And Harris Replies in Kind

As I mentioned, Sam Harris has already replied to Sullivan’s essay. Let’s consider some highlights:

Contrary to your allegation, I do not “disdain” religious moderates. I do, however, disdain bad ideas and bad arguments–which, I’m afraid, you have begun to manufacture in earnest. I’d like to point out that you have not rebutted any of the substantial challenges I made in my last post. Rather, you have gone on to make other points, most of which I find unsurprising and irrelevant to the case I have made against religious faith. For instance, you claim that many fundamentalists are tolerant of dissent and capable of friendship with you despite their dogmatic views about sex. You also remind me that many devoutly religious people do good things on the basis of their religious beliefs. I do not doubt either of these propositions. You could catalogue such facts until the end of time, and they would not begin to suggest that God actually exists, or that the Bible is his Word, or that his Son came to earth in the person of Jesus to redeem our sins. (Emphasis Added)

That bold-faced portion should serve as a useful corrective to my SciBling Josh Rosenau, who is fond of claiming that Harris thinks all religious faith is bad.

Skipping ahead a few sentences, Harris writes:

As I have argued elsewhere, the alleged usefulness of religion–the fact that it sometimes gets people to do very good things indeed–is not an argument for its truth. And, needless to say, the usefulness of religion can be disputed, as I have done in both my books. As you may know, I’ve argued that religion gets people to do good things for bad reasons, when good reasons are actually available; I have also argued that it rather often gets people to do very bad things that they would not otherwise do.

That is a perfect summary of my own view of the situation.

Here’s another part I liked:

There is no way around the fact that St. Paul, Pascal, the popes (any of them), and every other Christian worth the name have made a claim about the exclusive validity of Christianity. This claim is, at best, ludicrously provincial. The evidence adduced in support of Christian doctrine can be found in every other religion–saints performing miracles, resurrections from the dead, channeled books, psychic powers, devotional thrills, unconditional love, etc.–these claims are either equally compelling or equally bogus. Happily, for my purposes, “equally compelling” reduces to “equally bogus”–because these claims are mutually incompatible. If Christianity is right, all other religions are wrong. Christians are committed to the following (at least): Jesus was the messiah (so the Jews are wrong); he was divine and resurrected (so the Muslims are wrong-“Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger–they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them”: Qur’an, 4:157); there is only one God (so the Hindus are wrong). But, of course, the Christians have no better reason to think they’re right than the Jews, Muslims, or Hindus do.

Well said. Let’s do one more before calling it a day:

Needless to say, your attempt to pull theism up by its bootstraps (“since God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe; and the meaning of the universe cannot be in conflict with its Creator”) could be used to justify almost any metaphysical assertion. “The Flying Spaghetti Monster who created the universe” is also “definitionally” the Creator of the universe; this doesn’t mean that he exists, or that the universe had a Creator at all. Many other chains of pious reasoning could be cashed-out in the same way: “Satan is the Tempter; I find that I am tempted on a hourly basis to eat ice cream and have sex with my neighbor’s wife; ergo, Satan exists.” Or what if I suggested that what we know about the brain renders the idea of a human soul rather implausible, and one your brethren countered: “The immortal soul governs all the activity in a person’s brain; I have no fear about what neuroscience will tell me about the brain, because the soul is definitionally the brain’s operator.” Would this strike you as an argument for the existence of souls?

I recommend reading the entire exchange. So far it looks to me like it’s Harris in a rout. I should probably point out that one of the reasons I’ve been following this exchange so closely is that I generally hold Sullivan in high regard. Granted, he ran The New Republic into the ground and in the early days of the Iraq War wrote a lot of vile, offensive and just flat wrong stuff. But in the last two years or so he has done a lot to make up for that, and today I find his blog consistently worth reading. I feel like if anyone can provide a rational defense of moderate religious beliefs then he can. So far, though, I frankly think I could do a better job defending his point of view.

Comments

  1. #1 Fargus
    January 24, 2007

    To be fair, Sullivan probably hasn’t had to defend his moderate religious beliefs against as rigorous, well-spoken and articulate an atheist as Harris. Sullivan’s eloquent (with regards to religion) inasmuch as he can dispatch the rabid element of militant atheism without too much of a problem. But when it comes to somebody who makes their points as well as Harris does, it’s a different proposition altogether.

  2. #2 Lettuce
    January 24, 2007

    I’m not in the habit any longer of ad hominem attacks so I won’t indulge in any regarding Andrew Sullivan, however:

    The moment he called me and uncounted numbers of persons he never knew nor will ever know “objectively” pro-terrorist, and he appears to be quite fond of this wor d “objectively” he lost me… Not that he hadn’t done a good start towards that end when he published No Exit in the New Republic…

    He’s not apologized for that, either of them. He’s not worth my time of day.

    Good luck to you who still respect him.

  3. #3 Pseudonym
    January 24, 2007

    Yup, I agree, Fargus. And that’s unfortunate, because I really thought we might see an intelligent, reasoned debate this time. Unfortunately, Sullivan got on the defensive early, and now both participants are off on tangents.

    Maybe next time, Sullivan will be prepared for the correct debate.

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    January 24, 2007

    This reminds me of a thought which struck me while we were pulling apart Jeff Jacoby’s muddled argument against atheism. All the utilitarian arguments for religious belief, propping up a “moderate” faith because it promotes good behavior, fall apart once we discover a better way to maintain the peace.

    I thought we were supposed to be Christian because Jesus is the one true way to Heaven, that we must let Him into our hearts to be forgiven and accept the embrace of God’s love, and all that. If the best argument we can put for “moderate faith” is that it keeps people acting nice, well, sort of, at least some of the time, then we have to drop that squishy monotheism once we have a better way of keeping our fellow children from running with scissors. And guess what? Our pluralistic, secular society, which flourishes on the fruits of science even though it has not fully accepted the methods of science, is the first in which a child can expect to live the full “threescore years and ten.” We didn’t do that by following the diet prohibitions of Leviticus; instead, we eat our vitamins and vaccinate against disease.

    In attempting to defend Christianity, Jacoby and Sullivan have in fact provided a rationale for abandoning it.

  5. #5 Koray
    January 25, 2007

    I’ve read enough of Harris, so I followed it just for what Sullivan had to say, which was very disappointing.

  6. #6 Conrad
    January 25, 2007

    From what I’ve read Harris IS the militant atheist wing (rabid at that, if you listen to the press). Or at least part of the “trinity” as many people who can’t think of new terms have called Harris, Dawkins, and Dennet. So in that case every well read rabid militant atheist who follows that banner should be just fine about grinding Sullivan (or any moderate) to dust. I would also suggest reading as much of Harris as you can. Especially lately. He seems to be coming into a whole new range of argument that as of yet, hasn’t been so well articulated.

  7. #7 Clayton
    January 25, 2007

    “Harris IS the militant atheist wing”

    I love how the term militant is being used by both sides now to descibe outspoken atheists who challenge the taboo. Doesn’t a “militant” advocate the use of force to futher his or her agenda? When you think of militant, don’t you generally picture some guy holding a rifle? Does the word militant, in any way, come even remotely close to descibing, Harris, Dawkins, or Dennett? It kinda of irks me that even people ascribed this label make furthur use of the characterization.

    Many people have never heard any of these guys message. Likely, in part, because they are frequently dismissed as militants. They are nothing of the kind. In fact their message generally promotes quite the opposite. The characterization is at best inappropriate and at worst disingenuous.

    The closest thing to Militant atheism I can think of would be Elton John’s wish to “ban religion completely.” That to me is somewhat militant in so far as it would necessitate the use of force, though I tend to think he wasn’t all that serious. To my knowledge that wish isn’t shared by the “trinity.”

    While I’ve often found that Harris has a knack for more eloquently expressing a sentiment that I share. Though, I’ll admit that often find his numbers questionable. At least, I HOPE their questionable.

    I’m not accusing you Conrad, just venting, I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir anyway(pun intended).

  8. #8 Abbie
    January 25, 2007

    To be fair, Sullivan probably hasn’t had to defend his moderate religious beliefs against as rigorous, well-spoken and articulate an atheist as Harris.

    That’s basically my current goal: to be able to argue in support of atheism/against theism as well as possible. I think becoming a good debater is an easy way for every atheist to help things. Attack them from all sides! We’ll catch them off guard!

  9. #9 David Heddle
    January 25, 2007

    I haven’t followed the debate, but did Sullivan question the highly rational Harris about his interests in xenoglossy, ESP, and other New-Age mystical touchie-feelies?

  10. #10 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    January 25, 2007

    I haven’t followed the debate, but did Sullivan question the highly rational Harris about his interests in xenoglossy…

    xenoglossy

    1. a book containing a selection of the words of a language, usually arranged alphabetically, giving information about their meanings, pronunciations, etymologies, inflected forms, etc., expressed in either the same or another language; lexicon; glossary: a dictionary of English; a Japanese-English dictionary.
    2. a book giving information on particular subjects or on a particular class of words, names, or facts, usually arranged alphabetically: a biographical dictionary; a dictionary of mathematics.
    3. Computers.
    a. a list of codes, terms, keys, etc., and their meanings, used by a computer program or system.
    b. a list of words used by a word-processing program as the standard against which to check the spelling of text entered.

    I’m sorry, I don’t “get it.” If you want to actually read the debate rather than continue to talk out your ***, you can find it at the BeliefNet site, and it is reproduced at richarddawkins.net as well.

  11. #11 David Heddle
    January 25, 2007

    MM FCD,

    I don’t want to read the debate, I just asked a question. There is no sense in which I could find a debate between Sullivan and Harris of interest.

    And this is the reference you should use for the xenoglossy that piques the curiosity of “Mr. Rational”, Sammy Harris:

    Xenoglossy is the paranormal phenomenon in which a person is able to speak a language that he or she could not have acquired by natural means. For example, a person who speaks German fluently and like a native, but has never studied German, been to a German-speaking country, or associated with German-speakers, would be said to exhibit xenoglossy. (Wikipedia)

    Now do you “get it,” or do you require more information?

  12. #12 JohnnieCanuck
    January 25, 2007

    If he doesn’ want to know anything about the subject of the post, then it is just another Heddle thread jacking.

  13. #13 David Heddle
    January 25, 2007

    Yeah it’s threadjacking in a post that celebrates Harris’s reason and rationality to point out that the guy is a flake.

    Or maybe it’s just inconvenient.

  14. #14 Jason Rosenhouse
    January 25, 2007

    David Heddle-

    There’s nothing especially irrational in Harris’ comments on ESP and the like. He’s not saying there are gnarly supernatural forces at work or that we should abandon the scientific method in studying the brain. He’s saying simply that the evidence for phenomena like ESP is stronger than most people think and that it, and other mysteries related to consciousness should be studied more carefully. I disagree with him about ESP, but I see ntohing irrational in what he is saying.

    This thread, incidentally, is not celebrating Harris’ reason and rationality. It is celebrating the arguments he is making against Sullivan’s point of view. So your comments are, indeed, off topic. But since your point of view is a lot closer to Sullivan’s than to Harris’, I’d be interested in any reply you would care to offer to what Harris is saying.

  15. #15 J. J. Ramsey
    January 25, 2007

    Clayton: “I love how the term militant is being used by both sides now to descibe outspoken atheists who challenge the taboo. Doesn’t a ‘militant’ advocate the use of force to futher his or her agenda?”

    Not necessarily. The M-W online dictionary offers as one definition of militant, “aggressively active (as in a cause).” The other definition is pretty close to the one you already mentioned. Being militant certainly implies combativeness, but not necessarily in the sense of physical combat. No one redefined “militant” just to describe atheists.

  16. #16 Clayton
    January 26, 2007

    Point taken J.J. I guess I simply have different standards as to what I consider aggression.

  17. #17 Diana
    January 26, 2007

    Wait a minute; has any boy actually READ Harris’s book?
    I don’t see that he is in any position to argue ANY morality.

    He makes excuses for pre-emptive nuclear strikes against Muslims (p.129)…he hates them worse than Christians, for restricting our freedoms, for torture, for psychic beliefs, and even rails against pacifism as “flagrantly immoral” (p.199).
    I see no superior moral base he has from which to make these pronouncements; he is an arch conservative who happens to be an atheist.

  18. #18 J Daley
    January 26, 2007

    Diana-

    I’m not sure Harris ever does explicitly claim to be a moral authority (does he?). Rather he argues that religion is no moral authority itself.

    I read the book as well, and was relatively dissappointed; Harris seemed to be kind of all over the place, for example citing the Spanish Inquisition’s torture as evidence for the immorality of religion, then citing the thoroughly ridiculous “ticking time-bomb” argument to support using torture during wartime. Even if the dichotomy was (perhaps) meant to highlight the relative nature of morality, he did a poor job of it.

    You’re right, he certainly is a conservative, and even criticizes liberals for their tolerance – which rather undermines his assertion that it isn’t intolerant to point out the untruth of religion (in the Sullivan debate).

    I wish he’d chopped off the last third or so of The End of Faith, and stuck to what he knows how to do well. He’s not a bad spokesman for atheism (if nothing else).

  19. #19 J Daley
    January 26, 2007

    I also would like to see some current philosophers stepping to the plate to take a swing at religion. While I’m certainly satisfied by the empirical objection to the existence of divinity, it would be nice to have those trained in philisophical discourse highlight the faultiness of religion’s premises. I have a copy of Religion and Science, and haven’t gotten around to cracking it, but I’d imagine it’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.

  20. #20 JasonY
    January 26, 2007

    J Daley

    Harris seemed to be kind of all over the place, for example citing the Spanish Inquisition’s torture as evidence for the immorality of religion,

    Er, why isn’t the Inquisition’s use of torture evidence of the immorality of religion?

    … then citing the thoroughly ridiculous “ticking time-bomb” argument to support using torture during wartime.

    On the contrary, he makes a powerful argument that torture may sometimes be ethically justified by comparing it to the relatively uncontroversial belief that causing “collateral damage” (the killing and maiming of innocent civilians) through military action is sometimes ethically justified.

    … it would be nice to have those trained in philisophical discourse highlight the faultiness of religion’s premises

    Okay, I’ll bite. What premises are you referring to? Spell them out.

  21. #21 JasonY
    January 26, 2007

    Diana,

    He makes excuses for pre-emptive nuclear strikes against Muslims (p.129)

    No, he describes a situation in which he believes a pre-emptive nuclear strike against an “Islamist regime” (not “Muslims”) might be justified.

    …and even rails against pacifism as “flagrantly immoral” (p.199).

    I agree with him. I think pacifism is immoral. If you think you have a good rebuttal to his argument, present it.

  22. #22 Explicit Atheist
    January 26, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey
    The M-W online dictionary offers as one definition of militant, “aggressively active (as in a cause).” The other definition is pretty close to the one you already mentioned. Being militant certainly implies combativeness, but not necessarily in the sense of physical combat. No one redefined “militant” just to describe atheists.

    We can call him a radical atheist. Militant is pejorative, it is a label that is applied here to discourage people from taking what he says seriously. As you know, most people rate atheism to be somewhere between bad and very bad. We call theists militant theists only if they connect their theism with violent language and we are entitled to the same courtesy.

  23. #23 Collin
    January 27, 2007

    The inquisition seems to be evidence for the immorality and stupidity of people. Religion merely fanned the flames and is no more the root cause of that bit of torture than atheism is of the torture anywhere in the world today.
    It seems that evolution stands as the real root cause. We’re programmed to quickly notice difference in the world around us and act on it (mostly in a kneejerk, they look different, smell different, act different sort of way). Only with a forced dispassionate assessment of the situation can humans pull away from that natural reaction.

  24. #24 JasonY
    January 27, 2007

    The inquisition seems to be evidence for the immorality and stupidity of people. Religion merely fanned the flames and is no more the root cause of that bit of torture than atheism is of the torture anywhere in the world today.

    And you know this, how? Unsubstantiated assertions of this kind are worthless. Do you have any facts or evidence to support the claim that something other than religion is “the root cause” of the Inquisition? It sure looks like religion was the cause. The Inquisition was a religious institution, run by the officers of a religious sect, for religious purposes drawn from religious texts.

    It seems that evolution stands as the real root cause.

    It doesn’t seem that way at all. Whatever causal role evolution plays in human violence, the fact that different human societies, both historically and today, exhibit vastly different levels of violence demonstrates that culture must also play a huge causal role. If it were all, or mostly, a matter of genes, we would see little variation in the level of violence between different societies. We don’t see that. We see huge variation. That variation can only be attributable to differences in culture. And one of the primary cultural causes of violence is, and has always been, religion.

  25. #25 J Daley
    January 29, 2007

    JJ-

    I agree that the Inquisition’s cycle of torture – confession – implication – more torture was not only immoral, but downright fucking insane. And probably calculated to maintain a deep fear of the Church (not unlike the torture chambers in Oceania’s MiniLove). Still batshit nuts, however.

    I think Harris’ later arguments are pretty weak, however. First of all, most people I know think “collateral damage” is a callous, euphemistic avoidance of the term “killing civilians.” Most people I know abhorred and condemned Madeleine Albright’s assertion that the collateral damage incurred by U.S. sanctions against Iraq was “worth it,” for example. So the relative controversy of Harris’, or your, contention, is at best debatable. I don’t think one can rightly assert that it’s either widely acceptable or not controversial. I do think the military has a vested interest in making it seem uncontroversial, since they create so much of it. But saying it don’t make it so.

    Secondly, the Dershowitz “ticking-time-bomb” argument for torture is stupid, fanciful, invalid and unjust. It’s also a strange thing to assert after having an entire chapter detailing the cruelty and immorality of torture. What is Harris trying to accomplish by this (in a book ostensibly about faith, no less)? It really reads like, the Catholic Church was fucked up in torturing innocents, but I can make an argument why we are different and our torture of innocents is relatively ethically defensible, since we kill so many more innocents with our bombs, and nobody cares about that. Oh and also they might – theoretically speaking, of course – might just know the location of a bomb that will kill hundreds of little girls. Right. Because that has ever, or will ever, happen. In Gitmo.

    Okay, I’ll bite. What premises are you referring to? Spell them out.

    The basic ones. They are frightfully easy to refute empirically. What I’m saying is I’d like to see a popular book by a current philosopher attacking them using reason rather than empiricism. Not because it would be better, but simply to round out the, erm, batting order.

  26. #26 J Daley
    January 29, 2007

    Sorry, the above should (directly, anyway) address Jason Y, not JJ, as that was who I was responding to. For reference sake, anyway.

  27. #27 JasonY
    January 29, 2007

    J. Daley,

    So the relative controversy of Harris’, or your, contention, is at best debatable. I don’t think one can rightly assert that it’s either widely acceptable or not controversial.

    You’ve got to be kidding. Virtually no one argues that Britain and the U.S. were wrong to fight World War II against Nazi Germany and Japan, and yet the Allies killed hundreds of thousands of German and Japanese civilians through aerial bombing of those countries. Those deaths are considered the unfortunate but justified price of achieving the greater good of defeating fascism and tyranny. If killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians–including countless children–is sometimes morally justified in the service of a greater good, why isn’t inflicting temporary physical or mental pain on a terrorist also sometimes morally justified?

    Secondly, the Dershowitz “ticking-time-bomb” argument for torture is stupid, fanciful, invalid and unjust.

    Sigh. Yet more unargued assertion. Care to offer an actual, you know, argument in support of your assertion that the ticking time bomb argument is stupid, etc.?

  28. #28 J Daley
    January 30, 2007

    Jason Y-

    Virtually no one argues that Britain and the U.S. were wrong to fight World War II…

    I’m not – and I don’t believe Harris was, either – talking about WWII. I’m talking about a current, arguably unjustifiable war of aggression with imperialistic overtones that serves little if any objective “greater good”. Would you contend that Albright’s statement, for example, was justifiable? (If so, I think it would only show that it is indeed controversial…)

    Regardless, the justifiability of civilian deaths (such as WWII’s) is often seen through the relative lens of the victor’s history, which will naturally contend that such deaths were caused in defense of a greater good. More often than not in wartime, the winners are heroes and the losers war criminals. Whether a Hiroshima or Nagasaki is morally justified from any humanitarian standpoint, however, is definitely not a foregone conclusion. The argument most often proferred in their defense is simply that many American lives were spared in exchange. Indeed the horror of those bombings stand as warnings to the world against dropping nukes on civilians, ever again.

    Regarding the European theatre, the London Blitz was cited by the Allies as evidence of the Nazi’s inhumanity, whereas Dresden was an unfortunate but necessary consequence of war. And among the few who would argue against the morality of the bombing of Dresden is Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote the eloquent and powerful Slaughterhouse Five to describe the horror and protest the insanity he witnessed there.

    I wasn’t originally attempting to specifically make a case against collateral damage, as you recall. My point was simply: the contention that collateral damage is either widely acceptable or not controversial is false.

    I have to go to class – I’ll address the Dershowitz torture argument after.

    Cheers-

  29. #29 Peter
    January 30, 2007

    I too loved this exchange. Harris is all in all one of my new favorites who is willing to look for common ground but offers no quarter to the irrational. It’s a great time and it’s been quite a sight to watch Sullivan perform some really elaborate mental gymnastics to retain his notions of truth.

  30. #30 JasonY
    January 30, 2007

    J. Daley,

    The point of mentioning World War II was that it demonstrates that the idea that killing innocent civilians is sometimes ethically justified is not particularly controversial. Almost everyone agrees that the Allies were justified in bombing Germany and Japan, even though that action caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, including many children. Specific military operations (e.g., the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firebombing of Dresden) are controversial, but the view that aerial bombing is in principle an acceptable part of war is not.

    So again, if the killing of innocent civilians is sometimes justified in the service of a greater good, why isn’t the infliction of pain on a terrorist also sometimes justified in the service of a greater good?

  31. #31 J Daley
    January 30, 2007

    All right, for the sake of argument let us assume that aerial bombing of areas where civilians may be killed as a result, but where the primary target has military value, is arguably justifiable and that this is a widely accepted view and not at all controversial. (Obviously I disagree, but regardless.)

    The major difference I see between that scenario and torture, any torture, torture in general, whether of a suspected guerilla insurgent or suspected jihadist in Abu Ghraib or Gitmo or, for that matter, suspected freethinker in the Inquisition dungeons is this: “collateral damage” is by definition unintended and accidental. Torture is explicitly willful and intentional; its methods are extremely calculated and its purpose usually vague (there is no greater good that torturing innocents serves). That, I believe, is the yawning ethical chasm between the two.

  32. #32 J Daley
    January 30, 2007

    Almost everyone agrees that the Allies were justified in bombing Germany and Japan, even though that action caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, including many children.

    Almost everyone? Do the Germans and Japanese feel this way? What about the Vietnamese (and world opinion) regarding the carpet bombing of Vietnam? The Iraqis in Baghdad? What makes you think the victims of aerial bombing feel any different about it than New Yorkers felt about 9/11? The Pentagon was arguably a military target – was the murder of civilians to accomplish the attack on it justified?

    You’re standing on an incredibly slippery slope…

  33. #33 J Daley
    January 30, 2007

    Regarding the Dershowitz argument:

    It is fanciful to propose a fictitious, specific situation that plays heavily on one’s emotions to attempt to justify a real, general practice that is condemned by numerous international conventions and abhorred by many if not most people. This type of argument is for the same reason also logically invalid because it commits the fallacy of destroying the exception.

    Furthermore, Harris simply asserts that collateral damage is widely accepted as justifiable in some cases and then extrapolates this assumption to also mean that torture must also be acceptable in some cases (the above fanciful, invalid case being one). This is stupid. If it is the case that murder is occasionally justifiable in cases of self defense, for example, it does not then follow that rape is likewise occasionally morally defensible.

    Lastly, it is unjust to suggest (as Dershowitz’ time-bomb argument does) that because law enforcement agents will inevitably torture suspects, given a specific scenario, that we should thus legalize torture in order to monitor it. Police abuse of suspects does not warrant its sanction for the sake of control; indeed it does the very opposite.

    Again, this general argument places one on an overwhelmingly slippery slope. If Harris is torturing his fictitious mad bomber, and that man implicates another during his torture, claiming that his buddy actually planted the bomb, not he, then do we take him at his word and torture the next guy as well? This places us precariously close to the very situation Harris (rightfully) condemned in the Spanish Inquisition. And this especially is why it was so frightfully idiotic to make an argument like this in the very same book in which he points out in the previous chapter exactly where it may lead.

    Cheers-

  34. #34 JasonY
    January 30, 2007

    J. Daley,

    “collateral damage” is by definition unintended and accidental. Torture is explicitly willful and intentional; its methods are extremely calculated and its purpose usually vague (there is no greater good that torturing innocents serves). That, I believe, is the yawning ethical chasm between the two.

    There are several problems with this claim. First, the purpose of an act of torture isn’t necessarily any more “vague” than the purpose of an act of aerial bombing. In fact, the purpose of the torture may be extremely clear and explicit (e.g., to identify the location of a ticking time bomb so that it may be defused). Second, an act of torture may serve a far greater and far more immediate good than an act of aerial bombing. In the ticking time bomb scenrio, the terrorist would be tortured for the express purpose of extracting the location of the bomb so that it can be defused, saving many lives, perhaps millions of lives. Most acts of wartime aerial boming, in contrast, do not serve any such clear and immediate goal, but are part of a general strategy to defeat the enemy. Only in rare cases could a particular act of bombing be immediately linked to the saving of lives. Another point is that aerial bombing typically kills and/or injures many innocent civilians (including children), whereas a ticking time bomb scenario may involve the torture of only a single individual, who is a combatant rather than an innocent civilian, and who may suffer no permanent injury as a result of the torture.

    As for your claim that “‘collateral damage’ is by definition unintended and accidental. Torture is explicitly willful and intentional,” that doesn’t work either. The decision to bomb a target containing innocent civilians is every bit as willful and intentional as the decision to torture a terrorist. In both cases, the harmful act is fully intended. But if one may intend a harmful act without intending the harm caused by that act, that’s just as true of a harmful act of torture as a harmful act of bombing. In other words, a bomber may regret the deaths caused by his bomb, and a torturer may regret the suffering caused by his torture. In both cases, the harm is a regrettable but necessary consequence of achieving the intended greater good (winning a war, defusing a ticking time bomb).

  35. #35 JasonY
    January 30, 2007

    J. Daley,

    Almost everyone? Do the Germans and Japanese feel this way?

    As far as I’m aware, yes. If you have evidence that a majority of Germans or Japanese believe the Allies were not ethically justified in fighting World War II, that they believe the Allies should just have surrendered to the Axis powers, or engaged in non-violent resistance that did not endanger the lives of any German and Japanese civilians, please present it.

    You’re standing on an incredibly slippery slope…

    Of course I am. All warfare and violent conflict involves a slippery moral slope. What ethically superior alternative are you proposing? Pacifism?

  36. #36 JasonY
    January 30, 2007

    J. Daley,

    Regarding the Dershowitz argument: …

    You conflate and confuse a number of different arguments in this post. Let’s try and unpack the issues you raise and deal with them separately.

    It is fanciful to propose a fictitious, specific situation that plays heavily on one’s emotions to attempt to justify a real, general practice that is condemned by numerous international conventions and abhorred by many if not most people.

    I assume this is a reference to the ticking time bomb scenario (you don’t describe the “fictitious, specific situation” you’re referring to). Yes, it is “fanciful,” in the sense of being rare and/or unlikely. But the purpose of the scenario is to establish the principle that there are circumstances in which the use of torture would be ethically justified. It doesn’t matter to the argument whether those circumstances have ever actually occurred yet, or how likely they are to occur. The point is that the ticking time bomb scenario is obviously a possibility. So simply declaring it “fanciful” is not an argument against torture given the circumstances described.

    Furthermore, Harris simply asserts that collateral damage is widely accepted as justifiable in some cases and then extrapolates this assumption to also mean that torture must also be acceptable in some cases (the above fanciful, invalid case being one). This is stupid. If it is the case that murder is occasionally justifiable in cases of self defense, for example, it does not then follow that rape is likewise occasionally morally defensible.

    I think it’s your argument that’s stupid. Killing in self-defense is not “murder.” It is justifiable homicide, a completely different moral and legal category. You still have not described a reason why killing innocent civilians through bombing is sometimes justified, but torturing a terrorist never is.
    .

  37. #37 JasonY
    January 30, 2007

    J. Daley,

    Lastly, it is unjust to suggest (as Dershowitz’ time-bomb argument does) that because law enforcement agents will inevitably torture suspects, given a specific scenario, that we should thus legalize torture in order to monitor it. Police abuse of suspects does not warrant its sanction for the sake of control; indeed it does the very opposite.

    Dershowitz’s argument is that torture is less likely to be abused if it is transparent and accountable and subject to the rule of law, instead of being hidden and covert, as it is now. One may disagree with him about his, but the argument is not “unjust.” And of course, this issue (Dershowitz’s legal proposal for torture warrants) is a separate question from whether torture is justifiable in principle. It is perfectly possible to disagree with Dershowitz on the legal issue of torture warrants while agreeing with him that torture is sometimes ethically justified. The question of whether, and under what circumstances, torture should be legal is different from the question of whether, and under what circumstances, torture is ethical.

    Again, this general argument places one on an overwhelmingly slippery slope. If Harris is torturing his fictitious mad bomber, and that man implicates another during his torture, claiming that his buddy actually planted the bomb, not he, then do we take him at his word and torture the next guy as well?

    Perhaps. It would depend on the specifics of the case. One could ask similar questions about the choice of aerial bombing targets during a war. If a captured German officer tells us under interrogation that a weapons factory we intend to bomb has been duplicated on the other side of town, do we bomb both targets (likely killing even more civilians), or only the original one? Difficult choices are not limited to questions about the use of torture.