Harris on torture

 
 
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Impish
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06 July 2006 04:07
 

It was a struggle to read this section dispassionately, without emotion, as I have had a hair-trigger response to this topic in the past. I think I've been mostly successful in that effort, and I've benefited from that.

In the end, I agree and disagree with Harris. Harris bases his argument on the conceptual equivalence of "collateral damage"—the injury and death of innocent civilians—and "torture." The crux of his argument is (paraphrasing) "If we are willing to live with collateral damage, we should be willing to live with torture."

I think Harris is successful in showing the moral equivalence of the two, and so at a certain level of abstraction, his statement is true, that is, I take this rewording as logically TRUE:

"Those who are willing to live with collateral damage should be willing to live with torture."

As is so often the case when we deconstruct a logical argument, everything hinges on one premise or another; the "if" part. I don't consider myself as one who is willing to live with collateral damage, so I remain one who opposes torture. Note that I'm rooting my stance in Harris' logic; in his world view, my stance would be accepted as logically (and morally) consistent.

So it all boils down to "collateral damage," and Harris makes a false assumption in stating we are willing to justify collateral damage. In a sense, he can be excused this assumption if only because, ipso facto, all Americans are "living with" collateral damage.

I'm against the war on Iraq, and the "war on terrorism." However, Sam Harris is forcing me to justify my position using more than my gut reaction to violence of any sort. Am I also against a war on Islamic fundamentalists? To be honest, I'm teetering on that question, and if I should decide that I can "live with" such a war, I'll have to confront my position on collateral damage, and thereby reconsider my position on torture.

It's a scary thought, and I'm tempted to maintain my pacifist stance just to avoid that particular challenge to my thinking. But that would be emotion talking over my reason, and if nothing else, Harris has shown me how essential it is to subtract emotion from my thought process, at least when contemplating such matters.

Now to another issue:  I'm don't think the section on torture belongs in a book titled "The End of Faith" at all, whatever Sam's position on the topic.

As I said above, I'm glad to have read it, but think it belongs in another book, or essay, or work.  It gets rather far afield of the topic of reason vs. faith, and I fear that many who disagree will feel justified in discounting the book in its entirety.  It provides an "out" for people who would rather not think about these things.

Your thoughts?

 
evangelicalhumanist
 
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evangelicalhumanist
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07 July 2006 09:00
 

Tough questions.

First, I suspect you are correct, torture doesn’t really belong in the book.

I, too, am generally against war, but there are times when war is thrust upon one. However it is that a nation comes to the conclusion that making war is necessary, then it does so in the full knowledge that there will be collateral damage. Presumably that damaged is calculated into the cost.

Sam’s logic fails just a little for me on linking collateral damage and torture, however. Collateral damage, however messy, is always pretty much of an accident, so while undesirable, it can be condoned. Torture is never, to my mind, accidental, and we make deliberate choices about things like this.

Either we stand for what we stand for, or we don’t. We can’t be all noble in thought and not deed, and still think it counts as goodness.

 
 
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Rod
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07 July 2006 15:52
 

Impish,

Am I also against a war on Islamic fundamentalists? To be honest, I’m teetering on that question, and if I should decide that I can “live with” such a war, I’ll have to confront my position on collateral damage, and thereby reconsider my position on torture.

I think you and Sam make a mistake in equating the two morally. Morality is about intention. You can give a child medication, not intending to kill them with an allergic reaction…even though you know it can happen. You can design a car, knowing that they kill thirty thousand people a year. You are not immoral. When France was liberated from the Nazis they did not complain about the collateral damage. War is a fight to the death…to win. The immorality is to not try and lessen the amount of suffering required to win. Islamic fundamentalists have declared war on you…you have no choice. By the way, this says nothing about whether I support the war in Iraq.
I am against torture. My biggest objection is what it does to those condoning it.

It’s a scary thought, and I’m tempted to maintain my pacifist stance just to avoid that particular challenge to my thinking.

Try maintaining a pacifist stance when the “bad” guys have your family. Now tell us about emotion and reason.

Rod

 
zenartisan
 
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zenartisan
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16 July 2006 03:50
 

I didn’t quite understand the torture section either. Then I thought, that his argument was similar to the one he poses sighting moderate and extreme religious beliefs.  A moderate’s stance on collateral damage starts one sliding down the slope of what aspects of war are acceptable, thus lending some credence to more extreme measures.  I’ve always thought of the “morality of war” as an oxymoron.

 
 
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imatt_net
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07 August 2006 08:09
 

I agree that Harris’ points on torture weaken the rest of the book.

The hypothetical cases in support of torture always involve concocting situations which don’t exist in real life.

To wit - how ofter do we capture a known terrorist who could actually help diffuse a bomb that was placed next to a roomful of children?

You would think researching the use of torture during the Inquisition would lead a serious thinker to be more skeptical about the real-world use of such tacticts.

 
 
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mudfoot
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07 August 2006 08:16
 

They have a name for people who reject arguments solely because of their conclusions—dogmatists.

Torture is bad.  Sam Harris likes torture.  Therefore, Sam Harris is bad.

imatt—regarding the captured terrorist, you can torture for him to give up the name of his cell partners, funding sources, future plans, etc.

There’s all sorts of wonderful things that torture can bring.  Sam Harris is actually advocating a return to the Spanish Inquisition.  It’s a good thing you guys got wise to it.

 
 
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imatt_net
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07 August 2006 10:43
 

mudfoot - your objection to my post seems pretty offhand. i really don’t think my post was dogmatic.

in the spirit of lively debate, i will reply once.

i understand that in a perfect world, you would catch someone, know he was a terrorist, who he works for, etc.

but it doesn’t seem to show up that way in real life.

for instance, the fact that the u.s. armed forces are clearly being ordered to torture captives in afghanistan and iraq should have at least reduced the number of attacks on our occupying forces there.

i do not think sam harris is completely wrong because he chose an unfortunate assertion to pad his otherwise engaging book.

if you told me that torturing other human beings could grant me eternal youth and longevity, i would still consider torture wrong.

so just to be clear - my objection to torture is twofold: first, it is morally indefensible. second, it is of quesitonable tactical value because information gained during torture is notoriously unreliiable.

 
TheChampion
 
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TheChampion
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07 August 2006 11:17
 

Reading Sam’s book was torture…

 
 
 
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mcmanigle
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24 August 2006 09:18
 

[quote author=“mudfoot”]There’s all sorts of wonderful things that torture can bring.  Sam Harris is actually advocating a return to the Spanish Inquisition.  It’s a good thing you guys got wise to it.

Don’t ignore this.

 
 
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H. Finn
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24 August 2006 09:34
 

[quote author=“deldotvee”][quote author=“mudfoot”]There’s all sorts of wonderful things that torture can bring.  Sam Harris is actually advocating a return to the Spanish Inquisition.  It’s a good thing you guys got wise to it.

Don’t ignore this.

I know that Sam’s writing on torture in the book has caused a lot of controversy among even Freethinkers.  (Almost as much as his statements on meditation, but that’s another post.) As I recall, I read EOF a while back and don’t have it in front of me, what Sam actaully said was that if you are willing to accept collateral damage, there really isn’t much more immorality in torture.  The argument is that torture involves “intent” which is usually an element of a crime, whereas dropping bombs which will hit the target but which are clearly known to kill innocents is “accidental”.  The dropping of the bombs however is intentional and the consequences are known.  More innocent suffer and die than in specific incidents of torture.

If we could have by torture discovered and stopped the 9/11 plot would that have been appropriate?  How much collateral damage is acceptable?


I really haven’t come down on one side or another of this, and do agree that it seems a little off topic in the book anyway.

I am still a big fan of Sam Harris, peace be upon him.  I have preordered his new book

 
 
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mcmanigle
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24 August 2006 09:42
 

[quote author=“H. Finn”]More innocent suffer and die

What’s one innocent, more or less? If “right” is a matter of ‘more’ or ‘less’ (and I’m willing to entertain the concept, if not accept it OUT OF HAND) than more of whatever you say is better. And be damned to you.

What I mean is, there IS no right or wrong, then, and there is only ‘more” of something, or ‘less’. Again, the abstraction of the greatest good for the greatest number rears its ugly head.

 
 
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H. Finn
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24 August 2006 09:56
 

[quote author=“deldotvee”][quote author=“H. Finn”]More innocent suffer and die

What’s one innocent, more or less? If “right” is a matter of ‘more’ or ‘less’ (and I’m willing to entertain the concept, if not accept it OUT OF HAND) than more of whatever you say is better. And be damned to you.

What I mean is, there IS no right or wrong, then, and there is only ‘more” of something, or ‘less’. Again, the abstraction of the greatest good for the greatest number rears its ugly head.


First, of all , I don’t have an answer on this issue.  What if we had tortured someone to find out about the 9/11 plot and they lied?  I understand that’s common and torture is not effective most of the time anyway, so why indluge in a morally repugnant behavior.

However, as someone has pointed out (at least before 9/11) that the difference between a terrorist act and collateral damge is whether or not its carried out by an air force. Again, I don’t know the answer, but I’ll obviously have to quote an atheist on the matter.

For every complex question, there is a answer which is simple, short, and wrong.”  H.L. Mencken

 
 
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mcmanigle
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24 August 2006 10:06
 

[quote author=“H. Finn”][quote author=“deldotvee”][quote author=“H. Finn”]First, of all , I don’t have an answer on this issue.

You don’t even have the right question. How can you expect to get to the right answer?

The question is, “Is the human race special? Do we have the capacity to ensure our own survival?”

I won’t tell you what I think my answer is, but you can guess. Repugnant, isn’t it?

 
 
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H. Finn
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24 August 2006 10:16
 

deldotvee


Your question is, “Is the human race special? 

I actually don’t know your answer but if this is the question the answer depends upon your measure of special.  My gut reaction is “not really” but anyway, I’m done for today, I guess I’ll just go back to the porn sites, some pretty special humans there for sure.

 
 
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Impish
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24 August 2006 11:05
 

[quote author=“H. Finn”] As I recall, I read EOF a while back and don’t have it in front of me, what Sam actaully said was that if you are willing to accept collateral damage, there really isn’t much more immorality in torture.

Right: as I said above, Sam makes a compelling argument equating collateral damage and torture.  As I am against both, my stance remains within his logical framework.

Much of the discussion of this chapter is a knee-jerk, emotional response to the very idea of torture, and I took on Sam’s challenge to think things through rationally (and expressed my gratitude above as well).

Still, I regret that Sam included this chapter, as it allows the religiously enslaved to zero in on that issue alone, thus side-stepping the major point of the book.

 
 
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unsmoked
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24 August 2006 20:30
 

I would guess that our Big Brother is working day and night on a truth serum - something more effective than Johnny Walker.  This potion will make the subject relaxed and happy.  After telling a few jokes, the whereabouts of Ben Ladin, the recipe for his mother’s pasta sauce, where and how he had his first sexual encounter, he will start to cry and tell where he stashed the nuclear bomb and what time it is going to g