I hope that somebody finds it helpful in understanding the like of Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and other neuroscientists or psychologists. (Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Soderbergh, Judd Apatow, and Michael Douglas, also.)
April 26, 2015
From: Sam Harris
To: Noam Chomsky
While you’re thinking about that, I’d like to draw your attention to the only thing I have ever written about your work. The following passages appear in my first book, The End of Faith (2004), which was written in response to the events of 9/11. Needless to say, the whole discussion betrays the urgency of that period as well as many of the failings of a first book. I hesitate to put it forward here, if for no other reason than that the tone is not one that I would have ever adopted in a direct exchange with you. Nevertheless, if I’ve misrepresented your views in writing, this is the only place it could have happened. If we’re going to clarify misreadings, this would seem like a good place to start.
Leftist Unreason and the Strange Case of Noam Chomsky
Nevertheless, many people are now convinced that the attacks of September 11 say little about Islam and much about the sordid career of the West—in particular, about the failures of U.S. foreign policy. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard gives these themes an especially luxuriant expression, declaring that terrorism is a necessary consequence of American “hegemony.” He goes so far as to suggest that we were secretly hoping that such devastation would be visited upon us:
At a pinch we can say that they did it, but we wished for it. . . . When global power monopolizes the situation to this extent, when there is such a formidable condensation of all functions in the technocratic machinery, and when no alternative form of thinking is allowed, what other way is there but a terroristic situational transfer. It was the system itself which created the objective conditions for this brutal retaliation. . . . This is terror against terror—there is no longer any ideology behind it. We are far beyond ideology and politics now. . . . As if the power bearing these towers suddenly lost all energy, all resilience; as though that arrogant power suddenly gave way under the pressure of too intense an effort: the effort always to be the unique world model.40
If one were feeling charitable, one might assume that something essential to these profundities got lost in translation. I think it far more likely, however, that it did not survive translation into French. If Baudrillard had been obliged to live in Afghanistan under the Taliban, [Fucking moron.] would he have thought that the horrible abridgments of his freedom were a matter of the United States’s “effort always to be the unique world model”? Would the peculiar halftime entertainment at every soccer match—where suspected fornicators, adulterers, and thieves were regularly butchered in the dirt at centerfield—have struck him as the first rumblings of a “terroristic situational transfer”? We may be beyond politics, but we are not in the least “beyond ideology” now. Ideology is all that our enemies have.41
And yet, thinkers far more sober than Baudrillard view the events of September 11 as a consequence of American foreign policy. Perhaps the foremost among them is Noam Chomsky. In addition to making foundational contributions to linguistics and the psychology of language, Chomsky has been a persistent critic of U.S. foreign policy for over three decades. He has also managed to demonstrate a principal failing of the liberal critique of power. He appears to be an exquisitely moral man whose political views prevent him from making the most basic moral distinctions—between types of violence, and the variety of human purposes that give rise to them.
Before pointing out just how wayward Chomsky’s thinking is on this subject, I would like to concede many of his points, since they have the virtue of being both generally important and irrelevant to the matter at hand.
There is no doubt that the United
States has much to atone for, both domestically and abroad. In this respect, we
can more or less swallow Chomsky’s thesis whole. To produce this horrible
confection at home, start with our genocidal treatment of the Native Americans,
add a couple hundred years of slavery, along with our denial of entry to Jewish
refugees fleeing the death camps of the Third Reich, stir in our collusion with
a long list of modern despots and our subsequent disregard for their appalling
human rights records, add our bombing of Cambodia and the Pentagon Papers to
taste, and then top with our recent refusals to sign the Kyoto protocol for
greenhouse emissions, to support any ban on land mines, and to submit ourselves
to the rulings of the International Criminal Court. The result should smell of
death, hypocrisy, and fresh brimstone.
We have surely done some terrible things in the past. Undoubtedly, we are poised to do terrible things in the future. N
I have written in this book should be construed as a denial of these facts, or
as defense of state practices that are manifestly abhorrent. There may be much
that Western powers, and the United States in particular, should pay
reparations for. And our failure to acknowledge our misdeeds over the years has
undermined our credibility in the international community. We can concede all
of this, and even share Chomsky’s acute sense of outrage, while recognizing
that his analysis of our current situation in the world is a masterpiece of
Take the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant: according to Chomsky, the atrocity of September 11 pales in comparison with that perpetrated by the Clinton administration in August 1998. But let us now ask some very basic questions that Chomsky seems to have neglected to ask himself: What did the U.S. government think it was doing when it sent cruise missiles into Sudan? Destroying a chemical weapons site used by Al Qaeda. Did the Clinton administration intend to bring about the deaths of thousands of Sudanese children? No. Was our goal to kill as many Sudanese as we could? No. Were we trying to kill anyone at all? Not unless we thought members of Al Qaeda would be at the Al-Shifa facility in the middle of the night. Asking these questions about Osama bin Laden and the nineteen hijackers puts us in a different moral universe entirely.
If we are inclined to follow Chomsky down the path of moral equivalence and ignore the role of human intentions, we can forget about the bombing of the Al-Shifa plant, because many of the things we did not do in Sudan had even greater consequences. What about all the money and food we simply never thought to give the Sudanese prior to 1998? How many children did we kill (that is, not save) just by living in blissful ignorance of the conditions in Sudan? Surely if we had all made it a priority to keep death out of Sudan for as long as possible, untold millions could have been saved from whatever it was that wound up killing them. We could have sent teams of well-intentioned men and women into Khartoum to ensure that the Sudanese wore their seatbelts. Are we culpable for all the preventable injury and death that we did nothing to prevent? [This motherfucker’s obviouslyhigh. It’s toolate to recant all of his statements. Fucking sad & Fucking moron. Young NormanFinkelstein.] We may be, up to a point.
The philosopher Peter
Unger has made a persuasive case that a single dollar spent on anything but the
absolute essentials of our survival is a dollar that has some starving child’s
blood on it.43 Perhaps we do have far more moral responsibility for the state
of the world than most of us seem ready to contemplate. This is not Chomsky’s
But we are, in many respects, just such a “well-intentioned giant.” And it is rather astonishing that intelligent people, like Chomsky and Roy, fail to see this. What we need to counter their arguments is a device that enables us to distinguish the morality of men like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein from that of George Bush and Tony Blair. It is not hard to imagine the properties of such a tool. We can call it “the perfect weapon.”
Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of “Collateral Damage”
What we euphemistically describe as “collateral damage” in times of war is the direct result of limitations in the power and precision of our technology. To see that this is so, we need only imagine how any of our recent conflicts would have looked if we had possessed perfect weapons—weapons that allowed us either to temporarily impair or to kill a particular person, or group, at any distance, without harming others or their property. What would we do with such technology? Pacifists would refuse to use it, despite the variety of monsters currently loose in the world: the killers and torturers of children, the genocidal sadists, the men who, for want of the right genes, the right upbringing, or the right ideas, cannot possibly be expected to live peacefully with the rest of us. I will say a few things about pacifism in a later chapter—for it seems to me to be a deeply immoral position that comes to us swaddled in the dogma of highest moralism—but most of us are not pacifists. Most of us would elect to use weapons of this sort. A moment’s thought reveals that a person’s use of such a weapon would offer a perfect window onto the soul of his ethics.
Consider the all too facile comparisons that have recently been made between George Bush and Saddam Hussein (or Osama bin Laden, or Hitler, etc.)—in the pages of writers like Roy and Chomsky, in the Arab press, and in classrooms throughout the free world. How would George Bush have prosecuted the recent war in Iraq with perfect weapons? Would he have targeted the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were maimed or killed by our bombs? Would he have put out the eyes of little girls or torn the arms from their mothers? Whether or not you admire the man’s politics—or the man—there is no reason to think that he would have sanctioned the injury or death of even a single innocent person. What would Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden do with perfect weapons? What would Hitler have done? They would have used them rather differently.
It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development. This is a radically impolitic thing to say, of course, but it seems as objectively true as saying that not all societies have equal material resources. We might even conceive of our moral differences in just these terms: not all societies have the same degree of moral wealth. Many things contribute to such an endowment. Political and economic stability, literacy, a modicum of social equality—where such things are lacking, people tend to find many compelling reasons to treat one another rather badly. Our recent history offers much evidence of our own development on these fronts, and a corresponding change in our morality. A visit to New York in the summer of 1863 would have found the streets ruled by roving gangs of thugs; blacks, where not owned outright by white slaveholders, were regularly lynched and burned. Is there any doubt that many New Yorkers of the nineteenth century were barbarians by our present standards? To say of another culture that it lags a hundred and fifty years behind our own in social development is a terrible criticism indeed, given how far we’ve come in that time. Now imagine the benighted Americans of 1863 coming to possess chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. This is more or less the situation we confront in much of the developing world.
Wherever there are facts of any kind to be known, one thing is certain: not all people will discover them at the same time or understand them equally well. Conceding this leaves but a short step to hierarchical thinking of a sort that is at present inadmissible in most liberal discourse. Wherever there are right and wrong answers to important questions, there will be better or worse ways to get those answers, and better or worse ways to put them to use. Take child rearing as an example: How can we keep children free from disease? How can we raise them to be happy and responsible members of society? There are undoubtedly both good and bad answers to questions of this sort, and not all belief systems and cultural practices will be equally suited to bringing the good ones to light. This is not to say that there will always be only one right answer to every question, or a single, best way to reach every specific goal. But given the inescapable specificity of our world, the range of optimal solutions to any problem will generally be quite limited. While there might not be one best food to eat, we cannot eat stones—and any culture that would make stone eating a virtue, or a religious precept, will suffer mightily for want of nourishment (and teeth). It is inevitable, therefore, that some approaches to politics, economics, science, and even spirituality and ethics will be objectively better than their competitors (by any measure of “better” we might wish to adopt), and gradations here will translate into very real differences in human happiness.
Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century. There are undoubtedly historical and cultural reasons for this, and enough blame to go around, but we should not ignore the fact that we must now confront whole societies whose moral and political development—in their treatment of women and children, in their prosecution of war, in their approach to criminal justice, and in their very intuitions about what constitutes cruelty—lags behind our own. This may seem like an unscientific and potentially racist thing to say, but it is neither. It is not in the least racist, since it is not at all likely that there are biological reasons for the disparities here, and it is unscientific only because science has not yet addressed the moral sphere in a systematic way. Come back in a hundred years, and if we haven’t returned to living in caves and killing one another with clubs, we will have some scientifically astute things to say about ethics. Any honest witness to current events will realize that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments. Chomsky seems to think that the disparity either does not exist or runs the other way.
Consider the recent conflict in Iraq: If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Republican Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties? What are the chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human shields? (What are the chances we would have used human shields?) What are the chances that a routed American government would have called for its citizens to volunteer to be suicide bombers? What are the chances that Iraqi soldiers would have wept upon killing a carload of American civilians at a checkpoint unnecessarily? You should have, in the ledger of your imagination, a mounting column of zeros.
Nothing in Chomsky’s account acknowledges the difference between intending to kill a child, because of the effect you hope to produce on its parents (we call this “terrorism”), and inadvertently killing a child in an attempt to capture or kill an avowed child murderer (we call this “collateral damage”).
In both cases a child has died, and in both cases it is a
tragedy. But the ethical status of the perpetrators, be they individuals or
states, could hardly be more distinct.
Chomsky might object that to knowingly place the life of a child in jeopardy is unacceptable in any case, but clearly this is not a principle we can follow.
The makers of roller coasters know, for instance,
that despite rigorous safety precautions, sometime, somewhere, a child will be
killed by one of their contraptions. Makers of automobiles know this as well.
So do makers of hockey sticks, baseball bats, plastic bags, swimming pools,
chain-link fences, or nearly anything else that could conceivably contribute to
the death of a child. There is a reason we do not refer to the inevitable
deaths of children on our ski slopes as “skiing atrocities.” But you would
not know this from reading Chomsky. For him, intentions do not seem to matter.
Body count is all.
We are now living in a world that can no longer tolerate well-armed, malevolent regimes. Without perfect weapons, collateral damage—the maiming and killing of innocent people—is unavoidable. Similar suffering will be imposed on still more innocent people because of our lack of perfect automobiles, airplanes, antibiotics, surgical procedures, and window glass. If we want to draw conclusions about ethics—as well as make predictions about what a given person or society will do in the future—we cannot ignore human intentions. Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything.47
40 J. Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, trans. C. Turner (New York: Verso, 2002).
41 It may seem strange to encounter phrases like “our enemies,” uttered without apparent self-consciousness, and it is strange for me to write them. But there is no doubt that enemies are what we have (and I leave it for the reader to draw the boundaries of “we” as broadly or narrowly as he or she likes). The liberal fallacy that I will attempt to unravel in the present section is the notion that we made these enemies and that we are, therefore, their “moral equivalent.” We are not. An analysis of their religious ideology reveals that we are confronted by people who would have put us to sword, had they had the power, long before the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization were even a gleam in the eye of the first rapacious globalizer.
42 N. Chomsky, 9–11 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001), 119.
43 P. Unger, Living High & Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996).
44 A. Roy, War Talk (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2003), 84–85.
45 J. Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1999), 58.
46 Ibid., 62.
47 Are intentions really the bottom line? What are we to say, for instance, about those Christian missionaries in the New World who baptized Indian infants only to promptly kill them, thereby sending them to heaven? Their intentions were (apparently) good. Were their actions ethical? Yes, within the confines of a deplorably limited worldview. The medieval apothecary who gave his patients quicksilver really was trying to help. He was just mistaken about the role this element played in the human body. Intentions matter, but they are not all that matters.
April 27, 2015
From: Sam Harris
To: Noam Chomsky
We appear to be running into the weeds here. Let me just make two observations, before I recommend a fresh start:
It still seems to me that everything you have written here ignores the moral significance of intention.
I am happy to answer your question. What would I say about al-Qaeda (or any other group) if it destroyed half the pharmaceutical supplies in the U.S.? It would depend on what they intended to do. Consider the following possibilities:
Imagine that al-Qaeda is filled, not with God-intoxicated sociopaths intent upon creating a global caliphate, but genuine humanitarians. Based on their research, they believe that a deadly batch of vaccine has made it into the U.S. pharmaceutical supply. They have communicated their concerns to the FDA but were rebuffed. Acting rashly, with the intention of saving millions of lives, they unleash a computer virus, targeted to impede the release of this deadly vaccine. As it turns out, they are right about the vaccine but wrong about the consequences of their meddling—and they wind up destroying half the pharmaceuticals in the U.S.
What would I say? I would say that this was a very unfortunate event—but these are people we want on our team. I would find the FDA highly culpable for not having effectively communicated with them. These people are our friends, and we were all very unlucky.
al-Qaeda is precisely as terrible a group as it is, and it destroys our pharmaceuticals intentionally, for the purpose of harming millions of innocent people.
What would I say? We should imprison or kill these people at the first opportunity.
While the body count might be the same, these are totally different scenarios. Ethically speaking, intention is (nearly) the whole story. The difference between intending to harm someone and accidentally harming them is enormous—if for no other reason than that the presence of harmful intent tells us a lot about what a person or group is likely to do in the future.
Do you agree? Your remarks thus far leave me unsure.
April 27, 2015
From: Sam Harris
To: Noam Chomsky
On the topic of there being a “moral equivalence” between al-Shifa and 9/11, I’m afraid that what you have written is hard to understand. Despite your insistence that you drew no moral equivalence whatsoever between the two cases, you call Clinton’s actions an “atrocity” the consequences of which were “vastly more severe” than if the same had been done to the U.S., and you say that any comparison with the consequences of 9/11 is, if anything, “an understatement.” You then appear to be upbraiding me for not immediately detecting an important difference between a “horrendous crime” and an “atrocity.” Is there one? You are, of course, the famous linguist, but I believe that the editors of the OED will be nonplussed by this discovery. Perhaps you can just state it plainly: What is the moral difference between al-Shifa and 9/11?
April 27, 2015
From: Sam Harris
To: Noam Chomsky
Here is my assumption about the al-Shifa case. I assume that Clinton believed that it was, in fact, a chemical weapons factory—because I see no rational reason for him to have intentionally destroyed a pharmaceutical plant in retaliation for the embassy bombings. I take it that you consider this assumption terribly naive. Why so?
April 27, 2015
From: Sam Harris
To: Noam Chomsky
Contrary to your repeated allegation, I have not “refused” to correct my “false accusations” about you. I’m still struggling to understand in what sense they are false. Your dismissal of an idealized thought experiment as “embarrassing and ludicrous,” and your insistence upon focusing on real-world cases about which our intelligence is murky is not helping to clarify things. With respect to al-Shifa, for instance, you draw some very confident (and, I suspect, unwarranted) inferences from the timing of events. (Is it really “inconceivable” that the government already believed it to be a chemical weapons factory?) Do I have to accept to all your assumptions in order to discuss the underlying ethics?
And your ethical position is still unclear (to me). You say that you are NOT claiming that “Clinton intentionally wanted to kill thousands of victims.” Okay. But you seem to be suggesting that he had every reason to expect that he would be killing them by his actions (and just didn’t care). And you seem disinclined to distinguish the ethics of these cases.
Perhaps we can rank order the callousness and cruelty here:
al-Qaeda wanted and intended to kill thousands of innocent people—and did so.
Clinton (as you imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill thousands of innocent people. He simply wanted to destroy a valuable pharmaceutical plant. But he knew that he would be killing thousands of people, and he simply didn’t care.
Clinton (as I imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill anyone at all, necessarily. He simply wanted to destroy what he believed to be a chemical weapons factory. But he did wind up killing innocent people, and we don’t really know how he felt about it. [I do.]
Is it safe to assume that you view these three cases, as I do, as demonstrating descending degrees of evil?
May 3, 2015
It is now clear to me that I did (in a very narrow way) misrepresent Chomsky in The End of Faith. Obviously, he had asked himself “very basic questions” about what the U.S. government intended when it bombed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant. Rereading that text, along with the relevant section of his book 9/11, I can see that my point was not that he literally hadn’t asked these questions but that the answers he arrived at are, in my opinion, scandalously wrong. Perhaps Chomsky didn’t literally “ignore the role of human intentions,” but he effectively ignored it, because he did not appear to give intentions any ethical weight. I now see that to the extent that he does weigh intentions, he may do so differently than I would (for instance, he says that Clinton’s bombing al-Shifa without thinking about the consequences is “arguably even worse than murder, which at least recognizes that the victim is human”). 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.
Chomsky’s charge that I misrepresented him on the topic of “moral equivalence” is far less credible. Judging from what he wrote in 9/11 (as well as in our exchange) he may view the bombing of al-Shifa to be ethically worse than the attack on the Twin Towers. [Imperialist. Racist, typical of Darwinian. Clintonapologist.]
Certain readers saw my focus on Chomsky’s tone as an abject attempt to dodge hard questions. I can only reiterate that it wasn’t. I had ready answers to most of the points Chomsky raised, and where I didn’t I was genuinely interested in discovering what I thought in conversation with him. For instance, his observation that my view of intentions requires that I count certain sincerely motivated horrors as “ethical” (albeit within the context of a mistaken worldview) is something I discussed in the very excerpt from The End of Faith provided (see footnote 47). Whether such a charitable view can reasonably be applied to Hitler and Japan during WWII (I think not) is something that I would have been happy to discuss, had we ever got there.
What would the reaction have been if al-Qaeda had blown up half the pharmaceuticals in the U.S.? I’m sure it would have been considered a terrorist atrocity, and rightly so. Where is my published attack on the religious motivations of George Bush? It’s in my book The End of Faith and in many subsequent articles. I wasn’t dodging these questions. I just viewed them as distractions from the necessary work of our first agreeing about basic ethical principles. Nothing I said or didn’t say should have been construed as an unwillingness to criticize the U.S. government or to discuss any of its specific actions that may, in fact, constitute atrocities. [JoyceCarolOates.] As to whether we can trust Chomsky’s account of the al-Shifa bombing, I have my doubts.