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Posted by on Jan 4, 2013 in Debate, Philosophy, Politics | 46 comments

Don’t demonize Sam Harris

Sam Harris has posted a lengthy and thoughtful piece on gun control. You know what? I disagree with it. I favour a much more restrictive regime of laws regulating the ownership of guns than it seems Harris does. I also think there’s a problem in that Harris seems inconsistent in his actual policy proposals. At some points, he does actually seem to support new laws with new restrictions on guns, but at the end he seems to be arguing against any new laws and in favour of a purely cultural change (however, exactly, this would be brought about). At the least, he needs to clarify his position.

Harris always writes in lovely, clear prose, sentence by sentence, but he can sometimes be unclear in what, all things considered, he is actually proposing at the level of public policy. This is such an example.

Perhaps, after due consideration, etc., I’ll write something (here or elsewhere) responding to Harris. Or perhaps not – we’ll see.

That is not the subject of this post. Rather, I want to talk briefly about charity, civility, and reasonableness. From where I’m sitting, this seems urgent. I am seeing stuff all over the internet, but particularly on my Twitter feed, that simply demonizes and dismisses Harris. Because he does not agree with some approach to gun control, he is thereby considered a bad person, or to have lost credibility. None of this actually comes to grips with his arguments for whatever policy position one might distill and attribute to him.

If, like me, you think that US jurisdictions should enact laws that are more restrictive than Harris seems to be advocating, you should be welcoming his contribution to the debate. Here is someone who is palpably not nutty, unconsidered, or inarticulate putting a view contrary to yours. He is doing it with arguments rather than slogans. My friends, that is a good thing.

Think of it this way. Harris is giving you an opportunity to see what strengths there might be in a position that you disagree with. If his argument is sufficiently strong, it might even give you a reason to change your mind. In that case, you have gained. But if his argument is not that strong, it gives you an opportunity to think about what the strengths might be in a position that is different from your own. Even if you continue to hold to your basic position, after taking what Harris has said into account, you might well find that your position is now deeper, more complex, more sophisticated. This is how intellectual progress is made.

This is how philosophers are trained to think about issues. You don’t approach people with opposing views by expressing anger with them, or attempting to destroy their credibility. You give their arguments due consideration, try to see how things look from their point of view, and you most certainly avoid such tactics as strawmanning and guilt by association. You look for the strengths in what they are saying.

We should save our anger for people who are opposed to civil discussion itself, for people who respond to disagreement with hostility and vilification, for people who try to suppress civil disagreement with their ideas. Sam Harris is not one of them.