We Prosecute People for Actions, Not Beliefs

We Prosecute People for Actions, Not Beliefs November 12, 2014

About a month ago, a blog post by Terry Firma titled “The Dishonesty of Some of Sam Harris’ Foes (Who Clearly Know Better But Smear Him Anyway)” went up on the Friendly Atheist. In it, Terry explained that some of Harris’s opponents had been tweeting a specific quote from one of Harris’s books and labeling him a “genocidal fascist maniac.” Here is the quote:

“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

According to Terry, Harris’s opponents were taking this quote intentionally out of context to make it look like Harris was advocating something he wasn’t. Terry provides this context, from Harris’s book:

The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition:

Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.

What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.

The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

Harris’s basic argument appears to be that some people’s beliefs render them both dangerous and incapable of being argued with, and that makes killing them ethical. Last month Harris himself clarified this further in a blog post, writing as follows:

Why would it be ethical to drop a bomb on the leaders of ISIS at this moment? Because of all the harm they’ve caused? No. Killing them will do nothing to alleviate that harm. It would be ethical to kill these men — once again, only if we couldn’t capture them — because of all the death and suffering they intend to cause in the future. Why do they intend this? Because of what they believe about infidels, apostates, women, paradise, prophecy, America, and so forth.

In all the discussion of whether or not Harris’s critics were committing defamation by tweeting one line from his book out of context, something really important has been left out of the discussion entirely.

Personally, I am not satisfied by either the quote’s context or Harris’s further explanation. As a refresher, here’s the quote:

“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

Here’s the thing: We don’t kill people for beliefs. We kill them for actions. We don’t jail people for beliefs. We jail them for actions. Let me give you an example. I grew up believing that it would be ethical to kill an abortion doctor. I was explicitly taught that abortion today was the moral equivalent of the Holocaust, and I therefore concluded that killing an abortion doctor would be akin to killing a Nazi SS officer. There is absolutely nothing that would have, at that time, talked me out of this belief. Nothing.

But here’s the thing: I never killed an abortion doctor. I never attempted to kill an abortion doctor. I never made plans to kill an abortion doctor.

There are today thousands if not millions of evangelicals and other conservatives who believe, like I did, that killing an abortion doctor is not only ethical but potentially heroic. If Harris is on board with killing (or perhaps at least jailing) people for beliefs rather than for actions, does that mean he would be in favor of rounding up everyone who believes killing an abortion doctor to be a heroic act, and jailing all of them?

Yes, I understand that there is often a strong correlation between belief and action. But we live in a society where you are more than welcome to believe all sorts of crazy things. You aren’t free from criticism for your beliefs, but you’re certainly free to believe horrible things provided you do not act on those beliefs. You are free to believe that blacks are inferior to whites, but the moment you bar blacks from your store you cross the line from belief to action. We don’t put people in jail for being racist, we put them in jail for discriminating against other groups or committing hate crimes. We do not police beliefs in this country. We do police actions.

Let’s imagine that there is a small religious group that holds that the world will end in violence, and that it is something they can and should bring on. Will the federal government go in and arrest them? No, not unless they are collecting weapons or explosives or otherwise appearing to be planning acts of violence. If they’re not doing those things, they may be watched, but that’s it.

Here’s another example. In the U.S., there are people who are opposed to modern medicine and instead believe in faith healing. We do not put them in jail for that belief. However, if they deprive one of their children of needed medical care and that child dies, we do prosecute them. They are free to believe in faith healing. They are not free to deprive their children of needed medical care. Belief. Action.

So no, I do not believe that there is any belief so dangerous that it is ethical to kill (or jail) a person for believing it. Period and full stop. If there is some indication that the person is going to act on a belief and do something horrible, yes, we absolutely take them in. But even then, we must have proof that there was planning in progress. There are plenty of times when people believe all sorts of horrible things but don’t act on them—I myself am a case in point. Are there some beliefs that can’t help but lead to action?

I’m not going to call Harris a “genocidal fascist maniac,” but I do take serious issue with his claim that it may be ethical to kill people for certain beliefs. In fact, I don’t think he actually believes his own statement, because every time he is asked to explain he brings up killing people for acting on certain beliefs. But here’s the thing: We prosecute people who commit or plan heinous actions regardless of their beliefs. It’s the action (or the planning) that we criminalize, not the belief.


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