Just What Philosophers Do?

We have a word we like to use for philsophers who base their positive conclusions on fantasy. We call them “theologians”. (I like the term “pseudophilosopher” myself.)  Thus, I find myself perplexed by Richard Dawkins’ defense of Sam Harris yesterday.

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.


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.

There are some very important differences between PZ’s argument and Harris’s. First, PZ flags his counter-factual. No one reading his argument will think that he is saying embryos write poetry, and not simply because it’s a ridiculous proposition. Despite the bizarre nature of the idea, PZ clearly says it isn’t true.

Harris does no such thing. Despite racial profiling being a non-rare, non-trivial societal problem, despite torture being celebrated as a tool in our popular media, he does not in any way state that either doesn’t work. These are common ideas, not remotely ridiculous to large numbers of people who may be reading him, but he doesn’t take the time to say, “By the way, these are hypotheticals, contradicted by real-world data, used here only for purposes of illustration. Don’t take them too seriously.”

There’s a reason he doesn’t do that. The counter-factuals serve different purposes in PZ’s argument and in Harris’s. PZ uses his to demonstrate that the people he is arguing with are doubly wrong. He says, “Setting aside all these other disagreements I have with you, I still can’t agree. Our differences are too fundamental.” He is telling us that his arguments don’t depend simply on his counter-factual being wrong.

Harris, on the other hand, draws conclusions that depend directly on his counter-factuals. He says it would be moral under some circumstances to torture (because torture works). He says it would be more moral to profile people who “look like Muslims” than to use our current system (because racial profiling works). In order for him to be correct in these larger arguments, his counter-factuals would have to be factual.

That would be okay as mere intellecual exercise in the privacy of one’s own home, or among consenting friends, but Harris has gone to the length of having a debate with an expert over this. He was told repeatedly that his counter-factual was wrong and why, but he continued to defend it and the conclusions based on it.

This goes beyond a “thought experiment”. This is advocacy for real-world changes, which means that the use of the best, most-factual information available becomes a moral imperative. You would think a moral philosopher would understand that.

Of course, I would also think that people would understand that people arguing for real-world changes will face real-world consequences for their arguments. I’d think they’d understand that at least the people affected by the proposed changes would have something to say about it, since for them, this is not some pleasant exercise in lofty hypotheticals.

But maybe it’s just more important that Harris is facing criticism, or that some of it’s loud and angry. I don’t know. Maybe we could do a thought experiment to test this out. Who wants to bring the counter-factuals?

Just What Philosophers Do?

29 thoughts on “Just What Philosophers Do?

  1. 1

    Maybe we could do a real experiment where philosophers leave their ivory towers and get actual jobs for probably the first and only time in their entire lives? You know, versus continuing to play D&D but with people instead of orcs and ogres.

  2. 3

    @Stephanie (and on topic)

    You’ve hit the crux of the argument that others have been pulling their hair trying to explain: this is NOT an abstract point Harris is making. It has real consequences for people, to say nothing of the fact that it doesn’t work. Amazingly, his moral compass allows for the unjust and unnecessary suffering of conscious beings at the cost of the abstract risk of a counterfactual that, while popular, is not treated as a counterfactual by the people who support his position. And his refusal to accept that, waving it away with “well I might be profiled too, therefore it’s not racist!”, only digs the hole of his wrongness deeper.

  3. 4

    Dawkins defending Harris? Oh joy.

    “There will be two passcodes. One to open the phone, one to burn the drive. Even under duress you can’t know which one she’s given you, and there will be no point in a second attempt.”
    Sherlock, “A Scandal in Bohemia” (2012)

    “If you fucking beat this prick long enough, he’ll tell you he started the goddamn Chicago fire, now that don’t necessarily make it fucking so!”
    Reservoir Dogs (1992)

  4. 6


    Love you too! 😛

    Clearly, you’re not a philosopher. Elsewise, you’d have offered to write a ten-part series of blog posts detailing the physical, psychological, ethical, sociopolitical, and economic ramifications of self-fornication. With footnotes.

  5. 8

    I like cruxes. Cruxes make me happy.

    Also, there exist philosophers, like our own Ophelia, who are very much involved in real-world matters in an ethical way. This also makes me happy.

  6. 10

    Also, there exist philosophers, like our own Ophelia, who are very much involved in real-world matters in an ethical way. This also makes me happy.

    Sure, and also in some sense lots of people are “doing philosophy” without being philosophers. The key bit of my first comment was “ivory tower” not “philosopher.” I think some people like Harris forget that philosophy and the real world application of philosophy is a two-way street: philosophy can inform how we deal with real-world issues, and any useful application of philosophy must rely on input of real-world evidence.

  7. 11

    Sillies. Offering Big Brave counterintuitive thought experiments that actually align pretty well with American political attitudes is what famous moral philosophers/New Atheists/skeptics bigly and bravely do. Challenging those thought experiments and the conclusions drawn from them, with passion and evidence, is the work of PC Thugs™ and FTBullies™.

    By the by, Dawkins seems awfully concerned about the “vilification” poor Harris has received. Be nice if he also spoke out against the much worse vilification Rebecca Watson has gotten.

    Yeah, that’ll happen.

  8. 12


    I hope you recognize that you’re essentially playing a reverse game of No True Philosopher?

    It’s not really productive, and will piss off people who consider themselves philosophers who don’t “treat it as a D&D game” (including some of the regulars on FtB whose contributions you enjoy).

    It’s very predictable that people like Dawkins will support these positions. Has it not been a common undercurrent lately that the worst thing you can do is impugn the honor of Good People, simply because they happen to hold positions that have real-world effects on minorities? Reputations are at stake here, and name-calling is unjustifiable. Their kids might see.

  9. 13

    On the torture aspect, I think this may be a legitimate defense of Harris. It’s been awhile since I read the relevant passage, but my impression is that he is indeed trying to explore a counterfactual… I think. Doubtless, however, given the political climate, he could have been more explicit that torture is not a generally effective means of interrogation, and that he was exploring the question of whether it would be justified if it were (since there are many people who would still oppose it on ethical grounds and for the power to corrupt the institutions that employ it. Full disclosure: Not sure where I fall on that, and am just glad that in the real world I don’t have to make that call!)

    The racial profiling thing, though, there seems to be little doubt that Harris was calling for the use of profiling as a practical measure, and not exploring a counterfactual (i.e. whether profiling, with all of its attendant racist outcomes, would be nonetheless justified if it were really an effective means of preventing terrorism… and once again on a personal note, I am glad that the real world does not force me to make this judgment call!). His piece and the subsequent followups are all pretty clear on this point: Harris is advocating profiling right here, right now, in the real world. Dawkins’ defense simply does not hold water on that controversy.

  10. 14

    I hope you recognize that you’re essentially playing a reverse game of No True Philosopher?

    Not at all. They are all as “true” or not as they see themselves to be. This is all personal preference here, referring to my view of philosophers and philosophy, and not some sort of standard that I could or would inflict on others.

  11. 16

    Interesting philosophical tool. So, using this counter-factual thing, I might say that EVEN IF racial profiling and torture worked then I would STILL think Sam Harris is a racist idiot.

  12. 17

    I just want to throw in a gratuitous — “philosophers don’t play 20 sided dice with the universe” — because of the D&D accusation.

  13. ~G~

    waving it away with “well I might be profiled too, therefore it’s not racist!”

    I don’t get this. I’ve had plenty of heated debates where people still were able to stick to good argumentation, and I respected that. But, arguments like Harris’s above is dumbfounding. Many people think my husband is Hispanic and who knows, maybe people treat him differently because of it. So would Harris say it’s now ok if he goes around asking Hispanics for immigration papers? WTF? And I read Dawkin’s piece and are either PZ or Harris’s scenarios thought experiments? PZ’s seems to be more so, but it’s more like a “here is the extent of my belief” than what I think of as a thought experiment (like the transporter problem or the trolley problem).

  14. F

    What really kills me are the constant charges of viciousness, vilification, and vituperation. Just where the hell are these comments contra Harris that display these?

    Sticking with the vees, though, I missed the ems, which have “misrepresentation”. This is another accusation I keep seeing, with nothing to back it up. To the contrary, both the quoted passages and Harris’ further explications indicate the opposite, that no misrepresentation has occurred. Sure, you can read the passages one way, making charitable assumptions, but then Harris goes and explains those charitable readings away.

    It’s like there is some philosophical ethics theater which is meant to support security theater, and Harris is one of the playwrights in this case.

  15. 21

    Crommunist wrote:

    You’ve hit the crux of the argument that others have been pulling their hair trying to explain: this is NOT an abstract point Harris is making. It has real consequences for people, to say nothing of the fact that it doesn’t work.

    It’s fascinating how people who will never themselves be affected by an actual, real-world problem keep insisting that issues relating to that problem can be discussed solely as abstract concepts – and get surprised when those who are affected get annoyed at their attitude.

    And – as we’ve been so unpleasantly reminded over the last year and a bit – it’s true of so many problems, few of which seem likely to be solved by giving the affected a reading list.

  16. 22

    I would think, if Harris were trying for a counter-factual, it might look like this: “The Joker has kidnapped Robin, and he interrupted broadcasts across Gotham City to show the Boy Wonder strapped to a ticking time bomb. Batman has captured the Joker, and he knows that only the Joker can tell him where Robin’s being held–and based on prior encounters, he knows that the Joker will eventually give up that information, if only to toy with Batman. Under these circumstances, it seems obvious that Batman should beat the ever-living hell out of the Joker–it is, after all, what the Joker wants.”

    No, you know, I still can’t figure out how to make that support the idea that, under some circumstances, torture is justifiable. Even reading through Harris’s HuffPo article on the subject makes it clear that he doesn’t really care whether or not the torture works or provides any useful outcome. At least with his point of comparison, bombings, actual people are actually killed and actual structures are actually destroyed. The collateral damage is in addition to what are presumably the actual goals being met by dropping bombs. False/misleading information isn’t the side-effect of torture, it’s the ultimate effect.

    But then, it looks like Harris’s argument could easily be made to justify the use of Mengele-style medical experimentation on suspected criminals/terrorists. After all, “the chance that our interests will be advanced in any instance of [medical experimentation] need only equal the chance of such occasioned by the dropping of a single bomb.”

    Harris’s “defense of torture” is nothing of the sort. It’s an argument against dropping bombs.

  17. 23

    It’s also obvious a few of the people leaping to Harris’s defence are doing it simply because he’s ticked the number one box on their list for why someone’s opinion should be considered the correct one: he’s openly criticised PZ Myers and the Pharyngula commentariat.

  18. 24

    Well, also because he’s a Big Name who’s Done Important Things for The Movement. You don’t criticize the Big Names because who are you compared to them? They’re more important than you, they’ve done more than you have, and that makes them beyond criticism. So what if they make a mistake here or there, harbor a reprehensible opinion or two? The only reason you think they’re reprehensible opinions is because they’re just thinking bigger than you are, and you’re misunderstanding the nuances of defending torture because hey, it’s not killing babies.

    It’s not okay to criticize the Big Names because they’re the Big Names. And it’s not okay to criticize people lower than you because that’s Rebecca Watson-style Bullying. But it’s okay for Sam to criticize PZ because he’s a Big Name, and if you were going to criticize him for violating the second rule, then you’d be violating the first.

  19. 25

    On the torture aspect, I think this may be a legitimate defense of Harris. It’s been awhile since I read the relevant passage, but my impression is that he is indeed trying to explore a counterfactual… I think.

    I think he is. But the thing is, he’s posed an unoriginal, stereotypical and extremely contrived counterfactual (the bad guys will blow up a major city! Our only chance to save millions of lives is to torture this guy!) Sure, I can think of scenarios in which torturing the captive might be worth a shot if it’s the last or only chance you have to save millions of lives. But does that actually add anything to the debate? Was it responsible of him to offer that banal counterfactual when the U.S. government was really torturing people?

    He tried to tie the torture issue to collateral damage in warfare, saying that “we accept” collateral damage yet find torture repugnant. Well, first of all, obviously “we” don’t all find torture morally repugnant (if “we” = the population of the U.S. and its elected officials). And second, it’s possible to oppose both those things, or to oppose torture and accept that sometimes war is necessary and it may be impossible to wage war without some “collateral damage”. Drawing a link between people’s attitudes toward the two things, as Harris tried to do, strikes me as spurious.

  20. 26

    He tried to tie the torture issue to collateral damage in warfare, saying that “we accept” collateral damage yet find torture repugnant.

    Actually, the extent to which I’m prepared to “accept” “collateral damage” is pretty fucking limited. But then I’m one of those crazy peaceniks who opposed the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan…

  21. 27

    Sam Harris argues that we accept drone attacks and therefore the death and maiming of innocent bystanders, but we also are against torture or a suspected criminal who withholds important information.

    He argues that IF we accept those drone attacks, we cannot argue against torture at the same time. I think what Sam Harris is trying to say that since we are against torture, we also must oppose drone attacks, too. He seemingly ‘advocates’ torture to make us aware of our weird morals in this case.

  22. 28

    If that’s actually the argument Harris makes, Harris is arguing very badly. We are well aware that torture has no utility. Therefore, any argument that it is equivalent to another action has to include an argument that this other action has no utility.

  23. 29

    In Harris’ thought experiment, torture has a chance of having utility. But he proposed a law that is so limited in use, that it would probably never ever apply, it would just make us aware that we would allow torture in a specific case (ticking time bomb scenario with a nuclear bomb and having a suspect in custody who is believed to have information which can prevent the catastrophe in time.)

    What Sam Harris doesn’t describe is how dirty the torturer would have to get to extract information of someone who believes in martyrdom. Can we ever order someone to do afflict unthinkable pain? What about drug use?

    He argues that our ethical views are not consistent because we are (rightly so) against torture but it doesn’t keep us awake that we are willing to accept killing and maiming innocent bystanders by dropping bombs in war, or with drone attacks to kill a known terrorist leader.

    Sam Harris forces us to think about what we do in war and with drone attacks by using our contempt to torture. He compares the results of our actions and that the damage we do does not change by not looking at it.

    Sam Harris ends his essay on the Huffington Post with “if we are unwilling to torture, we should be unwilling to wage modern war.”

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