It’s What Moral Philosophers Do (Also in Polish)

Aug 8, 2012

Intellectuals must sometimes venture into realms of the counter-intuitive – and it may be unpopular. 

When I was debating Cardinal Archbishop Pell in Sydney, he raised easy laughs from the studio audience by simply restating my beliefs, e.g. that a universe could spring from nothing. The partisan audience laughed because it was counter-intuitive: How could something come from nothing? But if intuition was enough, we wouldn’t need clever physicists like Lawrence Krauss and we wouldn’t need a clever book like A Universe from Nothing.

Similarly, if moral conclusions were intuitively obvious we wouldn’t need moral philosophers. Moral philosophers devise difficult and uncomforable thought experiments, which sometimes lead to counter-intuitve and unpopular conclusions, and they are often scorned and vilified for doing what they do. Peter Singer is violently threatened because he dares to ask questions like “Do all humans, no matter whether embryonically young or vegetatively old, deserve more moral consideration than a cow in its prime in a slaughterhouse?” Other moral philosophers ask uncomfortable questions like “When miners are trapped underground, should resources needed to rescue them be diverted to feeding starving children?” As it happens, I would rescue the miners, but I can see that there is a serious argument to be had. Like it or not, that is what moral philosophers do. If all moral questions had intuitively obviously, self-evident answers, we wouldn’t need moral philosophers.

Good moral philosophy often requires hypothetical counter-factual examples, thought experiments to push the envelope. A nice example appeared recently in a blog by the scientist and polemicist PZ Myers. He was talking about abortion, and he wanted to make the point that the mother’s rights are sovereign, and would be so even under extreme, hypothetical, counterfactual circumstances:

“We can make all the philosophical and scientific arguments that anyone might want, but ultimately what it all reduces to is a simple question: do women have autonomous control of their bodies or not? Even if I thought embryos were conscious, aware beings writing poetry in the womb (I don’t, and they’re not), I’d have to bow out of any say in the decision the woman bearing responsibility has to make.”

Myers is here doing exactly what a good moral philosopher should do. He is clarifying the point he wants to make (a woman’s decision over what happens to her own body is absolutely sacrosanct) and he is clarifying it by a thought experiment – an obvious counterfactual. The counterfactual is an embryo who was fully conscious and could write poetry in the womb, and he is saying that EVEN THEN he would listen only to the woman.

Now a reasonable person could disagree with him here. A humane rationalist could be pro-abortion under existing conditions, but anti-abortion under the counterfactual condition of the Myers thought experiment – the conscious, poetry-writing embryo. That is the whole reason why Myers found it worthwhile to invent his excellent thought-experiment.

No doubt PZ would come back with good counter arguments and my point is not to have those arguments here. My point is that this is a legitimate argument to have, that it is the kind of argument moral philosophers have all the time, and you cannot have such arguments unless you are prepared to take seriously, and respectfully, counterfactual, counter-intuitive thought experiments of exactly the kind Myers here does, and Peter Singer does, and other moral philosophers such as Jonathan Glover do. The Myers counterfactual of the conscious, poetry-loving embryo is an excellent thought-experiment because it serves to sharpen and clarify a genuine and serious moral disagreement.

That is what Sam Harris was doing in his notorious discussions of torture and of profiling in airport security. He was doing what moral philosophers do, and he does not deserve the vilification and viciousness that he has received in consequence. He is not a gung-ho pro-torture advocate, he was raising precisely the hypothetical, thought-experiment type of questions moral philosophers do raise, about whether there might be any circumstances in which torture might be the lesser of two evils – thought experiments such as the famous “ticking hydrogen bomb and only one man in the world knows how to stop it” thought experiment. I am not coming down on one side or the other in that argument. Only saying that it is a serious moral philosophic argument. Merely to take it seriously and engage in it, as moral philosophers do, should not be grounds for pillorying and personal insults.

To robią filozofowie moralności

Autor tekstu: Richard Dawkins

Tłumaczenie: Małgorzata Koraszewska

Intelektualiści muszą czasami zapuszczać się w dziedziny, które są sprzeczne z intuicją — i może to nie być popularne. Kiedy dyskutowałem z kardynałem Pellem w Sydney, z łatwością wywoływał on śmiech widowni w studio po prostu powtarzając moje przekonania, np., że wszechświat mógł powstać z niczego. Stronnicza publiczność śmiała się, ponieważ jest to sprzeczne z intuicją: jak może coś powstać z niczego? Gdyby jednak intuicja wystarczała, nigdy nie potrzebowalibyśmy takich mądrych fizyków jak Lawrence Krauss i nigdy nie potrzebowalibyśmy takich mądrych książek jak A Universe from Nothing.

Podobnie, gdyby wnioski moralne były intuicyjnie oczywiste, nie potrzebowalibyśmy filozofów moralności. Filozofowie moralności konstruują trudne i niewygodne eksperymenty myślowe, które czasami prowadzą do sprzecznych z intuicją i niepopularnych wniosków, i często wyszydza się ich i szkaluje za robienie tego. Peter Singer otrzymuje groźby przemocy, ponieważ odważa się stawiać pytania takie jak: „Czy wszyscy ludzie, niezależnie od tego, jak szybko po poczęciu, lub do jakiego stopnia w stanie wegetatywnym, zasługują na większą troskę moralną niż krowa idąca w pełni sił do rzeźni?” Inni filozofowie moralności zadają niewygodne pytania, takie jak: „Kiedy górnicy są uwięzieni pod ziemią, czy środki potrzebne na ich uratowanie nie powinny być raczej skierowane na nakarmienie głodujących dzieci?” Tak się składa, że ja ratowałbym górników, ale rozumiem, że można tu poważnie dyskutować. Czy nam się to podoba, czy nie, to właśnie robią filozofowie moralności. Gdyby wszystkie pytania moralne miały intuicyjnie oczywiste, ewidentne odpowiedzi, nie potrzebowalibyśmy filozofów moralności.

Czytaj dalej

Written By: Richard Dawkins
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146 comments on “It’s What Moral Philosophers Do (Also in Polish)

  • 4
    blitz442 says:

    “Merely to take it seriously and engage in it, as moral philosophers do, should not be
    grounds for pillorying and personal insults”

    Did anyone see Sam Harris’ lament in his blog yesterday, where he attacked PZ no
    less than four times in that short essay.  At one point he called PZ a “shepherd for trolls”.

    Obviously the feud b/t PZ and Sam has gotten a bit nasty, which is both unproductive and embarrassing.  Richard’s article can in some sense be read as a mild chastisement of PZ by pointing out his hypocrisy, and also as a laudable attempt to step in between these two men and act as a voice of reason.  Both PZ and Sam are great assets to the “cause”
    and should not be wasting time attacking each other.

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  • 5
    TomServo says:

    Sam posed a very clear question on the profiling procedure in airports, with the frail old man being frisked intensely at the gate. The man could barely lift his head, according to sam’s description, let alone hijack a plane.
    Then he talks about how we should investigate those who are clearly muslim, and all metaphorical Hell breaks loose, and sam is now a racist in the eyes of the readers. Even though he was very mindful to mention that not all muslims are of middle-eastern pigmentation.
    People still aren’t willing to ask themselves tough questions, even within the stronghold of their own minds.
    How do we get people to realize it’s necessary to bring nationality and and faith and other “uncomfortable” details into this most important of conversation’s? Is it racist to say “A group of Islamic men destroyed the world trade center on purpose because allah told them to”? Or is that exactly what happened?

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  • 6
    aquilacane says:

    I don’t actually accept something can come from nothing, which is why I doubt the potential for nothing. And also laugh a bit if that is what Richard accepts.

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  • 8
    blitz442 says:

    Correction: You go after the arguments that you think
    are wrong and avoid personal attacks. And like it or not, public acceptance of
    reasoned criticism of religion is a cause and food fights between prominent atheists
    and champions of reason are detrimental to the advancement of that cause.

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  • 10
    mordacious1 says:

     At one point he called PZ a “shepherd for trolls”.

    Problem? PZ’s site has never really been a place for serious discussion, but for the last year or so it’s just a place where people who don’t agree with him are vilified merely for voicing a differing opinion. If you try to have a rational discussion, you’re told to bleep off, or “your concern is noted, now go away”. He’s gone off the deep end and it’s not pretty. He hides behind the excuse that it’s the people who post there and not him, but that is baloney.

      Both PZ and Sam are great assets to the “cause”

    This may have been true at one time, might be true in the future, but it is not true now. Sam Harris isn’t the only person he has attacked, in fact the list of who PZ hasn’t attacked is much shorter. Sensible people are avoiding FTB like the plague, and for good reason.

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  • 11
    Skeptic Tank says:

    Sam Harris is a brilliant guy. He just missed the point of his terrorist profiling debate; namely, that while profiling is all well and good, in theory, in ACTUAL practice, with real TSA, and real people, in real airports, it is inefficient and impractical. Sam seems to say, “yeah, ok, but so what?”… to which the answer is “THAT WAS THE WHOLE POINT OF THE ARGUMENT: Whether it is practical and efficient. It is not.

    (Sam points to Israel at this point, to say, “Look, they do it, and they are the best at security!”… yes, but Israel is a TERRIBLE ROGUE STATE, that no sane country could ever model itself upon. Sam’s support for Israel, another issue altogether, is ethically problematic, for sure.)

    If profiling was practical and effecive, we should do it.But it isn’t, so we shouldn’t. Sam needs to read his debate over again, and try to keep that in mind… No need to vilify him for this, he’s smart enough, he’ll figure out the mis-communication soon enough…

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  • 12
    Klarkster says:

    I’m wondering if Richard is a Libran as he seems to be acting quite conciliatory here? 😉 
    Or is that the disposition of another star-sign? Sorry I’m not a professional astrologer!

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  • 14
    brighterstill says:

    Let me be the first to demand that this word be legitimized as a real word.  

    Throught: a thoroughly thought out idea or concept, given the full weight of one’s mental faculties.  Also, the process of thrinking.

    Thrinking: reducing a problem to its constituent elements so as to better understand it. Also, reducing any fallacious argument to its ridiculous roots, i.e. until it is sufficiently thrunk.

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  • 15
    brighterstill says:

    The biggest realization was that the classical concept of “nothingness”, i.e. absence of everything, doesn’t (almost tautologically) exist in nature.  Krauss redefined “nothing” as being what’s left when you remove everything, i.e. a quantum vacuum.  Thus, the laws of quantum mechanics still apply and a universe can appear without initial cause.  This necessarily implies that the laws of quantum mechanics are eternal, which was everyone’s position on the universe itself until it was discovered to be expanding.  I don’t see any problem with accepting that the laws that govern a quantum vacuum (i.e. nothingness) have been around forever and will be around forever – they are simply the natural state of existence.

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  • 16
    Anonymous says:

    O.k., but there are good reasons (experimental and theoretical physics) to believe it is true, what is your reason for believing it isn’t true?

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  • 20
    Peter Grant says:

    Being called stupid by Ian Murphy is hardly a devastating insult. One of the fairly obvious intuitions he seems to lack is that torture and racial profiling should be illegal precisely because they do work so well. It is therefore only in ticking time bomb type scenarios where they can be morally justified.

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  • 21
    gordon says:

    As a reader of PZ and Sam Harris and an admirer of both, I am upset at the unseemly spat which has arisen between them. Sam seems to have taken offence at something placed on PZ’s blog by a commenter and upset that by leaving it there PZ is concluding Sam agrees with torture (or am I wrong). PZ’s repost is to dig in a little (stubborn old bastard that he is).  But then again, members of the atheist clan do not all have to be friends to each make valid points in this ongoing debate. Like Richard has said before, trying to group atheists is like herding cats. I shall keep reading both.
    As for profiling not being workable, I once walked up to the scanner gate at Aden airport. In front of me a Sheikh walked up to the gate, paused and passed his Kalashnikov to the attendant, walked through and the attendant passed the gun back to him. I walked through, aghast, was frisked by the attendant, so said to him “why did you let him through?” His answer was “Oh, I know him.” If only life were so simple.
    I suspect Richard is trying to be peacemaker.  I hope they listen.

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  • 22
    Anonymous says:

    Good article. I strongly agree with the core message – we ought to be able to think of moral issues dispassionately, without worrying about being labelled a ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ or any other ‘-ist’.

    However, I don’t think Myers’ claim (that it boils down to a simple question) was an example of moral philosophy. It was a statement of his position on the matter, but I don’t really think he argued for it in any way at all. Perhaps he has good reasons for his stance that he can provide if needed. It was a good clarification though – we at least know his position on the matter. The next step is the moral philosophy, i.e. arguing for that position.

    There’s a famous thought experiment that is supposed to back up Myers’ position on abortion: Judith Jarvis Thomson’s ‘Violinist’. Singer disagrees that it is a conclusive argument for bodily autonomy, by the way.

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  • 23
    Corylus says:

    From Sam’s article:

    None of us know what our online lives will look like in five years. But we know that the Internet does not forget.

    Indeed it does not – even deleted pages can be resurrected.  As we are talking moral philosophy here, I would argue that we all have a moral duty to not post statements that are borderline libellous without corroborating evidence.

    Chatting online can seem so very personal and intimate, especially when you have got to ‘know’ your common correspondents. It can be almost therapeutic. When commenting on blogs it can feel like it is just you, your computer, and your friends that live inside it.  The opposite is true of course, you are actually on a party line; with a megaphone; running up and down the street, in your pajamas.

    The things we can cathartically whisper about to friends, like personal emotional baggage and speculations about the possible vile characters of others are simply not appropriate online.  Best to try to avoid such things when you can, and discourage it in others.  Unfortunately, some bloggers (PZ amongst them) seem to go out of their very way to encourage it.

    Reputations are important. People who point this out are not trolls, they might even be trying to (gasp!) stop people who have worked hard and made significant contributions from getting themselves an unforgettable reputation – for that of unthinkingly trashing others.

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  • 24
    jamesnperkins says:

    Favourite part of the Harris article

    “people like PZ Myers continue to malign me as an advocate of “racial profiling.”

    That’s so unfair, Sam. Why would they do that? Oh yeah

    “It is not enough for moderate Muslims to say “not in our name.” They must now police their own communities. They must offer unreserved assistance to western governments in locating the extremists in their midst. They must tolerate, advocate, and even practice ethnic profiling.” (Sam Harris, Bombing Our Illusions, 2005).

    The Mondoweiss article Harris claims “reveals misrepresentations of my views and tendentious maneuvers that seem to have been made in very bad faith” is available here:

    It is certainly worth a read because it is a very good critique of Harris.

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  • 25
    ccw95005 says:

    My belief, as I think is common here, is that there is no universal right and wrong, and that Sam Harris was mistaken in insisting that there is.  There are many things that almost all of us – especially those of us with a normal dose of empathy – agree on – but there are people who through genetics or upbringing have almost no sympathy for others, and from their point of view concern for others is bogus.  Luckily, most of us do believe that murder and rape and genocide and pedophilia are morally wrong, but let’s not delude ourselves into concluding that those are absolute and universal from a logical standpoint.  

    It all comes down to our individual senses of right and wrong, bequeathed to us by evolution, which felt that a conscience was a good thing for perpetuation of the species.  With regard to abortion, as discussed above, most of us here, I suspect, feel that the mother, a sentient being, is the entity deserving of our sympathy; we empathize with her.  Most of us here, I suspect, also feel that the fetus, a potential human but at present a primitive creature without the power of thought, is much less deserving of our sympathy; we don’t empathize with it very much.  But some of us here, and many people in general, do empathize with that fetus, and want to protect it, and I must agree that the opinion of those people is just as valid as mine, logically.  (On the other hand, I don’t see as morally justified those who are guided in their condemnation of abortion by church doctrine alone; they are guided by something that is not true, and not by empathy and sympathy, which are what I personally feel to be the one true morality – my version, anyway.)

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  • 26
    Peter Grant says:

    No, moral rights can be universal without being absolute. Subjectivity is not a problem if we rely on empiricism instead of ideal forms.

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  • 27
    chloe kelly says:

    I have almost no respect for PZ  Myers left after the whole TAM Thunderfoot controversy. He literally said in one of his posts “This is new! I usually don’t get rape fantasies, but Thunderf00t’s angry rabble have opened up exciting new vistas.” To me that crosses a line.

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  • 28
    crucialfictionofjesus says:

    “The End of Faith opens with the melodramatic scene of a young man of undetermined nationality boarding a bus with a suicide vest. The bus detonates, innocents die and Harris, with the relish of a schoolmarm passing on the facts of life to her brood, chalks in the question: “Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy-you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it-easy to guess the young man’s religion?”
    To which historians will answer: Because it is not.
    Owing to the narrow focus of his book, written after the 9/11 attacks, Harris wishes the trauma of recent events to yield a Muslim answer. Had it been written on September 10, 2001, the answer would have been the nominally Hindu Tamil Tigers who have racked up almost four hundred suicide attacks; or, in 1945, a Buddhist Kamikaze; or, reflecting the Eastern Front of the same conflict, the German Luftwaffe’s suicide squadrons. What the religion of the bomber is depends on at which point of history you begin to start your timeline.”
    So this is the drivel appearing on Mondoweiss? The examples quoted occurred in war and were directed at opposing combatants; how is this comparable with random suicide attacks on civilians? 
    Buddhist Kamikaze?? WTF is he talking about? Those pilots MAY have been Buddhist, Shinto, Confucian or even Christian which is all irrelevant. Their motivation was mindless fanatical worship of the God Emperor Hirohito. 
    Muslim apologists trying to excuse mass murder make me want to vomit. Being no fan of the state of Israel, nevertheless the rabid hatred on that forum is indeed ‘worth a read’

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  • 29
    clodhopper says:

    Ditto.  I fear it is too late for PZ now.  As someone tweeted – FtB isn’t a religion.  It’s a relationship with PeeZus.  Pity.

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  • 30
    gordon says:

    PZ pushes for replies. That isn’t a bad thing. He puts his head over the parapet but I think he stays within what could be described as ‘the debate’. I think his ‘cold’ heart is in the right place. I can relate because I am outspoken and sometimes totally fucked off with the status quo. We also have to allow him the right to be angry as he lives in the US which may nor may not be soon taken over by creationist and climate deniers in the Republican Party. Sometimes you have to look at the wider picture.

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  • 31
    Red Dog says:

    Professor Dawkins its rare when I disagree with you but this is such a case. I agree with most of what you said, I just think you are ignoring an important issue, when intellectuals take positions they have a responsibility to understand how those positions might be used or mis-used. E.g., when Steven Pinker wrote his book the Blank Slate he was clear in that book that although some of the scientific positions he was supporting had in the past been used to justify racism that he believed that such an application of them was completely misguided. 

    When Harris wrote about torture it wasn’t an abstract issue. For the first time in US history prisoners were being tortured for real and by design. Many of Harris’s cases came from islamic terror examples. Yet neither at the time or since have I ever heard Harris proclaim that unequivocally he is against torture as a US policy in general and especially the way it was used after 9/11. The latter is especially important because we now have overwhelming testimony from experts that the use of torture by the US was ineffective and many of the victims were innocent. 

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  • 32
    gordon says:

    He was trying to illustrate the predicament we are in. Life is a mess. If your child had been kidnapped, tortured and raped, what would be your reaction? I suspect that like me as a father you would want to kill the perp. But what should our reaction be as a species? If you ask Sam if he condones torture he would condemn it in reality but in the abstract it may have traction. This is our human dilemma. Extrapolate this to our fellow apes, or animals, or bugs. Difficult eh?

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  • 33
    Tord_M says:

    I’m probably one of the people guilty of vilification and viciousness towards Sam Harris, because I have quite strongly expressed my disagreement with him and his view on topics like eastern mysticism, morals and free will on this site. I disagree with Sam Harris on many things it seems, except the non-existence of gods (having been an atheist all my life). And perhaps because of those disagreements I didn’t shed a single tear when reading his essay of self-pity this morning. He’s told similar stories before on his blog, about how people who disagree with him are willfully misunderstanding, misrepresenting and distorting his views. I’m sure there are thousands of people who do exactly that, but Sam would be wiser if he simply ignored those. But just because there are plenty of people who disagree with him for bad or dishonest reasons, doesn’t mean that everyone who disagrees with him does so for bad or dishonest reasons.

    I don’t think the “it’s just a thought experiment” argument holds in the case of Sam Harris (or in any other case, for that matter). Harris is not a moral philosopher conducting thought experiments in his private study far away from the realities of politics and real life. He’s a professional public debater and opinion-maker with agendas. He’s engaging with current political issues. Writing an article in defense of torture while the “war on terror” (or the “war with Islam” as he has called it) was still at it’s hottest, and while prisoners where actually held illegally and tortured in US prison camps, is not the same as simply conducting a philosophical thought experiment. It was a clear defense of a policy that would undermine the The Universal Declaration of Human Right. And I think Sam Harris is intelligent enough to realize how the reactions to his article would be, so he has no reason to be surprised or feel hurt. I wonder if Harris isn’t sometimes intentionally vague and ambiguous, as in that article. It would allow him to say what he wants without committing to it. Making sure that his message is so clear that it gains supporters, while still being so vague and ambiguous that it’s possible to escape criticism afterward by saying something equivalent to “It was just a thought experiment”. Harris would know very well that people were actually being tortured because of reasoning similar to his, and then it’s no longer simply a thought experiment.

    If it’s really true that Harris is so exceptionally frequently misunderstood and misrepresented, perhaps it could be because Sam Harris himself is often unclear, vague, ambiguous, mystic or enigmatic when he expresses his views? And if so, might it be because his thinking is equally unclear and muddled? 

    If Sam’s article “In defense of torture” had been biting satire like Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, or if his intention had been to argue against war in general by exposing it’s gruesome consequences, it’s inhumane and horrid “logic”, then I would have supported him. But it wasn’t. It was exactly what the title said; A defense of torture.

    By the way I think the Theodore Sayeed article that Sam
    linked to:… is well worth reading. Even if you don’t agree with it, it might offer some new perspectives.

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  • 34
    Red Dog says:

    Here is one of the early Harris articles in support of torture:… this came out (Oct. 2005) at a time when the US for the first time in history was torturing prisoners by policy. This article is clearly meant not as some abstract argument but as support for the US policy of torture. 

     I think that is the point Dawkins misses in his defense of Harris. Harris isn’t being attacked for making an abstract philosophical argument, he is being attacked for supporting a criminal policy of the US government to torture people. Its one thing (quite fine) to talk about torture in the abstract. Its quite another to defend torture in reality. If Harris actually regretted supporting this criminal policy then he should say so and also should state the clear truth that the policy was ineffective as well as imoral. 

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  • 35
    StacyK says:

     >The examples quoted occurred in war and were directed at opposing >combatants 

    You’re wrong. The Tamil Tigers are a terrorist organization.

    The Luftwaffe were known to target civilians, but I don’t know the suicide squadrons did so.

    Anyway, iirc, Harris’ point in TEOF was not simply that fanatical Islam makes people willing to be terrorists, but that it makes them particularly willing to kill themselves for the cause. 

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  • 36
    StacyK says:

    >”This is new! I usually don’t get rape fantasies, but Thunderf00t’s angry rabble have >opened up exciting new vistas.” To me that crosses a line.

    How so? It was followed by just that from a TF supporter. Maybe the author of the fantasy was the one who crossed a line.

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  • 37
    maria melo says:

    I find all these moral arguments a bit ridiculous, just because if women were to get control over her bodies, they would get pregnant when they don´t want a child.
    At this point, anyone can make whatever argument it pleases more.
    It immediately reminded me Plato´s imagination about the womb of a woman, what could he know ?

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  • 38
    Red Dog says:

    I think you are just confusing emotions with laws. Of course I would want to do terrible things to someone who harmed someone in my family. That doesn’t by any rational next step imply that we should allow governments to use cruel and unusual punishment. It was one of the many good ideas that the US founding fathers had and until Bush/Cheney was never even an issue let alone a policy… that the US would support torture.

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  • 39
    jamesnperkins says:

    Ahh, beat me to it. But, yes, you are correct. If you’re interested in the Kamikaze pilots and Buddhism, there is a very good book called “Zen At War”.

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  • 40
    jamesnperkins says:

    Indeed, he makes reference to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Why, if someone was making an abstract argument, would they release it at a time when, as you say, the US was torturing prisoners by policy and use real life examples?

    Actually, though, I’m not sure that this was the first time the US used torture, like waterboarding, as policy. I believe it was employed by US during the insurgency which occured in the Philippines after the 1898 war. 

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  • 41
    crucialfictionofjesus says:

     ‘The Tamil Tigers are a terrorist organization.’ Maybe. Not relevant- it was a war situation 

    ‘The Luftwaffe were known to target civilians, but I don’t know the suicide squadrons did so.’ 

    Me neither, in fact I was not aware of German suicide squadrons
    All sides targeted civilians which is what happens in war, sadly. 
    I maintain it is not comparable with individual suicide bombers motivated by religious hatreds. 

    Haven’t read TEOF, can’t comment. Seems that SB’s are almost all young- how odd their mentors decline the opportunity?

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  • 42
    Axulus says:

    I have lots of experience of going through what Sam Harris has gone through since I post quite frequently at an atheist discussion forum in the politics section and post some very controversial arguments (sometimes as devil’s advocate), and I think I have pin-pointed the reason why it happens.  What seems to happen is that a controversial very specific hypothetical is presented, in order to highlight principles behind reasoning which sometimes suggests or argues for an uncomfortable conclusion, such as “torture may actually be OK here, profiling may be OK under this specific circumstance, this specific government regulation of corporations is bad and counterproductive here” etc.

    However, what happens is that people who are extremely against torture or profiling or highly supportive of government regulation believe the extreme hypothetical is being used in order to justify the concept more generally in the real world.  They believe it provides cover for governments and torture supporters to apply it to a very different real-world case.  They also attribute ill motives to the person presenting the hypothetical as providing intellectual support for more general cases, even if these more general or real world cases do not_ fit the very specific fact pattern of the hypothetical and may actually differ in material ways.

    It is an emotional based reaction of anger, combined with a very real fear that the position will advance and provide support for immoral actions.  I mean, the right wing isn’t exactly full of the most rational people.  They will distort or misunderstand the hypothetical being presented and use it to support their immoral position.  That’s the fear at least.

    In summary, those providing such hypotheticals are seen as providing aid and comfort to the enemy: pro-tortures, racists, bigots, plutocrats, (insert enemy here)

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  • He hides behind the excuse that it’s the people who post there and not him, but that is baloney.

    Don’t forget that he kicked Thunderfoot off the “free thought blogs” site because he dared to talk about a subject that PZ didn’t like; the “sexism” at atheist conferences.  I’ve pretty much lost all respect for PZ.

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  • 44
    maria melo says:

    Cardinal Archbishop Pell, must be indeed an original person as I ´ve noticed, he wouldn´t take as granted “official” views of the church, he even agreed that at a certain level  animals have a soul.

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  • 45
    Peter Grant says:

    The Selfish Gene is also widely misunderstood and misrepresented, often deliberately. I suppose you blame Professor Dawkins for this?

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  • 47
    maria melo says:

    “Do all humans, no matter whether embryonically young or vegetatively old, deserve more moral consideration than a cow in its prime in a slaughterhouse?” The argument touchs deeply those who love both animals and humans, and Peter Singer decided instead to give “voice” to animals, but the fact is that humans suffer as much as animals, Therefore, Peter Singer´s argument seem  valid to me, emocionally ( where do lay our moral considerations?), then I´ll try to make my effort to be more rational in order to avoid useless suffering, as much as it makes me happier.
    People who don´t get touched by emotional arguments, that´s useless I think, and many people really DONT AND NEVER WILL BE).
    There are humans that risk their lives to save animals, this is something.
    It touches me.
    Although I can understand Peter Singer´s “dilemma”, I don´t see PZ ´s.

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  • 48
    crucialfictionofjesus says:

    Had a look, surprised to find the link between Buddhism and kamikaze. Learning all the time! Why has it not appeared in anything I’ve read on the kamikaze? Seems the Japanese gov’t  utilised “New Buddhist” thinking in promoting the war. 

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  • 49
    jameshogg says:

    Thought experiments do well since they often unleash the full height of rhetoric behind a proposition.  And some are not always hypothetical.  It is very possible and very likely that powerful and democratic countries will be confronted with the following dilemma.  It is the same idea that I use to attack the proposition of pacifism:

    “Would you consider the idea of sacrificing a hundred thousand humans if it meant it was the ONLY way to stop the insane slaughter of millions?”

    Even George Orwell could see that pacifism was a lost cause, and he understood totalitarianism better than most people during his time.

    Nobody likes the findings of the phenomenon that is the Bystander Effect either, because at some level it reminds people that their longing for a quiet life has a nasty degree of selfishness to it (“you may only live once, but you’re not the only one alive”): they have a responsibility to help those who are suffering in the world whether they want to admit it or not, and governments standing by watching while people thousands of miles away kill each other in the name of “respecting sovereignty” could quite rightly be seen as implicit support for the killings under the right circumstances.

    Also, pacifists cannot quite fathom a decent response to the tragedies of Rwanda or Darfur.

    The proposition quite rightly makes people uncomfortable.  Those who spend their days living in lucky societies where health and well-being are steady usually end up being more modest about it when they spend even an hour researching the vile and horrific suffering that occurs in countries swamped with fascism and poverty.

    Richard is obviously right.  These things need to be discussed, and if they are queasy to think about it means I just want to know about it more, since that queasiness is very, very often a sign of an uncomfortable truth.  But knowing the truth can only help you, never betray you.*

    And from what I’ve read, I hope people stop fighting too.

    * “What about knowledge of nuclear bombs?  Or chemical weapons?” I hear you say.  Well, a) you might want to consider the possibility that a nuclear bomb might prove to be extremely helpful if, say, an asteroid were on its way to Earth, or a huge wave of mosquitoes were heading your way carrying a deadly virus in their blood.  And b) you are still much better off finding out about nukes and weapons… before somebody else does.  That way you have the knowledge to do something about it.  Some more food for thought. 🙂

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  • Harris makes the case that if the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is criminal, than dropping any bomb on the enemy during a war where an innocent person may be killed is even more criminal.  What is your rebuttal to this point?  Harris says one either accepts this or one must be a total pacifist.  In other words, Harris cuts through the bullshit and seems to reduce it to a pure cost benefit analyis.  If a high probability of torturing and maiming children and other innocents (the cost of dropping a bomb) is less than the presumed benefits (the possibility of killing or incapacitating the enemy in a war as a result of that one bomb), then torturing a non innocent person (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) would be similarly justified if the presumed benefits are high enough (useful intel may be gained).  Harris I believe is pointing out the strange disparity on our reactions to torture on the one hand and dropping bombs on war targets during a war that may maim and kill innocents on the other hand.

    A rebuttul would go like this:
    -Dropping a bomb that may kill an innocent is never justified (the moral costs are far higher than most people calculate). One must either be a pacifist or only fight to the extent that one is 100% certain an innocent will not be in harms way in any attack.
    -The benefits of torture are either negligible or non-existent (either (1) useful information is never obtained from it or (2) the same information can be obtained with an equivalent or better success rate on every person using non-torture methods, and success doesn’t increase when those methods are combined with torture. These questions can be answered empirically in principle).

    Which form of rebuttal would you take?  Is Sam Harris evil if he disagrees with you?  Perhaps Sam Harris is factually wrong on the probability of gaining useful information.  I don’t know.

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  • 51
    Red Dog says:

    No I don’t. Because in The Selfish Gene Dawkins was very clear to distance himself from any Social Darwinism implications. If you look at some of my previous comments that is my point. As soon as Harris does what people like Dawkins and Pinker do then he shouldn’t be criticized. But unlike those people Harris has never come out and said that the criminal torture that the US committed while he was writing support of torture articles was obviously wrong. It was wrong because most of the people that were tortured were innocent of the crimes they were suspected of. 

    It was wrong because those people who were tortured were being asked to provide information that was false, such as that Sadam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. It was wrong because those people who were being tortured did what people who are being tortured always do and said whatever their torturers wanted them to say which further confused US intelligence. But most importantly it was wrong because something that any intelligent educated  person used to take for granted since the US Bill of Rights is that governments don’t have the right to torture people.

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  • 52
    jamesnperkins says:

    Seeing as thought experiments are the soup of the day and what a good moral philosopher does, here is a scenario and question. The US grows more and more fearful of Iran regarding its nuclear programme. The US eventually feels that the only option is to strike Iran’s nuclear reactors which would potentially kill millions of people. Does anyone think Harris would support the kidnapping and torture of US diplomats by the Iranian secret service to determine which civil nuclear reactors they are planning to strike and thereby save countless lives?

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  • 53
    Red Dog says:

    “Harris makes the case that if the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is criminal, than dropping any bomb on the enemy during a war where an innocent person may be killed is even more criminal.  What is your rebuttal to this point?”

    Thanks for mentioning that. Here is the passage I think you are referring to:

    “… we need only imagine an ideal “torture pill”–a drug that would deliver both the instruments of torture and the instrument of their concealment. … and transitory misery of a kind that no human being would willingly submit to… Imagine how we torturers would feel if, after giving this pill to captive terrorists, each lay down … only to arise and immediately confess everything he knows about the workings of his organization. Might we not be tempted to call it a “truth pill” in the end? No, there is no ethical difference to be found in how the suffering of the tortured or the collaterally damaged appears.

    Opponents of torture will be quick to argue that confessions elicited by torture are notoriously unreliable… Make these confessions as unreliable as you like–the chance that our interests will be advanced in any instance of torture need only equal the chance of such occasioned by the dropping of a single bomb.”


    An “ideal torture pill”? Really?

    I think that quote shows how inconsistent Harris is. He advocates for an ethics based on human well being. If we have to choose between two acts we choose the one that leads to the greatest well being for the most people. Yet in that statement Harris clearly implies that some people’s well being has more value than others:

    “Make these confessions as unreliable as you like–the chance that our interests will be advanced in any instance of torture need only equal the chance of such occasioned by the dropping of a single bomb.”

    I.e. when we decrease the well-being (i.e. torture, bomb) people that don’t support “our interests” that may be ok, because those people don’t count as much as people who do support our interests. 

    My refutation of his argument is that there are certain acts that humans have determined are too immoral to ever be justified. Incest, rape, and torture for example. And that even if we use human well-being as our metric, it still makes sense to always refuse to allow the state to apply barbaric punishment. 

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  • 55
    reckoner says:

     “My refutation of his argument is that there are certain acts that humans
    have determined are too immoral to ever be justified. Incest, rape, and
    torture for example.”

    Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

    But seriously, that’s your refutation?  There’s certain things that are absolutely wrong, and under not circumstances imaginable could they be justifiable, because you say so?  Or, because “humans” have determined the acts are too immoral not matter what the circumstance?  Come on man.

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  • 56
    reckoner says:

     Oh my gosh.  I can’t believe you just wrote that. Racist!  Sexist!  Masochistic slughead!  Tyrant!  Oh wait, this isn’t PZ’s blog. sorry.

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  • 57
    DoctorMelkor says:

    If memory serves, what Sam ACTUALLY discussed in The End of Faith was the fact that, if people are willing to accept ANY collateral damage in the prosecution of a war, but are absolutely against torture, they are being morally inconsistent, and that they are only able to maintain this inconsistency because collateral damage is more or less “hands off.”  He comes down AGAINST the use of torture for moral and practical reasons, echoed by your own posts–it doesn’t work to get what you actually want and is far too prone to abuse, and may well never be morally justifiable–but he points out that it is not the simple-minded issue that many of us would like to make it out to be.   

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  • 58
    zengardener says:

    I.e. when we decrease the well-being (i.e. torture, bomb) people that don’t support “our interests” that may be ok, because those people don’t count as much as people who do support our interests. “

    Where does Harris say this?

    I believe that in the moral landscape he made the point that it was the overall well being  of the world that concerned him. “our interests” would include the interests of EVERYONE.
    The one being tortured factors into the equation along with everyone else.

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  • 59
    secularjew says:

    I think you misunderstand Harris’s thesis. Yes, evolution bequeathed us with a sense of morality, but, as I’m sure you’ll agree, there is no intelligent design, and true morality needs constant refining by reason, empathy, and knowledge. It is this greater morality that moral thinking is concerned with, not merely people’s intuitions. And true moral values are the values we give to actions based on how those actions affect others, something which is not just a matter of opinion and can be in principal, if not always in practice, looked at scientifically.

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  • 60
    satan augustine says:

    This is an absolutely inaccurate assertion.  He did not get kicked off the FTBlogs site because he “disagreed” with PZ.  He was kicked off because he immediately stormed in and attacked multiple fellow FTBloggers.  Thunderfoot joined the group and then proceeded to attack said group.  I seriously doubt that you, when you’re the new person in a  group of live people, immediately attack their position on a given topic (otherwise, why would you even bother to join the group).  Such social etiquette need not go out the window just because the group being joined is a internet group.  If Thunderfoot had such a huge problem with the views of a majority of FTBloggers, then why did he join them to begin with.  His immediate antagonism makes one wonder if he joined FTBlogs just to troll.  He may as well have joined a creationist blogsite just so he could tell them how stupid they are.

    Sorry, but I simply couldn’t allow your ignorant assertion to pass without comment.  (BTW, lest you take it personally, remember that we are all ignorant about most things.  I’m not insulting you, merely correcting you on some facts).

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  • 61
    satan augustine says:

    Reasonable people can disagree.  Your assertion that the Sam/PZ disagreement is harmful to the cause requires evidence before it should be taken seriously.

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  • 62
    secularjew says:

    But the book wasn’t written on 9/10 and that’s the point. Sam Harris was not writing a history book on terrorism, but responding to 9/11 and the problems of the time, problems which did not include concerns about the kamikaze or Luftwaffe squadrons. So his opening scenario stands just fine. And I would also point out the word “almost” in “you-could-ALMOST-bet-your-life-on-it”, so you can see Sam is a much more careful writer than you think.

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  • 63
    mordacious1 says:

    Thunderf00t was sent an email from PZ that stated:

    There is no policy demanding that you ignore fellow FTBers. If you see something you don’t like, rip into it. Except me. I’m perfect, don’t you dare say otherwise.

    He was given assurances that his content would not be censored. What he didn’t realize is that PZ meant it when he stated that he was not allowed to to criticize PeeZus. So he got excommunicated.

     I’m not insulting you, merely correcting you on some facts 

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  • 64
    ccw95005 says:

    In order for there to be morality based on reason, empathy, and knowledge, you have to first postulate the criteria on which it will be based.  If you define those criteria well enough, then you can indeed develop a coherent and consistent moral system.  But those criteria are going to be, by necessity, somewhat arbitrary, and for most of us they will be based on our internal feelings of empathy toward others, toward our group, our nation, all humans, all mammals, whatever.  And no matter how you define those criteria, I’m pretty sure that there will be exceptions which cause you to say, that may logically be moral, but it doesn’t seem right to me.  Morality based strictly on a set of rules shouldn’t be trusted, in my opinion.

    Abortion is a case in point.  I believe that the woman should have the right to choose an abortion – although maybe not in the third trimester, when the fetus looks enough like a real human baby to make me squeamish.  How about someone who really sees that fetus as a baby?  Is his or her opinion to be disregarded?  At some point of development the fetus is capable of pain and suffering.  How do you draw that line, logically?  You can’t.

    The truth is that most of us have our own sense of what’s right and wrong and then we develop arguments to back up our prejudices.

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  • 65
    Schrodinger's Cat says:

    “Do all humans, no matter whether embryonically young or vegetatively old, deserve more moral consideration than a cow in its prime in a slaughterhouse?”

    Not if they can make grannyburgers for less than the ‘value’ stuff at the supermarket.

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  • The argument for torture to divulge some Jack Bauer ticking bomb information is dishonest.

    1. there is no such instance in real life.  Don’t pretend it is the usual case.  In such an improbable case,  break the law, don’t open the floodgates to routine legal torture.

    2. The argument is used to justify routine torture of detainees when there is no evidence they have any special information.

    3. torture just gets you what you want to hear, not the truth.  It purpose is demoralising and breakinrg down, now extracting info.

    The argument is not merely philosophical. It is deliberately deceptive, like a magician’s distraction.

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  • 68
    Simon Tuffen says:

    Richard, in the light of what you say here, could you clarfity why you won’t debate William Lane Craig despite his counter-intuitive moral views – or have you changed your mind?

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  • 70
    Peter Grant says:

    Your first point is actually one Sam Harris has made repeatedly, it’s a good example of the difference between moral and legal arguments.

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  • 71
    mordacious1 says:

    Richard has already answered that countless times.

    1)  “That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine”. Why should he give this nobody some cred that he doesn’t deserve?

    2) Craig supports biblical genocide. If god says “Kill all the children” (which he does btw) then Craig justifies it by saying whatever god does is good. Who wants to debate someone that morally corrupt?

    Richard debates theists with some standing, your boy is at the end of the line. Sorry, but that’s the case, so quit whining about it.

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  • 72
    maria melo says:

    I would say, specially  psychopaths sometimes show a strange coward behaviour that seems to me contradictoy with indifference toward their victims.

    tt towards victims

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  • 73
    Anonymous says:

    I wish you would spend more time urging your many followers not to use vilification and viciousness, and not just speak out about it when you perceive it as directed at yourself or your friends. These are example of atheist-on-atheist viciousness, but it pales in comparison with the way the same people talk about believers.

    > When I was debating Cardinal Archbishop Pell in Sydney, he raised easy laughs from the studio audience by simply restating my beliefs. The partisan audience laughed because it was counter-intuitive: How could something come from nothing?

    I’d say you completely put the audience off side with your opening remarks. You suggested that the central claim of Christianity was that God died to save himself, which seems obviously wrong. According to Christianity, Jesus died to save us, not himself. The way you put it also came across as needlessly antagonistic. It’s part of the Aussie character that talking like that will put you off side. We’re different from you British, and also the Americans – we don’t like perceived arrogance, and are constantly on the side of the underdog.

    But to the central point: Something coming from nothing. It doesn’t just seem absurd. It is absurd. Of course the audience laughed. But even if it did need debate, you apparently believe the quantum vacuum is literally nothing. I really don’t understand how you can. A quantum vacuum state has properties like spatial and temporal extent, like an energy (E=1/2 hf). Heck, it’s even responsible for the Casimir force which is measured in the lab. Even if Krauss’ very speculative cosmology is correct, why do you consider the vacuum state to be “nothing”? Why believe things, when experiments in the lab seem to show almost the exact opposite?

    > Peter Singer is violently threatened because he dares to ask questions like “Do all humans, no matter whether embryonically young or vegetatively old, deserve more moral consideration than a cow in its prime in a slaughterhouse?”

    He’s not protested because he asks the question. He’s protested because of the way he answers it. Let’s be clear here. By “vegetatively old” you mean newborn babies. So the question is if we should kill babies, like “cows… in a slaughterhouse”. He’s protested by disabled groups, because he suggested it’s ethical to have had them killed shortly after birth.

    It seriously amazes me that some atheists can’t see that killing babies is plainly and obviously wrong. Similarly, it amazes me you’re claiming things come from nothing. Or that torture, or racial profiling is right. They’re not. If your assumptions logically lead you to these absurd conclusions, then surely it’s your assumptions which are wrong.

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  • 74
    Brett brettemaiden says:

    In a very different context, with regard to possible gender differences, Steve Pinker remarked that, “To what degree these and other differences originate in biology must be determined by research, not fatwa.” Such a response represents what is called the “psychology of taboo”–the notion that some ideas are so dangerous or sacred that one mustn’t even think about them. Religion clearly has clearly relaxed in the shade of this mentality, as Prof. Dawkins has constantly pointed out (with the comic aid of the late Douglas Adams’ famous quote). But it seems to me that in the case of questions concerning ethics, Pinker’s comment is still apposite: the response should be honest philosophical reflection, not fatwa. 

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  • 75
    aquilacane says:

    I know I sound very dumb but here it is:

    I never said I believed it wasn’t true, I don’t accept the
    argument because it doesn’t come across as convincing, so I doubt its truth.
    Were I to reason it out, it probably comes down to the definition of nothing.
    For me it means nothing. The idea that there is potential for everything to
    come from nothing is proof enough for me that we are not talking about the same


    Nothing is nothing; it has no potential, no ability to
    change, no location, no size, no physics, no laws, no energy, no matter…
    nothing. If there is a different kind of nothing, we should call it something.
    I’m also confused by the timing of everything coming from nothing. Does nothing
    have to be in a particular state of nothingness before everything can come from


    Why billions of years ago at that moment? What was so
    precious about nothing, exactly then, that it needed to become something? If it
    was motivated externally, that is something. If it was motivated internally,
    that is something.


    The very idea of nothing doesn’t compute in general, no
    matter how much math you throw at it. Sometimes I wonder if a physicist with a
    notebook and an idea is any different (on occasion) from a theologian with a
    bible and a wish. The arguments look more like high functioning parlour tricks. Mathematical
    illusions David Copperfield could appreciate. Games.


    I just assume there is a greater chance we are wrong than
    there ever was or will ever be a state of nothing. It appears more likely to me
    that existence is the only possibility. Frankly, and probably ignorantly, the
    idea of nothing looks more like faith than fact.

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  • 76
    PERSON says:

    “If Thunderfoot had such a huge problem with the views of a majority of FTBloggers, then why did he join them to begin with.”This is a ridiculous suggestion. FTB is not a political party with a set of doctrines, is it? It’s not trying to win elections. Or is it? TF objected in robust terms to a fondly held belief of many FTBers. Rationalists would have been pleased with such a challenge, dealt with it, and moved on. And by that, I do not mean suppressed and ignored, rather noted and either rejected outright or responded to as required. Being on a blog should not make you a member of a clique or tribe. In practice it does, but this is something to be worked against– if impartiality and objectivity is desired, that is– not enforced by ostracism and expulsion.

    To me, PZ has started to fit the picture of Liberals presented in media such as the Watchmen comics– patronising and duplicitous. It’s sad to see the stereotype come to life.

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  • 78
    Schrodinger's Cat says:

    I think the problem with a lot of philosophising of any sort is that it is always possible to generate counterfactual arguments that tend towards ‘a priori’ support for a particular position.

    Thus, although a lot of philosophical arguments look as though they have been derived from a forward progression from A to B, it is often every bit as much the case that the belief in B came first and then lowered a sky hook down to attach to A. The appearance is then given of a logical progression that never actually existed.

    I think that almost by definition most of philosophy is like this. The very act of ‘explaining’ something is an act of lowering that sky hook and hoping it catches on something.

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  • 79
    rcphelan says:

    Great point, Prof. Dawkins.  As a thought experiment I have aways wondered where the tipping point is regarding a  woman’s right over what happens within her own body (or a man’s for that matter.)  I am in agreement with a woman’s choice to terminate pregnancy, and the vast majority of westerners would agree with a woman’s right to choose to not procreate in the first place.   However if all women, however implausible, chose to never procreate, or if all men decide to never provide another sperm for procreation purposes, would society have the right to decide that no longer can women or men retain autonomous control over their bodies?  Moral philosophy is critical in examining absolutist views most of us never question.

    The PZ/Sam feud seems silly when Dawkins can weigh in so effectively and better frame the arguments than either of them seem to be able to do.

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  • 80
    blitz442 says:

    My assertion is that the MANNER of disagreement is harmful.  If they were just lobbing facts and reasoned arguments back and forth about the ethics of torture and profiling then that would be one thing.  But ad hom attacks on a person’s character or intellectual integrity is something entirely different.  I would rather not see this kind of dirty laundry played out in public.    

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  • 81
    secularjew says:

    All of your arguments are arguments why torture is not good in practice, not in principal. You’re saying the ticking bomb scenario is just too rare (actually, I don’t think it’s quite as rare as you think), but if there was such a scenario than torture would be OK, right? Your other arguments are also off the mark, but are revealing of your position. You say that the “ticking bomb” argument is “used to justify torture of detainees who may not have any information”, but just because somebody uses arguments inappropriately doesn’t mean such arguments are inappropriate in all circumstances. 

    You show an aversion to so-called “dangerous ideas” because they may be misused, and while that may be a perfectly legitimate concern, that does not make an idea false or wrong. Harris is not dictating government policy or telling intelligence guys how to do their jobs (he also said that torture should be illegal in most cases, just as murder is). He is merely pointing out that there are times when torture is not always totally unethical, and there is nothing that you said that disproved that.

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  • 82
    Anonymous says:

    Don’t you think a more consistent response would be at Sam Harris’s expense? Something along the lines of, “Dear UA Flight 175 Victim; Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you suffered a hellish death at the hands of ideological fanatics armed with nothing but boxcutters, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I
    know you were trapped and helpless once they took command of the plane, and that thousands of died with you in the crash, and hundreds of thousands more in the wars that followed. But stop whining, will
    you. Think of the suffering your poor American airline passengers have to put up
    with having their toothpastes and shaving cream confiscated and forced to take off their shoes.”

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  • 83
    Anonymous says:

     The problem with Harris’ scenario is the tunnel vision he applies to it.  Clearly there is profiling going on – there are “watch lists”, passengers coming and going from certain locations are scrutinized more thoroughly, etc.  Islamic terrorists have in the past used innocent passengers as “mules” to transport the explosives (Hindawi) – not to mention other ne’er-do-well’s doing the same in insurance scams, political hits etc. If little old men in wheel chairs are never screened, then terrorists have an incentive to plant dangerous materials on the little old men or their wheel chairs.  And let’s not forget the obvious here-anybody can be Muslim.  Even little old men in wheel chairs. 

    Besides-it’s not as if Islamic terrorists are the only nutjobs we need to worry about causing mayhem with airliners. 9-11 was a spectacular attack-don’t think copycats wouldn’t adopt a similar scheme if they felt it easy to get away with it.  Screening is intended to intercept each and every potential attack.  It’s not a situation where stopping 99 out of 100 is good enough.

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  • 84
    secularjew says:

    The general criteria is to see how an action effects the wellbeing of conscious creatures. We can derive specific criteria from that, but there will be many and they won’t be arbitrary, just as there are many things by which we judge whether a person is healthy or not. Health is a similar concept to morality because it too is complex, is ultimately concerned with the wellbeing of conscious creatures, is a concept which changes with knowledge, and can (and should) be looked at scientifically.

    Let’s take a look at your abortion example. Is killing a fetus in the early stages the same as killing a baby? If you say no, is that because you recognize that there are real, crucial differences between the two or is it because you simply have an intuition about such things? You ask “How about someone who really sees that fetus as a baby? Is his or her opinion to be disregarded?” Well, yes, their opinion should be disregarded in the sense that they are factually wrong, just as we would disregard their opinion if they thought the sun revolved around the earth. The point is that facts are not determined by how people happen to feel about them.

    There are many thing we may not know and may never know about morality, but that doesn’t mean that that we shoud ignore things that we do know (we may not currently know the exact moment when a fetus starts to feel pain, but we know when it doesn’t), and it also doesn’t mean that the answers are arbitrary or unscientific (we don’t know how many fish there are in the ocean, but we know there is a simple mathematical answer and it is not at all arbitrary).

    And yes, we all have a sense of right and wrong and then develop arguments to back them up, but the beauty of science and rationalism is that we are able to move beyond that and even come to a conclusion which we originally did not hold. From slavery to homosexuality to abortion, our positions have evolved because there are real objective answers about morality.

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  • 86
    hyperdeath says:


    That line was a description of an email he had received from a Thunderf00t supporter, containing a bizarre rape threat.  From the context, it is abundantly clear that PZ meant “I don’t usually receive emails containing rape fantasies”.

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  • 88
    huzonfurst says:

    It’s been much longer than a year since Pharyngula went off the deep end. His cadre of truly vicious morality police has been driving people away for the last three years at least. I’ve seen any number of believers dropping in with sincere questions only to be driven away by their vitriol – and leaving with a justifiably worse opinion of atheists than when they started. I’ve been called a racist innumerable times by these p/c pricks merely for criticising islam in not quite the correct way (whatever that is, because they’re not telling). Half of them can’t complete a sentence without calling someone an “asshat” or “assclown” and their all-time favorite word is “bigot,” which is thrown in at random just because it makes them feel all tingly inside.
    I’d much rather hang out witth some friendly chistians than these incredibly pompous and self-absorbed know-it-alls!

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  • 89
    secularjew says:

    Why should morality be based on how an intentional action affects the wellbeing of conscious creatures? Because otherwise the concept of morality becomes meaningless.

    Now, you bring up important elements that make us moral creatures and that is that we can empathize, we care about rights and wrongs, and we can reason. Generally, serial killers don’t feel empathy, they don’t care about the suffering of others, and so they are by definition amoral. And though some animals show a rudimentary understanding of fairness and also express what looks like empathy, they are not capable of our level of reasoning and are also largely amoral, and you wouldn’t judge them any more than you’d judge a hurricane. But if you care about the suffering of animals, it does not require that they care about you.

    So to ask, “why should we be moral?” is like asking “why should we feel love?” Either you feel love or you don’t. And if you don’t, the question does not apply to you. And if you don’t care about hurting others and are not convinced by the arguments that a moral society also makes your life better, then the question doesn’t apply to you any more than it would apply to a serial killer or a tiger.

    I also think there’s confusion about the relationship between logic and emotion. What’s throwing you off is that Harris is proposing a way to think scientifically about an issue that we care about.

    I’ve already written too much, so please forgive me if I don’t answer your more complex questions about whose life matters more (it can not always be reduced that way, but I’d say an innocent’s life matters more than the killer’s) or about the ethical treatment of criminals (though as you can tell by the many posts about torture on this thread, even when dealing with bad guys, there are still moral concerns and they are not arbitrary). And I don’t have a ready answer for you regarding the 20 week old fetus, though I don’t think pain alone should be the deciding factor. No one is saying that moral problems are easy. The point is in trying to change the way we think about them.

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  • 90
    Steve Zara says:

    I disagree substantially with much of what Sam Harris says, but he is certainly one of the good guys.  He debates with passion but with respect for the process of debate, and in a civilized way.  I have a lot of respect for him. 

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  • 91
    jamesnperkins says:

    Do you have respect for his views on reincarnation and the paranormal? Do you respect the passionate way he defends ethnic profiling and torture? Also, do you respect the way he promotes the Eurabia conspiracy theory and engages in shamless fear-mongering in pieces like the one found in the link?

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  • 92
    mordacious1 says:

    Exactly, Steve. I disagree with Sam on several topics, but I’m always willing to listen to his point of view because he discusses issues like a gentleman. Sometimes the disagreement comes down to minor nuances and I can see his point and why he’s making it, even though he hasn’t won me over. But that’s fine, that’s what discussion is about. I learn from him.

    There are several atheist bloggers who argue in this manner. They have my utmost respect, even if we don’t always agree. But herein lies one of the big problems in the atheist community. A blogger makes a point that he/she is passionate about and someone posts    ” that while I see your point, don’t you think this could also be true?” And immediately the poster is attacked by the blogger and a group of sycophants that hang out there. Not with arguments, but with insults. This is a real problem for rational discussion and makes the whole community look foolish.

    On another thread, I listed sever posters who I respect that have been treated horribly in the last year or so. Blackford, Corylus, Hale, Kirby, Dawkins among many others. Now that I think of it, I could have listed Zara too. These are people who tried to discuss various issues in a calm manner and were insulted, demeaned, banned and otherwise treated like crap. This is tearing the atheist blogosphere apart. It’s senseless and unproductive. Flame wars happen, but these are not people who are usually involved. They are victims of abuse, not abusers. 

    I know these are all people, for the most part, who can stand up for themselves, but it saddens me that it has come to this. I personally avoid bloggers who act this way and hope others do too. It needs to stop.

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  • 93
    Rich Wilson says:

    But on the profiling thesis, Sam wasn’t exploring the ethical issues.  He was suggesting a process change in an area in which he is not an expert.  His proposal wasn’t new.  It’s not like nobody had ever thought of the idea of the TSA profiling potential Muslims.  People who know more about the mechanics of security have thought about it long and hard and reject it.

    Sam thinking his idea makes perfect sense isn’t unlike the audience at the Pell debate thinking it’s silly for a Universe to come from nothing.  In each case, one thinks their position is common sense, and the expert knows otherwise.

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  • 94
    jamesnperkins says:

    “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.” —The End of Faith, p. 199

    Yup, just a harmless little thought-experiment.

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  • 96
    Kevin_88 says:

    If the argument that we need more than intuition to understand physics and philosophy is good,
    it can also be applied to theology.

    Theology has theologians who try to study it and just like the experts mentioned has many critics. It also has many counter-intuitive ideas i.e. Jesus being human/divine at the same time.

    One can defend who they care about but in my view the same arguments can be used to defend theology in this aspect.

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  • I just wanted to chime in by saying that the quality of the comments here, and the respect with which they’re delivered, is outstanding. The contrast with Pharyngula could scarcely be more stark.

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  • 98
    mmurray says:

     Do you respect the passionate way he defends ethnic profiling

    Can you explain to me what is wrong with ethnic profiling ?  I understand the objections Schneier make and read the whole discussion between him and Harris and I think Harris is wrong.  But I can see where he is coming from.  What’s wrong with him passionately defending his position?

    As for the reincarnation and paranormal all I’ve seen him say is there might be some evidence that is still worth looking at. If there is evidence and someone wants to look at it and they don’t waste taxpayers funding that would be better spent on pure mathematics research I don’t have an issue with this.


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  • 99
    Furlessape says:

    I’ve noticed this from PZ Myers for quite some time. He frequently ridicules those who even have the slightest disagreement with him. He rarely engages opposing views in a civil manner.

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  • 100
    Patrick_G says:

    I recommend you read his latest response to Sam Harris, where he clearly outlines his objections in a quite civil form. You can find it at….

    In fact, that link is a specific response to the Harris piece that Dawkins linked to in this post. There is a fairly thorough discussion in the comments, but it IS Pharyngula, so be warned it wanders away from politeness now and again.

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  • 101
    secularjew says:

    Unfortunately, the limits
    of language can cause confusion in discussions like this, and it seems we’re
    using the word morality differently. You’re using it to talk about a moral
    sense and moral codes, while I am talking about what it actually
    means for something to be morally good or bad.

    I also think you are
    confusing the causes of morality with what morals actually are. For example, we
    both care about animals not being harmed because that’s how we are as human
    beings, but that is not the same thing as determining what actually harms
    animals, which involves science.

    You did not design
    yourself or chose to be conscious, but since you are the way you are, we can
    make objective claims about your conscious experience, and we can determine what
    you like or don’t like, what hurts you and what doesn’t, and all of these things
    will not be arbitrary, but will have definite right and wrong answers.

    Well, take another
    value as an example. What does it mean to say that a food is tasty? It means
    that you enjoy the flavor of the food. And why do you enjoy the flavors of
    certain foods and not others? Because that is how you are “designed”; the taste
    buds taste, and the brain “likes” this or that. Would it make sense then to say
    that what should define tasty food is what the Bible says? What if people have
    intuitions about which foods or animals WILL taste good, or which foods will
    taste good to other animals? Their intuitions may be right or wrong, but the
    real, true answer can only come from science, which in this case would involve
    actually tasting the food or seeing which animals preferred which foods, etc.
    And you wouldn’t say, well who are we to disregard the opinion of someone who
    thinks frogs love bananas, or whatever. And you definitely wouldn’t say, but
    taste isn’t based on logic, it’s just a pleasurable state, so how can we
    rationally study what tastes good?

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  • 102
    Skytrompet says:

    Another dilemma of thought and ethics

    First of all I’m pro abortion (or at least I thought I was until I realized the following just a minute ago)Concerning the issue of the womans right over her own body: what is a fetus if not a body of someone else inside a womans body? 
    Point: The fetus doesn’t comprise the womans body – I think the most precise thing to say is that once a woman is pregnant she is no longer just herself, but something bigger and more complex than that – and therefore to call abortion an act of control by a woman over her own body is objectively viewed a little piece specious but imprecise bullshit – just because it goes on inside the womans body, it’s too easy to just talk about it as if it only concernes her body. Wouldn’t it infact be more precise and serious to talk about the womans body ending where the fetus begins, eventhough it’s alle inside of her? Can a persons right over their body extend beyond what is actually theirs like the organs etc.?
    Hope someone will prove me wrong – as I’m not looking to make a family.

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  • 103
    mordacious1 says:

    A tumor meets all the specifications you pointed out, does she have a right to remove that? After conception, a fetus is just a group of rapidly growing tissue that may or may not eventually become a human being. It’s totally up to her to remove or not to remove this growth that is a part of her body. Let me say that again, because you seem to have a problem with this. The cells growing in a woman’s body are hers. End of story.

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  • 104
    mmurray says:

     Concerning the issue of the womans right over her own body: what is a fetus if not a body of someone else inside a womans body?  

    A week after conception who is that someone ?  


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  • 105
    ashwinnarayan says:

    Well, the  fact that you don’t accept it does not in any way affect whether it’s actually true. Human intuition plays no role in the laws of physics. 

    In my opinion the “something from nothing” phenomenon may or may not be true. We don’t know for sure yet. But no matter what my intuition tells me if it turns out that physicists are able to prove that something can arise from nothing I will believe it. 

    No natural law is inherently strange. There is nothing inherently strange about the fact that photons behave like both waves and particles. It’s only because we  are not used to seeing things behave like both waves and particles that we find this wave particle duality strange. 

    EDIT: For Spelling

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  • 106
    ashwinnarayan says:

    I agree. And if that is proven then that is the way it is. I think the best example to follow here is that of Richard Feynman’s in an interview he talks about how we must never approach nature with a preconcieved idea about how the laws should work. If we find it works a certain way then it does. If you don’t like it, too bad! 

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  • 107
    Schrodinger's Cat says:

    “Why should morality be based on how an intentional action affects the wellbeing of conscious creatures? Because otherwise the concept of morality becomes meaningless. “

    The clear cut moral issues are those where there’s one-to-one gain or loss of wellbeing directly between one person and another.  The dilemnas only really arise when it comes to placing one person’s wellbeing over and above another’s…..or there are arguments for ‘the greater good’.

    I also think that’s the fundamental difference between liberalism and socialism. Liberals see society as first and foremost a group of individuals….whereas socialists are always trying to collectivise individuality. That is, I think, why liberalism has far fewer moral dilemnas than socialism.

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  • 108
    eugeneN says:

    Its pretty easy to morally prove Myers wrong. If he believes a woman is totally sovereign over her body then he can’t object to any genetic engineering pill which would damage the fetus,  i.e. lets say the pill made the body blue. As to why? Well, maybe it is in rural China and blue babies can get money in the circus. At any rate this leads to a life of misery for the child, who also suffers terribly with the unhealthy skin, and dies young.

     Is that ok? Its just a pill, and as the fetus is still developing its not human yet, and this pill doesn’t kill, all it does do some genetic engineering, so in that respect its not as bad as an abortifacient. But the woman’s body has no harm done to it. Obviously we wouldnt accept that, and nor – for a similar reason –  do many pro-abortion people accept late term abortions, where the fetus may well be sovereign, i.e. capable of independent existence.On the other hand we dont have to accept anything about a few cells in early stage pregnancy. The difference, in morals,  may be the intention to bring a child to life – blue or otherwise – but a pill is a pill.

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  • 109
    Schrodinger's Cat says:

    One of the things I object to most is the notion that it is only the religious who are ‘anti abortion’. I personally happen to think that there are actually sound logical and rational reasons for at the very least having a level of concern about advocating 100% rights of the mother over those of the foetus. Not least of which is the whole issue of continuity….that the whole process from one generation to another is what defines ‘human’, and not just some arbitrarily defined part of it. If ever there were an issue for which Zeno’s paradox is applicable, it is abortion.

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  • 110
    Tord_M says:

    If is was really true that torturing one person would, after all accounts were made up, save a thousand, I would say that torturing one would be the obvious option.

    If torturing one random individual would save two other random individuals from the same kind of torture, then I would go for torturing one instead of two. Who wouldn’t?

    But it’s only in the world of thought experiments that you can make such fine calculations. In the real world things are a bit more messy and complicated. There are some facts Harris deliberately  (yes deliberately!, because everyone who has seriously investigated the practical and philosophical implications of torture will be aware of them), left out of his thought experiment:

    1) The available research shows that torture is not an effective way of gathering information from a person, and that there are alternative methods of interrogation that work better.

    2) Torture is counterproductive in that you loose your moral high ground. How can you expect anyone to believe that you are fighting for human rights when you yourself choses to ignore them?

    3) Torture is in the real world is mainly used for, and and effective as a means of terror. (Isn’t is ironic that terror should be used in a war that is supposedly a war against terror? But then again it does in a way make the war less asymmetrical. Or perhaps Harris is right; Perhaps the war wasn’t really a war on terror, perhaps it was a “war with Islam”?)  

    As a moral relativist (the type of person Harris usually likes to express his dislike of) I think there are no absolute rules. So I gladly concede that there might be exceptions to any rule, even regarding torture. (Harris is not otherwise known as a moral relativist, but somehow he thinks it’s right to be one when it comes to dealing with people who happen to look like they could be Muslim.)

    So, I think there might possibly be instances where torture might be justified, though I do not waste my time looking for them, or trying to invent them, like Harris does. Likewise, there might also be situations where raping and eating babies, cutting the clitoris off a million girls with a blunt rusty knife, flying airplanes into world trade centers, blowing yourself up on a bus full of innocent civilians might hypothetically and be justified. But I think those cases are so rare and improbable that I don’t waste my time writing articles to inform the world about them either. If my goal was to promote reason and clear thinking, there would be many more pressing tasks available.  

    How would Sam Harris himself have reacted if a “known multiculturalism”, “moral relativist”, “liberally biased” or “politically correct” persons wrote a piece similar in style to his own “In Defense of Torture”, titled “In Defense of Terror”, containing a thought experiment arguing that there could be times, for instance during a war against a far superior military power, where carrying out a suicide bombing against civilians on a commuter bus could hypothetically be justified as the lesser of two evils? Would Sam Harris congratulate that author of such an article on his well conducted though experiment, and thank him for teaching us how to think more clearly, rationally and morally consistent?

    I personally doubt it. In the world of thought experiments even the most unlikely and incredible of events can be dreamed up. Only the imagination sets the limit Are you a moral hypocrite, or someone who dare not think the unthinkable if you refuse to accept the premises of such thought experiments?  

    Permit me to site The Good Lord Jesus Christ (officially translated (via a long chain of Chinese whispers) form its original Aramaic source): “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

    Well, that ending was a bit melodrama and out of place perhaps….

    I think thought experiments are important tools for clarifying our thoughts, but just as scientific experiments must be conducted in accordance with some standards, so must thought experiments. Just dreaming up hypothetical scenarios, does not prove anything about reality. Thought experiments are not only of use in philosophy. They can work very well in propaganda too.

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  • 111
    Peter Grant says:

    I suppose you could, but it will make you look rather silly. What exactly is it that theologians study? What good would their counter-intuitive ideas do even if they could somehow be understood? What useful predictions could they make?

    Complicated science can be very counter-intuitive, but there are those who do understand it, and understand it well enough to perform wonders far more glorious than anything the parochial religious mind has ever even imagined.

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  • 112
    Peter Grant says:

    Sam Harris is not being relativist at all. Absolutism is not the only other option. A coherent moral realism can be based on all those subjective experiences we universally share, without being absolutist at all.

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  • 113
    Peter Grant says:

    For me supporting abortion is not so much about the legal rights of the mother, but more about the suffering of the child. If that child is not wanted or if there is no money to feed and look after it properly, it is better off dead.

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  • 114
    crtopher says:

    I agree with everything in regards to your points about Sam, Richard. 

    You may have dealt with your debate with Pell previously but I watched that debate and I want to respond to this statement:

    “When I was debating Cardinal Archbishop Pell in Sydney, he raised easy laughs from the studio audience by simply restating my beliefs, e.g. that a universe could spring from nothing. The partisan audience laughed…”

    Pell was embarrassing that night. How people like Greg Sheridan could re-write history the way he did the next day in his review of the debate in The Australian, I do not know. You, however, were also off your game, admitting as much with your comments about jet lag. All in all it was a lacklustre debate, made worse by the anticipation your involvement engendered. I don’t think the audience was at all partisan (you may have other evidence for this, I don’t know). I think they were just responding to what was a sub-standard engagement of the issues they wanted to hear about. 

    I’d be very surprised if the ABC would have allowed a partisan “Christian” audience to dominate the numbers in the studio that night. Happy to be corrected.  

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  • 115
    mmurray says:

     I’d be very surprised if the ABC would have allowed a partisan “Christian” audience to dominate the numbers in the studio that night. Happy to be corrected.  


    The information posted by people at the time was that the ABC ask people what party they vote for to determine the audience mix for Q&A.  It was claimed that some of the university Christian groups where organising followers to sign up as Labor Party supporters.  What relevance party has to religion I don’t know but yes it was stacked.

    The Managing Director of the ABC is well known for being religious:

    And he tells us as well about his strong religious beliefs.

    He’s was even described (he says inaccurately) as one of ‘God’s secret agents… trying to bring the light and life of Jesus into one of the most hostile parts of society, the media.’

    Just have a look at their Religion and Ethics portal for the current flavour of our national broadcasters attitude to religion


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  • 116
    ccw95005 says:

    How about a baby born to a mother who has no money and doesn’t want the child – should it be killed – painlessly – because it is better off that way?

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  • 117
    mmurray says:

    How about a baby born to a mother who has no money and doesn’t want the child – should it be killed – painlessly – because it is better off that way?

    You’ve never heard of adoption?


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  • 118
    mmurray says:

     For me supporting abortion is not so much about the legal rights of the mother, but more about the suffering of the child. If that child is not wanted or if there is no money to feed and look after it properly, it is better off dead.


    So how about shackling the mothers to the bed so they can’t go off and get an abortion and then adopting the babies out to someone else ?  


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  • 119
    mmurray says:

     just pointing out that Peter Grant’s argument could be applied to a newborn as well.  

    Ah sorry I should have noticed that was a reply to Peter Grant as well.  Great minds think alike as we used to say as kids 🙂


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  • 122
    Skeptic Jim says:

    So it’s ok for SH to be villified by PZ but he can’t defend himself?  PZs behaviour over the last year has been utterly disgraceful.  I once would have agreed that PZ is an asset to the cause, but at this moment I cannot agree with this statement.

    You don’t have to take my word for it.  Go visit his blog yourself, post a reasonable argument that disagrees with something he has said and watch the McCarthyism take hold.

    If he doesn’t respond personally, take note of the behaviour of his minions and then try tweeting him, you have a better chance of a response.

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  • 123
    mmurray says:

     Aside from infringing the legal rights of the mother, this doesn’t really solve the baby over-production problem.


    My point wasn’t that this is a moral solution just that if you think the only moral question at stake in an abortion is the fact that the baby will die of neglect then we can solve that.  


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  • 124
    Peter Grant says:

    I agree it’s not the only moral question at stake, but it is the main one for me. Contraception, abortion and infanticide are all attempts at solving the problem of unwanted children. Getting bogged down in legalistic definitions of the individual ignores this central problem.

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  • 125
    timothygmd127 says:

    I may be (but hopefully not) misrepresenting him – but SH does not suggest a universal right/wrong. He merely suggests that there is better/worse and that this can be tested – therefore allowing one to draw a conclusion of better in the material world.

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  • 126
    timothygmd127 says:

    Honest and constructive disagreements followed by testing and selection, lend to improvement and excellence. Firstly, hats off in respect.

    That said, a skeptical principle is that there are no absolutes. Everything is on the table, to include the hypothesis that torture may sometimes be effective, all men may not be equal, and that all cultures and ways of doing things may not be optimal in this or any setting.

    I don’t exactly disagree with you in practice, but your implication that Harris shouldn’t venture into this from the other side is off the mark.

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  • 127
    secularjew says:

    Peter, come on, you can’t be serious. Just because something is a solution to a problem, doesn’t make it right. Mass murder is a solution to overpopulation, but that doesn’t make it right. Contraception and abortion don’t involve killing children because eggs, sperm and fetuses aren’t children. Infanticide is actual murder. Not having unwanted children born is one problem, but once they’re born, the problem changes to how can we help them, not hurt them.

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  • 128
    Purgatory says:

    As a satirist I enjoy seeing childish spats between grown men who should know better because it provides me with such good material to be mined and turned into comedic gold (hopefully). As an atheist, however, situations like the Myers vs. Harris battle of words makes me think that the atheist community is descending into a fixation for Kardashian-like drama.

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  • 130
    Peter Grant says:

    Right and wrong, like everything else, are not absolute. Contraception and abortion are far better solutions, but if starvation threatens because for some stupid reason those options aren’t available then infanticide is all that’s left.

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  • 131
    Katy Cordeth says:

    Surely Peter was just channelling the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge (is it possible to channel a fictional character?) when he made his initial “better off dead” remark:

    “Many can’t go there (the poorhouse); and many would rather die.”

    “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population”.

    Incidentally, I just Googled the phrase famous unwanted children in an attempt to find evidence with which to confute Peter’s argument, and the first result that came up was this article from 2010:


    Honestly, that man gets everywhere.

    The list of notable adoptees can be found further down the page.

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  • 133
    Steve Zara says:

    Whenever I listen to Sam, or read his discussions, no matter what I think of his views, I always come away with the feeling that I have learned a bit more about how to debate, and how to think, both in terms of clarity of thought and also in terms of behaviour.

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  • “When miners are trapped underground, should resources needed to rescue them be diverted to feeding starving children?” As it happens, I would rescue the miners, but I can see that there is a serious argument to be had.

    Since, in Amuricuh, corporations are legally enjoined to “maximize profit and shareholder value,”  seems like it would be legitimate to compose a counterfactual including this consideration.

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  • 135
    ReasonSpeaks says:

    Any person condoning torture as a state policy should consider that sooner or later it will be used against him or people of majority group he belongs.

    In many third world countries torture is accepted at state level, e.g. police using torture to get confessions that are used in courts. Police is notorious in these countries about the fact that they can get any confession from any one. Unfortunately most of the victims are either innocent bystanders or selected to settle personal scores. Criminals are often not touched due to the power and influence they wield.

    In these countries, no one is safe from torture. We don’t want our countries to follow these. It will be spanish inquisition all over again.

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  • 136
    Chris Joy says:

    No something comes from an effect, minimal or maximum that’s what Richard accepts. You have to be able to accept those minimal points may not be immediately recognizable to an audience, like a sick joke to a theatre.

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  • 137
    mmurray says:

     Any person condoning torture as a state policy should consider that sooner or later it will be used against him or people of majority group he belongs.

    I currently support state policies that allow, in particular circumstances: detention of people, removal of children from families, declaration of war on other states, shooting of people, etc.  All of these activities by the state are constrained by laws.  Are you saying that the use of torture is somehow special and that whatever laws we make they will always end up being abused ?


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  • 138
    moother says:

    it’s quite fun to watch PZ backtracking by trying to enforce a layer of civility in the comments.

    alas, it’s too late for him, though, as most sensible people have been voting with their feet and wont return other than to read the occasional article.

    if PZ was not hurt by declining numbers he wouldn’t have implemented the new civility guidelines or introduced moderated threads.

    PZ is eating his words but he’s doing it quietly, in the corner, with his back turned in the hope that nobody will notice… admit this, he never will.

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  • 139
    MrEmpirical says:

    I think some people in this thread are getting confused about Sam Harris’s conception of objective morality. Objective morality does not mean that a particular action is always correct (or incorrect) in every situation. Objective morality means that there are certain axioms and criteria (e.g., considering the wellbeing and suffering of conscious creatures) that always apply when making a moral decision. These axioms and criteria may justify one action in one situation and the opposite action in a different situation.

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  • 140
    Richard Dawkins says:

    ‘Professor Julian Savulescu said that creating so-called designer babies could be considered a “moral obligation” as it makes them grow up into “ethically better children”.
    The expert in practical ethics said that we should actively give parents the choice to screen out personality flaws in their children as it meant they were then less likely to “harm themselves and others”.
    This is another example of what moral philosophers do. No doubt there are good reasons to argue against Savulescu. But the comments that follow this report don’t argue, they simply react emotionally.

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  • That is what Sam Harris was doing in his notorious discussions of
    torture and of profiling in airport security. He was doing what moral
    philosophers do

    Unfortunately, Harris does not merely philosophize about ethnic profiling, but publicly recommends that people “tolerate, advocate, and even practice ethnic profiling.”

    It would be easier for everyone if a sympathetic characterization of Harris’s positions were justified, but this just isn’t the case. It is true that Harris’s position on torture is more nuanced and ambiguous, but it is also true that he has not rejected his real-world “Defense of Torture“, made during a time when the U.S. tortured prisoners as public policy, and to this day defend the policy of torture publicly also advocated by Harris: “we should be willing to torture a certain class of criminal suspects and military prisoners; if we are unwilling to torture, we should be unwilling to wage modern war.”

    Harris is not merely playing the role of moral philosopher, but advocating real-world policy with real-world consequences for real people.

    The final straw for me with Harris, and what makes me believe that Harris deserves opprobrium, is Harris’s consistent pattern of advocating severe policies that single out Muslims. I gave Harris a pass in the End of Faith where he ambiguously and poorly argues the case for a preemptive nuclear strike against Muslims. I also gave him a pass for the ridiculous statement that we are “at war with Islam” after 9/11. I stopped giving Harris and his clearly fallacious arguments a pass when I read his statement, “The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists” and noted that in the wake of the Anders Breivik shootings Harris called Islam the world’s greatest threat, and when Harris opposed the “ground zero mosque” based on patently execrable reasons. With hindsight, I was mistaken to have overlooked Harris’s poor arguments because he had written a good book with which I mostly agreed.

    But I became fed up with Harris when he advocated racial profiling, and I’m not surprised that many others became fed up as well. If Harris is a moral philosopher, then he is a moral philosopher of nuclear strikes against Muslims, being at war with Muslims, racially profiling Muslims, and torturing Muslims.

    Harris’s biased record that consistently targets a specific group with implied or actual harm cannot be called moral philosophy.  I don’t know what else to call it but bigotry.

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  • 142
    ScottCA says:

     I just got banned from posting on the CNN website for typing
    “Magnificent Mittens and his Miraculous Mystical Underwear.”  So much
    for free speech in America.  It’s free until you question or parody
    archaic beliefs and flat out demonstrably wrong ones.

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  • 144
    skin2yard says:

    i apologize in advance for my bad english. i watched alot of the debates and religious people keep mention moral. well, isnt moral a word? lets take animals for example, they didnt hear the word moral, and yet they are alive and well. religious people talk about moral, like it was something magical. isnt moral something that happens in your brain? and if we look at people, we know about “moral” and  yet we kill each other for some abstract thought, its not even about survival. we exterminated entire species while “knowing” what being moral is. if you compare animals to humans, doesnt it seem that they are more “moral” than people?

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  • 145
    manny khushalani says:

    Abortion should not be on point of philosophical or religious belive but it should be on condition of health & financial situation of women. In many countries children are treated worste than animals & living in powerty, in United state 1/5 children have no proper food or shalter. 

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  • 146
    Prophiscient says:

    In reply to #6 by aquilacane:

    I don’t actually accept something can come from nothing, which is why I doubt the potential for nothing. And also laugh a bit if that is what Richard accepts.

    Do you know what physicists mean by nothing? (quantum mechanics). Consider reading a book on the topic.

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