Sam Harris’ Conditional and Controversial View on Torture

I recently came across a heated debate regarding Sam Harris and his controversial views on torture. Having read the debate in earnest and having gone back to read what Harris has to say on this topic (it’s been nearly 10 years since I read End of Faith!), I believe the controversy is entangled in semantics. The most direct Harris quotes I can find:

Huntington Post
I will now present an argument for the use of torture in rare circumstances.

Sam Harris.org
Although I think that torture should remain illegal, it is not clear that having a torture provision in our laws would create as slippery a slope as many people imagine.

End of Faith
I believe I have successfully argued for the use of torture in any circumstance in which we are willing to cause collateral damage  p. 199

Certainly those statements would leave a different impression on a reader than simply reading “Sam Harris advocates torture” though they are technically compatible. This latter statement simply leaves many to believe that Harris has a hawkish view on torture and someone wants to see it implemented more often, as opposed to someone who believes it to be a necessary evil in certain circumstances.

Semantic blurs aside, this speaks volumes to how our current political debate works, whereby we generally have two sides largely yelling over each other. Do you believe in a woman’s right to choose? Well then, you advocate killing babies (EVEN if you only believe it should be permissible in circumstances where the mother’s life is in danger). Do you believe in your right to protect your own (and your family’s life) from an armed assailant? Very well then, you are an advocate of violence, even homicide!

This is the sort of semantic trap one sees on Fox News where an O’Reilly or Hannity insists on bullying a guest into a “simple yes or no” answer, knowing that such a simple answer without any accompanying qualifier could have a misleading effect on the shows’ viewers/listeners.

There is one other area that needs to be addressed, which I think gets buried in the melee: in situations like these, Harris is dealing in principle, not practical implementation. This (understandably) bothers many critics, as they wish to debate the implementation of such a view (how, after all, would we guarantee that said interrogators were following whatever guidelines were laid out in advance?).

However, I will argue that this is intellectual laziness. We can have one debate about the ethics of torture in principle and a separate one in terms of its implementation. Perhaps we can’t find an ethical knockdown argument against torture in certain instances (as Harris claims to be the case) but still find that it’s just not something we can reasonably implement.

Unfortunately, we’ve become too lazy to bother with defining parameters and sloppily move back and forth between normative and positive arguments without bothering to notice. Just as the several-hour long debates between presidential candidates has given way to the modern circus act whereby a candidate has 30 seconds to defend his/her position on a complicated policy, our everyday discourse has become a sideshow and there is apparently no room for nuance.

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