Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Torture: principle and practice

In reading about and talking about the torture report yesterday, I've noticed that some progressive atheists have used the report as a springboard to have another go at Sam Harris. This is by no means a widespread problem, but I do think it is a problem. Sam Harris bears absolutely no responsibility for Bush era torture policy. Firstly, this program goes back to 2001, years before Harris's first book was released. Secondly, even after becoming something of a celebrity in atheist circles, Harris still had no power to influence CIA policy. Harris isn't the one who decided not to pursue torture prosecutions. He's not the one who lied to Congress. He's not the one who spied on the oversight committees. 

If you're not familiar with the backstory, Sam Harris is the one who defended the view that torture isn't always wrong, and may in fact be morally obligatory in certain cases. It's a controversial view, although not nearly as controversial as his critics seem to think. It's actually a very common view among academic philosophers. To say that something is always wrong in all circumstances is quite a strong claim, and it doesn't take much to defeat it. All you have to do is imagine any circumstance, however implausible, where torture would be the right thing to do.

Harris imagines a situation where you have a suspect who is a known terrorist, and where you can be certain that he knows the location of a "ticking time-bomb", which will kill millions of people. This scenario piles implausibility on top of implausibility. In real life, there are no "ticking time-bomb" scenarios. In real life, not all suspected terrorists are terrorists. In real life, you don't know whether your suspect has the information you want, or even if the information exists at all. Harris's hypothetical also precludes any other approach, which is also implausible. Your only two choices are to torture a known terrorist, or sit helplessly waiting for millions of people to die.

This argument angered a lot of people. Many people saw this (and continue to see it) as straightforward support for torture, but it's not that. Harris is clear that he thinks torture should be illegal in all cases without exception. This is an important point which is usually misunderstood when it isn't overlooked entirely. In a situation where the consequences of obeying the law are worse than the consequences of disobeying it, disobedience becomes the morally preferred option. This is the basis for all civil disobedience. Obviously, torture has nothing to do with civil disobedience, but it's the same principle.

Other people were angered for another reason. Harris made this argument as a (minor) public figure, and he made it in the context of a very live debate over the very real issue of torture. Real people were being tortured under circumstances which did not come close to Harris's immaculate hypothetical. There's something a bit perverse about walking into an argument about the morality of real torture and declaring "Fantasy torture is okay." What's more, people who supported real torture could latch onto to Harris's argument, in exactly the same way that Islamophobes can latch onto criticisms of Islam. It was a mistake for Harris to wade into the issue the way he did.

But on the day that the Senate releases a torture report detailing the sickening reality of torture in practice, I think it's even more perverse to get hung up on a guy for defending hypothetical torture in principle.


  1. The problem is that Sam Harris likes to talk about stuff outside of his area of expertise.

    1. Hi Rob, thanks for your comment, but I don't think that's really a problem. I mean, what is the solution to this problem? Harris has an undergraduate degree in philosophy just like I do (but from a better school). If that's not enough to permit him to make a philosophical defense of torture in principle, than I shudder think what I'm allowed to talk about. "Doctor Who", maybe, but that's about it.

  2. He's allowed to talk about philosophy, he's just not good at it. His reasoning is too facile and simplistic. In this case, it doesn't get too far past Jack Bauer level reasoning.

  3. And RU has one of the best philosophy programs in the world, so I wouldn't say he went to s better school for that