Final Thoughts on the Harris/Chomsky exchange


I recently read Sam Harris’ short post, Final Thoughts on Chomsky, and was appalled by what I read. Harris came across as smug and condescending. It’s clear to me that Harris still doesn’t understand Chomsky’s position, which isn’t difficult to comprehend. It’s also clear that he doesn’t understand why Chomsky was angry with him. I’m not going to speculate on Harris’ motives, he seems fine enough in that regard. But I will go through his points about Chomsky.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard from who think that he showed how ludicrous and unethical my concern about intentions was, for instance—he’s dealing in the “real world,” but all my talk about intentions was just a bizarre and useless bit of philosophizing. But think about that for a second: our legal system depends upon weighing intentions in precisely the way I describe. How else do we differentiate between premeditated murders, crimes of passion, manslaughter, criminal negligence, and terrible accidents for which no one is to blame?

There’s certainly some truth to this, but Chomsky never denies the importance of intentions on purely ethical grounds. In the case of the Al-Shifa bombings, Chomsky is clear that he thinks US planners understood the risks, yet proceeded anyway, viewing the African casualties as “mere things”. He doesn’t ignore the moral significance of intentions, he just deems them to be irrelevant in this case because Clinton simply did not have good intentions, at least when it came to collateral damage. Were their intentions as bad as Al-Qaeda? Probably not (1). But does that matter? Perhaps, but when thousands of lives are being blown to pieces, I think we can throw “intentions” by the wayside. If Harris disagrees with this conclusion, which I think he does, I’d like to see an actual argument put forward, not handwaving.

But what about the general case. Let’s ignore the Al-Shifa bombings. What if we take the perspective of a philosophical thought experiment? Contrary to Harris’ claim that Chomsky “did not appear to give intentions any ethical weight”, he wrote explicitly that:

There are two important questions about these:

1. how seriously do we take them?

2. on moral grounds, how do we rank an intention to kill as compared with the knowledge that of course you will kill but you don’t care, like stepping on ants when you walk.

As for (1), I have been discussing it for 50 years, explaining in detail why, as we all agree, such professed intentions carry little if any weight, and in fact are quite uninformative, since they are almost entirely predictable, even in the case of the worst monsters, and I have also provided evidence that they may be quite sincere, even in the case of these monsters, but we of course dismiss them nonetheless.  In contrast, it seems that you have never discussed 1. (2)

It’s true that Chomsky never explicitly deals with intentions the way Harris wants, but that’s because in the context of international tragedies, there is no easy way to do this. All that can be said is “there can be no general answer”. We only have historical facts to work upon, historical facts that almost unilaterally support Chomsky. It’s also funny because Harris himself “completely failed to address “the basic questions” about the significance of professed intentions (about actual intentions we can only guess).” Harris claims that he wanted to have that discussion, if Chomsky weren’t so insulting, but this seems somewhat disingenuous. If he actually had “ready answers to most of the points Chomsky raised”, let’s see them, because he didn’t bring them up in the exchange or his post.

The main reason I think Chomsky took the tone he did was because of Harris’ arrogant demeanor. I’m not talking about Harris’ language, which was mostly sincere, but rather his position. He wrote an email to Noam Chomsky, claiming that Chomsky hasn’t addressed “the basic moral distinctions” of geopolitics, all after reading a single book (3). Even I’ve read more than that! If I were Chomsky, I too would think that Harris is wasting my time and isn’t interested in a rational discussion.

I’ve always been critical of Harris’ work, but I never took issue with the man himself. But after this exchange, Harris just comes across as a whiner. He never seriously answered the questions that Chomsky asked him, yet he claims Chomsky “was doing everything in his power to derail the conversation.” Instead of trying to have a rational discussion after the fact, he spends most of his time complaining about the critical reception. After reading Harris’ reaction to the whole debacle, my respect for him has fallen considerably.

1. Chomsky raises the possibility that Clinton’s intention were worse than those of Al-Qaeda:

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?

Note that Chomsky isn’t necessarily supporting this argument, he just brings it up as a possibility. Harris never responds to it, although he calls Chomsky’s position “scandalously wrong”.

2. And he’s right, Harris never really talks about people with sincere intentions who have committed moral atrocities.  He tries respond with this:

This would have been interesting terrain to explore. I consider his related claims that virtually everyone professes benign intentions, and that such professions are generally meaningless, to be false. Professions aside, there can be vast ethical differences between sincerely held beliefs about what is “good,” and these differences are often very easy to discern. To pretend otherwise is to risk destroying everything we are right to care about.

But this is feeble. Not only is it hopelessly vague, it’s not what Chomsky said at all.

3. As far as I know, Harris has only read Chomsky’s short book 9/11


The Limits of Discourse by Sam Harris

Final Thoughts on Chomsky by Sam Harris


1 Comment

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One response to “Final Thoughts on the Harris/Chomsky exchange

  1. This was a reply to your first post about Chomsky and Harris. Thanks.

    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.

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