Cognitive Dissonance

Sam Harris is a smart man. He’s an author and philosopher. He knows a lot about neuroscience. He writes across a wide range of subjects. But I suspect that he is best known as an outspoken atheist, often lumped together with the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Now, before I go any further, I think I need to lay my cards on the table. Like Harris, I’m an atheist myself. 

I’ve seen clips of these men on the subject and even attended an in-person lecture by Dawkins on the topic some time ago in New Zealand. In my view, none of them makes the case against the existence of a benevolent, theistic God nearly as well or as subtly or as sympathetically to those who differ as did the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume over two centuries ago. Hume did this mostly in his magisterial Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, published posthumously in 1779. Moreover, Hume had to make his case over 80 years before Darwin had set out a theory of evolution, meaning the great Scotsman lacked a key tool in responding to the argument from design and other theistic foundational beliefs.

Yet that is just an aside and chance to make plain where I stand in relation to Harris. Well, actually, readers should also know that, unlike Sam Harris, I’m a conservative in my politics. Sure, I have libertarian leanings. They are especially strong when it comes to free speech, and a detestation of cancel culture and the whole woke movement. As a non-American, I vote blue, which in the Westminster world of Australia, Britain, and Canada means for the right-of-center, conservative party. Were I an American, I’d vote red, for the Republicans. And just to show what an aberration I am as a law professor, I would have voted for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020.

That acknowledgment brings me back to Harris. Last month he was being interviewed for a podcast and U.S. politics came up. Let me recount some of the things Harris said:

At that point, Hunter Biden literally could have had the corpses of children in his basement—I would not have cared.

So there is nothing . . .  First of all, it’s Hunter Biden—it’s not Joe Biden—but even if Joe—even—whatever scope of Joe Biden’s corruption is, like, if we could just go down that rabbit hole endlessly and understand that he’s getting kickbacks from Hunter Biden’s deals in Ukraine or wherever else—right—or China. It is infinitesimal compared to the corruption we know Trump is involved with. It’s like . . .  It’s like a firefly to the sun. It doesn’t even stack up against Trump University, right? Trump University as a story is worse than anything that could be in Hunter Biden’s laptop. In my view.

Now, that doesn’t answer the people who say that it is still completely unfair to not have looked at the laptop in a timely way or to shut down the New York Post’s Twitter account. Like, that’s just a conspiracy—that’s a left-wing conspiracy to deny the presidency to Donald Trump. Absolutely, it was. Absolutely. Right? But I think it was warranted.

 When this struck the podcast interviewer Konstantin Kisin as possibly a tad hard to justify, indicating if nothing else a rather noblesse oblige attitude to democratic norms, Kisin pushed Harris to elaborate. Deleting the expletives and ignoring quips about basement-dwelling kids, the interviewer went on: “I’m interested in democracy. You’re saying you are content with the left-wing conspiracy to prevent someone being democratically re-elected as President?” 

The dialogue then proceeds:

Harris: Well no, I’m content . . . But the thing is, it’s not left-wing. Liz Cheney is not left-wing.’

Kisin: You’re content with a conspiracy to prevent someone being democratically elected . . . ?

Harris: No—but, it’s not . . . there’s nothing—it was a conspiracy out in the open. But it doesn’t matter if it was a conspiracy. It doesn’t matter what part is conspiracy—what part is out in the open— it’s like, if people get together and talk about ‘What should we do about this phenomenon?’ It’s almost an asteroid hurtling toward Earth. And we got in a room together, with all of our friends, and had a conversation about what we could do to deflect its course—is that a conspiracy?

Even here in Australia commentators on the right side of politics have pointed out that former President Trump, in office or out, is not easily compared to an asteroid hurtling toward Earth. You don’t have to agree with more 74 million mostly Republican voters on the desirability of Trump’s policies: on energy exploration; on American manufacturing; on moving the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and his whole Middle East foreign policy; on judicial picks; on affirmative action; on the border; on university policies as regards Title IX; on no needless wars; on other NATO countries pulling their weight; and so on. Nor do you have to think, as tens of millions of Americans also do (plus this non-American), that those were all better policies than anything we have seen from Joe Biden. 

You can be a down-the-line Democrat in terms of all your policy preferences and still grasp the implausibility of likening a Trump presidency to an asteroid about to destroy earth. The latter would go some way to destroying all life on earth and hence would justify virtually any sort of response that could prevent it—illegal as well as legal. That, of course, is the patent suggestion that philosopher and atheist Sam Harris is making. 

Here let me just pause and remark that Harris falls short of Hume in terms of the plausibility and cogency of his reasoning. It’s as though Harris were gripped by a powerful passion or sentiment that was overriding his reason (something that would not surprise David Hume, by the way).

Whatever the explanation, after this bit of “ends-justify-the-means” intergalactic rationalizing went viral on the internet, Harris issued a clarificatory statement: 

There is a podcast clip circulating that seems to be confusing many people about my views on Trump (which is understandable because I wasn’t speaking very clearly). So, for what it’s worth, here is what I was trying to say.

 I was essentially arguing for a principle of self-defense (where there’s a continuum of proportionate force that is appropriate and necessary to use. I’ve always viewed Trump as a very dangerous person to elect as president of a fake university, let alone the U.S., and when he became a sitting president who would not commit to a peaceful transfer of power, I viewed him as more dangerous still. (However, I’ve never been under any illusion that he is Orange Hitler.)

On the podcast, I was speaking narrowly about the wisdom and propriety of ignoring the Hunter Biden laptop story until after the election. I’ve always thought that this was a very hard call, ethically and journalistically. But given what happened with the Anthony Weiner laptop in the previous election, I think it was probably the right call.

Nothing I said on that podcast was meant to suggest that the Democrats would have been right to commit election fraud or take other illegal measures to deny Trump the presidency (nor do I think they did that). 

 Viewers can watch Harris’ original comments online and decide for themselves if the clarification plausibly accounts for what he did or did not originally mean, remembering that this is a superbly well-educated and otherwise articulate man for whom clarity of expression is not a problem. We can leave that wholly to one side and still notice that Harris here is subordinating truth and the journalistic search for truth to other values, namely whom it is Harris prefers to win an election. 

Yes, that subordination is “a very hard call” and all that. But it is plain that truth loses out to political druthers here. I cannot provide a take on the U.S. media but here in Australia it is clear that far too many journalists have this very same Harris-like attitude. For them, truth plays second fiddle to the outcomes they perceive to be desirable. This explains the exceptionally low esteem in which many polls today show journalists to be held. It also undermines trust in public institutions and in the so-called expert class. 

If Harris believes the ends justify the means (even if, post-clarification, it is only on the issue of when the Hunter Biden laptop ought to be reported) then all sorts of things follow from that. First, on any important issue that he cares about he simply cannot be trusted. None of us can look inside his head and know when truth and honesty are being downgraded in the service of other values Harris happens to more highly esteem.

Second, as with serious rules, and rule utility more generally, things like trust in journalistic integrity and truth only work in all-or-nothing terms. Start making exceptions when it suits you and you license others to do the same. The Hunter Biden laptop story was silenced when it should have been investigated. Indirectly, Joe Biden received a sort of protection from most of the media and from of Big Tech. Any future claims they make will be seen—should be seen—through the prism of political bias. That is what Sam Harris is defending, however adroitly he may or may not now be misdirecting our attention. And for conservatives and Republicans who see this as part of an elitist subversion of a formerly fair and impartial (or at least fairer and more impartial) system, well, Harris has just stated in plain terms what many long suspected.

Third, isn’t what’s good for the goose good for the gander? If left-leaning elites and journalists and billionaire Big Tech magnates can lie (that is what Harris is condoning, after all) in the service of their beliefs and political druthers, then why can’t Republicans? If a media protection racket can be justified by them, then they cannot really complain when the other side plays that game too. The ends-justify-the-means outlook cannot easily be contained to only one side of politics.

Finally, and taking us back to the start, isn’t this elitist, pro-establishment attitude that pooh-poohs truth as any sort of fundamental value the very type of attitude that Harris the atheist would attack? Or is Harris just yet another hypocritical left-wing intellectual who thinks one set of rules applies to him and a different one to all those deplorables out there? 

Answers have to be in quick, before the asteroid hits.

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About James Allan

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law, University of Queensland.  He is a native born Canadian who practiced law at a large firm in Toronto and then at the Bar in London before moving to teach law in Hong Kong, New Zealand and then Australia.  He has had sabbaticals at the Cornell Law School and the University of San Diego School of Law in the United States and at Osgoode Hall Law School and the Dalhousie Law School in Canada (where he was the Bertha Wilson Visiting Professor of Human Rights), and at King’s College Law School in London. His book, "The Age of Foolishness: A Doubter’s Guide to Constitutionalism in Modern Democracies," is due out soon with Academia Press.

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