Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The “context” doesn’t always make it better

When Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism wrote this post about being an atheist but not working against religion, I started drafting a reply. But that was three weeks ago, and other things have taken up my attention in the meantime. Then Sam Harris posted this complaint about having his words (from The End of Faith) taken out of context in an image meme. And he provided what he considered to be the necessary context. The thing is, the context doesn’t actually make him look much better. I do think that religion in general is something that should be opposed, and some day I’ll get around to explaining why. But it is much more important that Sam Harris’s kind of atheism be opposed. I’ll give you the full passage, with the offending sentence in bold. Content note: violence, casual reference to torture, fear tactics targeting a non-Western religion.
The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition:
Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.
What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.
The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

Note on the above:
We do not have to bring the membership of al-Qaeda “to justice” merely because of what happened on Sept 11, 2001. The thousands of men, women, and children who disappeared in the rubble of the World Trade Centre are beyond our help – and successful acts of retribution, however satisfying they may be to some people, will not change this fact. Our subsequent actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere are justified because of what will happen to more innocent people if members of al-Qaeda are allowed to go on living by the light of their peculiar beliefs. The horror of Sept 11 should motivate us, not because it provides us with a grievance that we now must avenge, but because it proves beyond any possibility of doubt that certain twenty-first-century Muslims actually believe the most dangerous and implausible tenets of their faith.
Sam Harris, The End of Faith, cited by the author in On the Mechanics of Defamation
I hadn’t read The End of Faith before. Otago University’s copy is housed in a special collection of books on religious topics which for historical reasons is outside the campus and bothersome to get to. If I had read this passage before now, I would have held Harris in much lower esteem than I did up until he blogged it. Honestly, I’m mystified as to what part of the “context” he provides is supposed to make it any better to suggest it might ever be OK to kill people for their beliefs. Granted that a person’s beliefs motivate their action to an extent that nothing else does; still, belief in turn is contingent upon circumstances, as the gratuitously horrifying analogy Harris himself opens with should have demonstrated (what would have been wrong with Steven Pinker’s illustration of the same point, “Your car is being towed”?). One way belief can change is through rational conversation, albeit usually some time after the fact, but I can think of no strategy better designed to close the doors on rational conversation than to suggest you might be justified in killing your interlocutor for their beliefs. A more common reason for belief to change is that the new belief makes better sense of the believer’s life experience than the old one, but if the old one is “Westerners are evil and must be destroyed”, then a pronouncement like Harris’s is only going to confirm it.
There was a time when it was generally accepted that it was reasonable to kill someone for their beliefs. Then people changed their minds about that, and there’s a reason why that change of mind was called “the Enlightenment”. Yes, I know that Europeans used the gains they enjoyed from killing each other less to consolidate their power and go and harass the rest of the world. Nevertheless, Enlightenment sceptics didn’t go around killing Christians. Or suggesting killing Christians. Or saying it would be ethical to kill Christians if they couldn’t capture them. Considering what Catholics and Protestants as groups at that time earnestly believed they needed to do to sceptics, as well as to “witches” and each other, by Harris’s standards the sceptics’ conduct was needlessly and indeed foolhardily restrained. Does Harris – does anyone – think civilization would have been better advanced if they’d taken up arms?
Harris might answer that those are pragmatic considerations, bearing on the wisdom of saying that it’s ethical to kill some people for their beliefs rather than on whether it’s true. Harris and I have different views of what constitutes the ethical, of course. I agree with him that the basic measure of goodness is subjective well-being. And my view on subjective consciousness allows at least the theoretical possibility of aggregating and comparing well-being across multiple subjects (Harris’s view, that consciousness is irreducibly and unfathomably mysterious, would rule this out). But ethics is not just about what circumstances would, in theory, be best, if only they could happen. It’s about what actions on our part will bring about the best result. For this purpose there is no getting around the fact that you can’t measure well-being in practice. You have to factor your uncertainty, and other people’s uncertainty about you, into your calculations. In the end it works out to maximizing trust and minimizing fear. If someone is actively trying to kill you or other innocent people, killing them might in many tragic cases be the best you can do; but attacking first creates fear, not trust, and is therefore unethical. I can’t quite believe that actually needed saying.

1 comment:

  1. The other reason to distrust Harris as a philosopher is his use of weasel words to define the terms of an argument. In the video of the argument with Ben Affleck, Harris's "concentric circles" analogy includes a bit about the outer circle being composed of people who "didn't take their religion seriously" and were thus not violent. That's an unpleasantly sneaky way of slipping a "no true Scotsman" fallacy through the back door.