The Pew Research Center has published what they call a “Portrait of Muslim Americans.” That title is backward—it should be American Muslims, since Muslim is not an ethnicity—and so is the rest of the report. Check out the feel-good boldface and italics: “Ten years after 9/11, U.S. Muslims continue to reject extremism by large margins. Still, 21% of Muslim Americans say there is at least a fair amount of support for extremism among U.S. Muslims.”
So even though 1/5 of Muslims in the United States perceive support for “extremism” among their own people, we’re supposed to be reassured that the remainder don’t. “One out of five of us want to kill you!” And that’s good news, because the rest do not! That’s a remarkable spin, Pew. (More than that: 21 percent report being singled out by airport security and only 13 percent report being singled out by law enforcement officers—even though one fifth of American Muslims perceive their own community as wishing harm on the United States.)
Worse: in addition to the sixty percent that said the U.S. should be “very concerned about the possible rise of Islamic extremism in the U.S.,” five percent report that they have a favorable view of al Qaeda.Another 11 percent said they had only a somewhat unfavorable view of al Qaeda, and 14 percent answered “don’t know,” on a subject about which every reasoning being does have an opinion. Sure, that’s low relative to other countries, like Indonesia, where one out of five Muslims view al Qaeda favorably. But one can hardly imagine the media’s tone of outrage if five percent of white Americans viewed the KKK favorably and another 14 percent “didn’t know”—let alone if twenty percent reported strong support for the KKK among their peers! Yet the Pew Research Center reports this in reassuring terms, as if there’s no reason for concern, and the Muslim community is victimized by unfair prejudice.
There are 1.8 million Muslims in the United States. Ninety thousand of them are willing to state that they have a favorable view of al Qaeda, and 252,000 are not willing to answer that question at all. But only racist bigot Islamophobes would express concern over such numbers, because, after all, the rest wish us well.
(Via A&G, who have been talking about this all week.)
Is it better to have a candidate who actually believes in biblical inerrancy and the extreme youthfulness and recency of the Grand Canyon, or a candidate who half-affects such convictions in the hope of political gain? Either would be depressing. A mixture of the two—not excluded in Perry's case—would lower the tone nicely.
Overall, not so good. If he gave those answers at the end of my political economy class he’d fail the final exam. Really his questions are not much better than a creationist asking, “But what about the second law of thermodynamics; have you ever thought about that? And what about the missing link?” They’re the questions of someone who’s lacking a grasp of the most basic concepts of the field he’s dabbling in. Whatever Sam Harris may be good at (and I’m not sure it’s philosophy, either), he really ought to stick to it.
Is the following email typical of the intellectual support for the morality of self-sacrifice? We report, you decide:
You seem to be of the belief that you own no other person anything yet furthermore others owe YOU the right to leave your "property" and person unmolested.
What utter bullshit.
Put your average adult male on short rations, say 250 calories per day, for a week and he'll knife you for a burrito.
Leave him without shelter for a month of winter while you sit snug in your 4,000 sq. ft mcmansion and he just might decide to burn it down for you just to even the score.
These things have happened before. They are happening today, somewhere. We now have a Maoist Prime Minister in Nepal.
So you can put up with government redistribution of wealth or live with constant tribal warfare.
ALL governments redistribute wealth. No exceptions.
p.s. there's no law of physics that says you get to be the leader of your tribe. If the current tribal leader and his cronies want your gear, your wife, daughters and/or sons to play with you have to grin and bear it or be "out-caste." Which really meant you got to play fox for the next hunting party.
p.p.s._ that bitch Ayn Rand died on medicare and welfare. When push came to shove she didn't stand up for a word of her own bullshit either.
One is reminded of a passage from Sidney (of whom, no doubt, our eloquent correspondent has never heard):
our author confines the subject's choice to acting or suffering, that is, doing what is commanded, or lying down to have his throat cut, or to see his family and country made desolate. This he calls giving to Caesar that which is Caesar's; whereas he ought to have considered that the question is not whether that which is Caesar's should be rendered to him, for that is to be done to all men; but who is Caesar, and what doth of right belong to him, which he no way indicates to us: so that the question remains entire, as if he had never mentioned it.
Update:Here's another brilliant answer:Oh yeah?! Oh yeah?! If you don't like it, then you can just leave! (Wouldn't the same argument work just as well in defense of religious tyranny? Or any other infringement of individual liberty by the state?) Oh yeah?! Love it 'er leave it, pal!
Brilliant logic, that.
Update: Reader David Veloz writes,
I don't know about you sir, but I have been convinced by the advocates of self sacrifice that it would be better for government to take away what I've earned and give it to others who didn't earn it. You might call that slavery and morally wrong, just like Frederick Douglass felt about his master taking away what he had earned at the Baltimore docks, but I call it self sacrifice for the common good. After all, if Douglass didn't like the system, he should've left the South......
P.S. Keep up the good work.
Thanks! (Of course, Douglass did leave the south. So that made it all okay, right?
I will be speaking at the Cato Institute's Constitution Day symposium on Sept. 15 in Washington, D.C. I'll be appearing on panel IV: Looking Ahead to The October 2011 Term. I believe you can watch the event online, but it's better to attend in person if you can. You can register here. Other speakers include Jonathan Adler, John Eastman, Tim Keller, Orin Kerr, Adam Liptak, and Judge Alex Kozinski.
…or, “I will make this dead horse get up and ride, dammit!”
1) In The Moral Landscape, you write that it is not societies, but individuals, who suffer from injustice (80). Do you view “human well-being” as a generalized abstraction, or is it agent-specific, to particular individuals in specific circumstances? On pp. 33-34, you say that there are “many different ways” and a “real diversity” of ways to define well-being, and that it includes “what matters to the average person.” This suggests that well-being is subjective, but you then liken it to physical health, which is an abstraction and an objective state, the truth value of which is not dependent on the person’s believing it.
2) To rephrase the first question: you ground your moral perspective in an imagined state of the worst possible suffering for everyone, as a sort of objective, negative state which gives us a lodestar to avoid. But it is not clear whether you do the same thing with regard to well-being. Do you regard them as symmetrical? That is, is there also a single, polar conception of generalized human health? Or would you say, to paraphrase Tolstoy, that everyone suffers in basically the same way, while there are an infinite number of ways to be healthy or flourish or experience well-being?
3) If there are many different ways to flourish, and if flourishing is agent-specific, would that not counsel limits on both moral obligations and on politics? You seem to suggest a sort of easy transfer from moral perfectionism to political perfectionism when you say that people should be treated as ends in themselves only when doing so “safeguard[s] human well-being,” but not when it does not (p. 79-80). If well-being is a unitary abstraction toward which ethics and politics should be directed, would you counsel a person to take unhealthy actions now for the sake of promoting the single abstract notion of human health? For example, should I go donate my healthy body to the nearest medical school right now, to advance the cause of medicine? On the other hand, if there are many different kinds of flourishing, should I not be allowed to pursue happiness as I see fit, respecting the freedom of others to do the same?
4) How do you propose to mediate between conflicting claims of people who say they need something for well-being? For a hypothetical, a genius surgeon is exhausted from non-stop work and needs to go on a vacation to recuperate, but a dozen people whom only he can treat show up needing emergency surgeries. Or the owner of a vacant lot is trying to decide whether to build a hardware store that the local carpenters really need, or a daycare center that the local mothers really need. Or, I have $100 and can spend it on a new watch for myself or to pay for life-saving surgery—for a profoundly evil person. On what criterion does a third party (the government, or something, which proposes to treat all these agents as means to the higher end of the “just society”) differentiate between their conflicting claims for the ingredients of well-being? (The classical liberal answer—that individuals have rights that cannot be overridden—is based on treating people as ends in themselves, full stop, but you reject that.)
5) How do you define “fairness”? You call it a “felt experience” and say that people demonstrably experience “negative emotions” when they experience unfairness, but of course religion is also a felt experience that gives people emotional responses, and you reject it as a reliable account of the world or a legitimate basis of morality. If not all felt experiences associated with emotion can be relied upon to give content to morality, what alternative do you propose to use to define “fairness”?
6) In an endnote in The Moral Landscape, you reject the idea that human well-being “would lead us to do terrible things like reinstate slavery, harvest the organs of the poor,” and so forth, because “there are rather clear reasons not to do these things—all of which relate to the immensity of suffering that such actions would cause and the possibilities of deeper happiness that they would foreclose. Does anyone really believe that the highest possible state of human flourishing is compatible with slavery, organ theft, and genocide?” (199 n. 11) What if the answer is yes? What argument would you use to show that such forms of purported well-being are inappropriate? Similarly, you reject the possibility of a Jeffrey Dahmer who asserts he must harm others for his well-being because you believe we are not “obliged to consider…diabolical inversion[s] of priorities” when considering an objective morality (34-35). On what criteria do you define these things as “diabolical”? To appeal to “well-being” at this point, or to “the immensity of suffering,” would commit the fallacy of petitio principii, because you are using diabolism or suffering to reject these claims as legitimate elements of the concept of well-being; that is, you say we are not “obliged to consider them” when deciding what counts as well-being. Why not? These desires are, after all, “felt experiences” associated with “emotion.” What are the standards for deciding which emotions and experiences are worthy of consideration when building our model of well-being? How do you answer this question without falling into the Euthyphro Dilemma, that the criteria of selection are doing all the real work in your model of well-being? That is, if for Reason X, we are required to exclude Acts Causing Suffering from the criteria that go into our picture of well-being, then are you not really just reiterating Reason X?
7) Do you think people have the right to believe in and practice religion in ways that affect only themselves? (By that I mean, excluding religious practices like circumcision or indoctrination of others; do you believe people have the right to, for example, pray or practice dietary taboos?) If so, why? Or do you think it is impossible for them to only affect themselves? and if that is the case, do you believe all religion should be banned?
8) Do you believe there are any things that are (1) morally preferable and (2) something it would be improper to compel a person to do? Why or why not?
9) Do you believe that a person has a possessory right to things that he or she has not earned? By this I mean, their bodies, intelligence, beauty, talents, or inherited wealth? If the answer is yes to some things and no to other things, on what grounds would you differentiate them? You say (as noted above) that you would not agree with compulsory organ donation—what about a genius doctor who makes an artificial heart in his spare time? Would you use the state to compel him to give it to people who need it? Isn’t the intuitive answer that forcing someone to undergo compulsory organ donation is unthinkable, while forcing the doctor to give up his artificial heart is more acceptable? Yet this is an inversion of your theory of desert, because the first person hasn’t earned his heart and the doctor certainly has earned the manufactured heart. (Or am I wrong about this? Does your intuition tell you otherwise?)
10) What is your response to the public-choice problems involved in redistributive government? In particular, you reject the idea that “any attempt to impose wisdom or compassion from the top—no matter who is at the top and no matter what the need—is necessarily corrupting.” One major reason classical liberals give for rejecting the imposition of “wisdom” “from the top” is that even if on one day a good person “is at the top,” there’s no way to prevent a bad person from getting to the top the next day (as Madison said, “wise statesmen will not always be at the helm”) and therefore it’s wiser to limit the state’s power in all cases, and leave people to make their own decisions. What is your response to this? Do you think this is not a serious concern?
Last year, writer Aaron Powell reviewed Sam Harris' talk at TED and his book The Moral Landscapeand had some interesting criticisms. I don't agree with all of them (I'm actually more confident in science's capacity to discover human values than Powell appears to be; I just think Harris has an extremely superficial view of what that means) but I do agree with many, and particularly this:
Far more troubling is the world Harris would have us embrace if we overlook the flaws and embrace his conclusions. Harris would have us turn over the definition of “well-being” to scientists with moral expertise. It is thus impossible not to be overcome with dread when reading lines like this: “The person who claims that he does not want to be better off,” Harris writes, “is either wrong about what he does, in fact, want (i.e, he doesn’t know what he’s missing), or he is lying, or he is not making sense.” This way lies totalitarianism [and] technocracy, a future Harris seems all too willing to embrace.