Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Cognitive Dissonance of Sam Harris

In “The Moral Landscape”, Sam Harris argues that morality can be determined by considering the impact of actions on social well being.  The impact is quantifiable through the relative comparison of possible social states arising from different actions.  A moral action is one that produces the greatest relative maximum in the topology of possible states of societal well being.  Let us take this definition of morality as an axiom.  For the purposes of this piece, it matters only that Sam Harris believes it to be true not that it is true. 

Now also consider Sam Harris’ position on guns.  He argues vociferously for the right to own guns.  Lots of them.  Of many kinds.  For example, in his “The Riddle of the Gun” he writes:

“Wouldn’t any decent person wish for a world without guns? In my view, only someone who doesn’t understand violence could wish for such a world. A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene.

This is, of course, a strawman argument.  Few are calling for a world without guns, although it is reasonable to ask whether such a world would be in a state of greater well being than a world where guns are ubiquitous.  Does it really follow that in a world without guns that a man with a knife can rape and murder?  Are law abiding citizens really helpless in a world without guns?  Do we see women being raped and murdered across Western Europe where guns are generally far less common than in the U.S.?  Is crime rampant in the UK where not even the police carry firearms (except for Ireland)?  And, couldn't non-lethal methods be used?  How about tasers or pepper spray?  Are guns the only defense we have against violence?  It's a strawman and a false dichotomy.

The reality is, reasonable people are calling for greatly limiting access to firearms or removing certain types of firearms from society.  Is the resulting scenario a state where well being would be increased?  Suppose only law enforcement carried firearms so as to protect law abiding citizenry from violence.  Would this result in a state of higher well being than we have now?  Conversely, would well being be increased by increasing the number of guns and allowing nearly everyone to carry multiple firearms at all times? 

Measuring well being is subjective, so reasonable people might disagree over whether one possible outcome is better than another.  However, it seems that in the spectrum of possible states of well being, a society in which there were no guns, or at the very least, a society where only law enforcement carried firearms would be better off than a society where guns flow like water.  And a society with non-lethal weaponry might be yet an even higher state of well being.

Sam Harris’ moral landscape position seems incompatible with his stance on gun control.  He has provided all sorts of arguments to support his position on guns, but interestingly, he has not yet, as far as I know, argued his position in terms of the moral landscape.  If morality can indeed be quantified by testing actions against their effect on well being, then Harris’ best argument for guns would be to show that a society armed to the teeth is better off than a society without firearms.  Good luck with that one, Sam.  I suspect that in the end, you'll have to choose either guns, or the philosophy of the moral landscape, or reject both.  But you can't have both guns and the philosophy of the moral landscape.


Max II said...

You've written a very clear piece and happily I am not sure I agree with it in its entirety.
1. Sam has indicated in most of his writing on guns that he is not averse to gun control laws, background checks, reduced magazines etc. His assessment of the desire for a world with out guns isn't, I don't think, a worry about the scope of gun control legislation. He is simply addressing the desire many people who are anti-gun have (our own Steve Zara for instance seems to be of this view).

2. I think your final question is an entirely fair question to ask of Sam. And I would be curious to see him make his argument for general civilian access to guns from the Moral Landscape. I actually think its possible.

Scot Rafkin said...

Valid points, Max. Thanks. I don't disagree that Harris has supported various gun control measures. However, he continually come back to the concept of self defense as a driving motivation. Yet, it seems that all of his motivations can be achieved with nonlethal methods, such as tasers. In terms of maximizing well being and minimizing suffering, I haven't heard a convincing argument that guns increase well being and decrease suffering and pain. I'd say the opposite is true. A dead person generally represents a great decrease in well being and a great increase in suffering and pain. And it's permanent. And it's unnecessary in most cases, even when invoking self defense.