Saturday, April 21, 2007

Sam Harris pt.2 (and, oh yes, there will even be a pt. 3)

Sam Harris has an infamous "argument" in defense of torture. He probably borrowed it from Alan Dershowitz who borrowed it from Michael Walzer (who's one of the foremost proponents of "Hypothetical Apologetics"- here's Chomsky speaking at West Point about Walzer.) There is a serious flaw in the way Harris presents his case, but what's far more important is a consideration of the context in which this wholly flawed argument is made. When we're confronted with a silly argument that's taken seriously, it's highly instructive to consider why reasonable people suddenly fail in their capacity for reasonable judgment.

Here's the argument in a nutshell:

Person A: Torture is morally wrong, legally wrong, and practically ineffectual.

Sam Harris: If there was a giant nuclear bomb hidden in Manhattan set to go off in 24 hours and the guy who planted it was dancing around and laughing in our faces and the only way to find it is to torture him, can we torture him to find out? Many of my liberal counterparts may disagree with me, but I stand strong that torturing an obviously guilty mass-murderer to save millions of lives is justifiable.

Bravo. What a magnificent blowtorch of an argument. Not so fast guys- are you sure that torture is wrong? Okay well now that I'm finally thinking clearly, let's see what other mistakes I've made in my moral judgments:

Person B: Punching an old lady right in the face is wrong.

Sam Harris: If there was a giant nuclear bomb hidden in Manhattan set to go off in 24 hours and the guy who planted it was dancing around and laughing in our faces and the only way he'd tell us where it is is if we punched an old lady right in the face, can we punch her to save millions of lives?

God, I mean, that's a horrible thing to have to do but think of the millions of lives saved. I guess punching old ladies in the face isn't wrong after all. You know what though? That's far too easy because we don't live in a nation in which we are defying the world by punching old ladies right in the face. We do, however live in a nation which is defying the world by actively torturing people and so publishing a highly visible justification of torture has serious implications. Let's see, what might a Saudi Sam Harris be publishing...

Samir Harris

Person C*: Flying planes into buildings and killing innocents is wrong.

Samir Harris: If there was a madman who was going to release a toxic virus that we knew would, at the very least, painfully kill every last man woman and child in the world in the next week and the only thing that would prevent him from releasing it is to fly a plane into a building full of innocents, could we do it then?

Who would've thought to write an article hypothetically justifying flying planes into buildings after 9/11? Even if that person had said "9/11, of course, was a travesty" (PS- does anyone ever use that word correctly outside of "... of justice"?) that person would've rightly been condemned for (what I'll call) "Hypothetical Apologetics." It means defending a controversial act in theory, with appeal to largely non-existent thought-experiments, in the context of great controversy over the act. A classic example of this is the great "Humanitarian Intervention" debate that always seems to pop up when we go to war for non-humanitarian reasons. Should we be talking about whether a war can ever be justified (it can, obviously) in the midst of a war that simply cannot? I think we all know that the effect of such a discussion is to implicitly support the bad-deed (Torture, Iraq War, etc.)

If the US starts executing its prisoners of war, you'll of course get O'Reilly out there saying that it's necessary and important and every sane person should recognize that immediately as the disgusting sophistry it is. More insidiously though, you'll find a Sam Harris-figure saying "Well, I'm not sure it's a good thing in this case, but what if these POWs had been irreversibly transformed into brainwashed superhuman killers with the ability to blow up half of Manhattan with their minds? Perhaps it's time to rethink..."

Don't say I didn't warn you.

*Probably hard to find... oh apart from the leaders of nearly every country in the world including such notorious moderates as Kim Jong-Il and the leaders of Syria, Lebanon, Iran, the PLO, etc.


Leah said...

I think we all know what the real travesty of justice is...the fact that a human exists who thinks an elephant is bigger than the moon.

Scott T. Schmidt said...

I respect your argument and your premise that torture is wrong. However, I am shocked that you do not see the flaws in your attempt to debunk Sam Harris' reasoning.

There is no situation in which punshing an old lady in the face would stop a nuclear weapon from going off... Unless that old was the person known to have the key to stopping the destruction of the world.

Sam's argument is perfectly logical... If we know, absolutely know, that person X knows the answer to stopping significant pain, and is keeping it from anyone because person X is an asshole, there is a reasonable impetus for torture.

If A (we know person x knows vital life-saving information and is not releasing it), then B (torture person X), in the case that A contains the same person as B (person X).

Your counter-arguments are simply replacing old ladies being punched in the face with B, which has no link to person X. So there is no parallel reasoning involved.

In other words - non sequitar and false analogy.

Matt said...


Thanks for your well-reasoned response. Since we're arguing a hypothetical scenario (and Sam is as well) I simply proposed the hypothetical that some evil terrorist was refusing to reveal the location of a bomb unless (for instance) 5000 new videos appeared on youtube of old ladies being punched in the face. It's unrealistic yes, but that hardly seems a worthwhile criticism considering the original article's "[imagine that the] daughters of every couple for a thousand miles—millions of little girls have, by some perverse negligence on the part of our government, come under the control of an evil genius who now sits before you in shackles."

The link with x in my "rare" example is a scenario in which the terrorist will only reveal the location of the bomb if you punch an old lady in the face. He simply says that, is all (is that really less likely than a guy getting millions of "daughters" through a governmental oversight?)

One way I can clarify is to state my point a little more clearly (less satirically):there are all manner of things we are happy to call "wrong" and outlaw and be morally opposed to, but said opposition doesn't preclude extreme scenarios in which such things might be acceptable or even morally required.

The really pressing question is why someone (i.e. Sam Harris) would decide to defend torture in the abstract while his country is actually practicing actual indefensible torture. I find such behavior morally abhorrent, as it simply provides a cover for the immoral practice.

Anyway, thanks again for the thoughtful reply- I look forward to hearing your further thoughts.