What Sam Harris should address with Peter Singer

Sam Harris radiates intellectual honesty with every word he says.

Intellectual honesty often brings you to uncomfortable places. One such places is Harris’ struggle with the topic of Muslim immigration to Western countries.

Sam Harris

What’s the moral answer, when waves of dispossessed immigrants are headed to your shores?

Without qualifications, the moral answer is easy: welcome them.

In the real world, unfortunately, qualifications abound.

When the waves of immigrants are largely hostile to the founding principles of the welcoming society, then you risk to erode the society’s foundations. Paradoxically, welcoming too many immigrants may then result, long term, in a less welcoming, less open society.

When does diversity destroy itself?

This is one of the most important questions of our time. Harris’ burning concern is that we are not having an open, sophisticated debate on this very question.

Traditional progressives often avoid to address head-on this topic, fearing that anything other than heart-warming platitudes could disturb politically correct sensibilities.

Unfortunately, this leaves the center of stage to the mob — and to their agitators. Worryingly, unsophisticated agitators are proving popular in the Western world; we are mixing ingredients to make dynamite.

Sam Harris is right.

He’s also, I fear, overlooking one critical point.

If we give up for good trying our very best to welcome immigrants from different, even hostile, cultures — we are set to lose much more than negotiable aspects of our morality. We are set to lose much more than our tears in front of drowning kids. We are set to lose much more than the prospect of leaving reasonable, kind individuals, rotting among fanatics outside our borders.

If we give up trying our best to welcome immigrants, we are losing the essence of our main core value. The one, single value that subsumes better than anything else the very core of our civilisation.

We are losing the dream of an ever expanding circle.

Peter Singer’s work has captured the essence of the human endeavour — better than anyone else in modern times.

If we are people of good-will, we are all Peter Singer, even the ones among us who will never read one single line he wrote, nor will ever even know his name.

We have internalized the idea that tribes mix and grow, and that our moral concern progressively enlarges following this growth, as a constant in human history. Without this Star Trek idea, progressives are lost. Singer has grounded arguably the biggest idea of all time in both evolutionary and utilitarian terms, has advocated for its far-reaching consequences, has lived himself up to those consequences.

There is tactical self preservation, and there are long term principles. The two don’t always coincide.

If you are at home with your family, and an armed mob suddenly surrounds your house, it’s ok to momentarily forgo the duty of hospitality, and lock the doors.

Equally, it’s unreasonable to welcome without a thought within your borders a crowd part of which screams at best deep suspicion against freedom and equality; and at worst, screams the explicit intention to literally kill you and everything that you hold dear.

It’s not easy. When such crowd is large enough, you can be quite sure that there’s a kid called Ahmed in there that needs medical treatment to survive; and if Ahmed survives, he will perhaps go on with his life - studying medicine, finding the cure for a terrible disease, and giving the patents for such cure to the world for free. The thought of closing doors to Ahmed makes every sane person cringe.

In such large enough crowd, there’s quite surely another Ahmed, this one determined to blow himself up on a subway train during the rush hour.

Finding a way to tell which Ahmed is which, is no easy task. To make things harder, between the two Ahmed, there is everybody else. Those are even more difficult cases.

There’s a very reasonable discussion to have, about tactical self-preservation.

I believe Sam Harris cares deeply about Star Trek and Singer. In the haste to raise flags about the necessity of tactical self-preservation, however, I believe Harris overlooks the constant necessity to stress that the long term project is to have everybody on board.

Without enough stress put on the long term project, I’m afraid he will not convince enough progressives of the contingent urgency to preserve the foundations of our society. That’s because such contingent urgency is perceived as strident with the foundation itself. The cartoonized dialogue goes something like the following.

Progressive: Sam, why don’t you want everybody on board? People are knocking at our doors.

Sam: Uh? Have you heard some of these people? A sizeable chunk would have women living in potato bags, rather than having them free to go in a bikini on a beach. Most importantly, they see laws, and sometimes violence, as a fitting way to achieve that. Sheer demography means your daughters may lose bikini freedom, and much worse, in a generation.

Progressive: I hear you, but shouldn’t we deal with that without endangering the idea of an open and welcoming society?

Sam: Sorry, but i don’t think you really heard me. There will be no open and welcoming society if potato-bags people become the majority — or even if they become a significant minority.

Progressive: But this same attitude may have historically applied to a lot of immigrant groups. When large groups of Irishmen came to the U.S., they did not lack Catholicism — which is to say that they did not lack their fair amount of craziness. Besides, some immigrants we are talking about, come from war areas. Isn’t a bit like saying no to German Jews in 1938?

Sam: The groups you mention never wanted rules that are the very negation of liberal freedoms. And never wanted everybody else under the same illiberal rule.

I think what Sam leaves a bit too implicit, in this imaginary but not too-far fetched dialogue, is the following:

[Implicit] Sam: I DO want everybody! Heck, I want all humanity to leave under the same roof, free to move, free to come and go, free to contribute to the betterment of the world. I want each present and future child, or elderly person, or middle-aged person to have the opportunity to flourish. And in order to get there, we need to be smart about it. Now, let’s talk about ways to be smart about it.

To be fair, Harris has said such things. Heck, he even wrote a book essentially about it.

I believe he’s actually taking for granted that everything he says about immigration is assumed to be under the preface of Implicit Sam saying what above.

I believe he’s making a mistake here. Unfortunately, writing a book about something and repeating it 100 times or more, still does not dispense you from the necessity of repeating it again. I understand it’s not very practical, but prefacing every statement with the the paragraph from Implicit Sam makes the right ears much more open to his message. It also draws a clear dividing line against the wrong ears — because there are also wrong ears listening, the ears that actually base their hostility to immigrants on a brute, vile vision of the world.

The conversation I am the most interested to hear, is one between Sam Harris and Peter Singer on this.

I would spend the first ten minutes with Implicit Sam saying just about the obvious above. It’s a unique chance to validate this particular obvious, when you have Peter Singer with you; it’s not wasted time. After that, let’s talk about ways to be smart about it.