19 June 2009

End Faith, But Hold on to Violence?

Responding to Sam Harris' Book The End of Faith

Through all but the next to last chapter of this book I could generally concede his main points about the necessity for a broad cultural movement to counter the absurd claims in religious doctrine about how the world works. I found that he framed some of his arguments in unpleasantly divisive ways, but the essential points were good.

In regard to the framing of his arguments he made the same basic error as his anti-religion compatriots, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, they focus exclusively on objecting to the doctrinal/ creedal dimension of religion (referring to Ninian Smart's seven dimensions of religion) and ignore and/or minimize the value of the mythic, social, ritual, experiential, ethical and material dimensions of religion. I consider this error as equivalent to how the anti-evolutionists conveniently ignore the nuances of evolutionary science and pick exclusively on the most stereotypical misrepresentations.

But that's par for the course, what really got my britches in a tangle was his treatment of violence. In chapter 6, entitled A Science of Good and Evil, Harris presents his argument for the moral necessity of violence in general and torture in particular. He contends that we have no practical alternatives by showing how war is a moral necessity and since that is the case then effectively torture is no different, morally, from collateral damage (the wartime killing, maiming, and terrorizing of innocents). If war is morally acceptable, then so is torture, if we are consistent in our beliefs. The premise of his argument about the moral equivalence of collateral damage and torture is necessarily based on the lack of an effective, that is morally acceptable, alternative means to achieve the same ends. So he takes pains to show that the pacifist alternative to war is not reasonable and appears to be ignorant of alternative interrogation techniques.

His refutation of the moral credentials of pacifism relies on an absurd caricature of pacifists who would ignore their personal safety in the presence of a mass murderer and then takes an isolated quote from Gandhi (suggesting that the Jews should have committed mass suicide in opposition to the Holocaust) to dismiss pacifism as patently absurd.

He also recounts how he intervened to prevent further violence against a Czech woman who was being forced into a car. He discounts his act as cowardly and morally worthless because he interprets his actions as failing to deliver a message to the perpetrators of the violence. As someone who formerly trained in martial arts for several years I found his creative engagement in the situation to be a very excellent example of using the most effective tools at hand to preserve the health and safety of another person. He discounts the moral value of his actions because he was not Super Hero enough to deliver a “lesson” to the thugs he thwarted. There are several problems with this view. First of all, he is delusional about the efficacy of one intervention, no one learns that kind of “lesson” from one isolated incident. Second of all, I have no way to imagine what he could have done to “teach” the “lesson” he expects. In my understanding of human beings and how they learn, when you do violence to them they will be focused on the violence you did to them, not whatever they happened to have done before you came into the situation with your violence. Here's an ex-cop who not only attests to the accuracy of this view of how humans behave, but teaches people to do deliberately what Harris did instinctively. Thus, in my estimation his account of this incident is a perfect example of how non-violence successfully thwarted violence and ultimately undermines his argument against pacifism. Here's a video that illustrates verbal judo from the movie Fort Apache: The Bronx:


To refute his premise in regards to torture, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been using effective and efficient non-violent means of interrogation since World War Two. According to a scholar who has studied the modern history of torture in the form of the psychological techniques made famous by the Abu Ghraib scandal, the FBI's methods are a viable alternative. My blog post entitled Psychological Dark Side provides access to some of the key videos that have informed my opinion on this matter.

As for his portrayal of pacifists, his claim that pacifists would refuse to act in self-defense against a lone murderer is absurd. Pacifism as I understand it is specifically an opposition to the use of state power to wage war. Pacifists are clear that there are crucial differences between the moral situations when one person kills another 1) for immediate self-defense, 2) for personal gain, and 3) for the purposes of a state that authorizes the killing. Just like everyone else they accept the moral necessity of the first, and abhor the second. Where they differ from many other people is consciously rejecting the third.

I reject Harris' arguments about the acceptability of violence and the necessity of torture. My opposition to both violence, in general, and torture in particular are based on my belief that morally acceptable alternatives are available and that they are also practical and effective. The real problem is that, as a society, we just haven't gotten out of the knee-jerk habit of reacting with violence. If we take Harris advice of grounding our religions in empirically valid spiritual practices that are aimed at accurately characterizing the facts of consciousness then we will make progress towards the true aim of religion which is to bind people together for mutual nurturance, not drive them apart. The trick is to get Religion to forsake it's claims to authority over matters better addressed by other institutions and focus what it is best suited to address. Unitarian-Universalism is leading the way as the only non-creedal religion (that I am aware of.)
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