We have a word we like to use for philsophers who base their positive conclusions on fantasy. We call them “theologians”. (I like the term “pseudophilosopher” myself.) Thus, I find myself perplexed by Richard Dawkins’ defense of Sam Harris yesterday.
Myers is here doing exactly what a good moral philosopher should do. He is clarifying the point he wants to make (a woman’s decision over what happens to her own body is absolutely sacrosanct) and he is clarifying it by a thought experiment – an obvious counterfactual. The counterfactual is an embryo who was fully conscious and could write poetry in the womb, and he is saying that EVEN THEN he would listen only to the woman.
Now a reasonable person could disagree with him here. A humane rationalist could be pro-abortion under existing conditions, but anti-abortion under the counterfactual condition of the Myers thought experiment – the conscious, poetry-writing embryo. That is the whole reason why Myers found it worthwhile to invent his excellent thought-experiment.
That is what Sam Harris was doing in his notorious discussions of torture and of profiling in airport security. He was doing what moral philosophers do, and he does not deserve the vilification and viciousness that he has received in consequence. He is not a gung-ho pro-torture advocate, he was raising precisely the hypothetical, thought-experiment type of questions moral philosophers do raise, about whether there might be any circumstances in which torture might be the lesser of two evils – thought experiments such as the famous “ticking hydrogen bomb and only one man in the world knows how to stop it” thought experiment.
There are some very important differences between PZ’s argument and Harris’s. First, PZ flags his counter-factual. No one reading his argument will think that he is saying embryos write poetry, and not simply because it’s a ridiculous proposition. Despite the bizarre nature of the idea, PZ clearly says it isn’t true.
Harris does no such thing. Despite racial profiling being a non-rare, non-trivial societal problem, despite torture being celebrated as a tool in our popular media, he does not in any way state that either doesn’t work. These are common ideas, not remotely ridiculous to large numbers of people who may be reading him, but he doesn’t take the time to say, “By the way, these are hypotheticals, contradicted by real-world data, used here only for purposes of illustration. Don’t take them too seriously.”
There’s a reason he doesn’t do that. The counter-factuals serve different purposes in PZ’s argument and in Harris’s. PZ uses his to demonstrate that the people he is arguing with are doubly wrong. He says, “Setting aside all these other disagreements I have with you, I still can’t agree. Our differences are too fundamental.” He is telling us that his arguments don’t depend simply on his counter-factual being wrong.
Harris, on the other hand, draws conclusions that depend directly on his counter-factuals. He says it would be moral under some circumstances to torture (because torture works). He says it would be more moral to profile people who “look like Muslims” than to use our current system (because racial profiling works). In order for him to be correct in these larger arguments, his counter-factuals would have to be factual.
That would be okay as mere intellecual exercise in the privacy of one’s own home, or among consenting friends, but Harris has gone to the length of having a debate with an expert over this. He was told repeatedly that his counter-factual was wrong and why, but he continued to defend it and the conclusions based on it.
This goes beyond a “thought experiment”. This is advocacy for real-world changes, which means that the use of the best, most-factual information available becomes a moral imperative. You would think a moral philosopher would understand that.
Of course, I would also think that people would understand that people arguing for real-world changes will face real-world consequences for their arguments. I’d think they’d understand that at least the people affected by the proposed changes would have something to say about it, since for them, this is not some pleasant exercise in lofty hypotheticals.
But maybe it’s just more important that Harris is facing criticism, or that some of it’s loud and angry. I don’t know. Maybe we could do a thought experiment to test this out. Who wants to bring the counter-factuals?