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Posted by on Jan 4, 2013 in Debate, Philosophy, Politics | 46 comments

Don’t demonize Sam Harris

Sam Harris has posted a lengthy and thoughtful piece on gun control. You know what? I disagree with it. I favour a much more restrictive regime of laws regulating the ownership of guns than it seems Harris does. I also think there’s a problem in that Harris seems inconsistent in his actual policy proposals. At some points, he does actually seem to support new laws with new restrictions on guns, but at the end he seems to be arguing against any new laws and in favour of a purely cultural change (however, exactly, this would be brought about). At the least, he needs to clarify his position.

Harris always writes in lovely, clear prose, sentence by sentence, but he can sometimes be unclear in what, all things considered, he is actually proposing at the level of public policy. This is such an example.

Perhaps, after due consideration, etc., I’ll write something (here or elsewhere) responding to Harris. Or perhaps not – we’ll see.

That is not the subject of this post. Rather, I want to talk briefly about charity, civility, and reasonableness. From where I’m sitting, this seems urgent. I am seeing stuff all over the internet, but particularly on my Twitter feed, that simply demonizes and dismisses Harris. Because he does not agree with some approach to gun control, he is thereby considered a bad person, or to have lost credibility. None of this actually comes to grips with his arguments for whatever policy position one might distill and attribute to him.

If, like me, you think that US jurisdictions should enact laws that are more restrictive than Harris seems to be advocating, you should be welcoming his contribution to the debate. Here is someone who is palpably not nutty, unconsidered, or inarticulate putting a view contrary to yours. He is doing it with arguments rather than slogans. My friends, that is a good thing.

Think of it this way. Harris is giving you an opportunity to see what strengths there might be in a position that you disagree with. If his argument is sufficiently strong, it might even give you a reason to change your mind. In that case, you have gained. But if his argument is not that strong, it gives you an opportunity to think about what the strengths might be in a position that is different from your own. Even if you continue to hold to your basic position, after taking what Harris has said into account, you might well find that your position is now deeper, more complex, more sophisticated. This is how intellectual progress is made.

This is how philosophers are trained to think about issues. You don’t approach people with opposing views by expressing anger with them, or attempting to destroy their credibility. You give their arguments due consideration, try to see how things look from their point of view, and you most certainly avoid such tactics as strawmanning and guilt by association. You look for the strengths in what they are saying.

We should save our anger for people who are opposed to civil discussion itself, for people who respond to disagreement with hostility and vilification, for people who try to suppress civil disagreement with their ideas. Sam Harris is not one of them.

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  • Sean Faircloth wrote another lenghty and thoughtful answer for Sam! I don’t know if you’ve read it yet. In case you haven’t:

  • RussellBlackford

    I hadn’t read it but I have now. I tend more to Sean’s view than Sam’s, and as an Australian I find the ingrained cultural resistance to gun control in America simply baffling (though, to be fair, Sam seems to share this: it’s not as if he’s written some sort of pro-gun tirade).
    Note how Sean Faircloth’s piece is a model of charity and civility. I’m confident that any response from Sam Harris will reciprocate this.

  • I think Harris makes some good points (while I disagree about the need for widespread gun availability in modern societies). One is that the proposed remedies can’t possibly address the problem of shooting deaths. Not much talk about improving mental health resources. Mental health might be the single most salient cause of mass shootings.

    Also restrictive gun laws won’t solve the problem of violence in the US. Even when looking at non-gun violent crime, the US has far more than other industrial democracies. Harris points out the rates of violence including gun violence have fallen in recent years even while more people have gotten guns, not fewer. What changed likely lies in the root social causes of crime.

    I do believe that the ubiquity of guns makes our violence problem much worse than it might otherwise be. I just don’t believe that it is the cause.

  • Vic

    Fantastic! This is the kind of debate the public and the topic deserves and I hope it continues in this way.

    Sam Harris, while I personally do not quite agree with his piece, has identified one aspect of the events I also find important: the media.
    Not only the poor coverage of gun control positions and the obvious shortcomings Harris mentions, its semi-glorifying coverage of mass shootings and their perpetrators is simply strange.
    And while every reporter pays lip-service to pity and empathy, to see how journalists tried to get interviews with the relatives of victims as fast as possible was rather unsettling.

    I get that the media only tries to broadcast what the people actually want to hear and see, but there is surely some feedback loop between how the media reports and what and how people expect them to report next time.

  • Mike W

    Well written. This was exactly my feeling when I woke to a parade of near ad-hominem attacks from other secular writers appearing in my Twitter and blog feeds

  • Vic

    I agree with what you said about mental health resources and that it might the most salient cause of mass shootings.

    But mass shootings are rare events. The 9000-odd people killed by guns in the US every year are mostly killed in ones or twos, not by the twenties.

    But I agree that the root cause of these is, also, not gun availability by itself, but social issues and that guns and gun mentality are probably only amplifiers.

    Lastly, considering how crime developped over the years in the US, I also find this perspective quite interesting, if only for its differentness:

  • Russell, I’ll be honest. I thought the same things you just expressed in this post, but out of fear of being demonized I didn’t say what I thought. Kudos to you! Demonizing people does silence them. It’s a real shame but it works. Hopefully no more, not with me.

  • Reasonably Faithless

    Great post, Russell. Harris always makes me think, and it’s great to hear intelligent and thoughtful voices from both sides of these debates. It’s a pity Harris is not a creationist 😉

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    Thanks for the reminder about how people of reason should engage with one another, Russell. (Although, it’s unfortunate that this needed to be said. 🙁

  • DrewHardies

    A very well written post. Our ability to consider arguments critical of our own opinions is what sets a properly skeptical community apart from one that happens to be correct about homeopathy and magic.

  • Good post. One comment: I don’t think Harris’ position is unclear or contradictory here. He’s saying strict licencing requirements are a good idea and seems to lean in favor of rejecting concealed carry, but also thinks banning semiautomatics even for people with a licence is a bad idea.

    (Not that I necessarily agree with that. I think the Sean Faircloth article Daosorios linked to makes a plausible claim about the viability of gun buybacks, an option Harris overlooks.)

  • Mr Dumpling

    Splendid stuff. Harris has advocated torture, nuclear holocausts, Israel’s more brutal actions towards the Palestinians and Lebanese, racial profiling, consorship of Wikileaks on the grounds that it makes the US look bad, US atrocities in Iraq, militant imperialism, the Eurabia conspriracy theory, and the propping up of benign dictators in the Middle East because Arabs are morally backward and unfit for democracy. He also holds absurd, pseudoscientific ideas about telepathy, reincarnation and the paranormal. Oh, yes, and he blamed the Holocaust on the Jews. Now, he believes that more guns will make society safer. However, he does write in lovely, clear prose, sentence by sentence, so I suppose the criticism is unfair.

  • Mike W

    Then take him down in lovely clear arguments, sentence by sentence.

    It’s good practice.

  • ThePrussian

    Fantastic demonstration how to be self-righteous and not tell the truth when it doesn’t suit, and generally be wrong about everything. This comment should be used as a cautionary tale.

  • ThePrussian

    I think this is very well written, and get’s to the heart of a great deal of online nonsense. Well done!

  • DrewHardies

    And many of the bloggers on this network claim that the universe lacks a designer!

    An incredulous tone isn’t enough to counter an argument. Neither are (weirdly distorted) claims about past conclusion.

  • I think you’ve missed Russell’s points entirely. There is value in the considered views of people we disagree with.

  • Shadowing all of my thoughts on this issue is despair in the knowledge that Americans have a crazy love of guns, and this will stridently oppose any real legal changes. I don’t expect this to change in my lifetime. That said, innovative alternate strategies like gun buy-backs could help while society evolves.

  • Stellar.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Even if you continue to hold to your basic position, after taking what
    Harris has said into account, you might well find that your position is
    now deeper, more complex, more sophisticated.

    Or not, if you notice that oversimplification is one of Harris’ consistent weaknesses. As just one example, in the current piece, he echoes the Wayne LaPierre rhetoric about “good guys” and “bad guys.” Is it always clear who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? Are there many people who would self-assess as too unstable for gun ownership? Do good guys never go bad? (Has Harris’ time studying neuroscience taught him anything about this?) And just to point out the the owner of the gun is not the only consideration, I ask, was Nancy Lanza a “good guy”? And so on. Harris has tended towards black-and-white oversimplification in past writing as well, and also has a tendency to get into lengthy thought experiments on issues where there is data in the bin.

  • RussellBlackford

    This could get very tangential about the general strengths and weaknesses of his writing – which we could do with anyone’s writing, including, say, mine.
    In fairness, though, I brought it up, and it does seem to have some unusual salience with Harris. One reason for that might be that he is gifted with an unusually transparent and enjoyable style – and yet, we see numerous instances where he is misinterpreted, and views are attributed to him that are much more extreme than anything he actually said. If anything, I’d say that he has a tendency to chase every argument and give it a fair run (which is a good thing) and an aversion to summing up in an analytical way (which may make his prose more readable and attractive, but can be detrimental when he’s just discussed all those different viewpoints and arguments). I do think he is sometimes impatient with disagreement, overly-reliant on his own intuitions (as when he accuses compatibilists about free will of “changing the subject”), but I don’t know that he is any more prone to over-simplify than anyone else. I take your point about Lanza’s mother, but surely there are many situations where it really is pretty clear who is the “bad guy” and who are good guys. E.g. there’s not much doubt that the mass murderers in the Aurora and Newtown shootings were, for all relevant purposes, “bad guys”.

  • James Martin

    Presumably Harris considers himself a ‘good guy’ and a responsible gun owner. Yet he even previously admitted:

    “my wife and I once accidentally used a bag for carry-on in which I had once stored a handgun—and passed through three airport checkpoints with nearly 75 rounds of 9 mm ammunition”.

    So Mr PhD in neuroscience can’t even keep track of his own guns. Not very responsible at all.

  • RussellBlackford

    Surely, though, that doesn’t make Harris a “bad guy” or even blur the line between him and a mass murderer, or even an “ordinary” murderer.
    What it does underline, I think, is that even good, ordinarily responsible people create many risks through small acts of negligence or even just inadvertence. There are studies that show that this happens all the time in moving vehicles – but it doesn’t blur the line between ordinarily responsible drivers and people who use cars as murder weapons or getaway vehicles.
    So, I think you have a useful point here about how risks are created by good, ordinarily competent and responsible people, and this could be a reason for fairly strict regulation of objects as dangerous as guns. It might support disagreement with Harris’s substantive position. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a reason to make a general comment about how he views issues or writes about them.

  • It would help if James Martin knew the difference between guns and ammo. Rushing to pack and forgetting one has ammo in a bag is not even close to “can’t keep track of his own guns”.

  • James Martin

    If you can’t remember where you left 75 rounds of ammo, you are not a responsible gun owner. Simples.

  • RussellBlackford

    That’s just rhetoric.

  • By what measure? And that wasn’t your initial claim. Admit your error and apologize for it and lets move forward and discuss whether it’s important point that he forgot he had ammo in a bag. I don’t agree, but maybe you have a valid argument it is.

  • RussellBlackford

    To be fair to James, it’s not a horrible mistake – though it is an example of how good, competent, etc., people can make mistakes. And I hereby admit that I did, too, in not picking up the error until it was pointed out.
    I think we should assume that “good guys” (ordinarily good-willed, competent, responsible people) make all sorts of small errors, and that these can create quite large risks when dangerous items like cars and guns are involved, but that it doesn’t blur the line between them and people who deliberately set out to harm others, break the core criminal law, etc. Again, perhaps this is a reason to take a harder line than Sam Harris does on gun control, but it’s not a reason to demonise him personally. We need to keep the issues separate.

  • Since I corrected him on the thread at RDF and he still repeated here it’s my belief it’s a deliberate attempt to discredit Harris. OMMV

  • James Martin

    Bullet smuggling is a serious crime. It is a shame that you act as an apologist for it.

  • Good thing he wasn’t smuggling bullets then,

  • RussellBlackford

    That will do. This is not a place where we make accusations like that against other commenters. Talk about the issue, not about other commenters, especially on a post about the very topic of civility, etc.

  • He’s unclear in what should be done overall because it is actually unclear. He doesn’t actually *have* a straightforward solution to violence figured out. The admirable thing is that he admits it and tries to move closer to an understanding, rather than simply making an arbitrary choice that fits his personal bias and then defending that “solution” to the death.

    I’m on the opposite end of this issue from you–I disagree with parts of Harris’ essay, too, but mostly when he advocates strict controls right after explaining why they won’t work. I’ve had to defend him to my peers the same way you’re defending him here, but from the opposite point of view. It seems that if you wade into a contentious issue, study it carefully and do your best to tell the truth as you find it, both sides will decide that you’re plainly crazy, even if each actually agrees with much of what you say. To be accepted without being savaged by both sides, you’d have to pick one and fall more or less into step with that group; the other group would still demonize you, but at least you’d have your new tribe at your back, not joining in the heckling. I admire Harris for taking the harder, but more honest, path.

  • James Martin


    “While we were inadvertently smuggling bullets, one TSA screener had the presence of mind to escort a terrified three-year-old away from her
    parents so that he could remove her sandals (sandals!)”.

    Now, admit you are wrong and apologise.

  • RussellBlackford

    And at this point, someone actually thought that it was a good idea to make a personal attack on me by linking to another thread on another site where a witch hunt is being conducted against me over a completely different issue. Comment deleted.
    Look, I WILL delete comments – and ban commenters if they don’t seem to want the sort of discourse that I and Skeptic Ink want. I’m not interested in running an “uncensored”, anything-goes blog. I am interested in civil discussion of substantive issues. Talk about the issues, not each other (or me), especially if you can’t say something nice about each other (or me).
    If that approach doesn’t suit you, there are many other places on the internet that you might like more.

  • RussellBlackford

    You’re not making friends here, James. What you are doing is showing that, first, you are spoiling for a fight, and, second, you can’t construe the tone of English prose – the tone of a phrase like “inadvertently smuggling bullets” shouldn’t be that difficult to construe in the context.

    But you’ve managed to make a point, even if not the one you set out to make – i.e. even someone like Harris can inadvertently or negligently create risks with things like guns and ammunition. Good point (until someone says something in response). See, it’s not that hard to be civil and substantive.

  • MosesZD

    Well, that saves me a not-nearly-as-well-written post. Because that’s what I took away from Sam Harris who wrote a very sober article, but seems to draw back from some aspects of the reality of the situation regarding our weird cultural fetish with guns.

  • MosesZD

    My mother was a Customs Agent and my step-dad a DEA Agent. One day she walks into the airport with her hold-out gun in her bag to pick him up from a flight. She got in trouble, though didn’t get charged with a crime (which is possible).
    It happens even to people who know better. Never mind amateurs like Harris.

  • bluharmony

    I disagree with it too, but I “liked” and shared the piece, because it’s well-written and well-reasoned.

  • David Cake

    I have seen messages calling for the defence of Sam Harris, and that he shouldn’t be demonised. Well, I’m prepared to say that he shouldn’t be demonised, and acknowledge that he is engaging with good intent and in a civil way, but I can say that while still continuing to say that his arguments are poor, and frankly do not add significantly to the debate in my opinion. His arguments are better expressed that many, but often no deeper or serious.

    For example, I am quite prepared to say that his previous post calling for religious profiling in airport security does not mean that he is racist, bigoted, or in other ways morally villainous, and to defend him against those charges. But I do think it was self-important, incredibly uninformed, and poorly thought out, and added nothing of value to debate. So, on the one hand I am certainly willing to defend the values of cvil disagreement, and abhor vilification, but on the other hand I’m not prepared to take his arguments seriously merely because he presents them civilly and coherently. I acknowledge that intellectual progress can be made by engaging with those you disagree, but even more intellectual progress can be made by engaging with good arguments with which you disagree. Sam Harris remains, to me, not a villain, but not worth much of my time either, at least when speaking on the contentious political issues that cause him to be the subject of posts like this.

  • Maybe I’m being pedantic, but “smuggling” to me implies intent and purpose … like smuggling drugs for sale. “[I]nadvertently smuggling” is an oxymoron IMO. If it was an international flight, laws in the country in which he arrived were violated. If it was a national flight, only TSA policy was violated – a misdemeanor.

  • Nick Good

    Dave But you havn’t made a counter argument to any of Sam Harris’ specific points; re firearms or airport profiling; you’ve just aired generic, unspecific disagreement.

  • I would say that he studiously avoids oversimplification. There are always going to be cases where the lines are blurred, but why should those instances deny all others the right to defend themselves when a gun is the only feasible means of defence?

    It seems to me that many people in the US have the equation guns = wingnut redneck in the back of their minds when debating this isssue and battle lines get drawn very quickly. People seem very reluctant to acknowledge that their positions may be emotion based. There appears to be a lot of the “think of the children, you selfish brute” approach to the issue in liberal quarters.

  • For Mr Dumpling’s consideration. Wrestling the Troll : Sam Harris

  • Oops.

    Sam Harris on being misrepresented.

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  • The problem with the Harris piece and with Harris in general is his reliance on word-based arguments. That’s Humpty-Dumptyism.

    The problem with philosophers in general is not merely their reliance on word-based arguments. It is their assumption that they can derive knowledge merely by thinking about a subject.

    I obviously don’t have much truck with philosophy although I frequently refer to Russell. He believed that the job of philosophy was not to pretend to provide knowledge. Philosophy is the science of asking questions and of formulating those questions in such a way that the issue is made unambiguously clear.