Sam Harris vs Noam Chomsky


Once upon a time, Sam Harris wrote a book called The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. He argued that “questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” According to Harris, as our understanding of human brain states improves, we’ll be able to use science to find answers to moral questions. The book wasn’t very good, but it gave us a brief look at Sam Harris’ personal ethics. He’s a utilitarian through and through. He cares primarily about outcomes, in this case the well-being of conscious creatures.

Fast-forward to today. Sam Harris tried to initiate an email conversation with Noam Chomsky. Sam Harris sent a long passage from one of his earlier books, The End of Faith, arguing that:

1. Comparing the terrorist acts of Al-Qaeda (or any other terrorist group) to the actions of the US Government abroad (or any other Western government) is a fallacious moral equivalence. Intentions matter.

2. Assuming the US Government had perfect weapons that wouldn’t cause any collateral damage, they would use them. The same can’t be said for Al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, and other tyrants.

3. Not all cultures are at the same stages of moral development

Points 2 and 3 are trivial and only some postmodernist wacko or cultural relativist might deny them. Chomsky has never said such things and Harris’ weak citations confirm that.

Point 1 is the main crux of the argument, i.e “where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything” (1). The US might have killed thousands of innocent people as a result of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory bombing, but that wasn’t our intention. Al-Qaeda on the other hand, intended to kill thousands of innocent civilians in 9/11. To compare these two events as moral equivalents is a fallacious exercise.

This immediately struck me as odd. Firstly, as far as I know, Chomsky has never made a strict moral equivalence between the actions of the US Government and Al-Qaeda and he points this out several times (2). Secondly, when Sam Harris is talking about intentions, he sounds an awful lot like a virtue ethicist. How we square this with the utilitarianism in The Moral Landscape I don’t know. When US operations abroad cause collateral damage, thousands of hills and peaks on the moral landscape are blown into oblivion. That doesn’t exactly preserve the well-being of conscious creatures, so why should we proscribe an ethical value to these actions because of their intent? Maybe the brain states of these benign government officials elevate the moral landscape to untold peaks. Perhaps the thousands of people in Sudan or elsewhere create moral ravines that we should fill up. I’m being felicitous, but Harris’ mish-mash of an ethical framework provides us no answers to these questions. Lastly, Harris’ position is incredibly naive. Why should we care about intentions? Who cares about the intentions of people who supported the Iraq War? The war was a complete disaster, killing hundreds of thousands of people and causing instability throughout the region. Where do we draw the line between intentions and consequences? Obviously Harris would never support Hitler, despite his intentions. But what about when Henry Kissinger gave the green light to Suharto to invade East Timor? Thousands of innocent people were brutally murdered in large part because of US policy. Did Kissinger’s intentions, no doubt based on Cold War concerns, outweigh the consequences? Harris claims that “there can be vast ethical differences between sincerely held beliefs about what is “good,” and these differences are often very easy to discern,” but this doesn’t really answer any of the difficult questions raised. He thus never really engages with Chomsky.

Harris ought to appreciate Libertarian thought a little more. Whenever the federal government wants to do something, that requires information and coordination. But, as F.A. Hayek has argued, this knowledge is diffuse, local, and difficult to coordinate. This makes planning arduous. Combine that with uncertainty (e.g. Rumsfeld’s unknowns and unknown unknowns) and a lot can go wrong. US officials understand that even with good intel, their activities abroad will most likely cause some collateral damage. Chomsky understand this too when he says:

And of course they knew that there would be major casualties. They are not imbeciles, but rather adopt a stance that is arguably even more immoral than purposeful killing, which at least recognizes the human status of the victims, not just killing ants while walking down the street, who cares?

It’s why I view the “perfect weapons” thought experiment as nothing more than a clever dodge. Would the US Government use these weapons if they existed? Probably, but that’s irrelevant to what’s happening now. The US government understands that they don’t have such weapons, yet they proceed anyway, often viewing the resultant causalities with callous indifference. That’s why Chomsky says what he does about US foreign policy. It’s why I, to some extent, agree with him (3).

It’s clear that Harris is engaging in some sort of argumentative tap-dancing. He keeps his arguments just vague enough to where he can turn around and claim that everyone misunderstands him. While it might make for witty writing and provocative claims, it’s quickly becoming a tiresome exercise.

1. Of course, Harris doesn’t quite mean this, and he painstakingly points to a footnote where he says “intentions matter, but they are not all that matters.” But while his position is vague, he puts a lot of focus on intentions in his exchange with Chomsky.

2. Chomsky responds to Harris’ accusations with:

Let’s turn to what you did say—a disquisition on “moral equivalence.” You fail to mention, though, that I did not suggest that they were “morally equivalent” and in fact indicated quite the opposite.  I did not describe the Al-Shifa bombing as a “horrendous crime” committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty.” Rather, I pointed out that the toll might be comparable, which turns out on inquiry (which is not undertaken here, and which apologists for our crimes ignore), turns out to be, quite likely, a serious understatement.

3. Unfortunately, the main fault with Chomsky’s analysis is that he rarely talks about the counterfactual (or what would happen if the US didn’t do what it did). So while some US policy might look horrific on the surface, it could be better than the alternative. Of course, they are still dozens of examples in history where US policy was morally repugnant. Despite these shortcomings, Chomsky’s analysis gives us a crucial look at the consequences of US actions, whether it’s caused by an indifferences to casualties or failure in policy.


1. Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free, 2010. Print.



Filed under Home, Philosophy

3 responses to “Sam Harris vs Noam Chomsky

  1. Good work Alex.
    You make a keen point that Harris seems to contradict his own moral standard when he seems to elevate “intentions” over “consequences”.

    They got off to a bad start and I wish in fact that Chomsky had declined to even participate. I can’t prove it but I can’t help but think Harris wanted collegial respect from Chomsky and was peeved that he didn’t get it. He seemed to have expected a cordial discussion, but got defensive when Chomsky showed no interest in cordiality. I think Chomsky didn’t even bother to lay out his views coherently in this context since he didn’t feel the need to repeat what he had already done in his lifetime, I think he was justifiably irritated that Harris seems to ignore or dismiss his overall critique of the abuses of U.S. intervention and world dominance, which is clearly all about consequences.

    Harris ignores ALL the “intentions” involved in American government actions, as if some good intention exists (we don’t want to kill civilians/non-combatants) all on it’s own and not part of the whole set of American motives for being a dominant power in the world. Were there not super-ordinate intentions for U.S. intervention in Iraq, such as maintaining access to oil, getting a stronger foothold in the Middle East, demonstrating military might to Iran, etc? Of course, Bush/Cheney would not put these forward as the predominate motives but rather the, now discredited, “national security” justification.

    The self-defense argument seems to absolve a multitude of sins.

  2. FactChecker

    “[A]s far as I know, Chomsky has never made a strict moral equivalence between the actions of the US Government and Al-Qaeda and he points this out several times.”
    No, in fact he said that the bombing of the Al-Shifa plant was WORSE than 9/11. I stopped reading at this sentence since you don’t appear to know what you’re talking about.

    • He said that it could be worse given Harris’ moral “framework”. He didn’t say that it definitely was worse. If you’ve actually read Chomsky, you would understand that he’s not interested in these comparisons to begin with. Regardless, that one sentence, right or wrong, doesn’t change the conclusion of the post.

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