Sam Harris: Tumbling down the Moral Landscape

I generally agree with what Harris said in The Moral Landscape. I thought a lot of the bad press he got over it wasn’t deserved simply because his book was largely a set of thought experiments; interesting as academic pursuits. As far as applying them to the real world goes not much was given. It’s defensible that what’s moral is an empirical, and therefor scientific, question, but what tools does that give us in the real world? I don’t know. 

So it’s interesting to look at how Harris himself approaches real-world issues just to see how it links back to his book. I’m not really sure how it does and what he has said gives the impression that if his position is based on his moral theorising it has left him unable to see an invasion as an invasion. In this blog post he starts out by arguing something like “in wars all bets are off, people do bad shit”. Maybe, but applying that to what’s happening in Gaza is extra-ordinarily misleading. He made this point in response to Israel’s record of war crimes. The vast detail he doesn’t mention is that all the terrorism and crimes against Israel that are given as pretexts to murder are the result of it’s invasion, blockade and siege of Palestine. Even the existence of Hamas itself is arguably the result of Israel’s war crimes. According to the Nuremberg Military Tribunal a war of aggression “is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” 

You have to ask yourself, given Harris’ recent history as a champion of reason: what is the reasonable response to terrorism? Is it murdering people who had nothing to do with it? If there is a way to stop it without killing people should that be the first option open to a reasonable mind? International law is clear on this. Another detail Harris ignores. Israel has the right to defend itself and everyone with any understanding of terrorism or security or the situation in Palestine understands exactly how Israel can stop all the terrorism right now: call off their invasion, blockades and sieges and go home inside Israel’s borders. They accidentally did this already. Hamas agreed to a cease-fire, which Israel totally violated by implementing blockades, another war crime, during which Hamas completely stopped rocket fire into Israel. So they could just do that, forever this time. Even if Israel was justified in using aggression, which it’s not, it would still be guilty of breaching the Geneva Convention, which explicitly forbids transfer of population into occupied land. You have to understand that war is declared against states, not people or land. The threat is the state and once the state is pacified the threat is gone. Even declaring war doesn’t give a state de facto right to take any region over.

Harris’ entire thesis in The Moral Landscape is that morality comes down to suffering versus well-being. With that in mind read the following:

Consider how we behaved in World War II: We did things that would now constitute the worst war crimes imaginable—the firebombing of Dresden, the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We literally burned hundreds of thousands of noncombatants alive. Was all that carnage strategically necessary? I don’t know—probably not. And we certainly couldn’t behave this way today without invoking the wrath of billions of people. However, the crucial question is, what sort of world were we trying to create? What were the real intentions of the U.S. and Britain with respect to Germany and Japan? Well, you saw our intentions after the war: We helped rebuild these countries. Out of the ashes of this war, we created the allies we deserved. The truth is that we wanted to live in a peaceful world with thriving economies on all sides.

He seems to have stopped slightly short of saying burning people to death is OK so long as you have a nice idea in mind, OK so long as we “create the allies we deserved.” I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn’t mean that. Even to argue that intention is the crucial question seems to be a total deviation from his moral theoretics. It’s not the issue of killing people nor the issue of whether any of it was strategically necessary that’s central, we should look away from that, it’s the issue of intention that is crucial. 

So let’s talk about intentions. The current escalation in Gaza started with the abduction of some teenagers from Israel. Actually, not exactly… they were abducted form the occupied West Bank, not Israel. Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas and ordered a search in Gaza. Israeli soldiers started arresting people in Gaza, something like 800, no-one has since mentioned this, the biggest kidnapping ring in history. Not surprisingly this investigation pissed people off. You can imagine what would happen if foreign soldiers showed up in New York and arrested 800 people. Shortly after it was discovered that he knew that they were dead before starting the investigation. It was then revealed that his own people thought that the culprits probably weren’t receiving orders from Hamas; which was later confirmed. People get kidnapped and murdered all the time, do countries usually go to war over it? Why does Harris, a self defined supporter of reason, have nothing to say about such unreasonable behaviour? And if we are supposed to be interested in intentions: what are the intentions powering Israel’s actions? It seems murderous irrational belligerence. 

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