(Photo by PhillipC)
As I wrote in the introduction to Lying, Ronald A. Howard was one of my favorite professors in college, and his courses on ethics, social systems, and decision making did much to shape my views on these topics. Last week, he was kind enough to speak with me at length about the ethics of lying. The following post is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Ronald A. Howard directs teaching and research in the Decision Analysis Program of the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He is also the Director of the Department’s Decisions and Ethics Center, which examines the efficacy and ethics of social arrangements. He defined the profession of decision analysis in 1964 and has since supervised several doctoral theses in decision analysis every year. His experience includes dozens of decision analysis projects that range over virtually all fields of application, from investment planning to research strategy, and from hurricane seeding to nuclear waste isolation. He was a founding Director and Chairman of Strategic Decisions Group and is President of the Decision Education Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing decision skills to youth. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of INFORMS and IEEE, and the 1986 Ramsey medalist of the Decision Analysis Society. He is the author, with Clint Korver, of Ethics for the Real World: Creating a Personal Code to Guide Decisions in Work and Life.
Harris: First, let me say that I greatly appreciate your taking the time to do this interview. As you may or may not know, your courses on ethics at Stanford were pivotal in my moral and intellectual development—as they have surely been for many others. So it’s an honor to be able to bring your voice to my readers.
Howard: My pleasure.
Harris: Let’s talk about lying. I think we might as well start with the hardest case for the truth-teller: The Nazis are at the door, and you’ve got Anne Frank hiding in the attic. How do you think about situations in which honesty seems to open the door—in this case literally—to moral catastrophe?
Howard: As you point out, these are very difficult situations to think through, and one hopes that one would be able to transform them. In other words, if you were the Buddha or some other remarkable person, perhaps some version of the truth could still save the day. You probably remember the story of the Buddha encountering a murderer who had killed 1,000 people. Instead of avoiding him, he said, “I know you’re going to kill me, but would you first cut off the large branch on that tree?” The murderer does so, and then the Buddha says, “Thank you. Now would you put it back on?” And—the story goes—the murderer suddenly realized that he was playing the wrong game in life, became enlightened, and a monk.
It’s not inconceivable that one could transform even a terribly dire situation—and I think that doing so would constitute a kind of moral perfection. Of course, that’s pretty hard to imagine for most of us when confronted by Nazis at the door. But there are extreme cases in which, depending on the participants, it’s not clear that telling the truth will always lead to a bad outcome.
Harris: I agree. But it’s probably setting the bar too high for most of us, most of the time—and, more important, it is surely setting it too high for any randomly selected group of Nazis. It seems that there are situations in which one must admit at the outset that one is not in the presence of an ethical intelligence that can be reasoned with.
I take your point, however, that if one makes this determination—i.e. these are not Nazis I’m going to be able to enlighten—one has closed the door to certain kinds of moral breakthroughs. For instance, I remember hearing about a rabbi who was receiving threatening calls from a white supremacist. Rather than hang up or call the police, the rabbi patiently heard the man out, every time he called, whatever the hour. Eventually they started having a real conversation, and ultimately the rabbi broke through, and the white supremacist started telling him about all the troubles in his life. They even met and became friends. One certainly likes to believe that such breakthroughs are possible.
Nevertheless, in some situations the threat is so obvious, and the time in which one has to make a judgment so brief, that one must err on the side of treating an avowed enemy as a real enemy.
Howard: Of course. And some people deal with this by thinking in a kind of a hierarchy. They might say, “Well, I don’t want to kill people, but I’ll kill in self-defense. I don’t want to steal but I’d steal to keep someone alive. I wouldn’t ordinarily lie, but I’ll do it to save someone’s property or to save a life, and so forth. That’s another way to handle it.
Harris: That is the way I handled it in my book. Essentially, I view lying in these cases as an extension of the continuum of force one would use against a person who no longer appears to be capable of a rational conversation. If you would be willing to defensively shoot a person who had come to harm you or someone in your care, or you would be willing to punch him in the jaw, it seems ethical to use even less force—that is, mere speech—to deflect his bad intentions.
Howard: I think that’s a very practical kind of engineering solution. We are beginning to speak here about the part of one’s ethical code that one is willing to impose on other people, which I refer to by the maxim “Peaceful, honest people have the right to be left alone.” It simplifies things to ask, “What if someone violates this maxim and, therefore, is not behaving in ways that I would like people to behave, leaving innocent people alone, and so forth?” Then, I reserve the right of self-defense. If someone is trying to kill me, I’m going to use the minimum effective force necessary to stop him. I read your article on this, and I agree with you completely.
The next level is stealing: Needless to say, if I could steal a weapon from someone who was about to kill me, that would be fine. And if I couldn’t transform the situation as some more enlightened person might—into a real circumstance of teaching—then I would lie. I would use the minimum distortion necessary to get the problem to go away.
At one end of the spectrum, you can be super-optimistic about people. But let’s face it, there are people who are up to no good in all kinds of ways. I’m not going to abet them in violating other people’s right to be left alone, and I’ll do whatever is necessary to avoid that.
Harris: Obviously, the Anne Frank case doesn’t often arise in the ordinary course of life, but there are many other troubling situations in which people find it tempting to lie. When I asked for feedback from readers on the first edition of Lying, I received many accounts in which people found themselves lying for reasons that they thought entirely noble. One case I’d like you to reflect on relates to a terminally ill child.
Your child doesn’t have long to live. Naturally, he has questions about when he will die and about what happens after death. Let’s say that, based on what your doctor has said, you think that your child has about two months to live. You also believe that everyone gets a dial tone after death and that you’ll never see each other again. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that giving a false but consoling response to his questions could make your child’s last two months of life happier than they would otherwise be.
Howard: Well, that’s a case where I would take a much stronger position. I’ve had people in my classes who regularly deal with the dying, and their advice is always the same: You should tell the truth as you believe it to be. The important thing to determine is, what is the truth? So you ask the doctor, “Doctor, how long has he got?” and the truthful answer might be, “Well, you know some people surprise us, some people go quicker. We really can’t tell you exactly how long. Most people have two months but a few live longer, and so on.” Now, that’s the truth. If you say, “Oh, no, you’re going to recover,” when he’s probably going to die in a few months, you would deprive the person of the opportunity to do all those things that he or she might want to do in this limited time. In most cases, they know they’re dying. Let them go peacefully.
Once, a man in a group meeting shared that his young son was terminally ill. He said, “You know, it’s really sad: When he colors pictures, he uses only the black crayons.” Then, after one week, he spoke to the group again. He said, “You know what? I realized that I was holding myself back from my son because I was going to miss him so much after he dies.” He shared that truth with his son, telling him, “I love you so much, and I’m going to miss you.” And guess what? He reported that the boy was now using all the colors.
My understanding from people who deal with kids who are dying is that they know. The parents are really grieving for all the experiences that they’re not going to have with their child. The child isn’t thinking, “I’m not going to get married.” That’s not in his knowing at that point, unless you dump it on him. He may not see his dog again, but that’s not the same thing as the parents’ grief over all that they’re anticipating losing over a lifetime.
Harris: So, the truth that exists to be told to the child is not the same as the parents’ anticipated loss, or their ideas about what the child himself will be losing.
Howard: Right. Telling the kid, “It’s really sad you’re dying because you’re not going to get married” misses the point. You might as well say, “You’re also not going to serve in the Army. You’re not going to kill people. You’re not going to experience the death of other people that you love.” You see? That’s life. It doesn’t all have a Hollywood ending. There are lots of pluses and minuses. Ultimately, we all die, and the only question is, what have you done between the time you’re born and the time you die? Did you make the most of this unique opportunity?
Harris: I agree with all that. But cases of this kind seem to suggest certain caveats to scrupulous truth-telling. There still seems to be a tension between honesty and our responsibility to protect children and other people whom we might judge to be not entirely competent to deal with the truth as we see it. So, let’s say you take all the time required to figure out what the truth really is, and yet you are in the presence of someone, whether a child or an adult, who you think needs to be spared certain truths. Other examples of this have come to me from people who are caring for parents with dementia. Your mother wakes up every morning wondering where your father is, but your father has been dead for fifteen years. Every time you explain this, your mother has to relive the bereavement process all over again, only to wake up the next morning looking for her husband. Let’s assume that when you lie, saying something like “Oh, he’s away on a business trip,” your mother very quickly forgets about your father’s absence and her grief doesn’t get reactivated.
Howard: That’s an interesting one. I would be tempted to say something more like “Well, he’s where he usually is at this time of day.” Like, he is someplace, and it’s where he usually is. The fact that he’s buried in the ground somewhere doesn’t add anything to this person’s knowledge of what’s going on. As you point out, you would just be putting her through pain all over again. As you stated the case, why would you want to do that?
Harris: What you seem to be acknowledging here, however, is that it is okay to be somewhat evasive in situations of this kind. At the very least, it can take some skill to thread the needle and find a truth that is appropriate to the other person’s situation.
Howard: I’d call it “skillful truth-telling” as opposed to “evasion,” in the sense that if this person had looked at the whole conversation—let’s say they magically get better again and could say, “Oh, I had Alzheimer’s. How did you deal with me when I kept asking about Dad?” They would look at the transcript and say, “You know, that’s right. In my mind, he was someplace, and I just didn’t know where he was. What you said allowed me to get out of that loop.” That’s fine.
Harris: I’m just going to keep throwing difficult cases at you, Ron.
Howard: You go right ahead.
Harris: Let’s again invoke a deathbed scene, where the dying person asks, “Did you ever cheat on me in our marriage?” Let’s say it’s a wife asking her husband. The truthful answer is that he did cheat on her. However, the truth of their relationship—now—is that this is completely irrelevant. And yet it is also true that he took great pains to conceal this betrayal from her at one point, and he has kept quiet about it ever since. What good could come from telling the truth in that situation?
Howard: Well, this is really a two-part problem, and the first part is, why would this husband want to live a lie all his life?
Harris: I agree. But we have to put a frame around the relevant facts of the present, and if a person hasn’t been perfectly ethical up until yesterday, he has to figure out how to live with the legacy of his misbehavior. This thing is buried in the past. He hasn’t thought about it in forever, but the truth is that he did cheat on his wife, and now she’s asking about it. In his mind, he seems to have a choice between lying and having a perfectly loving last few days or weeks of his marriage, and breaking his wife’s heart for no good reason.
Howard: Well, this is one of those textbook situations that we sometimes get into in ethics class. The terrorists get aboard the plane and try to make you kill a little old lady, threatening that they’re going to shoot everybody else if you don’t. Life doesn’t really work like that. I know of very few marriages, for example, where the husband has cheated and the wife didn’t suspect it.
Harris: I can’t let you off that easily. I think there’s something realistic about a case like this. We can even grant that she did suspect it all those years, and she buried her suspicion. Now she’s on her deathbed, and she finally wants the truth, for whatever reason.
Howard: Then they’ve had a silent conspiracy to not talk about this thing their whole life. Now what? In other words, she bears the responsibility as much as he does. The question is, are they going to start living an open life now and be truthful to each other, or not? They could do it. He could say, “We’ve never talked about this. Is this something you really want to talk about today?” This may be the time, whatever their beliefs about what happens after death. Or he could say, “Look, we’ve got a very short time together, and whatever we’ve done in the past, if it doesn’t bring us joy now, let’s leave it behind.”
Harris: It’s interesting—there seems to be an odd intuition working in cases like this, which I only just noticed in myself: If we shorten the time horizon down to a few days, or a few weeks, or even a few months, it seems to put pressure on the rationale for living truthfully. Many people seem to feel that if we only have two weeks left together, it’s probably better to live a consoling lie, but if we have 20 years left, then we might want to put our house in order and live truthfully.
Howard: I look at it another way: No matter how much time I’ve got left, I want to live a life that I have no regrets about.
Harris: I agree. But I think that there might be a moral illusion creeping in here. When you dial the remainder of one’s life down to a very short span, people begin to wonder, what good could possibly come from telling the truth? In my view, one might as well apply that thinking to the whole of life.
Howard: Absolutely. This gets to the very foundation of what we’re talking about here, which is how you want to live your life and care for the people in it. My father used to talk about someone being a man of his word, and I guess maybe it’s sexist these days, but I never hear that anymore. Clint Korver, my doctoral student who has helped me teach my course and write our ethics book, was once introduced at a conference, quite correctly, as “the guy who always tells the truth.” I find it absolutely shocking that anyone would need to mention that. It’s like saying he doesn’t steal or murder people. Why not say, “and he breathes, too”? “He’s lived for many years, and he’s been breathing all this time.” Great. Glad to hear it.
Harris: It just indicates how commonplace lying is. It’s ubiquitous, and most people don’t even consider what life would be like without it.
Another difficult case comes to mind, also from a reader: You’re having sex with your wife or husband and fantasizing about someone else. Later, your spouse has the temerity to ask what you were thinking about when you were having sex. The honest answer is that you were thinking about someone else. But let’s say that you know your spouse will not do well with this information. He or she will view it as a real breach of trust, rather than just a natural consequence of having a human imagination.
Howard: Well, that’s another case in which, when you first suspect this, it’s probably time to have a conversation. Just what is okay? Is it “whatever turns you on”?—you know, “I could be the pirate and you could be the helpless maiden…” and so forth. Is that okay? Or is it “Oh, my god, you’re not seeing me as I really am.” People will obviously differ in this area, but couples just need to have an honest conversation about it. I think honesty really is all that matters. It just transforms the situation.
Why would you want to live a lie in your sex life? It just seems silly to live a life of pretense, and it’s okay to have fantasies. Why not say, “Look, if it turns you on to think that I’m Brad Pitt, it’s going to be more fun for me when you’re turned on, so go for it. Because that’s why I’m here in the first place, right? I love you, and I want to have the best life with you that we can have.”
Harris: I can feel our readers abandoning us in droves, but I agree with you. Let’s return to the case in which you are in the presence of someone who seems likely to act unethically. Can you say more about honesty in those situations?
Howard: Well, I’d make a distinction between the maxim-breakers—in other words, a person who is harming others or stealing—and those who are merely lying or otherwise speaking unethically. Lying is not a crime unless it’s part of a fraud. If someone asks for directions to Wal-Mart, and you know the way but you send them walking in the opposite direction—it’s not a nice thing to do, but it’s not a crime. Imagine if they came back with a policeman and said, “That’s the man who misdirected me.” You could say, “Yeah, I did. It just so happens that I like to watch people wandering in the wrong direction.” That’s not a crime. It’s not nice behavior. It might be reason for someone to boycott your business, or to exclude you from certain groups, but it’s not going to land you in jail.
I make a careful distinction between what I call “maxim violations”—interfering with peaceful, honest people—and everything else.
Harris: Yes, I see. It breaks ethics into two different categories—one of which gets promoted to the legal system to protect people from various harms.
Howard: In fact, there are also two categories in the domain of lying. The first is where people acknowledge the problem—people obviously get hurt by lies—and then the other cases where more or less everyone tends to lie and feels good about it, or sees no alternative to it. That’s why your book is so important—because people think it’s a good thing to tell so-called “white” lies. Saying “Oh, you look terrific in that dress,” even when you believe it is unattractive, is a “white” lie justified by not hurting the person’s feelings.
The example that came up in class yesterday was, do you want that mirror-mirror-on-the-wall-who’s-the-fairest-of-them-all device, or do you want a mirror that shows you what you really look like? Or imagine buying a car that came with a special option that gave you information that you might prefer to the truth: When you wanted to go fast, it would indicate that you were going even faster than you were. When you passed a gas station, it would tell you that you didn’t need any gas. Of course, nobody wants that. Well, then, why would you want it in your life in general?
Harris: However, there are some arguments, from both an evolutionary and a psychological perspective, that suggest that having one’s beliefs ever-so-slightly out of register with reality can be adaptive and psychologically helpful. I’m sure you’re familiar with the research that shows that if you bring a person into a room full of strangers and have him give a brief speech, a depressed person will tend to accurately judge what sort of impression he has made, while a normal person will tend to overestimate how positively others saw him. It’s hard to know which is cause and which is effect here—but it does seem like an optimism bias could be psychologically advantageous.
Howard: It might have allowed people to survive a lot better in the past.
Harris: Yes. In fact, self-deception could have paid evolutionary dividends in other ways. Robert Trivers argues, for instance, that people who can believe their own lies turn out to be the best liars of all—and an ability to deceive rivals has obvious advantages in the state of nature. Now, obviously there are many things that may have been adaptive for our ancestors—such as tribal warfare, rape, xenophobia, etc.—that we now deem unethical and would never want to defend. But I’m wondering if you see any possibility that a social system that maximizes truth-telling could be one in which the wellbeing of all participants fails to be maximized. Is it possible that some measure of deception is good for us?
Howard: This gets back to distinctions I make between prudential, ethical, and legal principles. Is the statement “Honesty is the best policy” a prudential statement? In other words, is it merely in your interest to be honest? That’s different from saying, “I am ethically committed to being honest,” because you could probably find individual circumstances where dishonesty gives you an advantage.
I think that growth is encouraged by accurate feedback. Telling children they are always accomplishing wonderful things regardless of their actual accomplishments is not going to serve them when they face the world. Having a positive mental attitude toward life is prudential, but being overconfident in your abilities is not.
A student yesterday said that he had recently bid for something, and he told the guy that he didn’t have enough money to pay the full price. But this was a lie. He really had the money, but he said, “I only have X,” and the seller said, “Okay. I’ll give it to you for X, if that’s all the money you have.” So my student was feeling pretty good about this negotiation because, from his point of view, he saved money by telling an untruth. But it’s also possible the seller could have said, “Sorry. I’ve got other offers at the price X+1,” in which case my student would have been exposed in his lie if he really wanted the item and said, “Okay, I’ll pay X+1 too.” This all gets to the question of whether you have repeated relationships. Do you view your life in terms of relationships or transactions?
If you’re bidding on eBay, truth isn’t an issue. This is a completely transactional situation. If I’m dealing with my mechanic on an ongoing basis, it’s not a transaction. It’s a relationship, and he will make judgments about me and about my reliability as a person. And I will make these judgments about him, and these judgments will have long-term effects for both of us. This alters the prisoner’s dilemma: If you have a relationship with a person, you’re going to have different beliefs about the prospect of him selling you out than you would if he were just some guy the experimenters grabbed and put in the situation with you.
I don’t think you can get from “is” to “ought” in the coarse sense of saying that ethical people make more money, are always happier, etc. That would be to prove that it is always prudential to be ethical. Now, I personally believe it generally is, but I can’t prove that.
Harris: I agree. But you seem to have a very strong intuition, which I share, that we should consider honesty to be a nearly ironclad principle, because it is to everyone’s advantage so much of the time, and it allows us to live the kinds of lives and maintain the kinds of relationships we want to have.
Howard: And I believe it also extends to truths about oneself. Self-deception isn’t of any value either. For instance, I was never going to be a professional singer. If I didn’t understand this fact about myself, people could have said, “Oh, you’re a great singer. You ought to quit your job and start recording.” But that’s just bullshit. You’ve got to be honest about who you are—about what you know and don’t know and about what you can and can’t do—and still be willing to try things and experiment. To me, it’s pretty simple.
Harris: And, needless to say, it makes sense to want to be in touch with reality. Given that your every move in life will be constrained by whatever the facts are, both out in the world and in the minds of others, being guided by anything less than these facts will leave you perpetually vulnerable to embarrassment and disappointment. When your model of yourself in the world is at odds with how you actually are in the world, you are going to keep bumping into things.
I think where people get confused, psychologically and ethically, is when they consider that part of reality that exists in other people’s minds. The question is, do you really want to know what other people think about you—about your talents and prospects—or do you want to be deceived about all that?
Many people imagine that they want to be protected from the knowledge of what is really going on in the heads of other people, because they think their own performance in the world will be best served by this ignorance. I think they’re mistaken, but it’s interesting to consider cases where they might be right.
Howard: It is—and that gets down to the question of what your view is towards life as a whole. I tend to go back to something like the Buddha’s eightfold path. I remember hearing a Buddhist speaker once give a talk, and at question time a woman said, “I was raised as a Christian, where the idea of charity is built in, and yet you haven’t mentioned charity at all. So I’m having trouble understanding your ethics.”
And he said to her, “Well, when you were doing all these charitable things”—which she said she regularly did at church, helping people all over the world, sending them baskets and stuff—“did you really care about these people you were doing these things for?” The woman was silent for a moment and then she said, “No. I hadn’t really thought about that.” And the teacher said, “Well, when you care, you’ll know what to do.”
That’s so different from saying, “You’ve got to be charitable.” When you actually care about the experience of other people, you tend to know what to do. The conversation you and I are having now is kind of like writing a manual for unenlightened people like ourselves, so we all won’t make too many mistakes along the way.
I sometimes use a metaphor of the guy who never knew he had to put oil in his new car, because no one ever told him. He never read the manual, and now after three years the engine is burned out. He takes the car into the shop and the mechanic says, “Hey, you have to put oil in these things. Now your engine is ruined.” And the man says, “Oh, if only I’d known!” You see, he had no intention of creating this problem that he now has to solve. Well, in speaking about ethics, you and I are trying to raise everyone’s sensitivities, so that we all can live in a preemptive way, as opposed to saying, “Oh my god, what was I thinking?” later on.
Harris: That’s what I felt when I first took your course at Stanford. It was as if I had been given part of the user’s manual to a good life, and by following the simple principle of always telling the truth, I could bypass most of the needless misery I read about in literature and witnessed in the lives of other people. I remember leaving your course feeling that I had discovered a bomb at the very center of my life and had defused it before it could do any damage. It was a tremendous relief.
I’ve begun to wonder, however, at what level the ethical problems we see in the world can be best addressed. The level we tend to speak about, as we have here, is that of a person’s personal ethical code and his individual approach to life, moment to moment. But I suspect that the biggest returns come at the level of changing social norms and institutions—that is, in creating systems that align people’s priorities so that it becomes much easier for ordinary people to behave more ethically than they do when they are surrounded by perverse incentives. For instance, a person usually has to be a hero to be a whistle-blower, given that he will likely lose his job for telling the truth. But in a culture of honesty, it becomes much easier to be truthful. I’m interested in those changes we can make that will cause all boats to rise with the same tide.
Howard: Right. And in my own life I know that I don’t want to do business with people that I’m not on the same ethical wavelength with, so to speak. No matter how attractive the deal looks, if I don’t trust these people—in the sense that you and I are talking about—I don’t want to do business with them, no matter how profitable it might be.
But the problem is that a lot of our life today is transactional. I just bought something from Amazon.com, and there was nobody there, so to speak. It was just credit cards and button clicks. If you go to the supermarket today,the laser system tells you what the price is and the checker bags it for you. In the old days it might be, “Oh you bought a lot of spaghetti. Do you have sauce for that?” There’s no feeling that the checker is a partner in this experience of buying something.
I have this example of what I call the hardware store hammer: A woman is in a hardware store and picks up a hammer. When she is checking out, the shop owner says, “What are you going to use this hammer for?” And she says, “My husband told me to buy a hammer. We’re putting up some pictures in the kitchen.” The owner might say, “Okay. But this is a professional carpenter’s hammer. For your purpose, that one over there would do just fine, and it’s a third the price.” That’s the difference between a relationship and a transaction. If you have a concern for other people doing well for themselves, then I think you want this level of honesty. But our society might be losing that.
We have a great technological advantage, but it’s not like when my father ran a grocery store. If the kids didn’t arrive with enough money, he knew who was who, and it was not a problem. They could just bring the money next time. You don’t see much of that today. Now, you’ve got your credit card, and the idea of extending that kind of trust and courtesy just doesn’t come up anymore. So certain kinds of relationships seem less possible.
Harris: Yes, a system-wide change can either facilitate our ethical connections to other people, or erode them. This brings me to a related question: Are there some things that are important to do—that is, ultimately ethical to do—but which require that the person doing them sacrifice his ethics? I brought this up briefly in my book where I talk about spying. The position I take in the book is that there are certain jobs that I know I would not want to do, and I suspect that they are intrinsically toxic for the person who has to do them, but I can’t say that I think these jobs are unnecessary. I’m thinking of things like espionage, or research on animals. I know that I don’t want to be the guy who saws the scalps off rats all day, but I’d be hard-pressed to say we shouldn’t be using rats in medical research. So, assuming you are going to grant that espionage is occasionally necessary, what do you think about the lifetime of lying entailed by working at the CIA?
Howard: You could also consider what it’s like to be an undercover police officer.
Harris: Yes, that might be an even simpler case. Assuming the laws he is working to enforce are good ones. I know you and I agree on how harmful the war on drugs has been. If an undercover cop were deceiving people to enforce drug laws, I think we would both question the ethics of that line of work.
Howard: Exactly. I’d want to first make sure the cop is enforcing good laws. If it’s a serial rapist found, that’s fine. I’m happy to have police who are out there finding those people and bringing them to justice. We all pay a huge price for living in a world with people who are maxim-breakers. I wish we could live in a world where no one had to use passwords, for instance. But we have passwords and burglar alarms and keys… If you go out in the country, people say, “You mean you don’t leave your key in the car? And you lock your house?”
That’s why I want a very strong system to deter maxim-breakers that is based on restitution. In other words, some of these things that you do are imposing costs on everyone else. I’ve never been burglarized, but I’m paying the price for people who commit burglary, through insurance and other costs. If you engage in that sort of behavior, you ought to pay the criminal overhead for it. But that’s a longer story.
Harris: I completely agree with that as well.
Howard: The trouble is that we can’t separate these things when we get into the kind of discussion we’re having now—What kind of crimes are there in society, and how do you find the people who are perpetrating them? What kind of judgment do they get, and what are the penalties for having done these things? etc. This is a book all in itself, but it’s extremely important.
Harris: No doubt. Well, Ron, this has been great, and I think that readers will find your thoughts on all these topics very useful. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. And let me say again, in case I never fully expressed it, that the courses you taught at Stanford were probably the most important I ever took. It’s rare that one sees wisdom being directly imparted in an academic setting. But that is what you did, and have continued to do for decades. So I just want to say, “Thank you.”
Howard: You are very welcome. And it was great to have this conversation.
By Andrew Zak Williams
(Photo by kevin dooley)
A few of the subjects I explore in my work have inspired an unusual amount of controversy. Some of this results from real differences of opinion or honest confusion, but much of it is due to the fact that certain of my detractors deliberately misrepresent my views. I have responded to the most consequential of these distortions here.
I’m up against a book deadline and have had to step away from blogging for a few months. One of the benefits of this time, as well as one of its frustrations, is that I’ve had to ignore the usual ephemera that might have otherwise captured my attention. For instance, in recent days both Salon and Al Jazeera published outrageous attacks on me and my fellow “new atheists.” The charges? Racism and “Islamophobia” (again). Many readers have written to ask when I will set the record straight. In fact, I consider both articles unworthy of a response, and I was quite happy to have a reason to ignore them. But then I noticed that the columnist Glenn Greenwald had broadcast an approving Tweet about the Al Jazeera piece to his fans (above).
I’ve had pleasant exchanges with Greenwald in the past, so I wrote to him privately to express my concern. As you will see, I came right to the point. I was simply outraged that he would amplify this pernicious charge of racism so thoughtlessly. However, I am even more appalled by his response. The man actually has thought about it. And thinking hasn’t helped.
Here is our unedited exchange:
On 2 April 2013, Sam Harris wrote:
Before you retweet defamatory garbage about me to 125,000 people, it would nice if you looked at the article from which that joker had mined that “very revealing quote.” The whole point of my original article, written in 2006, was to bemoan the loss of liberal moral clarity in the war on terror—and to worry about the influence of the Christian conservatives in the U.S. and fascists in Europe.
Here is the very revealing quote in context:
Increasingly, Americans will come to believe that the only people hard-headed enough to fight the religious lunatics of the Muslim world are the religious lunatics of the West. Indeed, it is telling that the people who speak with the greatest moral clarity about the current wars in the Middle East are members of the Christian right, whose infatuation with biblical prophecy is nearly as troubling as the ideology of our enemies. Religious dogmatism is now playing both sides of the board in a very dangerous game.
While liberals should be the ones pointing the way beyond this Iron Age madness, they are rendering themselves increasingly irrelevant. Being generally reasonable and tolerant of diversity, liberals should be especially sensitive to the dangers of religious literalism. But they aren’t.
The same failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants. The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.
To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization.
On Apr 2, 2013, Glenn Greenwald wrote:
To be honest, I really don’t see how that full quote changes anything. You are indeed saying - for whatever reasons - that the fascists are the ones speaknig most sensibly about Islam, which is all that column claimed.
I know Murtaza’s writings really well and he’s always trustworthy and diligent, and I think he was here, too.
I’m not sure how you can blame me for tweeting an article published in Al Jazeera and written by a respectable commentator, but I’m happy to post your email to me - or some edited version of it as you wish - and tweet that, too.
On 2 April 2013, Sam Harris wrote:
You have got to be kidding…
A few points that it would be nice to get into your brain:
1. There is absolutely nothing racist about my criticism of Islam. I criticize white, western converts in precisely the same terms—in fact, I am even more critical of them, because they weren’t brainwashed into the faith from birth. And one of my main concerns—always ignored by “trustworthy and diligent” people like Murtaza—is for all the suffering of women, homosexuals, freethinkers, and intellectuals in indigenous Muslim societies. One of my friends (and heroes) is Ayaan Hirsi Ali—whom I’m constantly having to defend from similarly tendentious attacks from my fellow liberals. How you get “racism” out of these convictions, I’ll never know. (But you know how Murtaza would summarize this point: “Harris says, ‘Some of my best friends are black’!”) The truth is that the liberal (multicultural) position on Islam is racist. If a predominantly white community behaved this way—the Left would effortlessly perceive the depth of the problem. Imagine Mormons regularly practicing honor killing or burning embassies over cartoons…
2. I wasn’t making common cause with fascists—I was referring to the terrifying fact (again, back in 2006), that when you heard someone making sense on the subject of radical Islam in Europe—e.g. simply admitting that it really is a problem—a little digging often revealed that they had some very unsavory connections to Anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, neo-Nazi, etc. hate groups. The point of my article was to worry that the defense of civil society was being outsourced to extremists.
3. If you can’t see that Murtaza’s article is an unscrupulous exercise in quote-mining, you’re not paying attention. How can I blame you for retweeting it? The article is defamatory—indeed, it is beneath responding to—and it was destined to be buried in noise until you retweeted it. You endorsed it and amplified its effects—hence my annoyance. What part of that process don’t you understand?
On Apr 2, 2013, Glenn Greenwald wrote:
You can sneer and hurl insults all you want, but I’ve long believed that the crowd of which you’re a part has been flirting with, and at times embracing, Islamophobia. I’m sure you saw the Salon article by Nathan Lean from a couple days ago, which I believe I also tweeted, that made the same point (http://www.salon.com/2013/03/30/dawkins_harris_hitchens_new_atheists_flirt_with_islamophobia/).
I understand “the process” perfectly fine. I think you’re embarrassed that people are now paying attention to some of the darker and uglier sentiments that have been creeping into this form of athesim advocacy, and are lashing out at anyone helping to shine a light on that. A bizarre and wholly irrational fixation on Islam, as opposed to the evils done by other religions, has been masquerdaing in the dark under the banner of rational atheism for way too long.
The fact that you intended to convey a more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone when praising fascists for their uniquely “sensible” view of Islam doesn’t change the fact that you did say exactly what Murtaza said you said.
My offer to publish our whole email exchange and then tweet it still stands so that anyone is able to decide for themselves. Let me know if you’d like me to do that.
On 2 April 2013, Sam Harris wrote:
Yes, I saw the Lean piece—also absurdly unfair. The idea that “new atheism” is a cover for a racist hatred of Muslims is ridiculous (and, again, crudely defamatory). I have written an entire book attacking Christianity. And do you know what happens when I or any of my “new atheist” colleagues criticize Christians for their irrational beliefs? They say, “Of course, you feel free to attack us, but you would never have the courage to criticize Islam.” As you can see, our Christian critics follow our work about as well as you do.
Needless to say, there are people who hate Arabs, Somalis, and other immigrants from predominantly Muslim societies for racist reasons. But if you can’t distinguish that sort of blind bigotry from a hatred and concern for dangerous, divisive, and irrational ideas—like a belief in martyrdom, or a notion of male “honor” that entails the virtual enslavement of women and girls—you are doing real harm to our public conversation. Everything I have ever said about Islam refers to the content and consequences of its doctrine. And, again, I have always emphasized that its primary victims are innocent Muslims—especially women and girls.
There is no such thing as “Islamophobia.” This is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia. And it is doing its job, because people like you have been taken in by it.
Did you happen to see The Book of Mormon? Do you know how the Mormons protested this attack upon their faith? They placed ads for Mormonism in the Playbill. Imagine staging a similar production about Islam: Would it be “bizarre and wholly irrational” for Trey Parker and Matt Stone to worry that the Muslim community might have a different response?
Your treatment of these issues, and of me in this email exchange, has been remarkably disingenuous. If I had endorsed a similarly libelous attack on you and broadcast it to all my readers, you would also be annoyed. Just imagine how you would view me if I then defended my actions in the way that you have here, claiming that you are just “embarrassed” to have been found out to be the racist that you are.
Yes, I think we should publish this. It might be useful for our readers to see how difficult it is to have an honest conversation about these things, even in private.
[Note 4/7/13: I have responded at length to the charge of “Islamophobia” here.]
A.C. Grayling is Master of the New College of the Humanities (London). He is the author of the acclaimed Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan, Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius, Toward the Light of Liberty: The Struggles for Freedom and Rights That Made the Modern Western World, and, most recently, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible. A former fellow of the World Economic Forum at Davos and past chairman of the human rights organization June Fourth, he contributes frequently to the Times, Financial Times, Economist, New Statesman, and Prospect. Grayling’s play “Grace,” co-written with Mick Gordon, was acclaimed in London and New York. He is also an advisor to my nonprofit foundation, Project Reason.
Anthony’s new book is The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism.
What is your religious background?
I was brought up in a non-religious household and was first presented with religious ideas in school; they did not persuade me but on the contrary seemed non-rational and misleading. In the study of history I became aware of the effects of religious divisions and sectarianism on individuals and societies, and came to think that freedom from religious influence is a human rights issue. I am an atheist, a secularist and a humanist.
Perhaps you should clarify the differences between atheism, secularism, and humanism.
The first is a metaphysical view about what the universe contains (about what exists), the second is a commitment to separation of religious organizations from state organizations, and the third is the ethical outlook of any reflective person who does not have any religious beliefs or commitments.
What are the roots of humanism, in your view?
The tradition of ethical thought stemming from classical antiquity is the foundation of humanism (and is a thousand years older than Christianity)—the study of these ideas suggests their living applicability to life, and I have been keen to alert people to this fact. Often people ask “what is the alternative to religion as a philosophy of life,” and the emphatic answer is: humanism.
Humanism is a philosophical starting point for reflection on how one should live, according to one’s own talents and interests and under the government of respecting others and not doing them harm, allowing them their own quest for an individual good life.
Do you think a person can be both a humanist and a person of faith?
No, religion and humanism are not consistent—unless you mean ‘humanism’ in the Renaissance sense, where it denoted the study of classical literature. But this study soon showed people that the ideas and outlook of classical thought is at odds with religion, which is why humanism is now a secular philosophy.
Do you have any advice on how to raise children as humanists in a world where most people are religious?
Easy—make children conscious of their responsibilities to others, help them to be clear-eyed and to think, question, always ask for the evidence and arguments in support of any proposition—and explain how the legacy of mankind’s ignorant past survives in religious beliefs and practices, and what role these have in social life as a result of their historical embedding.
What would you say to someone who argues that we need religion, whether or not any religious doctrine is true, because religion gives us spirituality, rituals, etc.?
I say that such pleasures and relaxations as a country walk, dinner with friends, an afternoon in an art gallery, attending a concert or the theatre, intimacy with a loved one, lying on a beach in the sun, reading and learning, making things, are all “spiritual exercises” in their refreshment, strengthening and promotion of connections with others and the world—these are the only “rituals” and observances required for an intelligent appreciation of what is good and possible in human life.
There’s one meme I find especially galling these days—it’s the claim that atheists (or the “new atheists”) are just as dogmatic as religious fundamentalists are. This is one of those zombie ideas that, no matter how many times you kill it, it comes shambling back at you. I’m wondering what your response to it is.
There are two components to the answer: One needs to explain what “dogma” means, viz. a teaching to be accepted on authority not enquiry, and one needs to explain that robust opposition to religion in its too-common forms of bigotry, anti-science, anti-LGBT, anti-women, to say nothing of terrorism (and to ‘moderate’ religion as the burka for all this, as you point out), is justified, and cannot be effected by compromise and soft-speaking. Slavery would never have been abolished by such means.
(Cover by David Drummond)
A new edition of my short book, Lying, will be published as a hardcover in the fall. The book will contain responses to the best questions and criticisms I receive from readers, and this new material will be included in a revised edition of the e-book.
So this is an appeal to the wisdom of the crowd: If you have read Lying and have doubts about my argument, please be in touch through the contact page of this website by June 1st. And if your question or comment makes it into the appendix, or causes me to alter a single word of the main text, I will send you signed and personalized copies of all my books—The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, Free Will, and the revised edition of Lying—in the fall.
Thanks for reading—and thanks, in advance, for your help.—SH
The Edge Annual Question — 2013
WHAT *SHOULD* WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?
The Edge Annual Question — 2013
WHAT *SHOULD* WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?
By Sam Harris
Imagine that a young, white man has been falsely convicted of a serious crime and sentenced to five years in a maximum-security penitentiary. He has no history of violence and is, understandably, terrified at the prospect of living among murderers and rapists. Hearing the prison gates shut behind him, a lifetime of diverse interests and aspirations collapses to a single point: He must avoid making enemies so that he can serve out his sentence in peace.
Unfortunately, prisons are places of perverse incentives—in which the very norms one must follow to avoid becoming a victim lead inescapably toward violence. In most U.S. prisons, for instance, whites, blacks, and Hispanics exist in a state of perpetual war. This young man is not a racist, and would prefer to interact peacefully with everyone he meets, but if he does not join a gang he is likely to be targeted for rape and other abuse by prisoners of all races. To not choose a side is to become the most attractive victim of all. Being white, he likely will have no rational option but to join a white-supremacist gang for protection.
So he joins a gang. In order to remain a member in good standing, however, he must be willing to defend other gang members, no matter how sociopathic their behavior. He also discovers that he must be willing to use violence at the tiniest provocation—returning a verbal insult with a stabbing, for instance—or risk acquiring a reputation as someone who can be assaulted at will. To fail to respond to the first sign of disrespect with overwhelming force, is to run an intolerable risk of further abuse. Thus, the young man begins behaving in precisely those ways that make every maximum security prison a hell on earth. He also adds further time to his sentence by committing serious crimes behind bars.
A prison is perhaps the easiest place to see the power of bad incentives. And yet in many other places in our society, we find otherwise normal men and women caught in the same trap and busily making life for everyone much less good than it could be. Elected officials ignore long-term problems because they must pander to the short-term interests of voters. People working for insurance companies rely on technicalities to deny desperately ill patients the care they need. CEOs and investment bankers run extraordinary risks—both for their businesses and for the economy as a whole—because they reap the rewards of success without suffering the penalties of failure. Lawyers continue to prosecute people they know to be innocent (and defend those they know to be guilty) because their careers depend upon winning cases. Our government fights a war on drugs that creates the very problem of black market profits and violence that it pretends to solve….
We need systems that are wiser than we are. We need institutions and cultural norms that make us better than we tend to be. It seems to me that the greatest challenge we now face is to build them.
Having read many hundreds of responses to my recent article on guns, and hundreds more to an earlier post on self-defense, I now realize that there are differences in temperament across which it may be impossible to communicate about the reality of human violence. Many people simply do not want to think about this topic in any detail. I concede that, given the relative safety in which most of us live, this can be a reasonable attitude to adopt. Most people will do just fine walking the streets of London, Paris, or even New York, oblivious to the possibility that they could be physically attacked. Happily, the odds of avoiding violence are in our favor.
Those readers who were appalled by my article on guns seem to recoil at the suggestion that one might want to prepare for an unlikely encounter with evil. What is the best way to respond to a knife attack? How do home invasions actually occur?—such questions can seem the product of an unhealthy imagination. There are people who consider using a burglar alarm at night or even locking their doors to be debasing concessions to fear. I have heard from many people in the U.K. who claim to be greatly relieved that their police do not carry firearms. Encountering my lengthy ruminations on violence and self-defense, these readers have begun to worry about my sanity.
Although I might find a few useful things to say to such readers, let me concede that the bar is probably set too high. Thinking about violence is not everyone’s cup of tea. Again, I do not consider ignoring the whole business to be necessarily irrational (depending on where one lives, one’s degree of responsibility for the security of others, etc.) It is irrational, however, to imagine that such insouciance can pass for an informed opinion on how best to respond to violence in the event that it occurs. I have now heard from many people who have never held a gun in their lives, and are proud to say that they never would, but who appear entirely confident in declaiming upon the limitations of firearms as defensive weapons. Before proceeding, perhaps there is general rule of cognition we might all agree on: It would be surprising, indeed, if avoiding a topic as a matter of principle were the best way to understand it.
Because beliefs about violence can directly impact people’s safety, I feel a special responsibility to address some of the questions and criticism I’ve received in response to my writing on this topic. Here, I will gradually build an FAQ on self-defense, guns, and related matters, revising my responses as needed. Comments can be submitted through the contact page of this website.
1. You have overlooked the most basic point in favor of stricter gun laws: Countries with strict laws have much less lethal violence than the U.S. does. America’s goal should be to become more like the U.K. And yet you seem eager to maintain a status quo that makes you demonstrably less safe and your country a scandal in the eyes of the world. (link)
If I saw a way that we could remove 300 million guns from our streets—perhaps by amending the U.S. Constitution and instituting a $150 billion buy-back program—then I would be happy to weigh the merits of doing this. But, given the legal and political realities in the U.S., I don’t consider the banning and confiscation of guns to be a serious possibility (nor does it seem to be a goal of gun-control advocates).
On this point, many readers have sought to shame me by drawing an analogy to my atheism: One of the primary criticisms of atheism, of course, is that it is quixotic—religion, we are told, is here to stay—and yet I persist in promulgating my views. On the subject of guns in American, I appear to have taken the defeatist side. Am I simply guilty of a failure of imagination?
There are many reasons why this analogy doesn’t run through. With respect to guns, I need to make a practical and ethical decision about whether or not to own one, given my specific security concerns and the level of violent crime in the society in which I live. This is not the same as deciding whether or not to write a book criticizing religion. The choice to own a gun comes down to this: If I hear a window break in the middle of the night, I want to be armed with more than my idealism.
Many readers do not seem to understand how difficult it would be for the U.S. to follow the example of the U.K. or Australia, both of which stiffened their gun laws in response to atrocities similar to Newtown. Neither the U.K. nor Australia had anything like the level of gun ownership—or the political, legal, and historical commitment to it—that we have in the U.S. And the results of their own experiments with stricter laws have been ambiguous.
The murder rate in the U.S. has fallen by 50 percent in the last twenty years—so it is moving in the right direction despite the omnipresence of guns. It remains extremely high when compared to rates elsewhere in the developed world, of course. And there seems little doubt that access to guns has a lot to do with this. The pressing question, however, is not how we can get rid of these guns—because the barriers to doing so seem insuperable. The question is what should we do in light of the fact that dangerous people are guaranteed to have access to firearms in the U.S. for the foreseeable future.
It is also worth noting that relatively gun-free countries are not as peaceful as many think. Here are some recent crime data comparing the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and Sweden. Although the U.S. has a higher rate of homicide, the problem of assaults and rapes in these other countries is worse. (Note 1/20/13: The crime of homicide is unique in that it admits of no ambiguity. However, many readers have pointed out that cultural differences in how often assaults and rapes get reported, and how they are defined by different police departments, makes comparing rates of nonlethal violence between countries problematic. I tend to agree. Nevertheless, these are the data that the UN supplies.)
Incidents in the year 2010 per 100,000 population
UK (includes Northern Ireland) 1.2
UK (England and Wales) 28.8
U.K. (England and Wales) 664.4
Note: UNODC data and those of the Australian government do not agree. For Australian rates of Assault and Rape, I have relied on the report issued by the Australian Institute of Criminology
So, while the U.S. has many more murders, the U.K., Australia, and Sweden appear to have much higher levels of assault (I broke out the data on Scotland just to emphasize the point). One might think that having a few more murders per 100,000 persons each year is still much worse than having many hundreds more assaults. Perhaps it is. (One could also argue, as several readers have, that differences in proportion are all we should care about.) But there should be no doubt that the term “assault” often conceals some extraordinary instances of physical and psychological suffering.
2. You seem inordinately concerned about violence. As you must know, you are far more likely to die from cancer or heart disease than you are to be the victim of a home invasion. And by keeping guns at the ready for the purpose of self-defense, you seem guilty of the very reasoning bias you describe in the beginning of your essay, wherein one’s perception of danger has been distorted by rare, dramatic events. If the statistics tell us anything, they tell us that by owning guns, you impose greater risks on yourself and your family than you mitigate. Hence, your own behavior should strike you as both dangerous and irrational. (link)
I do not believe it is irrational to prepare for very low-probability events which, should they occur, would produce the worst suffering imaginable for oneself and those one loves. And, as I pointed out in my essay on self-defense, the actual probability of encountering violence, even in the relative safety in which most of us now live, is not as remote as many people think.
There are also psychological and social benefits to self-defense training, which offer further reasons to engage in it. If I thought, for instance, that practicing Brazilian Jiu-jitsu made people more fearful and neurotic, I wouldn’t recommend it—or I would tell people to do the absolute minimum to familiarize themselves with the problem of grappling on the ground. But I think BJJ makes people much more confident in the world (and for good reason). The art is extraordinarily useful—in the unlikely event that one needs it—but it is also brings many other benefits. Thus, preparing for violence in this way need not be justified by a narrow focus on statistics. Whatever the likelihood of needing to use it for self-defense, BJJ is a good thing to learn. I would extend the same reasoning, albeit less emphatically, to owning and training with firearms. I sleep much better knowing that I am prepared for certain low-probability but worst-case scenarios, and I find the process of training for them more empowering than onerous.
Of course, I realize that I am much more likely to die of heart disease than I am to be the victim of a home invasion. I also realize that handling guns and keeping them in my home increases the risk of being accidentally injured or killed by them. I am also aware that other gun owners occasionally commit suicide or murder members of their families (or both)—and it could be that guns are more often used this way than they are to defend against crime (reliable information on the defensive use of firearms is very difficult to come by). But I don’t think these broader statistics apply to me (and I don’t think this judgment is the product of a reasoning bias). Just as I can say to a moral certainty that I’m not going to open a meth lab or start a dog-fighting ring, I can say that I’m not going to commit suicide or murder my family. There are people who experience much more chaos in their lives who cannot honestly say the same. Such people should not own guns.
3. In your article, you said nothing about non-lethal weapons like Tasers and pepper spray. Aren’t these obvious alternatives to guns? (link)
There is no question that Tasers and pepper spray have their uses—and that is why police officers carry them. I think that Tasers, in particular, make a lot of sense for personal protection: They are legal to carry, non-lethal, and often effective. But their limited range and cartridge capacity, along with other vagaries of their operation, makes them (in my view) inadequate for home defense.
However, the question of non-lethal weapons is absolutely crucial—and I should have discussed this in my original essay. If there were a true, non-lethal substitute for a gun, more or less everything I have said on the subject of gun control would be moot. I would support a ban on all firearms (with the possible exception of rifles specifically designed for hunting) and champion this new weapon as the greatest breakthrough in applied ethics to arrive in centuries. And I suspect that most gun owners could be convinced to trade their guns for a nonlethal alternative, provided it had the stopping power and other defensive virtues of a gun. Unfortunately, we have not produced such a weapon (yet).
4. What about the role that guns play in violence against women? (link)
Over at the RDF website, Sean Faircloth has written a heated critique of my position. He primarily takes me to task on two points: “the evidence regarding domestic violence against women” and “the data confirming [the] success of gun control in other countries.” I believe I have addressed the latter claim above. On the subject of domestic violence, Faircloth writes:
Firearm assaults on female family members, and intimate acquaintances are approximately twelve times more likely to result in death than are assaults using other weapons. Two-thirds of women killed by spouses are killed with guns. This is not some minor secondary issue, yet Mr. Harris did not delve into it. It is the heart of the matter—a form of chronic and pervasive domestic terrorism.
It is impossible to claim to address gun violence in American while failing to address domestic violence against women. The graphic for his blog on this topic is a picture of a handgun. And that is the where the discussion must be centered.
I share Faircloth’s concern about the safety of women. Ironically, the danger that men pose toward women is my primary reason for thinking that guns should be legal and available to responsible adults. As someone who was raised by a single mother, and as the father of little girl, I tend to view all questions of self-defense through the lens of what will enable a woman to protect herself from a man who is bent upon raping and/or killing her.
This is where making the ethical case for guns is easiest. Generally speaking, men are larger than women, and even where no difference in size exists, men tend to be much stronger (especially in the upper body). Women, therefore, are at an intrinsic disadvantage in any form of unarmed combat with a man. That’s not to say that women can’t be trained to protect themselves effectively. The average man would be demolished by Ronda Rousey. But a man with the same skills will always tend to have an advantage over a woman, whether in striking or grappling—or even when fighting with non-ballistic weapons like knives, clubs, etc. As my friend Rory Miller points out, “size, strength and reach really matter with any hand-held weapon… and stronger people tend to be quicker as well. This is a huge genetic stack in men’s favor… All of that was neutralized by the introduction of the handgun.”
Yes, drunken fights between couples can turn needlessly deadly in the presence of a gun. But guns are not the reason that so many women live in terror of men—because guns obviate every difference between a man and a woman relevant to violence. Again, I will be accused of peddling NRA propaganda about guns being “an equalizer.” But it’s not propaganda if it’s true. I’m not saying that guns are the solution to the problem of domestic violence. Clearly, there is a need for strict laws, good policing, psychological counseling, women’s shelters, and other resources. Above all, women must refuse to stay in abusive relationships. But when all else fails, a gun in the hands of a woman trained to use it is the best solution that civilization has found for the problem of male aggression (I am speaking here, not about domestic violence per se, but about attacks on women in general). Indeed, there are situations in which a gun in the hands of a woman who is untrained can suffice to save her life. An ethical argument for the banning of guns must tell us why it would have been preferable for this woman to have been armed only with a frying pan.
5. But this entitlement to firearms puts you on a slippery slope. Why not own a tank or a surface-to-air missile? (link)
Once again, the fault lies with an unwillingness to think about how violent crime actually occurs. No one has a legitimate need to destroy whole buildings or city blocks in self-defense. I view the question of gun ownership as primarily an ethical one: A couple of sociopaths break into your house for the pleasure of killing you and your family, and the police cannot arrive in time to stop them. What should you be permitted to do in self-defense?
6. You say that you own “several” guns. This makes you sound like a collector or a fanatic. Why would a person need more than one gun for the purpose of home defense? (link)
Think about the ways in which a violent encounter in your home might occur. If you spend most of your time in your downstairs office, a gun in your bedroom will be of little use if you have to fight your way to it in the event that an intruder comes through your front door. The goal, from my perspective, is to be able to move away from a threat and arm oneself in the process—for the purpose of safely leaving the house with one’s family or defending them in place. Thus, the number of guns I own directly relates to the architecture of my house. (Note 1/21/13: Contrary to the bizarre conclusions that many readers draw here, this does not require that I keep a gun in every room.) Once again, if thinking about details of this kind strikes you as a symptom of pathological fear, the whole topic of home defense is probably not for you. You may rest assured that you are unlikely to ever be the victim of a violent crime.
7. You say guns must be properly secured. However, if secured, they won’t be available for use in an emergency. You can’t be both responsible and well-defended. (link)
This is untrue. A gun can be properly secured and yet available in seconds. A lock box solves the problem.
8. It should be a matter of acute embarrassment to you that you have fallen for the NRA’s “swimming pool fallacy.” Please understand and rectify your error. (link)
Harris drags out the Swimming Pool Canard. You’ve heard this canard: Children are more likely to die in pools than by getting shot. Therefore children dying by gun violence should be dismissed as…just one of those things. Similar reasoning works like this: “Women are about eight times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than by breast cancer, so all that concern about breast cancer is overblown.” Please. It is entirely reasonable that society can, and should, work to address breast cancer – and cardiovascular disease, hospital hygiene safety (Harris raises this chestnut too) and handguns. The either/or choice is a rhetorical trick, not a reasoned argument.
I’m afraid that Faircloth and many other readers misunderstood the point I was making in my essay. I was not saying that because there are greater sources of injury and death in this world, we needn’t bother mitigating the harm caused by firearms. In fact, I was making two different points: The first was that, if we value safety, we should keep our fears generally aligned with the facts. According to the CDC:
Drowning is responsible for more deaths among children 1-4 than any other cause except congenital anomalies (birth defects). Among those 1-14, fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death behind motor vehicle crashes.
I was not minimizing the threat of guns or suggesting an “either/or choice” as “a rhetorical trick.” I was putting the threat in context. If we want to keep our children safe, we should generally be guided by real probabilities. Thus, anyone who lies awake at night worrying about the prospects of another mass shooting, but reads email on his smartphone while driving his kids to school, has something to learn about relative risk. And anyone who wants to put a swimming pool in his backyard should consider the safety implications—which are analogous to those of owning a gun. The fact that guns are “designed to kill people,” while swimming pools aren’t, is beside the point. Such word games can be played both ways: A gun is designed to save your life when no other tool will do the job. Swimming pools are just for fun. As far as I can see, statements of this kind have no ethical content.
Of course, one of the main points of my article was to argue that certain low-probability risks, like mass shootings, might still warrant a response that is disproportionate to the number of deaths they cause. And I mentioned the problem of hygiene in hospitals for this purpose. I suspect that if Faircloth read the following paragraph again, he would understand it differently:
Of course, it is important to think about the problem of gun violence in the context of other risks. For instance, it is estimated that 100,000 Americans die each year because doctors and nurses fail to wash their hands properly. Measured in bodies, therefore, the problem of hand washing in hospitals is worse than the problem of guns, even if we include accidents and suicides. But not all deaths are equivalent. A narrow focus on mortality rates does not always do justice to the reality of human suffering. Mass shootings are a marginal concern, even relative to other forms of gun violence, but they cause an unusual degree of terror and grief—particularly when children are targeted. Given the psychological and social costs of certain low-frequency events, it does not seem irrational to allocate disproportionate resources to prevent them.
I was not minimizing the problem of gun violence. I was explaining why it might be rational to consider the most marginal form of gun violence to be a bigger problem than the statistics say it is. Faircloth just didn’t like the solution I proposed.
9. In response to question #1, you seem to downplay the categorical difference between murder and assault. This seems dishonest. The U.S. has a higher rate of murder than any other developed country. Having a lower rate of assault in no way compensates for this. (link)
I agree. Murder is worse than assault—and many assaults are quite insignificant. However, many crimes categorized as “assault” leave their victims physically and psychologically damaged for life. Frankly, I don’t know what it means, in terms of aggregate human suffering, to trade 2 murders per 100,000 people for 400 assaults.
Consider the following interview, taken from Geoff Thompson’s Dead Or Alive (p. 196-199). I have included the whole exchange as there is much to be learned from it, and it reveals what “assault” can mean in the U.K.:
Nev and Steve are in their early twenties and a part of an infamous gang in Coventry. Some of the details here have been changed, at their request, to protect their identity. They are not reformed characters and are still at large.
Interviewer: Why do you pick fights with people, Steve?
Steve: I like a scrap. ’Specially at the weekend, after the pub.
Nev: [laughs] Or in the pub.
I: Can you give me an example of one incident?
Steve: Yeah, we were going to the chippie after the pub, there was about six of us when we saw this bloke with his woman. She was quite tasty so I shouted, ‘Get your tits out.’ As you do [laughs]. We all cracked up laughing. The bloke she was with didn’t look that happy though. I think he was gonna say something but his missus pulled him away. I knew he was getting heated so I thought I’d wind ’im up a bit more. I might ’ave left it but the lads were geeing me up. So I shouted ‘Fucking wimp, your woman fights all your battles for you, does she?’ That really got ’im ’cus he shouted ‘wot’s your problem?’ I could tell ’e didn’t really want to go [fight], just didn’t want to look a twat in front of ’is missus, loads of blokes are like that. Anyway, we all ran over to ’im, ’is missus was trying to pull ’im away but ’e wouldn’t ’ave any of it. We all jeered ’im and I said, ‘D’you want some then?’ He tried to tell me that I was out of order talking to ’is missus like that, I said, ‘she’s only a fucking slag, anyway.’ He started getting angry again so I shouted, ‘COME ON THEN. LET’S DO IT! COME ON!’ By this time I was right in ’is face, he looked like ’e was gonna crap ’imself so I shouted right in ’is face, ‘YEAH! YEAH, COME ON you fucking wank!’ Then I caught ’im smack in the face with the head [head-butt]. As ’e ’it the deck we all laid in to ’im. ’Is missus tried to stop us so one of the boys gave ’er a dig as well. Stupid fucking slapper. I said to ’er ‘keep out of the way, you bag of sick.’ Then we kicked pieces off ’im. Wanker. ’E deserved every thing ’e got.
I: Why did you choose him as a victim?
Nev: ’E was just there, and ’e fancied ’isself.
Steve: ’E was staring over at us as well, like ’e thought we were shit.
I: What do you mean?
Nev: ’E should ’ave just kept ’is big mouth shut and we wouldn’t ’ave bothered.
I: Do you pick fights with everyone that passes you in the street?
Steve: Naw, not everyone, we ’ave to be in the mood.
I: Do you mean you have to have had a drink?
Steve: No, that’s not what I said.
I: But you normally have had a drink?
Steve: Yeah, I suppose so.
I: What could he have done to avoid an incident with you?
Nev: [laughs] Lived in a different city. Naw, look, seriously, ’e should ’ave just walked away and kept ’is big mouth shut, and kept ’is eyes to ’imself.
Steve: We wus just ’aving a bit of a laugh, people take everything too seriously. If they don’t give any lip then there’s a fair chance that we won’t give them a good ’iding.
I: What would you do if someone insulted your girlfriend?
Steve & Nev: They wouldn’t fucking dare, they know what they’d get.
I: So really you’re just bullies?
Steve & Nev: [offended] No way, we’d fight anyone, we don’t bully. Look, if you live in Wood End then that’s just the way it is, if someone shouts at you or calls your missus you don’t say nothing back unless you’re prepared to back it up. ’E wasn’t, so ’e got some. End of essay! That’s the crack. It goes with the territory. If ’e didn’t want grief ’e should ’ave swallowed [backed down] and backed off.
I: Tell me about another incident, Steve.
Nev: Tell ’im about the bloke you put in ’ospital. The one that kept staring at you.
Steve: Oh yeah. The dick. I was minding me own business in the bar and this big guy looked at me, I was in a bad mood anyway cus the dole ’ad stopped me money. I looked straight back at ’im and said ‘wot you fucking looking at, you bag of puke?’ ’E said ’e wasn’t looking at me, but ’e said it dead aggressive like so I walked over to ’im and asked ’im again what ’e was staring at. ’E swore at me and said ’e wasn’t staring, ’e just thought ’e knew me from somewhere. I said if ’e wanted to go [fight] ’e should step outside, when ’e went to stand up I shoved my glass in ’is face. ’E was out like a light.
Nev: [obviously impressed] ’E was in ’ospital for ages.
Steve: ’Is own fault, shouldn’t ’ave fucked.
I: I heard that you stabbed a guy in the same pub, Steve.
Steve: Oh yeah. D’you ’ear about that, then? That was the barman. He grassed on me to the law about the glassing so ’e ’ad to ’ave some as well. I ’eard ’e was a bit of a Karate man so I didn’t take any chances. I walked in to the bar first thing in the morning, while it was quiet, less witnesses see. When ’e seen me ’e said I was barred, I said ‘Look man, I don’t want any grief with you, I know you can motor [fight], I just want to tell you that there is no hard feelings on my part, let’s shake on it.’ Fucking wanker fell for it. As he grabbed my right hand to shake it I pulled ’im ’ard in to me and stabbed ’im right in the kidneys. ’E went down like a sack of shit. I booted ’im a few times and walked out.
I: Why do you think he fell for it?
Steve: Didn’t know the crack, did ’e. Most of these trained fighters are the same. They’re all bag punchers. [both laugh]
I: If you are such a good fighter why didn’t you have a fair fight with him?
Steve: It was a fair fight. Where we come from that was fair an’ square. Just because we don’t follow Queensbury don’t mean that what we do ain’t fair. You know wot I’m sayin’. The only person at fault was the dick I stabbed, he should ’ave know the rules. I mean, what the fuck’s ’e doin’ in Wood End and not knowin’ the crack. Maybe now he’ll learn.
I: How did you conceal the knife?
Steve: I tucked it in the palm of my hand and held it against my leg like this [he demonstrates]. ’E was so pleased that I said I didn’t want to fight that ’e wasn’t looking for a tool anyway. They all fall for it.
I: You’ve done this before then?
Steve: Yeah. Loads of times. Not always with a knife, sometimes with a glass or a bottle. They all think it’s Queensbury. Fuck Queensbury, ’e’s been dead about a hundred years. I don’t follow rules, I just do what works. [both laugh again]
I: What would you do against someone like yourself?
Steve & Nev: [laughing] Run.
Steve: The main thing is, I wouldn’t let them get close to me, no one gets close to me. And don’t believe anything they say, ’specially if they say they don’t want to fight. If they say they don’t want it [trouble] and back away, that’s all right, but if they say they don’t want it and try to get closer then you’ve got problems. ’Specially the ones who try’n touch you, you know, put their arm around you all pally, pally like. They’re the worst ones. Oh and never shake ’ands with any of them. It’s the oldest trick in the book but it suckers ’em all. Ben does that [speaking to Nev], shakes their hands and butts them straight in the face. Don’t trust anyone.
I: Thanks for your time.
From a self-defense point of view, interviews like this are very instructive. Here, I will simply observe that men like Steve and Nev make the ethical case for putting weapons in the hands of good people better than a philosopher ever could. Reading their account of their crimes, one can see that their victims were given very little opportunity to avoid being brutally attacked—unless they were prepared to flee at the mere sight of these men and their friends. (Hence, the most important principle of self-defense: Avoid dangerous people and dangerous places). Given how they operate, and the fact that they live in a gun-free society, Steve and Nev know that they can assault virtually anyone they want. Readers may detect further odors of NRA propaganda here, but I would rather that these brutes be obliged to worry that their next victim might have a gun. I wouldn’t want Steve and Nev to have guns, of course—and gun control advocates will insist on the impossibility of arming good people without simultaneously arming the thugs. But I’m not entirely sure this is true. Starting from scratch in a country like the U.K., it seems that it should be possible to keep guns out of the hands of violent felons while allowing responsible people access to them. (What if the penalty for selling or possessing a firearm illegally were life in prison?) This shouldn’t be read as a recommendation that people actually carry concealed firearms in public. I am simply saying that society pays a price when sociopaths like Steve and Nev know that no one can or does.
In any case, all of this is beside the point in the U.S. Here, Steve and Nev already have guns, and no one has a plan for taking them away. Given that fact, we must decide how difficult we should make it for law-abiding people to have guns as well.
10. Some of what you say in your article about the importance of guns for self-defense, and about the relative danger of knives, seems completely crazy. You suggest, for instance, that the only way to stop a man with a knife is with a gun. But you also say that even a Navy Seal needs a gun to fight more than one person. By the logic of your first statement, however, a Navy Seal with a knife should be unstoppable in a world without guns. (link)
Let me spell it out more clearly:
There are, of course, other ways to stop a person with a knife. You can use a chair, a baseball bat, or any weapon that gives you a range advantage. To do this successfully, however—especially against someone who is determined to kill you—you should really be someone who is trained to fight with weapons, not a randomly selected elementary school teacher. The only thing that will reliably give the average person a true advantage over a killer with a knife, is a gun.
It is also possible to stop a man with a knife if multiple, intrepid (and hopefully trained) people attack him in unison. Someone will probably get badly injured, or even killed, but it is certainly possible for several unarmed people to prevail in this way. The problem, however, is that untrained people—who are naturally terrified of getting stabbed—will often fail to act in concert, and the person with the knife will retain the advantage.
Generally speaking, people tend to underestimate the problem of a knife attack—and most martial artists who train “knife defense” engage in drills that are totally unrealistic, thereby gaining a false sense of security. People who know how to fight with knives—like many career criminals—don’t engage in single exaggerated thrusts so that you can grab their wrists and execute your favorite technique. And they don’t slash from side to side like we’ve seen in the movies. They just rush in and stab you to death (read Don Pentecost’s book, Put ‘Em Down, Take ‘Em Out!: Knife Fighting Techniques from Folsom Prison). Any martial artist who thinks this is an easy problem to solve should watch this video. (This is just a simulated attack, but it’s realistic).
People in general—and martial artists in particular—also tend to underestimate the problem of multiple attackers. Most of us have seen hundreds of instances in which Hollywood heroes win fights against two or more aggressive men. That is not the way things tend to go in the real world. If you want to see how things usually go, watch this video of a road rage incident that ends very badly for a man who clearly has some reason to believe he can fight. (Warning: You will be watching someone get kicked unconscious on the sidewalk by two people.)
What a gun gives you is range. And against knives or multiple attackers, range is generally the key to survival.
11. You say that the broader statistics on gun violence don’t necessarily apply to you. This sounds, frankly, delusional. How can you believe such a thing? (link)
Well, clearly some statistics apply to me. But it makes no sense for me to evaluate the risk of my owning a gun by lumping myself in with all the people who keep their guns loaded and unsecured, who suffer from clinical depression, who have not been trained in safe handling practices, who abuse alcohol or drugs, who persist in violent relationships, who belong to gangs, etc. These are not my cohorts. The person who smokes two packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day and works with industrial solvents has a greater risk of getting lung cancer than the person who does neither of these things.
To understand how owning a gun affects my risk of injury or death, I would need to know the statistics for gun owners like me. Yes, it is possible to be self-deceived about many of the relevant variables. I might, for instance, be prone to suicide and not know it. I might become an alcoholic next week or develop a brain tumor that causes me to behave recklessly. But I don’t think these are reasonable suspicions to have about myself. As far as I can tell, I am emotionally stable and take gun safety very seriously. I am, in truth, more worried about my behavior as a driver than as a gun owner. I am far more complacent behind the wheel than when handling a gun.
But there is no doubt that by owning and training with guns I incur some risk of dying in a gun-related accident—and this risk wouldn’t exist if I didn’t own a gun. Perhaps the chance that I or a member of my family will die in a gun-related accident is greater than the chance of our experiencing a home invasion in which I successfully save our lives by using my gun defensively. If true, I have put us at greater risk by owning a gun (there are other variables to consider, but let’s keep it simple). It still might make rational sense for me to own a gun in this case. Spend a little time reading about what the worst criminals in our society do to their victims, and you might agree that getting accidentally shot and killed is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. I am willing to incur some additional risk to be better able to respond to a very low-probability, worst-case scenario. How much risk? That’s difficult to say. I believe we are talking about very small differences here. How does the added risk compare to the risk of taking my family skiing? I don’t know. But judging from the numbers available, I do not think that keeping guns in my home (with the precautions I take) is the most dangerous thing I do. Again, not all gun owners can reasonably say this.
12. Almost everything you have said about the reasons to keep a gun at home would seem to apply to the world outside (e.g. the police will probably not be around when you are attacked in a parking lot), and most violent crimes happen outside the home anyway. But you say that you have misgivings about civilians walking around armed. This makes very little sense. (link)
Where self-defense is concerned, there are important differences between being in your home (or, perhaps, your place of business) and being out in public. It takes very little to establish that you acted in self-defense inside your own home. Domestic disputes aside, we are probably talking about a situation in which a person, who very likely has a criminal history, has broken into your house. In public, however, the question of which party was the aggressor is often open to interpretation. Indeed, you might even be confused about the situation yourself and wind up using lethal force inappropriately.
Imagine that you are carrying a gun for your own protection. You are trained to use it, and you have resolved to draw it only in a true emergency. While out one night, you see two men kicking a downed man on the sidewalk. Hoping to save a life, you draw your weapon and order the attackers to stop (generally speaking, you are allowed to defend another person whose life appears to be in danger in the same way that you would defend yourself). These hoodlums ignore you—do they even hear you?—and they have now succeeded in kicking their victim unconscious. You worry that the next blow could prove fatal. Having no other obvious recourse, and believing that you have a duty to act in defense of innocent life, you shoot one of the men in the chest.
But what if the downed man was, in fact, the attacker, and had just slashed these men with a knife? You have now shot, and perhaps killed, a person who was acting in defense of his own life. You had no way of knowing this, of course. But the fact that you were carrying a gun gave you the ability—and, it seemed, the duty—to intervene immediately and at a safe distance. Even police officers make mistakes of this kind—but running this risk is part of their job, and different laws apply.
Ordinary civilians who blunder into situations in which they use lethal force inappropriately can wind up going to prison for a long time. The much-invoked notion “It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it” (or, worse, “It’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six”) does not cover all the eventualities here. Carrying a weapon in public can lead even smart and well-intentioned people to behave in stupid and unethical ways.
And there are many other things to consider. The problem of storing a gun safely at home is relatively easy to solve, but keeping a gun safely stowed in public is much trickier. There are stories of people leaving their guns on public toilets. How many people carry their weapons in a purse, briefcase, or backpack? What happens when these bags get lost or stolen? No doubt, there are gun owners who have answers for all these questions and feel that they can carry their weapons responsibly. I know retired police officers who carry concealed weapons, and I am confident that they understand the attendant responsibilities better than I do. But I think it is perfectly rational for even a very well-trained gun owner to decide that there are too many risks associated with carrying a gun in public.
13. You write in your article that no one is seriously proposing a ban on all guns in the United States. But many people have proposed this. Why would you deny that many Americans are calling for a radical change in policy? (link)
I’m not aware of anyone with political influence in the U.S. who has called for a ban on guns. Has Mayor Bloomberg called for one? No. He has said things like “Nobody questions the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. But we don’t think the founding fathers had the idea that every man, woman and child could carry an assault weapon.” So, he wants to ban assault weapons. That’s fine, but this won’t put us on a path to becoming like the U.K.
If anyone would be calling for a ban on guns, one might think it would be Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly. They recently gave an interview to announce their commitment to gun control in the aftermath of Newtown, only to divulge that they both own guns and respect the Second Amendment. She has a Glock (the brand of gun with which she was shot and nearly killed), and he recently bought a new gun at Walmart. The reforms that they are calling for—all of which I support—will do very little to prevent the next massacre in a school.
Piers Morgan, who has been the most visible critic of our current gun laws—a distinction that inspired over 100,000 Americans to sign a petition calling for his deportation—has said that he respects the Second Amendment, agrees with Mark Kelly, and would not ban guns.
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his plan to institute “safe and reasonable gun control” in New York, which already has some of the strictest laws in the nation, and confided that he owns a Remington shotgun and respects “hunters and sportsmen.” He vowed that he would not be “taking people’s guns.”
In fact, I have not heard anyone propose restrictions as tight as I advocated in my article, and yet I have been widely attacked as a shill for the NRA. I support all the measures that Bloomberg, Giffords, Kelly, and Cuomo have advocated—universal background checks, a national database of weapons sales, checks against the terrorist watch list, the strengthening mental health screening, etc. But I have gone further in suggesting that owning a gun should be “made as difficult as getting a license to fly an airplane, requiring dozens of hours of training.” There may be much to criticize about that final suggestion, but I’m not sure how it aligns me with the NRA.
I maintain that with 300 million guns already on the ground, it will remain easy for the wrong people to get guns. And a ban on assault weapons will do nothing to address this problem. Another mass shooter, armed with Giffords’s Glock and Cuomo’s shotgun, could murder as many children as Adam Lanza did in Newtown.
So, I see only two options with respect to school shootings: (1) We can admit that these are extraordinarily rare events, hope they remain so, and then do nothing apart from implementing the above reforms; or (2) we can decide that school shootings, however rare, are simply intolerable—and we can spend the $10 billion or so it would cost each year to put a cop in every school. There is no guarantee, of course, that option (2) would be effective. But those who think that it is obviously a bad idea, beyond its cost, seem to suffer from many misconceptions about guns and violence.
14. In your essay on guns, you write: (link)
Given the changes that have occurred in our military, and even in our politics, the idea that a few pistols and an AR 15 in every home constitutes a necessary bulwark against totalitarianism is fairly ridiculous. If you believe that the armed forces of the United States might one day come for you—and you think your cache of small arms will suffice to defend you if they do—I’ve got a black helicopter to sell you.
But the history of tyrannical governments—not to mention our own recent adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq—demonstrate that small arms in the hands of ordinary civilians can hobble even the most capable modern army. So what are you saying?
The quoted passage has been widely misunderstood by gun owners. My point was that if you think you can fight the U.S. government on your own—Ruby-Ridge-style—you’re crazy. And I was also suggesting that any concerns about a future tyranny in the U.S. seem unjustified. I am willing to bet that our Tree of Liberty need no longer be watered by the blood of patriots and tyrants. I think it is far more reasonable to keep guns for the purpose of defending oneself from ordinary violence than it is to keep them in anticipation of civil war.
However, one reader pointed out that it is ironic that liberal critics of American exceptionalism seem to cherish it on this one point—imagining that America is immune to fatal disruptions in the rule of law, coups, and other perennial excitements of history. Interesting point. I must plead guilty as charged. I’m simply not worried about despotism in the United States.
I should also point out the irony that an irrational fear of tyranny can bring on the very surveillance and violence it claims to anticipate. We saw this at Waco: If you spend all your time worrying that the government might seek to control you and take away your guns, and you acquire a terrifying arsenal to protect yourself, the government may well seek to control you and take away your guns.
15. You are generally such a reasonable person, but on this issue you have produced one disjointed rationalization after the next. You seem to be making your case on the basis of pure emotion, rather like a religious apologist. Piling hypothetical scenarios on top of YouTube videos does not amount to an ethical argument or a prescription for sound public policy. More guns = more lethal violence. Full stop. That’s the beginning and end of the story. The statistics are clear: Any argument in favor of gun ownership for the purpose of self-defense is an argument in favor of needless death. (link)
It now seems to me that there are two ways of approaching this discussion that may, in fact, be irreconcilable. The first is to consider the ethical and practical case for guns as a means of self-defense. To make this case—or even to understand it—one must know something about how human violence evolves at close quarters, and one must care about specific examples (e.g. a young mother shoots a knife-wielding intruder). Here, it is easy to establish (and impossible to deny) that guns occasionally save the lives of good people who have every right to defend themselves and their families from malevolent lunatics. The second approach is to consider society as a whole, emphasizing the statistics on gun violence. Here, it is easy to establish (and impossible to deny) that in countries where nearly everyone has a gun, violence tends to be more lethal, and suicides and gun accidents more common.
Many people seem to think that the broader statistical case trumps the ethical case for self-defense. More guns = more murders and suicides. End of argument. From this point of view, anyone arguing for the primacy of self-defense appears to be standing in the way of societal progress. Consequently, many people believe that no civilian, no matter how responsible or vulnerable to violence, should be able to possess a weapon as powerful as gun—because any society that would make guns available to such people will, of necessity, be unable to control the sale of guns to dangerous, negligent, and suicidal people who shouldn’t have them.
I do not accept that argument. I believe that the ethics of self-defense trumps the statistical case, for several reasons. First, we simply do not know what the statistics would be if there were more stringent controls on gun ownership. Most gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides—and while the presence of a gun in the home certainly makes suicide easier to accomplish, and perhaps more tempting, some of these deaths would occur anyway (there were 38,364 suicides in the U.S. in 2010, half of which were committed with firearms). Gun homicide in the U.S. is mostly the work of career criminals—not the result of ordinary gun owners with no history of violence suddenly going berserk. If we could keep the guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally unstable, there is little reason to think that the rates of murder and suicide in the U.S. would be inordinately high. Of course, we have completely failed to do this. But taking guns away from responsible people isn’t a way of doing it either.
An ethical argument for the banning of guns must deal with the hard case: Where a legal owner of a gun—who stores it safely and knows how to use it—winds up protecting herself when only a gun would avail. I don’t see why a responsible person should be prevented from preparing for the rare encounter with violence just because other people are unfit to own guns. As I have said, the prospect of gun accidents does not decide the matter. It isn’t necessarily irrational for a person to incur added risk of injury or death to prepare for certain events that he or she considers worse than mere injury or death. We increase our risk of both every day in far more frivolous ways than by preparing to defend ourselves and our families against the worst possible violence.
Many people seem to think that guns radiate danger, rather like plutonium. Needless to say, if millions of our neighbors began asserting their right to maintain private stockpiles of plutonium for the purposes of recreation and self-defense, we would be outraged. And we would derive little comfort from the precautions that “responsible” plutonium owners took to handle this material “safely.” The mere presence of the stuff on our streets would impose an unacceptable risk on everyone.
But guns are not like plutonium. They are like cars. The number of homicides (11,078), suicides (19,392), and fatal accidents (606) with firearms roughly equals the number of highway deaths (33,687) each year. But when guns kill people, it is almost always because the person who pulled the trigger intended to cause a death (either his own or someone else’s). When cars kill people, it is almost always an accident. This strikes me as a very important difference. People are doing their best to stay alive while driving, and to avoid harming others, and yet they are failing at a rate that exceeds that of intentional killing with guns.
Judging by the rate of accidental death, cars are much more dangerous than guns. More important, we impose much greater risk on our neighbors by driving than we do by keeping a gun in our homes. Many readers will object that this is an unfair comparison—“Guns are for killing people, while cars serve many necessary purposes”—but this objection misses the point. We are talking about the ethics of assuming personal risk of injury or death and of imposing such risk on others. The statistical argument against gun ownership derives all of its ethical weight from the following claim: If we banned guns in the United States, we would save many thousands of lives each year.
We could make driving much safer than it is, at very little cost, and yet we haven’t done so for reasons that parallel the concerns of gun owners, while being far less compelling. We could, for instance, limit the speed of all automobiles in the United States, including Ferraris and other high-performance vehicles, to 65 mph. And we could reduce their powers of acceleration, so that it took over a minute to achieve top speed. How many lives would this save? Surely many thousands. Why haven’t we passed an “assault weapons ban” of this sort on cars? Probably because it would make driving less fun. Most of us want the freedom to drive faster than a performance ban would permit—faster, even, than the legal speed limit. We seem to be asserting our freedom to break the law at the cost of thousands of lives each year. This seems ethically indefensible.
Despite what many readers will think, this is not a comparison of apples to oranges, or a rhetorical trick designed to obfuscate the problem of gun violence. As I have said, I believe gun regulation should be much stricter than it is—stricter, in fact, than anyone can reasonably hope for in the United States, even in the aftermath of Newtown. But here, I am addressing the claim (generally made by readers living outside the U.S.) that guns should be banned altogether, based on the statistics. Never mind that no one can envision doing this in the U.S., I believe that the case is flawed even if the path to a gun ban were clear.
A gun makes it relatively easy for a person to kill other people and himself, whether intentionally or by accident. A fast car confers the same power. But it is easy to argue that a sane, law-abiding person could find himself in a situation where he needs a gun to save his life—and that he should be able to have one despite the attendant risks of gun ownership. It seems grotesque to argue that a person who finds himself endangered by violence in this way should be made to pay (perhaps with his life) for the irresponsibility and criminality of others. I cannot as easily make the same argument about a car that drives faster than the maximum speed limit or that accelerates from 0-60 mph in 4 seconds. And what if most highway fatalities were the result of criminals and suicidal people intentionally crashing their cars? Who would then advocate that we ban all cars or limit their speed for everyone else?
(Photo by Zorin Denu)
Fantasists and zealots can be found on both sides of the debate over guns in America. On the one hand, many gun-rights advocates reject even the most sensible restrictions on the sale of weapons to the public. On the other, proponents of stricter gun laws often seem unable to understand why a good person would ever want ready access to a loaded firearm. Between these two extremes we must find grounds for a rational discussion about the problem of gun violence.
Unlike most Americans, I stand on both sides of this debate. I understand the apprehension that many people feel toward “gun culture,” and I share their outrage over the political influence of the National Rifle Association. How is it that we live in a society in which one of the most compelling interests is gun ownership? Where is the science lobby? The safe food lobby? Where is the get-the-Chinese-lead-paint-out-of-our-kids’-toys lobby? When viewed from any other civilized society on earth, the primacy of guns in American life seems to be a symptom of collective psychosis.
Most of my friends do not own guns and never will. When asked to consider the possibility of keeping firearms for protection, they worry that the mere presence of them in their homes would put themselves and their families in danger. Can’t a gun go off by accident? Wouldn’t it be more likely to be used against them in an altercation with a criminal? I am surrounded by otherwise intelligent people who imagine that the ability to dial 911 is all the protection against violence a sane person ever needs.
But, unlike my friends, I own several guns and train with them regularly. Every month or two, I spend a full day shooting with a highly qualified instructor. This is an expensive and time-consuming habit, but I view it as part of my responsibility as a gun owner. It is true that my work as a writer has added to my security concerns somewhat, but my involvement with guns goes back decades. I have always wanted to be able to protect myself and my family, and I have never had any illusions about how quickly the police can respond when called. I have expressed my views on self-defense elsewhere. Suffice it to say, if a person enters your home for the purpose of harming you, you cannot reasonably expect the police to arrive in time to stop him. This is not the fault of the police—it is a problem of physics.
Like most gun owners, I understand the ethical importance of guns and cannot honestly wish for a world without them. I suspect that sentiment will shock many readers. Wouldn’t any decent person wish for a world without guns? In my view, only someone who doesn’t understand violence could wish for such a world. A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene. There have been cases of prison guards (who generally do not carry guns) helplessly standing by as one of their own was stabbed to death by a lone prisoner armed with an improvised blade. The hesitation of bystanders in these situations makes perfect sense—and “diffusion of responsibility” has little to do with it. The fantasies of many martial artists aside, to go unarmed against a person with a knife is to put oneself in very real peril, regardless of one’s training. The same can be said of attacks involving multiple assailants. A world without guns is a world in which no man, not even a member of Seal Team Six, can reasonably expect to prevail over more than one determined attacker at a time. A world without guns, therefore, is one in which the advantages of youth, size, strength, aggression, and sheer numbers are almost always decisive. Who could be nostalgic for such a world?
Of course, owning a gun is not a responsibility that everyone should assume. Most guns kept in the home will never be used for self-defense. They are, in fact, more likely to be used by an unstable person to threaten family members or to commit suicide. However, it seems to me that there is nothing irrational about judging oneself to be psychologically stable and fully committed to the safe handling and ethical use of firearms—if, indeed, one is.
Carrying a gun in public, however, entails even greater responsibility than keeping one at home, and in most states the laws reflect this. Like many gun-control advocates, I have serious concerns about letting ordinary citizens walk around armed. Ordinary altercations can become needlessly deadly in the presence of a weapon. A scuffle that exposes a gun in a person’s waistband, for instance, can quickly become a fight to the death—where the first person to get his hands on the weapon may feel justified using it in “self-defense.” Most people seem unaware that knives present a similar liability. According to Gallup, 16 percent of American men carry knives for personal protection. I am quite sure that most of those men have not thought through the legal, ethical, and game-theoretical implications of drawing a blade in a moment of conflict. It is true that brandishing a weapon (whether a gun or a knife) sometimes preempts further violence. But, emotions being what they are, it often doesn’t—and the owner of the weapon can find himself resorting to deadly force in a circumstance that would not otherwise have called for it.
Some Facts About Guns
Fifty-five million kids went to school on the day that 20 were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Even in the United States, therefore, the chances of a child’s dying in a school shooting are remote. As my friend Steven Pinker demonstrates in his monumental study of human violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, our perception of danger is easily distorted by rare events. Is gun violence increasing in the United States? No. But it certainly seems to be when one recalls recent atrocities in Newtown and Aurora. In fact, the overall rate of violent crime has fallen by 22 percent in the past decade (and 18 percent in the past five years).
We still have more guns and more gun violence than any other developed country, but the correlation between guns and violence in the United States is far from straightforward. Thirty percent of urban households have at least one firearm. This figure increases to 42 percent in the suburbs and 60 percent in the countryside. As one moves away from cities, therefore, the rate of gun ownership doubles. And yet gun violence is primarily a problem in cities. It is the people of Detroit, Oakland, Memphis, Little Rock, and Stockton who are at the greatest risk of being killed by guns.
In the weeks since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, advocates of stricter gun control have called for a new federal ban on “assault weapons” and for reductions in the number of concealed-carry permits issued to private citizens. But the murder rate has fallen precipitously since the federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004, and this was also a period in which millions of Americans began to carry their guns in public. Many proponents of gun control have observed that the AR 15, the gun that Adam Lanza used to murder 20 children in Newtown, is now the most popular rifle in America. But only 3 percent of murders in the U.S. are committed with rifles of any type.
Seventy mass shootings have occurred in the U.S. since 1982, leaving 543 dead. These crimes were horrific, but 564,452 other homicides took place in the U.S. during the same period. Mass shootings scarcely represent 0.1 percent of all murders. When talking about the problem of guns in our society, it is easy to lose sight of the worst violence and to become fixated on symbols of violence.
Of course, it is important to think about the problem of gun violence in the context of other risks. For instance, it is estimated that 100,000 Americans die each year because doctors and nurses fail to wash their hands properly. Measured in bodies, therefore, the problem of hand washing in hospitals is worse than the problem of guns, even if we include accidents and suicides. But not all deaths are equivalent. A narrow focus on mortality rates does not always do justice to the reality of human suffering. Mass shootings are a marginal concern, even relative to other forms of gun violence, but they cause an unusual degree of terror and grief—particularly when children are targeted. Given the psychological and social costs of certain low-frequency events, it does not seem irrational to allocate disproportionate resources to prevent them.
We should also remember that mass killings do not depend on guns. Much was made in the press about the fact that on the very day 20 children were murdered in Newtown, a man with a knife attempted a similar crime at an elementary school in China. At The Atlantic, James Fallows wrote:
Twenty-two children injured. Versus, at current count,
1820 little children and nineeight other people shot dead. That’s the difference between a knife and a gun.
Guns don’t attack children; psychopaths and sadists do. But guns uniquely allow a psychopath to wreak death and devastation on such a large scale so quickly and easily. America is the only country in which this happens again—and again and again. You can look it up.
This is more tendentious than it might sound. There has been an epidemic of knife attacks on schoolchildren in China in the past two years. As Fallows certainly knows—he is, after all, an expert on China—in some instances several children were murdered. In March of 2010, eight were killed and five injured in a single incident. This was as bad as many mass shootings in the U.S. I am not denying that guns are more efficient for killing people than knives are—but the truth is that knives are often lethal enough. And the only reliable way for one person to stop a man with a knife is to shoot him.
It is reasonable to wish that only virtuous people had guns, but there are now nearly 300 million guns in the United States, and millions more are sold each year. A well-made gun can remain functional for centuries. Any effective regime of “gun control,” therefore, would require that we remove hundreds of millions of firearms from our streets. As Jeffrey Goldberg points out in The Atlantic, it may no longer be rational to hope that we can solve the problem of gun violence by restricting access to guns—because guns are everywhere, and the only people who will be deterred by stricter laws are precisely those law-abiding citizens who should be able to possess guns for their own protection and who now constitute one of the primary deterrents to violent crime. This is, of course, a familiar “gun nut” talking point. But that doesn’t make it wrong.
Another problem with liberal dreams of gun control is that the kinds of guns used in the vast majority of crimes would not fall under any plausible weapons ban. And advocates of stricter gun laws who claim to respect the rights of “sportsmen” or “hunters,” and to recognize a legitimate need for “home defense,” simply give the game away at the outset. The very guns that law-abiding citizens use for recreation or home defense are, in fact, the problem.
In the vast majority of murders committed with firearms—even most mass killings—the weapon used is a handgun. Unless we outlaw and begin confiscating handguns, the weapons best suited for being carried undetected into a classroom, movie theater, restaurant, or shopping mall for the purpose of committing mass murder will remain readily available in the United States. But no one is seriously proposing that we address the problem on this level. In fact, the Supreme Court has recently ruled, twice (in 2008 and 2010), that banning handguns would be unconstitutional.
Nor is anyone advocating that we deprive hunters of their rifles. And yet any rifle suitable for killing deer is just the sort of gun that will allow even an unskilled shooter to wreak absolute havoc upon innocent men, women, and children at a range of several hundred yards. There is, in fact, no marksman on earth who can shoot a handgun as accurately at distance as you would be able to shoot a rifle fitted with a scope after a few hours of practice. This difference in accuracy between short and long guns must be experienced to be understood. Having understood it, you will in no way be consoled to learn that a madman ensconced on the rooftop of a nearby building is armed merely with a “hunting rifle” that is legal in all 50 states.
The problem, therefore, is that with respect to either factor that makes a gun suitable for mass murder—ease of concealment (a handgun) or range (a rifle)—the most common and least stigmatized weapons are among the most dangerous. Gun-control advocates seem perversely unaware of this. As a consequence, we routinely hear the terms “semi-automatic” and “assault weapon” intoned with misplaced outrage and awe. It is true that a semi-automatic pistol allows a person to shoot and reload slightly more efficiently than a revolver does. But a revolver can be reloaded surprisingly quickly with a device known as a speed loader. (These have been in use since the 1970s.) It is no exaggeration to say that if we merely had 300 million vintage revolvers in this country, we would still have a terrible problem with gun violence, with no solution in sight. And any person entering a school with a revolver for the purpose of killing kids would most likely be able to keep killing them until he ran out of ammunition, or until good people arrived with guns of their own to stop him.
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, 47 percent of all murders in the U.S. are committed with handguns. Again, only 3 percent are committed with rifles (of any type). Twice as many murderers (6 percent) use nothing but their bare hands. Thirteen percent use knives. Although a semi-automatic rifle like the one Adam Lanza carried in Newtown offers a terrifying advantage over a handgun at distances beyond 20 yards or so, I see no reason to think that the children he murdered would be alive today had he been armed with only a pistol (he is reported to have shot them repeatedly and at close range). The worst mass shooting in U.S. history occurred at Virginia Tech in 2007. Thirty-two people were killed and seventeen injured. The shooter carried two handguns (a Glock 9 mm and a Walther .22) of a make and caliber that will remain legal and ubiquitous unless all handguns are banned. (Again, this is not going to happen.)
It is true that rifles like the one used in the Newtown attack fire rounds at a much higher velocity than handguns do. These bullets also tend to tumble and fragment in the body, which makes them more lethal. However, one cannot say in every case that an assault weapon in the wrong hands is a greater threat to innocent life than a handgun. Rifle rounds travel at such high velocity that they sometimes pass through a person’s body before tumbling or fragmenting—doing less damage than one would expect from a handgun round. Conversely, these bullets are so light and frangible that they are sometimes stopped by barriers such as doors and wallboard. It is also generally easier to grab the barrel of a rifle and wrest it away from a shooter than it is with a handgun. And rifles are far more difficult to conceal. Approaching the doors of Sandy Hook Elementary, Adam Lanza probably looked every inch the dangerous lunatic with a gun. Had an armed guard been at the school, this could have allowed for a defensive response. Given these facts, it is difficult to say that assault weapons pose a greater risk to the public than handguns do.
Regarding ammunition itself, there is not much more to say, because any type suitable for home defense or hunting—and, therefore, bound to remain legal as long as guns are sold—is also perfect for killing innocent people. The only other variable to consider is the number of rounds a gun can hold, because this dictates the frequency with which a shooter must pause to reload. Here the path to increased public safety is reasonably clear. In California and New York, for instance, one cannot buy magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. As a consequence, the moment at which a shooter can be tackled by bystanders comes after every 10 shots. Ten is a lot better than 30, of course, but it still requires the action of a true hero (probably several) who just happens to be standing close enough to the shooter to attempt to bring him down, and who is lucky enough to be alive and uninjured after the last barrage. As Goldberg notes, with understandable despair and amazement, the security plans at many schools encourage students to spontaneously arm themselves with pencils and laptops and engage a shooter directly in defense of their lives—all the while forbidding the lawful possession of firearms on campus, no matter what a person’s training. As Goldberg says, “The existence of these policies suggests that universities know they cannot protect their students during an armed attack.”
More Guns Are Not The Answer—Until They Are
Coverage of the Newtown tragedy and its aftermath has been generally abysmal. In fact, I have never seen the “liberal media” conform to right-wing caricatures of itself with such alacrity. I have read articles in which literally everything said about firearms and ballistics has been wrong. I have heard major newscasters mispronounce the names of every weapon and weapons manufacturer more challenging than “Colt.” I can only imagine the mirth it has brought gun-rights zealots to see “automatic” and “semi-automatic” routinely confused, or to hear a major news anchor ominously declare that the shooter had been armed with a “Sig Sauzer” pistol. This has been more than embarrassing. It has offered a thousand points of proof that “liberal elites” don’t know anything about what matters when bullets start flying.
Consider the sneering response of the New York Times editorial page to Wayne LaPierre, the NRA vice president, after he suggested that we station a police officer at every school in the country:
His solution to the proliferation of guns, including semiautomatic rifles designed to kill people as quickly as possible, is to put more guns in more places. Mr. LaPierre would put a police officer in every school and compel teachers and principals to become armed guards…. Mr. LaPierre said the Newtown killing spree “might” have been averted if the killer had been confronted by an armed security guard. It’s far more likely that there would have been a dead armed security guard—just as there would have been even more carnage if civilians had started firing weapons in the Aurora movie theater.
The phrase “designed to kill people as quickly as possible” should tell us everything we need to know about the author’s grasp of the issue. The entire editorial is worth reading, in fact, because it makes the NRA’s response to Newtown seem enlightened by comparison.
Gun-control advocates appear unable to distinguish situations in which a gun in the hands of a good person would be useless (or worse) and those in which it would be likely to save dozens of innocent lives. They are eager to extrapolate from the Aurora shooting to every other possible scene of mass murder. However, a single gunman trying to force his way into a school, or roaming its hallways, or even standing in a classroom surrounded by dead and dying children, would be far easier to engage effectively—with a gun—than James Holmes would have been in a dark and crowded movie theater. Even in the case of the Aurora shooting, it is not ludicrous to suppose that everyone might have been better off had a well-trained person with a gun been at the scene. The liberal commentariat seems to have no awareness of what “well-trained” signifies. It happens to include an understanding of what to do and what not to do when the danger of shooting innocent bystanders exists. The fact that bystanders do occasionally get shot, even by police officers, does not prove that putting guns in the hands of good people would be a bad idea. Gun-control advocates seem always to imagine the worst possible scenario: legions of untrained, delusional vigilantes producing their weapons at a pin drop and firing indiscriminately into a crowd.
Most liberals responded derisively to the NRA’s suggestion that having armed and vetted men and women in our schools could save lives. Some pointed to a public-service announcement put out by the city of Houston (funded by the Department of Homeland Security), in which the possibility of having guns on the scene was never discussed. Several commentators held up this training video in support of the creed “More guns are not the answer.” Please take a few minutes to watch this footage. Then try to imagine how a few armed civilians could respond during an attack of this kind. To help your imagination along, watch this short video, in which a motel clerk carrying a concealed weapon shoots an armed robber. The situation isn’t perfectly analogous—the wisdom of using deadly force in what might be only a robbery is at least debatable. But is it really so difficult to believe that the shooter might have been helpful during an incident of the sort depicted in Houston?
Needless to say, it is easy to see how things can go badly when anyone draws a firearm defensively. But when an armed man enters an office building, restaurant, or school for the purpose of murdering everyone in sight, things are going very badly already. Imagine being one of the people in the Houston video trapped in the office with no recourse but to hide under a desk. Would you really be relieved to know that up until that moment, your workplace had been an impeccably gun-free environment and that no one, not even your friend who did three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be armed? If you found yourself trapped with others in a conference room, preparing to attack the shooter with pencils and chairs, can you imagine thinking, “I’m so glad no one else has a gun, because I wouldn’t want to get caught in any crossfire”? Despite what the New York Times and dozens of other editorial pages have avowed in the weeks since Newtown, it isn’t a vigilante delusion to believe that guns in the hands of good people would improve the odds of survival in deadly encounters of this kind. The delusion is to think that everyone would be better off defending his or her life with furniture.
Unarmed people can be trained to respond intelligently to violent emergencies, and the appropriate drills seem well worth doing. (If you watch the linked video, you will see that rather than simply terrifying students, these drills can be fun and empowering.) Of course, there are no guarantees when tackling a man with a gun, and training of this kind makes sense only for students above a certain age. But such “active shooter” drills, if widely taught, would probably reduce the threat of mass killings. However, when a massacre is under way, nothing can substitute for the presence of other armed men and women who have been trained to fight with guns. That is why one bothers to call the police. And those who are horrified at the idea of stationing a police officer in every school should be obliged to tell us how long they would like to wait for the police to arrive in the event that they are needed. Declaring schools to be “gun-free zones” makes them especially good places to commit mass murder—this is more NRA propaganda that happens to be true. With the exception of the attack on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson in 2011, every mass shooting since 1950 has taken place where civilians are forbidden to carry firearms [Correction 1/11/13: I have been informed that this mall is a gun-free zone too.].
As the parent of a daughter in preschool, I can scarcely imagine the feelings of terror, helplessness, and grief endured by the parents of Newtown. But when I contemplate atrocities of this kind, I do not think of “gun control”—because it seems extraordinarily unlikely that a deranged and/or evil person will ever find it difficult to acquire a firearm in the United States. Rather, I think of how differently the situation might have evolved if the school had had an armed (and, I have to emphasize, well-trained) security guard on campus. I also think of how differently things might have gone if the shooter, who seems to have shown signs of mental illness for years, had been more intrusively engaged by society prior to the attack.
But my thoughts soon return to the armed guard, because our laws generally do not allow us to prevent crime—even when a person’s bad intentions are reasonably well understood. As someone who has received repeated death threats—several of them from the same person—I know that little can be done in advance of an attack. In fact, our laws do not even allow us to keep the most violent criminals permanently off our streets. Eighty percent of the people languishing in our maximum-security prisons will eventually be released back into society—many having become more violent for their time behind bars—and 70 percent of those will return to prison after committing further crimes. We live in a country where nonviolent drug offenders receive life sentences but a man who rapes a fifteen-year-old girl and cuts her arms off with a hatchet can be paroled for good behavior after eight years (only to kill again). I do not know what explains this impossible distortion of priorities, but given that it exists, I believe that good, trustworthy, and well-trained people should have guns.
Preventing low-frequency events like school shootings is probably impossible. If we enact laws that allow us to commit young men who merely scare us to mental institutions, we will surely commit thousands upon thousands of young men who would never have harmed anyone. This leads me to believe that if we care about minimizing the harm caused by the next school shooter, we should focus on stopping him at the doors of the school. To be sure, hiring enough guards to protect our nation’s schools would be a daunting task. The security industry is notorious for poor quality control, and there is even reason to worry that some police officers have insufficient training with their guns. But it is clearly possible to hire as many competent guards as we want, should this become a national priority. This is entirely a question of money, not of whether it is possible to enlist, train, and equip 100,000 highly qualified men and women to protect our children.
As I said at the outset, I do not know how we can solve the problem of gun violence. A renewed ban on “assault weapons”—nearly the only concrete measure that anyone is talking about—will do very little to make our society safer. It is not, as many advocates seem to believe, an important “first step” in achieving a sane policy with respect to guns. It seems likely to be a symbolic step that delays real thinking about the problem of guns for another decade or more. By all means, let us ban these weapons. But when the next lunatic arrives at a school armed with legal pistols and a dozen ten-round magazines, we should be prepared to talk about how an assault weapons ban was a distraction from the real issue of gun violence.
One of the greatest impediments to actually solving the riddle of guns in our society is the pious concern that many people have about the intent of the Second Amendment. It should hardly need to be said that despite its brilliance and utility, the Constitution of the United States was written by men who could not possibly have foreseen every change that would occur in American society in the ensuing centuries. Even if the Second Amendment guaranteed everyone the right to possess whatever weapon he or she desired (it doesn’t), we have since invented weapons that no civilian should be allowed to own. In fact, it can be easily argued that original intent of the Second Amendment had nothing to do with the right of self-defense—which remains the ethical case to be made for owning a firearm. The amendment seems to have been written to allow the states to check the power of the federal government by maintaining their militias. Given the changes that have occurred in our military, and even in our politics, the idea that a few pistols and an AR 15 in every home constitutes a necessary bulwark against totalitarianism is fairly ridiculous. If you believe that the armed forces of the United States might one day come for you—and you think your cache of small arms will suffice to defend you if they do—I’ve got a black helicopter to sell you.
We could do many things to ensure that only fully vetted people could get a licensed firearm. The fact that guns in the U.S. can be legally purchased from private sellers without background checks on the buyers (the so-called “gun show loophole”) is terrifying. Getting a gun license could be made as difficult as getting a license to fly an airplane, requiring dozens of hours of training. I would certainly be happy to see policy changes like this. In that respect, I support much stricter gun laws. But I am under no illusions that such restrictions would make it difficult for bad people to acquire guns illegally. Given the level of violence in our society, the ubiquity of guns, and the fact that our penitentiaries function like graduate schools for violent criminals, I think sane, law-abiding people should have access to guns. In that respect, I support the rights of gun owners.
Finally, I have said nothing here about what might cause a person like Adam Lanza to enter a school for the purpose of slaughtering innocent children. Clearly, we need more resources in the areas of childhood and teenage mental health, and we need protocols for parents, teachers, and fellow students to follow when a young man in their midst begins to worry them. In the majority of cases, someone planning a public assassination or a mass murder will communicate his intentions to others in advance of the crime. People need to feel personally responsible for acting on this information—and the authorities must be able to do something once the information gets passed along. But again, any law that allows us to commit or imprison people on the basis of a mere perception of risk would guarantee that large numbers of innocent people will be held against their will.
Rather than new laws, I believe we need a general shift in our attitude toward public violence—wherein everyone begins to assume some responsibility for containing it. It is worth noting that this shift has already occurred in one area of our lives, without anyone’s having received special training or even agreeing that a change in attitude was necessary: Just imagine how a few men with box cutters would now be greeted by their fellow passengers at 30,000 feet.
Perhaps we can find the same resolve on the ground.
- The importance of storing and handling firearms safely, and of never growing complacent about this, is impossible to exaggerate. In 2010, 606 people died in accidental shootings, 62 of them children. But deadly risks are everywhere: Six times as many people accidentally drown each year (in non-boating-related incidents), and 700 of them are children—this is in a country where 47 percent of homes have guns. There is no question that putting a pool in your yard is as serious a decision as buying a gun. This is another point about which “gun nuts” happen to be correct.↩
- According to one source cited by Goldberg, concealed-carry permit holders not only commit fewer crimes than members of the general public—they commit fewer crimes than police officers. It is certainly possible that in states with stringent requirements, civilians who take the trouble to go through the permitting process will be an unusually scrupulous bunch. Eight million people have been issued concealed-carry permits in the United States. But many more gun owners carry illegally, or legally in states that do not require permits (Gallup reports that 12 percent of Americans say they sometimes carry a gun for self-defense.)↩
- Although Adam Lanza seems to have been the prototypical mass shooter—white, male, mentally unstable, and living outside a large city—the epidemic of gun crime in America is, in part, the product of urban gang activity. The black community continues to commit and to suffer more than its fair share of this violence. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, gun deaths among white children and teens have decreased by 44 percent over the past three decades, while deaths among black children and teens increased by 30 percent. Blacks account for only 15 percent of the youth population but suffer 45 percent of all child and teen gun deaths. Black males aged 15 to 19 are eight times as likely as their white peers, and two-and-a-half-times as likely as Hispanics, to die by a bullet.
The problem of gangs is distinct from the problem of guns. Gang membership answers to a variety of social needs—protection and status foremost among them. But, as is the case with many social problems, gangs answer to a need that they themselves create. A person’s reputation within a gang depends upon his demonstrated willingness to harm outsiders. Therefore, the very norms by which one raises one’s status within a gang makes gang membership necessary for personal safety. Needless to say, most of the resulting mayhem is accomplished with guns. (Note 1/15/13: However, it would seem that, nationwide, only 12 percent of homicides are gang-related.)
Our misguided war on drugs is surely an important factor where gangs are concerned. This is another vicious circle: Like Prohibition before it, the war on drugs renders the sale of illicit drugs extraordinarily profitable while requiring that drug dealers function outside the law, protecting their investment and turf with guns. If we ended our war on drugs, the money that finances most gang activity would disappear, as would one of the primary reasons for gang violence. No doubt, gangs would remain, along with the other sources of violent crime. But with the war on drugs abandoned, our police, courts, and departments of corrections could focus on the real problem of violence.↩
- [Added 1/4/13] In fact, a revolver can be reloaded even faster than that.↩
- Of course, in many situations, even the best-trained guard would have no chance to draw his gun defensively, or would be unwise to do so. Picture the President of the United States moving through a crowd or delivering a speech: In the event of an assassination attempt, the job of his security detail is to immediately disrupt the shooter’s aim, bring him to the ground, and disarm him—and to get the president to safety. Drawing their weapons and returning fire, especially in a crowd, is not part of the plan. But the tactics appropriate to having a dozen guards protecting a high-risk target in a crowd do not extend to every situation involving an active shooter. And one can easily think of circumstances in which members of the Secret Service would need their guns.↩
(Photo by h.koppdelaney)
One cannot travel far in spiritual circles without meeting people who are fascinated by the “near-death experience” (NDE). The phenomenon has been described as follows:
Frequently recurring features include feelings of peace and joy; a sense of being out of one’s body and watching events going on around one’s body and, occasionally, at some distant physical location; a cessation of pain; seeing a dark tunnel or void; seeing an unusually bright light, sometimes experienced as a “Being of Light” that radiates love and may speak or otherwise communicate with the person; encountering other beings, often deceased persons whom the experiencer recognizes; experiencing a revival of memories or even a full life review, sometimes accompanied by feelings of judgment; seeing some “other realm,” often of great beauty; sensing a barrier or border beyond which the person cannot go; and returning to the body, often reluctantly.
(E.F. Kelly et al., Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007, p. 372)
Such accounts have led many people to believe that consciousness must be independent of the brain. Unfortunately, these experiences vary across cultures, and no single feature is common to them all. One would think that if a nonphysical domain were truly being explored, some universal characteristics would stand out. Hindus and Christians would not substantially disagree—and one certainly wouldn’t expect the after-death state of South Indians to diverge from that of North Indians, as has been reported. It should also trouble NDE enthusiasts that only 10−20 percent of people who approach clinical death recall having any experience at all.
However, the deepest problem with drawing sweeping conclusions from the NDE is that those who have had one and subsequently talked about it did not actually die. In fact, many appear to have been in no real danger of dying. And those who have reported leaving their bodies during a true medical emergency—after cardiac arrest, for instance—did not suffer the complete loss of brain activity. Even in cases where the brain is alleged to have shut down, its activity must return if the subject is to survive and describe the experience. In such cases, there is generally no way to establish that the NDE occurred while the brain was offline.
Many students of the NDE claim that certain people have left their bodies and perceived the commotion surrounding their near death—the efforts of hospital staff to resuscitate them, details of surgery, the behavior of family members, etc. Certain subjects even say that they have learned facts while traveling beyond their bodies that would otherwise have been impossible to know—for instance, a secret told by a dead relative, the truth of which was later confirmed. Of course, reports of this kind seem especially vulnerable to self-deception, if not conscious fraud. There is another problem, however: Even if true, such phenomena might suggest only that the human mind possesses powers of extrasensory perception (e.g. clairvoyance or telepathy). This would be a very important discovery, but it wouldn’t demonstrate the survival of death. Why? Because unless we could know that a subject’s brain was not functioning when these impressions were formed, the involvement of the brain must be presumed.
What is needed to establish the mind’s independence from the brain is a case in which a person has an experience—of anything—without associated brain activity. From time to time, someone will claim that a specific NDE meets this criterion. One of the most celebrated cases in the literature involves a woman, Pam Reynolds, who underwent a procedure known as “hypothermic cardiac arrest,” in which her core body temperature was brought down to 60 degrees, her heart was stopped, and blood flow to her brain was suspended so that a large aneurysm in her basilar artery could be surgically repaired. Reynolds reports having had a classic NDE, complete with an awareness of the details of her surgery. Her story has several problems, however. The events in the world that Reynolds reports having perceived during her NDE occurred either before she was “clinically dead” or after blood circulation had been restored to her brain. In other words, despite the extraordinary details of the procedure, we have every reason to believe that Reynolds’s brain was functioning when she had her experiences. The case also wasn’t published until several years after it occurred, and its author, Dr. Michael Sabom, is a born-again Christian who had been working for decades to substantiate the otherworldly significance of the NDE. The possibility that experimenter bias, witness tampering, and false memories intruded into this best-of-all-recorded cases is excruciatingly obvious.
The latest NDE to receive wide acclaim was featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine. The great novelty of this case is that its subject, Dr. Eben Alexander, is a neurosurgeon who we might presume is competent to judge the scientific significance of his experience. His book on the subject, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, has landed atop the New York Times paperback best-seller list. As it happens, it displaced one of the best-selling books of the past decade, Heaven Is for Real—which is yet another account of the afterlife, based on the near-death adventures of a 4-year-old boy. Unsurprisingly, the two books offer incompatible views of what life is like beyond the prison of the brain. (As colorful as his account is, Alexander neglects to tell us that Jesus rides a rainbow-colored horse or that the souls of dead children must still do homework in heaven.)
Having now read Alexander’s book, I can say that it is every bit as remarkable as his Newsweek cover article suggested it would be. Unfortunately, it is not remarkable in the way that its author believes. I find that my original criticism of Alexander’s thinking can stand without revision. However, as he provides further “proof” of heaven in his book, there is more to say about the man’s mischief here on earth. There is also a rumor circulating online that, after attacking Alexander from the safety of my blog, I have refused to debate him in public. This is untrue. I merely declined the privilege of appearing with him on a parapsychology podcast, in the company of an irritating and unscrupulous host. I would be happy to have a public discussion with Alexander, should it ever seem worth doing.
As I wrote in my original article, the enthusiastic reception that Alexander is now enjoying suggests a general confusion about the nature of scientific authority. And much of the criticism I’ve received for dismissing his account has predictably focused on what appear to be the man’s impeccable scientific credentials. Certain readers feel that I have moved the goalposts: You see, even the testimony of a Harvard neurosurgeon isn’t good enough for a dogmatic, materialistic, fundamentalist atheist like Harris! And many people found the invidious distinction between a “neurosurgeon” and a “neuroscientist” (drawn in a comment by Mark Cohen in my last article) to be somewhat flabbergasting.
When debating the validity of evidence and arguments, the point is never that one person’s credentials trump another’s. Credentials just offer a rough indication of what a person is likely to know—or should know. If Alexander were drawing reasonable scientific conclusions from his experience, he wouldn’t need to be a neuroscientist to be taken seriously; he could be a philosopher—or a coal miner. But he simply isn’t thinking like a scientist—and so not even a string of Nobel prizes would shield him from criticism.
However, there are general differences between neurosurgeons and neuroscientists that might explain some of Alexander’s errors. The distinction in expertise is very easy to see when viewed from the other side: If the average neuroscientist were handed a drill and a scalpel and told to operate on a living person’s brain, the result would be horrific. From a scientific point of view, Alexander’s performance has been no prettier. He has surely killed the patient (in fact, he may have helped kill Newsweek, which announced that it would no longer publish a print edition immediately after his article ran), but the man won’t stop drilling. Many of his errors are glaring but immaterial: In his book, for instance, he understates the number of neurons in the human brain by a factor of 10. But others are absolutely damning to his case. Whatever his qualifications on paper, Alexander’s evangelizing about his experience in coma is so devoid of intellectual sobriety, not to mention rigor, that I would see no reason to engage with it—apart from the fact that his book seems destined to be read and believed by millions of people.
There are two paths toward establishing the scientific significance of the NDE: The first would be to show that a person’s brain was dead or otherwise inactive during the time he had an experience (whether veridical or not). The second would be to demonstrate that the subject had acquired knowledge about the world that could be explained only by the mind’s being independent of the brain (but again, it is hard to see how this can be convincingly done in the presence of brain activity).
In his Newsweek article, Alexander sought to travel the first path. Hence, his entire account hinged on the assertion that his cortex was “completely shut down” while he was seeing angels in heaven. Unfortunately, the evidence he has offered in support of this claim—in the article, in a subsequent response to my criticism of it, in his book, and in multiple interviews—suggests that he doesn’t understand what would constitute compelling evidence of cortical inactivity. The proof he offers is either fallacious (CT scans do not detect brain activity) or irrelevant (it does not matter, even slightly, that his form of meningitis was “astronomically rare”)—and no combination of fallacy and irrelevancy adds up to sound science. The impediment to taking Alexander’s claims seriously can be simply stated: There is absolutely no reason to believe that his cerebral cortex was inactive at the time he had his experience of the afterlife. The fact that Alexander thinks he has demonstrated otherwise—by continually emphasizing how sick he was, the infrequency of E. coli meningitis, and the ugliness of his initial CT scan—suggests a deliberate disregard of the most plausible interpretation of his experience. It is far more likely that some of his cortex was functioning, despite the profundity of his illness, than that he is justified in making the following claim:
My experience showed me that the death of the body and the brain are not the end of consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave. More important, it continues under the gaze of a God who loves and cares about each one of us, about where the universe itself and all the beings within it are ultimately going.
The very fact that Alexander remembers his NDE suggests that the cortical and subcortical structures necessary for memory formation were active at the time. How else could he recall the experience?
It would not surprise me, in fact, if Alexander were to claim that his memories are stored outside his brain—presumably somewhere between Lynchburg, Virginia, and heaven. Given that he is committed to proving the mind’s nonphysical basis, he holds a peculiar view of the brain’s operation:
[The brain] is a reducing valve or filter, shifting the larger, nonphysical consciousness that we possess in the nonphysical worlds down into a more limited capacity for the duration of our mortal lives.
There are some obvious problems with this—which anyone disposed to think like a neuroscientist would see. If the brain merely serves to limit human experience and understanding, one would expect most forms of brain damage to unmask extraordinary scientific, artistic, and spiritual insights—and, provided that a person’s language centers could be spared, the graver the injury the better. A few hammer blows or a well-placed bullet should render a person of even the shallowest intellect a spiritual genius. Is this the world we are living in?
In his book, Alexander also attempts to take the second path of proof—alleging that his NDE disclosed facts that could be explained only by the reality of life beyond the body. Most of these truths must be left to scientists of some future century to explore—for although his collision with the Mind of God seems to have fully slaked Alexander’s scientific curiosity, it apparently produced few insights that can be rendered in human speech. This puts the man in a difficult position as an educator:
I saw the abundance of life throughout countless universes, including some whose intelligence was advanced far beyond that of humanity. I saw that there are countless higher dimensions, but that the only way to know these dimensions is to enter and experience them directly. They cannot be known, or understood, from lower dimensional space. Cause and effect exist in these higher realms, but outside our earthly conception of them. The world of time and space in which we move in this terrestrial realm is tightly and intricately meshed within these higher worlds…. The knowledge given to me was not “taught” in the way that a history lesson or math theorem would be. Insights happened directly, rather than needing to be coaxed and absorbed. Knowledge was stored without memorization, instantly and for good. It didn’t fade, like ordinary information does, and to this day I still possess all of it, much more clearly than I possess the information that I gained over all my years in school.
Alexander claims undiminished knowledge of all this, and yet the only specifics he can produce on the page are as vapid as any ever published. And I suspect it is no accident that they have a distinctly Christian flavor. Here, according to Alexander, are the deepest truths he brought back to our world:
You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.
Not only will scientists be underwhelmed by these revelations, but Buddhists and students of Advaita Vedanta will find them astonishingly puerile. And the fact that Alexander returned from “the Core” of a loving cosmos only to piously assert the Christian line on evil and free will (“Evil was necessary because without it free will was impossible…”) renders the overall picture of his religious provincialism fairly indelible.
Happily, you do not need to read Alexander’s book to see him present what he considers the most compelling part of his case. You need only spend six minutes of your life in this world watching the following video:
Watch the video to the end. True, it will bring you six minutes closer to meeting your maker, but it will also teach you something about the limits of intellectual honesty. The footage shows Alexander responding to a question from Raymond Moody (the man who coined the term “near-death experience”). I am quite sure that I’ve never seen a scientist speak in a manner more suggestive of wishful thinking. If self-deception were an Olympic sport, this is how our most gifted athletes would appear when they were in peak condition.
It should also be clear that the knowledge of the afterlife that Alexander claims to possess depends upon some extraordinarily dubious methods of verification. While in his coma, he saw a beautiful girl riding beside him on the wing of a butterfly. We learn in his book that he developed his recollection of this experience over a period of months—writing, thinking about it, and mining it for new details. It would be hard to think of a better way to engineer a distortion of memory.
As you will know from watching the video, Alexander had a biological sister he never met, who died some years before his coma. Seeing her picture for the first time after his recovery, he judged this woman to be the girl who had joined him for the butterfly ride. He sought further confirmation of this by speaking with his biological family, from whom he learned that his dead sister had, indeed, always been “very loving.” QED.
As I said in my original response to his Newsweek article, I have spent much of my life studying and even seeking experiences of the kind Alexander describes. I haven’t contracted meningitis, thankfully, nor have I had an NDE, but I have experienced many phenomena that traditionally lead people to believe in the supernatural.
For instance, I once had an opportunity to study with the great Tibetan lama Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in Nepal. Before making the trip, I had a dream in which he seemed to give me teachings about the nature of the mind. This dream struck me as interesting for two reasons: (1) The teachings I received were novel, useful, and convergent with what I later understood to be true; and (2) I had never met Khyentse Rinpoche, nor was I aware of having seen a photograph of him. This preceded my access to the Internet by at least five years, so the belief that I had never seen his picture was more plausible than it would be now. I also recall that I had no easy way of finding a picture of him for the sake of comparison. But because I was about to meet the man himself, it seemed that I would be able to confirm whether it had really been him in my dream.
First, the teachings: The lama in my dream began by asking who I was. I responded by telling him my name. Apparently, this wasn’t the answer he was looking for.
“Who are you?” he said again. He was now staring fixedly into my eyes and pointing at my face with an outstretched finger. I did not know what to say.
“Who are you?” he said again, continuing to point.
“Who are you?” he said a final time, but here he suddenly shifted his gaze and pointing finger, as though he were now addressing someone just to my left. The effect was quite startling, because I knew (insofar as one can be said to know anything in a dream) that we were alone. The lama was obviously pointing to someone who wasn’t there, and I suddenly noticed what I would later come to consider an important truth about the nature of the mind: Subjectively speaking, there is only consciousness and its contents; there is no inner self who is conscious. The feeling of being the experiencer of your experience, rather than identical to the totality of experience, is an illusion. The lama in my dream seemed to dissect this very feeling of being a self and, for a brief moment, removed it from my mind. I awoke convinced that I had glimpsed something quite profound.
After traveling to Nepal and encountering the arresting figure of Khyentse Rinpoche instructing hundreds of monks from atop a brocade throne, I was struck by the sense that he really did resemble the man in my dream. Even more apparent, however, was the fact that I couldn’t know whether this impression was accurate. Clearly, it would have been more fun to believe that something magical had occurred and that I had been singled out for some sort of transpersonal initiation—but the allure of this belief suggested only that the bar for proof should be raised rather than lowered. And even though I had no formal scientific training at that point, I knew that human memory is unreliable under conditions of this kind. How much stock could I put in the feeling of familiarity? Was I accurately recalling the face of a man I had met in a dream, or was I engaged in a creative reconstruction of it? If nothing else, the experience of déjà vu proves that one’s sense of having experienced something previously can jump the tracks of genuine recollection. My travels in spiritual circles had also brought me into contact with many people who seemed all too eager to deceive themselves about experiences of this kind, and I did not wish to emulate them. Given these considerations, I did not believe that Khyentse Rinpoche had really appeared in my dream. And I certainly would never have been tempted to use this experience as conclusive proof of the supernatural.
I invite the reader to compare this attitude to the one that Dr. Eben Alexander will likely exhibit before crowds of credulous people for the rest of his life. The structure of our experiences was similar—we were each given an opportunity to compare a face remembered from a dream/vision with a person (or photo) in the physical world. I realized that the task was hopeless. Alexander believes that he has made the greatest discovery in the history of science.
- Everything of substance in Alexander’s account hinges on his assertion that his cortex was shut down while he enjoyed a “hyper-real” experience of the afterlife. It seems, however, that it is easy for many readers to miss this. For instance, I’ve heard from several people who think that Alexander successfully ruled out the hypothesis that a spike in the neurotransmitter DMT could explain his NDE. But he did so only by observing that DMT would require a functioning cortex upon which to act, whereas his cortex “wasn’t available to be affected.” But no neurophysiological account of his experience could survive this treatment—because Alexander is asking us to stipulate that his cortex was functionally dead. As I have said, this is an incredible claim, rendered even less plausible by the fact that he does not appear to understand what sort of evidence would make it plausible.↩
- (Added 11/16/12) The phrase “reducing valve” appears to come from Aldous Huxley in his Doors of Perception, but the idea that the brain is a filter (rather than the origin) of mind goes back at least as far as Henri Bergson and William James. Both Bergson and James suggested that the purpose of the brain might be to limit conscious experience to a range of perceptions and mental states compatible with survival in this world. When the barrier of the brain is breached—whether partially, through mystical experience, or fully, upon the death of the body—a wider range of conscious states and cosmic understandings become available.
However, as I said above, if the brain were merely a filter, damaging it should reliably increase cognition. Some readers objected to this, suggesting that the brain could be a filter that functions like a radio—a receiver of conscious states, rather than a mere barrier to them. At first glance, this would appear to account for the deleterious effects of neurological injury and disease: If one smashes a radio with a hammer, it no longer functions properly.
There is problem with this metaphor, however: Those who employ it forget that we are the music, not the radio. If the brain is truly a receiver of conscious states, it should be impossible to diminish a person’s experience of the cosmos by damaging his brain. He may seem unconscious from the outside—like a broken radio—but, subjectively speaking, the music plays on.
This is not how the mind works. Specific reductions in brain activity might benefit people in certain ways, but there is no reason to think that the pervasive destruction of the cortex can leave the mind unaffected (much less improved). For instance, medications that reduce anxiety generally work by increasing the effect of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, thereby diminishing neuronal activity in various parts of the brain. But the fact that dampening arousal in this way can make people feel better does not suggest that they would feel better still if they were drugged into a coma. Similarly, the psychedelic drug psilocybin seems to reduce activity in brain areas responsible self-representation. It would be unsurprising if this accounted for the experience of self-transcendence that is often associated with this drug. But this does not give us any reason to believe that turning off the brain entirely would yield increased awareness of spiritual realities.
If Alexander’s account is correct, strategically damaging the brain should be the most reliable method of personal empowerment and spiritual practice available to us. In almost every case, loss of brain should yield more mind. Surely there must be a way of enjoying the benefits of this brain-reduction therapy while maintaining an ability to function in the physical world. He’s the neurosurgeon: I wonder which regions of his brain Alexander would remove first.↩
Once upon a time, a neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander contracted a bad case of bacterial meningitis and fell into a coma. While immobile in his hospital bed, he experienced visions of such intense beauty that they changed everything—not just for him, but for all of us, and for science as a whole. According to Newsweek, Alexander’s experience proves that consciousness is independent of the brain, that death is an illusion, and that an eternity of perfect splendor awaits us beyond the grave—complete with the usual angels, clouds, and departed relatives, but also butterflies and beautiful girls in peasant dress. Our current understanding of the mind “now lies broken at our feet”—for, as the doctor writes, “What happened to me destroyed it, and I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more, than our physical brains as clear as I can, both to my fellow scientists and to people at large.”
Well, I intend to spend the rest of the morning sparing him the effort. Whether you read it online or hold the physical object in your hands, this issue of Newsweek is best viewed as an archaeological artifact that is certain to embarrass us in the eyes of future generations. Its existence surely says more about our time than the editors at the magazine meant to say—for the cover alone reveals the abasement and desperation of our journalism, the intellectual bankruptcy and resultant tenacity of faith-based religion, and our ubiquitous confusion about the nature of scientific authority. The article is the modern equivalent of a 14th-century woodcut depicting the work of alchemists, inquisitors, Crusaders, and fortune-tellers. I hope our descendants understand that at least some of us were blushing.
As many of you know, I am interested in “spiritual” experiences of the sort Alexander reports. Unlike many atheists, I don’t doubt the subjective phenomena themselves—that is, I don’t believe that everyone who claims to have seen an angel, or left his body in a trance, or become one with the universe, is lying or mentally ill. Indeed, I have had similar experiences myself in meditation, in lucid dreams (even while meditating in a lucid dream), and through the use of various psychedelics (in times gone by). I know that astonishing changes in the contents of consciousness are possible and can be psychologically transformative.
And, unlike many neuroscientists and philosophers, I remain agnostic on the question of how consciousness is related to the physical world. There are, of course, very good reasons to believe that it is an emergent property of brain activity, just as the rest of the human mind obviously is. But we know nothing about how such a miracle of emergence might occur. And if consciousness were, in fact, irreducible—or even separable from the brain in a way that would give comfort to Saint Augustine—my worldview would not be overturned. I know that we do not understand consciousness, and nothing that I think I know about the cosmos, or about the patent falsity of most religious beliefs, requires that I deny this. So, although I am an atheist who can be expected to be unforgiving of religious dogma, I am not reflexively hostile to claims of the sort Alexander has made. In principle, my mind is open. (It really is.)
But Alexander’s account is so bad—his reasoning so lazy and tendentious—that it would be beneath notice if not for the fact that it currently disgraces the cover of a major newsmagazine. Alexander is also releasing a book at the end of the month, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, which seems destined to become an instant bestseller. As much as I would like to simply ignore the unfolding travesty, it would be derelict of me to do so.
But first things first: You really must read Alexander’s article.
I trust that doing so has given you cause to worry that the good doctor is just another casualty of American-style Christianity—for though he claims to have been a nonbeliever before his adventures in coma, he presents the following self-portrait:
Although I considered myself a faithful Christian, I was so more in name than in actual belief. I didn’t begrudge those who wanted to believe that Jesus was more than simply a good man who had suffered at the hands of the world. I sympathized deeply with those who wanted to believe that there was a God somewhere out there who loved us unconditionally. In fact, I envied such people the security that those beliefs no doubt provided. But as a scientist, I simply knew better than to believe them myself.
What it means to be a “faithful Christian” without “actual belief” is not spelled out, but few nonbelievers will be surprised when our hero’s scientific skepticism proves no match for his religious conditioning. Most of us have been around this block often enough to know that many “former atheists”—like Francis Collins—spent so long on the brink of faith, and yearned for its emotional consolations with such vampiric intensity, that the slightest breeze would send them spinning into the abyss. For Collins, you may recall, all it took to establish the divinity of Jesus and the coming resurrection of the dead was the sight of a frozen waterfall. Alexander seems to have required a ride on a psychedelic butterfly. In either case, it’s not the perception of beauty we should begrudge but the utter absence of intellectual seriousness with which the author interprets it.
Everything—absolutely everything—in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was “shut down,” “inactivated,” “completely shut down,” “totally offline,” and “stunned to complete inactivity.” The evidence he provides for this claim is not only inadequate—it suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science. Perhaps he has saved a more persuasive account for his book—though now that I’ve listened to an hour-long interview with him online, I very much doubt it. In his Newsweek article, Alexander asserts that the cessation of cortical activity was “clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations.” To his editors, this presumably sounded like neuroscience.
The problem, however, is that “CT scans and neurological examinations” can’t determine neuronal inactivity—in the cortex or anywhere else. And Alexander makes no reference to functional data that might have been acquired by fMRI, PET, or EEG—nor does he seem to realize that only this sort of evidence could support his case. Obviously, the man’s cortex is functioning now—he has, after all, written a book—so whatever structural damage appeared on CT could not have been “global.” (Otherwise, he would be claiming that his entire cortex was destroyed and then grew back.) Coma is not associated with the complete cessation of cortical activity, in any case. And to my knowledge, almost no one thinks that consciousness is purely a matter of cortical activity. Alexander’s unwarranted assumptions are proliferating rather quickly. Why doesn’t he know these things? He is, after all, a neurosurgeon who survived a coma and now claims to be upending the scientific worldview on the basis of the fact that his cortex was totally quiescent at the precise moment he was enjoying the best day of his life in the company of angels. Even if his entire cortex had truly shut down (again, an incredible claim), how can he know that his visions didn’t occur in the minutes and hours during which its functions returned?
I confess that I found Alexander’s account so alarmingly unscientific that I began to worry that something had gone wrong with my own brain. So I sought the opinion of Mark Cohen, a pioneer in the field of neuroimaging who holds appointments in the Departments of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Science, Neurology, Psychology, Radiological Science, and Bioengineering at UCLA. (He was also my thesis advisor.) Here is part of what he had to say:
This poetic interpretation of his experience is not supported by evidence of any kind. As you correctly point out, coma does not equate to “inactivation of the cerebral cortex” or “higher-order brain functions totally offline” or “neurons of [my] cortex stunned into complete inactivity”. These describe brain death, a one hundred percent lethal condition. There are many excellent scholarly articles that discuss the definitions of coma. (For example: 1 & 2)
We are not privy to his EEG records, but high alpha activity is common in coma. Also common is “flat” EEG. The EEG can appear flat even in the presence of high activity, when that activity is not synchronous. For example, the EEG flattens in regions involved in direct task processing. This phenomenon is known as event-related desynchronization (hundreds of references).
As is obvious to you, this is truth by authority. Neurosurgeons, however, are rarely well-trained in brain function. Dr. Alexander cuts brains; he does not appear to study them. “There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness ...” True, science cannot explain brain-free consciousness. Of course, science cannot explain consciousness anyway. In this case, however, it would be parsimonious to reject the whole idea of consciousness in the absence of brain activity. Either his brain was active when he had these dreams, or they are a confabulation of whatever took place in his state of minimally conscious coma.
There are many reports of people remembering dream-like states while in medical coma. They lack consistency, of course, but there is nothing particularly unique in Dr. Alexander’s unfortunate episode.
Okay, so it appears that my own cortex hasn’t completely shut down. In fact, there are further problems with Alexander’s account. Not only does he appear ignorant of the relevant science, but he doesn’t realize how many people have experienced visions similar to his while their brains were operational. In his online interview we learn about the kinds of conversations he’s now having with skeptics:
I guess one could always argue, “Well, your brain was probably just barely able to ignite real consciousness and then it would flip back into a very diseased state,” which doesn’t make any sense to me. Especially because that hyper-real state is so indescribable and so crisp. It’s totally unlike any drug experience. A lot of people have come up to me and said, “Oh that sounds like a DMT experience,” or “That sounds like ketamine.” Not at all. That is not even in the right ballpark.
Those things do not explain the kind of clarity, the rich interactivity, the layer upon layer of understanding and of lessons taught by deceased loved ones and spiritual beings.
“Not even in the right ballpark”? His experience sounds so much like a DMT trip that we are not only in the right ballpark, we are talking about the stitching on the same ball. Here is Alexander’s description of the afterlife:
I was a speck on a beautiful butterfly wing; millions of other butterflies around us. We were flying through blooming flowers, blossoms on trees, and they were all coming out as we flew through them… [there were] waterfalls, pools of water, indescribable colors, and above there were these arcs of silver and gold light and beautiful hymns coming down from them. Indescribably gorgeous hymns. I later came to call them “angels,” those arcs of light in the sky. I think that word is probably fairly accurate….
Then we went out of this universe. I remember just seeing everything receding and initially I felt as if my awareness was in an infinite black void. It was very comforting but I could feel the extent of the infinity and that it was, as you would expect, impossible to put into words. I was there with that Divine presence that was not anything that I could visibly see and describe, and with a brilliant orb of light….
They said there were many things that they would show me, and they continued to do that. In fact, the whole higher-dimensional multiverse was this incredibly complex corrugated ball and all these lessons coming into me about it. Part of the lessons involved becoming all of what I was being shown. It was indescribable.
But then I would find myself—and time out there I can say is totally different from what we call time. There was access from out there to any part of our space/time and that made it difficult to understand a lot of these memories because we always try to sequence things and put them in linear form and description. That just really doesn’t work.
Everything that Alexander describes here and in his Newsweek article, including the parts I have left out, has been reported by DMT users. The similarity is uncanny. Here is how the late Terence McKenna described the prototypical DMT trance:
Under the influence of DMT, the world becomes an Arabian labyrinth, a palace, a more than possible Martian jewel, vast with motifs that flood the gaping mind with complex and wordless awe. Color and the sense of a reality-unlocking secret nearby pervade the experience. There is a sense of other times, and of one’s own infancy, and of wonder, wonder and more wonder. It is an audience with the alien nuncio. In the midst of this experience, apparently at the end of human history, guarding gates that seem surely to open on the howling maelstrom of the unspeakable emptiness between the stars, is the Aeon.
The Aeon, as Heraclitus presciently observed, is a child at play with colored balls. Many diminutive beings are present there—the tykes, the self-transforming machine elves of hyperspace. Are they the children destined to be father to the man? One has the impression of entering into an ecology of souls that lies beyond the portals of what we naively call death. I do not know. Are they the synesthetic embodiment of ourselves as the Other, or of the Other as ourselves? Are they the elves lost to us since the fading of the magic light of childhood? Here is a tremendum barely to be told, an epiphany beyond our wildest dreams. Here is the realm of that which is stranger than we can suppose. Here is the mystery, alive, unscathed, still as new for us as when our ancestors lived it fifteen thousand summers ago. The tryptamine entities offer the gift of new language, they sing in pearly voices that rain down as colored petals and flow through the air like hot metal to become toys and such gifts as gods would give their children. The sense of emotional connection is terrifying and intense. The Mysteries revealed are real and if ever fully told will leave no stone upon another in the small world we have gone so ill in.
This is not the mercurial world of the UFO, to be invoked from lonely hilltops; this is not the siren song of lost Atlantis wailing through the trailer courts of crack-crazed America. DMT is not one of our irrational illusions. I believe that what we experience in the presence of DMT is real news. It is a nearby dimension—frightening, transformative, and beyond our powers to imagine, and yet to be explored in the usual way. We must send fearless experts, whatever that may come to mean, to explore and to report on what they find. (Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods, pp. 258-259.)
Alexander believes that his E. coli-addled brain could not have produced his visions because they were too “intense,” too “hyper-real,” too “beautiful,” too “interactive,” and too drenched in significance for even a healthy brain to conjure. He also appears to think that despite their timeless quality, his visions could not have arisen in the minutes or hours during which his cortex (which surely never went off) switched back on. He clearly knows nothing about what people with working brains experience under the influence of psychedelics. Nor does he know that visions of the sort that McKenna describes, although they may seem to last for ages, require only a brief span of biological time. Unlike LSD and other long-acting psychedelics, DMT alters consciousness for merely a few minutes. Alexander would have had more than enough time to experience a visionary ecstasy as he was coming out of his coma (whether his cortex was rebooting or not).
Does Alexander know that DMT already exists in the brain as a neurotransmitter? Did his brain experience a surge of DMT release during his coma? This is pure speculation, of course, but it is a far more credible hypothesis than that his cortex “shut down,” freeing his soul to travel to another dimension. As one of his correspondents has already informed him, similar experiences can be had with ketamine, which is a surgical anesthetic that is occasionally used to protect a traumatized brain. Did Alexander by any chance receive ketamine while in the hospital? Would he even think it relevant if he had? His assertion that psychedelics like DMT and ketamine “do not explain the kind of clarity, the rich interactivity, the layer upon layer of understanding” he experienced is perhaps the most amazing thing he has said since he returned from heaven. Such compounds are universally understood to do the job. And most scientists believe that the reliable effects of psychedelics indicate that the brain is at the very least involved in the production of visionary states of the sort Alexander is talking about.
Again, there is nothing to be said against Alexander’s experience. It sounds perfectly sublime. And such ecstasies do tell us something about how good a human mind can feel. The problem is that the conclusions Alexander has drawn from his experience—he continually reminds us, as a scientist—are based on some very obvious errors in reasoning and gaps in his understanding.
Let me suggest that, whether or not heaven exists, Alexander sounds precisely how a scientist should not sound when he doesn’t know what he is talking about. And his article is not the sort of thing that the editors of a once-important magazine should publish if they hope to reclaim some measure of respect for their battered brand.
The latest wave of Muslim hysteria and violence has now spread to over twenty countries. The walls of our embassies and consulates have been breached, their precincts abandoned to triumphant mobs, and many people have been murdered—all in response to an unwatchable Internet video titled “Innocence of Muslims.” Whether over a film, a cartoon, a novel, a beauty pageant, or an inauspiciously named teddy bear, the coming eruption of pious rage is now as predictable as the dawn. This is already an old and boring story about old, boring, and deadly ideas. And I fear it will be with us for the rest of our lives.
Our panic and moral confusion were at first sublimated in attacks upon the hapless Governor Romney. I am no fan of Romney’s, and I would find the prospect of his presidency risible if it were not so depressing, but he did accurately detect the first bleats of fear in the Obama administration’s reaction to this crisis. Romney got the timing of events wrong—confusing, as many did, a statement made by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for an official government response to the murder of Americans in Libya. But the truth is that the White House struck the same note of apology, disavowing the offending speech while claiming to protect free speech in principle. It may seem a small detail, given the heat of the moment—but so is a quivering lip.
Our government followed the path of appeasement further by attempting to silence the irrepressible crackpot Pastor Terry Jones, who had left off burning copies of the Qur’an just long enough to promote the film. The administration also requested that Google remove “Innocence of Muslims” from its servers. These maneuvers attest to one of two psychological and diplomatic realities: Either our government is unwilling to address the problem at hand, or the problem is so vast and terrifying that we have decided to placate the barbarians at the gate.
The contagion of moral cowardice followed its usual course, wherein liberal journalists and pundits began to reconsider our most basic freedoms in light of the sadomasochistic fury known as “religious sensitivity” among Muslims. Contributors to The New York Times and NPR spoke of the need to find a balance between free speech and freedom of religion—as though the latter could possibly be infringed by a YouTube video. As predictable as Muslim bullying has become, the moral confusion of secular liberals appears to be part of the same clockwork.
Consider what is actually happening: Some percentage of the world’s Muslims—Five percent? Fifteen? Fifty? It’s not yet clear—is demanding that all non-Muslims conform to the strictures of Islamic law. And where they do not immediately resort to violence in their protests, they threaten it. Carrying a sign that reads “Behead Those Who Insult the Prophet” may still count as an example of peaceful protest, but it is also an assurance that infidel blood would be shed if the imbecile holding the placard only had more power. This grotesque promise is, of course, fulfilled in nearly every Muslim society. To make a film like “Innocence of Muslims” anywhere in the Middle East would be as sure a method of suicide as the laws of physics allow.
What exactly was in the film? Who made it? What were their motives? Was Muhammad really depicted? Was that a Qur’an burning, or some other book? Questions of this kind are obscene. Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.
At moments like this, we inevitably hear—from people who don’t know what it’s like to believe in paradise—that religion is just a way of channeling popular unrest. The true source of the problem can be found in the history of western aggression in the region. It is our policies, rather than our freedoms, that they hate. I believe that the future of liberalism—and much else—depends on our overcoming this ruinous self-deception. Religion only works as a pretext for political violence because many millions of people actually believe what they say they believe: that imaginary crimes like blasphemy and apostasy are killing offenses.
Most secular liberals think that all religions are the same, and they consider any suggestion to the contrary a sign of bigotry. Somehow, this article of faith survives daily disconfirmation. Our language is largely to blame for this. As I have pointed out on many occasions, “religion” is a term like “sports”: Some sports are peaceful but spectacularly dangerous (“free solo” rock climbing, street luge); some are safer but synonymous with violence (boxing, mixed martial arts); and some entail no more risk of serious injury than standing in the shower (bowling, badminton). To speak of “sports” as a generic activity makes it impossible to discuss what athletes actually do, or the physical attributes required to do it. What do all sports have in common, apart from breathing? Not much. The term “religion” is scarcely more useful.
Consider Mormonism: Many of my fellow liberals would consider it morally indecent to count Romney’s faith against him. In their view, Mormonism must be just like every other religion. The truth, however, is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has more than its fair share of quirks. For instance, its doctrine was explicitly racist until 1978, at which point God apparently changed his mind about black people (a few years after Archie Bunker did) and recommended that they be granted the full range of sacraments and religious responsibilities. By this time, Romney had been an adult and an exceptionally energetic member of his church for more than a decade.
Unlike the founders of most religions, about whom very little is known, Mormonism is the product of the plagiarisms and confabulations of an obvious con man, Joseph Smith, whose adventures among the credulous were consummated (in every sense) in the full, unsentimental glare of history. Given how much we know about Smith, it is harder to be a Mormon than it is to be a Christian. A firmer embrace of the preposterous is required—and the fact that Romney can manage it says something about him, just as it would if he were a Scientologist proposing to park his E-meter in the Oval Office. The spectrum between rational belief and self-serving delusion has some obvious increments: It is one thing to believe that Jesus existed and was probably a remarkable human being. It is another to accept, as most Christians do, that he was physically resurrected and will return to earth to judge the living and the dead. It is yet another leap of faith too far to imagine, as all good Mormons must, that he will work his cosmic magic from the hallowed ground of Jackson County, Missouri.
That final, provincial detail matters. It makes Mormonism objectively less plausible than run-of-the-mill Christianity—as does the related claim that Jesus visited the “Nephites” in America at some point after his resurrection. The moment one adds seer stones, sacred underpants, the planet Kolob, and a secret handshake required to win admittance into the highest heaven, Mormonism stands revealed for what it is: the religious equivalent of rhythmic gymnastics.
The point, however, is that I can say all these things about Mormonism, and disparage Joseph Smith to my heart’s content, without fearing that I will be murdered for it. Secular liberals ignore this distinction at every opportunity and to everyone’s peril. Take a moment to reflect upon the existence of the musical The Book of Mormon. Now imagine the security precautions that would be required to stage a similar production about Islam. The project is unimaginable—not only in Beirut, Baghdad, or Jerusalem, but in New York City.
The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost. And the only forces on earth that can recover it are strong, secular governments that will face down charges of blasphemy with scorn. No apologies necessary. Muslims must learn that if they make belligerent and fanatical claims upon the tolerance of free societies, they will meet the limits of that tolerance. And Governor Romney, though he is wrong about almost everything under the sun (including, very likely, the sun), is surely right to believe that it is time our government delivered this message without blinking.
(Photo by h.koppdelaney)
One of the most common objections to my position on free will is that accepting it could have terrible consequences, psychologically or socially. This is a strange rejoinder, analogous to what many religious people allege against atheism: Without a belief in God, human beings will cease to be good to one another. Both responses abandon any pretense of caring about what is true and merely change the subject. But that does not mean we should never worry about the practical effects of holding specific beliefs.
I can well imagine that some people might use the nonexistence of free will as a pretext for doing whatever they want, assuming that it’s pointless to resist temptation or that there’s no difference between good and evil. This is a misunderstanding of the situation, but, I admit, a possible one. There is also the question of how we should raise children in light of what science tells us about the nature of the human mind. It seems doubtful that a lecture on the illusoriness of free will should be part of an elementary school curriculum.
In my view, the reality of good and evil does not depend upon the existence of free will, because with or without free will, we can distinguish between suffering and happiness. With or without free will, a psychopath who enjoys killing children is different from a pediatric surgeon who enjoys saving them. Whatever the truth about free will, these distinctions are unmistakable and well worth caring about.
Might free will somehow be required for goodness to be manifest? How, for instance, does one become a pediatric surgeon? Well, you must first be born, with an intact nervous system, and then provided with a proper education. No freedom there, I’m afraid. You must also have the physical talent for the job and avoid smashing your hands at rugby. Needless to say, it won’t do to be someone who faints at the sight of blood. Chalk these achievements up to good luck as well. At some point you must decide to become a surgeon—a result, presumably, of first wanting to become one. Will you be the conscious source of this wanting? Will you be responsible for its prevailing over all the other things you want but that are incompatible with a career in medicine? No. If you succeed at becoming a surgeon, you will simply find yourself standing one day, scalpel in hand, at the confluence of all the genetic and environmental causes that led you to develop along this line. None of these events requires that you, the conscious subject, be the ultimate cause of your aspirations, abilities, and resulting behavior. And, needless to say, you can take no credit for the fact that you weren’t born a psychopath.
Of course, I’m not saying that you can become a surgeon by accident—you must do many things, deliberately and well, and in the appropriate sequence, year after year. Becoming a surgeon requires effort. But can you take credit for your disposition to make that effort? To turn the matter around, am I responsible for the fact that it has never once occurred to me that I might like to be a surgeon? Who gets the blame for my lack of inspiration? And what if the desire to become a surgeon suddenly arises tomorrow and becomes so intense that I jettison my other professional goals and enroll in medical school? Would I—that is, the part of me that is actually experiencing my life—be the true cause of these developments? Every moment of conscious effort—every thought, intention, and decision—will have been caused by events of which I am not conscious. Where is the freedom in this?
If we cannot assign blame to the workings of the universe, how can evil people be held responsible for their actions? In the deepest sense, it seems, they can’t be. But in a practical sense, they must be. I see no contradiction in this. In fact, I think that keeping the deep causes of human behavior in view would only improve our practical response to evil. The feeling that people are deeply responsible for who they are does nothing but produce moral illusions and psychological suffering.
Imagine that you are enjoying your last nap of the summer, perhaps outside in a hammock somewhere, and are awakened by an unfamiliar sound. You open your eyes to the sight of a large bear charging at you across the lawn. It should be easy enough to understand that you have a problem. If we swap this bear for a large man holding a butcher knife, the problem changes in a few interesting ways, but the sudden appearance of free will in the brain of your attacker is not among them.
Should you survive this ordeal, your subsequent experience is liable to depend—far too much, in my view—on the species of your attacker. Imagine the difference between seeing the man who almost killed you on the witness stand and seeing the bear romping at the zoo. If you are like many victims, you might be overcome in the first instance by feelings of rage and hatred so intense as to constitute a further trauma. You might spend years fantasizing about the man’s death. But it seems certain that your experience at the zoo would be altogether different. You might even bring friends and family just for the fun of it: “That’s the beast that almost killed me!” Which state of mind would you prefer—seething hatred or triumphant feelings of good luck and amazement? The conviction that a human assailant could have done otherwise, while a bear could not, would seem to account for much of the difference.
A person’s conscious thoughts, intentions, and efforts at every moment are preceded by causes of which he is unaware. What is more, they are preceded by deep causes—genes, childhood experience, etc.—for which no one, however evil, can be held responsible. Our ignorance of both sets of facts gives rise to moral illusions. And yet many people worry that it is necessary to believe in free will, especially in the process of raising children.
This strikes me as a legitimate concern, though I would point out that the question of which truths to tell children (or childlike adults) haunts every room in the mansion of our understanding. For instance, my wife and I recently took our three-year-old daughter on an airplane for the first time. She loves to fly! As it happens, her joy was made possible in part because we neglected to tell her that airplanes occasionally malfunction and fall out of the sky, killing everyone on board. I don’t believe I’m the first person to observe that certain truths are best left unspoken, especially in the presence of young children. And I would no more think of telling my daughter at this age that free will is an illusion than I would teach her to drive a car or load a pistol.
Which is to say that there is a time and a place for everything—unless, of course, there isn’t. We all find ourselves in the position of a child from time to time, when specific information, however valid or necessary it may be in other contexts, will only produce confusion, despondency, or terror in the context of our life. It can be perfectly rational to avoid certain facts. For instance, if you must undergo a medical procedure for which there is no reasonable alternative, I recommend that you not conduct an Internet search designed to uncover all its possible complications. Similarly, if you are prone to nightmares or otherwise destabilized by contemplating human evil, I recommend that you not read Machete Season. Some forms of knowledge are not for everyone.
Generally speaking, however, I don’t think that the illusoriness of free will is an ugly truth. Nor is it one that must remain a philosophical abstraction. In fact, as I write this, it is absolutely clear to me that I do not have free will. This knowledge doesn’t seem to prevent me from getting things done. Recognizing that my conscious mind is always downstream from the underlying causes of my thoughts, intentions, and actions does not change the fact that thoughts, intentions, and actions of all kinds are necessary for living a happy life—or an unhappy one, for that matter.
I haven’t been noticeably harmed, and I believe I have benefited, from knowing that the next thought that unfurls in my mind will arise and become effective (or not) due to conditions that I cannot know and did not bring into being. The negative effects that people worry about—a lack of motivation, a plunge into nihilism—are simply not evident in my life. And the positive effects have been obvious. Seeing through the illusion of free will has lessened my feelings of hatred for bad people. I’m still capable of feeling hatred, of course, but when I think about the actual causes of a person’s behavior, the feeling falls away. It is a relief to put down this burden, and I think nothing would be lost if we all put it down together. On the contrary, much would be gained. We could forget about retribution and concentrate entirely on mitigating harm. (And if punishing people proved important for either deterrence or rehabilitation, we could make prison as unpleasant as required.)
Understanding the true causes of human behavior does not leave any room for the traditional notion of free will. But this shouldn’t depress us, or tempt us to go off our diets. Diligence and wisdom still yield better results than sloth and stupidity. And, in psychologically healthy adults, understanding the illusoriness of free will should make divisive feelings such as pride and hatred a little less compelling. While it’s conceivable that someone, somewhere, might be made worse off by dispensing with the illusion of free will, I think that on balance, it could only produce a more compassionate, equitable, and sane society.