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← Why I’d Rather Not Speak About Torture

Why I’d Rather Not Speak About Torture - Comments

MMAtheist's Avatar Comment 1 by MMAtheist

I understand Sam's frustration and why he hopes he would have kept these thoughts to himself.

"Look at the evil atheist! He's pro-torture! Need I say more?"

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 16:15:49 UTC | #620687

JuJu's Avatar Comment 2 by JuJu

Sam,

Your ideas on this situation are clear, concise and enlightening. You always seem to say exactly what I'm thinking.

PS, And I haven't even read the article yet.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 16:18:07 UTC | #620688

sciencehead78's Avatar Comment 3 by sciencehead78

Don't worry too much about it Sam. Lots of folk appreciate your efforts. If you didn't hear a backlash then you'd probably be saying nothing worth saying.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 16:20:24 UTC | #620689

Red Dog's Avatar Comment 4 by Red Dog

Mr. Harriss, I think you have a fine mind and I agree with most of the things you say I think your idea that science could determine the answer to ethical questions is correct and an important advancement for atheism and ethics.

However, the question of torture is one where we disagree and judging from this article I think we still do. What you seem to say is not that you were wrong but that you regret bringing up the issue. Here are the reasons why I as an atheist am categorically against torture:

1) Its not a reliable method of getting information. If you listen to any of the real experts in the field or take a critical look at examples of interrogation over the last few decades the evidence overwhelmingly shows that torture is not a reliable method of getting information. When you torture someone they will say whatever you want them to say. All the real experts agree on this. The way you get good information is to establish a bond with the person being interrogated. This latter method has been amazingly useful when for example the FBI has used it to get information from captured terrorists.

2) While "well being" may make sense as an overall guiding principle in reality we need more specific laws and principles to guide us. A universal declaration of human rights is essential starting point and any such declaration would include torture as something that no civilized people do. Ever. Period. No exceptions. Once we start to violate that rule we really raise the question: how are we morally superior to the terrorists we are fighting?

3) In reality well intentioned rationalizations for torture such as those presented by Mr. Harriss are used by people in power to justify torture that is not really intended to get critical information to save lives but to intimidate people and to get the information that those in power want to hear. If you look at all the (unfortunately numerous) cases of torture through modern history: from Soviet Russia, the right wing dictatorships of Central and South America, the US supported puppet government of South Vietnam, and the Bush administration, this has been the case.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 16:34:10 UTC | #620693

Stevehill's Avatar Comment 5 by Stevehill

You can't be a little bit accommodationist about torture. Ever.

On this one issue alone, post 9/11 America has shown itself to be willing and able to regress to being a pre-civilized nation.

The passage in The End of Faith was unforgivable, and you're stuck with it.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 17:28:34 UTC | #620726

MMAtheist's Avatar Comment 6 by MMAtheist

Comment 4 by Red Dog :

Mr. Harriss, I think you have a fine mind and I agree with most of the things you say I think your idea that science could determine the answer to ethical questions is correct and an important advancement for atheism and ethics.

However, the question of torture is one where we disagree and judging from this article I think we still do. What you seem to say is not that you were wrong but that you regret bringing up the issue. Here are the reasons why I as an atheist am categorically against torture:

1) Its not a reliable method of getting information. If you listen to any of the real experts in the field or take a critical look at examples of interrogation over the last few decades the evidence overwhelmingly shows that torture is not a reliable method of getting information. When you torture someone they will say whatever you want them to say. All the real experts agree on this. The way you get good information is to establish a bond with the person being interrogated. This latter method has been amazingly useful when for example the FBI has used it to get information from captured terrorists.

2) While "well being" may make sense as an overall guiding principle in reality we need more specific laws and principles to guide us. A universal declaration of human rights is essential starting point and any such declaration would include torture as something that no civilized people do. Ever. Period. No exceptions. Once we start to violate that rule we really raise the question: how are we morally superior to the terrorists we are fighting?

3) In reality well intentioned rationalizations for torture such as those presented by Mr. Harriss are used by people in power to justify torture that is not really intended to get critical information to save lives but to intimidate people and to get the information that those in power want to hear. If you look at all the (unfortunately numerous) cases of torture through modern history: from Soviet Russia, the right wing dictatorships of Central and South America, the US supported puppet government of South Vietnam, and the Bush administration, this has been the case.

Are you sure you read the article?

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 17:35:30 UTC | #620727

Cook@Tahiti's Avatar Comment 7 by Cook@Tahiti

Torture is just an elaborate reworking of the second Trolley Car problem, which is morally equivalent to the first Trolley Car problem, which most people agree with. Western nations are quite happy to have their ordnance reigning down on other countries with the foreseeable and inevitable deaths, injuries and suffering of innocents that results. People might declare that 'torture are collateral damage are wrong' but 80-90% of westerners are happy to keep voting for the two-party consensus that perpetuates these crimes.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 17:38:02 UTC | #620728

BaltimoreOriole's Avatar Comment 8 by BaltimoreOriole

With respect to stevehill and Red Dog, I think your visceral reactions to torture, which I share, and which Sam Harris clearly also shares, are preventing you from dispassionately reading his argument. It is really important to courageously probe our intuition on such matters, even if the results make us uncomfortable.

In his reply to Harris, Red Dog makes perfectly valid practical arguments against torture which do not in any way address Harris's position. Harris says here, and has repeatedly said, that torture should certainly be illegal. So unless you're saying that we're not even allowed to think about the question, your reply is irrelevant. stevehill simply sits atop his moral summit and looks down on the unworthy Sam Harris without even bothering to construct any sort of argument.

Is this the way we rational atheist folks want to engage in argumentation? If you think Harris's arguments are wrong, why don't you address them? Do you think "collateral damage" resulting in suffering and death are okay, but torture is not okay? If you reject both, I congratulate you on the consistency of your position, but I wonder if you can really maintain it in the real world without being overrun by fanatical hordes. But if you make this distinction which Harris criticizes, how can you justify it?

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 17:53:55 UTC | #620732

ajs261's Avatar Comment 9 by ajs261

I agree with baltimore jack - it is also worth noting that "collateral damage" may often consist of torture itself. Whatever side of the argument you land on in such cases, torture and suffering is likely to happen. Sometimes a balancing of morality and suffering (no matter how unpleasant) is necessary. To deny that and take an absolutist position is completely impractical in any world. Sam Harris hits the nail on the head.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 18:24:56 UTC | #620746

Red Dog's Avatar Comment 10 by Red Dog

In reply to Comment6 by MMAtheist

Yes, I'm sure that I read the article. Harris says in this article "I believe that there are extreme situations in which practices like “water-boarding” may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary—especially where getting information from a known terrorist seems likely to save the lives of thousands (or even millions) of innocent people. "

That's the same argument that the Bush administration and its apologists (people like Dershowitz) use to defend torture. My arguments 1-3 apply:

1) Water-boarding is not a reliable way to get information. If you do have a case where innocent lives are at stake (the hypothetical and virtually totally imaginary ticking time bomb) torture is NOT the best way to get information. Again read what any expert on interrogation has to say. People for example from the FBI who have been amazingly succesful at getting information and saving lives. They all say torture doesn't work and that other methods do.

2) Things like water boarding actually play right into the hands of our enemies. They destroy any moral credibility we have. They have been used in Al Queda propoganda to show how depraved the US is.

3) Defenses like this argument from Harris were used by the Bush administration to justify water boarding and that water boarding got suspects (some were terrorists some were not) to say that Iraq had WMD even though they didn't.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 18:28:25 UTC | #620748

Blondin's Avatar Comment 11 by Blondin

Bananas.

My problem with Sam's position is that I don't understand how you can ever be sure that you actually have a genuine 'ticking bomb' situation where the victim of the torture really does have information that needs to be revealed immediately to prevent an atrocity yadda yadda... until after the fact.

I understand that he is only proposing that it would be ethical in the most extreme circumstances but whose judgement would you trust to decide when that is the case? If an interrogator decided to torture information out of a terrorist and that information turned out to be false who do you punish - the terrorist or the interrogator? What if it turns out there was no ticking bomb? What if it turns out the terrorist was not who or what you thought he was?

It's all very well to discuss scenarios where, with hindsight, we can know that a disaster could have been prevented had somebody been tortured, but how often is that likely to be genuinely foreseeable and who do you trust to make that call?

If you're going to allow anybody to make that call then, when enemy interrogators apply the exact same logic, I guess you just have to consider your tortured operatives collateral damage.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 18:33:31 UTC | #620750

Red Dog's Avatar Comment 12 by Red Dog

Reply to Comment 8 by baltimore jack

In his reply to Harris, Red Dog makes perfectly valid practical arguments against torture which do not in any way address Harris's position. Harris says here, and has repeatedly said, that torture should certainly be illegal.

He may say that torture should be illegal but in this article he also argues that it at times is the moral thing to do (see my previous comment above). I don't agree with that. I think not only should it be illegal but it is always immoral.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 18:35:22 UTC | #620753

meticulotar's Avatar Comment 13 by meticulotar

Sam Harris has my full support. He is being criticised for his attempt to address the subject of torture openly and honestly. Religious people are hypocritical. They may condemn torture, but, over the centuries, they have used it, and for no better reason than to save the face of a monarch or pope.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 18:36:17 UTC | #620754

Red Dog's Avatar Comment 14 by Red Dog

Comment 13 by meticulotar :

Sam Harris has my full support. He is being criticised for his attempt to address the subject of torture openly and honestly. Religious people are hypocritical. They may condemn torture, but, over the centuries, they have used it, and for no better reason than to save the face of a monarch or pope.

I'm criticizing him and I'm an atheist.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 18:46:54 UTC | #620759

Steven Mading's Avatar Comment 15 by Steven Mading

The problem is that these are two entirely different things:

(A) Using torture to extract life-saving information from somebody whom you already know by OTHER means has the information you're looking for and is unwilling to divulge it. (The example Sam Harris used was that you caught the guy who planted a time bomb which has not gone off yet, and he's already admitted that he's the one that planted it, and now you're just trying to figure out where the bomb is and how to diffuse it.)

(B) Using torture to extract allegedly life-saving information from somebody whom you are still merely alleging has that information you're looking for, but you don't know that yet. Then using their confession and divulging of information under torture as evidence that your claim was right about them.

The problem is that Sam Harris made his statement, which was about scenario A, during a time in which the US government was using torture under scenario B, and scenario B is what was foremost in their minds at the time they read his book. They assumed he was talking about B, but that he was being dishonest about it and falsely portraying it as scenario A.

In other words, they took his hypothetical case as if it was his attempt to describe the actual case that was going on at the time and whitewash it to make it look better.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 18:51:38 UTC | #620762

skiles1's Avatar Comment 16 by skiles1

I fully disagree with Sam Harris on the issue of torture, but I am interested in the research he's done on morality.

As for disagreeing with New Atheism's leadership on some issues not directly related to the New Atheist political movement, I find Christopher Hitchens' stance on the burning of Korans to be almost a contradiction to his stance on the Iraq war. Where Iraq is concerned, he supports preemptive actions to eliminate danger, but on the issue of Koran burning, he doesn't support that one should be arrested to preemptively eliminate disorder. The argument I'd make in his favor over this contradiction, is that Saddam Hussein and his regime were/are criminals who - at the start of the Iraq War - were also yet to be tried, whereas burning a Koran is not necessarily a crime. But the timing of the Iraq war could not have been worse, nor our pretenses. Essentially, I didn't support the Iraq War as it happened, and I still don't. However, I'm very much interested in Hitchens' views concerning atheism and I do enjoy all the articles he writes.

I've yet to agree with anyone else on every issue. Nor do I find Hitchens and Harris to have indefensible (where Hitchens is involved) or unforgivable (where Harris is involved) views on Iraq and torture (are they the same issue?). Both Hitchens and Harris well represent New Atheism. That said, I would like New Atheism to have additional leaders, preferably women and gender variant people.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 18:55:23 UTC | #620766

MMAtheist's Avatar Comment 17 by MMAtheist

Comment 10 by Red Dog :

In reply to Comment6 by MMAtheist

Yes, I'm sure that I read the article. Harris says in this article "I believe that there are extreme situations in which practices like “water-boarding” may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary—especially where getting information from a known terrorist seems likely to save the lives of thousands (or even millions) of innocent people. "

That's the same argument that the Bush administration and its apologists (people like Dershowitz) use to defend torture. My arguments 1-3 apply:

1) Water-boarding is not a reliable way to get information. If you do have a case where innocent lives are at stake (the hypothetical and virtually totally imaginary ticking time bomb) torture is NOT the best way to get information. Again read what any expert on interrogation has to say. People for example from the FBI who have been amazingly succesful at getting information and saving lives. They all say torture doesn't work and that other methods do.

2) Things like water boarding actually play right into the hands of our enemies. They destroy any moral credibility we have. They have been used in Al Queda propoganda to show how depraved the US is.

3) Defenses like this argument from Harris were used by the Bush administration to justify water boarding and that water boarding got suspects (some were terrorists some were not) to say that Iraq had WMD even though they didn't.

1) Harris: "It is widely claimed that torture “does not work”—that it produces unreliable information, implicates innocent people, etc. As I argue in The End of Faith, this line of defense does not resolve the underlying ethical dilemma. Clearly, the claim that torture never works, or that it always produces bad information, is false. There are cases in which the mere threat of torture has worked. As I argue in The End of Faith, one can easily imagine situations in which even a very low probability of getting useful information through torture would seem to justify it..."

2) Harris would obviously be in favor of torture in extremely rare situations. And that it should be illegal. Takes care of the Al Qaeda-propaganda -argument imo.

3)See above.

He may say that torture should be illegal but in this article he also argues that it at times is the moral thing to do (see my previous comment above). I don't agree with that. I think not only should it be illegal but it is always immoral.

I know you don't agree with that. I just haven't seen any arguments for why that is. What Harris said about Luban applies to you as well. You're not really making ethical arguments, only pragmatic ones.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 19:01:26 UTC | #620769

Steven Mading's Avatar Comment 18 by Steven Mading

Comment 10 by Red Dog :

In reply to Comment6 by MMAtheist

Yes, I'm sure that I read the article. Harris says in this article "I believe that there are extreme situations in which practices like “water-boarding” may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary—especially where getting information from a known terrorist seems likely to save the lives of thousands (or even millions) of innocent people. "

That's the same argument that the Bush administration and its apologists (people like Dershowitz) use to defend torture. My arguments 1-3 apply:

Incorrect. They used torture to extract information just in case someone had information (in other words, torture to get a confession). That's not the same scenario at all as someone whom you already know has the information you're looking for before you start doing the torture (which is the scenario Sam Harris was talking about).

Please keep the two scenarios separate.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 19:03:05 UTC | #620770

CyrusSpitama's Avatar Comment 19 by CyrusSpitama

The idea of torture kind of loses its edge if the person being tortured knows he's just being tortured and is not going to be killed right then and there. The "being put to death part" comes later.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 19:05:06 UTC | #620772

Steven Mading's Avatar Comment 20 by Steven Mading

Comment 11 by Blondin :

Bananas.

My problem with Sam's position is that I don't understand how you can ever be sure that you actually have a genuine 'ticking bomb' situation where the victim of the torture really does have information that needs to be revealed immediately to prevent an atrocity yadda yadda... until after the fact.

It is entirely possible to use non-torture information to find out that you have the right person in custody - the person who planted the bomb, and find this out prior to your decision to start using torture on them. This is not likely but stop acting like it's impossible. If it was impossible, then the entire science of forensic investigation would be useless.

I'm not sure whether or not I agree with Sam Harris even about THIS scenario - the one he actually was talking about. I might still not agree with him as it's a very thorny issue. BUT, at least let's be honest and stop blatantly lying about what the scenario was that he was talking about. (Which, in a nutshell, is what this article was about - stop trying to get Sam Harris to defend a dishonestly constructed strawman of what he said.)

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 19:07:34 UTC | #620775

Steven Mading's Avatar Comment 21 by Steven Mading

Comment 19 by CyrusSpitama :

The idea of torture kind of loses its edge if the person being tortured knows he's just being tortured and is not going to be killed right then and there. The "being put to death part" comes later.

Uhm. No.

Experiencing discomfort and pain does not diminish just because you know it's not going to kill you. If anything, there can be scenarios where that makes it far worse.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 19:08:51 UTC | #620776

Vogon42's Avatar Comment 22 by Vogon42

Comment 18 by Steven Mading :

Please keep the two scenarios separate.

Unfortunately, the security authorities are unlikely to make such nice distinctions. History around the world shows that state security frequently - perhaps normally - regards arrest as being equivalent to proof of guilt. Look at Guantanamo, where the US Commander in Chief assured the world that the only people there were "the worst of the bad guys" (if I remember his phrase correctly), hence normal rules could not apply to them - now it turns out that more than half were no threat at all.

I think that in purely moral terms Harris is probably right. What's more, the public probably has reached the same conclusion (how many Hollywood productions have the cop being cheered for beating information out of a suspect that saves his kidnap victims from certain death?).

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 19:15:51 UTC | #620777

chulinn's Avatar Comment 23 by chulinn

We had a big discussion about torture in Germany. A small boy was kidnapped. The kidnapper was caputured and interrogated. The boy was already dead, but the police didn't know this. The suspect remained silent. So the chief of police threatened him with torture and the suspect turned in. During the trial the defendant argued that the confession cannot be used because it was only given due to threatening of torture. Luckily the other evidence was enough for a conviction. The chief of police lost his job and was convicted to pay a fine, because of extenuating circumstances.

How could the chief of police have done differently? That was a bummer of a dilemma.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 19:16:47 UTC | #620778

javb222's Avatar Comment 24 by javb222

Sam Harris was only biting the consequentialist morality bullet...

IF torturing a baby (or some other wicked act) is the ONLY THING that would stop the world from ending (or some other worse consequence) and you are CERTAIN of this then should you do it?

The correct answer is yes.

Does torture work? Yes, a bit but you get false positives. Are there better alternatives? Virtually always but not absolutely? Is torture wrong, even if the consequences are likely good and huge? No.

We know that many of the maimed in UCAV bombing are the wives/children of suspected militant Islamists. Weren't they already the victims of the Islamists now suffering again?

Rtambree is right. Torturing is personal, aerial attacks are trolleys.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 19:31:12 UTC | #620784

superbeanson's Avatar Comment 25 by superbeanson

Wow- some really stupid comments above

Some people need to re-read the relevant passage in Sam's book. The man is not a torture 'accomodationist' and he does not need anyones 'forgiveness'

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 19:31:43 UTC | #620785

M D Aresteanu's Avatar Comment 26 by M D Aresteanu

Sam Harris gets a lot of slack for simply being honest. He's not defending all torture. He's arguing that, in principle, torture isn't always an immoral action. He believes it should be illegal, while maintaining that in a very tiny fraction of cases, that rule might backfire on us. This is very much like the trolley problem. It's a thought experiment to make you think clearly about the interplay of human interactions and the allotted well-being of each. In trying to propose a science of morality focused on human well-being, he must expose the obvious problems his theory will encounter. To take a absolutist position in regards to torture(to be against it) is great in practice, but in principle, might be wrong every now and then. I think, in the case of torture, we can all agree that only in the most far-fetched of scenarios, would we kick ourselves for preemptively denying ourselves the possibility of using it. Hence, make it illegal. Military intervention(which is what he uses as a comparison...dropping bombs), on the other hand, isn't an easy pragmatic issue. Sam isn't trying to blur the lines...he's trying to show us that we are the arbitrators of the lines we can and can't cross.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 19:47:22 UTC | #620792

Blondin's Avatar Comment 27 by Blondin

@20

stop trying to get Sam Harris to defend a dishonestly constructed strawman of what he said.

I wasn't constructing a straw man. I'm saying the only time torture will turn out to have been the right/ethical action to take will be when it really does save a dire situation - you had the right guy, he had the right information, you got the information and saved the day. I'm not saying that could never happen, but I'm damn sure it doesn't happen anywhere near as often as it's depicted on TV. The science of forensic investigation is nowhere near as precise as it's depicted on TV, either.

Ultimately, if authorities thought they really had a ticking bomb situation and a perp with vital information, I doubt if any set or rules or ethical guidelines would stop them from threatening or doing whatever they thought would work. But they should be prepared to take the consequences afterward.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 19:48:04 UTC | #620793

CyrusSpitama's Avatar Comment 28 by CyrusSpitama

Comment 21 by Steven Mading :

Comment 19 by CyrusSpitama :

The idea of torture kind of loses its edge if the person being tortured knows he's just being tortured and is not going to be killed right then and there. The "being put to death part" comes later.

Uhm. No.

Experiencing discomfort and pain does not diminish just because you know it's not going to kill you. If anything, there can be scenarios where that makes it far worse.

I wasn't trying to say it diminishes the pain of torture I was just saying that any semi-reasonable person with a bit of foresight can/will be able to tough it out without giving in to the temporary "enhanced interrogation". Not impossible right?

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 19:49:00 UTC | #620794

chawinwords's Avatar Comment 29 by chawinwords

Sam, I understand, there are as many degrees of ethics as are degrees of lying. The human race can't escape either. And with statements that are constructed 98 percent truth and 2 percent lie (or the converse), still adds up to an 100 percent lie. Because facts, truths, and reality represent a 100 percent singularity, they either or, or they are not. So don't be bothered by the nit-pickers, forever searching for the nits.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 20:03:07 UTC | #620799

skiles1's Avatar Comment 30 by skiles1

Comment 25 by superbeanson :

Wow- some really stupid comments above

Some people need to re-read the relevant passage in Sam's book. The man is not a torture 'accomodationist' and he does not need anyones 'forgiveness'

No lives were saved by torture, as Harris asserts. To the contrary: When the consequences of following bad information could mean a jet being hijacked elsewhere, or a bomb being detonated elsewhere, we don't have time for unreliable information. According to FBI research, that was entirely the case. Further more, we can't win a war against terrorism by becoming terrorists ourselves. To advance such a notion, especially while the war continued, is indefensible. Luckily Harris has my forgiveness, or he wouldn't have my support here.

Fri, 29 Apr 2011 20:03:23 UTC | #620800