Beyond belief: On the ethics of killing

Why Sam Harris’s argument that it’s ethically OK to kill people for what they believe still doesn’t stack up.

It’s not uncommon for a polemicist’s words to come back to haunt them, as Sam Harris knows all too well. For the past decade, he’s has been trying to exorcise the ghost of a notorious line in his 2004 book The End of Faith: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

Recently, someone going by the handle @dan_verg_ Tweeted a picture of Harris with these words plastered across it, along with the judgment that Harris is a “genocidal fascist maniac” (an assessment I’m not going to defend). This was re-Tweeted to hundreds of thousands of people, leading Harris to write another defence of his Infamous Argument, entitled ‘On the mechanics of defamation’. It’s time to revisit the argument.

What did he say?
In The End of Faith, Harris wrote:

The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition:

Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.

What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.

The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense.

The ‘tortured daughter’ scenario makes the uncontroversial point that acquiring new beliefs can have a profound effect on our emotional state. (Note that Harris makes clear that he is talking about “beliefs that are communicated, and acquired, linguistically”.) It’s not clear what point it serves in Harris’s broader argument; presumably the goal was to get the reader thinking, “If I found out that my daughter was being tortured, I’d spring into action instantly” — thus establishing a tight connection between belief and behaviour.

However, in Harris’s example, any behaviour that followed, such as trying to rescue your daughter and perhaps killing the torturer if necessary, would be driven by your love for your daughter, and your motivation to protect her — neither of which are linguistically acquired beliefs.

Harris then delivers the two lines that have generated such opprobrium: “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” Many people, myself included, have read this to mean that if someone accepts certain dangerous propositions or beliefs, then that could provide sufficient grounds for ethically killing them. Harris says this is an outright misreading. How so?

Harris argues that his critics believe he’s overlooking the importance of behaviour, which is the direct and immediate cause of harm to others – and the prevention of which may warrant killing (a conclusion that Harris notes many people already agree with, for example in self-defence or the prevention of genocide).

Harris replies emphatically that he’s not ignoring the belief-behaviour connection; in fact, he’s concerned with beliefs precisely because they’re tightly connected with behaviour. As he clarified after The End of Faith was published, “It should be clear that I am not at all ignoring the link between belief and behavior. The fact that belief determines behavior is what makes certain beliefs so dangerous.”

This reply suggests Harris is oblivious to the possibility that the problem is not that he ignores the link between belief and behaviour, but mischaracterises the link. He claims that “belief determines behaviour”, and ‘determine’, according to the Oxford Dictionary on my shelf, means “to fix or decide causally, condition as a cause or antecedent, be a deciding or the decisive factor in … establish the nature of”. This dictionary definition may not be what philosophers mean by determine, but it does accord with everyday usage of the word. To say that beliefs determine behaviour is much stronger than saying they influence, guide or affect behaviour.

So it’s natural to read Harris as saying if, say, someone holds the belief that violent jihad and the killing of apostates is a good thing, this will determine their behaviour: they will act on this belief, going on to kill people, and that’s what makes the belief dangerous.

Although Harris never states that there’s an ironclad link between belief and behaviour, this view is implied by the whole tenor of his discussion, and is the only way to make sense of talking about killing people for their beliefs as opposed to their overt behaviour. To repeat, the point is not that Harris is ignoring behaviour, but that he thinks you can talk about beliefs as a proxy for behaviour because the contents of someone’s beliefs determine the character of their behaviour.

Beyond belief
The Achilles’ heel of this line of thinking is that our behaviour is clearly not driven solely by beliefs. What we do is the product of a complex interplay not only of beliefs, but also of values, attitudes, desires, and motivations — and these are not just another species of linguistically acquired belief. Take a soldier who throws himself on a hand grenade to save his brothers in arms. Is his behaviour just the product of belief? Or is such heroism better explained by an emotional commitment that transcends belief in Harris’s sense?

Or take another example. In his fine book War, Sebastian Junger recounts the following story:

During the air war of 1944, a four-man combat crew on a B-17 bomber took a vow to never abandon one another no matter how desperate the situation. (A fifth team member, the top turret gunner, was not part of the pact.) The aircraft was hit by flak during a mission and went into a terminal dive, and the pilot ordered everyone to bail out. The top turret gunner obeyed the order, but the ball turret gunner discovered that a piece of flak had jammed his turret and he could not get out. The other three men in his pact could have bailed out with parachutes, but they stayed with him until the plane hit the ground and exploded. They all died.

I won’t prejudge what you’ll make of this. Perhaps you think it was stupid, or even selfish, for the three men who could have escaped to not do so (after all, they may have had family and other loved ones waiting for their safe return at home). Or maybe this story fills you with awe at the commitment and loyalty these men showed to each other.

Regardless of your take on this story, you cannot understand this kind of sacrifice — or acts of heroism or courage more broadly — simply by thinking about the beliefs stored in the heads of the men in the plane. Sure, they may have had different beliefs than you or I, specifically those related to the importance of group loyalty. But do you really think that the mere intellectual acceptance of this belief provides the motivational force to sit in a plane that’s plummeting to the ground, with your death a near certainty?

Or consider a less dramatic example. Imagine you’re at a party and some guy, without provocation, comes over to you and starts insulting you, pushing you around and squaring up for a fight. You try to defuse the situation, but he’s coming at you, chest pumped up, fists clenched. It looks like this is getting physical whether you like it or not.

In this kind of situation I believe — and I’m pretty sure Harris would agree — it’s ethically acceptable to deliver the first strike in self-defense: if you wait until he’s thrown a haymaker before you defend yourself, it may be too late.

Yet it’s one thing to have that belief, and quite another to actually summon the moxie to throw the first punch in a real conflict situation. You need to drill this reaction into your muscle memory by practising it over and over in realistic scenarios. Even if you’re physically capable of throwing a good punch because you’ve been training hard on a punch bag, belief in the rightness of your action is not enough to help you act as needed when push comes to shove. You need the right attitude, not just the right beliefs. Or, to put it another way, how you behave is this situation is not simply a product of your beliefs.

What’s more, holding certain beliefs in no way guarantees you’ll act on them. You probably believe it would be good to give more to charity, exercise more, and eat better, but that doesn’t mean you’ll actually do these things. (When, on the basis of your beliefs, you decide to forego donuts to make you healthier and happier, but then succumb to temptation and scoff one down, is it some anti-dieting belief that drives your behaviour?Or is it better seen as the product of a dopamine-fuelled reward system to just makes your crave the donut?) Beliefs can clearly motivate action, but they often, if not usually, need some non-belief-based input to really get the behavioural engine running.

Psychopaths dramatically illustrate this point. Psychopaths are not, by and large, delusional or disordered in their thought processes – they can be perfectly rational while being cold, cruel or outright evil. Psychopaths can reason through moral dilemmas and make judgements about what the right and wrong thing to do is much like everyone else – it’s just that they don’t care about doing what’s right. (In fact, when pushed to make moral judgements psychopaths tend to be adopt a more utilitarian framework of the sort Harris advocates elsewhere.) Psychopaths, in other words, can hold the same moral beliefs as non-psychopaths, but simply ignore them in practice. If you’re ever attacked by a psychopath, you won’t be defending yourself against his or her beliefs.

Belief and behaviour once more
In the latest defence his argument, Harris asks:

Why would it be ethical to drop a bomb on the leaders of ISIS at this moment? Because of all the harm they’ve caused? No. Killing them will do nothing to alleviate that harm. It would be ethical to kill these men—once again, only if we couldn’t capture them—because of all the death and suffering they intend to cause in the future. Why do they intend this? Because of what they believe about infidels, apostates, women, paradise, prophecy, America, and so forth.

Although Harris doesn’t spell it out, the desired conclusion is clear: we’re really killing them for their beliefs (or the propositions they hold in their heads), and this is all that was meant by the original claim “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”.

Really? Yes, beliefs are part of the causal story of why ISIS does what it does. But as I’ve argued, these beliefs are not the full causal story. Does one really become willing to die fighting for a group and a cause just through linguistically acquired beliefs? Is the only difference between someone who is willing to behead people, and someone who would not or could not, that they hold different beliefs? (By analogy, many people believe it’s ethically acceptable to kill chickens for food, but lots of these people would balk at the prospect of personally chopping a chicken’s head off.)

Even if beliefs were the sole or key determinant of what ISIS does, then it would still be odd to say we were killing them for their beliefs rather than their actions. We can acknowledge that their beliefs are part of the causal chain leading to their behaviour, but these beliefs are themselves the just a step on the causal path to behaviour. Beliefs, like other mental states, are causally dependent on brain activity, so why not go back another step in the causal chain, look at the brain basis of the beliefs they hold, and say “We’re killing ISIS because of their neurochemistry”?

Because nobody talks like this, and for good reason. When a group of hooded teens tried to mug me and a friend as we walked home with pizzas in London, I wasn’t trying to escape the causal factors that led to their behaviour, such as their beliefs, neurochemistry, hunger or social deprivation. I was trying to get away from an imminent threat, keep my belongings and not get beaten up or stabbed. (We were mostly successful, and after jumping us they only managed to get the pizzas without us suffering any serious harm).

Despite Harris’s nod to the importance of behaviour as the reason why we fight groups like ISIS in his most recent version of the ‘Infamous Argument’, he still focuses on beliefs as if action followed from them ineluctably. And this reinforces the interpretation of his original argument as saying that beliefs per se may be sufficient grounds for killing someone.

One way Harris could defuse a lot of the fear around his argument is to assent to the following: “It is ethically unacceptable to kill someone solely on the basis of the beliefs they hold. The only ethical justification for killing others is in self-defence, or to prevent people from inflicting harm on a third-party, regardless of the role specific beliefs play in creating that threat”. If that’s not a formulation Harris would accept, just how would he phrase it?

In sum, Harris has either made an outrageous ethical claim — if someone holds certain beliefs, that is sufficient warrant to kill them — that he’s now trying to deny, back away from, or revise. Or he made a widely accepted ethical point — that killing in self-defence against a violent aggressor is ethically permissible — in such an obtuse way that many readers came away thinking the opposite of what he intended. Which is it?

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About Dan Jones

Dan Jones is a freelance science writer
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35 Responses to Beyond belief: On the ethics of killing

  1. Jonathan says:

    Very well written.

  2. thp says:

    I’m afraid the ‘outrageous’ claim (causing outrage) still holds true and only needs to be thought through well enough.
    Let me try:
    You can pose any non-belief driven motivation you want (values, attitudes, desires). Motivations still deal with what is real or not and what form it takes or should not take. For your brain to act on motivations it needs proposition on how and what the world is, this is where beliefs come in.
    Example:
    Out of love, compassion and everything else a father in Afghanistan would motivate to care for his son, given the right belief, he will still kill him to keep him out of hell. Does this mean we should kill this man? Not if we instead can catch him ofcourse.
    Now you may say, what if this father doesnt care about his son going to hell, without this motivation he would not act upon his belief. Absolutely true! But we can play this game ofcourse and just hop over to the next desire/motivation. Will we ever find a person without any desires/motivations whatsoever? well, not if you’re not willing to include dead people.
    The reality is, is that normal people deal with lots of different desires, and religions that connect to these desires with propositions on how the world is.

  3. defghi says:

    “…Harris has either made an outrageous ethical claim… Or he made a widely accepted ethical point… Which is it?”

    Well, let’s get out our reading glasses, shall we?

    “This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact…”

    • Dan Jones says:

      Ha ha, that’s a nicely crafted and witty reply, made me laugh! I owe it a response. Not now, though, I’m watching Homeland then going to sleep.

  4. HarleyDrummer1 says:

    Nicely written. It’s a basis for discussion. However, in my opinion, it’s becoming more important to me to know the beliefs and upbringing of those who challenge Sam’s work and word choices. I think it matters.

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  8. Phil Torres says:

    I’m surprised that Aslan linked to such a philosophically illiterate article to show that Harris’ conception of the belief-behavior link has been “repeatedly debunked.” This post misses, or gets flagrantly wrong, so many crucial ideas, and it appears to misquote Harris himself. Where, for example, does Harris say (quote) “belief determines behavior”? And why does the author seem to think that Harris ignores the causal role of desires? He quite explicitly doesn’t, although Harris does suggest that what one thinks the world is like (a belief) can sometimes determine how one thinks it ought to be (a desire) — which is patently true. Even Harris’ mention of what ISIS “intends” to do is misunderstood here. An intention is not the product of belief alone — Harris would agree — but requires desire as well. Islam is a bundle of beliefs about the way the world is and ought to be, and as such generates motivation to modify the world (i.e., to better align it with how it ought to be). The point is that if one were to eliminate the set of descriptive and normative beliefs held by ISIS’ members, we would consequently eliminate actions aimed to change the world. (On the widely held counterfactual theory of causality.) In the absence of changing people’s belief systems, though, one might be pushed — for arguably ethical reasons — to destroy the people themselves, in some kind of self-defense. I’m *not* saying that I agree with this last part, but at least get Harris’ argument right.

    • Dan Jones says:

      ‘Where, for example, does Harris say (quote) “belief determines behavior”?’ For someone with such evident philosophical acumen, I’m surprised you can’t click the text that links directly to Harris’s words, which I put in quotation marks for a reason. You know, because, like, it’s a direct quote (see how this works?). And why do I think that Harris ignores the role of non-belief-based factors as important motivators of behaviour? Because they’re not part of his discussion of what drives behaviour. After all, he didn’t write “Some bundles of belief, desire, value, commitment, and motivations, are so dangerous that, when there’s a proven track record of them leading to murderous behaviour, we be justified in killing people who house such bundles. No, he wrote “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”, where propositions is a stand-in for linguistically acquired beliefs. Gee, where on earth did I get the impression that Harris’s focus is on belief?

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by and schooling me; it’s always great to come into direct contact with such philosophical sophistication. Ciao, brah.

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  10. damozer says:

    I’m curious to know exactly what you think Harris was talking about when he said “beliefs that are communicated, and acquired, linguistically”? Do you think he meant beliefs that have to be communicated to someone verbally? And that those beliefs also have to be communicated to another person verbally?

    Would you say that in the English Jailer example, if the man was shown a picture or a video of his daughter being tortured in an english jail, that any belief stemming from viewing these pictures or video, if their were no words attached to them, wouldn’t be a belief that is “communicated, and acquired, linguistically”?

    I’m just curious if you think that if, for example, that the man was shown a video of his daughter being tortured, that since the belief that this is happening isn’t being communicated verbally, you think Harris would say that the belief is therefor irrelevant to any action that the man would take in response to the video?

    In becoming familiar with the context in which this line about linguistically acquired belief was made, it seems clear to me that Harris was differentiating the difference between the non-linguistic beliefs that cats and dogs might have and the kind of linguistically represented beliefs humans can have. An example Harris uses in differentiating human beliefs from that of animal beliefs is “the house is infested with termites”. Do you think Harris would say it would make a meaningful difference to the quality of a person believing this about their house if for example a pest control guy came to the house, found the termites and had verbally communicated this information to the occupant, or if the occupant himself went down to the basement, poked around, and saw with his own eyes that indeed, the basement was infested with termites? If this is the distinction you think Sam is worried about; verbally communicated beliefs vs. beliefs that come from one’s own observations or experience, that would be a truly bizarre reading of what Harris was intending to get across.

    I notice you latch onto this statement to make the point that love or any motivation to protect the daughter is not a “linguistically acquired belief”. Can you clarify? Are you saying that if a father loves his daughter, this is not the kind of belief Harris thinks is important because the man wasn’t told by someone else verbally that he loves his daughter?
    Thanks for your response and the great article!

    Cheers

    • Dan Jones says:

      Hi Damozer,

      Thanks for leaving some questions here. I’ve written replies below each of them – hope it’s helpful, at least in clarifying where I’m coming from! (Apologies in advance for any typos/badly constructed sentences – haven’t got time to polish this up too much I’m afraid!)

      D.

      Q1: “I’m curious to know exactly what you think Harris was talking about when he said “beliefs that are communicated, and acquired, linguistically”? Do you think he meant beliefs that have to be communicated to someone verbally? And that those beliefs also have to be communicated to another person verbally?”

      A: I think that what Harris is doing is focusing the argument on beliefs (or propositions) that are accessible to conscious awareness and can be explicitly stated to others. In short, he appears to be talking about what philosophers call ‘propositional attitudes’. (Harris alludes to propositional attitudes in footnote 3 to the chapter ‘The Nature of Belief’.) This is a slightly weird term, but its meaning is simple enough: it denotes statements that contain both a proposition that describes some ‘situation’ in the world (“It is raining”), and an ‘attitude’ towards that proposition (“I believe that is raining”. In general, propositional attitudes take the form ‘A Ψs S’, where ‘A’ stands for a person, ‘Ψ’ stands for the attitude, and ‘S’ represents the situation or content of the proposition: “Damozer (A) believes (Ψ) it is raining (S)”.

      Now, not all propositional attitudes involve belief; a desire may be cast as a proportional attitude: “Damozer (A) desires that (Ψ) it is raining (S)”. However, belief and desire are different attitudes, and Harris says, perfectly clearly, that he’s talking about beliefs, so we should take him at his word. On this view, I’m sure if you held the propositional attitude that it is raining outside (“Damozer (A) believes (Ψ) it is raining (S)”) by virtue of looking out of the window and seeing rain, rather than having someone verbally tell you that it’s raining, then Harris would justifiably consider this as an example of the kind of belief he has in mind. That’s my reading, in any case – and I don’t think that’s a tendentious reading that loads the dice in favour of my arguments against his views.

      Q2: “Would you say that in the English Jailer example, if the man was shown a picture or a video of his daughter being tortured in an english jail, that any belief stemming from viewing these pictures or video, if their were no words attached to them, wouldn’t be a belief that is “communicated, and acquired, linguistically”?”

      A: As I suggested above, I think the kind of belief that you would hold if you saw a video of your daughter being tortured, as opposed to being told about it, would still be what Harris has in mind when he talks about “beliefs that are communicated, and acquired, linguistically”. That is, the resulting belief would still be a consciously accessible propositional attitude (“Harris (A) believes (Ψ) his daughter is being tortured (S)”). Again, this reading is not one that favours (or disfavours) my arguments. However, your question brings home an essential point: one needs to be very clear about the form of words one uses, and careful in the phrases one employs, in talking about tricky topics like belief. If the phrase “beliefs that are communicated, and acquired, linguistically” is throwing people off, or puts unwanted limits on the domain of beliefs that Harris actually wants to talk about (i.e., excludes non-verbally acquired beliefs), then he has to be more careful. In essence, this whole discussion is about the way key claims are being phrased and presented.

      Q3: “I’m just curious if you think that if, for example, that the man was shown a video of his daughter being tortured, that since the belief that this is happening isn’t being communicated verbally, you think Harris would say that the belief is therefor irrelevant to any action that the man would take in response to the video?”

      A: I don’t think that Harris would conclude that beliefs acquired in this way are irrelevant to action (I’m fine with that – and, again, this is not a self-serving reading). In which case, the story would be the same: the man comes to hold the belief that his daughter is being tortured, and that’s the explanation for his subsequent actions. And my point would still be same: the explanation of the man’s behaviour should surely cite the newly acquired belief, but that is far from the whole story. We would also need to discuss why that belief had such motivational force for the man, which would direct us to his love for his daughter, which I, along with many other philosophers, would not construe as simply a matter of belief or holding the right kind of propositional attitudes.

      Q4: “In becoming familiar with the context in which this line about linguistically acquired belief was made, it seems clear to me that Harris was differentiating the difference between the non-linguistic beliefs that cats and dogs might have and the kind of linguistically represented beliefs humans can have. An example Harris uses in differentiating human beliefs from that of animal beliefs is “the house is infested with termites”. Do you think Harris would say it would make a meaningful difference to the quality of a person believing this about their house if for example a pest control guy came to the house, found the termites and had verbally communicated this information to the occupant, or if the occupant himself went down to the basement, poked around, and saw with his own eyes that indeed, the basement was infested with termites? If this is the distinction you think Sam is worried about; verbally communicated beliefs vs. beliefs that come from one’s own observations or experience, that would be a truly bizarre reading of what Harris was intending to get across.”

      A: No, in line with the above I don’t think it makes any difference whether the belief that your house is infested with termites is acquired by someone telling you that’s the case, or seeing it for yourself. (And I don’t think Harris sees an important difference here either.) The point is that this belief, or propositional attitude, is one that we’re consciously aware of, and which can feed into our behavioural decisions (i.e., to have the termites killed so as to protect your home). And I’m certainly not denying that holding such a belief plays an important causal role in your subsequent behaviour (such as paying a specialist to get rid of the termites). My point is that you can’t explain all behaviour solely in terms of beliefs, used in Harris’s sense. This is a completely uncontroversial point, but it has important implications: it means that in explaining any given behaviour, you need to take seriously the possibility that non-belief factors may be part of the causal story about why someone did what they did.

      If, however, you write things like “The fact that belief determines behavior is what makes certain beliefs so dangerous”, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”, and “It would be ethical to kill [the leaders of ISIS] — once again, only if we couldn’t capture them — because of all the death and suffering they intend to cause in the future. Why do they intend this? Because of what they believe about infidels, apostates, women, paradise, prophecy, America, and so forth.” – well, it sounds very much like you’re saying that beliefs do, in fact, provide a complete and exhaustive explanation of behaviour.

      To put it another way, there is a perfectly natural and consistent reading of these statements, which imply the following model of belief and behaviour (which I’ll call Model 1): “Believing X determines that you will do Y; Y is harmful to other people, and therefore this belief is dangerous – and by extension so are you, the holder of this belief. If you can’t be talked out of your belief, then it may be necessary, and morally justifiable, to use force to prevent you acting on your dangerous beliefs, and this may extend to killing you”.

      If that is not what you think, and instead you believe that in most cases beliefs are only part of the causal story about some particular behaviour (and sometimes a minor part), then it makes no sense to write statements like “The fact that belief determines behavior is what makes certain beliefs so dangerous” and “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”.

      Let’s say your model of belief and behaviour was different, perhaps along these lines (Model 2): “Beliefs [propositional attitudes] work in concert with a diverse range of values, desires, commitments, and non-belief mental states — not all of which can be brought into conscious awareness or articulated in words — to create behaviour. Some packages of these mental states (beliefs, values etc) lead to morally repugnant behaviour, and when people engage in these behaviours and target innocent people, we are morally entitled to act to stop them in self-defense, or as a third-party intervention to defend those who can’t defend themselves. This may require force, even lethal force”.
      In that’s what you think, you wouldn’t even be tempted to write “The fact that belief determines behavior is what makes certain beliefs so dangerous” or “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”. So when someone does, in fact, write those words, it’s prima facie evidence that they do not endorse Model 2, but instead accept Model 1. And if you do accept Model 1, then killing people for the propositions they hold does make sense.

      The problem is that endorsing the ethicality of killing people for their thoughts (or the propositions they hold to be true in their heads) sounds really bad, like advocacy of fascistic thought police. Harris, unsurprisingly, doesn’t want to be tarnished with this brush. But his defence is simply to reiterate Model 1, and to say that, because of the link between belief and behaviour (“belief determines behaviour”), he’s not really ignoring behaviour; it’s implicit in talking about beliefs! (Again, this only makes sense for adherents of Model 1).

      Nearly everyone who wants to defend Harris’s arguments on this point seems to be confused about all this. They’ll say, if he’s charged with an undue focus on beliefs, “No, he does talk about behaviour!”. But to repeat, he talks about beliefs determining behaviour, and brings this perspective to bear on the actions of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. It is not a willful misreading to therefore think that Harris is defending implicitly Model 1, which I’m arguing is the wrong model. The fact that Harris might switch from belief to behaviour and back again is not a strength or nuance of his argument, but an indication that the argument for Model 1 is inconsistent/contradictory/just plain bad.

      Q5: “I notice you latch onto this statement to make the point that love or any motivation to protect the daughter is not a “linguistically acquired belief”. Can you clarify? Are you saying that if a father loves his daughter, this is not the kind of belief Harris thinks is important because the man wasn’t told by someone else verbally that he loves his daughter?”

      A: Picking up from the above discussion of propositional attitudes, I don’t think Harris would suggest that love for one’s daughter is unimportant in driving behaviour simply because you haven’t been told by someone else that you love your daughter. And neither would I. To repeat, the key point for me here is that your love for your daughter – your concern for her well-being, and your motivation to care for and protect her — are not simply beliefs. So examples in which acquiring a belief about the fate of your daughter sparks off a behavioural response is not an illustration of how beliefs determine behaviour (so much else is involved).

      • HarleyDrummer1 says:

        Hello,

        I asked you a question above that you didn’t answer, and I’m not sure why, but I expected you not to answer. As I said, I think the beliefs and upbringing of those who challenge Sam’s work and word choices matter.

        Even though I am a Sam Harris “follower” and “defender”, I don’t speak for Sam Harris nor his followers. What am about to say it what I think; not what anyone else necessarily thinks when it comes to Sam Harris.

        I believe that when I take the broad view of everything Sam has done from books, lectures, debates, articles, and so forth, that Sam believes in a global society where the physical and mental health, and the overall wellbeing of every human being on the planet is taken very seriously and equally. That there is a right and wrong way for people to be treated. No matter what Sam says, whether it gets interpreted the way he intended, or misinterpreted out of context by people who have not read or listened to his work with broad perspective, is meant to lead society to this common appreciation of each and every individual. And not with an attitude that this kind of world would be nice “someday”, but rather that it’s way overdue that we are not already there and that solutions need to be put forth to eliminate the inhibitors to achieving that goal.

        Sam and his followers “know” that 2000+ years of child indoctrination of bad ideas before a child is even able to understand what’s happening to them is a major inhibitor, regardless of where the individual believers fall within the spectrum of belief, and no matter what believers would do to prove, propagate, and defend their right to believe in the imaginary.

        Sam knows, and his followers know, that this not about Sam. This is about the wellbeing of humanity, and in the many ways that can be framed such as choice, equality, a full stomach, access to medical care, education, a climate controlled planet, not being someone’s slave, and so forth.

        Sam’s “defenders” are defending him because we see critics like you as inhibitors to a world that maximizes human wellbeing. You offer no alternative solutions to maximize human wellbeing. We don’t even know if you desire a world where every human being is respected. You only offer criticisms and cherry picking wordplay of statements he makes, which are taken out of context, and which don’t take a master’s degree in philosophy or psychology to realize are made in the context of philosophical discussion to come up with solutions that are not hostile. To think otherwise, is either intellectually dishonest, pure stupidity, or just misinformed about the breadth of Sam’s work. You make this about Sam, when neither he nor his followers make this about Sam. You continually defend the right of all societies to perpetually abuse children with indoctrination against their will, and while ignoring, deflecting, and masking the real harm religion is doing to our children.

        There is one difference between an arena of Sam Harris followers and an arena of Joel Osteen followers or the followers in every church, synagogue, and mosque on the planet, and that difference is what we will not do to the minds of our children.

        There’s is no god, and I believe society should protect children from religion with the same zeal it tries to protect children from cigarettes, violent movies, drinking, drugs, etc. To see it any other way is disturbing to me. That’s me talking; not Sam Harris, but I think he and his followers think on these lines.

        Thank you.

        • Dan Jones says:

          Hi Harley,

          Sorry I didn’t reply – I didn’t read your earlier comment as a question, but as a statement of what you thought was important to think about. In case it’s of any interest to you, I was brought up in a secular, bookish, irreverent household where I enjoyed wide intellectual and cultural freedom. I’ve always been an atheist, and as much so today as ever – and as much as Sam Harris. I’ve little sympathy with any strand of theology, and I do agree that religions (a term which really needs to be broken down, but that;s a story for another day) have had a pernicious effects on societies and individuals. My disagreement with Harris does not, I think, stem from any strange aspect of y upbringing or personality. In fact, 10 years ago, when I first encountered Harris’s work, I his ideas less objectionable. It;s just that in the intervening decade, and as part of my career in writing about the science of human behaviour, I’ve learned a lot that makes me now reject what I may have earlier accepted. I like to think this is intellectual growth, rather than some sort of atrophy. So to sum up, if you want to look at a part of my life to explain why I disagree with Sam Harris, you’ll want to focus on my years 28-38 (i.e., now), and not my childhood upbringing.

          Thanks for dropping by again, Harley.

          • Al says:

            Have you notcied how pretty much every time Sam Harris gets critcised his reaction is always the same – claim that he has been misrepresented?

            • HarleyDrummer1 says:

              What I’ve noticed is that your comment is a backhanded, condescending insult. There are 10 types of people in this world. Those who understand binary and those who don’t.

              • Al says:

                So is that a yes or a no then?

                • HarleyDrummer1 says:

                  If your observations of Sam Harris’ behavior has led you to a conclusion on the matter, go ahead and state your conclusion. Otherwise kiss off.

                • Dan Jones says:

                  Al, I’ll go with “yes”. Not really sure what the quip about types of people/binary has to do with anything though.

                  • HarleyDrummer1 says:

                    “Have you notcied how pretty much every time Sam Harris gets critcised his reaction is always the same – claim that he has been misrepresented?”

                    Cite each specific criticism, the primary criticizer, and Sam Harris’ response to the criticizer.

                  • Al says:

                    Because I think it has become an easy way for Harris to avoid addressing his critics’ arguments. It is also somewhat ironic that Harris nearly always cries misrepresentation considering how often he distorts other peoples’ research.

                    As an aside, you may be interested in some recent research on religious reliefs and factual beliefs.

                    http://www.academia.edu/8126466/Religious_Credence_is_not_Factual_Belief

            • damozer says:

              That’s because it happens a lot. In this article too Defending Sam Harris’s “Belief” | damozer’s Blog
              http://damozer.wordpress.com/2014/11/26/16/

              • HarleyDrummer1 says:

                Well done! Despite your efforts to provide clarity in a rebutting argument to Jones’ post, I sense another “redoubling” of efforts coming in order to point out semantics.

                In my view, people like you and I have a comprehensive understanding of Harris’ larger vision of improving human wellbeing globally, and that in order to achieve that sooner rather than later, religion needs to be jettisoned from the decision making going on in halls of power across the globe. We understand that when ultra progressive critics are more concerned with protecting the right for people to espouse their religious beliefs in the steering of government decisions, UN decisions, education decisions, etc., they are inhibitors to the progress Harris’ and many other are making toward a better world through secularism. Harris needs to be defended, but not for the sport of “intellectual masturbation” with his critics, but to ensure internet onlookers are getting the accurate and sensible interpretation of the critics willful ignorance and distortions.

                Again, nice job and thanks for taking the time to do it.

                • damozer says:

                  Hi Harley,
                  I agree, I think Harris’s larger vision for improving wellbeing is a good one. Or at least his ideas on it should be considered when trying to make the world a better place. Harris is more of an idea guy than an implementation guy. Although a big part of changing the world is through ideas and he’s full of good ones.

                  I agree, it’s the people who have no idea what Harris actually says or writes and then naively comes to a blog article such as this one, and takes it at face value not knowing any better. The real problem is when critics go so far as to demonize Harris so that people are filled with disgust and dismiss his ideas without ever having looked into them. It’s this misrepresentation of Harris’s work that poisons the curiosity and openness of new people who might be interested in reading his books or watching his videos. People love expressing moral outrage, even if it’s directed at those with the best of intentions, and misrepresenting them to do this, is just a dirty trick to put down people who’s ideas threaten your own. Thanks again for the compliment on my article!
                  Until we meet again 🙂

  11. damozer says:

    Hi Dan,
    Thank you for your clear and enlightening response to my questions. I appreciate you clarifying your conception of “beliefs that are communicated, and acquired, linguistically”

    “I think that what Harris is doing is focusing the argument on beliefs (or propositions) that are accessible to conscious awareness and can be explicitly stated to others.”

    I thought you had pulled a fast one on Harris and were misrepresenting his idea there. I stand corrected.

    I’ve been thinking about the distinction you make between a propositional attitude where the attitude is belief “Damozer — believes — it is raining” vs a propositional attitude where the attitude is desire “Damozer — desires — that it is raining”. And the usefulness each has in accurately predicting behaviour.

    This may be an irrelevant point, and the one’s that follow I think are more interesting, so feel free to ignore this one if I get the pleasure of another response… but is there an important difference between saying “Damozer desires that it is raining” and “Damozer desires that it will rain”? I only ask this because if Damozer “desires that it will rain” then Damozer is hoping it will rain sometime in the future, whereas when Damozer “desires that it is raining” it sounds more like he is longing for rain in the present moment, and wishes that his desire were fulfilled now rather than later. In other words, it’s not a forward looking desire. The distinction might sound weird when talking about rain, as nothing can really be done to make it rain, but if you use it in another example like “Damozer — desires — that he’s swimming” vs “Damozer — desires — to go swimming”, then you see that the first exmaple “desires that he’s swimming” doesn’t entail the intent to go swimming as much as the second example “Damozer — desires — to go swimming”. The distinction is that there are desires that entail a corresponding behaviour to fulfill them. If you’re trying to figure out what exactly that behaviour might be, the desire alone would tell you very little. I’ll expand on this later but the gist of it is, that you would have to know Damozers beliefs in order to predict the behaviour that might arise from his desire to go swimming.

    Another good point you make:

    “one needs to be very clear about the form of words one uses, and careful in the phrases one employs, in talking about tricky topics like belief. If the phrase “beliefs that are communicated, and acquired, linguistically” is throwing people off, or puts unwanted limits on the domain of beliefs that Harris actually wants to talk about (i.e., excludes non-verbally acquired beliefs), then he has to be more careful. In essence, this whole discussion is about the way key claims are being phrased and presented.”

    This “acquired linguistically” phrase certainly threw me off, and the fact that I thought you could be interpreting it wrong, speaks to the ease with which it could be misconstrued, especially if its meaning is to be interpreted without context. Just changing the word “acquired” to “represented” would have made it a lot clearer in my own mind.

    You make a valid distinction between the role belief and desire have on behaviour. In fact the more I think about it, the more unlikely it seems that any behaviour is without some degree of desire to put it in motion. But what I want to ask is: is it possible to predict behaviour based on desire without informed by mediating beliefs that influences how the desire will translate into behaviour?

    For instance, if “Damozer — desires — food”, can we know what his behaviour will be, beyond a rough estimate that he will likely try and feed himself somehow? His food eating behaviours, that are fuelled by his desire to eat, could range from benign to dangerous.

    What will determine the nature of his food eating behaviour? Won’t it be his propositional attitude, where that attitude is beliefs?

    If, for instance, Damozer believes his fridge is stocked with a healthy array of food, he believes he has a pot in which to boil some vegis, a pan to fry a steak, plates and utensils to eat his food with and a table and chairs to eat at, we can come to a pretty accurate conclusion about what his food eating behaviour will be. In fact, the more we know about what Damozer believes to be true, the more we can predict his food eating behaviour. If Damozer believes that separating the food on his plate makes his food more appealing, and that he believes he has a favourite blue mug in which he likes to make himself a cup of tea to go along with his meal, we become more accurate in our behavioural predictions. But generally, once we know a few basic beliefs (propositions he holds to be true about the world in which he lives), we can be fairly confident that he will go down to his kitchen and prepare himself a healthy meal.

    If, on the other hand, Damozer believes he has no food in the fridge, and no money in his wallet, and that the local grocery store is his best bet to steal some food, we can determine that his desire to eat will have much different behavioural consequences.

    To take it a step further, if Damozer believes that he is living virtually alone in the countryside with only one neighbour who happens to be an old woman that Damozer believes, because she is black, is such a bad person that it wouldn’t be a tragedy if something were to befall her. And Damozer knows he has a billy club, just in case this person is home when he goes over there to steal some food, then we may have a dire prediction about the kinds of behaviour Damozer may engage in to fulfill his desire to eat. All this is to say, of course, that desire itself is not a good predictor of action. And any desire that does seem to be a good indicator of specific behaviour either has a belief embedded in it, or only makes sense when the underlying belief is known.

    Damozer could even be on a fast, and his desire to eat will result in no food eating behaviours at all

    What I’m wondering now is, can specific desires also be represented as beliefs? For instance, what’s the difference between saying “Damozer — desires — food” and “Damozer — believes — he is hungry”? If Damozer believes he is hungry, is it necessary to point out that this belief comes from his desire to alleviate his hunger? Or does the belief itself, the belief that he’s hungry, assume as much?

    Are there desires that can be just as clearly represented as beliefs?

    If Damozer says “I am hungry”, does this more closely represent a belief or a desire? or does it even matter if we call it a desire or a belief, each bringing us to the same understanding? I would say that whether Damozer believes he is hungry or Damozer has a desire to alleviate his hunger, we understand both statements to mean the same thing and one is not better at communicating Damozers hunger than the other. But what about when it comes to predicting behaviour?

    Are beliefs better at predicting behaviour?

    If beliefs can encompass desires like — Damozer believes he is hungry encompasses Damozers desire to eat — is it true that a persons beliefs will tell us more specifically what they will do compared to their desires?

    And if you describe Damozers behaviour, how much of that specific behaviour represents belief and how much represents desire? If I use the concept of desire to describe Damozers food eating behaviour, how much of that behaviour is actually makes more sense in terms of belief? For instance, I could say “Damozer has a desire to go downstairs, open the fridge, get out some veggies and meat, turn the stove on, get the plates out etc etc…” The only pertinent desire here really, is Damozers to eat (which could also be described as a belief Damozer has that he’s hungry), all of his behaviours stemming from this desire can only be understood through his beliefs about the world i.e. That he has food in the fridge, a kitchen etc.

    For example, one could say that Damozer believes he has a fridge full of food, which says something concrete about the world, whereas saying Damozer desires to have a fridge full of food, doesn’t say anything concrete, either about Damozer having a fridge, or there being any food in it.

    Are there beliefs that can be more clearly represented by desires? Where if you use the concept of belief rather than desire, we will miss an important part of what we are trying to communicate?

    Can any long term desires not be represented by belief? For instance, can you think of a lasting desire that one has for days, months, or years at a time, that isn’t represented and made sense of by a belief?

    I ask this because it would seem that desires, unlike beliefs, are more fleeting, and any powerful desire that is strong and long lasting must be propped up by a belief. Both desire and belief can be modified through experience and learning of course, but when we talk about long term desires, I think their behavioural consequences can be more accurately explained and understood by the beliefs that gives rise to them.

    For an analogy (possibly a bad one, as it’s a car analogy) if someones life were represented as a trip in a car, desire would be the engine, the fuel, the gas pedal and the break while belief would be the eyes on the road and the hands on the wheel. It seems that any desire that seems complex, is so because of the beliefs that keep it alive. Whereas desires unnacompanied by a corresponding belief, seem to be more fluid and change with one’s mood states and frame of mind; An engine idling and revving, without a driver to tell it where to go.

    Many beliefs aren’t as subject to the natural changes that desires are. A belief that you love your daughter and would protect her if she were in danger, is different that saying you have a desire to protect your daughter. Desire to protect your daughter at this moment may be totally absent and will only arise when your daughter is in trouble. How can we predict you will have this desire to protect your daughter if she’s in trouble even if you don’t have this desire right now? Because of long lasting and strong beliefs you have about her.

    Do you agree that any seemingly complex desire only makes sense when you know the belief behind it?
    Can you have a belief free desire that will predict behaviour?
    Once a desire is articulated, can it be represented just as clearly as a belief?

  12. damozer says:

    Hi Dan, hope things are well with you! I’m currently writing an article in response to this blog post of yours and I want to make sure I reflect your ideas clearly and accurately. Do you have any response for the above questions I’ve put to you? Thanks Dan

    Damozer

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  14. Bob says:

    Damozer your article is great. It’s about time someone stood up of these anti-Sam Harris shills with their carpet bag of presuppositions and false assumptions.

    • damozer says:

      Hey Bob, I’m glad you enjoyed the article! I agree that false assumptions in Dan Jones’s article are plentiful and various but I think it stems more from making lazy arguments and throwing out claims without thinking them through or making an effort to honestly represent Harris’s views. For example, when Jones refers to belief as “mere intellectual acceptance” I think he’s just throwing this claim out there to make his argument sound better. But there’s really no argument there to back it up, so it’s just becomes another outrageous claim without substance. That’s how I see it anyway. I’m sure Jones disagrees somewhat on this, but I don’t think he disagrees on the falseness of that specific claim that he made. If he does, it would be interesting to see what evidence he has for it. Anyway, thanks for reading my article and best wishes!

      Amos

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