12 February 2012

A Critique of Sam Harris's comments on torture and "collateral damage"

I have a lot of respect for Sam Harris, and his attack on irrational religious belief in general (The End of Faith, 2004). I don’t entirely agree with all of his points. For example, I think he is a bit too doctrinaire in condemning (I'm paraphrasing here) the enabling effect of “liberal” Christianity, in particular, as having the effect of giving a pass to irrational beliefs that are actually practiced and cause harm by more fundamentalist Christians. (He argues that, essentially, all of Islam is fundamentalist, which is also arguably an exaggeration).

Still, his arguments are well reasoned and very well written. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to consider the position and moral value (or otherwise) of religious faith in a world where the necessity of rational policy decisions is becoming more and more critical, to the point even of being a question of survival of our civilization.

He makes one argument, however, that I genuinely abhor, namely a claim that equates, in terms of ethics, “collateral damage” in warfare with torture. He argues that collateral damage is much more ethically problematic than is generally acknowledged; but that there are situations where it is the ethical choice. He then argues that, at least as a thought experiment (the “ticking time bomb” type situation), there are circumstances where torture may be ethically justifiable. (Not that it should be legal, but that it could, in extreme cases, be moral). Much has already been written about this (see his own response here), so my comments here are no doubt not original (especially since it’s been eight years since this book appeared). Nonetheless, here goes:

I think any equation of collateral damage in war with torture is simply fallacious. Harris himself elsewhere talks about “perfect weapons,” and the fact that they don’t exist; collateral damage is the intentionally invoked probability of death and suffering being caused to innocents which necessarily results from waging even “just war.” So far, so good. But there is no specific intent to harm; every effort is made to avoid harming anyone other than so-called legitimate targets, and there is an at least tacitly acknowledged responsibility to strive, continually, to make weapons ever more perfect, so that danger and harm to noncombatants is minimized, or, better, eliminated. These are the moral imperatives of those who would attempt “just war.”

Torture is entirely different. Even the most evil person, taken prisoner, is not only no longer a combatant, he is not even in the theater of war. He is in custody. Prisoners, who are by definition under the control of their captors and no longer capable of waging warfare in return,  in a civilized society, are treated not under the rules of engagement with combatants, but under legal process. I hold as an absolute tenet that under such circumstances, it is never justified to use torture. Not only because it creates a slippery slope where unchecked state power is likely to lead to all manner of hideous, and increasingly terrible, consequences, with more and more people falling into categories of prisoners for whom torture is deemed justified, but because centuries of terrible experience has proven, once and for all, that torture does not work; that its results are uniformly unreliable and indeed useless.

So, on this point, I think Sam Harris is flatly and entirely wrong.

Nonetheless, much of what he has to say in The End of Faith and the more recent The Moral Landscape  and Lying is very well thought through, original, and highly probative.

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