Sam Harris clarifies his stance on torture

Posted on April 29, 2011


Sam Harris is a mental force of rationalism in the highest degree.  I strain to disagree with this man on everything he writes, and I find myself unable to do so.  A possible exception to this rule may be his analogy of morality to a 3D landscape that he argued in his latest book, The Moral Landscape.  I have contentions regarding where his analogy breaks down, and how far he would be willing to push it.  If I could actually ask him, however, I am sure that we would either turn out to be saying the same thing, or he would convince me of the validity of his analogy even in more particular cases.  It would likely be the latter.

The reason Sam Harris is such an intellectual force is that he is able to bring reality in the equation.  An argument may sound all well and good in an idealistic sense, but how does it apply to reality?  Indeed, I think this method of argumentation is immensely important and useful, and I find myself now asking this question regarding most anything.  The below article, which is Sam’s response to his many critics, exemplifies this tactic as it relates to torture and whether or not it is ever justifiable.  Give it a read, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it or at least gain some new insight.

Why I’d Rather Not Speak About Torture

By Sam Harris

I have long maintained a page on my website where I address various distortions, misunderstandings, and criticisms of my work. I take it to be either a sign of carelessness or masochism on my part that this page is the #1 Google search result for the phrase “response to controversy.”  Surely, I need not have courted quite so much controversy. But there it is.

While most of my work has been devoted to controversial topics, I have taken very few positions that I later regret. There is one, however, and I regret it more with each passing hour: it is my “collateral damage argument” for the use of torture in extreme circumstances.  This argument first appeared in The End of Faith (pp. 192-199), in a section where I compare the ethics of “collateral damage” to the ethics of torture in times of war.  I argued then, and I believe today, that collateral damage is worse than torture across the board.

However, rather than appreciate just how bad I think collateral damage is in ethical terms, many readers mistakenly conclude that I take a cavalier attitude toward the practice of torture. I do not. Nevertheless, I believe that there are extreme situations in which practices like “water-boarding” may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary—especially where getting information from a known terrorist seems likely to save the lives of thousands (or even millions) of innocent people.  To argue that torture may sometimes be ethically justified is not to argue that it should ever be legal (crimes like trespassing or theft may sometimes be ethical, while we all have interest in keeping them illegal).

I sincerely regret making this argument. Rational discussion about the ethics of torture has proved impossible in almost every case, and my published views have been the gift to my critics and detractors that just keeps on giving: It seems that every few weeks, someone discovers the relevant pages in The End of Faith, or notices what others have said about them, and publicly attacks me for being “pro-torture.” Journalists regularly steer interviews on any subject in this direction—not so that they can understand my position, or coherently argue against it, but so that readers can be shocked by whatever misleading gloss appears in their final copy. The spectacle of someone not being reflexively and categorically “against torture” seems just too good to pass up.

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.

The topic of torture surfaced recently in a profile of me published in The New Statesman. The author, Jonathan Derbyshire, concluded his piece with a misleading summary of my views (among other things, he neglected to say that I think torture should be illegal). He later published the raw transcript of our interview, presumably so that I could speak for myself on so inflammatory a topic. Nevertheless, even my unedited remarks proved difficult for many people to understand, as witnessed by the fact that even one of my friends, Andrew Sullivan, felt the need to publicly repudiate them. Thus, I have been goaded to clarify my view on torture once again. I certainly hope it is for the last time.

Continue reading on Sam Harris’ blog.

Posted in: Politics