417 Sam Harris, The End of Faith ... and Pacifism

The End Of Faith

or, how silly can a definition of pacifism be, even from an exalted mind like Sam Harris'

I have finished  The End of Faith,  by  Sam Harris … a shocking book, as regards Harris’ take on The Problem with Islam (more about that in my next blog), yet, a fascinating book as regards faith. There is an interesting talk Harris gives on his book to the New York Society for Ethical Culture, in 2005; it’s about one hour ... and don’t miss the Q & A session afterwards, which goes for another twenty minutes (the link I provided doesn't work anymore).

However - while regular readers know (I’ve  blogged  about  Sam Harris  and his Project Reason before) I am very sympathetic to Harris’ rigour in critizising, even attacking religion (I have  disagreed  with him before too, though) - I have to say, I’m disappointed with Harris falling for the easy cliché of pacifism as the notion pacifists, when attacked, will not resist and rather die than defend themselves (he calls this “absolute” pacifism). This is a one dimensional and - dare I say - unreflected view of pacifism, not one espoused by myself … and I call myself a diehard pacifist. 

This notion, “what will you do if someone holds a gun to your head (or your loved-one’s head) ready to pull the trigger? (See, you dumb pacifist, I got you there!)” is too silly … the answer is simple: My type of pacifist, like everybody else, will do what’s required to prevent them getting killed. I say in my essay  PACIFISTS  there is a fist in pacifist (what you do when you’re under attack has nothing to do with the principles of pacifism; in fact, the argument is a spurious digression).

Harris offers a truly laughable definition of pacifism, where it is “the willingness to die, and to let others die, at the pleasure of the world’s thugs. It should be enough to note that a single sociopath, armed with nothing more than a knife, could exterminate a full city of pacifists.” Goodness me, Mr. Harris, is such awful nonsense really worth a full paragraph in your book? (Admittedly he foot-notes that “many flavors of pacifism can be found in the philosophical literature.” It was, Mr. Harris, just too tempting to choose the most tasty flavor, wasn’t it? Even though it’s also the stupidest.)

No, that’s not what pacifism is about - getting killed, no questions asked, and no counter measures taken - at least not in my book. Pacifism is all about absolutely, tirelessly, with tremendous effort and not taking no for an answer, with pushing way beyond the limits of prevailing policies, with counteracting wishy-washy clichés about “wars being good for something” … spreading peace-consciousness, instead of accepting war-consciousness as the norm. The thing with pacifism is that - to counter that dreadful gun-to-your-head scenario - pacifists will work incessantly to avoid coming into that position in the first place.

Over hundreds of thousands of years humans have developed a consciousness that allows us to discriminate, empathize and feel compassion. Furthermore, we have developed a sense for rationality. We should now, in the twenty first century, be advanced enough to counteract destructive, nihilistic notions of patriotism and superiority over others. Those notions lead to war. Pacifists understand more than the politicians of the day the law of reciprocity: “If you want prosperity, give others prosperity; if you want justice, give others justice; if you want freedom, give others freedom; if you want peace, give others peace;” and the Golden Rule. Pacifists draw on those two rules to avoid war … without getting killed for their efforts.

What Harris and the like don’t seem to understand is that pacifism is a force that may work only in the long term, even over generations. It is not a system of thought that if applied right now, delivers immediate results. When a war has started and you're being shot at, it's too late to come up with pacifistic scenarios … different rules apply then; but pacifism that is applied today will benefit our children and grandchildren.

What is so disappointing about this chapter in The End of Faith is that it’s entitled The false Choice of Pacifism. As regards pacifism, Mr. Harris, I’m afraid your angle is too narrow, your approach too simplistic … indeed, you are too lazy, infuriatingly so. Your concept of pacifism is an insult to anyone’s intelligence who is prepared to give the subject matter some consideration (here I’m adapting Harris’ combative writing style); Harris' verdict on the subject matter - with some considerable mental gymnastics - is that "pacifism is flagrantly immoral". I dare say that is because he just hasn't thought the thing through thoroughly. Maybe that's one reason why David Bolton thought the book contains "startling oversimplifications" in the New Humanist. 

When pondering how he can arrive at the point where he considers pacifism immoral it helps to know that Harris - in this chapter The false Choice of Pacifism and the previous one A science of Good and Evil - allows himself some viewpoints that, in my opinion, reek of moral ambiguity, where he condones torture and accepts "that violence (or the threat of it) is often an ethical necessity." Spoken like a true hawk. Nevertheless, I thank Sam Harris for his take on pacifism ... it gives me the impetus to state mine.

I have essays on  PACIFISM  and one on  WAR / PEACE CONSCIOUSNESS  in my book with no title but instead three definitions for the term  en.light.en.ment

Many years ago (in the wake of the Iraqi war) I had an email exchange with a non-pacifist that resulted in  A PACIFIST MANIFESTO  ... to say pacifism is one of my pet-subjects, is an understatement. In my manifesto I provide the reader with some historical context, to shine a light on my point that pacifism is not a band-aid solution for your hot war, but a force that - once deployed diligently - will work in its own time.