Skeptic Magazine’s beef with Sam Harris’ view on torture

Skeptic Magazine’s “Torture Doesn’t Work”

You would expect that an avowedly atheist magazine editor would have “hawkish” views on terrorism and torture like the current guru of the New Atheists, Sam Harris. However, in this video, Skeptic Magazine’s Michael Shermer presents a morally courageous view on torture. My problem with the “New Atheists”, particularly Harris, have always been their conflation of their particular politics and with their notion of being heirs to the Enlightenment and their self-proclaimed rationalism. Nothing screams “Enlightenment” more than apologetics for the Iraq War, the biggest disaster and human rights violation of the 20th century, am I right?

Now, obviously Skeptic Magazine isn’t going to go full leftist and start calling out all the wars, incessantly saying why what the US is enabling (and doing) in Yemen is a violation of everything that makes us human. But at least they haven’t hit rock bottom and start making “Jack Bauer” analogies for why torture is a good thing. I think that combating pseudoscience and religious crackpots is a worthy goal, particularly in terms of calling out fundamentalism and its ties with the right-wing. That’s why I’m a huge fan of Secular Talk’s Kyle Kulinski, who frequently talks about the issue of right-wing fundamentalism in America.

The problem is you can’t divorce pure rationality from politics. Fundamentalism landed its biggest touchdown in the Bush administration, when “God” spoke to George W. on how there is a new “evil empire” and blind faith in American exceptionalism causes unheard-of carnage in the Middle East. It’s good to see that Skeptic Magazine is at least butting the status quo a little bit and isn’t doing non-stop Trump bashing at the expense of real issues. Now, I don’t read the magazine, they could be doing that, but at least this segment seems to disagree with that notion.

I have become more endeared to the idea that certain “superstitions” can lead to becoming detached from reality altogether. Belief in the paranormal is extremely high in the US while belief in our military is even higher. The two are correlated- both are ideological fantasies based on mistaken conceptions of reality. However, as Marx said a long time ago in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the critique of religion should evolve into the critique of political economy. The “skeptic” community has yet to evolve from necessarily 18th and 19th century polemics on rationality and Reason.

From Marx:

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” 

Therefore, the criticism of religion still plays a valid role in being a precursor to the infinitely more important material critique of embodied practices, such as torture.

However, can we establish a critique of something like torture without a moral foundation? That moral foundation does not have to be religious, but science itself cannot offer it. One can use data to find out that torture does not work, but I prefer the interpretation of the Catholic Church, who in their recent doctrinal change on the death penalty, say it is “an affront to the fundamental dignity of the human being [sic]”. It is this basic moral reasoning that, a priori and not a posteriori, that seems to be lacking in our culture. Perhaps this is where Buddhist philosophy can step in to talk about the role of unlimited compassion as the highest possible ideal.

Here we enter the long-trodden philosophical terrain of moral philosophy and the sophomoric debates surrounding utilitarianism and Kant’s categorical imperative. Perhaps we should not seek to establish a “true” a priori moral ultimate in the supremely Western fashion of searching for the correct “theory” or “origin”, but rather simply take certain rules, like “the fundamental dignity of the human being” as being a starting point, an assumption of our system. In fact, if we begin to question or “deconstruct” these values, it can lead to all sorts of reactionary critiques of “humanism”.

As an anthropologist, despite the diversity of moral systems in cultures and my belief in cultural relativity, I do not espouse moral relativism even if I fervently believe that emphasizing cultural relativity can lead to a positive moral outcome. That is because the moral is always the foundation of any anthropologist’s endeavors, whether they like it or not.

And that seems to be the problem. The debate rages on in anthropology about female genital mutilation, and the debate rages on in international relations about the value of military intervention. Facts are employed by sides of these moral debates, but no consensus is possible. There seems to be only way to reconcile these debates: a dialectical process of viewing the world in totality which takes account of the major historical dynamics of the past few centuries, namely colonialism, slavery, capitalism, and imperialism. The FGM debate is seen in a new light through this historical lens, as is the value of military intervention. The history of nations and their power games strangely makes many moral problems clearer and provides (I believe) strong answers to these “dilemmas” if seem in the correct historical framework which recognizes the overriding power of capitalism and imperialism in the modern world system. Torture can be seen in this light as well. However, one could argue that capitalism and imperialism itself is in violation of this “fundamental dignity of the human person”, and they would be correct.

That is why Sam Harris basically bugs me. His ignorance of history knows no bounds, as his debate with Noam Chomsky makes extremely evident (see my prior post on the subject: Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky: Moral Vectors in current politics. His arguments in favor of intervention ignore historical precedent, ignore the biggest catastrophes of his lifetime (Vietnam) and betray a quintessentially American “we can never be wrong” mentality. It is the inability to morally scrutinize one’s own country that seems to be a failing of many Americans, who overwhelmingly support their own military. Trust in the military is the highest of any American institution, despite the fact that its the one that is robbing us blind. As Jimmy Dore says, we are a nation of adult alcoholics who keep making excuses for our abusive relationship. We are most attached to those who exploit us the most. Our biggest moral failures (our foreign policy coupled with our domestic policy on poverty) lie in plain sight, so close that they become almost the “background” or “wall paper” from which everything else emerges.

Some people may feel powerless in the face of such extreme moral poverty of our leaders or our institutions. But I would argue an even larger group of people is simply ignorant. What would Buddha have to say about political ignorance? More on that in another post.

For now I will continue to point to the massive failures of our leaders in foreign policy and our moral bankruptcy:

Yemen: The Forgotten War

 

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