A Difficult Position

Posted by on May 1, 2011 in Quick Note | 4 comments

I read today an article by Sam Harris on the Richard Dawkins Foundation website entitled “Why I’d rather not speak about torture”  in which Mr Harris discusses the backlash on his comparative stance between the use of torture to prevent the collateral deaths of thousands or millions of people, and how this backlash seems to keep reappearing again and again as people discover and discuss his words. He admits that while he still feels his viewpoint is the right one, he wishes he hadn’t made these remarks publicly, because the keep haunting him, and he finds himself continually having to defend his position. His article struck a note with me, and a certain sense of familiarity too.

While I do not claim to have anywhere near the intellectual clout of someone like Mr Harris, we are both in the same game here: getting people to think beyond the self-imposed and societally-imposed structures of their lives. Harris’ words are always clear concise, but so many jump on him for his content, which is disagreeable to most, and skip the context of his remarks. The difficulty with most of these either/or questions is that they can touch on some subjects that, as a rule, may be reprehensible, but in survival situations may ask which is the lesser of two evils. Because our immediate response is one of disgust when we talk of torture and other unsavoury topics the conversation is shut down, and people stop listening. Our predispositions become our only position. So often, when given two choices, if the lesser of two evils is chosen the chooser is labelled as being in favour of that evil. This is simply not the case, and as I’m sure Mr Harris would agree, the lesser of two evils is still evil, in this case torture.

I too have made remarks on my blog that, while I still maintain them to be true, are nit the kinds of things I am proud of having to say. Luckily for me I only run a small and obscure blog, and my posts get lost in the ether the older they are. For Mr Harris however, he is a successful published author and his works are referenced again and again, so the remark about torture is continually rediscovered by people who are new to his work.

I guess my point is this: when making statements and observances about the world and the people in it, sometimes we have to admit that there is no clear way forward where everyone lives happily ever after. There will be times when difficult decisions have to be made. There are situations where the lesser of two evils is equally abhorrent to our worldviews. And there are worldviews that are simply misguided, insular or so bogged down in superstition and dogma so that they are impenetrable to new ideas.

It’s not an easy standpoint to take, and when fighting against the tenets and dogmas of deeply seated beliefs, so much resistance can seem to be insurmountable. I applaud Mr Harris for his courage, and while I may not agree with everything he says, his voice is so very welcome in today’s social climate.

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  1. “I guess my point is this: when making statements and observances about the world and the people in it, sometimes we have to admit that there is no clear way forward where everyone lives happily ever after. ”

    I agree with you Martin. If there is one thing I have learned it’s that we are not all Benjamin Franklin’s. I do not have my face on a $100.00 bill, so not everyone will like me. Even less my decisions. Certain people in certain positions need to make decisions that can either make or break a nation. Many of these decisions are not pretty, and many won’t like them, but they have to be made.

    Harris’ stance is that he would rather not have made a comment on torture, even if his stance remains unchanged. I totally agree with his stance, and it is my belief that people need to understand the types of decisions that have to be made in order to keep on living the life we live. A life that will benefit the “well-being” of our world.

    IMO, too many people like to think we live in a pretty world where everybody has white picket fences and a back yard. There is evil in the world, and sometimes we need to sink to their level in order to get them.

    An old professor of mine once told me: Life’s a bi***, and then we die… you have to make sure you make the best of it.

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  2. Three questions/comments
    1. Does the use of torture really prevent the collateral deaths of thousands or millions of people or even hundreds or to put it another way what bang do we get for our buck as far as torturing people goes. My personal opinion is the torture is literally the worst thing in the world so if I were to consider accepting it I want an exceptional return.

    2. What do we want? or to make it more pointed what do you want from the world. Is it something that can be achieved through torture? Is torture really the lesser of two evils? Whats do you think would happen if we didn’t?

    3. Remember that Bill Clinton effectively ended the American militia movements in the late 90’s by treating terrorism as a crime not a war. no torture, no secret trials or extradition. it was open coverage, frozen assets, and harsh sentencing. It worked and it was cheaper and easier than wars or torture.

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  3. Perhaps torturing a pedophile priest to see how many more children he has sodomized or abused to a point where they later commit suicide would be a circumstance that we could live with. Or maybe we could pray that god punishes these priests in his imaginary hell. If my child was abused by a priest I would support torturing him.

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  4. Well put, Marty.

    I’ve said things on earlier posts and comment responses on my own site that I’m not very proud of, and so far, I’ve been lucky enough not to have any serious problems.

    Nothing really libelous, mind you, just positions on some pseudoscience topics that sometimes are expressed with a little too much snark and ridicule, but that I now think are bad form.

    Great post.

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