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.
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 theres 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 didnt go around killing Christians. Or suggesting killing Christians. Or saying it would be ethical to kill Christians if they couldnt 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 Harriss standards the sceptics conduct was needlessly and indeed foolhardily restrained. Does Harris does anyone think civilization would have been better advanced if theyd taken up arms?
Harris might answer that those are pragmatic considerations, bearing on the wisdom of saying that its ethical to kill some people for their beliefs rather than on whether its 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 (Harriss 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. Its about what actions on our part will bring about the best result. For this purpose there is no getting around the fact that you cant measure well-being in practice. You have to factor your uncertainty, and other peoples 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 cant quite believe that actually needed saying.