The Blog

 

Ethics | Free Will | Philosophy | Violence | February 28, 2015

Very Bad Wizards Interview #2

Sam Harris, David Pizarro, and Tamler Sommers keep talking


David Pizarro is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. His primary research interest is in how and why humans make moral judgments, such as what makes us think certain actions are wrong, and that some people deserve blame. In addition, he studies how emotions influence a wide variety of judgments. These two areas of interest come together in the topic of much of his recent work, which has focused on the emotion of disgust and the role it plays in shaping moral, social, and political judgments.

Tamler Sommers is an associate professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Houston with a joint appointment in the Honors College.  He is director of the Honors minor Phronesis: A Program in Politics and Ethics.  His research focuses on issues relating to moral responsibility, criminal justice, honor, and revenge.  Sommers is the author of two books: Relative Justice: Cultural Diversity, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility (Princeton, 2012) and A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain (McSweeney’s, 2009).  He received his PhD in Philosophy from Duke University in 2005.

Sam Harris responds to the charge that “militant” atheism is responsible for the murder of three Muslim students in North Carolina.

 

Consciousness | Ethics | Free Will | Meditation | Philosophy | Self | Violence | December 16, 2014

The Very Bad Wizards Interview #1

Sam Harris, David Pizarro, and Tamler Sommers talk (and then talk some more)

0:00-47:00—Intro and costs and benefits of religion

47:00-1:17:00—Drugs, the self, free will

1:17:30-end—Blame, guilt, vengeance, moral responsibility

David Pizarro is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. His primary research interest is in how and why humans make moral judgments, such as what makes us think certain actions are wrong, and that some people deserve blame. In addition, he studies how emotions influence a wide variety of judgments. These two areas of interest come together in the topic of much of his recent work, which has focused on the emotion of disgust and the role it plays in shaping moral, social, and political judgments.

Tamler Sommers is an associate professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Houston with a joint appointment in the Honors College.  He is director of the Honors minor Phronesis: A Program in Politics and Ethics.  His research focuses on issues relating to moral responsibility, criminal justice, honor, and revenge.  Sommers is the author of two books: Relative Justice: Cultural Diversity, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility (Princeton, 2012) and A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain (McSweeney’s, 2009).  He received his PhD in Philosophy from Duke University in 2005.

Atheism | Ethics | Politics | Religion | Islam | Terrorism | Violence | May 8, 2014

Lifting the Veil of “Islamophobia”

A Conversation with Ayaan Hirsi Ali

burkas

(Photo via Getty Images)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu in 1969. The daughter of a political opponent of the Somali dictatorship, she lived in exile, moving from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia and then to Kenya. Like 98 percent of Somali girls, Ayaan was subjected to female genital mutilation. She embraced Islam while she was growing up, but eventually began to question aspects of the faith. One day, while listening to a sermon about the many ways in which women must be obedient to their husbands, she couldn’t resist asking, “Must our husbands obey us too?”

In 1992, Ayaan was married off by her father to a distant cousin living in Canada. In order to escape this forced marriage, she fled to the Netherlands where she was granted asylum and then citizenship. In her first years in Holland she worked in factories and as a maid—but she quickly learned Dutch and was then able to study at the University of Leiden. She soon began working as a translator for Somali immigrants, where she witnessed firsthand the clash between liberal Western values and those of Islamic culture.

After earning her M.A. in political science, Ayaan began working as a researcher for the Wiardi Beckman Foundation in Amsterdam. She eventually served as an elected member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2006. While in parliament, she focused on furthering the integration of non-Western immigrants into Dutch society and on defending the rights of Muslim women. She campaigned to raise awareness about violence against women, including honor killings and female genital mutilation—practices that had followed Muslim immigrants to Holland. In her three years in government, she found her voice as an advocate for an “enlightened Islam.”

In 2004, Ayaan gained international attention following the murder of Theo van Gogh, who had directed her short film, Submission, depicting the oppression of women under Islam. The assassin, a radical Muslim, left a death threat for Ayaan pinned to Van Gogh’s chest.

In 2006, Ayaan was forced to resign from parliament when the Dutch minister for immigration revoked her citizenship, arguing that she had misled the authorities at the time of her asylum application. However, the Dutch courts later reversed this decision, leading to the fall of the administration. Disillusioned with the Netherlands, Ayaan then moved to the United States.

Ayaan is a fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. She is also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, currently researching the relationship between the West and Islam. Her willingness to speak out for the rights of women, along with her abandonment of the Muslim faith, continue to make her a target for violence by Islamic extremists. She lives with round-the-clock security.

In 2005, Ayaan was named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People,” one of the Glamour Heroes, and Reader’s Digest’s European of the Year. She is the author of The Caged Virgin, Infidel, and Nomad. She is now working on Short-cut to Enlightenment, a dialogue between Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and three of her favorite Western thinkers: John Stuart Mill, Karl Popper, and Friedrich Hayek. 

A few weeks ago, Ayaan and I had a long conversation about her critics and about the increasingly pernicious meme of “Islamophobia”—which our inimitable friend Christopher Hitchens once dubbed “a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.” [NOTE 5/11/14: This wonderful sentence seems to have been wrongly attributed to Hitch (who was imitable after all). I’m told these words first appeared in a tweet from Andrew Cummins. Well done, Andrew!]

The following text is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Atheism | Ethics | Religion | Islam | Terrorism | Violence | War | October 11, 2013

No Ordinary Violence

Malala Yousafzai

A young man enters a public place—a school, a shopping mall, an airport—carrying a small arsenal. He begins killing people at random. He has no demands, and no one is spared. Eventually, the police arrive, and after an excruciating delay as they marshal their forces, the young man is brought down. 

This has happened many times, and it will happen again. After each of these crimes, we lose our innocence—but then innocence magically returns. In the aftermath of horror, grief, and disbelief, we seem to learn nothing of value. Indeed, many of us remain committed to denying the one thing of value that is there to be learned.

After the Boston Marathon bombing, a journalist asked me, “Why is it always angry young men who do these terrible things?” She then sought to connect the behavior of the Tsarnaev brothers with that of Jared Loughner, James Holmes, and Adam Lanza. Like many people, she believed that similar actions must have similar causes.

But there are many sources of human evil. And if we want to protect ourselves and our societies, we must understand this. To that end we should differentiate at least four types of violent actor.

Ethics | Martial Arts | Self-Defense | Violence | August 13, 2013

Self-Defense and the Law

A Roundtable Interview

prison

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Participants:

Steven Graff Levine has specialized in California state criminal law for more than 23 years. He was a Los Angeles County district attorney for 13 years, a staff lawyer for the California Supreme Court for three years, and now has an ongoing criminal law defense practice to help those in need of legal assistance in all types of criminal matters. Steve is a 2010 graduate of the prestigious Gerry Spence Trial Lawyers College and was named a 2012 California Super Lawyer . He has been involved in prosecution, defense, and appeal in thousands of cases and has conducted more than 125 jury trials, including more than 20 murder trials.

Rory Miller served in corrections for seventeen years, as an officer and sergeant working maximum security, booking, and mental health; leading a tactical team; and teaching courses ranging from Defensive Tactics and Use of Force to First Aid and Crisis Communications with the Mentally Ill. For fourteen months he was an advisor to the Iraqi Corrections System, working in Baghdad and Kurdish Sulaymaniyah. He has a BS degree in psychology, served in the National Guard as a combat medic (91A/B), and earned college varsities in judo and fencing and a mokuroku in jujutsu. He is the author of Meditations on Violence, Facing Violence, Scaling Force, and several other books.

Matt Thornton has trained in the martial arts for more than thirty years and was among the first Americans to receive a black belt in the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He has been a mixed martial arts (MMA) coach to some of the world’s top athletes, including multiple-time UFC champion Randy Couture, Dan Henderson, Forrest Griffin, and others. Matt is the founder of SBGi, a martial arts academy with thirty-plus affiliate schools in more than eleven countries. His writing has appeared in Black Belt Magazine, Inside Kung Fu, Martial Arts Legends, Fighters, Martial Arts Illustrated, and other journals.

 

* * *

 

(Photo by kevin dooley)

A few of the subjects I explore in my work have inspired an unusual amount of controversy. Some of this results from real differences of opinion or honest confusion, but much of it is due to the fact that certain of my detractors deliberately misrepresent my views. I have responded to the most consequential of these distortions here.

(Photo by kevin dooley)

Version 2.4 (June 21, 2014)

A few of the subjects I explore in my work have inspired an unusual amount of controversy. Some of this results from real differences of opinion or honest confusion, but much of it is due to the fact that certain of my detractors deliberately misrepresent my views. The purpose of this article is to address the most consequential of these distortions.

A general point about the mechanics of defamation: It is impossible to effectively defend oneself against unethical critics. If nothing else, the law of entropy is on their side, because it will always be easier to make a mess than to clean it up. It is, for instance, easier to call a person a “racist,” a “bigot,” a “misogynist,” etc. than it is for one’s target to prove that he isn’t any of these things. In fact, the very act of defending himself against such accusations quickly becomes debasing. Whether or not the original charges can be made to stick, the victim immediately seems thin-skinned and overly concerned about his reputation. And, rebutted or not, the original charges will be repeated in blogs and comment threads, and many readers will assume that where there’s smoke, there must be fire.

Ethics | Philosophy | Science | Self | Violence | January 22, 2013

The Power of Bad Incentives

A Response to the 2013 Edge Question

WHAT *SHOULD* WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?


Imagine that a young, white man has been falsely convicted of a serious crime and sentenced to five years in a maximum-security penitentiary. He has no history of violence and is, understandably, terrified at the prospect of living among murderers and rapists. Hearing the prison gates shut behind him, a lifetime of diverse interests and aspirations collapses to a single point: He must avoid making enemies so that he can serve out his sentence in peace.

Ethics | Self-Defense | Violence | January 6, 2013

FAQ on Violence

Having read many hundreds of responses to my recent article on guns, and hundreds more to an earlier post on self-defense, I now realize that there are differences in temperament across which it may be impossible to communicate about the reality of human violence. Many people simply do not want to think about this topic in any detail. I concede that, given the relative safety in which most of us live, this can be a reasonable attitude to adopt. Most people will do just fine walking the streets of London, Paris, or even New York, oblivious to the possibility that they could be physically attacked. Happily, the odds of avoiding violence are in our favor.

Those readers who were appalled by my article on guns seem to recoil at the suggestion that one might want to prepare for an unlikely encounter with evil. What is the best way to respond to a knife attack? How do home invasions actually occur?—such questions can seem the product of an unhealthy imagination. There are people who consider using a burglar alarm at night or even locking their doors to be debasing concessions to fear. I have heard from many people in the U.K. who claim to be greatly relieved that their police do not carry firearms. Encountering my lengthy ruminations on violence and self-defense, these readers have begun to worry about my sanity.

gun

(Photo by Zorin Denu)

Fantasists and zealots can be found on both sides of the debate over guns in America. On the one hand, many gun-rights advocates reject even the most sensible restrictions on the sale of weapons to the public. On the other, proponents of stricter gun laws often seem unable to understand why a good person would ever want ready access to a loaded firearm. Between these two extremes we must find grounds for a rational discussion about the problem of gun violence.

Unlike most Americans, I stand on both sides of this debate. I understand the apprehension that many people feel toward “gun culture,” and I share their outrage over the political influence of the National Rifle Association. How is it that we live in a society in which one of the most compelling interests is gun ownership? Where is the science lobby? The safe food lobby? Where is the get-the-Chinese-lead-paint-out-of-our-kids’-toys lobby? When viewed from any other civilized society on earth, the primacy of guns in American life seems to be a symptom of collective psychosis.

Most of my friends do not own guns and never will. When asked to consider the possibility of keeping firearms for protection, they worry that the mere presence of them in their homes would put themselves and their families in danger. Can’t a gun go off by accident? Wouldn’t it be more likely to be used against them in an altercation with a criminal? I am surrounded by otherwise intelligent people who imagine that the ability to dial 911 is all the protection against violence a sane person ever needs.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Sam Harris

(Photo by Peter Gordon)

After writing an article on the principles of self-defense, I was inundated with emails and Internet comments—many of which came from experts in the field. The response was very supportive, and I haven’t found anything of substance to amend in my original essay. However, I did take one criticism to heart: I don’t know enough about Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ).

I am now doing my best to rectify that problem. What follows is the first installment of what (I hope) will be an ongoing journal of my progress in BJJ. I suspect that many readers of this blog have no interest in the martial arts and will consider this an unfortunate departure from my main areas of competence. I am convinced, however, that training in BJJ offers a powerful lens through which to examine some primary human concerns—truth v. delusion, self knowledge, ethics, and overcoming fear. I hope some of you bear with me.

Self-Defense | Violence | November 5, 2011

The Truth about Violence

3 Principles of Self-Defense

image

(Photo by Pensiero)

As a teenager, I once had an opportunity to fly in a police helicopter over a major American city. Naively, I thought the experience might be uneventful. Perhaps there would be no crime between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night. However, from the moment we were airborne, there was a fresh emergency every fifteen seconds: Shots fired… rape in progress… victim stabbed…It was a deluge. Of course, the impression this left on me was, in part, the result of a sampling bias: I was hearing nothing but incident reports from a city of 4 million people, most of whom would never encounter violence directly. (No one calls the police to say “Everything is still okay!”) Yet it was uncanny to discover the chaos that lurked at the margins of my daily routine. A few minutes from where I might otherwise have been eating dinner, rapes, robberies, and murders were in progress.

I confess that, as a critic of religion, I have paid too little attention to the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Frankly, it always felt unsportsmanlike to shoot so large and languorous a fish in so tiny a barrel. This scandal was one of the most spectacular “own goals” in the history of religion, and there seemed to be no need to deride faith at its most vulnerable and self-abased. Even in retrospect, it is easy to understand the impulse to avert one’s eyes: Just imagine a pious mother and father sending their beloved child to the Church of a Thousand Hands for spiritual instruction, only to have him raped and terrified into silence by threats of hell. And then imagine this occurring to tens of thousands of children in our own time—and to children beyond reckoning for over a thousand years. The spectacle of faith so utterly misplaced, and so fully betrayed, is simply too depressing to think about.

NOTE: Please see my most recent thoughts on this and other controversial subjects here: Response to Controversy.—SH

Imagine that a known terrorist has planted a bomb in the heart of a nearby city. He now sits in your custody. Rather than conceal his guilt, he gloats about the forthcoming explosion and the magnitude of human suffering it will cause. Given this state of affairs—in particular, given that there is still time to prevent an imminent atrocity—it seems that subjecting this unpleasant fellow to torture may be justifiable. For those who make it their business to debate the ethics of torture this is known as the “ticking-bomb” case.

While the most realistic version of the ticking bomb case may not persuade everyone that torture is ethically acceptable, adding further embellishments seems to awaken the Grand Inquisitor in most of us. If a conventional explosion doesn’t move you, consider a nuclear bomb hidden in midtown Manhattan. If bombs seem too impersonal an evil, picture your seven-year-old daughter being slowly asphyxiated in a warehouse just five minutes away, while the man in your custody holds the keys to her release. If your daughter won’t tip the scales, then add 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. Clearly, the consequences of one person’s uncooperativeness can be made so grave, and his malevolence and culpability so transparent, as to stir even a self-hating moral relativist from his dogmatic slumbers.

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