Update: More PZ and More Harris
Ok, so I refrained from commenting on Sam Harris’ apologetic for profiling, largely because I’ve been critical of Harris in the past, so I might not seem very objective, and because I was annoyed by his position, which isn’t always good for rational argument.
I should note, I am in agreement with PZ. His argument about numbers is bang on. Muslim is simply not a useful ‘terrorist filter’ when you have over a billion Muslims on the planet, and thousands of un-highjacked planes carrying Muslims flying around. (Unfortunately human beings are crap when it comes to thinking in big numbers).
So, if both of these guys are rational atheists, why are they so far apart on this issue. PZ seems to think that it is just that Harris’ logic is off, but I don’t think that is really the issue.
Now, I hate to beat a dead horse… but what I think actually gets back to what I didn’t like about The Moral Landscape. In the book, Harris uses the example of slavery being wrong in a self-evident sort of way, without really digging into why it is wrong. This is important, because I think this is the crux of why he could find profiling acceptable.
Essentially, with slavery, Harris is relying on his moral intuition almost exclusively. He takes a rather Kantian position, in that he is saying slavery is wrong, because it harms human dignity. This is the sort of stance one would take if one values ‘human rights’.
Ironically, I think this is the same stance PZ takes with regards to profiling. PZ, goes a step further though, backing his moral intuition up with a good logical argument about numbers.
But it is not the logic part, where Harris and PZ really disagree. PZ is a godless liberal, and huge lefty. This is not an insult, just description, and in this case it is an advantage. The human rights angle is likely where his moral thinking is going to start by default, so he doesn’t fall into the trap of prejudice against Muslims, even though, he is not a big fan of religion.
Harris, on the other hand, often, and in his book takes moral stances that are not Kantian, but rather come across as more Consequentialist. For Harris, sometimes, the end justifies the means. So he can justify sacrificing Muslim dignity, for the greater good of better security for all. Once Harris embraces Consequentialist moral intuition, he then goes on to justify it with logic, but its the basic premise that leads to the different conclusion as much as good or bad logic. I’m not saying Harris is a bad guy. This is a very human thing to do.
Moral Intuition + Logic = Moral position
What is most excellent about this situation, and I have to give both PZ and Harris credit for this, is that after the fit-hit-the-shan, and it became clear that there was some valid disagreement, both seem to have come to the same conclusion. Something other than logic and intuition was necessary.
Moral Intuition + Logic + Expert Observation = Moral position
Go to an expert, who will be able to tell you if profiling is actually as useful as Harris thinks it is. This won’t solve the problem that PZ and Harris probably have different moral premises, but it may lead them to agreement regardless.
(If for instance, an expert tells Harris that profiling Muslims is not effective, then it doesn’t matter that Harris is willing to accept sacrificing Muslim dignity for the greater good. He can be against profiling because it doesn’t, in fact, work.)
The best part, is that this is where even a relativist like me can agree with both of them. Science, or more loosely: observing what works and what doesn’t, can INFORM ethics. There are still a whole host of things that make ethics subjective, but this is where the scientific mind kicks ass and can help with ethical decisions.
I should note, I also think that some atheists might believe, more along the lines of an Aristotlean argument, that believing in a religion that ‘advocates’ violence, means you might deserve to be treated with suspicion, but that is also a different moral premise. This might be why some people would support Harris’s view, but I’m less sure it is relevant here.