As I noted yesterday, Sam Harris has taken a lot of flak, and the hottest-button issue for many has been his stand on torture outlined in The End of Faith: his notion that there are times when torture is ethically justified. From this many people concluded that he favors wholesale torture, or an official government policy of torture, although his writings clearly show those accusations to be false. The issue still rankles with him, and he re-explains his stand in a new piece at PuffHo, “Why I’d rather not speak about torture.” His position, which as far as I know has never varied, is this:
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). . .
. . . My argument for the limited use of coercive interrogation (“torture” by another name) is essentially this: If you think it is ever justifiable to drop bombs in an attempt to kill a man like Osama bin Laden (and thereby risk killing and maiming innocent men, women, and children), you should think it may sometimes be justifiable to “water-board” a man like Osama bin Laden (and risk abusing someone who just happens to look like Osama bin Laden). It seems to me that however one compares the practices of “water-boarding” high-level terrorists and dropping bombs, dropping bombs always comes out looking worse in ethical terms. And yet, most people tacitly accept the practice of modern warfare, while considering it taboo to even speak about the possibility of practicing torture.
Nevertheless, Harris regrets having made that argument, not because he thinks it’s wrong but because it’s been a distraction:
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.
His piece goes on to justify his position; do realize that it’s not a wholesale endorsement of torture, or even an argument that torture should be legal. His argument is (I hate to use this word) more nuanced than that. He decries the excesses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and addresses the fallacious argument that torture never works. Harris believes that torture should remain illegal but is sometimes a moral imperative, or at least ethical. And he offers a challenge to his anti-torture readers, proposing the following “rule”:
We will never torture anyone under any circumstances unless we are certain, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the person in our custody has operational knowledge of an imminent act of nuclear terrorism.
It seems to me that unless one can produce an ethical argument against torturing such a person, one does not have an argument against the use of torture in principle. Of course, my discussion of torture in The End of Faith (and on this page) only addresses the ethics of torture, not the practical difficulties of implementing a policy based on the ethics.
I consider it to be one of the more dangerous ironies of liberal discourse that merely discussing the possibility of torturing a man like Osama bin Laden provokes more outrage than the maiming and murder of children ever does. Until someone actually points out what is wrong with the “collateral damage argument” presented in The End of Faith, I will continue to believe that its critics are just not thinking clearly about the reality of human suffering.
I think Sam has a point here. I’m not yet sure where I come down on torture in circumstances like the above, but I surely think the issue is worth discussing rather than reflexively dismissing. And yes, much of the dismissal has been reflexive—almost an excuse to simply reject all of Harris’s views, just as Hitchens’s stand on Iraq has been used to discredit his opinions on everything, including faith. I can’t help but believe that some of the opposition to Harris’s discussion of torture involves willful misunderstanding of his position, perhaps as an excuse to punish him for his strong critiques of religion.
It is always to our benefit to think carefully about the ethics of things like torture. And I’m a bit saddened that Sam feels that he should not have raised the issue.