Tuesday May 9, 2006


Not that long ago, I wrote a review of Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith on this site. I was reminded of Harris’s book recently when I received my latest copy of Inquiring Mind, which contained a short interview with the man himself. When I say short, I mean short: the interview is a whole two questions long; which is a shame because it raises a number of interesting questions.

I many ways, I find myself in agreement with Harris. I think that he is right when he says that the myth that “all religions teach the same thing and teach it equally well” is “demonstrably untrue.” Likewise I am in agreement that there is a good case to be made for the claim that “what the Buddha taught is not even a religion.” I myself have argued elsewhere on this site that Buddhism seems closer to certain wisdom traditions in the ancient Greek world – in particularly Epicureanism (although there are notable differences) – than to the Middle Eastern monotheisms of Judaism Islam and Christianity. Harris claims in the interview that the dialogue between science and the meditative traditions of Buddhism needs to rise above explicit reference to Buddhism. For Harris, students of Buddhism need to get out of the religion business. They need to get out of Buddhism. And in all of this, I think that Harris has got something interesting to say. And yet his book continues to trouble me for reasons that have nothing to do with his view upon the relationships between Buddhism and science and the deconstructing of the idea of Buddhism as one amongst several world religions that are substantially the same.

It comes again to the question of torture. Harris has written an article in defence of torture on the huffingtonpost, which gives a good summary of his argument. Harris considers his argument for the use of torture in rare cases to be watertight, although he adds that he hopes that there is a flaw in it and that his mind might be changed by this flaw being pointed out. Harris’s argument is in part based upon the now famous ticking bomb argument, essentially a thought experiment. In this argument, we imagine that a bomb has been planted in a crowded city, and we have the person in custody who is responsible for planting it. The only thing is, the person in question won’t tell us where the bomb is. Surely we are justified, the argument goes, in torturing the person in custody to get the information before the bomb goes off.

Harris’s argument is more complex than just a rehearsal of the ticking bomb argument: he raises the difficult question of whether pain and suffering caused by torture are any different from the pain and suffering caused by dropping bombs upon one’s enemies, or whether there is in a certain sense a moral equivalence between the two. If there is, then those who agree that it is sometimes necessary to drop bombs will also have to concede that it may also sometimes be necessary to torture. Harris asks: “What is the difference between pursuing a course of action where we run the risk of inadvertently subjecting some innocent men to torture, and pursuing one in which we will inadvertently kill far greater numbers of innocent men, women, and children?” I don’t want to explore this argument of moral equivalence here, although I will return to it at the end of this post. For the moment I’ll stay with the ticking bomb.

The ticking bomb argument is difficult to respond to on its own terms. It is the kind of argument that the Utilitarians love: it puts us in a position where our moral compass is thrown into spinning confusion. We seem to be led to only one conclusion, one which seems morally abhorrent. But I wonder if the difficulty of responding to the argument is rooted in the fact that the terms of the argument are limited: it has been framed in such a way as to lead us to this particular conclusion, and it can be most effectively responded to not on its own terms, but by what it leaves out. A recent article by David Luban, Professor of Law and Philosophy at Georgetown University, published in the Philosophers’ Magazine puts the ticking bomb question into this broader context, and asks these questions of what is left out of the argument. Instead of taking the argument head-on, Luban considers what it would be for torture to be acceptable under the law. The ticking bomb scenario puts us in a one-off situation, but this misses the point:

[The argument] assumes a single, ad hoc decision about whether to torture, by officials who ordinarily would do no such thing except in a desperate emergency. But in the real world of interrogations, decisions are not made that way. They are based on policies, guidelines and directives. Officials inhabit a world of practices, not of ad hoc emergency measures. Any responsible discussion of torture therefore must address the practice of torture, not just the ticking bomb hypothetical.

This opens up a mass of troubling questions. If torture is to be made a part of policy, then presumably it would be imperative to develop a coherent regime of torture within the law: there must be training, research into techniques, the involvement of the medical profession (what would happen to the Hippocratic Oath in these circumstances?). Here the questions multiply. Should we have research grants for those whose work is to devise new torture techniques? Should we run courses in torture at our universities? Should we have training camps for torturers? What institutional basis do we give such a regime? Then there is the question of the psychological effects upon those involved in such torture. And what about accountability? Should there be a government body concerned with moderating torture institutions, a kind of diabolical twin of OFSTED (the already pretty diabolical educational inspectorate in the UK, for those visitors from elsewhere in the world!)?

Luban’s argument, which is more complex than I have presented here, raises precisely these kinds of questions. They are questions that simply cannot be evaded if we are to take the talk of ticking bombs seriously. When we remove the argument from the self-absorbed realm of utilitarian thought experiments and place it in the real world where we might possibly do such things, then it becomes far less unambiguous. Luban concludes his article:

The ticking bomb scenario is an intellectual fraud. In its place, we must address the real questions about torture – questions about uncertainty, questions about the morality of consequences, questions about what it does to a culture to introduce the practice of torture, questions about what torturers are like and whether we really want them walking among us.

I am aware that I haven’t mentioned Buddhist objections to torture here (although one could think of many such objections). This is deliberate. For Harris, to simply quote a scripture is simply not good enough as a sufficient reason either to accept or reject something; and this perhaps is how it should be. But Luban’s responses to the ticking bomb question should serve to throw into question some of the claims that Harris makes. Whether they are sufficient to change Harris’s mind, I do not know.

But perhaps to finish I should return, finally, to the question of moral equivalence between torture and warfare. It might be argued that we already do have just such a culture built up around the waging of war: training, policy, law, research into new techniques and so on. Quite so. But the moral equivalence argument cuts both ways. If we remain unconvinced by the idea of institutionalising the machineries of torture, then perhaps we should at least be a little uneasy about the institutionalised machineries of warfare as well…

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#1 · Peter

10 May 2006

The answer is to give the bomber lots of love in order to find out where the bomb is. It may sound impractical or not possible in the ‘real world’ but that’s only because we have been conditioned to think that. Luban is on the right track that we should question the whole torture, war, violence culture. But many people already do this, end up with more and more questions and still don’t know how to love. Better to put the focus on love, feel it rather than think about it, and allow the answers to emerge, imho. When you are feeling and knowing the answers in your heart, Will, perhaps then is the time to translate them into an intellectual expression for yourself and those who seem to need that kind of thing?

#2 · Will

10 May 2006

I agree, Peter, that if hate is the problem it cannot be a part of any genuine solution. The David Edwards book I mentioned in the last post is very strong on this: much political action simply feeds the hate that it seeks to counteract.

However, I think we need both: to think through these things and also to cultivate metta. I don’t see it as thinking vs. feeling: the two should mutually support each other.

Part of the problem with thought experiments is that they are hypothetical, whilst our lives are made up of concrete situations. This is why thought experiments lead us to odd conclusions at times. When it comes to responding to the concrete, I’m not sure that there is an answer until we are faced with the situation. And perhaps not only then. But, through cultivating metta and clarity, we muddle through as best we can…

All the best,


#3 · Dave

10 May 2006

I really dig the way you think about thinking, Will! And Peter’s comment makes me realize that yes, sometimes love really is the only practical response.

#4 · Peter

12 May 2006

I agree that thinking and feeling should support each other but feeling seems very neglected imho, especially by politicians, universities and other powers-that-be. They seem to rate the intellectual above all else. The pieces you quoted also seem to ignore love and compassion and I feel that is very dangerous territory to tread.

After all, what does anyone really know? We can feel love and kindness in our hearts and know for certain they are right. But for every idea or theory there is always an alternative and always a doubt. So that’s why I say intellectualising should be rooted in feeling.

To even consider whether torture can ever be right shows a disconnection from real human feelings, imho, so any intellectual pursuit of the answer will fail. But connect to real humanity and I am sure the intellect will find very fine ways to help express the subtleties of human feeling needed in those crazy life and death situations where muddling through will probably not be enough.

Life likes to throw a spanner in the works now and then, so muddling through seems to be our destiny. But life is also very kind and compassionate and we can all have moments of great clarity. I feel that’s what would happen in the bomber scenario if a political will for real truth was in evidence.

#5 · Will

12 May 2006

Yes, Peter, you are right that we ignore feelingful responses at our peril.

When you say that “to even consider whether torture can ever be right shows a disconnection from real human feelings” then in one sense you are right as well. But also there is a problem, because very many people are considering precisely this – and not just considering it abstractly, but arguing for the conclusion that torture is acceptable in certain cases and asking for there to be policy changes to reflect this. This is deeply disturbing.

So how do we deal with this? We must, to some extent, face the arguments that are put forward and ask – Have you really (feelingfully!) thought this through? Do you really see what you are arguing for? Don’t you see that this is not just about one hypothetical instance, but about the wholescale brutalisation of culture, and the normalisation of cruelty? Is this what you want?

This, I think, is Luban’s argument. It is, to my mind, very far from being one devoid of feeling.

Will :-)

#6 · Peter

13 May 2006

It certainly is deeply disturbing that many people are arguing for the policy changes towards accepting torture. If Luban can change some minds about it, he has all my best wishes. Whilst Luban is asking those questions and making people see the error of their ways, I hope there’s someone else making an equally detailed counter-argument for an alternative solution – ie through love and compassion.

I actually wrote to Tony Blair just after the London bombings calling for him to counter hate with understanding and compassion but received no reply. He has since gone more hardline it seems. I also got no reply from Charles Clarke after a letter about violence and terrorism. I usually get replies from the House of Commons but in these cases, nothing. I don’t think they’ve fully made their minds up and feel they must be seen as being tough on terrorism. Or, more disturbingly, they have made their minds up and nothing anybody says will stop them:-(

Hope, pray, meditate, focus, metta, have faith, thank God, feel the force, breathe the bliss, party hearty, dance with joy, cry with compassion… seems the only positive thing we can do sometimes. Have a great weekend!

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