I’m sure most people reading this will be aware that Sam Harris has received quite a lot of pushback for his views on torture – see here & here for recent examples (plus read the comments), and see here and here for Harris’s and Richard Dawkins’s response to the often vitriolic nature of the pushback.
I don’t particularly want to get into the debate here – though if other people wish to do so in the comments below, no problem – but I thought it might be interesting to flag up some data I’ve collected via this activity at my Philosophy Experiments web site:
This activity has been completed by more than 100,000 people, and it includes a “ticking bomb” torture scenario that people are asked to judge. (If you haven’t completed the activity, I suggest you do so now before reading any further). I’m not going to detail the scenario here – it’s fairly standard – but what the responses show is that given this particular setup a large majority of people think that torture should be used (75% say “Yes”, 25% say “No”). This is the case for males and females, and across different countries.
A few points:
1. The only significant difference in how people respond is between males and females. More males than females think torture is justified given this particular setup (77% to 71%) – this difference will be statistically significant (albeit I’ve not actually done a chi-squared test).
2. I’m fully aware that people will consider my ticking bomb scenario – and maybe all ticking bomb scenarios – to be unrealistic. My view is that this criticism misses the force of the “ticking bomb” thought experiment. I think it is best understood as a “wedge” that attempts to show that whether torture is ruled out on any particular occasion is an empirical question rather than a matter of principle.
3. It’s almost certainly the case that nothing follows about the morality of torture from the fact that the practice is endorsed by a large majority of people in some particular (hypothetical) circumstance – not least, because it’s easy to think of examples where a large majority of people endorse some practice we’d consider to be immoral (think slavery, for instance).
4. However, this data does show that most people do not find the sorts of views espoused by Sam Harris to be particularly counterintuitive.