Sam Harris recently spoke of intellectual honesty:
It’s a slightly misleading phrase because it’s not quite the same thing as honesty. It’s not to say that every instance of intellectual dishonesty is a case where somebody is lying. When you are saying that somebody is being intellectually dishonest, that’s not the same thing as calling them a liar. It’s often misinterpreted as that.
This is a good point, as the phrase is unfortunate. When someone is being intellectually dishonest, it doesn’t mean they are being deceptive or sneaky. It simply means they are not being truly intellectual. They are not adopting a truly intellectual approach.
Harris does a good job capturing a key element of intellectual honesty:
To be intellectually honest requires that you apply the same standards to your own thinking that you would apply to others’. You’re holding yourself to the same standards of reasoning and consistency and evidence-based thinking that you hold others to. You’re not pointing out fallacies in other people’s arguments that you don’t notice or are unwilling to see in your own. So it’s a consistency across the board in how you judge the merits of arguments. It’s the only way of thinking about the world that scales and becomes universalisable, and it’s the only way of thinking about the world that’s not dependent on you being you and me being me.
So it’s intellectually dishonest not to deal with the best version of your opponents’ arguments that they will sign off on. If you’re actually arguing against someone you have to be arguing against a version of their case that they agree with, and so often that test is not being met. You are arguing with a version of somebody’s world view that they don’t recognise and never endorsed themselves, and that’s not successful communication and it’s certainly not a way of winning a debate.
The problem for Harris is that he has never, as far as I can tell, taken an intellectually honest approach concerning the topic of the Christian religion.
When it comes to Christians and Christianity, he has consistently violated the very principles he outlined above. I have never seen him argue about Christianity while representing Christian belief as something I would sign off on. To him, Christianity can be quickly and flippantly dismissed as an “iron age philosophy” dependent on a “magic book.” And that’s precisely how he became popular as a New Atheist leader. It would be intellectually dishonest, in a most profound way, to argue that the New Atheist movement took an intellectually honest approach to the question of religion.
So why is someone with a history of intellectual dishonesty suddenly concerned about intellectual honesty?
It’s that you are attacking the person rather than the evidentiary or logical claims being made as though that were a surrogate for having a better argument against your opponent. Just calling someone a racist is not an argument, right? It’s not even proof that they’re a racist, and it’s certainly not an argument against whatever they’re claiming about the dangers of immigration or having an open borders policy, right, in Europe, say, or whatever the case may be.
So intellectual dishonesty is very often a case where pseudo-argument and just mere stigmatizing of certain views or smearing of certain people is standing in successfully for real arguments about facts.
I see. Given the various times the Left has attacked Harris as a racist, he raises the issue of intellectual honesty as some type of personal shield. It’s okay to take an intellectually dishonest approach to religion. After all, it’s just an “iron age philosophy.” But once Harris himself is on the receiving end of the very approach he has long used, suddenly it is time to be concerned.