“All we have is conversation or violence” (Sam Harris is Wrong, Part 1)

This is the first installment of a series in which I look at various beliefs of Sam Harris and explain why they are wrong.

Why am I picking on Harris? Although I believe Harris is wrong about many things, the way he is wrong is usually interesting: the intellectual consequence of mental traps that are easy for rational people to fall into. I would probably fall into these traps myself if I didn’t have Harris’s bad example of representing many superficially rational views for the sake of contrast. Given this, debunking Harris’s positions is an effective way to explain and compile my own views.

His first wrong view on the roster:

“We have a choice. We have two options as human beings. We have a choice between conversation and war. That’s it. Conversation and violence. And faith is a conversation stopper.”

He has said something to this affect several times. This is his way of advocating for conversation.

The charitable understanding of this statement is as a warning, as if:

There are people in the world who are violent. If we fail to successfully persuade them not to be violent, they will do violence against us, forcing us to retaliate. Therefore, we either have conversation or violence

But, there is a less charitable interpretation of this statement. As a threat. It could mean:

Others must behave how my philosophy dictates. If they do not, I will try to persuade them to do so. And because what I believe is so self-evidently correct, any failure to persuade them is evidence of some sort of block on conversation. In that eventuality, we should resort to forcing people to behave in accordance with my ideology, with violence if necessary.

Wow, that sounds so extreme, Sam Harris could never possibly believe that!

Actually, I think there are indications that the less charitable interpretation may be closer to his view. I have two pieces of evidence.

Firstly, let’s look at his views on good faith vs bad faith discussions. Harris attributes his failures to persuade people to bad faith on their part (I know that’s trite, but bear with me).

On a subscriber-only ask-me-anything episode of Sam Harris’s podcast, he addressed the following question:

Sam, who do you consider intellectually honest and fair in their criticisms of you?

Harris first addressed his understanding of the question:

Many accusations [of me] have this shape … I claim to be continually confronted with intellectually dishonest people and their criticisms, and I claim to be misrepresented. Then the question becomes, what are the intellectually fair and honest criticisms of me? Why aren’t there many of those that I’m referencing all the time so as to balance this picture?

He proceeded to misunderstand the the question, (in the context of his own podcast, where he was reading the questions and controlling editing) It was almost as if he could not understand the question:

The thing is, when a criticism of me is intellectually honest and fair, and clearly correctI absorb that blow fairly quickly. In fact, I often absorb it so quickly that no one even really notices unless I point it out. A few times come to mind.

He proceeded to list a few times he had his mind changed. But that wasn’t what the question was asking.

Notice how he changed the question, without even realizing it? “Clearly correct” was added to the question in his answer, as if honest and fair equals correct.

But that is not the case! There are many arguments that I consider to be completely honest and fair, but equally totally wrong. The question was asking not for the times he’d changed his mind, but the times he’d walked away with an unresolved disagreement he did not regard to be in bad faith.

Harris continues:

I’ve seen, in the best case, what I consider fundamentally different intuitions about how we have to ground our knowledge claims about the world. I saw this most recently in my podcast with Sean Carroll on the topic of the moral landscape and to some degree on free will … I think we had a different intuition…

I recall that podcast episode with Sean Carroll. They discussed morality, and their conversation came down to fundamental axioms. Harris seemed audibly shook that someone would possible not share his fundamental axioms. Carroll simply disagreed, and Harris kept pushing the issue to no avail. Harris was able to chalk the disagreement up to different instincts, but almost begrudgingly.

It seems to appear that Harris associates bad actors with the failure to resolve fundamental disagreements in conversation. To his credit, he thinks that some people are “confused,” or yet to come around to his logical position. But, in his view, it can’t be that people just have different assumptions, or that he’s continually confused. The other person must be preventing the conversation from playing out, or otherwise at fault.

My second point concerns Harris’s views on violence. Harris is a dressed-up utilitarian. I know he doesn’t call himself a utilitarian (he’s above it all), but if you substitute “utility” for “wellbeing,” that’s what he is.

To him, the be-all and-all of morality is a catch-all value called wellbeing. Everything can be reduced to wellbeing, theoretically at the expense of focusing on property rights, consistency, truth, consent, equality, and of course, any notions of higher beings. Harris would defend those other values, but only to the extent they support wellbeing.

Utilitarianism, like Harris’s views of morality, is all-encompassing. Utility (in this case wellbeing) must be spread to all of humanity, at the cost of any other value, even at the cost of coercion. Quote:

Certain people, and even whole cultures, can not know what they’re missing. [Islamic cultures] don’t know what they’re missing, and they don’t realize how much of a price they’re paying for [their] attitude towards freedom of thought and freedom of expression, and, on some level, we know we’re right about this … and we have to encourage, cudgel, brow-beat, and even coerce people to get on the right side of history.

Here’s a similar example (I can’t remember when or where he said this, or I would get the quote). Harris believes that women should be free to wear the niqab, however, he stated that women who want to voluntarily wear the niqab are wrong to want to wear the niqab. Their desires are not conducive to their own wellbeing.

I happen to agree with him in these specific examples, given my distaste for islamist culture, which I see as itself coercive. However, I think these statements are telling. His point is broader than Islam.

Harris appears to be a paternalist (to a point). That is to say, people can “not know what’s best for them,” and need coercing “for their own good.” This shows a willingness to employ violence, in circumstances where other options have failed, in order to make people live up to his visions.

Sam Harris is wrong. The choice between conversation and violence is a false dichotomy.

Of course, we sometimes need to use violence defensively. However, in most cases, conversation and violence are not the only options. There is a third option: indifference. 

Often, people will act differently than we think they should (or even what seems against their own interests). Trying to persuade them doesn’t always work. After that, the choice to do nothing is actually quite freeing. People are stupid? Who cares! Not your problem.

I doubt that resonates with Harris. For all he praises reason and denigrates dogma, he practices a type of dogma: that of universalism.

A Christian is a universalist: he believes all souls in the world need to be saved. A progressive is a universalist: he believes that inequalities in the world need to be rectified. A staunch communist is a universalist: he believes that communism should be spread throughout world.

And, in that same vein, Harris is a universalist. He believes in a version of morality that is about maximizing his value of everyone.

Universalists have the potential to do the most good, but also the most evil, depending on the efficacy of their plans. Self-concerned pragmatists, by contrast, do not try to impose their desires beyond how it benefits them. People are talking about the universalists when they say the most well-intentioned people do the most harm.

It is my prerogative to try to do charitable good if it makes me feel good to do it. But there’s a difference between that and thinking we have a moral duty to do good at any cost.