How Christians Find Themselves in the Same Moral Landscape as Sam Harris

How Christians Find Themselves in the Same Moral Landscape as Sam Harris December 18, 2014

Whether you’re an atheist or a True Believer™, the moral landscape is a rugged, confusing terrain. As moral hikers, we may be able to see a desired peak clearly in the distance, but as we traverse the topography from where we begin to where we’d like to end, we find that the journey is much more difficult than we imagined.

For the Christian, the Bible is full of such landmarks, replete with “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” And Jesus and the apostles issued additional commands to those found in the Old Testament: turn the other cheek; don’t repay evil with evil; don’t seek revenge; love your enemies.

On the face of it, on a simplistic, “plain meaning of the text” kind of view, this seems pretty clear. And the implication is that torture, even of your enemy who has wronged you, is clearly prohibited by Christian morality.

On this view, the Christian perches peacefully atop a peak in the moral landscape and watches the Sam Harrises of the world founder fruitlessly in the valleys. Or so it would seem.


(Image via Wikipedia Commons)

Sam Harris advocates a form of consequentialist utilitarianism, which is a fancy way of saying that moral worth resides in the consequences of an action, especially when that action increases utility. Something is utile to us if it’s advantageous—if it increases our well-being. The concept of “well-being” reasonably includes things like being alive, being free from unnecessary pain and fear, etc. Therefore it includes being free from terrorist attacks.

On a recent episode of Fox & Friends, Elisabeth Hasselbeck—a self-professed Christian—commented on the nature of torture:

Meanwhile, the actual individuals here at home who have been looking into and trying to stop attacks like this and perhaps future hostage situations, as we are still at war indeed with ISIS and terrorism, are the CIA, and they have been painted as the bad guys at home.

This is standard utilitarianism—we should torture in order to preserve our well-being. Let’s compare her stance to that of Sam Harris, who has a summary of his view on torture on his website:

I am not alone in thinking that there are potential circumstances in which the use of torture would be ethically justifiable…Such scenarios have been widely criticized as unrealistic. But realism is not the point of these thought experiments. The point is that unless your argument rules out torture in idealized cases, you don’t have a categorical argument against torture. As nuclear and biological terrorism become increasingly possible, it is in everyone’s interest for men and women of goodwill to determine what should be done if a person appears to have operational knowledge of an imminent atrocity (and may even claim to possess such knowledge), but won’t otherwise talk about it.

He’s right, he’s not alone. I suspect that, since the vast majority of the Fox News audience identify as Christian conservatives, they agree with Elisabeth Hasselbeck—who also agrees with Sam Harris. But how can a Christian reconcile torture with the plain meaning of the Bible’s text?

They could appeal to the perpetually cryptic will of God, claiming that, since the Holy Spirit lives within them, the conviction they have that torture is permissible is confirmation that that’s what God wants. Hopefully you can see the circular, self-serving logic of that claim. If you can’t, consider the fact that, since Christianity was born approximately 41,000 different denominations have cropped up. Clearly that’s not a testament to the clarity and indivisibility of God’s will.

They could try to justify it by adopting a somewhat more sophisticated approach. They could say that the Bible acknowledges the fact that there are moral gray areas, and even that there is a gradation of moral worth. The Old Testament prescribes different penalties for different sins, so God seems to acknowledge that some sins are worse than others. While most sins are forgivable, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not. So under this logic, stripping another human being of his God-given dignity is permissible if it stops the worse sin of the killing of “innocents” in a terrorist attack. So the clear moral imperative “do not repay evil for evil” turns out to be not so inviolable. Torture can be justified if it prevents a worse evil.

Additionally, torture may not even be seen as an evil by the Christian. If the torturer’s intention is good—if his intention is to help save others and not merely to satisfy a selfish, sadistic desire—then he’s not committing a sin. He should be lauded, as Elisabeth Hasselbeck implies. The torturer then sits atop one of the highest peaks in the moral landscape.

But the issue still isn’t as clear cut as that. I imagine that, if your average Christian conservative Fox News viewer were commanded to torture a suspected terrorist, they would feel tremendous trepidation, and maybe even moral revulsion. Their conscience would be strained to the utmost. But whence comes this conscience? Is it not the moral law inscribed on their heart, or the very will of God speaking to them?

Whatever it is, it’s a clear sign that they are indeed traipsing through the same arduous terrain in the moral landscape as the Sam Harrises of the world. But that doesn’t mean they can’t reach the same moral peaks together. Their conscience is right—torture is wrong. And not only that—according to the Senate’s report on the CIA’s torture program, it’s not even really effective. Condemn it and move on.


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