More on the End of Faith

I’m wary of copy­ing blocks of text from books to blog, partly because if a book’s worth talk­ing about it’s prob­ably worth buy­ing. The other reason is that it’s easy to lose the con­text of an argu­ment. An example is below. This is the con­clud­ing sec­tion of A loop­hole for Torquemada? in Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith. Beforehand he’s been explor­ing the argu­ments against tor­ture and weigh­ing them against col­lat­eral dam­age, the killing of civil­ians, in war, partly via the Ticking Bomb scen­ario.

In all like­li­hood you began read­ing this chapter, much as I began writ­ing it, con­vinced that tor­ture is a very bad thing and that we are, wise not to prac­tice it — indeed that we are civ­il­ized, in large meas­ure, because we do not prac­tice it. Most of us feel, intu­it­ively a least, that if we can’t quite muster a retort to Dershowitz and his tick­ing bomb, we can take refuge in the fact that the paradig­matic case will almost never arise. From this per­spect­ive, adorn­ing the machinery of our justice sys­tem with a tor­ture pro­vi­sion seems both unne­ces­sary and dan­ger­ous, as the law of unin­ten­ded con­sequence may one day find it throw­ing the whole works into dis­ar­ray. Because I believe the account offered above is basic­ally sound, I believe that I have suc­cess­fully argued for the use of tor­ture in any cir­cum­stance in which we would be will­ing to cause col­lat­eral dam­age. Paradoxically, this equi­val­ence has not made the prac­tice of tor­ture seem a more accept­able to me; nor has it, I trust, for most read­ers. I believe that here we come upon an eth­ical illu­sion of sorts — ana­log­ous to the per­cep­tual illu­sions that are of such abid­ing interest to sci­ent­ist who study the visual path­ways in the brain. The full moon appear­ing on the hori­zon is no big­ger than the full moon when it appears over­head, but it looks big­ger, for reas­ons that are still obscure to neur­os­cient­ists. A ruler held up to the sky reveals some­thing that we are oth­er­wise incap­able of see­ing, even when we under­stand that our eyes are deceiv­ing us. Given a choice between act­ing on the basis of the way things seem in this instance, or on the deliv­er­ances of our ruler, most of us will be will­ing to dis­pense with appear­ances — par­tic­u­larly if our lives or the lives of oth­ers depended on it. I believe that most read­ers who have fol­lowed me this far will find them­selves in sub­stan­tially the same pos­i­tion with respect to the eth­ics of tor­ture. Given what many of us believe about the exi­gen­cies of our war on ter­ror­ism, the prac­tice of tor­ture, in cer­tain cir­cum­stances, would seem to be not only per­miss­ible but neces­sary. Still, it does not seem any more accept­able, in eth­ical terms, than it did before. The reas­ons for this are, I trust, every bit as neur­o­lo­gical as those that give rise to the moon illu­sion. In fact, there IS already some sci­entific evid­ence that our eth­ical intu­itions are driven by con­sid­er­a­tions of prox­im­ity and emo­tional sali­ence of the sort I addressed above. Clearly, these intu­itions are fal­lible. In the present case, many inno­cent lives could well be lost as a res­ult of our inab­il­ity to feel a moral equi­val­ence where a moral equi­val­ence seems to exist. It may be time to take out our rulers and hold them up to the sky.

My emphasis because I think the bold text shows the con­text of Harris’s argument.

The argu­ment is in part whether or not we could have a sci­ence of eth­ics. Seeing as the argu­ments in the earlier post did not resort to “Torture is wrong because God X says so”, it would sug­gest that mor­al­ity can be debated without recourse to the supernatural.

My own reac­tion to this sec­tion of his book shocked me. Phil has said to me there are many good reas­ons against the use of tor­ture, but my own ini­tial reac­tion was that these were irrel­ev­ant. Torture is simply wrong, and any line of reas­on­ing that argues oth­er­wise must also be wrong. On reflec­tion my feel­ing now isn’t so vis­ceral, but this might be due to think­ing hard and com­ing up with reas­ons why tor­ture is a bad thing. If I hadn’t then would I accept the reas­on­ing that tor­ture could be just­fied? I don’t think I would, which sug­gests that my belief that tor­ture is a mat­ter of faith. The reason I’m still against tor­ture is that it is wrong.

This is a prob­lem if you want to have debate. To bor­row the tired example, there’s cur­rently a bunch of people who equally emphat­ic­ally think rep­res­ent­a­tions of Mohammed are wrong. They also have a vari­ety of good argu­ments, respect, fight­ing racism* etc. But really their pos­i­tion is that pic­tures of Mohammed are wrong simply because they’re wrong and that’s that.

This becomes an issue when you cap­ture someone like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. You have someone who is in Al Qaeda. You could carry on car­pet bomb­ing Afghanistan in the hope of killing a few more mem­bers, or you could have a go at tor­tur­ing the guy and see­ing if that provides leads so that you don’t have to kill inno­cent chil­dren play­ing in the poppy fields. What have you got to lose? My reac­tion, that tor­ture is wrong and that’s all there is to it isn’t good enough. Someone else could have the equally pas­sion­ate belief tor­ture is jus­ti­fied. They’d be wrong, but they’d still have the belief. Turning to reli­gion for guid­ance is not a help in this mat­ter, because all the argu­ment is that I know feel that my God also thinks tor­ture is a bad thing.

The bet­ter reply is through rational argu­ment and reas­on­ing. You have to demon­strate that the use of tor­ture is unre­li­able, but also that its very use des­troys the val­ues you’re fight­ing for. Right through this no Gods are neces­sary. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but that they are not a source of mor­al­ity. Therefore if we are to advance eth­ic­ally we need to uncouple our mor­al­ity from our faith.

Hopefully this shows there’s a bit more depth to the book that my pre­vi­ous post may have indic­ated. It’s not that tor­ture is a good thing. It’s that we should not assume that bomb­ing inno­cent people is mor­ally super­ior by vir­tue of being more impersonal.

If you want to start hav­ing night­mares The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, by Julian Baggini has some hor­rific thought exper­i­ments. As a vari­ant of the Ticking Bomb, sup­pose a ter­ror­ist will not crack under tor­ture BUT you know from his his­tory that he is likely to if his inno­cent son is tor­tured in front of him. Then would tor­ture be jus­ti­fied? A harder ques­tion to answer as it’s not typ­ical Hollywood fare.

The reason I like the book, is that though I think the reas­on­ing is wrong in places there is non­ethe­less reason behind the argu­ments. I’d rather read some­thing thought­ful that I dis­agree with than some­thing that I can fully agree with without hav­ing to engage a braincell.

*I am aware Islam is a reli­gion, not a race. I’m also aware that around 9/10 of the Moslems in the UK are eth­nic­ally Asian, and of the of the remainder an awful lot are from North Africa. Yes there are white Moslems in the UK, but if you want to tar­get a non-white pop­u­la­tion then attack­ing Islam or Hinduism is a very con­veni­ent way of do so without being openly racist. I see you can read the first chapter at his web­site.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

3 Responses

  1. paul says:

    The “eth­ical illu­sion” stems from the fail­ure to dis­tin­guish between a “thought exper­i­ment” and a story, or Hollywood scenario.

    There are narratives.

    Schrodinger’s Cat may be seen as a nar­rat­ive, or a story. It is related in books as a story.
    Yet what is import­ant in the story of Schrodinger’s Cat are the sci­entific prin­ciples of quantum mech­an­ics which may be stated as sci­entific state­ments and may be sub­ject to exper­i­ment and may be assigned TRUTH values.

    The tick­ing bomb is a nar­rat­ive. There are many state­ments in the story which may be true or false: the bomb is in city X, etc. That is, if the story were true, we could exper­i­ment to prove true or false the state­ment ” the bomb is in city X“
    The pres­ence of these cre­ates the illu­sion. For there are no eth­ical state­ments nor moral state­ments which are such that we might exper­i­ment with them and prove them true or false.

    There is no way to put eth­ical state­ments on the same foot­ing as sci­entific state­ments, for there is no exper­i­mental method in eth­ics. The assign­ment of truth val­ues to eth­ical state­ments is very dif­fer­ent.
    This is essen­tially what hap­pens in Intelligent Design: we put a the­ory for which there is no exper­i­ment and no way to assign a sci­entific truth value on the same foot­ing as a the­ory which is sci­entific. And so the sleep of reason breeds monsters.

    However, we are not say­ing that because some­thing is not sci­ence that it is not import­ant. Not at all. We are say­ing the logic is dif­fer­ent. And our approach to them can­not be the same.

    Case in point:
    “Given what many of us believe about the exi­gen­cies of our war on ter­ror­ism, the prac­tice of tor­ture, in cer­tain cir­cum­stances, would seem to be not only per­miss­ible but necessary.”

    I know of no way to go from “per­miss­ible” to “neces­sary” in modal logic. Even “per­miss­ible 99.9% of the time” is not the same as “neces­sary”.
    There is some­thing miss­ing, and the mask of our reas­on­ing begins to slip.

    We may sum this up as:
    in a sci­entific hypo­thet­ical, we are con­cerned with sci­ence.
    with moral hypo­thet­ic­als, we are most prob­ably con­cerned with a story line which is emo­tion­ally sat­is­fy­ing.
    ( and I do not mean this as imply­ing mor­al­ity is less import­ant than science. )

  2. alun says:

    The embarass­ing thing is I was read­ing about the nature of some truth claims a few weeks back. Clearly it hadn’t sunk in.

  3. paul says:

    The whole ques­tion is really inter­est­ing, how­ever.
    And it is very important.

    My prob­lem with Harris’s “illu­sion” was that it was an invalid argu​ment​.My cri­ti­cism of it has gap­ing holes,but the argu­ment still is invalid.

    And to use such an argu­ment for tor­ture is a tac­tic which defies description.