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Back in the day, I admired Sam Harris. His arguments seemed incredibly sharp and well-delivered, and his debate with William Lane Craig deeply impressed me.

Over the years, though, that image has tarnished. I missed out on his comparison of religion and rape, but a growing recognition of his hate of Islam and indirect racism was probably the first straw. His image took a major hit when he tried to debate airport security with an actual security expert, and failed miserably. Harris had no idea of base rates and basic cost-benefit analysis, dealt entirely in terms of hypotheticals instead of concrete scenarios, failed to articulate what a “terrorist” looked like despite repeatedly asserting they were obvious to spot… and yet walked out of that debate more convinced than ever he was right.

I was not vilified because I advocated something expensive and impractical. I was vilified because my critics believe that I support a policy that is shockingly unethical, well known to be ineffective, and the product of near-total confusion about the causes of terrorism.

My position on profiling is very simple: We should admit that we know what we are looking for (suicidal terrorists) and that certain people obviously require less scrutiny than others. We should scan everyone’s luggage, of course, because bombs can be placed there without a person’s knowledge. But given scarce resources, we can’t afford to waste our time and attention pretending to think that every traveller is equally likely to be affiliated with al Qaeda.

So when I heard Harris had gotten into an offline debate with Noam Chomsky, I had a good idea of what to expect. I couldn’t have predicted Harris would fail this badly, though.

I am happy to answer your question. What would I say about al-Qaeda (or any other group) if it destroyed half the pharmaceutical supplies in the U.S.? It would depend on what they intended to do. Consider the following possibilities:

1. Imagine that al-Qaeda is filled, not with God-intoxicated sociopaths intent upon creating a global caliphate, but genuine humanitarians. Based on their research, they believe that a deadly batch of vaccine has made it into the U.S. pharmaceutical supply. […]

I would say that this was a very unfortunate event—but these are people we want on our team.

2. al-Qaeda is precisely as terrible a group as it is, and it destroys our pharmaceuticals intentionally, for the purpose of harming millions of innocent people.

What would I say? We should imprison or kill these people at the first opportunity.

Sooooo…. would he ask them to join his team, or kill them? And is Harris arguing that intentions completely override consequences? This is embarrassingly weak apologetics, and Chomsky isn’t putting up with it.

I’m glad that you are interested in looking at the other cases I’ve discussed for 50 years, addressing exactly the question you claim I ignored.  These cases shed great light on the ethical question of how to evaluate “benign intentions”.  As I’ve discussed for many years, in fact decades, benign intentions are virtually always professed, even by the worst monsters, and hence carry no information, even in the technical sense of that term.  That’s quite independent of their “sincerity,” however we determine that (pretty easy in the Japanese case, and the question doesn’t even arise in the al-Shifa case).

We are left as we were.  You made a series of accusations that were quite false, and are unwilling to withdraw them.  You refuse to consider, let alone answer, the very simple and straightforward question posed in the passage you cited.  And you still refuse to reciprocate as I have properly requested several times.

[…]

To summarize, then, you issue instructions about moral issues that you have never even considered to people who have considered and discussed these issues for many decades, including the very case you cite. And when this is explained to you in detail, you have nothing to say except to repeat your initial stance.

This is just a small fraction of the entire thing; PZ Myers’ summary, which got me skimming the thing, goes into more detail and includes commentary, and of course you can always read the original and come to your own conclusions.

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