Monday, April 30, 2012

Dear Sam Harris: Letter to a Casual Authoritarian

Dear Sam,
Regarding your recent advocacy of profiling to speed up airport security lines, to wit, “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it”:

1. The profiling you advocate doesn't work. Not all terrorists are Muslims; consider Anders Behring Breivik. And not all Muslims are "dressed like Osama bin Laden, and his wives," i.e. traditionally clothed Arabs, which it is clear is the group you single out for special surveillance. In fact, the largest group of Muslims "look like" Indonesians -- a nation itself that is very diverse and defies stereotypes. In short, most Muslims don't "look like" what you imagine "terrorists" look like with your stereotype. And yes, it is a stereotype.  
2. Also, the torture you've advocated in the past doesn't work. That's been refuted so thoroughly I won't bother to repeat it here. 
3. Furthermore, the nuclear first strike you've advocated in the past against extremist Islamist regimes also wouldn't work, and would be a war crime greater than the Holocaust. Such a pre-emptive attack is based on the false premise that extremist Islamist regimes, such as that of Iran, are immune to deterrence. But in fact the extremist leaders of Iran have shown every sign of being rational actors with regard to war, nuclear or otherwise. (And yes, Chris Hedges, while wrong about many things, was right to call you out for advocating any sort of nuclear first strike at all, despite your protestations that you didn't.) 
4. Even if, in some parallel universe, your proposed policies would be effective, efficiency does not trump moral right. Profiling, torture, and pre-emptive nuclear war are morally wrong regardless of their effectiveness, and for that reason alone -- moral wrongness -- should not be pursued. As a consequentialist, frankly, you are a moral adolescent, and you should start growing up morally and graduate to deontology and virtue morality. Doing so will give you a real sense of justice. The sooner, the better, please. 
Finally, Sam, the inconvenience that you undergo while waiting in the TSA security line does not justify profiling an entire religious or ethnic group. Their right to live free of unjust, stereotype-based searches and seizures trumps your impatience at the airport. Again, please grow up.
Sincerely yours,
Jeffery Zavadil, PhD  


  1. Couldn't agree more. Small suggestion: make it 'Dear Sam Harris'. The reason is because that way people doing google searches might find it more often.

  2. I think i prefer consequentialism over deontology. Utility maximization is the only morality. The biggest problem with harris's post is he fails to condemn air travel industry for its carbon footprint. Occam's razor, don't add stuff unnecessarily. Dont kill, dont steal, dont lie, dont cheat. Then there's exceptions to every rule. What if it's in self defense. What if it's a fetus. What if i have no money and must steal bread to not starve. Murder is always wrong but some killing may be justified. How do you distinguish between justified and unjustified killing? Exceptions seem to tend to serve overall utility.

  3. I can't stand Harris, either.

    But fuck "virtue morality." How about we judge what people do based on the results of their acts, rather than on the wanking of philosophers?

  4. Oh, and fuck deontology, too. It's kind of amusing that you're calling Harris an "authoritarian" but you think it's more "mature" to adhere to a set of ethics based on Rules™.

  5. Anonymous: the question here is not primarily how we should judge others, but what *we* should do. Should *we* allow racial profiling at airports? How should we reason to determine whether or not racial profiling is the right thing to do? Should we concede that people have rights? Or are "rights" only some bull-shit notion invented by wanking philosophers? True, future generations will judge us to a large extent on the consequences of our acts, but don't you think that the fact that we massively infringed on the rights of others would be grounds for future generations to say: "They did wrong"?

  6. I'm not sure whether deontology means what I thought it meant. I still don't understand it. I only looked at wikipedia about it a little. It doesn't seem to make very good sense to me.
    "One of the first major challenges to Kant's reasoning came from the French philosopher Benjamin Constant, who asserted that since truth telling must be universal, according to Kant's theories, one must (if asked) tell a known murderer the location of his prey. This challenge occurred while Kant was still alive, and his response was the essay On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives (sometimes translated On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns). In this reply, Kant agreed with Constant's inference, that from Kant's premises one must infer a moral duty not to lie to a murderer.

    Kant denied that such an inference indicates any weakness in his premises: not lying to the murderer is required because moral actions do not derive their worth from the expected consequences. He claimed that because lying to the murderer would treat him as a mere means to another end, the lie denies the rationality of another person, and therefore denies the possibility of there being free rational action at all. This lie results in a contradiction in conceivability and therefore the lie is in conflict with duty.