I recently came across an item where the author claimed that Sam Harris had advocated that some beliefs are so pernicious that they merited the person holding them being killed. The critic was using this quote supposedly made by Harris that “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” Although Harris has advocated ideas that are terrible (such as bombing campaigns against Islamic countries), racial profiling, and concocting elaborate scenarios to justify the use of torture, I thought that advocating killing people for thought crimes was a bit much and that he must have been taken out of context.
So I looked up the context of the sentence and here it is on pages 52 and 53 of his book The End of Faith (2004).
The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments.
Consider the following proposition:
Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.
What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.
The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them [My italics-MS]. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others [My italics-MS]. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.
Notice that he seems to be advocating killing people for merely having certain thoughts, not for taking active steps to carry out the intent of thoughts so as to make them an imminent danger to others, the usual standard we use to justify killing in self-defense. He also says a little earlier that “Beliefs are principles of action (p. 52, italics in original) and seems to think that at least some beliefs lead inexorably to actions based on those beliefs, so having the belief is sufficient cause for summary execution.
I simply cannot see any way of interpreting that passage to make it seem any less horrific.
The question is who decides which beliefs and people are worthy of this pre-emptive summary justice. One suspects that Harris thinks it would be people like him, of course, since he clearly sees himself as an enlightened man who is an expert on ethical behavior. One gets the impression reading Harris that he would be the worst kind of dictator, so sure of the rightness of his own judgments and moral goodness that he would make life or death decisions about others and not have the slightest qualms. He reminds me of leaders of religions who are so sure that they are doing god’s will that they commit monstrous acts without turning a hair.
In fact someone might argue, using Harris’s own argument, that beliefs such as Harris holds are so dangerous that it is sufficient grounds for summarily executing him in order to prevent him ever attaining the ability to carry them out. Of course, Harris says that if such dangerous people can be captured, that would be better, so maybe he should be captured and thus kept from acting on his belief that he has the duty to kill others for their dangerous beliefs.
Of course, the people who believe that Harris should be captured or killed simply because of his beliefs are themselves the holders of dangerous beliefs, so yet others may think they should be captured or killed before they get at Harris before he gets at the people he thinks are dangerous.
And yet others may think … Well, you get the idea. Once you accept the idea of pre-emptive punishment for merely having thoughts, you set in motion an unending chain.
I had somehow not been aware of this statement by Harris even though it was published in 2004, and it seems like I was not alone. People seem to have taken note somewhat later and it generated enough controversy around 2014 that Harris responded to it, saying “The fact that belief determines behavior is what makes certain beliefs so dangerous” which to me simply reinforces the problematic nature of the statement. While no one would deny that beliefs influence behavior, surely they do not determine them? Even in a strictly deterministic view that denies free will, our conscious and articulated beliefs are just one part of the driving forces behind our actions. People have all sorts of conscious beliefs that they do not act upon.
Harris often responds to his critics by accusing them of either not understanding his views or of deliberately distorting them. Last year, Robert Wright had a good response to Harris, saying that he is either a muddled thinker or a muddled writer.
OK, so Harris thinks al-Zawahiri should be killed because of his beliefs “about jihad, martyrdom, the ascendancy of Islam, etc.” I’m not sure if holding just one of these beliefs is supposed to warrant the death penalty, or if all of them are required (including whatever the “etc.” covers), or what. Still, I think I get the basic idea. And it leaves me with a question:
If we come across a private diary, and in it some guy has written, “I agree with al-Zawahiri on jihad, martyrdom, the ascendancy of Islam, etc.,” we should kill him? Even if he has no plans to hurt us, or to help al-Zawahiri, or even to communicate his opinion to anyone else? If Harris really holds that it’s the beliefs that merit the death penalty, then, so far as I can tell, he has to answer that question in the affirmative.
The only way I can imagine Harris trying to wriggle out of a “yes” answer would be to reply that if this guy really believed everything al-Zawahiri believes, he wouldn’t sit there idly and innocuously; he’d do the kinds of things al-Zawahiri does.
But this just underscores how unnecessary it is, when deciding whether to kill al-Zawahiri, to get into the question of beliefs in the first place. After all, al-Zawahiri has done things that make it clear he’s an enemy. Specifically: He has chosen to lead a group that has attacked us and that continues to try to attack us. Leading a group is a behavior, not a belief. So in order to justify treating al-Zawahiri as a mortal enemy, we don’t have to get into the question of his doctrinal beliefs at all; we can safely infer an intent to harm from his behavioral history.
And given what a dangerous precedent it is to embrace killing people for their beliefs, shouldn’t we just stick with behavior as the criterion? That would be simpler, right? Plus, it would have the virtue of minimizing the overlap between our belief system and the belief system of people whose beliefs Harris thinks warrant the death penalty.
Anyway, this is what I meant by “muddled.” IMHO, Harris has a tendency not to think things through, especially when he’s making dramatic pronouncements, and careful thought might inconveniently short-circuit them.
I am a little late to this controversy but it further cements my view that Harris promotes some truly weird and reprehensible ideas.