Few have the courage or intellectual fortitude to honestly deal with Sam Harris’s arguments. Instead these arguments are often misrepresented by critics. Critics who seem to have a special kind of hurt feeling, a wound Harris has possibly inflicted on their most dearly held beliefs. In desperation, phantom beasts are conjured and attacked, while Sam waves his arms saying “I’m over here!” Critics surely see him out of the corner of their eye but few meet his gaze directly.
Accurately representing your opponent’s views is the only way to honestly engage their argument. In battling a mangy hobgoblin of your own creation and claiming victory, you’re not only deceiving yourself but you’re telling your readers a lie. Truth is sacrificed to protect a construction of reality that is cracking under Harris’s hammer blows and instead of letting the pieces fall away, you run to your fiction, dab on some dubious detail, and cry “look how ridiculous Harris looks now!”
In a blog post entitled Beyond belief: On The Ethics Of Killing, Dan Jones misrepresents Harris’s ideas to an astonishing degree. In it, he criticizes a section of Harris’s 2004 book, The End Of Faith, where Harris makes the seemingly preposterous claim, when taken out of context, that “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”. Using Jones’s article as an example, I’m going to show you how unscrupulous critics obscure the truth. Let the phantoms rise!
Jones begins his article with this quote from The End of Faith:
“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.”
“The ‘tortured daughter’ scenario makes the uncontroversial point that acquiring new beliefs can have a profound effect on our emotional state. (Note that Harris makes clear that he is talking about “beliefs that are communicated, and acquired, linguistically”.) It’s not clear what point it serves in Harris’s broader argument; presumably the goal was to get the reader thinking, “If I found out that my daughter was being tortured, I’d spring into action instantly” — thus establishing a tight connection between belief and behaviour.”
No. The point Harris makes by focusing on beliefs that can be “communicated and acquired linguistically” is to highlight the difference between human beliefs and animal beliefs. Animals, Harris says, have beliefs “insofar as they form associations between people, places, and events” Whereas human beliefs are “acquired linguistically” and are those which Harris says “people consciously subscribe — ‘The house is infested with termites,’ ‘Tofu is not a dessert’.” This distinction between human and animal beliefs is not used to “establish a tight connection between belief and behaviour” in the tortured daughter scenario. In fact, it doesn’t appear in that story at all.
“However, in Harris’s example, any behaviour that followed, such as trying to rescue your daughter and perhaps killing the torturer if necessary, would be driven by your love for your daughter, and your motivation to protect her — neither of which are linguistically acquired beliefs.”
Jones infers that “linguistically acquired” means someone is telling you what to believe. Jones fails to see the bizarre implications of this claim. Seeing a video of your daughter being waterboarded is surely more powerful than being told so. When I asked Jones to clarify what he thinks Harris means by belief he said (in response to a question I posted on his blog).
“what Harris is doing is focusing the argument on beliefs (or propositions) that are accessible to conscious awareness and can be explicitly stated to others.”
This clean definition of belief, which I agree Harris is using, looks nothing like the oily beast Jones is painting.
Loving one’s daughter and being motivated to protect her, are surely propositions that are “accessible to conscious awareness and can be explicitly stated to others”. Imagine you are a father or mother and you are asked if you love your daughter and are motivated to protect her. Would you scratch your head in bewilderment? Would you stare blankly and shrug your shoulders? Would the answer elude your conscious awareness leaving you dumbstruck? Or is “love for your daughter” and “your motivation to protect her” something you could easily formulate in consciousness and tell others about.
Jones’s new definition of belief is so limiting that even “love for one’s daughter” and a “motivation to protect her” can’t be described as beliefs. Jones doesn’t explain his reasoning but merely alludes to “linguistically acquired beliefs” as if that were enough to make his point.
These are just some of the crooked constructions that make up Jones’s imaginary beast. There are several gangrenous body parts yet to be tacked on.
“Harris then delivers the two lines that have generated such opprobrium: “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.” Many people, myself included, have read this to mean that if someone accepts certain dangerous propositions or beliefs, then that could provide sufficient grounds for ethically killing them. Harris says this is an outright misreading. How so?”
Jones should have quoted these few sentences that follow from Harris, putting the claim in context:
“Some propositions are so dangerous 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.”.
He [Harris] claims that “belief determines behaviour”, and ‘determine’, according to the Oxford Dictionary on my shelf, means “to fix or decide causally, condition as a cause or antecedent, be a deciding or the decisive factor in … establish the nature of”. This dictionary definition may not be what philosophers mean by determine, but it does accord with everyday usage of the word. To say that beliefs determine behaviour is much stronger than saying they influence, guide or affect behaviour.”
Jones’s dictionary definition simply reminds us that beliefs are “a deciding or decisive factor” in the actions we take.
For example: say you have been accepted into two universities, Harvard and Yale (you’re super smart) and can’t decide which one to attend. Your girlfriend is going to Harvard and believing you love her you go as well.
Take a typical jihadist who believes that dying in defence of the faith will get him and his family into heaven where his penis will be introduced to a virgin vagina every time it shows a vein. Ridiculous belief to be sure, but how powerful is it in a young, virile, sex starved man? It’s certainly not the only reason he blows himself up on a bus full of innocent strangers, but if you could magically erase this belief from his mind and replace it with the more practical “once you’re dead you’re dead”, he certainly wouldn’t be dewy eyed with anticipation at the prospect of blowing himself up.
“So it’s natural to read Harris as saying if, say, someone holds the belief that violent jihad and the killing of apostates is a good thing, this will determine their behaviour: they will act on this belief, going on to kill people, and that’s what makes the belief dangerous.”
Picture two scenarios. In the first: a robed man in the desert, rifle slung around his neck, Isis flag fluttering in the breeze, and a hooded man trembling on his knees before him. In the second scenario: an old man in red robes, Buddhist monastery behind him, laughing with friends over a pot of tea.
How do we know which robed man is dangerous? We aren’t oblivious. Two brief snapshots tell us everything we need about these men’s beliefs and how dangerous they are. Jones makes the error of thinking beliefs “exist” in our heads when they are in fact reflected in our lives: in supporting or denying women’s education, in reading books on the brain or reading the koran, working as a counsellor or training in the use of firearms.
In my earlier example: If you decide on Harvard over Yale we assume you have been accepted into both, can afford tuition, and are motivated to attend. It makes no sense to be talking about the consequences of this choice if these propositions aren’t true. The same goes for someone who believes “violent jihad and killing apostates is a noble thing”. We wouldn’t be talking about the dangerous consequences of these beliefs if the jihadist didn’t have the means or the intent to act on them. We only worry about it when he does. Just as deciding on Harvard only has consequences if you’re equipped to go, the belief in killing apostates only has consequences if the Jihadist is equipped to kill.
“Although Harris never states that there’s an ironclad link between belief and behaviour, this view is implied by the whole tenor of his discussion, and is the only way to make sense of talking about killing people for their beliefs as opposed to their overt behaviour.”
Harris’s point about not killing people for their overt behaviour is a moral one: it is wrong to kill a person for their past behaviour, even if it’s murder, if we aren’t sure they will do it again; it’s only acceptable to kill “in self defence” of innocent lives, and only when all peaceable means have been exhausted.
“The Achilles’ heel of this line of thinking is that our behaviour is clearly not driven solely by beliefs. What we do is the product of a complex interplay not only of beliefs, but also of values, attitudes, desires, and motivations — and these are not just another species of linguistically acquired belief.”
beliefs represent values, attitudes, desires and motivations, and if you want to use one concept that will encompass them all, “belief” does a great job.
“Take a soldier who throws himself on a hand grenade to save his brothers in arms. Is his behaviour just the product of belief? Or is such heroism better explained by an emotional commitment that transcends belief in Harris’s sense?”
Surely a soldier is aware of his commitment to his brothers in arms. Emotional commitment doesn’t “transcend” belief, it is represented and articulated in belief: “I love my brother in arms so much that I would sacrifice my life for him” unquestionably represents emotional commitment.
To speak of values not being represented in beliefs is ludicrous. Our most important beliefs are those that relate to values. “I am concerned about global warming”, “I am proud of my brother”, or “I think pizza is something worth mugging people for”. These are all value laden beliefs that reflect how we see the world and inform our behaviour.
Motivation and desire are also represented in belief. If I say “I’m hungry”, this belief surely includes the communication that I desire food and am motivated to eat.
“Or take another example. In his fine book War, Sebastian Junger recounts the following story:
“During the air war of 1944, a four-man combat crew on a B-17 bomber took a vow to never abandon one another no matter how desperate the situation. (A fifth team member, the top turret gunner, was not part of the pact.) The aircraft was hit by flak during a mission and went into a terminal dive, and the pilot ordered everyone to bail out. The top turret gunner obeyed the order, but the ball turret gunner discovered that a piece of flak had jammed his turret and he could not get out. The other three men in his pact could have bailed out with parachutes, but they stayed with him until the plane hit the ground and exploded. They all died.
I won’t prejudge what you’ll make of this. Perhaps you think it was stupid, or even selfish, for the three men who could have escaped to not do so (after all, they may have had family and other loved ones waiting for their safe return at home). Or maybe this story fills you with awe at the commitment and loyalty these men showed to each other.
Regardless of your take on this story, you cannot understand this kind of sacrifice — or acts of heroism or courage more broadly — simply by thinking about the beliefs stored in the heads of the men in the plane. Sure, they may have had different beliefs than you or I, specifically those related to the importance of group loyalty. But do you really think that the mere intellectual acceptance of this belief provides the motivational force to sit in a plane that’s plummeting to the ground, with your death a near certainty?”
Now Jones implies that Harris’s conception of belief is “mere intellectual acceptance”. But he just throws this out there, alone, without anything for it to stick to. Unless you are buying into the grease of his beast to which anything will stick; I won’t insult your intelligence with a boring refutation of this infantile claim. The example Jones put’s forward will not go to waste though as it exemplifies how powerful beliefs shape our behaviour.
What was the determining factor in these men sacrificing their lives? They certainly loved the families they would leave behind, the country they would no longer serve, and their own lives which would end in a bloody instant. Yet their belief in being loyal to their comrades was stronger than their will even to live.
“Or consider a less dramatic example. Imagine you’re at a party and some guy, without provocation, comes over to you and starts insulting you, pushing you around and squaring up for a fight. You try to defuse the situation, but he’s coming at you, chest pumped up, fists clenched. It looks like this is getting physical whether you like it or not.
In this kind of situation I believe — and I’m pretty sure Harris would agree — it’s ethically acceptable to deliver the first strike in self-defense: if you wait until he’s thrown a haymaker before you defend yourself, it may be too late.
Yet it’s one thing to have that belief, and quite another to actually summon the moxie to throw the first punch in a real conflict situation. You need to drill this reaction into your muscle memory by practising it over and over in realistic scenarios. Even if you’re physically capable of throwing a good punch because you’ve been training hard on a punch bag, belief in the rightness of your action is not enough to help you act as needed when push comes to shove. You need the right attitude, not just the right beliefs. Or, to put it another way, how you behave is this situation is not simply a product of your beliefs.”
And yes, believing you’re superwoman won’t make you fly. But aside from Jones’s obvious point, that beliefs don’t always gibe with reality, there are other types of beliefs that we need to take seriously, namely those that are legitimate reflections of reality.
A martial artist who says “I’m going to kick you in the temple” and who has executed this move several times on opponents in the octagon, their faces smeared on the canvas seconds later, is going to be a belief you would be wise to take seriously. In the case of ISIS, they are proven killers. We should take their actions and the beliefs that motivate them seriously as well.
“What’s more, holding certain beliefs in no way guarantees you’ll act on them. You probably believe it would be good to give more to charity, exercise more, and eat better, but that doesn’t mean you’ll actually do these things. (When, on the basis of your beliefs, you decide to forego donuts to make you healthier and happier, but then succumb to temptation and scoff one down, is it some anti-dieting belief that drives your behaviour? Or is it better seen as the product of a dopamine-fuelled reward system that makes you crave the donut?)”
There are certainly barriers to living by our beliefs. Some beliefs we should resist: “that donut would be so tasty”, and some we should strive to live by: “I would be much happier if I exercised more”.
Jones is pointing out the difference between believing you would like to do something and actually doing it. This distinction is valid but irrelevant since we aren’t worried about beliefs that don’t lead to behaviour.
We aren’t worried about ISIS members who wish they could kill people in the name of Allah; we are worried about one’s that do, and will do so again given the chance.
“Psychopaths dramatically illustrate this point. Psychopaths are not, by and large, delusional or disordered in their thought processes – they can be perfectly rational while being cold, cruel or outright evil. Psychopaths can reason through moral dilemmas and make judgements about what the right and wrong thing to do is much like everyone else – it’s just that they don’t care about doing what’s right. (In fact, when pushed to make moral judgements psychopaths tend to be adopt a more utilitarian framework of the sort Harris advocates elsewhere.) Psychopaths, in other words, can hold the same moral beliefs as non-psychopaths, but simply ignore them in practice. If you’re ever attacked by a psychopath, you won’t be defending yourself against his or her beliefs.”
Not caring “about doing what’s right” is paramount when assessing a psychopaths purported ethical convictions. “If you’re ever attacked by a psychopath, you won’t be defending yourself against his or her beliefs” because Jones says that psychopaths can “hold the same moral beliefs as non-psychopaths, but simply ignore them in practice.” This would be relevant if we were talking about beliefs that are ignored in practice but we aren’t. We are talking about people who act like psychopaths because of their beliefs, not in spite of them.
Jones may also be forgetting that a psychopaths beliefs can most accurately be identified by the actions they take. Beliefs come with histories that give them weight and credence. If a psychopath insists his ethical beliefs are the same as ours but then goes out and kills someone, we can assume his moral beliefs are not quite like ours. Yes, we should be sensitive to the possibility that certain beliefs people profess to have do not inform their behaviour, but for jihadists who are cutting peoples heads off, what good reasons do we have to think their beliefs are innocent?
“In the latest defence of his argument, Harris asks:
‘Why would it be ethical to drop a bomb on the leaders of ISIS at this moment? Because of all the harm they’ve caused? No. Killing them will do nothing to alleviate that harm. It would be ethical to kill these men—once again, only if we couldn’t capture them—because of all the death and suffering they intend to cause in the future. Why do they intend this? Because of what they believe about infidels, apostates, women, paradise, prophecy, America, and so forth.’
Although Harris doesn’t spell it out, the desired conclusion is clear: we’re really killing them for their beliefs (or the propositions they hold in their heads), and this is all that was meant by the original claim “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”
Harris spells it out: we would kill them (those who have already caused much harm) only “because of all the death and suffering they intend to cause in the future.” In other words, they have been killing, they have the means to kill again and we should take their wish to continue seriously. We aren’t killing them simply for having “beliefs… in their heads”.
“Yes, beliefs are part of the causal story of why ISIS does what it does. But as I’ve argued, these beliefs are not the full causal story. Does one really become willing to die fighting for a group and a cause just through linguistically acquired beliefs?”
Again, Jones knows full well what Harris means by “linguistically acquired beliefs” yet he brings up this point again as if linguistically acquired somehow means a weak belief, merely confessed to, or acquired simply through language rather than experience.
“Is the only difference between someone who is willing to behead people, and someone who would not or could not, that they hold different beliefs? (By analogy, many people believe it’s ethically acceptable to kill chickens for food, but lots of these people would balk at the prospect of personally chopping a chicken’s head off.)”
If you live on a farm, have chickens, have chopped their heads off before and plan to again, then we can say your belief about the ethicality of killing chickens has consequences for chickens. Same logic goes for Jihadists and beheading people.
“Even if beliefs were the sole or key determinant of what ISIS does, then it would still be odd to say we were killing them for their beliefs rather than their actions. We can acknowledge that their beliefs are part of the causal chain leading to their behaviour, but these beliefs are themselves the just a step on the causal path to behaviour.”
When Jones says “beliefs are themselves just a step on the causal path to behaviour”, he is downplaying the scope of belief. Beliefs represent the culmination of our experience. It’s not a single step, it is THE step, the launching pad, the expression of our desires, and the driver of our behaviour.
For example: take raw desires: their behavioural consequences are unknowable. What a lustful man will do cannot be predicted based on his desire alone. He may be a priest (believing sex is not permissible), a porn-star (believing it’s his job to have sex), married (believing he should only have sex with his partner) or have low self esteem (believing no one will want to have sex with him anyway); the point being, desire alone doesn’t determine behaviour and if it seems to, beliefs are embedded within it.
“When a group of hooded teens tried to mug me and a friend as we walked home with pizzas in London, I wasn’t trying to escape the causal factors that led to their behaviour, such as their beliefs, neurochemistry, hunger or social deprivation. I was trying to get away from an imminent threat, keep my belongings and not get beaten up or stabbed. (We were mostly successful, and after jumping us they only managed to get the pizzas without us suffering any serious harm).”
This is a perplexing example. Jones is basically saying: if you’re under immediate threat from someone, don’t worry about their beliefs, just worry about protecting yourself. This may be sound advice when someone is pointing a knife at you, eyeing your pizza, but how is it relevant to the broader argument? We are trying to prevent bad things from happening rather than waiting until it’s too late. It’s the equivalent of saying if a drunk driver is swerving toward you, the fact that he’s drunk makes no difference in how you swerve to get out of his way. Which is also true. It doesn’t mean, however, that we should be more concerned with learning how to swerve out of the way of drunk drivers than with convincing drivers not to drink in the first place.
“One way Harris could defuse a lot of the fear around his argument is to assent to the following: “It is ethically unacceptable to kill someone solely on the basis of the beliefs they hold. The only ethical justification for killing others is in self-defence, or to prevent people from inflicting harm on a third-party, regardless of the role specific beliefs play in creating that threat”. If that’s not a formulation Harris would accept, just how would he phrase it?”
What Harris is promoting, by focussing on beliefs, is a war of ideas to thwart a war of violence. There is nothing to disagree with in Jones’s reformulation of Harris’s argument. It’s just that Harris’s statements on this topic are more coherent and to the point.
Jones complicates the message by saying “regardless of the role specific beliefs play in creating that threat”. His point seems to be that it doesn’t matter which dangerous beliefs lead to dangerous behaviour, if that behaviour is dangerous it must be dealt with. Yes, but again this point is irrelevant in our aim to prevent dangerous behaviour in the first place.
The reason specific beliefs matter is because we can change them. And if changing them in a violent person will convince them to be more peaceful, we should doggedly pursue this intervention. In fact, ignoring scary beliefs in favour of waiting until there is imminent danger, guarantees more suffering for everyone. It’s more humane to convince people not to drink and drive by changing their beliefs, rather than wait until they injure themselves and others in a car crash, or get busted by the cops and have their licence revoked. The point is, if we want to prevent dangerous behaviour without using what should be a last resort to violence, then changing the beliefs that lead to it is the one safe way to do so.
If you want to mischaracterize someone’s views by picking out a few of their sentences and ascribing a meaning to them the author never intended, then you’re not speaking to the author’s true ideas; you’re simply hacking away at your own fuzzy reflection of an argument you refuse to see clearly.
For instance: when has Harris ever implied that a belief poses a threat regardless of the worldly circumstances that it is believed in? When does he ever talk about the threat of belief being divorced from the gestalt of the person believing it? Jones has cherry picked certain of Harris’s words and created a silly caricature.
Jones ignores even the most basic caveats of Harris’s argument, like the part where Harris says we should only act after “every peaceful means of persuasion” has been sought and only then “if they cannot be captured” and justified only when “killing them in self-defence.” Ignoring these points is the only move Jones had to make his argument.
What could be a productive war of ideas, where the issues are better understood, becomes a game of deception and obfuscation. In the age of internet journalism, ethical standards and intellectual honesty must be self imposed. Sensationalism based on lies may be rewarded, but sooner or later perpetrators will be exposed and lose credibility. Those who can rise above, whose sense of honour forces them to put truth first and engage the beast before them, will be the ones who people trust.