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Posted by on Jan 10, 2013 in Debate, In the news, Philosophy, Politics | 1 comment

More on guns and demonizing Sam Harris (1)

I promise to get off this topic soon, but gun control (or lack of it) in the US is obviously on many people’s minds at the moment, and for fairly obvious reasons. Furthermore, the intervention in public debate of someone who is seen as a leader within the secular/atheist/skeptic movement, such as Sam Harris, will obviously attract attention from people within that movement.

I’m going to do this in two parts, as what I want to say is fairly detailed, and I’d like to avoid the “too long, didn’t read” syndrome if I can.

First, I want to say explicitly that, I welcome the contributions by Harris. They provide an opportunity to think about the issues in a relatively non-politicised way, and also an opportunity to reflect more generally on how we should discuss such emotionally charged issues. I don’t have to accept any of the arguments that he puts forward in order to be able to say that (as it happens, though, I do think that Harris makes some points that should be considered, such as whether some efforts at gun control could turn out to be futile).

When I complained a few posts back about a tendency by many to demonize Sam Harris, I was responding to a flood of material in my Twitter feed, and not to any particular individual. The flood was one of reactions to the original Harris piece here. One person who responded to my post, however, was a guy whom I most certainly time for, Steve Zara. It’s likely that Steve was responsible for some of the material that I was complaining about, though I wasn’t particularly thinking of it in that way (i.e., I wasn’t going around thinking something like, “Damn you, Zara!”).

Steve responded on his own blog, and his post is worth a look. His main point is that he was not demonizing Harris, just saying that Harris makes very bad arguments. Fair enough – I’m not the sort of person to go trawling through my Twitter feed to find what Steve or other particular individuals said there. I disdain that sort of micro-surveillance of individuals. I would, however, value Steve’s analysis of Harris’s overall arguments, complete with what empirical claims or judgments he thinks Harris is making and the way the argument is supposed to work. This would help identify where Harris has made errors either of clear fact or of reasonableness about issues that we could agree are matters of judgment, or where he made mistakes in drawing logical inferences. It is possible that Harris has made all these sorts of mistakes, but it’s good to be more precise, and sometimes claims that at first seem wildly implausible turn out to be less so when you consider them carefully.

To be fair, Steve does give a couple of examples: “One example of such an argument is that there are significant numbers of deaths from other causes.  This is poor ethically as it suggests that we dehumanize people in one situation by apparently considering that deaths are acceptable, and so it’s alright for us to dehumanize people when it comes to gun ownership.  I have often come across deaths associated with cars mentioned in this context, and Sam’s use of hospital deaths is of the same kind, and just as morally bankrupt.  Another argument is a form of excessive self-regard, in which someone insists that safety concerns need not apply to them, because they are above such matters.  It’s common for people to use such arguments if they are heavy smokers or drinkers.  At least in those cases the harm is mostly to the one making the argument.  That’s not the case with guns.”

I’m not convinced, though, that Harris is relying on such blatantly weak arguments. It would, of course, be wrong to argue, bluntly:

P1. We tolerate activity X, even though it kills many people.

P2. Activity also Y kills many people.

C. We should also tolerate activity Y.

This argument just does not follow. One problem is that activity X (e.g. car driving or hospital treatment of the ill and injured) may be of great social utility, even though it collaterally kills many people, whereas activity Y might be no great social utility, yet also kills many people. In such a situation, we tolerate activity X because we don’t want to lose its upside. Another problem might be that although we tolerate X we do regulate it quite strictly. You can’t then argue that we should tolerate Y in the sense of leaving it unregulated. All in all, this sort of argument is very weak.

Nonetheless, there can be strong arguments in the vicinity. What if we have limited resources for regulating activities and it turns out that tighter regulation of activity X is one thing we could do with those resources, while new regulation of activity Y is another? What if it turns out that tighter regulation of activity X would save more lives than the new regulation of activity Y? Under those circumstances, we might think that someone who insists on the new regulation of activity Y is being driven by emotion or ideology, and that they should recognise the superiority, as a social option with the limited resources available, of tighter regulation of activity Y.

What if it turns out that the social utility of activity X and the social utility of activity Y are comparable, that we are prepared to tolerate a certain level of harm spinning off from activity X, but we are not prepared to tolerate the same harm spinning off from activity Y? Under those circumstances, it seems that we should either reassess what we are prepared to tolerate with respect to activity X or we should question why we are not prepared to tolerate the same of activity Y.

I think one problem that is dividing from Harris from his opponents is simply that Harris sees far more social utility in the possession of guns (at least by police and the like, but perhaps also by a sub-set of ordinary citizens) than do his critics.

Then there is the “it won’t happen to me” argument. It’s true, of course, that “it won’t happen to me” is a very bad argument against, say, smoking, where there is little you can do to avoid the health risks. In other cases, though, it is a perfectly good argument. I’m sure you can think of many examples. In case you dispute the point, however, I’ll return to it in the next post.

Meanwhile, my point here is not that Sam Harris is right and Steve Zara is wrong, all things considered. The opposite may well be the case. My point is merely that there can be good arguments in the vicinity of bad ones, and someone putting what seems like a bad argument may actually be expressing, or at least attempting to express, something that is much more like a good one. They may be making assumptions silently, rather than engaging in non sequiturs. Even if the argument is in a deductively valid or inductively strong form, of course, its strength will depend on whether its underlying assumptions are true, and that may sometimes be a matter of judgment on which reasonable people can differ.

I only ask that we not be too quick to dismiss an argument because we dislike its conclusion (though one of my own criticisms of Harris was that I found his conclusions unclear) or even because the arguments bear some sort of resemblance to argument forms that are known to be bad. Usually, it’s best to follow the logic of the actual arguments, even if this takes some reconstruction.