A word in defence of Sam Harris

I’ve been involved in some online debates with Sam Harris, notably this one. I’ve also been rather critical of his views on free will.

I also think that Harris ultimately comes off second best in this debate with Bruce Schneier, in which they are talking about the moral and practical justification for a system of airport security that involves a degree of positive profiling (of likely Muslims) for extra attention, and “anti-profiling”, i.e. declining to take give an extra layer of attention, of people who are, supposedly, obviously not Islamic terrorists. Harris wants to introduce a profiling element, while Schneier argues that this would, contrary to any immediate intuitions, be counterproductive and morally problematic.

All that said, look at what happened on PZ Myers’ blog, Pharyngula, recently. I can’t blame Myers this time – he merely drew attention to an offer by Harris whereby you can get his little book on the evils of lying for free. I don’t see anything objectionable in the post.

But the thread is another matter. It quickly devolves into accusations that Harris is an outright racist, and at least one person makes the same accusation of a fellow commenter. Never mind the fact that there is no evidence at all that Harris is motivated by some sort of racial hatred or racial supremacism or anything of the kind. Again, I think that Schneier is pretty convincing in his response to Harris’ views about airport security, but the actual debate is interesting, and Harris has some persuasive things to say. Importantly, both of them show intelligence, civility, and mutual respect.

If you actually want to argue about airport security in your response to this post, I probably won’t take part in the debate. I’m not an expert; from the little I do know, I don’t support the profiling approach that Harris appears to advocate (so it’s no use trying to persuade me of its evils); and I even tend to think that Harris overreached in having such definite views on something where he’s not an expert either. But a racist? Come on. There’s no basis for that at all. It seems that a lot of people these days throw that word around at the drop of a hat.

And yes, this sort of thing can corrupt discussion.

Leave a comment ?


  1. I’m not sure that there is much productive value in raising up blog commenters unless they are really exceptional, either as tools or saints.

    But I will say that I think this comment from aleph was totally on the nose:

    The question isn’t “should we be automatically averse to any view Harris holds”, but rather “why should I read a book by someone who thinks lying to a murderer to protect a child is morally suspect because dishonesty is so fundamentally problematic, but torture on the other hand deserves a more nuanced and apologetic approach”?

    Here’s the relevant passage from Harris’s essay:

    Let us take an extreme case as a template for others in the genre: A known murderer is looking for a boy whom you are now sheltering in your home. The murderer is standing at your door and wants to know whether you have seen his intended victim. The temptation to lie is perfectly understandable—but merely lying might produce other outcomes you do not intend. If you say that you saw the boy climb your fence and continue down the block, the murderer may leave, only to kill someone else’s child. You might, even in this unhappy case, believe that lying was necessary and that you did all you could to protect innocent life. But that doesn’t mean someone more courageous or capable than you couldn’t have produced a better result with the truth.

    Well, suppose I am neither courageous nor capable. The underlying question, if I am put in that situation, is: “Is it rational for me to feel guilty for lying?” For Harris, the answer is evidently “yes”: you should be more empowered or courageous.

    Meanwhile, the answer most of us would give is: “um, hell no”.

  2. Having read most of the comments on Pharyngula, I believe that Harris’ writings are ‘rationalist’ and not ‘racist.’ I agree with Blackford that the use of the term racist, in recent decades has taken on a taint that lends itself to over-use when aimed at people with whom one disagrees (the same could be said of the use of ‘homophobe’ in the recent Chick-Filet silliness) over a sensitive topic involving people with different belief systems. I’ve read a fair amount of Harris’ work, and it is sometimes clear that he’s biased (so is Richard Dawkins, but I still love his books and debates).

    Harris can be accused of gaps in ‘reason’ in a technical sense with regard to some of the convictions he’s persuaded himself of, but to leap to racism is just name calling and completely ends any constructive dialogue, which is the only type I’m interested in.

    p.s. I think I might cross-post this on Pharyngula.

  3. Sam’s Murderers Dilemma seems to suggest that even the most obviously correct course of action on a small scale can have a negative unintended consequence when the context is enlarged (from the doorstep of the house, to the neighbourhood). Do we leave Assad or Mugabe in power to torture and murder? Obviously we should lie, cheat and deceive if this would help remove them. Could this course of action prove ultimately to have dire unintended consequences? Yes. Should these negative consequences be laid at the feet of the lie itself? Probably not, although one might argue that the lie about Saddam’s WMD was an example of Sam’s Murderers Dilemma, and why (despite the appearance of having a binary answer) the solution may in fact be more nuanced.

  4. Sam Harris tends to over-read into areas where he is not an expert, as he does in the debate on ethics (The Moral Landscape), but he is not a racist (Muslims are not a race to begin with) as far as I can see, and as Russell says, he does make some good points in the conversation with

    And if even profiling Muslims were in some sense racist, couldn’t that sort of racism in some circumstances be the lesser of two evils, the greater evil being a giant terrorist attack?

  5. Here’s the thing — the profiling scenario Harris has argued is racist precisely because Islam is not a race. In the cases since 9/11 where Muslim terrorists have attempted to act on a plane, they would not have been profiled as such, according to the blatantly racist profile that all Muslims are Arabs.

    Just this morning in Wisconsin there was another mass-murder in the U.S. — attacking Sikhs, presumably a hate crime (according to multiple witnesses) targeted at Muslims… and missing Muslims entirely… simply because they looked Muslim to the ignorant gunmen.

    Not all Muslims are Arabs, and that’s what Harris wants to profile, not Islam. There’s just no way TO profile a person based on religion — it HAS to be race, because that is a visible factor.

    At least, until we invent mind reading machines.

  6. For a good critique of Harris’ politics please see:


  7. Good lord.
    Harris has the temerity to perform thought experiments: to delve and inquire, and he’s branded a racist/worse by internet mouse-jockeys whose hair is parted as “The Point” flies at speed, o’er their crusts.
    And Hirsi Ali dissed too. Shame.
    Why isn’t Hitchens receiving a posthumous kicking? I imagine it’s because *even dead* Hitchens has more life and nouse about him than these teenage pseuds of Pharyngulawotsit and the rest.
    What an absolute shower!

  8. Banned Atheist:

    I just saw the story about the Sikh killing.

    You’re right. It’s better to not profile because although stereotypes at times are
    accurate, stereotypes in the wrong hands can be very dangerous.

    In fact, this whole horrible mess started because of their stereotypes about us or maybe it was our stereotypes about them.

  9. Munkhaus – not a huge problem here, but just a word to the wise.

    I’m not so much interested in personal attacks on those people, like “teenage pseuds”. We try to avoid that stuff here. Whether or not anyone could be accurately described as a “teenage pseud”, I’m more interested in the actual behaviour shown – and the unfairness (as I see it) to Harris.

    Now, if you’d said that they sound to you as if they’re very young and have been ideologically indoctrinated at school, I guess we could have a discussion about whether other people here have the same impression. But even that might have limitations, because they’re just anonymous commenters, and we really don’t know much about them.

    Maybe what we could do is ask why it’s come to this, that we have a culture where outright accusations of racism are made so freely.

  10. Banned Atheist, the policy might be racially discriminatory in its impact. It might even involve an element of direct discrimination against Arabs, though Harris doesn’t seem to want to say that. But that element would be used as a proxy for something else, i.e. paying particular attention to Muslims, which Harris would say is rationally justified.

    Now, he may be wrong, but that doesn’t mean he’s motivated by racism. It just means that his reasoning is both 1. wrong, and 2. such as to lead him to propose a discriminatory policy.

    I do think there are very powerful reasons (Schneier develops some of them) to avoid discriminatory policies, particularly if they involve an element of direct discrimination against a racial group. But someone who proposes a policy like that, as a proxy for something else that they’re trying to achieve is not ipso facto a racist. They may be wrong, they may be unwise, they may even be contributing to racial tension. But unless someone is actually motivated by something like racial hate, or contempt for people of a certain “race”, or supremacist ambitions for people of a certain “race”, or some such thing, I don’t think they can legitimately be called “racists”. Those sorts of motivations are widely regarded as evil ones, and there are good reasons for that. Calling someone a racist suggests that they have those sorts of evil motivations, and there’s really no evidence that Harris has any such motivation.

    So, let’s be precise and ask whether the policy is racially discriminatory. It seems pretty clear that it is. It looks (to me) as if there would be some direct racial discrimination involved as well as some indirect racial discrimination. The latter might be justifiable – indirect discrimination can often be justified (I could give numerous examples, and the law accepts this point). Direct racial discrimination is very hard to justify.

    Harris is, of course, proposing direct religious discrimination. But he’d say that in this case there’s a good (and compelling) secular reason for it.

  11. Russell, that is far too narrow a definition of racism. The motivations of people are usually unclear, but their actions are publicly observable. Lewis Rockwell, for instance, wanted African-Americans to be taken back to Africa. This is clearly racist. But on your criteria, you would be forced to admit he is not racist if he said something like: ‘I don’t hate black people, I don’t think white people are better; we’re just different, and the races shouldn’t mix.’ This is a very common trope of racists.

    A better explication of racism would talk about essentialist thinking: the idea that humans are divided up into certain unchangeable ethnic/cultural groups with eternal characteristics. These characteristics can be good or bad, so ‘Jews are good with money’ certainly fits the bill. (Notice again that if somebody said this, you would have no grounds to call this racist without knowing their ‘motivations’)

    In this new and improved definition, does Sam Harris count as a racist? Perhaps not on the strength of advocating profiling alone. But looking at his output, a pretty good case could be made that he thinks of (or at least portrays) Muslims as inherently violent, primitive and so on. Whatever the judgement, we shouldn’t be looking at these nebulous ‘motives’ for the answer. Instead we should judge what he says and does.

  12. @BLS – I don’t share your contempt with the (presumed) consequences of telling the truth in that case. Why couldn’t you just say “I do know where he is, but I’m not going to tell you.” It’s the truth, it puts no additional lives at risk, and it’s preferable to lying. Telling the truth doesn’t entail divulging every detail you might have. That you aren’t going to tell the murderer where the child is, is the truth. What’s controversial about that?

    The bare fact(if it is a fact) that he is wrong on these and other issues doesn’t grant critics the leeway to bend his dispassionate monologues into character flaws.

    “why should I read a book by someone who thinks…”

    This behavior is becoming a trend in skepticism, the one place one should expect to be able to air seemingly controversial or taboo ideas without fear of moralizing or shaming in response.

  13. Justin, what would be someone’s basis for saying: “I don’t hate black people, I don’t think white people are better; we’re just different, and the races shouldn’t mix.” Even if you knew nothing at all about the person, you’d be very suspicious, given everything we know from history, that this person actually is motivated by racial hatred and is a racist in as narrow a sense as you like. We have pretty good evidence that people who say such things are using a smokescreen.

    More generally, we draw inferences about mens rea all the time. We don’t need someone to say, “I actually did deliberately kill X” before we convict someone of murder. We draw inferences from the facts. I don’t think motives or people’s characters are nebulous at all. We judge these things about people all the time, and calling someone a racist is clearly making that sort of judgment. The policies they advocate may be evidence.

    But in the case of Harris there is no evidence of racial animus. There’s evidence that Harris is very strongly opposed to Islam, but that’s an entirely a different point. If you wanted to call him an Islamophobe, that would be a different, maybe trickier, discussion.

    The more interesting situation might be someone whom we believe actually is sincere in advocating some “separate but equal” policy. I.e. we have evidence that X really does think that the people of different races are essentially equal, and that X actually has no feelings of hate – they just have a bizarre and dangerous theory. If we drew that inference about someone, based on all the facts, I do actually think we’d hesitate to call X a racist, as opposed to deeply and dangerously misguided, duped, foolish, etc.

    Still, it would certainly be a racialist theory – and I think in general we have reasons to think that such theories are not only false but also 1. horribly dangerous and 2. likely in practice to be driven by some kind of racial hatred. If you want to call such a theory “racist”, I’m fine with it – I can live with the idea that “racism” is something of a cluster concept, and that we have to keep the idea a bit open ended by adding on “or some such thing” whenever we try to get a handle on what we consider racism. Furthermore, racialist theories have a track record of being deeply entangled with all the evils that we immediately think of in this context – slavery, apartheid, Jim Crow laws, forced abductions of children, attempts to “breed out” certain races, genocide, etc.

    So at the end of the day we might stretch the term “racist” to cover the hypothetical person, X, who really does think that there are no superior/inferior races, harbours no racial hatred, but has a horribly misguided theory that the races shoukld be kept separate. But it would feel like a stretch to me.

    The fact remains that we have all been brought up to think that being a racist is one of the worst things you can be, with the paradigm sorts of examples being people who are driven by racial hatred, or by the view that certain “races” are, if not legitimate targets of hate, at least inferior and legitimate targets for social subordination. We tend to think about the Ku Klux Klan, of the Nazis, of people writing tracts about an imperative to “breed out” the Australian Aborigines, or just about bigots who express clear-cut race-based hatred or contempt in everyday life. Surely it’s these views and attitudes that we tend (I certainly do!) to regard as evil, and that give a charge of “X is a racist!” so much emotional force.

    But all this is pretty remote from Sam Harris. However much you want to extend the word “racist” beyond someone who hates certain races or thinks people of certain races are biologically inferior, or whatever, perhaps to cover some sincere but horribly misguided racialists if these exist, there are limits. Sam Harris seems to me way beyond the limits where the word “racist”, with all its historical connotations and emotional force, can reasonably be stretched and applied to him as an individual.

    If someone wanted to apply it, given those connotations and that force, they’d really have to start explaining how it applies in some extended or technical sense … by which point they really might as well say that the issue isn’t actually his character at all, but simply that his proposal is objectionably discriminatory, etc.

  14. Lee, while much depends on the circumstances of the case, but often it is set up in such a way where there is an additional tacit threat to you if you tell the murderer that you’re keeping something from him. If you say, “I don’t know,” then he has no cause to harm you, and will keep searching. If you say, “I know, but won’t tell you,” then he has plenty of cause to harm you. If you don’t happen to be able to defend yourself at that moment, then the lie works.

    The post I quoted made no assertions about character flaws. It made assertions about the consistency of the author as a philosopher. Assertions I regard, at least on the face of it, to be plausible.

    As an aside, I’m not entirely with you when you say that we should expect no shaming from skeptics. On some days, I’m inclined to think the opposite. Every community requires some interaction rituals to build up emotional energy that is required for them to bond as a group. Sometimes I think that, in the absence of a shared positive body of doctrine, public shaming is one of the few rituals skeptics have left.

    But that’s just a worry. I don’t know that for certain.

  15. Banned Atheist:

    So, Harris is racist precisely because what he’s advocating profiling for isn’t on racial grounds? Not all Muslims are Arabs; this is true. Not all hijackers of aircraft of Muslims either.

    And Harris correctly points out that it’s easy in many cases to stop wasting resources by pretending we don’t know to some rough degree what the enemy we’re fighting is. It doesn’t seem the case that many hijackers work out to be octogenarians, or four year olds.

    Oh, and I should note that his profiling scheme doesn’t to my rest on the caricature you’ve made of it: looking at skin color and calling it a done deal. He goes on at length about various techniques which could be implemented, to include behavior and mannerisms.

    Are those restricted to Arabs in the way you seem to imagine his scheme demands?

    Whether one thinks he’s right or he’s wrong, one thing is certain: the moment the immediate response from people is ‘he’s a racist and therefore wrong’, those people can be comfortably ignored. If he’s wrong (and so obviously wrong as an actual racist would be [e.g.,’we should profile the blacks because they’re black and I hate blacks because those blacks and crime, ya know?’]), it shouldn’t be much of an effort to show why he’s wrong.

    But instead, we I see from many quarters within the community of supposed freethinkers, skeptics and what not is the tossing of labels and snark. And that in significant part amounts to the whole of ‘argument’.

  16. It may be excessive to label Harris a ‘racist’, but there is something about his defense of profiling that seems troubling. He continues to endorse his view of profiling those who “look like they could be Muslims” despite conclusive reasons showing that it a) would not improve safety, b) would not improve efficiency, and c) could not be implemented except in a way that would be racist in effect. One might reasonably defend an effective policy that had, as an unfortunate side effect, differential impact on some racial group, on the ground that the benefits outweighed the potential harm. But one defending such a policy that has no actual benefit might well lead to others questioning one’s motives.

    More generally, Harris strikes me as not so much ‘rationalist’ as ‘rationalising’. As Schneier points out in his discussion, Harris has some intuitions, but plainly hasn’t really thought things through very carefully before presenting his “argument”. Even more troubling is that he seems unwilling to do so even when guided by Schneier, for the most part barely even engaging with Schneier’s arguments.

  17. Russell, I agree with some of that, but I’ll just note a couple of things. Firstly, I don’t see the virtue of distinguishing racism from Islamophobia (or anti-Semitism) as though they are different in kind. Religion, culture, and ethnicity are far too closely intertwined to do so, and I think any reasonable account of racism will encompass this. It’s now generally agreed in the scientific community that nothing actually corresponds to the folk notion of race. We don’t then conclude that there is no such thing as racism. Rather, it denotes a group of attitudes towards people who are identified as belonging to these folk categories. Jews are a ‘race’ in this sense, and so, I think, are Muslims. The way many of us (including me) speak of Islam as if it were a monolithic entity as a good indicator of this. The question then is which attitudes toward Islam we want to identify as racist.

    You seem to want to set a far higher bar on this than I, and many others, do. You cite ‘Ku Klux Klan, of the Nazis, of people writing tracts about an imperative to “breed out” the Australian Aborigines’ as paradigm examples of racism, and that because Sam Harris is not of a kind with these groups, he is ‘beyond the limits where the word “racist”, with all its historical connotations and emotional force, can reasonably be stretched and applied to him as an individual.’ I understand the desire not to paint to broad a brush with emotionally loaded terms, but I think the instinct is in this case dangerous. Racism is really a cluster of different properties, not all which will be found in every case, but we can nonetheless discern some familial properties, both in character and in genealogy. So my earlier example, ‘Jews are good with money,’ we can see is descended from European racist stereotypes, displays essentialist thinking towards Jews, etc.

    But think about the person who utters that sentence. For one thing, he may not be aware of the awful history of such statements, or that Judaism is not uncontroversially a single ethnic group, and so on. He also may not have any of the extreme Klan/Nazi style attitudes that you wish to reserve the term racism for. But most people are prepared to condemn the utterance as racist anyway, because it shares important characteristics with these more extreme views. Similarly, if I was making a case for Harris being racist (which I’m not, though I think it could be made), I would point to this kind of family resemblance. Reserving the term- as you do- only for the most virulent incarnations of racism has the effect of preventing or even discouraging an honest reckoning about their relations to views like Harris’. I think the discussion needs to be had, not least because his views are so widely held.

  18. @BLS – “If you say, “I know, but won’t tell you,” then he has plenty of cause to harm you.”

    That just assumes that any response that might put you in danger is to be avoided, even if others may be put in danger as a result. I guess, for me, I would rather tell the truth and suffer for it, rather than tell a lie that someone else may suffer for.

    Also, I was more alluding to the comment that you linked to, not your comments specifically. Though they apply to you insofar as you endorse what you quoted. On lying, my comments have shown that one can adopt a morally acceptable approach to the dilemma without lying. On torture, I encourage you to read him more carefully. However, for all that, he might well be wrong. But you have to do better than “he was wrong in the past, ergo he’ll be wrong in the future”. That’s how the religious have been (fallaciously) dismissing skeptics and agnostics through the ages. The amount of time spent, by some, attacking Harris’ latest pamphlet probably constitutes a waste of time far exceeding what it would have taken to read the (free) book in the first place.

    “Every community requires some interaction rituals to build up emotional energy that is required for them to bond as a group.”

    I tend to view “bonding” efforts as inimical to the principles of skepticism. We should be held together through shared ideals, rather than ritualistic denigration of one or another non-conformist.

  19. Here is a question. Islam is not a race or ethnicity, but that being so why does Sam Harris call for ethnic profiling? He calls for ethnic profiling very clearly here


    If Harris does not wish to conflate Islam with ethnicity or race, why would Harris then call for ethnic profiling? It’s a fair question.

    Also, Harris says this:

    “To say that ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, dress, traveling companions, behavior in the terminal, and other outward appearances offer no indication of a person’s beliefs or terrorist potential is either quite crazy or totally dishonest.”

    So it seems obvious that he was lying when he said

    “My criticism of Islam, as of any other religion, is aimed at its doctrine and the resulting behavior of its adherents. I am not talking about races of people, or nationalities, or any other aspects of culture.”

  20. Why accuse him of lying, Alan? Even if those two quotations were inconsistent, he could be merely confused or compartmentalising, or something of the sort, rather than outright lying. Surely that happens all the time.

    But I don’t actually see any inconsistency. You can be worried about what doctrines people believe (and how this might influence their behaviour), not be worried about those other things (such as skin tone or clothing choices) for their own sake, but still use those things as part of your evidence of what doctrines someone probably believes. If Islamic belief correlates with certain clothing choices, say, then those clothing choices by somebody stand as evidence of their Islamic belief.

    For example, if you see a woman wearing a burqa that is pretty strong evidence that she is probably a Muslim, and indeed probably one with conservative doctrinal views.

    That sounds to me like a totally consistent and lucid position. It might not lead you to the best security policy (I’ve already said that I think Schneier gets the better of the debate), but I don’t see any inconsistency such as to suggest Harris is lying, or confused, or whatever.

  21. Guys – Please remember it’s *never* okay to accuse somebody of lying on this blog. First, it’s an argument to intent that is very hard to substantiate (which means that a principle of charity will normally mean that one should assume confusion, etc., before asserting that somebody is lying). Second, it’s potentially actionable, and given that we’re subject to UK libel law, that’s not okay.


  22. He clearly states that he is not talking about nationalities or races when criticising Islam, then suggests that ethnicity and nationality are important in determining a person’s terrorist potential and beliefs. So it is a contradiction.

    Also (to repeat), if Harris does not wish to conflate Islam with ethnicity or race, why would he then call for ethnic profiling?

  23. So it is a contradiction.

    How is that a contradiction?

    If I criticize the BNP, then my criticisms are not directed towards British people, or Caucasians, in general – that’s clearly not the relevant variable.

    But if it’s the case that 99% of BNP members are British/Caucasian, it would also be true that ethnicity & nationality are important in determining whether people are likely to be members of the BNP (to the extent that it (largely) rules out non-British, non-Caucasians).

    That’s entirely consistent.

  24. Lee, I’m setting you up according to your own terms. As a clause in your reply to me, you stressed the idea that one of the attractions of your reply is that it “puts no additional lives at risk”. It doesn’t do that.

    I might need to re-read him on torture. If you’re right, then he may be less nuanced and apologetic than was claimed by the commenter (though I am unsure why this is something which you would want to argue). In any case, I see no claim about “character flaws” in the commenter’s post.

    Common ideals would be nice, if skeptics had them. But there are many kinds of skepticism, and not all forms of it are rational.

  25. Sorry, what? Are you comparing the BNP to Islam because the analogy really doesn’t work.

  26. @Alan – No, I’m not comparing the BNP to Islam.

    My example demonstrates that there is no contradiction:

    a) In criticizing some set of ideas, and insisting that it is only the ideas, the fact that these are taken to be true, and the fact that they might motive certain sorts of undesirable behaviors, etc., that one is criticizing;


    b) In claiming that there might be some contingent fact about the people who tend to espouse these ideas that is relevant if one is seeking to identify the sorts of people who might, and might not, hold these sorts of ideas (which, after all, is an empirical matter).

    That’s an entirely consistent position to hold, but it does not conflate the contingent fact about the people who tend to hold the beliefs, etc., with the beliefs themselves (not least, because the criticisms would apply equally if the beliefs, etc., were held, or came to be held, by a group of people drawn from an entirely different “racial” group, substratum of society, or whatever).

    You need to demonstrate why this is contradictory, because that’s your claim, and it’s what motivated your dubious assertion about Harris’s honesty (which you must not repeat here).

  27. “In criticizing some set of ideas, and insisting that it is only the ideas, the fact that these are taken to be true, and the fact that they might motive certain sorts of undesirable behaviors, etc., that one is criticizing;”

    This is just typical drivel rehashing the old, “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam” thing.

    This is like saying that Communism is evil, but that Communists are a decent lot. You cannot hate an ideology without hating those who promote it.

    Ideas are not in of themselves what people really object to for, after all, Plato is a revered thinker even though his Republic is a totalitarian manifesto which says that children must be separated from their parents and reared by the state as philosopher-kings. But the reason Plato is not hated is because there is not a large movement of Platonists who want to impose that system. Few people hate airy abstractions until they grow arms and legs with which to impose it, until that is they garner a following.

    Anyway, it is very simple: Harris says he is not talking about nationalities, races etc and then says nationality and ethnicity are key indicators in a person’s terrorist potential. He also wants to implement ethnic profiling. Why, if you are interested only in “doctrine and the resulting behavior of its adherents”, would you introduce ethnic profiling?

  28. Alan:

    Of course we can hate an ideology without hating those who believe in it and we do it all the time.

    Generally, we think that normal rank and file believers have been duped or deluded by their leaders.

    To use your example, well-meaning communists were duped and used by Stalin or by Mao or by Fidel, etc.

    In that case (and in fact), I would have negative feelings about Stalin and Mao and Fidel (I don’t actually hate them), but not about many communists whom I have known and whom I respect.

  29. Alan

    1. You need to tone down the rhetoric. We operate under a strong principle of charity here. You need to pay attention to that. You don’t get another warning.

    2. No, it’s not a rehashing of the old “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam” thing.

    It’s entirely possible that Harris does hate Muslims. It’s entirely possible he has good reason to hate Muslims. (I’m not saying that’s the case, but it’s possible).

    However, even if these things were true, he could still argue without inconsistency that this had nothing to do with their race or nationality.

    These things are conceptually different. It so happens that many Muslims are Arab or Asian. Therefore, if Harris criticizes Islam, he’s criticizing the religion of many Arab/Asian people. But he’s not criticizing it because they’re Arab/Asian, that’s merely a contingent historico-cultural fact.

    Few people hate airy abstractions until they grow arms and legs with which to impose it, until that is they garner a following.

    A fact I feel compelled to point out has absolutely nothing to do with race or nationality, even if it so happens that the arms, legs and following are drawn from a particular racial or cultural group. So even your own explanation of what’s going on here doesn’t have race or nationality as part of the picture (except potentially as a contingent historico-cultural fact).

    would you introduce ethnic profiling?

    Well, presumably because in Harris’s view:

    a) Islam, in its political variant, is a threat (i.e., potentially associated with acts of terrorism);


    b) It is a contingent fact about Islam that it is overwhelmingly associated with particular racial and cultural groups.

    c) Therefore, if you’re worried about a), you don’t want to waste large amounts of time investigating people who don’t fall into the category b).

    But, crucially, in Harris’s terms, 1) the interesting point about a) is not b); 2) b) does not explain a); and 3) if it were true that the racial and cultural groups associated with Islam were different racial and cultural groups, then the argument would still stand.

    (I’m not saying this is a good enough reason for implementing profiling; merely that there is nothing contradictory in making this argument while maintaining that what you find objectionable about Islam is its ideas, practices, etc., and not the racial or cultural groups from which its adherents are overwhelmingly drawn).

  30. Sam Harris is a bigot who uses atheism as a way to support anti-immigrant and xenophobic ideas. He says:

    “Muslim immigrants show little inclination to acquire the secular and civil values of their host countries, and yet exploit these values to the utmost—demanding tolerance for their backwardness, their misogyny, their anti-Semitism, and the genocidal hatred that is regularly preached in their mosques” (The Reality of Islam).

    Harris also expresses conspiracy theories about the impending conquest of Europe by Muslims:

    “Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. The demographic trends are ominous: Given current birthrates, France could be a majority Muslim country in 25 years, and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow.”

    The reality is that the French Muslim population is forecasted by the Pew Research Centre to grow to 10% by 2030 from its present figure of 7.5%, and France will be the Western European state with the highest number of Muslims. The only country that surpasses it is Russia which, even as it borders autonomous Muslim states, is projected to see her share of Muslims rise to 14%. This fetish for the breeding habits of immigrants is one that Harris cultivates with far-right nationalists like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller. He believes that: “the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists” (Letter To A Christian Nation, P. 85).

    He is a disgrace so I am amazed anyone could say any words in defence of Sam Harris.

  31. In the debate with Bruce Schneier, I found the following passage of keen interest because it comes back to a racial theme which goes well beyond Muslims that he’s toyed with before. To set the context of the quote, he is saying that profiling Muslims is just as fine as profiling men on the part of women with a fear of being raped. Now listen to what kind of men he’s talking about:

    “With this in mind, just imagine hearing the following story from your wife or daughter:

    ‘I did something today that I’m very ashamed of. I was on an elevator alone, and a man got on who made me uncomfortable, so I stepped off before the doors closed and took another lift. The truth is, I profiled him. He was BLACK and also appeared to be homeless. It was an extremely nice building in a wealthy and very white part of town – so he just didn’t seem to belong there. He also made strange eye contact with me when he stepped onto the elevator, but that could have been because he felt out of place. The truth is, I just didn’t like the feeling I got when I looked at him, and this feeling arose almost instantaneously. I know this makes me seem like a paranoid, racist, elitist profiler – and I feel terrible about it.’

    Is there a husband or father on earth who would want to dignify this guilt?”

    Crikey! I wonder why he chose to revive the old racist canard that black men are crouching under every bush and shrub primed to leap on a white woman.

  32. Ahmed – I’ll say this once, and partly for the benefit of other people reading.

    If you want to comment here, then don’t say things such as:

    Sam Harris is a bigot who uses atheism as a way to support anti-immigrant and xenophobic ideas.

    I don’t care if you think that’s true. I don’t care if you’re able to produce evidence to back up the assertion. Don’t make arguments to character.

    It would have been entirely possible to make exactly the points you made, using exactly the same evidence, without the use of inflammatory language.

    In future, that’s what you need to do.

  33. Jeremy:

    That was truly solomonic.

    (No irony and the first time that I’ve used that word in my life-time)

  34. Here’s one thing I find very peculiar about the above-mentioned quote from Harris. He seems to think that outward appearances offer an indication of a person’s “beliefs or terrorist potential”. However, “beliefs” and “terrorist potential” are very different things! e.g., Jones may believe that country so-and-so is illegitimate and unjust, without ever being much of a risk to that country or its people.

    Belief guides either truth or action. But you can’t infer action potential from what a person thinks is true. And if you are assured that your target has a belief, while you can infer a willingness to act on the basis of that belief, you cannot determine which particular actions they will choose to perform on the basis of what they believe. If you’re trying to prevent terrorism, what you have to establish is that your subject has a felt need to act in a vicious way — either because they have an intention to act in some way, or are susceptible to the kinds of pressure which make a vicious intention flourish. But this has nothing to do with mere belief.

    Put generally, it is certainly true that “outward appearances” occasionally tell you something about what people intend. Unfortunately, I doubt that most of Harris’s grab-bag of awkward demographic categories will tell you about what they intend. On the other hand, when those demographic categories are put together in some configuration, they might be able to tell you something about what people believe: e.g., Smith’s horn-rimmed glasses, Starbucks latte, pale skin, academic career, gentle smile, and so on might give him away as broadly liberal. But these categories won’t tell you much about what Jones intends.

  35. @Amos – Well, I’ve always fancied myself as a rather Biblical figure. (Perhaps the whale from the story of Jonah…?) 😉

    – I have read all of Sam Harris’ work (between his books, blog, Project Reason, etc.. there are likely very few things I’ve missed)
    – I am an agnostic, in a word – but it doesn’t do my views justice
    – studying philosophy and psychology, interest in the epistemological limits of neuroscience re phenomenon, qualia.

    Sam Harris, while not a racist in a proper sense, is definitely a victim (and thus a proponent) of Pro- USA imperialist policy propaganda. His revamped version of utilitarianism is attractive in many ways, and while it has gained popularity, SH’s own application is ample display of the measurement problem addressed centuries ago.

    His use of the term “scientific” to qualify objective truths is ambiguous enough to allow him to appeal to authority on statistical matters more controversial than he’ll oft admit. He allows his “common sense” reasoning to fill his knowledge gaps, which isn’t always a bad thing as it is necessary at times for pragmatic purposes, but continues to feign certainty nonetheless.

    Like Steven Pinker (who on many issues is brilliant) in his newest book, Harris seems to fetishize western democracy by mistaking an environmentally conditioned correlation with direct causation. Hence, his controversial views and (sometimes apparent) racism.

    Appearance —infer–> Beliefs —infer–> Threat

    This type of probabilistic reasoning is as useful as it is probable, and is what Harris has in mind when it comes to racial profiling. While he raises valid considerations in our calculation, his methodology leaves much in want.

  37. @BLS (8/6/12 – 12:55)

    You say my reply puts additional lives at risk, because it puts my own life at risk. I suppose I just assumed that a “known murderer” at your doorstep already puts your life at risk. However, even if that were not the case, I would still deliberately place myself in harms way rather than send him off to kill again or tell him where to find what he seeks. I *think* that’s what SH meant by the closing line: “But that doesn’t mean someone more courageous or capable than you couldn’t have produced a better result with the truth.”

    Harris’ position on torture is nuanced, not apologetic. Without going on at length, I can’t really lay out what he has already said in his book and on his website, and I certainly can’t match him prose for prose. On character flaws, your commenter’s treatment of the dilemma, and his simplistic characterization of Harris on torture, are both presented as intrinsic moral failings of the author; character flaws that will only yield bad fruit in his future works.

    “Common ideals would be nice, if skeptics had them.”

    I don’t see why we can’t have common ideals, as we likely already do.

  38. Lee, re: additional lives at risk. You’ve conceded the point which I sought to make.

    I don’t read aleph’s comment in the way you did. There’s nothing about an apologia which entails an intrinsic character flaw. Apologetics is the activity of arguing in rigorous defence of something. If you think that he has done a successful, nuanced, rational job in his arguments in defence of torture (in those limited circumstances), then you agree that it is apologetics.

  39. As a side-note, I find it interesting – and should admit that I used to do it a lot myself – how people cite one opinion held or sentiment expressed by a commentator as a means of discrediting all their work. So, once someone is claimed to be an apologist for torture their views on the ethics of honesty are held to be worthless. There’s something very lazy and intolerant about this. If someone can be shown to be foolish or unpleasant on enough subjects to be representative of their thought that’s one thing but if single cases of foolishness or unpleasantness – real or perceived – are enough to damn somebody I guess Aristotle’s out of the window – that slavery-justifier! – Newton isn’t worth our time – alchemy? Lol! – and Russell deserves no more than facepalms.

    This is not to defend Harris, still less to compare him to such luminaries, but to suggest that we should be careful not to dismiss people on presumptuous or downright irrelevant grounds.

  40. The general lesson, ‘do not cite one opinion held or sentiment expressed by a commentator as a means of discrediting all their work’, is a fine one.

    Luckily, it’s easy to avoid violation of the rule. For example, while my first post used a quoted commentary, I used it as a preamble, not as an argument in itself. An unhurried reader has to notice that in the very next block of text in my comment, I quoted Harris’s treatment of the ‘murderer at the door’ thought-experiment (without relevant omission or misrepresentation). The reader might then notice the additional steps that I took in arguing for my position — how I paraphrased the moral of the quoted selection by interpreting it as a pointed question, and then how I asserted that many of us would find Harris’s answer to that question implausible. Each of these steps are focused on a narrow selection of text from a single source, and each step can be evaluated on its own terms.

  41. An unstoppable tide of trolls - pingback on August 8, 2012 at 2:40 am
  42. Islam, racists, and legitimate debate | Talking Philosophy - pingback on August 8, 2012 at 11:01 am
  43. I cannot see that what Sam Harris has said is racist as such, although I do think he’s wrong.

    If “looking like a Muslim” was some kind of unalterable attribute that was true off all Muslims I would reluctantly have to conclude that selecting people who “look like a Muslim” at airport security had some merits (as well as disadvantages such as making it easier for extremists to recruit future terrorists).

    This, however, is not the case; Muslim terrorists can and do go to great lengths to look just like everyone else, and might well use their own 4 year old as an unwitting suicide bomber. Recently here in the UK a man with learning difficulties was persuaded by an Islamist extremist to bomb a cafe in Exeter. Luckily he failed, but profiling would make it less likely that such a person would be caught as he was by dress and demeanour clearly “not of Muslim appearance”. Profiling just makes it easier for well trained intelligent terrorists to avoid detection.

    I’d add that profiling was not directly relevant, his bomb didn’t go off properly, it’s the principle that is relevant).

  44. I don’t think that Sam Harris is racist (I certainly don’t think he believes himself to be racist).

    But his advocated policies would inevitably lead to an institutional racism in the security system (for reasons Schneier demonstrated).

    I think in a number of areas Harris falls into the above average intelligence trap of being used to being right, and finding it hard to deal with a situation where he is wrong. Personally I thought he came off badly in the exchange with Schneier.

    I don’t think his arguments about torture work either (though I think he is stronger on lying) and the examples and thought experiments used to justify them are all full of hidden assumptions and holes.

  45. Well, we probably all have hidden assumptions and holes in our thinking. I’m sure I have! The trick is to be sufficiently self-critical to interrogate ourselves and try to locate them.

    But that said, I’m quite happy for people to dispute Harris’s various arguments and conclusions. I’ve spent a lot of time doing just that with his views about metaethics and free will (I have written 5,000-word pieces on each subject, arguing with him in detail about fundamentals). To his credit, he’s pretty good about receiving serious criticism, even if, like most or all of us, he doesn’t easily abandon positions.

    One thing that I like about Sam Harris, whatever faults he may have (and again, we all have faults), is that he’s a strong advocate of civil intellectual dialogue. One thing that I dislike about (many of) his detractors is their tendency to abandon any commitment to civil dialogue, and to adopt a practice of vilifying, abusing, and misrepresenting him.

    Mind you, I’ve also endured a certain amount of this in recent times. I think there’s too much of it around, especially in the blogosphere, and that it’s time for some of us to stand up and insist on basic intellectual values to do with charity, civility, self-interrogation, and the like.

  46. Drifting off topic; but one of the areas of concern I have about the civility and tone debates (and this is NOT a necessary outcome) is that certain privileged groups (privileged in the classic social sense (white, middle class, educated, male, etc.) but also privileged through prime mover status (The ‘old guard’, talk-origins people, old sceptics etc) can try to control the agenda of discussion. Everyone does it but certain groups expect to have that control and may be given it out of habit.

    Controlling the agenda is a subtle but powerful exercise of political power and managing the accepted norms of interaction has been a way of excluding people from getting their concerns on the aired.

    Its a fairly half-formed thought but worth bearing in mind.

  47. I read lots of variations of that idea, and I can see how people who are not highly educated may find it difficult to take an analytical approaches that focus on evidence and reason rather than on vilifying people or expressing anger. That’s one reason to allow wide legal scope for robust debate.

    But the people I’m complaining about tend to sound very highly educated. The fact that some are of a particular sex or sexuality or racial background, or whatever, doesn’t prevent them from adopting the intellectual virtues that I’m talking about. And even if they came from relatively unprivileged class backgrounds – as, indeed, I did – that should wash out by the time you get some solid university training in you.

    Really, if you want to make intellectual progress, you need to doubt and scrutinise your own views, and you need to look for what merit there might be in those of your opponents. And you don’t make progress if those opponents are bullied off the table by being misrepresented – there’s no excuse for not trying to ascertain their actual views. And nor is there any excuse for intimidating them with the threat that their names will be linked all over the internet with accusations of, say, dishonesty (“liar”), outright racism (as in “racist”), or misogyny (I was called a “misogynist shitbag” the other day by a commenter on Myers’ blog, presumably in part because of some of my posts on this blog criticising aspects of certain harassment policies). Apart from anything else, this kind of thing is deeply anti-intellectual. Of course, some people really are outright liars or racists or misogynists, but those words are thrown around freely to smear reputable people.

    I can certainly understand the related argument that people who have led “privileged” lives, in the sense of not ever having suffered or struggled, may be lacking in certain kinds of life experience. That might stunt their imaginations or their empathy. (Then again, living a very hard or narrow life can also be epistemically stunting in some ways.)

    But even that argument gets made far too frequently and glibly, for all sorts of reasons. One reason is that you never know, just from the demographic someone comes from, how much they have or have not suffered and struggled. Another is that people who are relatively privileged in that sense may have counteracting epistemic advantages.

    I think we should be very careful how we invoke these issues of privilege in philosophical debate. We’re entitled to try to convey things from our own experience – try to get others to understand what it is like to suffer or struggle in certain ways, or to have other experiences that may have been useful for a better understanding of the world. But claiming someone else, some particular persom, does not have their own useful and relevant life experiences to fall back on is pretty arrogant and risky. And anyway, trashing their moral reputation makes no intellectual progress – when we do that, it’s a good way of discouraging opinions that might have at least a grain of value and that we might actually do well to consider.

  48. Seriously, Russell, your style is infuriating. All this pedantic dancing around when there’s just no need. If they call somebody a racist, they’d better have some pretty good evidence backing up their charge. They don’t. End of story. All this language-lawyering or ordinary language philosophizing (I can’t tell which) does nothing but conjure up the false impression that the burden of proof is on Harris.

    As for Harris being blind to his lack of expertise in the debate with Schneider. Bullshit. That just makes you sound like an intellectual damsel in distress. Sometimes you have to think for yourself, and there’s experts in the field (such as the Israelis, who achieve the best results in the world) who would apparently agree with Harris.

  49. Meerkat, your point about the Israelis was already addressed by Schneier in the discussion. The Israelis do not profile based on “looks like like a Muslim” or anything so absurd, and what they do do is something that would be effectively impossible given the passenger numbers at US airports.

    I would add that Harris’s problem is not “lack of expertise” per se, but indeed that he seems “blind to his lack of expertise”. For the most part, he completely fails even to engage with Scheier’s arguments (which are good ones). As Scheier notes in the discussion, “I understand that it intuitively seems obvious to you, and that your gut tells you it’s better, but it’s not. And I am going to continue to explain why.” Unfortunately, Harris continues to ignore the explanations.

  50. Greg Byshenk, you evidently didn’t understand the discussion.

    Not only do the Israelis profile by a criterion such as “looks Muslim”. They use *full-blown ethnic profiling*, without apologies or reservations. That’s exactly why Harris has laid such emphasis on the Israeli security methods.

    Before you resort to such bullying language, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re clear on the basic facts of the discussion.

  51. Meetkat (sorry about the misspelling before), the Israelis do not “profile by a criterion such as ‘looks Muslim’. As noted in the discussion, they profile based on whether one is Jewish or not, along with various other other things. This is important, because a) without the “other things” (the behavioral profiling), the ethnic profiling is insufficient, and b) the “other things” simply aren’t practical given the passenger numbers at US airports. (When I travel to the US, the pre-boarding check normally requires a team of 6-8 people working for 1-2 hours to perform the most minimal screening interview for a single flight, and this is in addition to the bag x-ray and body scan. Note also that Ben Gurion wouldn’t even be in the top 30 US airports by passenger numbers.)
    Further, again as Schneier notes in the discussion, “the Israelis do not “profile by a criterion such as ‘looks Muslim'”, because there is no such thing as “looks Muslim”. Obviously there are ways of distinguishing an Israeli Arab from an Israeli Jew, but they are not based on whether one “looks Muslim”. Attempting to profile based on looks is bound to fail, not only because of the huge number of false positives, but also because of the resulting (and dangerous!) false negatives. As Schneier points out, “The last thing we want is a security system that can be defeated with a bottle of blonde hair dye.”
    And this is what Harris just doesn’t want to understand. He says, “I share your concern about the risk that some people could successfully game the system—but I still think we can exclude people who (effectively) pose zero risk.” These two sentences contradict each other. If there is real concern about gaming the system (and there is!), then you cannot identify (certainly not by appearance!) anyone who poses “zero risk” (‘effectively’ or actually). If you decide that WWII vets are in the “zero risk” category, you’ve therefore decided that a terrorist just needs to steal a WWII vet’s ID and have a good make-up artist in order to be free and clear to blow up a plane.

  52. You’re simply wrong. Ethnicity is one of the main factors that the Israelis take into account in their profilig. Harris gives a link to an Israeli news site which explains that this “doesn’t warrant debate or apologies” in Israel.

    The purely “behavioural” profiling that Schneier advocates is currently practiced in both the United States and Israel. What distinguishes the Israeli method, as Harris points out, is that they also take into consideration physical appearance. In other words, “looking Muslim”.

  53. Meerkat (I don’t know which is correct, now), you are conflating two different things that are not the same. Yes, the Israelis take ethnicity into account. But this is taking account of actual ethnicity; that is, (primarily) whether a traveler is a Jew or an Arab. And this is done on the basis of language, name, residence, etc., which are objective signifiers of ethnicity for Israelis, and not on the basis of “looks Arab” or “looks Jewish” (let alone “looks Muslim”) because “looks X” doesn’t mean anything. An Israeli Arab dressing up as a Hasid would not sail through Israeli security by “looking Jewish”, but instead would arouse extra suspicion because security could quickly determine (and plainly not by the way he looked) that he was an Arab.
    But the point here is that one cannot profile based on whether a traveler “looks X”, because the factor that is relevant to the profile is one that cannot be determined on the basis of “looks”. This is what Harris, and you it seems, as you (like Harris) don’t even want to acknowledge the argument, want to ignore.
    Apparently it is you that “didn’t understand the discussion”, for Schneier points out in his original response to Harris, “If adding profiling to airport checkpoints allowed us to detect more threats at a lower cost, then we should implement it”. I noted in my first comment above that “One might reasonably defend an effective policy” of profiling. The problem is that profiling based on “looks Muslim” as defended by Harris cannot be an effective policy.

  54. While it would be a mistake to judge the merits of this proposal on the basis of previous proposals from the same author, I can understand that any suggestion from Sam Harris regarding treatment of Muslims now comes with a good deal of – to say the least – suspicion. This is, after all, the chap who has also argued that a nuclear first-strike may be justified if an Islamist country every acquires a nuclear weapon. While acknowledging that this would be ‘an unthinkable crime’, he argues that it ‘may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.’

    Now at least from my reading of Harris, this course of action would not need to be be in response to specific intelligence regarding an imminent attack, but simply because of what we ‘know’ about ‘what Islamists believe.’ Neither is it framed as any sort of thought experiment.

    I am very wary of the manner in which the epithet ‘islamophobic’ has come to be bandied around with casual abandon, so I do not say it lightly when I say that, in Harris’ case, I fear it may be, to some extent, justified. He appears to be so disproportionately fearful of ‘Islamists’ that he actually sees the only hope of protecting ourselves from them – in the event that they acquired the same sort of weaponry that we already possess – as being to kill them in their millions. And he seems unwilling or unable to distinguish between the ‘Islamists’ who flew into the twin towers, and the ‘Islamists’ who run countries like Iran. (He doesn’t mention any country by name, but in the current political context, it would not, I think, be a stretch to imagine that is who he has in mind.) All of them ‘grow dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise.’

    I agree that we are likely to make more headway if we maintain a tone of basic civility, but were I a citizen of a country with an ‘Islamist’ leadership, I think I would find it rather difficult to worry too much about standards of politeness when responding to Mr Harris.

    Lest anyone thinks that I am misrepresenting the man, please feel free to take a look at his
    own page.

  55. Greg Byshenk, You’re simply wrong. The profiling done by the Israelis takes into account a host a host of physical characteristics, including apparent ethnicity.

    Sure it’s possible to be mistaken. But if you don’t think there’s such a thing as appearing to be of a certain ethnicity, then you have no idea what you’re talking about.

  56. @Meerkat, your position is unclear. Are you claiming that the Israelis profile based upon whether someone “looks Arab” or “looks Jewish”? This, after all, is the issue at hand. If so, then you claim that an Israeli Arab dressed as a Hasid will sail through security at Ben Gurion. If not, then you agree that the Israelis do not profile based on “looks X”, which is the thing that Harris wants to use.

    You seem to be playing the same sort of avoidance game as did Harris in the discussion with Schneier. No one has said that there is not “such a thing as appearing to be of a certain ethnicity”. Rather, we are pointing out that a) “appearing to be of a certain ethnicity” is itself already extremely unreliable; and b) “looks Muslim” (which isn’t an ‘ethnicity’) is so terrifically unreliable that it is worse than useless.

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