The End of Faith

I think Sam Harris made some mostly sound points in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. It’s a very well-written book and I found it to be refreshingly grounded in rationality.

I very much agree with him on these premises:

  • Morality and ethics are not culturally relative. (pp. 176-182)
  • “The idea of a victimless crime in nothing more than a judicial reprise of the Christian notion of sin.” (p. 159)
  • “Those opposed to therapeutic stem-cell research on religious grounds constitute the biological and ethical equivalent of a flat-earth society. Our discourse on the subject should reflect this.” (p. 167)
  • “…the rules of civil discourse currently demand that Reason wear a veil whenever she ventures out in public. But the rules of civil discourse must change.” (p. 168)
  • “Any honest witness to current events will realize that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments.” (p. 146)
  • “The only thing we should respect in a person’s faith is his desire for a better life in this world; we need never have respected his certainty that one awaits him in the next.” (p. 225)
  • “…there is no reason whatsoever to think that we can survive our religious differences indefinitely.” (p. 224)

However I’m undecided as to whether I agree with these statements:

  • “Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything.” (p. 147)

    This is from a section rebutting Noam Chomsky’s condemnation of the United States’ foreign policies as enforcements of double standards. I think I really used to buy Chomsky’s ideas (despite never actually knowing who Chomsky was until recently), but now I find myself disagreeing with him on this. I suppose that if there were really a way to gauge the true intentions of a foreign power, I might agree with Harris, but aside from that I don’t share this view.

  • “It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons (p. 128).”

    In the margin next to this paragraph, someone had penned “iran”. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the US and Iran are currently engaged in a cold war, I do think Harris was somewhat short-sighted to all but rule it out at the time his book was published (2004).

  • “Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not (p. 221).”

    I don’t even know what to say about this other than “…Huh?”. Harris describes mysticism as experiencing the world “free of concepts”, and tries to set this apart from religion, which he defines as “bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time” (p. 221). Holding no concepts is rationally more sound than holding bad ones? OK, sure, but I fail to see how this really means anything. In a world where you have access to rational concepts, freeing oneself of said concepts is called willful ignorance.

And I certainly do not agree with Harris’ views on torture. He puts forth the fanciful and now hackneyed scenario of the hidden time bomb and captured terrorist (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) as sufficient justification for torture “in any circumstance which we would be willing to cause collateral damage” (pp. 192-199).

I could rant for days about why torture lacks ethical standing, but I’ll keep my response short here. Torture as an interrogation technique is known to make people say quite literally anything, not excluding patent lies that only waste the interrogator’s resources, and moreover, widespread human life. I’ll give Harris a pass because he wrote this in 2004 before most of the facts were out about how horribly wrong we were being led astray, but in light of recent history the premise of justified torture is to me completely unsupported.

Of course Harris did anticipate this, but presents a murky argument to rebut it:

Assuming that we want to maintain a coherent ethical position on these matters, this appears to be a circumstance of forced choice: if we are willing to drop bombs, or even risk that pistol rounds might go astray, we should be willing to torture a certain class of criminal suspects and military prisoners; if we are unwilling to torture, we should be unwilling to wage modern war.

Opponents of torture will be quick to argue that confessions elicited by torture are notoriously unreliable. Given the foregoing, however, this objection seems to lack its usual force. Make these confessions as unreliable as you like– the chance that our interests will be advanced in any instance of torture need only equal the chance of such occasioned by the dropping of a single bomb. What was the chance that the dropping of bomb number 117 on Kandahar would effect the demise of Al Qaeda? It had to be pretty slim. Enter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: our most valuable capture in our war on terror. Here is a character who actually seems cut from Dershowitzian cloth. U.S. officials now believe that his was the hand that decapitated the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Whether or not this is true, his membership in Al Qaeda more or less rules out his “innocence” in any important sense, and his rank in the organization suggests that his knowledge of planned atrocities must be extensive. The bomb is ticking. Given the damage we were willing to cause to the bodies and minds of innocent children in Afghanistan and Iraq, our disavowal of torture in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems perverse. If there is even one chance in a million that he will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking (pp. 197-198).

I am puzzled by this equivocation of prolonged and deliberate human suffering to actions with unfortunate but clearly unintended consequences in the form of human suffering. As previously noted, Harris defines ethics as hinged upon intention, so by his reasoning the damage caused to the innocent children would be ethically irrelevant because the intent was to harm Al Qaeda. If collateral damage is so irrelevant, why not just bomb Afghanistan in its entirety to smithereens? After all, this would be in accord with our intent to stop Al Qaeda, right? And thus we can do no evil.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted 29 Mar 2010 at 18:22 | Permalink

    Intent re: ethics is tough. Hitler intended to do good–his definition of how to get there is what people have a problem with. At the same time, I hate hate HATE the phrase “the path to hell is paved with good intentions”, because it snarkily implies good intentions are useless. They’re not. What the fuck do they think paves the path to heaven?

    At the end of the day, I think manslaughter is different from murder. But those differ only in intent, not effect. I have yet to become completely consistent in the way I judge its importance.

    • Posted 29 Mar 2010 at 19:45 | Permalink

      I think you’re right in that we need to consider more than intent alone in judging decisions. Perhaps the significance of intent should scale in accordance to say, the thoroughness and validity of one’s reasoning in acting upon an intent.

  2. Posted 29 Mar 2010 at 18:23 | Permalink

    Do you have your comments moderate any posts containing “Hitler”? That’s hilarious.

    • Posted 29 Mar 2010 at 18:56 | Permalink

      Nah, just any comment from an email address not previously approved. I think you used a different one last time you commented.

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