Sam Harris Should Not Regret or Apologize For His Rational Position On Torture

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Joined  29-04-2011
29 April 2011 12:46

From SH’s recent article OnTorture:

And so, I am now a bit wiser and can offer a piece of advice to others: not everything worth saying is worth saying oneself. I am sure that the world needs someone to think out loud about the ethics of torture, and to point out the discrepancies in how we weight various harms for which we hold one another morally culpable, but that someone did not need to be me. The subject has done nothing but distract and sicken readers who might have otherwise found my work useful.

That paragraph bothers me. If a respected person of his intellectual status should not write on this subject as he did, then who should? Yes it does need to be SH, among others, who should so write. I do not buy Sam’s implication that intelligent & thoughtful people cannot disagree with his views on this touchy subject without Sam’s informed views on other subjects being discredited in their minds as a result.  I cant even understand how grown ups can rationally disagree with his position - I’ve certainly heard no cogent argument against SH’s position (just emotings). I suspect most governments are responsibly grown up about it, if only silently. In Alan Dershowitz’s essay “Tortured Reasoning” in the book Torture (edited by S. Levinson) he points out (p 257) that “All forms of torture are widespread among nations that have signed treaties prohibiting all torture.”  SH just needs some thicker skin and he shouldn’t worry that he will lose any worthwhile fans.

I think the only problem is that too many people have just not grown up and allowed themselves to be realistic or even honest with themselves. When some one says or implies (often self-righteously) that he or she would rather have his family and other innocents blown to pieces rather than have a knowledgeable terrorist waterboarded to save them,  I think his or her only excuse for such gross moral negligence is that he or she is still morally only a child who cannot discern a true lesser evil here.

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Joined  29-04-2011
29 April 2011 19:42

It is a pity that Sam is not inclined to publish his views on torture anymore but I accept his reasons why. No one should request or expect of others to be heroes. I believe there are enough grown up people out there of sufficient intellectual stature who would ignore Sam’s advice and take up the challenge. What I can see here is that perhaps such a person would have to have qualities of a seasoned politician and good media skills. As Sam himself points out in his post, the problem stems from incongruity between serious, honest, rational thinking about the issue of torture on the one hand and, on the other hand, seeking shock value for a quick sell. In this context, distortions of the reported views are quite understandable, as they increase intended shock value. It should also be hardly surprising that the issue of torture as presented by Sam attracts so many critics and popular commentators. The shock value of it and opportunity to score cheap points must look too obvious and too tempting to be ignored. Moreover, discussing comparison of torture to collateral damage must seem like a gold mine. Every student of a basic ethics course would be familiar with a thought experiment in which a prospect of inflicting death on an innocent bystander feels more acceptable when done at a long distance and the bystander remains anonymous than when a bystander is close and gets to be known. It’s a common feeling, deeply held in human psyche that no amount of reasoning can shake off. Exploitation of deeply held feelings, and also prejudice, is part of every public debate on any contentious issue, be it torture, voluntary euthanasia, abortion or public health care system. MuseChaser wrote: “I think the only problem is that too many people have just not grown up and allowed themselves to be realistic or even honest with themselves.” It’s just that they never did and they never will.

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Joined  01-05-2011
01 May 2011 23:57

Actually, I can see why he thought he should apologize, and take a less aggressive stance. It’s for the very reason he is experiencing the backlash: because other atheists are not necessarily atheists just because they can think critically.

What Sam is positing with his torture commentary requires a thinking ability that is at least a level or more deeper than most people can think, even fellow atheists apparently. I think Sam is feeling the same sense of mild but sustained shock I am at the mind boggling responses other atheists are writing about Sam’s position.

This one incident has been profound enough to inspire me to finally write my book.  Actually, Sam’s problem is more like the icing on the cake for a reason to write my book. The major thrust has been borne of my personal observations over and over and over again of this very same phenomenon of fellow critical thinkers, in person and through media, profoundly incapable of retorting a controversial point I make by resorting to rationalizing the emotional knee jerk reaction they initially had to my statement, as opposed to slowing down and assessing their demonstrably erroneous interpretation. Again, it is mind boggling.

The reason many atheists do this is obvious, just as it is with theists, but requires a bit more text to explain. However, it certainly is amazing to see atheists making the same defensive errors that theists do when you challenge their beliefs. I feel Sam’s pain.

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Joined  24-12-2004
02 May 2011 04:16

He didn’t apologize for his view on torture, he said he regretted including it in TEoF because it’s turned out to be such a colossal distraction, and he clarified it ... again.

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Joined  06-01-2011
02 May 2011 13:03

dear mr harris,

to write this is a very big deal for me but i feel that you need to hear what i have to say.  putting my thoughts into written words is not an easy task for me to undertake.  so…

having others who are sane, smart, and eloquent to bravely articulate “controversial topics” to the public is so important to me.  i read a comment in your forum in which the person states that you do not need to be anyone’s hero.  i agree.  why does anyone put out their neck?  and…

i am perplexed that you did not see that your words would court “quite so much controversy.”  i have said so much less controversial words to my family and friends and have nearly had my head cut off by them yet i persevere.

you say that you regret stating your position in your “collateral damage argument.”  i do not regret reading it.  i am grateful.  so grateful for people like you.

many readers do and always will mistakenly conclude that you have a cavalier attitude toward the practice of torture as they will also always mistakenly think that they are thinking clearly.

rational discussion about the ethics of torture has proved impossible in almost every case so there are some cases in which rational discussion has been possible.  those are the discussions to capitalize on.  don’t lose sight of the root.  help those that are available to your words keep the discussion alive and growing.

“the spectacle of someone not being reflexively and categorically “against torture” seems just too good to pass up”…(to whom?)

“and so, i am now a bit wiser and can offer a piece of advice to others: not everything worn saying is worth saying oneself.”  this advice that you extend makes me sad.  i understand why you say these words.  i have to admit that i am selfish in wanting you to not hold back, ever.

stand by your views like your life depended on it.  always be proud to state your views over and over and if you need a break, take one.  i will understand.  if you need a hug, get one.

most people don’t make a lot of sense.  you make a lot of sense.  silly sentences here but i gotta say it.

your critics are “just not thinking clearly about the reality of human suffering.”

thank you,

[ Edited: 02 May 2011 13:05 by stef]
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Joined  30-12-2011
30 December 2011 07:41

“Sam Harris is flawed because he advocates killing people for their beliefs and he also advocates torture”.

Someone excreted that nugget on another forum where I am a member.

We started arguing…. I pursued it because I felt that otherwise people unfamiliar with Sam’s work would needlessly get the wrong impression. The other poster claimed to be a philosophy student and that he had read TEOF several times, I just found his approach to be ass-backward: “This is my immovable opinion, I will now re-arrange all evidence to support it”.

Am I missing something? Here is the thread, I’m clunker1:

(It had started on another unrelated thread, but so as not to hijack I made the “Take-a-swing-at-Harris-thread”. The first one has since been removed because it got nasty.)

His adamant insistence puzzled me….

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Joined  13-11-2011
01 January 2012 12:01

* It seems, in fact, that many people do not understand what the phrase “collateral damage” signifies, and this leads them to imagine that I have drawn a false analogy. Most assume my analogy fails in the following way: torture is the intentional infliction of guaranteed suffering, while collateral damage is the unintentional imposition of possible suffering (or death). Apples and oranges

I have much respect for Mr. Harris, and value his work. But to agree by default on flawed arguments as well as all things argued by Mr. Harris, is to mock the position he promotes.

When title of topic reads - Sam Harris Should Not Regret or Apologize For His Rational Position On Torture,
any objective approach for discussion is dismissed. To post something under the pretext of representing it as some superior truth, where discussion is replaced by some strange faith based praise of his argument.

The problem regarding Mr. Harris claimed rational position on torture is that his basic knowledge about the subject is lacking. His rational position is founded on wrong assumptions about what torture in reality is.

The wrong assumption of torture being actions of inflicting pain and suffering is perhaps common. It is quite similar to the belief in terror being the actions of a suicide bomber to mention one example. Terror in truth is only the emotional state one can respond with to a specific action, and terrorism is actions with intention of creating the emotional state of terror,

In other words. A suicide bomber with intention of killing someone is not a terrorist, and his actions are not acts of terrorism. The suicide bomber is purely a murderer, and his actions are murder. On the other hand, a suicide bomber could kill someone with intention other than just to kill. The intention could be to provoke the emotional state of terror in surrounding environment.

So why do I claim his rational position on torture is flawed you perhaps wonder? Well…. Because torture have little to do with inflicting pain and suffering. The objective and purpose of torture is to mentally break a human being. Inflicting pain and suffering could be elements to reach goal, but are only some of many elements to reach the same goal. This is why people with knowledge and experience on the issue of torture understands that information gained are of low value. If someone beyond reasonable doubt believed Mr. Harris knew about a bomb set to go of, torture would lead Mr. Harris to admit planning and placing the claimed bomb even if no bomb would exist. When torture functions as intended, every answer accepted will be given, regardless of truth being involved.

I am not sure if Mr. Harris in some way had this question on torture imposed upon him. And this lead to him taking a position on a issue he clearly lacks deeper understanding of. Making this a relevant example on our usual response of taking positions and defending them, instead of just saying one is not sure or do not really know.

I guess my comment will be regarded with the open minded attitude implied by topic title. But I would like any response being directed mostly towards my own possibly flawed arguments, and not on beliefs about attributes related to me as person. For some strange reason similar discussions arguments like mine are often met with assumptions about me as a person.
Not that I expect other than rational and logical arguments and comments in response of course, as one should expect from a forum dedicated to the work and ideas valued by Mr. Harris.

[ Edited: 01 January 2012 12:06 by Vallhall]