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Posted by on Feb 3, 2013 in Debate, Law | 58 comments

More Sam Harris bashing

Those of you who’ve been interacting with me for some time will know that I’ve written some of the most searching critiques of Sam Harris available on the internet. I find much to disagree with in his work, and I’ve done my best to articulate important points of disagreement – particularly on moral realism, normative theory, and free will. I’m sure I’ll have more to say along these lines in future. I’m one of the guy’s more persistent intellectual critics.

As a matter of fact, I’ve realised that Harris was one of the people at the back of my mind in this post the other day, when I was trying to find a “killer example” (as I put it) of what I was getting at. Harris is one of those authors who often seem to assume a rather sexually conservative morality as background to his thinking. This was the sort of thing I meant in that post, rather than Elevatorgate issues and the like that others brought up in the thread (although I do note that some Elevatorgate-affected policies show marked puritanical tendencies, and deserve to be subjected to criticism and satire).

None of that is my topic today, because once again I think Sam Harris is being unfairly attacked. In this article by Ian Murphy in Salon, there is no civil disagreement or charitable critique, not even any relatively good-humoured satire. Check it out for yourself – it’s a vulgar, unrelenting, personally abusive hatchet job.

Now, I can understand why philosophers sometimes ask why Harris is taken so seriously by the public on subjects where his work is not the philosophical state of the art (answer: he writes entertainingly, and he has the support of publishers with a lot of commercial muscle, and they support him because he writes entertainingly and helps them shift a lot of books, and so on in a virtuous cycle… nothing wrong with that). People like me then feel the need to engage with his books because they are popular, entertaining, and persuasive. If we disagree, therefore, it’s worth explaining why to whatever audiences we might be able to reach.

Okay, but what I don’t understand is the never-ending demonization of the man by some of his opponents. It’s as if some of his critics are determined to cast him as a dangerous, sinister figure with a violent agenda, and so they distort and cherrypick and misrepresent his arguments, and do everything possible to resist granting him a good point even when he makes one.

I’m not going to work my way through Murphy’s paragraphs one by one. But note the extraordinarily overwrought rhetoric in passages like this: “Harris, in his continuing quest to overcome the vicious stereotype that atheists are typically rational people, takes a page from NRA President Wayne LaPierre’s handbook of douchebaggery, and suggests the answer to the ‘riddle’ of guns should be, in fact, more guns. Only a corporate shill or a professional philosopher could arrive at this position without realizing (or admitting) how utterly full of shit they are.”

I’ll leave aside how far this accurately conveys Harris’s views, except to note in passing that Harris’s policy proposals actually include ending the war on drugs (I agree), that he says he is prepared to go along with a ban on “assault weapons” (scare quotes, because the nature of what is an assault weapon is not straightforward), and that he seems to favour tighter regulation of access to handguns. Although Harris writes some provocative sentences and flourishes of his own when discussing gun control, he manages to be considerably more civil and substantial than Murphy. Honestly why would anyone take Murphy’s rhetoric seriously? The sentences I’ve quoted are almost meaningless, and to the extent that they convey something they distort Harris’s actual views.

Murphy grudgingly admits that Harris is right about one thing: it would be very difficult in the short-term for US jurisdictions to ban handguns, given the relatively recent interpretation of the Second Amendment at the level of the Supreme Court. Any broad prohibition of handguns, at any level of government, would currently be struck down by the courts. This means that whatever bans on guns are likely to be constitutional will not address the main problem.

Despite this, I tend to think that more stringent regulation of guns in the US, to the full extent of constitutional authority, would be a good move – and this is an area where I think public policy favours testing the boundaries of what the courts will permit. Legislative action on gun control could be part of a package that includes winding back the war on drugs, and possibly other things, such as a buy-back program and a public education program. But whatever I might think about gun control (I’m happy with the stringent gun control that we have in Australia), the fact remains that effective bans on guns in the US will not have drastic social consequences any time soon, as those bans will not prohibit ownership of handguns. Perhaps there needs to be campaign to change the constitution – fine. But meanwhile, there is no near-future prospect of banning handguns outright, and realistic policy proposals for 2013 need to take that fact (however unpalatable) into account. Harris is not wrong to make the point – so why berate him for it, accusing him of “intellectual cowardice”? This seems like, ahem, shooting the messenger.

Since Harris favours ending the war on drugs, he is not afraid to advocate rather radical and potentially unpopular policies, but getting handguns banned in the US is not even constitutionally possible under current SCOTUS theory.

There’s another aspect of all this that I want to talk about, but it’s complex, raises broader issues, and deserves a separate post. For now, why do so many of Harris’s opponents engage him without charity and in what seems like bad faith? What brings this out in them?