Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Feb 3, 2013 in Debate, Law | 58 comments

More Sam Harris bashing

Those of you who’ve been interacting with me for some time will know that I’ve written some of the most searching critiques of Sam Harris available on the internet. I find much to disagree with in his work, and I’ve done my best to articulate important points of disagreement – particularly on moral realism, normative theory, and free will. I’m sure I’ll have more to say along these lines in future. I’m one of the guy’s more persistent intellectual critics.

As a matter of fact, I’ve realised that Harris was one of the people at the back of my mind in this post the other day, when I was trying to find a “killer example” (as I put it) of what I was getting at. Harris is one of those authors who often seem to assume a rather sexually conservative morality as background to his thinking. This was the sort of thing I meant in that post, rather than Elevatorgate issues and the like that others brought up in the thread (although I do note that some Elevatorgate-affected policies show marked puritanical tendencies, and deserve to be subjected to criticism and satire).

None of that is my topic today, because once again I think Sam Harris is being unfairly attacked. In this article by Ian Murphy in Salon, there is no civil disagreement or charitable critique, not even any relatively good-humoured satire. Check it out for yourself – it’s a vulgar, unrelenting, personally abusive hatchet job.

Now, I can understand why philosophers sometimes ask why Harris is taken so seriously by the public on subjects where his work is not the philosophical state of the art (answer: he writes entertainingly, and he has the support of publishers with a lot of commercial muscle, and they support him because he writes entertainingly and helps them shift a lot of books, and so on in a virtuous cycle… nothing wrong with that). People like me then feel the need to engage with his books because they are popular, entertaining, and persuasive. If we disagree, therefore, it’s worth explaining why to whatever audiences we might be able to reach.

Okay, but what I don’t understand is the never-ending demonization of the man by some of his opponents. It’s as if some of his critics are determined to cast him as a dangerous, sinister figure with a violent agenda, and so they distort and cherrypick and misrepresent his arguments, and do everything possible to resist granting him a good point even when he makes one.

I’m not going to work my way through Murphy’s paragraphs one by one. But note the extraordinarily overwrought rhetoric in passages like this: “Harris, in his continuing quest to overcome the vicious stereotype that atheists are typically rational people, takes a page from NRA President Wayne LaPierre’s handbook of douchebaggery, and suggests the answer to the ‘riddle’ of guns should be, in fact, more guns. Only a corporate shill or a professional philosopher could arrive at this position without realizing (or admitting) how utterly full of shit they are.”

I’ll leave aside how far this accurately conveys Harris’s views, except to note in passing that Harris’s policy proposals actually include ending the war on drugs (I agree), that he says he is prepared to go along with a ban on “assault weapons” (scare quotes, because the nature of what is an assault weapon is not straightforward), and that he seems to favour tighter regulation of access to handguns. Although Harris writes some provocative sentences and flourishes of his own when discussing gun control, he manages to be considerably more civil and substantial than Murphy. Honestly why would anyone take Murphy’s rhetoric seriously? The sentences I’ve quoted are almost meaningless, and to the extent that they convey something they distort Harris’s actual views.

Murphy grudgingly admits that Harris is right about one thing: it would be very difficult in the short-term for US jurisdictions to ban handguns, given the relatively recent interpretation of the Second Amendment at the level of the Supreme Court. Any broad prohibition of handguns, at any level of government, would currently be struck down by the courts. This means that whatever bans on guns are likely to be constitutional will not address the main problem.

Despite this, I tend to think that more stringent regulation of guns in the US, to the full extent of constitutional authority, would be a good move – and this is an area where I think public policy favours testing the boundaries of what the courts will permit. Legislative action on gun control could be part of a package that includes winding back the war on drugs, and possibly other things, such as a buy-back program and a public education program. But whatever I might think about gun control (I’m happy with the stringent gun control that we have in Australia), the fact remains that effective bans on guns in the US will not have drastic social consequences any time soon, as those bans will not prohibit ownership of handguns. Perhaps there needs to be campaign to change the constitution – fine. But meanwhile, there is no near-future prospect of banning handguns outright, and realistic policy proposals for 2013 need to take that fact (however unpalatable) into account. Harris is not wrong to make the point – so why berate him for it, accusing him of “intellectual cowardice”? This seems like, ahem, shooting the messenger.

Since Harris favours ending the war on drugs, he is not afraid to advocate rather radical and potentially unpopular policies, but getting handguns banned in the US is not even constitutionally possible under current SCOTUS theory.

There’s another aspect of all this that I want to talk about, but it’s complex, raises broader issues, and deserves a separate post. For now, why do so many of Harris’s opponents engage him without charity and in what seems like bad faith? What brings this out in them?

  • Colin Gavaghan

    Well, here’s my penny’sworth.

    As I, and others, have argued on here on several occasions, it is not a quirk of nature that Harris elicits such reactions. It seems to me that he is either a blatant provocateur, or he does indeed possess a dubiously ‘violent agenda.’ My assessment, as I’ve explained on here before, is based largely on a frankly astonishing passage in The End of Faith, but also on his repeated failure to retract or clarify that passage.

    I’m talking about his endorsement of a nuclear first strike on any Islamist state which even acquired nuclear weapons. Not, it should be noted, one that threatened to use them. Not even one about which our governments claimed to possess intelligence pertaining to a planned attack (however justifiably sceptical we may be about that in these post-WMD times.) No, causing the deaths of tens of millions of civilians would be justified simply on the basis of ‘what Islamists believe.’ And the responsibility to prevent this wholesale carnage rests firmly with ‘he Muslim world’, which ‘must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it’.

    I regard this as one of the most morally irresponsible claims I have ever read a ‘moral philosopher’ advocate, not just for its content, but for the glib and perfunctory way that such a monstrous proposal was dealt with. Whereas actual philosophers like AC Grayling dedicate entire books to the question of whether the Allied bombing of German cities was justified, Harris deals with future nuclear apocalypse in just about one page of his book. (It’s spread across pp. 128-129 of The End of Faith.)

    In a context when Iran’s putative attempts to acquire a ‘nuclear capacity’ was, and is, inducing considerable sabre-rattling from the USA and Israel, it is difficult to view this as a mere thought experiment. At the very, very least, such a grave proposition merits some serious thinking – perhaps on the level of Jeff McMahon’s challenging and thoughtful work on the ethics of killing and warfare. Harris, in marked contrast, appears to throw it in there for simple shock value. (He has been offered numerous opportunities to retract or clarify this view, and – to my knowledge – has consistently declined to do so.)

    Is there is a better (ahem) faith way to read Harris? Am I being unfair to judge him on the basis of one claim in a fairly early book? Well, I don’t think so, really. Not when the claim concerns an issue of such enormity, and not when he has declined to engage in any setting straight of records. I would like to think I would still at least try to evaluate his later arguments on their merits, but if he sometimes evokes a rather vituperative response, there may be a reason.

  • Colin Gavaghan

    It’s possible, of course, that some readers will dispute that Harris was actually endorsing such an attack. Feel free to read his own words on the subject. This analysis is also worth a read, and pretty much sums up my reading of the passage in question. But even if we’re both wrong, it would still be open to Harris to set the record straight. What are we to make of his refusal to do so?

  • “Harris is one of those authors who often seem to assume a rather sexually conservative morality as background to his thinking.”


  • mmurray

    Colin a few minutes search of Sam’s website finds his response to the controversy over that paragraph:

    Like others you seem to have missed some of the text in particular the phrase “long range nuclear warheads”. Harris’ question is what would the US do if a group like the 9/11 bombers obtained access to long range nuclear weapons? He points out the difficulty of a Mutually Assured Destruction type Cold War with an enemy which wants to die. He also adds that:

    Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given whatIslamists believe.

    So he is not talking about any Islamist state that acquires nuclear weapons. He is talking about a state with leaders who are happy to die and who have long range nuclear weapons. It also seems implicit to me at least that it you read the whole quote at that link above he is assuming they want to use these weapons. It goes with the whole martydom philosophy he is assuming they hold.

    I guess the question remains: why are people so keen to read into Sam’s writing things that are not there ?

  • RussellBlackford

    That’s a rather collateral point, Chris, since I say that the thrust of the post is to defend Harris. 🙂

    But have you seen his TED talk where he appears to draw a moral equivalence between burqas and bikinis? And have you read the passage in The Moral Landscape where he has to labour earnestly over the fact that someone propositioned his wife at the gym (and he felt angry and jealous when she told him about it)? I must admit (sorry, Sam!) I always find that passage, at the end of the first chapter, rather comical – and I’ve read the book several times. Why didn’t he just laugh it off with her and feel pleased for her, since she apparently didn’t mind the encounter and actually felt flattered? (If it had been done in a manner that she’d found intimidating or obnoxious, that would be another thing, but that isn’t the point Harris is making.)

    Those are just from memory, but whenever something about sexuality comes up with Harris he sounds to me rather over-earnest at best. I can’t document or recall each instance, so try it for yourself.

  • DrewHardies

    There seems to be a pretty deep divide in what people think arguments are, and what kinds of arguments someone should find convincing.

    Harris’ approach is pretty traditional. He takes a policy and tries to show that flows from some more general categorical statement. This produces something that looks like formal logic.

    (Edit: To clarify, the saner responses take this form, too. They’d be arguments like, “No, that’s not the moral rule here”, or “the example doesn’t fit the moral rule”. I’m not saying that one ‘side’ has a lock on reasonable argument.)

    To make this less painfully vague, in this ( ) article, he talks about torture.

    He seems to advance two moral principles. One is, “Given a choice between evils X and Y, we should choose the one with less suffering.” The other is, “If evil A is an acceptable price for some good B, then any evil less-harmful than A also acceptable.”

    The rest of the article is him filling in specifics. There is, “the torture of one individual is less harmful than an atomic bomb going off in a city” and “The harm inflicted by commonly-acceptable tactics of war is worse than the harm of torture.”

    To be blunt, Harris’s harsher opponents often fail to ‘get’ that this kind of logic is even happening. The disagreement isn’t “that’s not the guiding moral rule” or “that example doesn’t fit”. It’s “how can you say those things that lead to bad conclusions.”

    It seems like the other approach to argument is ‘rhetoric-based’. People pick their conclusion. Then they make comparisons and analogies to make that conclusion as appealing as possible. They assume Harris is doing the same.

    This explains why the standard attacks are things like “torture defender” (he put up hypotheticals that make torture seem reasonable).

    Murray’s response makes sense when read in this context. He’s engaged in sophistry. And he assumes Harris is, too. That gives us the accusations that Harris is simply a shill.

    And, since any kind of semi-formal reasoning flies right over his head, it gets dismissed as meaningless “masturbatory argumentation”.

  • qbsmd

    I think it’s part of something larger: atheists get a disproportionate amount of criticism for promoting ideas that aren’t liberal enough. Because convervatism in the US is largely controlled by the religious right, it makes sense that many political issues currently in the news are religiously motivated, and that atheists would disagree with conservatives on them. However, it seems to have gone a step further, to where liberal positions are assumed to be the default for atheists regardless of whether those positions have to do with religion. As a result, liberals and atheists are surprised when an atheist disagrees with a liberal position, and react more strongly than they do for a religious person saying the same thing.

    I’ve seen Penn Jillette or Michael Shermer criticized for libertarian ideas, with very little argument against whatever they actually claimed or advocated. When Michael Shermer recently wrote an article about anti-science liberals, everyone in the atheist blogosphere seemed compelled to register an objection, not to his actual conclusion (moderates to either side of the political spectrum are more accepting of science than extremists on either side and therefore moderates in both parties should attempt to minimize the power of the extremists), but to the inference that the two main American political parties are equally controlled by extremists. The current rift on whether the atheist movement should internalize feminism is part of the same phenomenon.

    Sam Harris promotes lots of ideas that aren’t considered liberal enough: whether diversity is a good thing when Islam is involved, when a war is necessary or justified, what gun control policies are justified and feasible, whether torture is justified in any circumstance, and whether racial profiling is justified and effective. It makes sense that he gets more criticism than other atheists and that much of it is more emotional.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Man charged in fatal shooting of ex-SEAL/author
    If only a “good guy with a gun” had been present…

  • Murphy’s emotions do get the better of him (like the dig at professional philosophers), but he makes more good points than bad ones. I think the tone of his writing suggests a great deal of frustration and disappointment with the atheist community. (His August 2012 piece on bad atheists for Salon testifies to the same.) Sam Harris makes many bad arguments and it’s not always clear that he’s making them in good faith. Sometimes I wonder if Harris is simply intellectually irresponsible or if he is intellectually dishonest. Charity would lead one to think he is simply irresponsible and, as Murphy says, lacking in self-awareness. I’ve also lamented the cult of personality which makes Sam Harris the star attraction at a convention celebrating reason featuring well-established intellects like Patricia Churchland and Simon Blackburn, and cringed when Harris took the stage without anything resembling a halfway decent argument. I’ve come to the conclusion that public intellects who have earned their place are better off ignoring Sam Harris. For example, I think Dan Dennett would harm the public discourse if he publicly took on Harris in a debate on free will. I’m not saying everyone should ignore Harris, and I’m not saying he should be dragged through the mud, either. But I understand where Murphy is coming from, and I don’t mind that he puts it out there the way he does. If Harris had made some real contribution to the discourse and Murphy was tromping recklessly all over it, I would have the same complaint as you, Russell. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on.

  • Thanny

    It seems to me that a great many people who consider themselves to be liberal and progressive are actually left-leaning reactionaries, with their own set of dogmas. Anyone unafraid to criticize the basis for these dogmas in any way is perceived to be a villain.

    Harris is one such person. Consider his attempt to dismiss the term “atheist” as unnecessary. He was wrong in his assessment, but far too many atheists went well beyond disagreeing with him on that point into attacking his general character.

    He’s not alone in garnering opprobrium for abjuring dogma in favor of reasoned arguments. I’ve seen Steven Pinker labelled as neo-conservative for what he wrote in Better Angels of our Nature.

  • Thanny

    And now I read that Jared Diamond is in the crosshairs, for daring to report facts about how tribal people live. It doesn’t fit certain dogmas, so it’s “completely wrong – both factually and morally – and extremely dangerous”.

  • mmurray, yes, obviously I had read that. That was how I came to link to it below.

    I am not keen to read anything into Harris’ arguments. Indeed, I was very much enjoying TEoF until that passage, and re-read the passage several times hoping that I had missed somethig. I don’t believe I have. He is not talking about a group like the 9/11 bombers. He doesn’t mention anything about that – you just inserted that yourself. He is talking about an Islamist state.

    If he wanted to qualify that in the manner that you have – not just any old Islamist state, but a genuinely suicidal one – there would have been nothing to stop him doing so. His reference to ‘what Islamists believe’, however, supports the opposite conclusion: that he regards any nuclear-armed Islamist state as presenting an existential threat sufficient to justify a first strike.

    Given the gravity of what he is proposing, I think it was incumbent on Harris to spell out the sorts of conditions under which he would regard such an action as being justified. It was also incumbent upon him to make it clear – given the evident potential for people to assume as much – that he did not mean this to apply to any current states, especially Iran. That he did not do so, and still has not done so, suggests to me either that he actually does mean it to apply to states like that, or that he enjoys revelling in the notoriety that statements like this attract. Neither depicts him in an especially admirable light.

    My question, tbh, is why so many people are so keen to bend over backwards to present benign interpretations of Harris’s writings, when he clearly has no interest in doing so himself. if Rush Limbaugh had witten anything like the passage above, we would be tearing him to pieces.

  • mmurray

    mmurray, yes, obviously I had read that. That was how I came to link to it below.

    Yes I missed your second post. Sorry about that.

    He is not talking about a group like the 9/11 bombers. He doesn’t mention anything about that – you just inserted that yourself. He is talking about an Islamist state.

    Yes he is he is talking about a state whose leaders share the same ideals as the 9/11 bombers. He says

    We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry.

    You ask

    My question, tbh, is why so many people are so keen to bend over backwards to present benign interpretations of Harris’s writings

    It’s the principal of charity. We make the most charitable interpretation. Not because we necessarily want to be nice but without it discussion degenerates into a playground slanging match.

  • Sashin9000

    He said very, slight, minute amounts of jealousy arose, this is totally natural. And he didn’t make bikinis equivalent to burqas. It was obvious that he believed burqas were worse, he just said that what was optimal was within a spectrum between the two. No doubt, closer to bikinis.

  • RussellBlackford

    No he doesn’t – it’s not minute at all if you read the passage. He was obviously very jealous and annoyed, sees it in terms of being disrespected, as the guy being willing to break up his marrriage, etc. He talks about how he could imagine the encounter becoming physically violent if it had happened in front of him. He’s (at least initially) pissed off that his wife didn’t break off the encounter as fast as allowed by “the laws of physics”. It’s obvious that his wife was nice to the guy, and Harris doesn’t like this.

    I wonder how he would have reacted if his wife (who, again was not scared or creeped out or offended by the encounter, but attracted to the guy and flattered) had actually had sex with the guy? Why shouldn’t she have? What would have been the harm except for making Harris feel jealous? Harris does not discuss this.

    Or what if, far less than that, with the complications it might have caused her, she’d rewarded the guy with a smile, a “you’re sweet”, and a kiss on the cheek in the process of turning him down? In my experience, though not in Harris’s, apparently, the latter is how women sometimes act in such situations, and I think it’s a perfectly acceptable reaction.

    The point is that Harris has far more conservative and sexually proprietorial reactions to this than I would have had – and have actually had in similar situations. He makes a big deal of how he doesn’t follow an honour code mentality, but his own code of how people should behave is a conventional one… far more so not only than mine, but than what I am used to among others.

    As for the bikini and the burqa – there is nothing that I recall to suggest anything other than a moral equivalence between the bikini girls flaunting their sexual beauty for a fee and the women in burqas. But even if he thinks the “right” point is closer to the bikini, why criticise the bikini girls (or their society) at all? What have they done wrong? Is it some kind of Catherine MacKinnon-esque theory about the evils of sexualising women that he has in mind? Who knows? He doesn’t say. He just appeals to an intuition that something is wrong here, and (as far as I recall) he doesn’t say anything about how a woman displaying her beauty for commercial profit is less wrong than a woman covering up (or being pressured to cover up) in a burqa. I know he only had 20 minutes, but it’s a very murky example to use if he was pressed for time.

    In both cases, his intuitions, which he evidently expects others to share unproblematically, come across to me as very conventional. Your mileage may vary of course. All such passages in books and speeches are open to interpretation. But he certainly seems to me a lot less relaxed about these things than I would be, or than most of the people I know would probably be.

  • Sure, I agree with that approach. But it can be taken too far – to the point where we are superimposing implausibly benign interpretations on someone’s else’s words.

    But let me as charitable as I can towards Harris. In the passage we’re discussing, he expresses himself in a muddled and ambiguous way. By describing the act as both ‘unthinkable’ and ‘necessary’, he leaves the reader unclear as to whether he is saying it would be justified or not. His discussion of a hypothetical nuclear-armed islamist state is ambiguous as to whether he means a presently existing state, such as Iran, or some hypothetical future state that really was ‘dewy-eyed at the prospect of heaven.’

    Clearly, different readers have derived quite contrasting meanings from it. Quite possibly this is a result of both the language he used, and the brevity of the discussion. This ambiguity could easily have been resolved had Harris – as he easily could have – clarified his meaning. He could, for example, easily have said that he didn’t mean this to apply to the current dispute about Iran, but about some hypothetical future crazy Islamist state. (Of course, it could be a crazy future Christian state, but let’s leave that for now.)

    Yet Harris has steadfastly refused to say another word on the topic (he describes this on his blog as ‘the only passage I have ever written on the subject of preventative nuclear war.’ Why would someone making a good faith attempt at being understood decline to clarify his stance on such an important issue? I mean, i can understand that Dawkins, for example, grows heartily sick of explaining his ‘selfish gene’ thesis to those who mischievously or lazily misunderstand it, but that’s after trying again and again to make himself as clear as possible. Harris either seems to think that effort beneath him, or – as I suggested earlier – is rather enjoying the notoriety of having written that passage, without ever having to clarify what he meant by it.

  • NoCrossNoCrescent

    Here is another attack on (mostly Sam Harris) that I have responded to. It is interesting that his detractors accuse him of cherry picking just as they cherry pick him.

  • For what it’s worth, Russell, my instincts are far closer to yours in this regard. Over the years, my partner has been variously flirted with, chatted up and outright propositioned many times, including, respectively, by a rather well-known actor and a formerly prominent politician. Insofar as these events have triggered primal responses in me, they have tended to be positive feelings: of pride that I have been able to attract and retain the affections of a demonstrably desirable woman; and of some pleasant mystification that, despite the attentions of manifestly powerful, charismatic and attractive men, she has elected to stay with a bookish academic. They also, I would suggest, act as a brake against any slide into complacency within the relationship.

    I’m regularly amazed that more men don’t respond in a similar manner. Would they really rather think that their partner stayed with them through lack of choice? Or because other potential suitors were frightened off?

  • Sashin9000

    I don’t have the book with me, I borrowed it from a local library. But if I recall correctly, I believe he did state that jealousy arose in small amounts (or something along those lines).

    Regarding the bikinis, his actual reference was having them at a news stand where children could see them. The problem with sexuality like this, is that it can make people strive for the wrong things, make people desire things that will reliably lead them to less happiness. Tacitly training society in the pursuit of things like that, can indeed result in people wasting large amounts of time.

    I believe his sentiments towards, the modern features of american society (including it’s increasing sexualisation) are articulated in this blog post in which he sympathises with the views of a muslim philosopher (it’s a particularly short blog post, unlike a lot of his other ones).

  • keddaw

    They were at a shooting range, which law do you think would have stopped this?

    How about, “If only a comprehensive mental and physical health program had been available to returning veterans with suspected PTSD”?

  • keddaw

    He doesn’t, to my knowledge, claim that any state currently has the appropriate set of beliefs that would justify a first strike. He also doesn’t have the power to order such a strike, or the cult of personality to make such a strike a popular option to the public.

    Much like his torture question, given a series of unlikely scenarios and assumptions torture is totally justified, as is a first strike (nuclear or not is irrelevant here). Or, at least, as acceptable as the alternatives. Fortunately, in the real world, torture is unreliable, real world countries and leaders actually care about their lives, if not their people’s, and no nation has any inclination to incur the wrath of the US or EU by striking at their civilian populations in such a devastating way. Also, the majority of anti-western Islamists tend to be more angry about US interference in their internal politics, US bases on their Holy lands, air strikes, and their unquestioning support for Israel rather than the attire of the lady on the cover of FHM.

  • ThePrussian

    “If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you; but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.” —Don Marquis

  • Mike W

    I don’t think torture/first strike discussions are there for shock value. They are the sorts of thought experiments that philosophy tutorials and debates usefully tease out. They’re certainly more shocking than exercises on the level of the trolley-car dilemma but that’s at least in part because we’re moving from individual morality to collective and state morality.

    More people are likely to encounter or seek out the Harris book than the Grayling, and I hope the read it critically. It’s definitely orders of magnitude more valuable than being left to the tabloid commentariat.

  • Al

    I disagree, I think he is arguing for the practical application of torture

    ‘I am one of the few people I know of who has argued in print that torture may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror.’

    ‘Given the damage we were willing to cause to the bodies and minds of
    innocent children in Afghanistan and Iraq, our disavowal of torture in
    the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems perverse. If there is even one
    chance in a million that he will tell us something under torture that
    will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we
    should use every means at our disposal to get him talking.’

    (The End of Faith, p. 198)

    As for nuclear first strikes, whilst he keeps saying how terrible and insane it all is, he states that ‘I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns.’ and concludes ‘The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side’. So he believes he is describing plausible scenarios and then insists that Muslims must find a way to prevent them. These comments imply that he is not simply proposing edgy thought experiments.

  • Mike W

    I’m not sure who you’re disagreeing with. Saying “he is arguing for the practical application of torture” and indicating why shows that he is not writing this for shock value.

    Torture and nuclear strikes are ghastly, but I don’t think that putting an argument for them down on paper are irresponsible activities when they invite considered debate. And I don’t consider them “edgy” – aren’t they the meat and potatoes of moral thought experiments? Certainly they wouldn’t be out of place in any war-game-theoretic discussion that’s been had in the last half century.

  • Al

    I disagree in the sense that I do not think they are mere thought experiments presented by Harris. As for putting arguments for things like torture foward for debate, people like Peter Singer do a better job and are more intellectually honest.

  • RussellBlackford

    It’s an interesting little article, so thanks, but it doesn’t help a lot with this discussion because he doesn’t elaborate when he says “Qutb was not wrong about everything.” I’m unclear exactly what he thinks Qutb was right about. On the bikinis thing, I think you’re showing a bit of ascetism yourself. 🙂 Now, if the problem was not the bikinis but the way models are so often photoshopped to present unrealistic standards of beauty, I’d agree. As so often, I think there are things in the vicinity of what Harris said that might well be arguable, but in that short sequence he doesn’t make those points and seems to rely on an almost visceral response from the audience that there’s something morally problematic about the bikini girls. (Again, it’s not as if he uses overtly demeaning images of women on his slide, so that doesn’t seem to be his point.)

    Getting back to the sexual proposition in the gym, I had the passage in front of me when I was writing my last response. He doesn’t describe it as just a small amount of jealousy, and he goes on and on in a way that seems (to me) to be making a meal of the whole thing. YMMV, but I get the impression that if his wife had given the guy a kiss on the cheek Sam would have been outraged, whereas I’d think it a natural thing for her to do, given her own emotional reaction to his proposition (attracted and flattered).

    I think the best that can be said for Sam in the passage is that he is so busy justifying his rejection of honour-based morality to people who are inclined to accept it that he misses out on the fact that many of us (me, Colin it seems, and I’m sure many others) see his quite strongly jealous, angry, proprietorial reaction as a bit ridiculous.

  • Saul

    Sam Harris’ view of Millennial Islam is that it is an ideology that, on its own, is *sufficient* cause to enable acts like 9/11. Here is how academics that study Millennial Islam actually think it interacts with Muslim society at large:

    One can only assume that Harris doesn’t care, or doesn’t know, about what people working on the very topic he is discussing think about that topic.

    One can only wonder if that is because either he is willing to make careless arguments or he has an agenda. In neither case does he come out looking good.

    And again has listed 52 good reasons why people around the world would like to hurt America and Americans. To frame this as a matter of religion *only* or *mostly* is to a) fail to make a highly pertinent political analysis and b) to propose a unconfirmed hypothesis about the role of religion in society as sufficiently certain as to support policy decisions that are violent.

  • qbsmd

    “My question, tbh, is why so many people are so keen to bend over backwards to present benign interpretations of Harris’s writings, when he clearly has no interest in doing so himself. if Rush Limbaugh had witten anything like the passage above, we would be tearing him to pieces.”

    People write and say things while holding a certain set of assumptions. People who hold the same assumptions hear the message as it was intended, and communication occurs. People who do not share those assumptions can misinterpret whatever was said. None of those three sentences should be controversial.

    Therefore, if you hear someone say something that you find unbelievable or obviously wrong or defective in some other way, it’s important to look for other interpretations of their words that seem more reasonable. Especially if they insist their critics have misinterpreted them.

    Applied specifically to this example, Sam Harris has insisted that his critics have misinterpreted him. I don’t know where you’re from, but in the US after 9-11, there was a push from politicians and the media to not claim that “muslims” were responsible. Instead, the hijackers, and other suicide terrorists were described as “islamists”. So in the US especially between 9-11 and the start of the Iraq war, “islamist” was used to denote violent, suicidal, radical, and terrorist. The statement “all islamists are suicidal” was true by definition. I had, in fact, never heard a different definition until trying to find something for this post to show you that “any old Islamist state”, is, in fact “a genuinely suicidal one”.

  • Sashin9000

    I found the passage in question, the part I was referring to was the “albeit just a trickle” about the jealousy, embarrassment etc. I don’t think it’s productive to imagine what would happen had this “kiss on the cheek” taken place, but I can’t imagine anything particularly unnatural. Although admittedly, I find it difficult picturing a really angry Sam Harris.

    About the ‘bikinis’, the phrase “There is something degraded and degrading about many of our habits of attention.” I think, explains it. It’s that, we devote too much of our attention to things that are intrinsically mediocre, that couldn’t possibly grant us any real and meaningful well being in the long term. Kinds of things, that we’re virtually guaranteed to regret spending too much time caring about on our deathbeds. (This video I think, crystalises what I’m saying well, although it’s over five minutes so it’s totally understandable if you’re unable to watch it. In short, having pictures of women in bikinis, and other clearly frivolous things gets us to spend more time caring about the wrong things.)

    The only premise that need be accepted is that desire, necessarily impedes on one’s ability to feel happy in the present. Thus, a society that seems to promote rampant desire on every turn, will reliably be less happy. (When you want or crave for something, you place a condition on your happiness, which makes you unsatisfied. I don’t feel that the premise is up to debate.)

    Also, even without photoshopping, clearly models portray unrealistic standards of beauty. Although I do not think an arbitrary trait such as physical appearance should be a baseline for any sort of judgement anyway (idealistically, but not realistically, even any kind of subconscious judgement) and I think the widespread dissemination of such imagery do indeed promote viewing women in this way.

    I’m not advocating for the impeaching of people’s freedoms to dress or be as they want, I’m saying that we as a society appear to be embracing the wrong things, if we want to be as happy as we can be.

  • ‘He doesn’t, to my knowledge, claim that any state currently has the
    appropriate set of beliefs that would justify a first strike.’

    Nor does he make it clear that he isn’t talking about any existing state. That’s my point. He leaves it ambiguous, and has continued to leave it ambiguous while the controversy has roiled around him. Why would someone making a good faith attempt at expressing himself clearly fail to clarify such an important point?

    ‘He also doesn’t have the power to order such a strike, or the cult of
    personality to make such a strike a popular option to the public.’

    No-one is claiming that Sam Harris is personally planning to attack Iran. We are discussing the views and arguments he has put forward.

    As to whether torture or ‘first strikes’ could ever be justified, that is indeed a legitimate question for philosophers to engage with. But serious philosophers would do so in a serious manner. Harris’ perfunctory treatment of such a monumentally serious issue – and subsequent failure to claify his thoughts, or engage with his critics (except through snark) – leads me to doubt what exactly it is that he is trying to accomplish.

  • ‘They are the sorts of thought experiments that philosophy tutorials and debates usefully tease out.’

    But it isn’t presented in anything remotely like the manner of a philosophy teacher’s thought experiement, is it? It’s presented as a statement of his own opinion.

  • ‘I don’t think that putting an argument for them down on paper are irresponsible activities when they invite considered debate.’

    Nor do I. But putting a thoroughly half-baked and muddled argument forward, and then refusing to clarify, elaborate or engage, is a different matter. Once again, this does not look to me like a good faith attempt to navigate through very tricky ethical waters. Rather, it looks like someone who is being gratuitously shocking, or who is trying to raise the temperature in his anti-muslim polemic.

  • RussellBlackford

    Maybe the bikini thing needs separate discussion – but I do think you’re really defending a degree of ascetism from Harris rather than denying it’s there. That’s fair enough, but my main in-passing point was to say it’s there. (I’d also largely argue against it – I don’t think there is much wrong with photos of bikini girls in principle, although it’s possible that we’ve gone down a path where certain styles and techniques of depicting beautiful women have become degrading, oppressive, etc., and in other contexts I’d argue for exactly that point.)

    You’re also absolutely correct that the phrase “just a trickle” appears in that paragraph. Still, if we all read the whole paragraph on page 51 (and beyond it the whole two pages or so) he does sound quite annoyed (to me… YMMV) and moralistic about it, even thinking that he’d have responded violently if it had happened in front of him. The business about her not moving away as fast as “compatible with the laws of physics” was part of what half-amused, half-annoyed me – why the heck should she have? I get that we’re not talking about an open marriage here, but even so it seems to me a bit ridiculous making comment about that. I would have thought even closed marriages involving rational people would involve a lot more give and take than Harris seems to assume.

    So, I don’t want to come across as exaggerating this, but it still appears to me that he’s assuming that his readers will have quite conventional moral responses. He doesn’t challenge those responses or make light of them, although it’s true that he does somewhat laboriously argue against an honour morality.

  • yes, Harris continually claims his critics are wrong about this, but he refuses to elaborate on what he actually meant/means. if you believed you were repeatedly being misinterpreted on such a serious issue, would you not be keen to clarify what you actually meant? I know I would.

    So you misunderstood what ‘Islamist’ means, and believe that Harris did too. Well, perhaps, but if his knowledge of the subject was so thin as to make that mistake, perhaps he would be better writing books about different subjects.

  • qbsmd

    He uses the phrase “general futility of responding to attacks of this kind”, and it’s true that if people want to misunderstand you, they will. At the same time, clarification could help people who were honestly confused. I don’t blame him for his choice; people sure seem to enjoy thinking Sam Harris is a horrible person who advocates horrible things.

    Try reading his passage under the assumption that “islamist” means “violent terrorist seeking martyrdom”. It makes perfect sense, and it’s hard to disagree with anything in it. And it’s the only way to read it given the context: “There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death.” or “an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise”. I’ve never heard “islamist” used in any other context; it means Hamas, Hezbollah, or al Qaeda. I would have assumed enough people use it that way to make it the official definition; maybe some dictionaries do. How many of the words you use do you check to make sure everyone around you using the word in the same consistent way has been using the formal definition?

  • qbsmd

    “In the passage we’re discussing, he expresses himself in a muddled and
    ambiguous way. By describing the act as both ‘unthinkable’ and
    ‘necessary’, he leaves the reader unclear as to whether he is saying it
    would be justified or not.”

    The way I read it, that was his point: we may be faced with a situation where our only choices are to die or to do something terrible to survive. He is unsure about whether it would be justified: on the one hand it’s self defense, on the other, lots of innocent people die. It’s a moral dilemma to think about, not something he wants to hand out an easy answer for.

  • Thought experiment: you learn that your enemy has acquired a powerful weapon. You have good reason to suspect that he will use it against you and others. But of course, you cannot be wholly certain about this until he actually does it. At what level of certainty would you be justified in launching a pre-emptive attack against him? What consequentialist factors would influence your decision (e.g. certain death of X million vs Y% chance of Z million deaths)? What deontological side constraints?

    This is exactly the sort of question with which not only philosophers but criminal and international lawyers wrestle, and it would be absolutely unexceptional for Harris to have addressed it in that sort of way.

    But he doesn’t. As is obvious from this discussion, he has written in such a way as to leave no consensus as to whether he meant this as a thought experiment, a serious proposal, a rhetorical device, or a provocation. Clearly, different readers have interpreted the passage in all of these ways – and I don’t think any of us are necessarily reading it in bad faith. Once again, I ask: why does Harris not just clarify once and for all what he thinks about this?

    I am all for affording people the benefit of the doubt, but when they pass up the opportunity to clarify, the principle of charity becomes somewhat strained.

  • ‘Try reading his passage under the assumption that “islamist” means “violent terrorist seeking martyrdom”.’

    I’m sorry you have never heard ‘islamist’ defined correctly, but honestly, you are but a few clicks away from enlightenment. Wikipedia or any online dictionary will set you straight.

    ‘How many of the words you use do you check to make sure everyone around
    you using the word in the same consistent way has been using the formal

    I’m now beginning to wonder if you’re being serious here. If I was writing a book about the role of religion, a good deal of which was about ‘political islam’, I would at least seek to ensure that I understood, at a basic level, the key vocabulary around the subject. Indeed, I would hope to understand a great deal more than that about ‘islamism’; there are many scholarly books on the subject, at least some of which I’d have hoped to have read. Is your defence of Harris that he does his research from Fox News?

    Oh yes, and if I was going to advocate/seriously contemplate the annihiliation of milions of people, I would certainly want to ensure I had defined those people properly; I mean, y’know, just as a basic courtesy.

  • Sashin9000

    Well if simply acknowledging that indulgence worldly desires and pleasures may not be conducive to our well being, qualifies as ascetism (which it may) I don’t find anything wrong with some degree of it. Obviously, this seems to be a much deeper argument than just the girls in bikinis (which of course there’s nothing wrong in principle, which articles of cloth a person wears, is clearly arbitrary).

    I think at the roots of it, we’re simple interpreting things differently or as you’ve put it “YMMV”. It seems to me, that Harris is acknowledging that he’s capable of irrational jealousy while simultaneously claiming that having that jealousy, isn’t optimal and acting upon it, is distinctly morally wrong. (“I view the emotion of jealousy with suspicion”)

    I really do not think that, it’s evident that Harris was deeply affected by the reported incident. All he claimed was annoyance, and slight amounts of negative emotions rushing into consciousness. I don’t think, it’s something to really be accountable for.

  • keddaw

    The best faith way to read his intentions is to get us to talk about such things and re-examine out immediate aversion to torture. The other view is that he truly believes in torture as an interrogation method (and perhaps a deterent to others?) and thinks turning the Middle East to glass would actually be beneficial in the long run – and he may be right! It would force us to move off oil onto renewables which may save many more lives than were lost in a massive nuclear strike on the region (without even discussing the dangers in Islamic fundamentalism.) Fortunately there are multiple paths available to us making this decision a rather extreme, slightly less bad than the absolute worst choice, last resort.

    As it happens I have thought about it and completely disagree with him on torture for reasons of efficacy if not morality.

    I think a first strike is not only justified but compulsory should we believe beyond a reasonable doubt that another country was planning a massive assault on us. Obviously this plays into Harris’ belief scenario – if, say, France believes that the UK think France is about to launch a full out assault on the UK, which will justify the UK launching a first strike assault on France, then France has to either convince the UK they are wrong or strike immediately (thereby validating the UK’s original belief). Beliefs are important and potentially dangerous.

  • Mike W

    Not remotely? I think that analysis may exemplify Russell’s thesis that many are determined to read Harris as uncharitably as possible. I don’t have to sympathise or agree with every part of his discourse to read him as say DrewHardies does in his comment above.

    Harris didn’t write the sort of philosophical tract that 95% of his readership would avoid. Knocking an author for not writing exhaustively on a narrower topic pretty much hits out at any text with a wide audience.

  • Mike W

    Where is this refusal evident? His website lists just a few of the places where he has engaged in criticism of specific parts of “The End of Faith”:

  • Colin Gavaghan

    At that very site, he refers to this as ‘the only passage I have ever written on the subject of preventative nuclear war’. From this, I plausibly infer that he has declined to elaborate upon or clarify his position. Is that unreasonable?

  • Colin Gavaghan

    There’s been a lot of talk about the Principle of Charity that it’s claimed we should extend when reading Harris. But there could be other principles at play here. What about a Principle of Clarity? It might look something like this: when writing about a sensitive subject (and I trust we can all agree that this merits that description), try to write in such a way that your message isn’t open to misinterpretation by someone reading it in good faith.

    As has been confirmed by this discussion, the passage about nuclear war has been read in entirely different ways by different readers. I read it as a bit of sensationalist rhetoric used to ramp up the volume of his anti-muslim polemic. Others – like Mike W and DrewHardies – read it as a thought experiment. qbsmd saw it as a serious and sensible proposal, but only if the terminology Harris uses is given a certain idiosyncratic definition. Al also thinks it’s a serious proposal.

    None of these are evidently ‘bad faith’ or ridiculous readings. But at the end of the day, there’s only one person who can tell us which of us is right, and for whatever reason, he seems unwilling to do so. This is where Harris loses a good deal of my sympathy. I honestly cannot imagine a conscientious moral philosopher – our host Dr Blackford, for example – allowing a situation to continue wherein his views on such a desperately important topic were being regularly misinterpreted. For whatever reason, Harris chooses to allow that to happen. So we end up with the perverse situation where Russell regularly posts about the unfairness of Harris being misrepresented, while Harris himself seems pretty much unconcerned with setting the record straight.

  • Al

    I’m afraid I don’t buy this reading that “he is not talking about any
    Islamist state that acquires nuclear weapons. He is talking about a
    state with leaders who are happy to die and who have long range nuclear weapons.”

    The following would suggest that he is talking about any Islamist state which aquires nuclear weapons:

    “Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill
    tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the
    only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe”

    Not “Islamists who are happy to die and who have long range nuclear weapons”, just Islamists. Not “some Islamists” or “certain
    Islamists”, just Islamists. Harris’ basis for launching a nuclear strike seems to fall on some kind of ability to read the minds of Islamists. That said, Harris has stated that “There also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science.” (The End of Faith p. 41), so perhaps his ideas are not that foolish after all ;).

  • Mike W

    You have really cherry-picked that line to completely invert what it means in context.

  • What else could it possibly mean???

  • Mike W

    I’m charitably supposing you haven’t read from the top of the page. He is talking about misrepresentations of his sole statement on this issue _up to 2008_. Since then he has written further on the matter, and some of that is summarised further on that page. He has a blog which has touched further on those matters over the years. I don’t read even ten percent of what the man writes, but I see a good amount passing through my newsfeed. He’s written on torture on Huffington Post since “The end of faith” was published in 2004. It’s only taken me a few minutes to find these elaborations and clarifications – possibly less time than it’s taken you to write that they don’t exist.

  • Colin Gavaghan

    He’s written lots about torture and other subjects, but pre-emptive war? Where? None of that is summarised further on his website (which presumably he is capable of keeping updated with new material, if he so chose.). While he has responded to critics on this issue with sarcastic pieces like this, it’s notable once again that he displays a preference for ad hominem attacks rather than clarifying his views. If it’s so easy to find places where he has clarified his views on pre-emptive attacks, I’d really appreciate you pointing them out, because my research skills must be deserting me.

    It’s interesting to note, though, that he does acknowledge – wrt another subject – that ‘Granted, I made the job of misinterpreting me easier than it might have been,’ This is an admirable admission, and fair play to him for making it. Now, why not do the same on the issue we are discussing?

  • Colin Gavaghan

    Anyway, I think it’s clear we’ve reached the point where no-one is likely to budge further from their positions. If anything useful has come from this discussion, maybe it’s shedding a little light on why some of us who are generally well-disposed towards the whole ‘nu atheist’ thing harbour considerable reservations about Sam Harris. You may agree or disagree with our interpretations of his views, or his manner of expressing them. But I can assure you, they are genuine reservations, and do not emanate from any antipathy towards the broad movement with which he is associated, or any desire to dislike him..

    For what it’s worth, I’d be delighted if Harris would speak up and clarify exactly what he thinks about this subject, and even more delighted if, in so doing so, he were to assuage my darker suspicions about what he’s saying. Who knows, maybe he’ll venture onto Russell’s blog and do so?

  • qbsmd

    “I’m now beginning to wonder if you’re being serious here.”

    The feeling is mutual. Phrases like “I’m sorry you have never heard ‘islamist’ defined correctly” or “research from Fox News” don’t help.

    I doubt the book was intended to be a scholarly book on Islam. So there are three options: 1) people don’t typically try to find the answers to questions they haven’t asked, so it never occurred to him that the common usage was wrong, 2) he knew but wanted to make his point to a general audience without interrupting with technical definitions, assuming anyone in the audience could figure out what he meant or 3) he knew or suspected that “islamist” technically refers to something broader than common usage, and purposely chose to imply that the broader group are all suicidal terrorists. You seem to have only considered one of those possibilities.

  • Well, what can I say? If you regard it as reasonable to seriously consider mass slaughter of X, based on what we claim to know about X, without actually bothering to find anything out about X, then you and I think very differently about the world.

  • qbsmd

    “As is obvious from this discussion, he has written in such a way as to leave no consensus as to whether he meant this as a thought experiment, a serious proposal, a rhetorical device, or a provocation.”

    Why can’t it be all of the above? It looks like a thought experiment, that also closely resembles what Israeli military leaders must be seriously considering, and is used as a rhetorical point to support his thesis that faith (belief in things without evidence) is bad generally, and horrible in a world with 21st century technology.

    “Clearly, different readers have interpreted the passage in all of these ways – and I don’t think any of us are necessarily reading it in bad faith. Once again, I ask: why does Harris not just clarify once and for all what he thinks about this?”

    In his response to controversy post, linked above, Sam Harris’ response is to state what some of his critics said, repeat what he wrote, and leave it there. He obviously thinks that his writing is sufficiently clear (“once and for all” quality clear), his critics are showing bad faith, and that both of those things will be obvious to any unbiased reader. Maybe if you get enough people who agree with you to send him polite emails explaining your concerns and asking for clarification, he’ll oblige. Maybe he’ll ignore you.

  • If he can’t be bothered clarifying his views, I certainly won’t be begging him to do so.

  • qbsmd

    “you and I think very differently about the world”

    I basically opened with that; my point was that such different perspectives make communication difficult. I don’t think it’s reasonable to lawyer around with someone’s words and insist that some odd interpretation is what they meant.

    If there is “an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons” and not “deterred by the threat of death”, then “the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own”. I see nothing unreasonable in this statement.

    Whether it is moral is another issue: “it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day”, “could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat”, and “much of the world’s population could be annihilated” in the resulting wars. That analysis seems reasonable as well.

  • Gearmoe

    Criticism is generally an indication of few facts and a lack of solutions. Sam Harris gets slapped quite often by those who disagree yet have not a solid argument to defend their position. We need thinkers like Harris to present truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to hear.

  • Boko999

    And the same kind of attacks on Harris continue. Anyone defending his integrity if not his conclusions is accused of being a fanboy. Which is sexist at best.
    “Eww! Racsist!” is the best they can do even when he’s wrong.