Thoughts on Harris-Chomsky emails

So, I haven't really read anything by Noam Chomsky nor by Sam Harris, but it was fascinating to read through their recent email exchange . Two clever men, obviously well regarded American intellectuals, and yet they fail to really understand their differences..

Like half of the Internet, I hereby step in with my interpretations..

«Ethically speaking, intention is (nearly) the whole story» - Sam Harris

«As for intentions, there is nothing at all to say in general...benign intentions are virtually always professed» - Noam Chomsky

These quotes are definitely close to the core assumptions of their disagreement. Fundamentally, it looks like another battle in that old discourse between consequentialism (judge actions by their consequences) and virtue ethics – with Chomsky being the consequentialist and Harris the virtue ethicist. For example, the former argues that through Bill Clinton's authorization of the 1998 bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant in Sudan, the Clinton administration is guilty of the deaths of thousands of Somalis that were deprived of access to medicine, while the latter argues (as far as I can tell) that it was a justified decision because the intention was to prevent the possible development of chemical weapons. (And Somalia definitely has groups you don't want to see in possession of chemical weapons..)

Chomsky cites the short duration between the bombing of the U. S. Embassy in Somalia and the Al-Shifa attack as proof that it was simply an act of revenge. I think this somehow is a surprisingly naïve view of how decisions are made. I assume it was more an act of opportunism – most likely, the government intelligence bureaucrats have lists of perceived «threats» in various countries. Some intelligence (which we do not know anything about) had placed Al-Shifa on this list, and when the embassy was bombed, when media and congress attention was directed towards Somalia with sufficient anger and turmoil, the administration sensed an opportunity, got backing in congress, and went on to destroy one of their high priority targets..

I do agree with Harris that intentions have some weight and that it's a good sign of progress that U.S. politicians and the electorate generally are ashamed of old cruelty.

However, the way Harris presents these signs of progress he seems to conclude that we've reached a sort of «peak empathy», that because we (and by «we» I now mean the Western democracies and their electorates) are better than we used to, we are now perfect:

«As a culture, we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents.» - Sam Harris

I think that's the core assumption Chomsky is ineffectively trying to dismantle, and the failure is not really surprising – Chomsky's own emotions get in the way, he substitutes forcefulness for explanation.

But Harris's statement may be telling only half of the story. The other half: exactly because we don't tolerate violence against innocents we nowadays prefer to look away when it is done in our name or by our allies. We don't really want to know.

A question Harris and those who share his world view might want to ponder: If we have reached a peak point of ethical perfection, why wasn't the Al-Shifa bombing preceded by a thorough analysis of the humanitarian consequences? Why isn't such an analysis already routine every time we consider using military violence, complete with a list of actions that can be taken to lessen the humanitarian impact?

Finally, there's some fine irony in the fact that the way Chomsky thinks contributes to keeping the U.S. a global superpower. I'm pretty sure that the American president when dealing with other countries must keep dissecting their public statements and try to uncover their real intentions and study the consequences of their actions and inactions. If past presidents thought like Sam Harris, focusing on intentions and statements, the U.S. would presumably be a less powerful country.

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