar action using nuclear weapons. Such an act might well move the entire world towards nuclear Armageddon. Therefore global security requires that Israel’s nuclear weapons be put out of commission, and since conventional weapons may not be up to the task perhaps a nuclear first strike against Israel will be needed. This of course will be an unthinkable crime in which perhaps millions of people will die, etc, etc.

    The above of course is crazy, but I think nicely reflects Harris’s reasoning against Islamists possessing nuclear weapons. Actually Sam Harris himself might agree with the above. My own position is that both rabid religiosity and rabid atheism are irrational and can be dangerous.

  • Hiero5ant


    The justification as far as I can tell was not "to make amends" for past crimes, but because he was engaged in an ongoing enterprise of misery and destruction. And this ongoing enterprise is absolutely driven by his beliefs. If OBL had sincerely said on 9/12/01 "oops, sorry, I shouldn't've done that, won't do that again" then assassinating him would not have been justified. There is not the least contradiction between being opposed to the death penalty for past crimes (as I am) and supporting the killing of enemy soldiers engaged in active terror.

    @dianelos What sentiment do you suppose Sam Harris meant to convey when he chose the word "unthinkable"?

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi Dianelos — Thanks for your thoughtful post. I think I agree with you. It would be most interesting to learn how Harris (or one of his supporters) would reply. Regards, JJL

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hiero5ant — I could be mistaken, but I seem to remember reading that the U.S. Government said that it was prepared to take OBL into custody if he had peacfully surrendered, but killed him in self-defense when one of the Navy SEALs felt threatened during the raid.

    But that historical issue is somewhat of a tangent. The original issue for my post was Harris's statement (as quoted by Victor Reppert) regarding people who hold "dangerous beliefs."

    I am very uncomfortable with the idea that beliefs, by themselves, could ever be a justification for killing someone. Maybe I am just quibbling over semantics, but it seems to me there is a important difference between one's beliefs and one's intentions. It seems at least logically possible that someone could believe that, say, all 'infidels' deserve to die, without having the intention to act on that belief. In that case, I don't think I would support killing that person for that belief. If, on the other hand, there was good reason to believe that person has the intention to act on that belief, then it might be acceptable, especially if arrest and confinement were not viable options.

  • Hiero5ant

    I am very uncomfortable with the idea that beliefs, by themselves, could ever be a justification for killing someone. Maybe I am just quibbling over semantics, but it seems to me there is a important difference between one's beliefs and one's intentions.

    And that is the thrust of SH's point in the text surrounding the quotemine. No one here is talking about killing one another over just any old belief, like the age of the earth, or consubstantiation vs. transsubstantiation. He is very specifically singling out beliefs according to which other human beings are treated as expendable pawns in some cosmic chess game.

    It seems at least logically possible that someone could believe that, say, all 'infidels' deserve to die, without having the intention to act on that belief.

    It seems to me that motivational externalism about normative claims is self-evidently a logical contradiction. If believing someone ought to X entails zero behavioral commitments towards making sure they X, then I submit their "belief" has no content whatsoever, being a sort of tribal marker intoned to express ingroup solidarity. It would have the same relationship to genuine working belief as a "Go Red Sox" bumper sticker has to the principles of automotive engineering in the vehicle it's plastered on.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Hiero5ant wrote: “What sentiment do you suppose Sam Harris meant to convey when he chose the word "unthinkable"?

    I am not sure. Sam Harris’s text seems to me to be self-negating. On the one hand he explains that “the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike” and on the other hand he says that this would be an “unthinkable crime” in which “tens of millions of innocent civilians” would be killed in a single day. It seems to me that his ethical reasoning is guiding him in one direction and his ethical perception in the opposite direction.

    Or perhaps his intention here is to prop up his main theme that religious belief is at the root of all evil, and therefore tries to point out what unthinkable crimes will likely be caused by religious beliefs (even though those who hold the religious beliefs will be the ones at the receiving end of the unthinkable crimes). Now I think that the original New Atheism idea that religion lies at the root of all evil is plain nonsense. (To be fair the New Atheists authors have back-pedalled from their early strong expressions of it.) In the text you linked to and without a thread of evidence Sam Harris is claiming that an Islamic regime armed with long range nuclear weapons and “dewy-eyed” with the thought of paradise is an unacceptable risk (the idea being that such a regime is not highly unlikely to initiate a long-range nuclear strike against “us” motivated by its religious beliefs). The fact of the matter though is that the regimes which have shown an absolute unconcern with the killing of millions of innocents have been consistently non-religious ones. This major historical correlation should give us all pause. The causes are probably complex, but there is one factor that I think has played a significant role: At the absence of religion some version of utilitarianism becomes the natural ethical attitude in which the lives of people are simply weighted against a planned for better future. If you consider Harris’s text I think the same kind of thinking is apparent. In contrast the natural ethical attitude of religion is deontological, which I think on the whole helps us avoid the worse.

    Having said all that, let me also say that while I disagree with most of Sam Harris’s thought I admire his intellectual honesty. He appears to speak his mind even when he knows that it will be unpopular or will be taken advantage of by his opponents.