Friday, February 8, 2013

Sam Harris on Gun Control

One of Sam Harris' New Years' resolutions may have been to make a contribution to the debate over stricter gun laws.  That would explain his January 2nd blog entry, "The Riddle Of The Gun," though its merits as a substantive contribution to the public discourse are questionable.  I will briefly address the lack of any such merits, but first I want to comment on some of the reactions to Harris.

Though Harris' comments on gun control have provoked some debate in various quarters, the debate does not appear to have anything to do with any unique arguments or insights Harris has offered.  It has more to do with Sam Harris himself and, sometimes, how one should respond to his so-called "contributions."  Russell Blackford has been particularly keen on focusing on the latter point.  The last of those links takes you to Russell's most recent post, in which he criticizes Ian Murphy's rather harsh criticism of Harris, which Russell says is too insubstantive and uncharitable.  Murphy asks, "Why does anyone take Sam Harris seriously?"  Russell replies, "Why do so many of Harris's opponents engage him without charity and in what seems like bad faith? What brings this out in them?"

I'm on Murphy's side here.  I've made a number of pointed criticisms of Sam Harris in the past--not about his controversial stances on Islam or torture, but about his approach to philosophical topics such as moral realism and free will, and about his role in the community of skeptics.  Harris is a gifted writer and speaker, but he has yet to make a substantial contribution to our understanding of any philosophical or political issues. He has helped bring many important issues to the attention of a wider public audience, and deserves credit for that.  However, his approach to such issues tends to be irresponsible, misguided and at times intellectually dishonest in ways which can do more harm than good to the public discourse.  So I sympathize with Ian Murphy, even if I slightly distance myself from some of his comments

I don't think Russell understands the force and focus of Murphy's criticism.  Russell says Harris shouldn't be attacked for merely pointing out that the current US Supreme Court views a ban on handguns as unconstitutional and that any policy proposals would have to take that into consideration.  That's true.  However, Murphy does not criticize Harris for merely making that point.  He criticizes Harris for using the point as an excuse for not taking a firmer stance on handguns.

Of course, Russell has the right to ask for a calmer, friendlier critique of Harris--not to replace Murphy's, but to add to it.  I'd like to comply, but I don't have the time or patience to make a full-on review of Harris' thoughts on gun control at the moment, and I don't expect to in the near future.  (Update: I've made a little time for a closer look at Harris' arguments, here.)  For the time being, I will only make a few observations which will hopefully help people see why I sympathize with Murphy.

Harris begins by framing the debate in implausible and unfair terms.  He says we need to find a middle ground between the "zealots" who, on the one hand, resist any stricter gun control laws and those who, on the other hand, "seem unable to understand why a good person would ever want ready access to a loaded firearm."  While it is remarkably easy to find zealots of the first sort, I have never come across, or seen any evidence for, any of the second.  Proponents of stricter gun control have no problem at all understanding why good people might want ready access to a loaded firearm.  Maybe Harris has met some people like that, but their presence in the public debate is virtually non-existent, so far as I can tell.  It seems that Harris isn't so interested in accurately reflecting the contours of the gun debate.  He's just interested in setting up his own arguments by creating the false impression that the world has been waiting for his voice of reason.  By setting up his arguments in such poor terms, he's laying a groundwork for confusion, not insight.  Harris' goal is to help us find a middle ground in an imaginary world of his own creation.

I challenge anyone to point out one unique insight Harris has brought to the table--one original contribution to the gun debate.  Because all of his points seem to come directly from other sources, including Wayne LaPierre.  Consider this, from Harris: "And the only reliable way for one person to stop a man with a knife is to shoot him."  That's wrong in a number of ways.  First, shooting a person with a knife does not always stop them, despite what Hollywood action movies have to say about it. Second, shooting a person is not the only way to stop them.

One of Harris' lines is that the fact he is just repeating "talking points" does not make him wrong.  True, it doesn't make him wrong.  But it does make him somewhat useless.  And it happens that he is wrong about guns and the gun debate in many ways.  Maybe I'll get deeper into those issues one day.  In the meantime, Murphy has made a number of very good points, if you can stomach his tone.