Current Affairs is


and depends entirely on YOUR support.

Can you help?

Subscribe from 16 cents a day ($5 per month)

Royalty reading issues of Current Affairs and frowning with distaste. "Proud to be a magazine that most royals dislike."

Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Being Mr. Reasonable

For a “rationalist,” Sam Harris is stunningly irrational…

“I’m not arguing, I’m just explaining why I’m right…”

T-Shirt Seen In the French Quarter

Part I

Doubt is the beginning of knowledge, which is why people who are too arrogant often turn out not to be as smart as they think they are. If you’re excessively confident in yourself, you’re not going to listen to other people, which means you’re not going to learn very much. This is why Socrates is wiser than nearly everyone else he meets: It is not that he knows more than they do, but that he knows how little he knows. The progress of the sciences depends on questioning and self-criticism, and a truly rational person is not just capable of noticing irrationality in others, but is humble and introspective enough to detect it in themself.

There’s an irritating thing that some men—and let’s be honest, it is nearly always men—tend to do. They enjoy telling other people why those people’s opinions are daft, delusional, and irrational, and promise to explain how things really are and what you would notice if you weren’t so blinkered by bias and sentiment. They expound upon the importance of shedding ideological presuppositions and examining the world using cool reason. Yet they are so wrapped up in telling everybody else why they are wrong that they cannot actually hear what anybody else is even arguing to begin with. Sometimes this produces comical levels of obliviousness, e.g., My brain-dead, slanderous opponents do nothing but resort to ad hominems or My new bestseller is about how liberals took away free speech. (It is related to the phenomenon known as “mansplaining”; one of us once overheard a gentleman repeatedly interrupting a woman he was with in order to tell her how important he thought feminism was.)

Perhaps no popular intellectual has ever better embodied this style than Sam Harris, the popular rationalist writer and podcaster. Harris came to prominence in 2004 with his book The End of Faith, as a core member of the “New Atheists,” who brought a new stridency—some might say dickishness—to secular intellectualism. To the New Atheists, religion was not just harmful but “poisoned everything,” and the faithful were not just wrong but “delusional.” Yet even in a group that included Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris stood out for the aggressiveness of his attacks on faith and the faithful.[1] He attracted particular controversy for a series of remarks on Islam, calling the Koran the only worse source for objective morality than the Bible, declaring bluntly that “We are at war with Islam,”[2] and insisting that someone who asks “What is the fucking point of having more Muslims in your society?” is being “perfectly rational” since this “is not the expression of xenophobia” but “the implication of statistics.”[3] (The statistic in question being, according to Harris, that if “you take a community of Muslims from Syria or Iraq or any other country on Earth and place them in the heart of Europe, you are importing, by definition, some percentage, however small, of radicalized people.”)

A number of critics labeled Harris “racist” or “Islamophobic” for his commentary on Muslims, charges that enraged him. First, he said, Islam is not a race, but a set of ideas. And second, while a phobia is an irrational fear, his belief about the dangers of Islam was perfectly rational, based on an understanding of its theological doctrines. The criticisms did not lead him to rethink the way he spoke about Islam,[4] but convinced him that ignorant Western leftists were using silly terms like “Islamophobia” to avoid facing the harsh truth that, contra “tolerance” rhetoric, Islam is not an “otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists” but a religion that is “fundamentalist” and warlike at its core.[5]

Each time Harris said something about Islam that created outrage, he had a defense prepared. When he wondered why anybody would want any more “fucking Muslims,” he was merely playing “Devil’s advocate.” When he said that airport security should profile “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it,” he was simply demanding acknowledgment that a 22-year old Syrian man was objectively more likely to engage in terrorism than a 90-year-old Iowan grandmother. (Harris also said that he wasn’t advocating that only Muslims should be profiled, and that people with his own demographic characteristics should also be given extra scrutiny.) And when he suggested that if an avowedly suicidal Islamist government achieved long-range nuclear weapons capability, “the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own,” he was simply referring to a hypothetical situation and not in any way suggesting nuking the cities of actually-existing Muslims.[6]

It’s not necessary to use “Islamophobia” or the r-word in order to conclude that Harris was doing something both disturbing and irrational here. As James Croft of Patheos noted, Harris would follow a common pattern when talking about Islam: (1) Say something that sounds deeply extreme and bigoted. (2) Carefully build in a qualification that makes it possible to deny that the statement is literally bigoted. (3) When audiences react with predictable horror, point to the qualification in order to insist the audience must be stupid and irrational. How can you be upset with him for merely playing Devil’s Advocate? How can you be upset with him for advocating profiling, when he also said that he himself should be profiled? How can you object, unless your “tolerance” is downright pathological, to the idea that it would be legitimate to destroy a country that was bent on destroying yours?

In Croft’s words, Harris “says things which, if approached with strict analytical rigor and the most generous of minds, can be given a shield of deniability against criticisms of Islamophobia,” but “rarely takes sufficient care to ensure that his arguments don’t casually reinforce negative attitudes about Muslims, and makes it extremely easy for right wing extremists to laud his remarks and for his right wing supporters to see the Islamophobia they want to see in them.”[7] This is too generous a characterization, though, because it grants that “strict analytical rigor” produces results that favor Harris. According to this perspective, Harris is being careless; while the meaning of his words may be defensible, he hasn’t thought about how they come across, or what their effects on listeners might be. But while it’s true that Harris does not think about how he sounds, his indignant replies suggest that much of the fault rests with the audience (If my critics cannot be bothered to figure out what I mean, so much the worse for my critics). The more important point, however, is that Harris’ thoughts are not merely framed badly, but are mindless and collapse under the application of analytic rigor.

Let’s take the case of profiling. Harris says that because “suicidal terrorism is overwhelmingly a Muslim phenomenon,” “applying equal scrutiny to Mennonites would be a dangerous waste of time,” a form of “security theater.” Harris’ focus on “anyone who looks like he or she could be Muslim” would seem necessarily racist, and to undercut his idea that Islamophobia is about ideas rather than ethnicity. In reply, Harris says that “I am not narrowly focused on people with dark skin,” and “to say that ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, dress, traveling companions, behavior in the terminal, and other outward appearances offer no indication of a person’s beliefs or terrorist potential is either quite crazy or totally dishonest.” Note that Harris has actually conceded that he is advocating explicitly racial profiling, because he says it would be “crazy” not to use “ethnicity” as a category, so that while he is not “narrowly” focused on people with dark skin, dark skin should certainly be a relevant criterion. Against the charge of racism, Harris says he also uses additional criteria, such as “behavior in the terminal” and “age” (so we might leave alone a grandmother with dark skin but profile a white 20-year-old man with shifty eyes).

To see why this is no defense, we can think about it in a slightly different context. Let’s say a judge is deciding how much bail to set for defendants, and needs to judge their risk of committing additional crimes. The judge comes up with a series of criteria that are statistically correlated with higher crime rates: criminal record, age, marital status, neighborhood of residence, income, gender, race. And he sets bail accordingly. This means that, all other things equal, a black defendant will be considered riskier to release than a white one, and will be given a higher bail amount solely because of his race. (Being a male will also be punished, and so will being poor.) If we define “racial prejudice” as assuming that someone is more likely to have some kind of negative characteristic, solely because of their race, we haven’t proven that this isn’t racist merely because there are additional variables used in the bail-setting process.

Harris is quick to call profiling opponents crazy, dishonest, and dangerous. But he doesn’t really understand their argument. The argument (at least in its sophisticated variety, which is the one that should be addressed) is that even when the statistical correlations he’s talking about do exist, building a security regime on the basis of them builds racial prejudice formally into the law and is socially harmful. One left objection to “stop-and-frisk” policies that target young African Americans, for instance, is that they do not yield results. But a more important objection is that even if they did yield results, encouraging police to stereotype all young black men as more likely to be criminals creates an intolerable situation for those who are not criminals. It means that any given black teenager, however law-abiding, must go through the world imprisoned by his race, constantly suffering suspicion and negative stigma. There will be a “black” penalty in bail-setting, a black penalty in every police encounter, a black penalty in the attitudes of shopkeepers, and in every other aspect of life.[8] The serious arguments against profiling are about what it does to us, and what its social effects will be. But Harris feels justified in dismissing the left as wilfully oblivious even as he refuses to deal with the most basic rational objections to his proposal.

The same tendency, of calling everyone else an idiot without dealing with their points, is present in the “nuclear first strike” example. Harris responded angrily to “repellent” lies by journalists who said Harris “asks us to consider carrying out a nuclear first-strike on the Arab world.” He sought to clarify his position:

I was describing a case in which a hostile regime that is avowedly suicidal acquires long-range nuclear weaponry (i.e. they can hit distant targets like Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles, etc.). Of course, not every Muslim regime would fit this description. For instance, Pakistan already has nuclear weapons, but they have yet to develop long-range rockets, and there is every reason to believe that the people currently in control of these bombs are more pragmatic and less certain of paradise than the Taliban are. The same could be said of Iran, if it acquires nuclear weapons in the near term (though not, perhaps, from the perspective of Israel, for whom any Iranian bomb will pose an existential threat). But the civilized world (including all the pragmatic Muslims living within it) must finally come to terms with what the ideology of groups like the Taliban, al Qaeda, ISIS, etc. means—because it destroys the logic of deterrence. There are a significant number of people in the Muslim world for whom the slogan “We love death more than the infidel loves life” appears to be an honest statement of psychological fact, and we must do everything in our power to prevent them from getting long-range nuclear weapons.

Here’s how things go, then: (1) Harris speaks of the potentially justifiable necessity of dropping a nuclear bomb on an Islamist regime. (2) Horrified critics say that this would be unspeakable.[9] (3) Harris replies that he is only talking about those whose ideology invalidates deterrence logic, and that any idea he wants to attack “the Arab world” is false. And of course, he didn’t speak of the “Arab world,” he spoke of an “Islamist regime,” which means critics are distorting the point. But Harris doesn’t see that the horror is still perfectly justified. That’s because while Harris says he is limiting his advocacy of a nuclear first strike to a narrow situation involving death-worshiping Islamists with long-range nuclear weapons, elsewhere in his writings he blurs the line between moderate and radical Islam,[10] and suggests that Islam itself “has the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”[11] So while, in principle, it is possible for him to narrow his hypothetical to particularly extreme cases, his rhetoric about Islam suggests that nearly all of it is an extreme case, since we are “at war with Islam” and “we are fighting a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise.”[12] If I say that a nuclear first strike would be morally necessary against an nuclear-armed power with a murderous ideology,[13] then elsewhere say Islam is an ideology of “intrinsic militancy,” and that “the basic thrust of the doctrine is undeniable: convert, subjugate, or kill unbelievers; kill apostates; and conquer the world,”[14] one has a ready-made justification for wiping Islamabad off the face of the earth.[15] (Harris says Pakistanis are “less certain of paradise,” but an especially gung-ho U.S. hawk might ask him: Why take a chance?) Harris has no sense of how dangerous it is, given the strength of U.S. military power and the country’s track record of self-interested aggression, to produce thought experiments that equate “necessary and limited self-defensive action” with “erring on the side of genocidal nuclear warfare.” He is so convinced that his critics must be dupes that he refuses to contemplate the potential serious consequences of encouraging Americans to think of every last Muslim on earth as a potential suicide bomber. (And make no mistake, that is exactly what he is encouraging, whether he intends to or not. His “The Problem With Islam” chapter in The End of Faith makes it clear that fearing and disliking Muslims is not only understandable, but essentially compelled by rationality. Regardless of whether this is properly technically classified as “racism,” it is clear that his ideas, if accepted, would (1) make life miserable for every Muslim person living in the United States, from ordinary schoolchildren to former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, and (2) drastically increase the risk of the U.S. waging preemptive war on Muslim countries, on the grounds that their faith itself poses an inherent danger.)[16]

The mental lumping of every single Muslim into an amorphous radicalized blob recurs in Harris’ writings, and results in a shockingly ill-informed understanding of geopolitics. For example, in explaining the Israel-Palestine conflict, he does not take into account the mass expulsions of Palestinians from their ancestral land, the heavy civilian casualties and immense suffering in Gaza resulting from Israel’s ongoing blockade and repeated bombing campaigns, or Gaza’s status as an “open-air prison” controlled almost entirely by Israel. Instead, he sees Israel as a peaceful, pluralistic country besieged by freedom-hating, Paradise-seeking militants who can be lumped in with ISIS:

What would the Israelis do if they could do what they want? They would live in peace with their neighbors, if they had neighbors who would live in peace with them. They would simply continue to build out their high tech sector and thrive. What do groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda and even Hamas want? They want to impose their religious views on the rest of humanity. They want to stifle every freedom that decent, educated, secular people care about. This is not a trivial difference. And yet judging from the level of condemnation that Israel now receives, you would think the difference ran the other way. This kind of confusion puts all of us in danger. This is the great story of our time. For the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children, we are going to be confronted by people who don’t want to live peacefully in a secular, pluralistic world, because they are desperate to get to Paradise, and they are willing to destroy the very possibility of human happiness along the way. The truth is, we are all living in Israel. It’s just that some of us haven’t realized it yet.[17]

This is worse than even the most deferential pro-Israeli propaganda, which at least on occasion admits that there are secular sources to the conflict and that it is not simply reducible to “secularism versus jihad.”[18] In fact, the conflict is about ethnic cleansing, dispossession, occupation, and apartheid, not some intractable and inscrutable ancient religious antipathy. To say that this fight over land and resources stems from faith is ignorant of history. (This is not to suggest religion plays no role in the conflict.) Palestinians resisted British colonial rule before Israel was established, and in the years preceding lived in relative tolerance, if not amity, side-by-side with the (far fewer) indigenous Arab Jews.[19] But Harris, like other New Atheists, fixates on religion as a source of human conflict, seeing it as just about the worst thing in the world. (“If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.”[20]) As a result, he tends to minimize the importance of other human motivators, listing numerous global conflicts (e.g., Northern Ireland, Kashmir, etc.) and reducing them to their religious elements. He even claims that deaths perpetrated by the thoroughly non-religious Stalin and Mao were in service of a “political religion” and “Nazis were agents of religion.” Of course, if we define “religion” as “any idea people kill in the name of,” then it will be easy to ascribe all ideological killings as religious, which is certainly a quick way to demonstrate religion’s body count but perhaps not the most honest or rigorous way.

That lack of logical rigor is a consistent feature of Harris’ attempts to single out religion as a causal factor:

Given the vicissitudes of Muslim history… I suspect that the starting point I have chosen for this book—that of a single suicide bomber following the consequences of his religious beliefs—is bound to exasperate many readers, since it ignores most of what commentators on the Middle East have said about the roots of Muslim violence. It ignores the painful history of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It ignores the collusion of Western powers with corrupt dictatorships. It ignores the endemic poverty and lack of economic opportunity that now plague the Arab world. But I will argue that we can ignore all of these things—or treat them only to place them safely on the shelf—because the world is filled with poor, uneducated, and exploited peoples who do not commit acts of terrorism, indeed who would never commit acts of terrorism of the sort that has become so commonplace among Muslims; and the Muslim world has no shortage of educated and prosperous men and women, suffering little more than their infatuation with Koranic eschatology, who are eager to murder infidels for God’s sake. We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this, but it is unambiguously so.[21]

This passage, in which Harris gives a series of articulate objections to his central thesis and then believes he has knocked them down in one fell swoop, offers a basic lesson in how overconfidence can blind us to basic reasoning errors. It should go in elementary logic textbooks to introduce the “Fallacies” section. As Robert Wright points out in an essay on Harris, arguing that “because there are lots of poor and exploited people who do not commit terrorism, poverty can be excluded as a cause of terrorism” is like arguing that “because there are plenty of people who smoke and do not get cancer, smoking can be excluded as a cause of cancer.”[22] The reasoning is so obviously wrong that we would never accept it in any other domain, and yet Harris believes it is clear and definitive proof that legions of Middle East commentators are ignoring the “unambiguous” truth. Harris doesn’t see that even if we accept his reasoning, we would land ourselves in a contradiction: Because there are plenty of Muslims who do not commit acts of terrorism, Islam cannot be a cause of terrorism either. We can agree with Harris that exceptions disprove tendencies, or we can disagree, but either way we’ve said nothing useful about the social and ideological roots of terror.

Harris has never particularly cared to examine the actual available evidence. Responding to the argument that Osama bin Laden had political as well as religious goals, Harris wrote:

To describe the principal aims of a group like al Qaeda as “nationalistic,”… is simply ludicrous. Al Qaeda’s goal is the establishment of a global caliphate. And even in those cases where a jihadist like Osama bin Laden seemed to voice concern about the fate of a nation, his grievances with its “occupiers” were primarily theological. Osama bin Laden objected to the presence of infidels in proximity to the holy sites on the Arabian Peninsula. And we were not “occupiers” of Saudi Arabia, in any case. We were there by the permission of the Saudi regime—a regime that bin Laden considered insufficiently Islamic. To say that members of al Qaeda have perpetrated terrorist atrocities against U.S. interests and innocent Muslims because of a “nationalistic” agenda is to just play a game with words.[23]

In fact, bin Laden’s own statements on his motivation make for instructive reading. After 9/11, he wrote an open letter to the people of the United States explaining why Al Qaeda had attacked them. The letter is, predictably, full of praise for Allah and references to the Koran. However, when bin Laden directly answers the motivation question, his primary argument has no explicit references to theology whatsoever:

As for the first question: Why are we fighting and opposing you? The answer is very simple:

(1) Because you attacked us and continue to attack us.

  1. a) You attacked us in Palestine:

(i) Palestine, which has sunk under military occupation for more than 80 years. The British handed over Palestine, with your help and your support, to the Jews, who have occupied it for more than 50 years; years overflowing with oppression, tyranny, crimes, killing, expulsion, destruction and devastation. The creation and continuation of Israel is one of the greatest crimes, and you are the leaders of its criminals. And of course there is no need to explain and prove the degree of American support for Israel. The creation of Israel is a crime which must be erased. Each and every person whose hands have become polluted in the contribution towards this crime must pay its price, and pay for it heavily.[24]

Elsewhere the letter contains plenty of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theorizing. But it’s extraordinary that Harris, who criticizes “leftist unreason” for viewing “the events of September 11 as a consequence of American foreign policy,” could forget to mention that the architect of 9/11, asked for his grievance against the United States, said “You steal our wealth and oil at paltry prices because of your international influence and military threats” and “Your forces occupy our countries; you spread your military bases throughout them; you corrupt our lands, and you besiege our sanctities, to protect the security of the Jews and to ensure the continuity of your pillage of our treasures.” Glenn Greenwald has pointed out that when Muslims who attack U.S. targets are asked about their justifications, they consistently cite U.S. actions abroad,[25] from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (“the 19-year-old suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, has told interrogators that the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan motivated him and his brother to carry out the attack”) to the “Underwear Bomber” (“I had an agreement with at least one person to attack the United States in retaliation for US support of Israel and in retaliation of the killing of innocent and civilian Muslim populations in Palestine… and for the killing of innocent and civilian Muslim populations in Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and beyond, most of them women, children, and noncombatants”) to the Times Square bomber (“If the United States does not get out of Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries controlled by Muslims,” he said, “we will be attacking US,” adding that “Americans only care about their people, but they don’t care about the people elsewhere in the world when they die.”) [26] Harris says that “Without faith, most Muslim grievances against the West would be impossible even to formulate, much less avenge.” Considering that those grievances are constantly formulated without reference to faith, by the very people claiming to avenge them, this is flatly false.[27]

The fact is that, even if Harris may think they are ignoring the fundamentals of Islam, nearly all Muslims reject what Harris says is the “basic thrust” of their doctrine. U.S. Muslims are just as worried as the population at large about Islamic extremism, and 84 percent say violence against civilians for political or religious reasons is rarely or never justified.[28] (At this point, critics often pounce: “Aha! What about the remaining 16 percent?”[29]That’s still too many Muslims who believe in violence. But they’re in for an unfortunate surprise: This isn’t the only demographic that thinks civilians can be legitimate targets. Remember, the majority of Americans still think the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the deliberate obliteration of two civilian populations—were justified.[30] In fact, a global Gallup poll found that while “public acceptance of violence against non-combatants is not linked to religious devotion,” Americans are the most likely population in the world (49 percent) to believe military attacks targeting civilians is sometimes justified.[31] Tell us again which population is too supportive of violence against civilians…) The Islamic State itself may support the mass murder of unbelievers merely for being unbelievers, but most domestic attackers do not cite ISIS’s justifications, and the Islamic State itself has been hugely unpopular among Muslims.[32] Yet Harris insists, against the almost unanimous opinion of global Muslims, that the IS interpretation of Islam is theologically correct,[33] and throughout The End of Faith he implies that the vast majority of Muslims are insufficiently committed to the tenets of their religion because they are insufficiently violent.

Harris’ elevation of fringe voices in Islam over the perspectives of ordinary Muslims is vital in helping him construct his caricature. Here, for example, is how he characterized the Muslim response to 9/11:

Muslims have not found anything of substance to say against the actions of the September 11 hijackers, apart from the ubiquitous canard that they were really Jews. Muslim discourse is currently a tissue of myths, conspiracy theories, and exhortations to recapture the glories of the seventh century. There is no reason to believe that economic and political improvements in the Muslim world, in and of themselves, would remedy this.[34]

Here, on the other hand, is the statement put out by the Council on American-Islamic Relations on September 11, 2001:

Muslims today condemned the apparent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and offered condolences to the families of those who were killed or injured. In a statement, local Muslim representatives said: “We condemn in the strongest terms possible what are apparently vicious and cowardly acts of terrorism against innocent civilians. We join with all Americans in calling for the swift apprehension and punishment of the perpetrators. No cause could ever be assisted by such immoral acts. “All members of the Muslim community are asked to offer whatever help they can to the victims and their families. Muslim medical professionals should go to the scenes of the attacks to offer aid and comfort to the victims. Muslim relief agencies should contact their counterparts to offer support in the recovery efforts. Individual Muslims should donate blood by contacting the local office of the Red Cross.[35]

Muslim discourse is only a tissue of conspiracy theory and jihadism if you choose solely to listen to conspiracy theorists and jihadists, or to prioritize your own literalist reading of the Koran over the one actually preferred by the adherents of the faith in question. But in his effort to paint all Muslims as anti-Western extremists, Harris even went so far as to lie about things they had said. For instance, here is part of a Huffington Post article by Harris in which he complains that scientific journals are coddling irrationalism:

Nature, arguably the most influential scientific journal on the planet, recently published a lengthy whitewash of Islam (Z. Sardar “Beyond the troubled relationship.” Nature 448, 131-133; 2007). The author began, as though atop a minaret, by simply declaring the religion of Islam to be “intrinsically rational.” He then went on to argue, amid a highly idiosyncratic reading of history and theology, that this rational religion’s current wallowing in the violent depths of unreason can be fully ascribed to the legacy of colonialism.[36]

Now, one could quibble that Sardar did not “declare” Islam “intrinsically rational” as if “from a minaret,” but said that Islam “proclaims itself intrinsically rational” due to the “800 verses in the Qur’an that invite the reader to think and to examine the material world.” But far worse is Harris’ lie that Sardar thinks today’s violence and unreason in the Muslim world “can be fully ascribed to the legacy of colonialism.” Here is Sardar’s article:

These two trends, the fundamentalist and the mystical, suggest that real science has almost completely disappeared from Muslim consciousness. [But] the solution to any problem begins with a diagnosis; this diagnosis has already begun. The realization is growing that science is important not just for the prosperity of Muslim societies, for economic development, for misplaced political vanity or for acquiring nuclear weapons — but that it matters because it is vital for the recovery and survival of Islam itself. This is the main message of the 2003 Arab Human Development Report on ‘Building a Knowledge Society’. It admits frankly that Muslims cannot merely continue to blame everything on colonialism and the West. Muslim states have failed, by their own Islamic standards, the challenge of independence. The report blames authoritarian thought, lack of autonomy in universities, the sorry state of libraries and laboratories, and under-funding in the Arab world.[37]

Harris takes “cannot merely continue to blame everything on colonialism” and turns it somehow into “can be fully ascribed to the legacy of colonialism.” He sees Muslim thought as he assumes it must be, rather than as it actually is. This is what prejudice does: It leads us to believe that our generalizations are based on reason and evidence, even when reason and evidence actually point in an entirely different direction.

This pseudo-rationality is on display especially vividly when Harris tries to prove that the United States is morally superior to its enemies.[38] Harris says that “not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development,” and that while the United States “has done terrible things” and may do more, we are a “well-intentioned giant” whose “collateral damage” results from “limitations in the power and precision of our technology.” The difference between us and less developed moral cultures is that “we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents” whereas “much of the world has not.” Harris gives the example of the My Lai massacre:

[While this was] as bad as human beings are capable of behaving… what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us. The massacre at My Lai is remembered as a signature moment of shame for the American military. Even at the time, U.S. soldiers were dumbstruck with horror by the behavior of their comrades. One helicopter pilot who arrived on the scene ordered his subordinates to use their machine guns against their own troops if they would not stop killing villagers.[39]

This passage is fascinating, because it shows the extraordinary extent to which Americans can distort the historical record in order to flatter their sense of their own goodness. First, the helicopter pilot Harris mentions was Hugh Thompson, Jr., and far from representing the American moral mainstream, Thompson was ostracized and condemned by his fellow soldiers for his intervention in the massacre.[40] In fact, popular opinion was overwhelmingly on the side of William Calley, the lieutenant who had ordered the killings. There were pro-Calley sympathy marches across the country, and the White House was flooded with calls for his release. A song called “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley,” honoring the man who had ordered the execution of dozens of Vietnamese children, sold a million copies. Out of 26 soldiers initially charged with offenses related to the massacre, only Calley was convicted. But there was such a public outcry over the conviction that Richard Nixon reduced the sentence, and Calley ended up serving three years under house arrest, the only punishment handed out for a mass rape and the systematic murder of approximately 400 unarmed Vietnamese peasants.

Even more importantly, because Harris does not appear to know anything about the Vietnam war, he misunderstands the function of My Lai in American discourse. It’s true that in the 50 years since the massacre (or rather, in the nearly 50 years since the massacre was exposed, after initially being covered up by the U.S. military), it has led to much public soul-searching. But America’s treatment of My Lai as a shameful aberration allows it to avoid confronting its responsibility for other grave atrocities, and the immorality of the war itself. Over the course of the war, 2 million acres of land were subject to saturation bombing, and 7 million tons of bombs (including 400,000 tons of napalm) were dropped on Southeast Asia. This is more than three times as many tons of bombs than were dropped in all of World War II, and the combined power of the explosives amounted to more than 640 Hiroshimas. The war, unjustified from the beginning, led to millions of deaths in Vietnam. This is not to mention the criminal incursions into Laos and Cambodia. (By the end of nine years of American aerial attacks on Laos, it was the most bombed country in the history of the world, and 50,000 people were killed or maimed there in the decades after the bombing stopped.) As Nick Turse documents in Kill Anything That Moves, U.S. forces often operated on downright genocidal premises, seeing “body count” as the sole metric of military success and covering up numerous atrocities from the murder of children and the elderly to the gang-rape of Vietnamese women. (The Vietnamese were never called “Vietnamese,” though. They were “gooks,” “slopes,” or “dinks.”) My Lai stood out for the scale of its barbarity, but veteran testimonies confirmed that smaller scale killings of civilians occurred numerous times and were buried. (Even Guenter Lewy, in his pro-U.S. America in Vietnam, admits that rules of engagement were routinely violated and that military brass buried the evidence of atrocities.[41]) Journalists who tried to draw attention to American crimes after My Lai found it difficult to arouse public interest; the scandal around My Lai had marked the end of the country’s moral reckoning.

Harris says that Americans are different because indiscriminate violence “appalls us.” In fact, indiscriminate violence doesn’t seem to interest us much at all; to this day, the Laos bombing has barely penetrated the American public’s consciousness.[42] But even when we are forced to confront it, we generally approve of it. In polling from 1971, nearly 80 percent of Americans opposed Lt. Calley’s initial guilty verdict and life sentence, while only 7 percent agreed with it (over half the country thought he should be freed outright). When the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japanese cities, 85 percent of the country thought it was a job well done, even though there had been initial consideration of dropping the bombs next to the cities instead.[43] In 1988, when the United States negligently shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing all of the 300 people aboard, public polling revealed that Americans “displayed little sympathy for the Iranian victims,” with the vast majority blaming Iran for its misfortune and over 60 percent opposing any compensation for the victim’s families.[44] (The United States has chosen to forget what it did to Iran, but there is clear evidence that it shot down the plane knowing there was a risk to civilians.[45] The incident is what led George H.W. Bush to publicly declare “I will never apologize for the United States—I don’t care what the facts are.”[46] This extraordinary position offers a sociopathic view of American moral responsibility: Nothing we do can ever need apologizing for, no matter how harmful in fact, because America is always right by definition.)

Part of Harris’ claim for American moral superiority rests on his assertion that, unlike our enemies, when we cause atrocities we do not “intend” to do so. Even if American foreign policy did precipitate retaliatory attacks on our civilians, the difference between us and them is that we mean well. The 9/11 hijackers were trying to kill large numbers of people on purpose. The United States does not try to do this; we might kill large numbers of people, even civilians, but we only ever do by accident or as a tragic necessity. To see why we are better than “our enemies,” Harris asks us to imagine what our country would do if we had a “perfect weapon,” e.g., one that never caused any collateral damage and “allowed us to kill a particular person, or group, at any distance, without harming others or their property.” Harris says that “a person’s use of such a weapon would offer a perfect window onto the soul of his ethics,” and that while Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler would have used such a weapon indiscriminately, George W. Bush, as a moral person, would not, and “there is no reason to think [Bush] would have sanctioned the injury or death of even a single innocent person.” “Where ethics are concerned,” he says, “intentions are everything,” and we know that our intentions are good because we would always spare innocent lives if we could.

As a matter of historical fact, this is false. If it is true that the United States would minimize casualties if they had the capacity to, then we would not find our military history littered with examples of policies that needlessly maximized casualties. Again, Vietnam is instructive: The U.S. had multiple “better” weapons, such as doing the right thing and leaving the country, or trying to sway Vietnamese opinion by aiding villages rather than annihilating them. But the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, William Westmoreland, held an overtly racist view of Vietnamese people that meant their deaths didn’t weigh on his conscience, saying “the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient,”[47] and U.S. military commanders chose “bodies” as their measure of success despite the obvious toll it would take in civilian lives. We need hardly restrict ourselves to Vietnam, however. The saturation bombing of North Korea during the Korean War is another conveniently forgotten U.S. crime; we burned down every town in their country, flattened 75 percent of their capital city, and possibly killed 20 percent of their population.[48] We supported genocidal governments in Indonesia and Guatemala, and are still supplying arms to Saudi Arabia as it continues its indiscriminate aerial bombing of Yemen.[49]

Or consider the Iraq War, which began a year before Harris wrote The End of Faith. The war resulted in the deaths of an estimated half-million Iraqis, deaths that would not have happened if the Bush administration had not manipulated intelligence, violated the laws of war, ignored every known fact about Iraq’s people and politics, destabilized the country, managed its occupation like callous and incompetent colonialists, and created a civil war.[50] When confronted with the colossal death toll, Harris has minimized U.S. responsibility, claiming that while “you can fault us for not having anticipated this closely enough,” “most” of the deaths are the result of sectarian violence and “we are not the Sunni who are killing Shia and we are not the Shia who are killing Sunni.” Thus, even though U.S. actions, made illegally, deceitfully, and with total disregard for the potential human cost in Iraqi lives, were the direct precipitating cause of hundreds of thousands of deaths, because our “intentions” were good (e.g., George W. Bush was awfully sad that all those people died, and never would have sanctioned it if he had “perfect weapons”), we remain the good people “appalled” by violence and the dead Iraqis remain part of the Muslim death cult that celebrates violence.

The issue of “intention” was at the heart of an illuminating exchange Harris had with Noam Chomsky.[51] In The End of Faith, Harris accused Chomsky of demonstrating “a principal failing of the liberal critique of power,” namely that Chomsky catalogs “American misdeeds” without noting that “the difference between intending to harm someone and accidentally harming them is enormous.” In response, Chomsky said that “professed intentions carry little if any weight” in a serious moral assessment.

In fact, while it sounds reasonable to say “it is worse to kill civilians intentionally than to kill them unintentionally,” this is not necessarily the case. To see why, imagine two generals: The first general believes the quickest way to win the war is to kill the country’s five top economists. (Don’t ask why.) He believes their deaths will be worth it, because it will produce a positive outcome. The second general decides to win the war by annihilating the capital city. He does not calculate how many civilians will die, but his aim is to destroy infrastructure rather than to kill civilians; he would be pleased if it turned out nobody died, though this is unlikely. General #1 is intentionally killing civilians, while General #2 has no intention of killing civilians. And yet it is General #1 who has the superior regard for human life. Chomsky observed to Harris that a party with no “intention” of causing civilian deaths can actually be worse than the party killing civilians to achieve an objective, if they simply view civilians as having the moral status of ants (e.g., we’re not trying to kill them, but we don’t care if we do).[52] One may be using a ruthless utilitarian ends-means calculus, weighing some goal against the human lives it will take to get there. But the other isn’t weighing those lives at all. Under the right circumstances, negligent killing can be even more depraved than intentional killing.[53]

This is important, because it captures why Harris is wrong about U.S. moral responsibility. The United States is not a well-intended giant. The United States is a callously indifferent giant. The dominant trend in U.S. foreign policy is the pursuit of America’s “national interest,” even if such a pursuit causes large amounts of suffering and death to non-Americans. It is not that we “want” to kill these people, it’s that we don’t care if we kill them. We would describe a person who acted this way as a sociopath; if they didn’t intend to cause harm, but pursued their self-interest absolutely even when the results were catastrophic for everyone else, one would struggle to classify that total indifference to others as “benign intent.” Yet this is how our country has acted, and Harris believes it confers on us an inherent moral superiority over those who deliberately kill civilians in the pursuit of particular political objectives. It is perverse moral logic, and it’s exactly what led to the extraordinarily high Vietnamese death tolls during the American invasion. (A popular military slogan, for example, was “expend shells, not men.” This meant: Minimize the risk of American casualties by erring on the side of blasting things with firepower. In practice, this means that while our national interest is served, large numbers of people on “the other side” will die needlessly. Since, however, we are benignly pursuing our interest, without any intention of doing harm—after all, if we had The Perfect Weapon, we’d avoid it!—we can reassure ourselves that we are good.)[54]

We can state comfortably, then, that while Harris thinks leftists are crazy and unreasonable apologists for jihad, his belief is not based on a serious engagement with (or even understanding of) their arguments, his commitment to reason is rhetorical rather than substantive, and he is uninterested in reporting and responding to evidence that challenges his preexisting worldview. These irrational views can be deeply harmful, because of the consequences of convincing people that they should fear and suspect all Muslims,[55] that institutionalizing that suspicion is not only justified but compelled by reason, and that until Islam itself is driven from the earth, there can be no lasting peace.[56] Not only does he make excuses for horrific U.S. crimes,[57] but he provides persuasive-sounding philosophical justifications for the perpetration of future ones. It is not necessary to call this “Islamophobia” in order to condemn it.

Part II.

Sam Harris’ irrational brand of rationalism goes beyond his morally confused forays into U.S. foreign policy, and it is worth looking briefly at his other intellectual work. Harris has earned high praise as a thinker from many prominent intellectuals. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has said that “no thinking person can afford to ignore his arguments,” and the late Oliver Sacks praised him as “brilliant and witty.” Yale’s Paul Bloom, best known for his dubious insistence that empathy is overrated,[58] called Harris “one of the sharpest scholars around,” and Lawrence Krauss has compared the experience of reading Harris to “drinking water from a cool stream on a hot day.” Since such eminent men think so highly of him, it is worth justifying our disagreement with their appraisal.

The problem with Harris’ intellectual output is not just that he occasionally justifies war crimes, but that his entire mode of thinking embodies a practice that can only properly be labeled scientism. Harris detests this word, and in a discussion with Steven Pinker agreed that it was a meaningless “boo” word issued solely as a slur but without substantive meaning. That may be true as it’s commonly used, but it’s possible—even important—to have a meaningful definition. For our purposes, scientism is the inappropriate use of the term “science” where it does not apply, in which “science” becomes a piece of rhetoric used to defend highly irrational thoughts, rather than a meaningful description of a rational process of inquiry. Importantly, this is not a critique of science, but a defense of it, against those who appropriate its name to describe practices that are not actually science. (Christian Science could be called “scientistic.”)

To see why Harris deserves this label, one can look at his 2010 book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. As the subtitle suggests, Harris sets out to prove that “science” can tell us not only what we do value, but what we ought to value. But Harris’ promise of a “science of ethics” is fraudulent. He achieves it by collapsing the distinction between “science” and “moral philosophy” so that every use of reason to address moral questions can be called “science.”[59] His arguments for what people ought to do, however, come straight out of Moral Philosophy 101. A book called How Moral Philosophy Can Determine Moral Values, however, would have been unremarkable, and would not have offered the kind of grandiose claim that helps sell books. Thus Harris simply rechristened ordinary moral reasoning “science.”[60]

Whitley Kaufman, in a thorough and devastating review of The Moral Landscape (to whose arguments Harris never responded), explained why the “scientism” label is fairly applied to Harris, who displays “the unfortunately common tendency to identify the natural sciences with rationality itself and to dismiss the humanities as a legitimate source of knowledge and insight into human affairs.”[61] Kaufman notes Harris’ “habit of dropping the words ‘science’ and ‘scientifically’ ad nauseam throughout the book” but says that when we actually examine the central case, it is “not only unconvincing, but it is not even new and merely rehearses arguments that have long been refuted.”

Kaufman carefully explains where Harris goes wrong. Harris’ argument is roughly as follows: He says we can all agree that a world in which there was nothing but the worst possible suffering for everyone would be bad. Then he says that since suffering is a fact about the state of conscious creatures, we can determine scientifically how to steer ourselves away from suffering and toward well-being. Thus, science can tell us what is good and bad.[62] Note, though, that in this argument, “science” isn’t telling us what’s bad. Our moral intuition (or common sense) is telling us that suffering is bad, and science is just showing us how to avoid suffering and increase well-being. The moral reasoning that tells us what we ought to value is reasoning, but it isn’t “science” unless we define philosophical argumentation as science.[63]

Importantly, this doesn’t mean that Harris’ position is wrong. In fact, once you translate it into less grandiose language, it’s almost banal: Some things make us miserable, some things don’t, we can investigate the study of which things do and don’t, and the study of morality should be the process of figuring out how to live well. This is not so much a bold new claim as a literal description of “moral realism,” a philosophical position holding that there can be true and untrue moral claims. (It is the position held by the majority of contemporary philosophers.)

Why, then, does Whitley Kaufman say The Moral Landscape is “unconvincing” and offers arguments refuted long ago? Because Harris goes beyond merely claiming that there can be moral truths, and purports to tell us basic features of what this objective morality looks like. And he does so through stipulation rather than proof, asserting that the “well-being of conscious creatures” (also defined as “flourishing”) is the paramount moral value, and we should devote ourselves to maximizing it. But whenever Harris actually tries to give some content to the notion of “well-being,” so that it means more than just “whatever it is that constitutes the good,” he offers a framework that sounds a lot like classical utilitarianism and suffers from utilitarianism’s well-known defects (e.g., its inability to resolve questions of what should happen when the reduction of suffering, or maximization of well-being, runs up against other competing moral instincts like fairness). Then, in order to avoid this problem, Harris defines well-being to include both suffering-reduction and fairness, making the term all but meaningless again. Per Kaufman:

[Harris tries] the classic utilitarian maneuver of suggesting that justice just is a form of human well-being, albeit distinct from pleasure or happiness or any positive psychological state. The problem with such a strategy, as has been long recognized, is that it effectively concedes the falsity of utilitarianism. For it makes the term “well-being” so utterly vacuous that we no longer have any moral theory at all, for now we need a theory to tell us what constitutes well-being, and how such values as justice and happiness are to be traded off against each other, etc. In short, almost all the work of moral philosophy would remain to be done. Moreover, it would undercut the most attractive feature of utilitarianism, that it offers us a way to reduce all values to a single currency which can then be compared and maximized, the very virtue that has made utilitarianism seem more scientific than most ethical theories.

He sums up:

The claim that science can determine moral values is doubly misleading. First, it is not science but moral philosophy that does all of the work in Harris’ argument. Second, and more important, the argument itself is faulty moral philosophy; it does not “determine” utilitarianism at all (if anything, the argument demonstrates the many reasons to reject that moral system).

Kaufman concludes by observing that his disagreements with Harris are not “merely an academic debate” and that “There are real world implications of Harris’ position,” for instance, his assertion that under certain circumstances torture is morally acceptable, “not only permissible but necessary” in the midst of the so called War on Terror.

The scientific character of Harris’ morality, then, is illusory. In practice, he does not offer any way (even a theoretical one) to adjudicate the key conflicts that moral philosophy grapples with. This is implicitly conceded in his entire idea of a “moral landscape” itself. Harris asks us to conceive of morality like a mountain range: There may be multiple peaks of equal height (i.e., that maximize “well-being” in different ways), and while science cannot tell us which peak to go to, it can help us navigate upward. But all of moral philosophy is about the irresolvable questions about which peak humans should be heading for and how we should define “well-being” a.k.a. the good.[64] If one has not produced any new process that can help us answer the central questions with which we already grapple, but has simply reaffirmed the idea that some worlds are better than others (e.g., Harris’ claim that the Taliban throwing acid in women’s faces is bad), one has added nothing to existing discourse except terminological confusion and a heightened sense of pseudorational arrogance on the part of those who wish to inform others that they are Objectively Bad.[65]

It’s the “scientistic” character of this method that makes it worthy of extended discussion. As Kaufman says, “what is most troubling about Sam Harris’ book is not merely that it is peddling a false moral theory, but that it invokes the banner of science in doing so.” What makes this “troubling” has nothing to do with philosophers guarding their academic turf, but the consequences of taking one’s highly contestable opinions for incontrovertible fact. When “rationalists” slip into scientism, dismissing all of their critics as crazy and unreasonable, they can end up justifying all manner of harmful actions, and because they have come to view themselves as objectively correct, they will be incapable of hearing the victims’ screams. Sure enough, when Harris conjures a supposedly utopian future, he imagines a world in which those dissatisfied with the “earthly paradise”, whose “preferences were incompatible” with the Objective Good, could have their preferences altered. “We” (presumably the state) would simply “painlessly delive[r]” a “firmware update” so that the whole species can finally live in a world that is As Filled With Love As It Can Be. The whole genuinely dystopian passage, from an article in which Harris responds to critics, is worth a read:

[S]ome people were not ready for this earthly paradise once it arrived. Some were psychopaths who, despite enjoying the general change in quality of life, were nevertheless eager to break into their neighbors’ homes and torture them from time to time. A few had preferences that were incompatible with the flourishing of whole societies: Try as he might, Kim Jong Il just couldn’t shake the feeling that his cognac didn’t taste as sweet without millions of people starving beyond his palace gates. Given our advances in science, however, we were able to alter preferences of this kind. In fact, we painlessly delivered a firmware update to everyone. Now the entirety of the species is fit to live in a global civilization that is as safe, and as fun, and as interesting, and as filled with love as it can be. It seems to me that this scenario cuts through the worry that the concept of well-being might leave out something that is worth caring about: for if you care about something that is not compatible with a peak of human flourishing—given the requisite changes in your brain, you would recognize that you were wrong to care about this thing in the first place. Wrong in what sense? Wrong in the sense that you didn’t know what you were missing.

It will be no objection, then, to say that you do not agree with the “scientific” conception of the moral good. After all, you do not know what is good for you. You are unaware of what you are missing. You need to have your brain updated, by force. (Painlessly, we promise!) You are incompatible with society and must be corrected.[66] But even if we are confident that the age of Harris’ “moral software updates” is thankfully still a long way off, there are other suggestions deriving from his objective ethical science that we should be terrified of right now. As Kenan Malik writes in his review of The Moral Landscape:

Harris looks forward, for instance, to the day that governments and corporations will be able to use brain scanning technology to detect whether people are lying, thereby creating ‘zones of obligatory candour’ and enabling an entirely truthful public life. ‘Thereafter, civilized men and women might share a common presumption’, he writes, ‘that whenever important conversations are held, the truthfulness of all participants will be monitored.’ This would no more be a deprivation of freedom than currently it is to be denied ‘the right to remove our pants in the supermarket.’ It is an argument that reveals once again the difficulties of the claim that science can umpire moral disagreements. The question of whether the creation of ‘zones of obligatory candour’ would be a rational enterprise or a totalitarian nightmare, of whether enforced truthfulness is a moral good or a denial of individual autonomy, cannot be determined scientifically but expresses, rather, a philosophical and political distinction. Harris dismisses the criticism that using compulsory brain scans in the courtroom would be an infringement of the US Fifth Amendment which protects an individual against self-incrimination. ‘Prohibition against compelled testimony’, he writes, ‘appears to be a relic of a more superstitious age’ in which it was ‘believed that lying under oath would damn a person’s soul for eternity’. This is an odd view of moral and political history. Protection against compelled testimony is, in fact, an Enlightenment concept, a product of the liberal defence of individual autonomy against the power of the state. Harris’ insistence on enforced truthfulness is, on the other hand, far closer to the premodern and religious belief that authority should take precedence over individual freedom.

Is it shocking that someone who believes science can determine ethics slips quickly into a daydream about an invasive scientocracy with outright Orwellian concepts like the Zone of Obligatory Candor? Or is this exactly what you get when you presume that fundamental philosophical disputes can be resolved through data, and that they who have the data (e.g., the neuroscientists) automatically win, their judgments no less certain than the idea that the Earth is round?

One final example of the harms of pseudo-rationality is worth presenting, because it touches an area in which scientism has had a long history of inflicting terrible harm. In 2017, Harris featured American Enterprise Institute scholar and Bell Curve co-author Charles Murray on his podcast. The discussion was friendly, and Harris made it clear that he believes Murray practices legitimate social science, while Murray’s critics on the left are irrational and afraid of honest debate about ideas. Here is part of what Harris said about Murray:

Human intelligence itself is a taboo topic; people don’t want to hear that intelligence is a real thing, and that some people have more of it than others. They don’t want to hear that IQ tests really measure it. They don’t want to hear that differences in IQ matter because they’re highly predictive of differential success in life… People don’t want to hear this, and they certainly don’t want to hear that average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups. Now, for better or worse, these are all facts… Unfortunately the controversy over The Bell Curve did not result from legitimate good-faith criticisms of its major claims. Rather it was the product of a politically correct moral panic that totally engulfed Murray’s career and has yet to release him. What I found when I began reading Murray’s work was a deeply rational and careful scholar who is quite obviously motivated by an ethical concern about inequality in our society. This is not a person who was in favor of discrimination. The purpose of the podcast was to set the record straight because I find the dishonesty and hypocrisy and moral cowardice of Murray’s critics shocking and the fact that I was taken in by this defamation of him and effectively became part of a silent mob that was just watching what amounted to a modern witch burning that was intolerable to me… [speaking to Murray] I find it so galling that an obviously sober and ethical and well-intentioned scholar such as yourself has to live under this cloud of notoriety so that every time you’re introduced people have to apologize in advance for the fact that you’re even on the stage in the first place. It strikes me as an incredible injustice that academics everywhere should be able to see through immediately, and they should not pander to defamatory misconceptions that have grown up around your work. It’s really annoying.

This is pseudo-rationality in a nutshell: full of paeans to the virtues of “sober,” “careful,” “good faith,” “rational” scholarship, totally dismissive and derisive toward critics, who are seen as a “dishonest” “mob,” all the while being totally ignorant of the actual facts and arguments. Harris says Murray has an “ethical concern about inequality” and is not “in favor of discrimination.” In fact, the final chapter of The Bell Curve contains a lengthy discussion of why discrimination is actually a good thing, because it recognizes the natural differences between races, sexes, etc., and Murray (along with co-author Richard Herrnstein) argues that egalitarianism is pernicious:

The egalitarian ideal of contemporary political theory underestimates the importance of the differences that separate human beings. It fails to come to grips with human variation…. It has become objectionable to say that some people are superior to other people in any way that is relevant to life in society…. Discrimination, once a useful word with a praiseworthy meaning, is now almost always used in a pejorative sense.

Harris says Murray is “deeply rational and careful,” but as Current Affairs has documented at length, he isn’t, though he does share Harris’ tendency to classify his personal preferences as “objectively” superior to everyone else’s.[67] The negative response to Murray was not because he argued that “IQ predicts economic success” or that “IQ scores differ across races” (after all, the first suggests only that capitalism rewards certain traits and the second is the whole reason why educators are trying to close racial test score gaps).[68] Plenty of sociologists do not dispute these things. Murray, on the other hand, endorsed a normative conception of equality that was explicitly “Jeffersonian” in its celebration of “discrimination,” and made it clear that racial differences were a part of this. He celebrated the social hierarchies advocated by Aristotle and John Locke, the former who thought some people were naturally cut out to be slaves and the latter who thought some men were more like “beasts” than human beings, such as “idiots” and “savages.” Murray advocated dismantling social programs, believing that racial social equality was a hopeless goal, and while he did not come to a conclusive verdict on whether this was because of dysfunctional black environments or dysfunctional black genes, he paid scant attention to the horrific history of American racism and violence and its role in creating lasting disparities. Some people, like Thomas Sowell, seriously challenged Murray and Herrnstein’s empirical findings. But others were upset at his normative social goals and his belief that black culture can be scientifically proven to be worse than white culture.

So when Harris suggests that critics were staging a politically correct witch hunt against Murray, whose findings they fear, he is misrepresenting the truth. (Furthermore, even though Murray is supposedly being persecuted like a witch, he managed to speak at Harvard and Yale last year without any significant impediments. Pales a bit next to what actual “mob justice” has historically looked like.[69] While notoriety may indeed have “engulfed” Murray’s career, it certainly doesn’t seem to have hurt it very much.)

Harris has become enraged at suggestions that by promoting and flattering Murray this way, he is minimizing racism.[70] Yet even though there are highly credible arguments that Charles Murray’s views are racist,[71] Harris said he had “a moral obligation to have [Murray] on my podcast” and explicitly said he was “defending [Murray] against the charge of racism.”[72] Harris even titled the Murray episode “Forbidden Knowledge,” suggesting that Murray was being prevented from disclosing important truths to the world. As Ezra Klein explained to Harris in a subsequent interview, the “forbidden knowledge” framing is simply a distortion. In fact, while Harris says that one doesn’t need to understand historical context in order to evaluate empirical findings,[73] the context is crucial to appreciating why the reaction of Murray’s critics is so strong. People got upset at the Bell Curve in part because it implicitly exonerated white people of a serious role in contributing to contemporary black social disparities, without ever taking seriously the centuries-long history of white supremacy as an important factor shaping contemporary reality. And far from being “forbidden knowledge,” as Ibram X. Kendi points out, white men have been writing social scientific discussions of racial intelligence differences since our country’s earliest days.[74] If Sam Harris had a few black leftists on his program now and then,[75] he might get a better sense of what their actual objections are.

But this is what “scientism” does to you. It convinces you that there’s no need to listen when you can talk.[76] It allows you to mock ideas of “feminist epistemology” as “crazy,” all while displaying the exact intellectual blind spots so typical among men, the exact ones these feminists are trying to correct in order to save rationality from the Rationalists. Sam Harris constantly deploys insults (“preening,” “delusional,” “unscrupulous”), and as Dan Jones notes, his “style of argument is more about beating people down than engaging in any sort of dialogue that would help him, and others, get straight on deep, complex issues.”[77] That’s not science, and science is disserved when people like this claim to be practicing it. It hurts the cause of rationality to have it associated with people who don’t actually take it seriously, and it endangers human moral progress when public intellectuals treat moral reasoning as nothing more than the repeated empty use of terms like “science” and “objectivity” to rationalize biases, downplay nationalistic aggression, and treat those with different perspectives as delusional and immoral.


These endnotes contain many lengthy responses to anticipated criticisms. Casual readers can ignore them as they are tedious, but they contain critical corollaries to our arguments and responses to anticipated criticism. We know that there are individuals who enjoy writing lengthy explanations of why Harris’ critics are fools who are misunderstanding him or taking him out of context. We would ask that these people genuinely give our critique a fair hearing and make sure that they are critically scrutinizing Harris to the same degree. 

[1] To Harris’ credit, unlike other New Atheists, he has praised meditation, a certain kind of spirituality, and the beauty of Islamic culture. But this praise comes as he ridicules “the absurdity of most of our religious beliefs,” noting that “religious tolerance…is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss,” denounces Islam as “the motherlode of bad ideas” and as having “all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death”, and muses about a nuclear first strike on an “Islamist regime” under supposedly narrow parameters. More on all this later.

[2] In case there is any confusion, he goes on: “We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims [emphasis added] in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of the hadith, which recounts the sayings and actions of the Prophet.” Quoted in Blake Hounshell, “Sam Harris: Yes, it is a war with Islam,” Foreign Policy (April 26, 2007).

[3] Quoted in James Croft, “Why Is Sam Harris So Bad At Talking About Islam?” Patheos (July 12, 2017).

[4] Does anyone, Harris included, actually believe advocating for torture and profiling in particular circumstances, downplaying the moral responsibility America bears for civilian casualties, brushing aside non-religious causes of terrorism, and strident declarations like the ones detailed above are good ways of combating terrorism? Even if Harris believed these positions were completely rational and fully justified, wouldn’t such an approach obviously and unproductively inflame tensions and cause people to double down on their ideological commitments? Nobody (here at least) is suggesting Islam should be exempt from criticism. There are, however, more or less productive ways of going about it. Harris has, in more recent years, seemingly conceded this point: “I admit that I have often contributed to this narrative [that the West is at war with Islam] myself, and rather explicitly” and in another discussion he acknowledged “I’ve not always been as careful as I now am when speaking on this topic [of Islam].” This is the definition of an understatement.

[5] Harris writes that: The world, from the point of view of Islam, is divided into the “House of Islam” and the “House of War,” and this latter designation should indicate how many Muslims believe their differences with those who do not share their faith will be ultimately resolved. While there are undoubtedly some “moderate” Muslims who have decided to overlook the irrescindable militancy of their religion, Islam is undeniably a religion of conquest. The only future devout Muslims can envisage—as Muslims—is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, subjugated, or killed. The tenets of Islam simply do not admit of anything but a temporary sharing of power with the “enemies of god.”

[6] See Sam Harris, “Response to Controversy,” (June 21, 2014).

[7] Croft, supra.

[8] One may respond that these stereotypes are “rational” if they are correlated with statistics. But this definition of “rational” needs to be interrogated, because it leads to stereotyping people in ways that are not rational at all. For example, let’s say that I am a patient in a hospital, and that 80 percent of female employees are nurses, whereas only 20 percent are doctors. “Statistically speaking,” it may be “rational” for me to assume that if a woman comes into my room, she is more likely to be a nurse. But this is not a stereotype that should be operationalized (“Oh, hello, nurse”), because the likelihood is true across the aggregate rather than for any particular individual. If it is Dr. Lopez that walks in, it is not more likely that she is a nurse, because she is not a nurse, she is a doctor. It only seems likely from the perspective of me, the oblivious patient who has nothing to work on but gender stereotypes, and if this way of thinking is encouraged, Dr. Lopez will spend her entire professional life having people assume she is a nurse, which will be incredibly fucking annoying. Similarly, think about applications in the immigration context: Arizona attracted controversy for its SB-1070 law, which encouraged police officers to profile individuals who seemed like they might be unauthorized aliens. In practice, this resulted in the singling out of Hispanics. But on Harris’ logic, the law could have just gone further and explicitly recommended singling out Hispanics (perhaps among others), if they were statistically more likely to be undocumented. It might be perfectly “rational” from a numbers perspective, but it would also mean that every single Hispanic person would have to live under a permanent cloud of suspicion by the state on account of their ethnic background. In practice, thanks to the often brutal and arrogant law enforcement mentality, this would create a racist nightmare. The sort of people who like Harris might not find examples involving gender or immigration compelling, but we can see in plenty of other domains what is done to individuals when we treat it as “rational” to act on statistically-grounded stereotypes, e.g., “Oh, you’re a Jew, you’re probably rich,” or “Oh, you’re poor, you’re probably uneducated,” or “Oh, you’re a man, you’re probably incapable of listening.” The point here is that there are multiple different competing values: One is using available data to make likelihood inferences. But another is avoiding the demeaning and dehumanizing consequences that come with encouraging people (and especially encouraging institutions) to force individuals to rebut negative presumptions about members of their demographic group. When we treat racial stereotypes the same way we would treat, say, probabilities about whether a ball plucked from a jar will be red or blue, we forget that unlike balls, people are conscious and coding them by their race and plucking them accordingly does not become “rational” merely if one can provide a statistical rationale for doing so. Sam Harris is supposedly a consequentialist, in that he thinks likely effects on the world are crucial for resolving moral questions, but he does not seem to have thought about the potential ramifications of explicitly encouraging security professionals to go snooping out Muslims (even if we tell them this is not all they are supposed to be doing).

[9] Harris agrees and describes a nuclear first strike in this situation as an “unconscionable act” and an “unthinkable crime.” Readers may therefore be puzzled when Harris proceeds to think about it. (And, of course, ultimately appears to endorse it.)

[10] Harris believes: (1) Religious moderation is better than fundamentalism. (2) Religious moderation provides cover for extremism. (3) Some “moderates,” just below the surface, are Islamist extremists. He writes that “Wherever ‘moderate Islam’ does announce itself, one often discovers frank Islamism lurking just a euphemism or two beneath the surface.” Given these beliefs, it is reasonable to be skeptical of Harris’ supposedly limited parameters justifying a nuclear first strike.

[11]The End of Faith, p.123.

[12] Harris, in the next sentence, provides a qualifier: “This is not to say we are at war with all Muslims. But we are absolutely at war with those who believe that death in defense of the faith is the highest possible good, that cartoonists should be killed for caricaturing the prophet and that any Muslim who loses his faith should be butchered for apostasy.” Yet to speak of an undifferentiated “pestilential theology” is to evoke a virulent, highly contagious, and deadly epidemic disease which has infected many or most of its practitioners. Indeed, Harris insisted in his infamous sparring match with Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher that “We are misled to think that the fundamentalists are fringe” and has made similar points elsewhere including in The End of Faith in which he writes “Moderate Islam—really moderate, really critical of Muslim irrationality—scarcely seems to exist.”

[13] It is useful to work through some additional implications of this. If the reason the U.S. would be justified in launching a first strike against an Islamist regime is that it would rationally fear the threat posed by such a regime, given that they fail to subscribe to the standard logic of deterrence, then any state that rationally felt threatened by Donald Trump would also be justified in launching a nuclear first strike on the United States, given that it is, at best, uncertain whether Donald Trump comprehends or cares about the logic of deterrence. If leaders in Tehran know full well that they are not actually seeking the destruction of the U.S. for its own sake, but believe (not unreasonably, since so many people think like Harris) that the U.S. is seeking their destruction, the “preemptive war” doctrine Harris endorses would entitle them to take drastic action. Likewise, if Kim Jong Un fully believes that Donald Trump’s threats of “fire and fury” are not idle, and that Trump is unhinged enough to attack North Korea without warning, he could strike us preemptively under the doctrine. Unless the doctrine of preemptive war is not actually a consistent principle, and in practice just amounts to “America can do as it pleases,” then every type of self-defense privilege we claim for ourselves must extend to others.

[14]The End of Faith, p. 113.

[15] A useful parallel to this is the recent controversy over Donald Trump’s “animals” remark. Trump was reported to say of unauthorized immigrants that “these aren’t people, these are animals.” But Trump pointed out that he had been referring specifically to the members of the MS-13 street gang, and liberal commentators were criticized for suggesting that Trump had been talking about immigrants generally instead of MS-13. Separate from the obvious fact that dehumanization is dangerous no matter who its target is (it’s because people see convicts as animals that we are willing to torture them with solitary confinement), the liberal commentators were still right. Trump may have been referring to MS-13. But Trump also does something else frequently, namely exaggerating the ubiquity of MS-13 and implying that the undocumented population is filled with potential MS-13 members. If you call MS-13 members animals, and you imply that vast numbers of undocumented people are MS-13, then the public is still going to draw the inference you insist you’re not drawing. Likewise, with Harris: If you say that we would only be justified in nuking an aggressively violent nuclear-armed Muslim country, but elsewhere you suggest that Islam is inherently aggressively violent, it is not wrong for critics to argue that you have produced a justification for mass murdering Pakistanis at will.

[16] For another example of Harris’ famous “That’s not what I said, I said something slightly different that in practice would lead to the same horrible consequences,” see his defense of torture. Harris gives the classic “ticking time bomb” scenario and the usual utilitarian response: You’d have to be a monster to allow a large numbers of people to die merely because you were too squeamish to engage in torture. This hypothetical is meant to force all of us to agree that we don’t oppose torture as an absolute, that we are merely arguing about particular cases. The serious objection to the hypothetical, though, is that because ticking time bomb scenarios almost never actually occur with the kind of certainty that would be necessary to justify torture, and because in practice once people have a justification for torture, they will tend to start seeing every situation as a ticking time bomb scenario and torturing “just to be safe,” a categorical prohibition on torture is, on balance, the only way to avoid a much worse set of consequences (e.g., torture is used one time to save a busload of children but then becomes a routine part of police procedure and the state becomes slowly more brutal in the name of safety, constantly pointing to the busload of children incident as a way of shutting down debate). Harris has said he can account for this, and proposes that the law should only permit torture when the torturers are really, really sure that they’re in a ticking time bomb scenario, but to think a torture regime can be administered in accordance with care and principle is to live in a fantastical land of thought experiments rather than in the real world. In practice, we know full well what these hypotheticals do, which is that they produce CIA black sites where ordinary Muslims have been tortured and even killed. To pretend that, given the United States as it exists, one can introduce torture and have it be done ethically and responsibly, is to show that one has almost no awareness of the character and history of U.S. clandestine operations.

[17] Sam Harris, “Why Don’t I Criticize Israel?” Salon (July 28, 2014.)

[18] See Nathan J. Robinson, “Propaganda 101: How To Defend A Massacre,” Current Affairs (May 21, 2018).

[19] Leading Israeli historian (and so called liberal Zionist) Benny Morris writes that “The fear of territorial displacement and dispossession was to be the chief motor of Arab antagonism to Zionism.” Benny Morris, Righteous Victims, p. 37. See also: Noam Rotem, “Before Zionism: The Shared Life of Jews and Palestinians,” +972 Magazine (April 4, 2016). Yousef Munayyer, “Palestine’s Hidden History of Nonviolence,” Foreign Policy (May 18, 2011).

[20] Quoted in Bethany Saltman, “The Temple of Reason,” The Sun (September, 2006).

[21]The End of Faith, p. 109.

[22] Robert Wright, “Sam Harris and the Myth of Perfectly Rational Thought,” Wired (May 17, 2018). In a recent interview with Dave Rubin, Harris described Wright’s article as “idiotic,” explaining that “There’s not a single sentence in the piece that needs to be responded to…It’s his attempt at clickbait. It’s his attempt to provoke some kind of controversy between us.” Readers may judge for themselves if this is a fair assessment.

[23] Harris, “Response to Controversy,” supra.

[24] Osama bin Laden, “Full text: bin Laden’s Letter to America,” The Guardian (Nov. 24, 2002). Harris might object to the assertion that bin Laden’s comments above lack any explicit theological references. It may be true that he doesn’t use words like “Allah” or “the Koran,” but religious motive is lurking just below the surface. Surely one must concede that the “we” bin Laden refers to is Muslims. And the sympathy he espouses for Palestinians is not borne of sheer humanitarian goodwill. It has something to do with Islam and the fact that the Palestinian population is predominantly Muslim. After all, Palestine is a holy land, with holy sites, and to have it under the control of infidels is a shameful and enraging catastrophe. Indeed, the grievances, humiliations, and indignities bin Laden details aren’t totally unique to the Muslim world, yet there is only one group that was inspired to sacrifice their lives and fly airplanes into the World Trade Center, Harris might observe. But we are not insisting that the grievances of religious people have nothing to do with their faith. Is it so inconceivable that poverty, foreign occupation, and the murder of loved ones—even, perhaps especially, if viewed through a religious lens—could contribute to radicalization? Apparently for Harris. If religious belief is the sole proximate cause of terrorism perpetrated by self-identified Muslims, why does the doctrine of violent jihad emerge at certain historical moments and not others? Why are some devout Muslims not motivated to take up arms while others are? The Koran and the hadith have not changed.

[25] Glenn Greenwald, “The same motive for anti-US ‘terrorism’ is cited over and over,” The Guardian (April 24, 2013).

[26] It’s ironic that Harris—who routinely excoriates scholars and journalists for their supposed unwillingness to accept at face value religious justifications for terrorism (e.g., “I will blow myself up to get into paradise”)—is so skeptical of explanations given by Muslims that don’t affirm his analysis. He suggests that when explicitly religious explanations are ignored and “terrestrial concerns” are taken at face value, instead of “dig[ging] for the religious motive,” “the game is rigged.” But Harris adopts precisely the same line of reasoning in the opposite direction. (Ignore “terrestrial concerns,” “dig for the religious motive,” and take at face value religious justifications for terrorism.) Religion, Harris would insist, is different. What else can explain a white American man living in the suburbs, privileged by every conceivable measure, leaving it all behind and going to fight with the Islamic State? How could anyone with even a shred of intellectual honesty suggest the aforementioned individual was motivated by anything but religion? As Robert Wright has previously pointed out, such reasoning is fallacious. Exceptions don’t disprove tendencies. Furthermore, one could reasonably posit alternative motivating factors such as alienation, a desire for excitement, power, meaning, money, redemption, etc. One need not necessarily discount religious belief as a factor while also accepting these alternatives.

[27] Harris has also taken the nature of suicide bombing as de facto evidence that faith is to blame: “I take it to be more or less self-evident that whenever large numbers of people begin turning themselves into bombs, or volunteer their children for use in the clearing of minefields… the rationale behind their actions has ceased to be merely political,” since “unless a person believes some rather incredible things about this universe—in particular about what happens after death—he is very unlikely to engage in behavior of this sort.” Harris tends to treat as “self-evident” a lot of things that are not, in fact, self-evident, and this is no exception. Ordinary soldiering is often not very different, in that people are destroying their own lives in the effort to destroy others, and parents have long sent their children off to war with pride. It does not require any peculiar metaphysics to be willing to sacrifice one’s self or even one’s family in the service of a cause one feels is just, and while the method of suicide bombing itself is remarkable for its grotesqueness, turning one’s body into a deadly weapon is not an exclusively religious tendency.

[28] “U.S. Muslims Concerned About Their Place In Society, But Continue To Believe in the American Dream,” Pew Research Center (July 26, 2017).

[29] See, for example, Franklin Graham, “Too many Muslims among us believe in violence,” USA Today (July 15, 2016).

[30] Bruce Stokes, “70 years after Hiroshima,” opinions have shifted on use of atomic bomb,” Pew Research Center (Aug. 4, 2015).

[31] “Views of Violence: What drives public acceptance and rejection of attacks on civilians 10 years after 9/11,” Gallup (2011).

[32] In Muslim-majority countries, favorable views of the Islamic State rarely rise into the double digits. One may object that any approval is too much approval, and one would be right, but the point here is that this kind of ideology truly is marginal. See Michael Lipka, “Muslims and Islam: Key findings in the U.S. and around the world,” Pew Research Center (Aug. 9, 2017). In The End of Faith, Harris cites Pew polling showing that significant numbers of Muslims worldwide believe that suicide attacks on civilians can be justified “in defense of Islam.” He suggests these “hideous numbers” do not fare well for global peace. It is worth noting the question’s vagueness, however, especially around the word “defense.” It is, of course, true, that if “defense” is being construed by respondents to mean what we might think of as “aggression,” there is reason to be alarmed. But a belief that attacks on civilians are only justified in the name of self-defense would put the Islamic world on the same moral level, not a worse one, than United States popular opinion. And in case we need to be reminded again, it is only the United States that has ever vaporized a civilian population with an atomic bomb, an act that dwarfs even the deadliest jihadist suicide attacks.

[33] “Unfortunately,” Harris explains, “in the case of Islam, the bad acts of the worst individuals—the jihadists, the murderers of apostates, and the men who treat their wives and daughters like chattel—are the best examples of the doctrine in practice. Those who adhere most strictly to the actual teachings of Islam, those who expound its timeless dogma most honestly, are precisely the people whom [Glenn] Greenwald and other obscurantists want us to believe least represent the faith.” As Eric Weinstein observes in an interesting discussion with Harris, it’s not clear why Harris privileges the letter of a text over its spirit. (For instance, if a religious text were progressive in its day, wouldn’t it make sense that our interpretation in the present-day be progressive?) The spirit of a text is, of course, up for debate, but so is its letter. Even the most literal-minded religious fanatic is forced to interpret their text and spar with competing readings. In practice, ambiguities, contradictions, questions of emphasis, and de-emphasis, all these demand interpretation of some kind. Weinstein rightly points out that everyone will fail at literalism. But the truth is even more extreme: There isn’t a singular literalist interpretation of a religious text. To insist, as Harris does, that more metaphorical interpretations “[are] clearly being driven…[by] an imperative that comes from outside the text” is to imply that literalist readings don’t do the same. This is simply untrue. We are not denying the role religious texts play in informing the actions of religious people (and fundamentalists in particular) or that there are more or less reasonable interpretations. But religious texts cannot be said to be the only consideration driving the actions of religious fundamentalists.

[34]The End of Faith, p. 134.

[35] “Muslims asked to offer help for victims of terrorist attacks,” CAIR (Sept. 11, 2001).

[36] Sam Harris, “Losing Our Spines to Save Our Necks,” The Huffington Post (May 5, 2008).

[37] Ziauddin Sardar, “Beyond the troubled relationship,” Nature (July 12, 2007).

[38] Harris embraces the term “enemy” to describe the Islamic world with which we are “at war,” saying “It may seem strange to encounter phrases like ‘our enemies’… But there is no doubt that enemies are what we have… The liberal fallacy that I will attempt to unravel… is the notion that we made these enemies and we are, therefore, their ‘moral equivalent.’ We are not… We are confronted by people who would have put us to sword [long ago].”

[39]The End of Faith, p. 144.

[40] See Nathan J. Robinson, “What Courage Is,” Current Affairs (Mar. 18, 2018).

[41] See Nathan J. Robinson, “What We Did: Reckoning With Vietnam, 50 Years After My Lai,” Current Affairs (Mar./Apr. 2018). For a deep look at Lewy’s evidence of American war crimes see Noam Chomsky, “On The Aggression of South Vietnamese Peasants Against The United States,” in Towards a New Cold War: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Got There (New Press, 1982).

[42] After many years, the United States did agree to provide some (wholly inadequate) financial assistance to Laos to help with bomb-clearing efforts. Even Barack Obama, however, refused to apologize for the attack. Instances like this are less proof of America’s sincere commitment to rectifying our mistakes than evidence that we are willing to pay the minimum price necessary, and no more, to avoid looking and feeling like absolute monsters. The parallel with human beings is useful to consider. Those who hurt others often buy flowers and try to “make things right.” Sometimes their feelings of guilt may even be genuine. But the real question is, when they have to decide between hurting others and hurting their own self-interest, which do they choose? The United States has revealed its character over and over.

[43] See Nathan J. Robinson, “How To Justify Hiroshima,” in Interesting Times: Arguments & Observations (Current Affairs Press, 2018). The American disregard for Japanese lives is an underreported fact of World War II. Conservative historian Niall Ferguson says that Americans routinely murdered Japanese soldiers rather than take them prisoner, “a secret [U.S.] intelligence report noted that only the promise of ice cream and three days leave would … induce American troops not to kill surrendering Japanese.” This was at least partly due to racism, and “Allied troops often saw the Japanese in the same way that Germans regarded Russians—as Untermenschen.” See Niall Ferguson, “Prisoner Taking and Prisoner Killing in the Age of Total War: Towards a Political Economy of Military Defeat”. War in History. 11 (2): 148–92. Another historian confirms there was a “conviction that the Japanese were ‘animals’ or ‘subhuman’ and unworthy of the normal treatment accorded to POWs.” See J.J. Weingartner, (1992). “Trophies of War: US Troops and the Mutilation of Japanese War Dead, 1941–1945”. Pacific Historical Review. 61 (1): 53–67. This is not to mention the mass rape of Japanese women that is purported to have occurred during the American occupation; 10,000 women in Okinawa may have been raped by American soldiers. See Calvin Smith, “3 Dead Marines and a Secret of Wartime Okinawa,” The New York Times (June 1, 2000). The fact that Americans have shown very little interest in finding out the truth surrounding American actions in Japan, including total destruction of Tokyo in the largest firebombing in the history of warfare, undercuts Harris’ contention that the country is distinguished by an especially high level of moral self-scrutiny.

[44] Beau Grosscup, Strategic Terror: The Politics and Ethics of Aerial Bombardment (Zed Books, 2006).

[45] Jeremy R. Hammond, “The ‘Forgotten’ US Shootdown of Iranian Airliner Flight 655,” Foreign Policy Journal (July 3, 2017).

[46] “GHW Bush: I don’t care what the facts are,” YouTube

[47] Nick Turse, “For America, life was cheap in Vietnam,” The New York Times (Oct. 9, 2013).

[48] See David McNeill, “Unknown to most Americans, the US ‘totally destroyed’ North Korea once before,” The Irish Times (Sept 20, 2017); Max Fisher, “Americans have forgotten what we did to North Korea,” Vox (Aug. 3, 2015).

[49] If the U.S. ever did have Harris’ hypothetical “perfect weapon,” it’s almost certain that the first thing we would do is sell 6,000 of them apiece to Israel and the Saudis. “Aha!” Harris might proclaim. “This just proves my point. Selling ‘perfect weapons’ to American allies is practically a humanitarian gesture. We want more countries to have and use them! And Israel’s willingness to purchase these weapons merely demonstrates their commitment to human rights.” In fact, Israel’s willingness to purchase fictitious weapons merely demonstrates their commitment to appearing as if they care about human rights. When the documentary record is soberly assessed, one cannot help but conclude that Israel, like the United States (and Saudi Arabia for that matter), is shockingly indifferent to the well-being of civilians. This is to dramatically understate the matter. Indeed, Israel routinely kills civilians with wanton disregard (as does the United States and Saudi Arabia). But don’t take our word for it. On numerous occasions, Israeli soldiers have described such acts as an explicit policy. See, for example, Ben Hattem, “‘Anyone You See, You Shoot’: Israeli Soldiers Recall the 2014 Gaza War,” The Nation (May 11, 2015).

[50] See Nathan J. Robinson, “I Don’t Care How Good His Paintings Are, He Still Belongs In Prison,” in The Current Affairs Mindset (Current Affairs Press, 2017).

[51] A conversation that Harris huffily terminated after deciding that Chomsky had “simply convinced me that engaging you on these topics is a waste of time.” See Sam Harris, “The Limits of Discourse,” (May 1, 2015).

[52] Chomsky’s work is of value in general because he consistently asks us to examine our assertions by picturing how they would look if others made them. If Vietnam had dropped hundreds of thousands of tons of napalm on the United States, or Japan had destroyed several civilian populations outright, or Iraq had invaded our country, deposed our leadership, and ignited a civil war leading to the deaths of 1 out of every 66 people in the country, how would we feel about the country’s claims to a superior and more developed morality that distinguished itself by its opposition to needless civilian deaths? The moment we imagine our words in the mouths of others, we can see how utterly deluded and self-serving they are. (We can also gain a better understanding of why so many around the globe might “hate America” for reasons beyond despising “freedom.”

[53] To show the moral difference made by intent, Harris gives the example of being stabbed. If somebody intentionally stabs me, they are more morally responsible than if they slip and stab me by accident. But if we wanted to see a meaningful moral parallel, we should not talk about a situation in which somebody slips. Instead, we should talk about a person who wanders through time waving a knife around (or spraying bullets everywhere), not caring how many injuries or deaths they might cause in the process. Is it any defense for the person who fired a gun into store windows at random to say “I never intended to kill anyone”?

[54] Despite writing in The End of Faith that “Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything,” later in a footnote Harris observesthat “Intentions matter, but they are not all that matters.” He makes this qualification because he realizes that religious people have killed people in the belief that they were doing good, and wants to show that when intentions are in the service of a “deplorably limited worldview,” they are not dispositive. It is difficult to resolve the explicit contradiction between “everything” and “not all,” and it seems to totally undercut Harris’ argument for American nobleness. After all, if Americans think they are doing good, but are actually serving a “deplorably limited worldview” that ends up killing scores of people needlessly and devaluing lives in a racist way (e.g., one American life is worth more than an infinite number of “gook” lives), then how are intentions “everything”? The reason Chomsky has been consistently skeptical of professions of noble intent is that so many cases fall into the “meaning well in the service of a horrific ideology” category. The Nazis thought they were doing the right thing, and so did bin Laden. Chomsky has suggested attaching greater importance to “predictable consequences” than “professed intent” because otherwise we have a standard that would mitigate indiscriminate killings done sincerely in the name of an insane ideology (e.g., purifying the race, or domino theory).

[55] Harris may deny that this is the implication of his work, but the conclusion is inescapable based on his characterization of the Islamic faith. (We will preempt Harris’ “Some of My Best Friends Are Muslims” defense by clarifying that we are referring to the vast majority of Muslims and setting aside the minuscule number of Harris-supporting Muslims.) Particularly telling are his comment that any population of Muslim immigrants will have at least some dangerous radicals or potential dangerous radicals.

[56] After making perfunctory noises about there “undoubtedly” being “some ‘moderate’ Muslims” (moderate Islam, however, “scarcely seems to exist”), Harris explains that “The tenets of Islam simply do not admit of anything but a temporary sharing of power with the ‘enemies of God.’” If there is to be “A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation” it will be because “…most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do.”

[57] Harris does insist that he is not excusing our bad acts, but this is repeatedly contradicted by his presentation of them. To present My Lai as an aberration, for example, is to excuse the bad act of the invasion of Vietnam itself, along with the numerous other underreported war crimes of varying scales.

[58] See Nathan J. Robinson, “Empathy: Probably A Good Thing,” Current Affairs (July-August 2017).

[59] He rightly points out that the line between science and philosophy is not fixed and that the two can be regarded as part of an integrated whole. Harris actually acknowledges that his initial claim, that there are objective moral facts about human well-being, is philosophical in nature. But he refuses to accept the implication of this admission, namely that he is just doing the same thing philosophy always does, which is to use facts discovered through science to measure the application of values found through philosophy. One reason Harris might not notice this is that, by his own admission, he finds moral philosophy boring and has ignored most of it. As he says: “I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism”, “antirealism,” “emotivism,” etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” Another quote: “I have elected not to pay any attention to Aristotle… I’d rather not be beholden to the quirks of the great man’s philosophy.” And another: “Consequentialism has undergone many refinements since the original utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. My discussion will ignore most of these developments, as they are generally of interest only to academic philosophers.” This is like announcing that in writing a tract on physics, one has elected to ignore the last century’s developments in physics, because they are only of interest to physicists. As Kenan Malik writes: “Imagine a sociologist who wrote about evolutionary theory without discussing the work of Darwin, Fisher, Mayr, Hamilton, Trivers or Dawkins on the grounds that he did not come to his conclusions by reading about biology and because discussing concepts such as “adaptation”, “speciation”, “homology”, “phylogenetics” or “kin selection” would “increase the amount of boredom in the universe”. How seriously would we, and should we, take his argument?” Kenan Malik, “Test Tube Truths,” New Humanist (May 2011).

[60] This is not much different to calling mathematics science, because mathematics uses logic. Indeed, Harris believes even plumbers are scientists, since “any competent plumber will generate hypotheses and test them—and his thinking will conform to the same principles of reasoning that every scientist uses. When he pressure tests a section of pipe, he is running an experiment.” This does pay a tribute to plumbers that is long overdue, but if all reasoning is science, then to claim morality can be scientifically-derived is to claim almost nothing beyond the fact that philosophy is good.

[61] Whitley Kaufman, “Can Science Determine Human Values? A Reply To Sam Harris,” Neuroethics 5 (1):55-65 (2012).

[62] In his words: “morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice).”

[63] Harris responded to this objection as follows: “The charge is that I haven’t actually used science to determine the foundational value (well-being) upon which my proffered science of morality would rest. Rather, I have just assumed that well-being is a value, and this move is both unscientific and question-begging. [But] the same can be said about medicine, or science as a whole. As I point out in my book, science is based on values that must be presupposed—like the desire to understand the universe, a respect for evidence and logical coherence, etc. One who doesn’t share these values cannot do science. But nor can he attack the presuppositions of science in a way that anyone should find compelling. There is no problem in presupposing that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding and that normative morality consists, at an absolute minimum, in acting so as to avoid it.” Harris does not understand the criticism, because he sees “science” and “reason” as identical, and therefore believes that if someone calls his initial premise “not scientific” they are saying it is wrong and unreasonable. So when he is told that his initial premise isn’t science, he seeks to prove that it is reasonable (“there is no problem presupposing that misery is bad”). But this is the entire point being made by philosophers: Showing that we base our empirical investigations into the world on a set of assumptions is not the same as showing that those assumptions are derived from empirical investigation. Science hasn’t told us why physics is important or health is important, but those who believe they are important can use the scientific method to discover truths about physics and health.

[64] Harris cops out by saying that these arguments may not be resolvable “in practice” but can be resolved “in principle,” but they can’t be resolved in principle either. Harris gives the example of birthday wishes: Just because we can’t figure out how many birthday wishes have been made over the course of human history, and what those wishes were, doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer. But we at least know what kind of question that is; the potential answer is conceivable even if unobtainable. There isn’t actually a conceivable method of deciding scientifically when we should, for example, choose to honor a person’s autonomous choices even if it means making them less happy. Harris believes that the irresolvability of moral arguments is simply a problem of too little empirical data: “I think that the problem of disagreement and indeterminacy… is a product of incomplete information (we will never be able to know all the consequences of an action, estimate all the relevant probabilities, or compare counterfactual states of the world).” But what type of data will be able to prove—in the same way that one can prove physical laws—that my preference for a world with “slightly more suffering but slightly more joy” is better or worse than a world with “slightly less suffering and slightly less joy”? Harris’ comparison of morality with economics is useful here. He says economics is a science, even if it cannot answer some questions, because it can at least tell us that certain ways of structuring an economy are better than others. Economics is a good example of the limits of science, though: it’s precisely because economists have fancied themselves as doing “science” that they have smuggled in normative philosophical values without noticing it. The question of whether it is better to increase productivity or leisure time is one that cannot, even in principle, be resolved through science, if certain values are different but not obviously superior or inferior. One more example: Harris thinks normative science can go beyond even morality: For example, if I insist that I prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate, but neuroscience can show that I would have an objectively more pleasurable experience eating chocolate, I am objectively wrong. But while science might be able to measure my pleasure, there is no way even in theory for it to tell me that the pleasure of taste should overcome, say, the sense of tranquility I feel about my routine of having had a vanilla ice cream every Friday afternoon for the last ten years. There is something very dangerous about any ideology that sets itself up to tell people they are wrong about their own desires without incorporating a sense of humility and caution. This has always been the trouble with utilitarianism: When it moves from vague theorizing (“Of course we can incorporate values like autonomy into our calculus!”) to actual application, because its practitioners are intoxicated with their own rationality and understanding of the Objectively Best Things, they end up proposing ideas that sound horrifying to many of us but to which we are supposedly powerless to object since they have been determined by science.

[65] To be clear, none of this is to say empirical science doesn’t play an important role in helping us pursue the moral good. It does. As Kaufman writes: “Nothing we have seen implies that ethics cannot be an autonomous discipline, with its own methods and findings— though to say it is autonomous is not to say that it is entirely independent of the sciences or that science has nothing to contribute to ethics. Harris’ book in fact provides several useful examples of how the findings of psychology regarding human biases can help us improve our moral reasoning.” Using empirical investigation alongside moral reasoning, though, is different from saying that empirical investigation is moral reasoning.

[66] It’s actually interesting that Harris defends his idea of an objective moral good through a comparison with health and medicine, because the idea that certain brain states are normatively better than others, and the willingness to diagnose differences as errors in need of correction, is precisely where the practice of psychiatry can produce disturbing outcomes. When we do apply this kind of certitude in medicine, we can end up trampling on patients’ autonomy and desires in the name of fixing them. It’s easy to see the chain of reasoning that can lead, say, homosexuality to be classified as a mental disorder: Your values do not fit with the social values, they are making you unhappy and the rest of us unhappy, therefore they are inhibiting human flourishing and should be considered objectively bad. This is not to say that “health” is not worth pursuing, but that until we recognize that our normative conceptions of health, especially mental health, can be laden with hidden value judgments, we will not have the self-doubt necessary to lower the risk of perverse outcomes. The “How will you know when mistaking a questionable ideology for objective fact?” question is crucial in many spheres; its absence among revolutionaries, for instance, has led to the justification of hideous slaughter in the pursuit of illusory utopias.

[67] See Nathan J. Robinson, “Why Is Charles Murray Odious?” in Interesting Times: Arguments & Observations (Current Affairs Press, 2018). Even the deeply conservative economist Thomas Sowell, while praising the books thoroughness, harshly critiqued The Bell Curve’s “intellectually troubling” “uncritical approach to statistical correlations” that violated “the first things taught in introductory statistics.” Thomas Sowell, “Issues: Bell Curve,” The American Spectator (Feb. 1, 1995), pp 32. Also recommended are Ned Block, “How Heritability Misleads about Race,” Boston Review (Jan. 1996), pp. 30-35; Orlando Patterson, “For Whom the Bell Curves: IQ Scores in Historical Perspective,” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Vol. 7, No. 80 (Spring 1995); James Flynn, How to Defend Humane Ideals (University of Nebraska Press, 2000); Noam Chomsky, “Psychology and Ideology,” Cognition 1(1)(1972), pp. 11-46; Noam Chomsky, “Comments on Herrnstein’s response,” Cognition 1(4)(1972), pp 407-418.

[68] Harris says that the “most provocative” claims in The Bell Curve are: “1 Human “general intelligence” is a scientifically valid concept. 2. IQ tests do a pretty good job of measuring it. 3. A person’s IQ is highly predictive of his/her success in life. 4. Mean IQ differs across populations (blacks < whites < Asians). 5. It isn’t known to what degree differences in IQ are genetically determined, but it seems safe to say that genes play a role (and also safe to say that environment does too).” These are not the most provocative claims in The Bell Curve. First, Murray slips into normative language about intelligence, thereby suggesting that black people tend to be more “dumb” than white people. Second, in #5 Harris carefully avoids stating the real claim, which is that “it isn’t known to what degree racial differences in IQ….but it is safe to say genes play a role.” This is the proposition Murray and Herrnstein actually defend, and it is much more controversial than saying genes play a role in IQ differences more broadly. Finally, Harris leaves out all of Herrnstein and Murray’s normative claims about the need to recognize inherent racial difference, destigmatize discrimination, reject egalitarianism, and return to the social ideals of Thomas Jefferson, who raped a slave child.

[69] Anyone interested in finding out what it looks like should Google “lynching photos.”

[70] When Vox published an article suggesting that Harris was naively promoting junk race science, Harris blew up, accusing Vox editor Ezra Klein of being part of a “machinery of defamation” out to impugn and smear Harris morally and intellectually, like the “howling mob of imbeciles” that caused Evergreen State professor Bret Weinstein to resign.

[71] See Robinson, supra.

[72] This seems to be a trend with Harris who appears to feel a loyalty toward individuals whose views he believes are unjustly maligned and misrepresented. (He apparently identifies with their plight.) More often than not, these are individuals expressing “politically incorrect” sentiments. But the standards Harris adopts in the name of admirable values like free speech and intellectual honesty are not applied consistently. Consider that, in a recent live podcast with Christian Picciolini, Harris went so far as to literally censor his guest’s comments by removing them from the recording released to the public. (The recording was initially released unedited only to be removed from YouTube and re-released, several minutes shorter.) During the podcast, Picciolini claimed James Damore (the Google memo guy), in the wake of his employment controversy, appeared exclusively on alt-right and white nationalist podcasts and that right-wing YouTuber Stefan Molyneux was a Holocaust denier who had been in conversation with former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. These comments, as far as we can tell, appear to be untrue and so Harris removed them and the several minutes of surrounding dialogue. But for an individual who professes to believe that free speech is “the master value,” this is a bizarre response. Harris could have just as easily answered speech with more speech and addressed the factual inaccuracy in his “housekeeping” comments that precede every episode of his podcast and left the recording unedited. His decision to selectively edit this recording raises additional questions. Why not edit out inaccurate claims made by his other guests on previous episodes? And was this the first time Harris edited out a guest’s inaccurate claims? If it was, why hadn’t he done it previously? If it wasn’t, how does he determine which inaccuracies are egregious enough to merit editing, and does he always inform his listeners that the podcast has been edited? There are surely inaccuracies that are not clear cut and Picciolini’s claims have some truth. (Damore did appear to be interviewed primarily by right-wing, if not alt-right and so called white nationalist, figures and the alt-right voiced support for him. Molyneux has promoted anti-semitic conspiracies and has been retweeted by David Duke (of the KKK) who described Molyneux as a “caring, good man.”) Another podcast host might have concluded Picciolini’s comments were true enough and the inaccuracy could sufficiently be addressed with a disclaimer during the opening, if that. Some have speculated that Molyneux threatened Harris with a defamation suit over his guest’s comments and that’s why he edited the recording, but since Harris has only publicly mentioned the inaccuracy of his guest’s comments as his basis for editing, listeners are left to speculate. Harris strenuously denies that he has a tribe or engages in identity politics. But incidents like this one, along with the dearth of so called social justice warriors featured on his podcast, suggest otherwise. To be clear, Harris’ tribe are people crusading against what they believe to be the stifling cloud of political correctness. (As for the dearth of so called social justice warriors on the podcast, Harris would likely point to his explosive conversations with Maryam Namazie, Omer Aziz, and Ezra Klein to demonstrate that such conversations rarely produce good podcasts. Listeners may disagree. And, no disrespect intended to the aforementioned guests, but one can reasonably dispute whether they qualify as spokespeople for the social justice left. Either way, it’s certainly the case that Harris has rarely given the many smart, articulate, thoughtful, and genuine leftists out there who disagree with him a chance to make their arguments and respond to his.) At the end of the day, the issue is this: Harris extends a degree of sympathy and intellectual generosity, not to mention his large platform, to critics of political correctness that he rarely extends to so called social justice warriors.

[73] Which is true, though understanding the context does help us see how particular types of empirical findings are used, and which questions are dwelt on to the exclusion of others. If Harris knew more about the history of racist pseudoscience, he might have been more skeptical of the way Murray marshals evidence in order to advocate a social order that would result the continued social devaluation of blacks.

[74] Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation Books, 2016).

[75] Out of the three black guests Harris has hosted, the closest he has come to this is a discussion about racism and the criminal justice system with former Reagan administration official Glenn Loury, who is associated with the “intellectual dark web” and is actually strongly critical of mainstream left perspectives on race.

[76] Though Harris is more open-minded to some groups than others. Because he endeavors to understand people who say “there are too many fucking Muslims,” but extends no such intellectual generosity to leftists, James Croft has suggested he has an “empathy gap” in which the some people get a fair hearing while others don’t. Another interesting Harris double-standard is the difference between his approach to religion and his approach to the paranormal. He will haul out every epithet in existence to mock the idea of a virgin birth, but when publicly asked about such phenomena as reincarnation he says he refuses to make a judgment until the evidence is in: Reincarnation … who knows? It may, err, I mean, I have no … well who knows in the sense that there are no … I mean there are these spooky stories where a kid… [Someone in the audience shouts “Come on!”] … OK, I’m not … reincarnation … you are on firm ground being sceptical of reincarnation, let me say that … I hear there’s all this data, someone like Dean Radin writes a book about it, Brian Josephson, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, blurbs it. I don’t have the time to do the meta-analysis or the statistical expertise, so, so I’m awaiting the evidence. I don’t want to talk about reincarnation. Note that accomplished physicists have been Christians, too, but in that case he sees it as an indictment of the scientist rather than reason to be open-minded about the phenomenon under discussion. Quoted in Jones, supra. For a particularly blatant example of Harris’ credulity double-standard around supernatural happenings: Can I say for certain that a century of experimentation proves that telepathy doesn’t exist? No. It seems to me that reasonable people can disagree about the statistical data. Can I say for certain that the Bible and the Koran show every sign of having been written by ignorant mortals? Yes. And this is the only certainty one needs to dismiss the God of Abraham as a creature of fiction.

[77] See Jones, supra. Insults themselves are fine (See Amber A’Lee Frost, “The Necessity of Political Vulgarity,” in The Current Affairs Mindset (Current Affairs Press, 2017), Robinson, ed.). But they must be warranted. When Current Affairs calls Charles Murray “odious,” we support the judgment with 7,000 words of argumentation.

This essay originally appeared in The Current Affairs Rules For Lifewhich can be purchased in our online store.

If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.

More In: Personages

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


Celebrating our Ninth Year of publication! Lots to stimulate your brain with in this issue: how to address the crisis of pedestrian deaths (hint: stop blaming cars!), the meaning of modern art, is political poetry any good?, and the colonial adventures of Tinin. Plus Karl Marx and the new Gorilla Diet!

The Latest From Current Affairs