Sam Harris And Ethical Bedrock

This video is a conversation between Cenk Uygur and Sam Harris where they hash out their similarities and differences. More importantly, Harris is allowed to fully explain his view points. In other popular YouTube videos involving Sam Harris, such as the famous Bill Maher, Ben Afflect and Sam Harris debate, his arguments tend to be interrupted.

The last 10 minutes of the conversation where Harris delivers his closing statements is particularly interesting. Harris portrays himself as a philosopher and states that much of his discussions have nothing to do with public policies but have been “an effort to get at ethical bedrock”. He explains that “in the context of having a philosophical discussion about [the] ethics and right and wrong”, seemingly crazy but legitimate arguments can surface. As an example, Harris poses a question: “What’s wrong with eating babies if there are extra babies?”. When quoted out of context, the question and the discussion surrounding the question is absurd. However, when trying to get to the bedrock about the ethics of good and evil, forming an ethical argument about why eating babies is wrong and why “intuitions of its wrongness can be conserved” is a legitimate conversation for philosophers.

Whenever Harris is interviewed, his arguments regarding inflammatory issues such as nuclear deterrence, torture, and the link between belief and action, are made “in the context of a very extensive conversation in philosophical terms” about how to get to ethical bedrock.

Near the end of the interview, Harris uses Osama bin Laden to demonstrate an ethical argument.

“What makes it right to kill Osama bin Laden?”

  1. Is it right by virtue of all the people bin Laden has killed?

    No. We’re not certain Osama bin Laden personally killed anyone.

  2. Is it right by virtue of all the people that Al-Qaeda killed already?

    No. Killing Osama bin Laden does not bring anyone back to life, nor does it help anybody that is already killed, nor does it help the victims’ families.

Killing Osama bin Laden is the appropriate course of action if he could not be captured. The argument for killing him is not retribution, but is based on what bin Laden is aspiring to do in the future - all the people that are going to be saved if he is dead.

In a world of memes, sound bites and GIFs, not many people have been to a philosophical seminar. As a consequence, Harris pays a massive penalty for trying to have a fine-grained academic discussion because his words are being exported onto Twitter by public individuals like “Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan who do not [engage] with [his] arguments closely enough” and choose to “cynically mislead people” regarding Harris’ point of view. In closing, Harris admits that when arguing about the ethics of torture, the conversation is taking place in a world where there are individuals like Dick Cheney who are trying to justify a policy of rendition, and thus philosophical justifications can can be taken out of context and misconstrued.

Cenk Ugyur’s response to Harris’ closing statements is certainly true as well. Harris is not in a philosophical seminar, he is in the real world, people take his words seriously, and thus people will use his words with or without context for personal gain.

Harris’ philosophical approach to these conversations explains his depth, but can also be seen as a weakness. When he goes on interviews like Bill Maher’s, Harris does not have the opportunity to hash out the details of his ideas because the panel interrupts him. On the following day, the media creates sound bites and misrepresents his views. However, the world needs people like Sam Harris to provide a solid definition of good and evil. Harris ventures back and forth between the philosophical world and the real world explaining the nuances of different situations, variables and spectrums. Without a concise understanding of good and evil, people will think with their guts based on thousand year old texts, which ultimately gets gay people killed and witches burned.

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