Sam Harris gets schooled by Noam Chomsky

Thanks to PZ Myers, I learned about an email exchange that Sam Harris had initiated with Noam Chomsky about morality as applied to the actions of governments and other political entities. Myers gives an entertaining round-by-round account but I want to focus on a couple of points from that exchange that particularly struck me as key to their differences in content and style of argument.

Harris seems to be under the impression that he is a major intellectual who is an authority on religious, moral, and political issues and entitled to pontificate on it. He is an apologist for America and the west, finding excuses for its recent atrocities like torture and attacks on other countries, taking the common tack of admitting that, yes, awful things were done by the US in the past but that was then and this is now, and we are better for it. In his eyes, the US is a “well intentioned giant” and has a superior moral sensibility. Incredibly, he evokes the response to the My Lai massacre as a sign of how moral we are, ignoring the fact that president Richard Nixon himself spoke out in support of the leader of that atrocity and the people who brought that massacre to light were even vilified by the public and members of congress.. Curiously, in his list of the alleged care taken by the US to avoid targeting civilians, Harris makes no mention of the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki where civilians were almost exclusively targeted for death. Oh, I forgot, that was then and this is now.

Harris is an ardent critic of Muslims and a supporter of the current wars waged by the US especially if the targeted victims are Muslims and the countries are Muslim-majority ones. Harris seems annoyed that Chomsky has pretty much ignored him so far, apart from apparently referring to him on one occasion as “a religious fanatic” who “worships the religion of the state”, though even he admits it is not clear if Chomsky was referring to Christopher Hitchens or merely lumping Harris in with him. Chomsky said that he had never read any of Harris’s’ writings and only read Harris’s criticisms and distortions of his views that others had sent to him and to which he did not think it worthwhile to respond. That must have stung Harris.

It seems to rankle Harris that Chomsky does not share his views about the benign nature of American intentions in the world. According to Harris, much of the carnage that the US has inflicted on the world in due to good intentions gone awry. Of course, this has been the same old story that I have personally heard as far back as Vietnam and after a while you begin to suspect that no nation could be that inept that it keeps creating so much chaos and death by mistake.

So Harris sets out what he says is meant to be an exchange of views but it soon becomes clear that what he want to do is to show Chomsky the error of his ways and school him on the morality of US actions by showing, in particular, Chomsky’s error in condemning president Bill Clinton’s 1998 bombing of Afghanistan and the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan (that supplied half the medicines for that nation) in the immediate aftermath of the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

That bombing was an awful act and the accusations by Clinton regime, widely reported in the lapdog western media, that the factory was an al Qaeda affiliated chemical weapons factory, were never supported by any evidence and indeed Clinton actively blocked independent investigations to determine the facts. It was plain to anyone at that time that Clinton’s act was a vengeful retaliation (similar to Reagan’s shelling of Beirut after the bombing of the marine barracks there) because the bloodlust of the American public has to be satiated whenever anyone dares to take any action against it, The US is like the man at work who, after being belittled by a co-worker, goes home and yells at his children, beats his wife, and kicks the dog simply because he can, it makes him feel better, and in order to reassure himself that he is not someone to be trifled with. It was clear that Clinton and his administration thought nothing of destroying the medical supplies of a desperately poor nation simply out of revenge, and the resulting shortages ended up causing the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

I remember being simply appalled by those bombings and said so to some liberal friends, thinking that they would agree with me. To my amazement, they defended Clinton’s bombings, another example of the tribal mindset of some liberals who seem to feel obligated to defend Democratic leaders even if they commit awful crimes. Since then of course I have seen countless examples of this same phenomenon, especially during the Obama era.

Harris, the great moral pontificator, clearly thinks that Clinton’s intentions were benign and that the deaths of tens of thousands of people as a result of his actions should not be held against him, unlike the actions of al Qaeda (say) that deliberately target people. Harris also condescendingly seems to think that Chomsky has not addressed the key question of intent that lie at the heart of judging the morality of actions.

Chomsky points out that he has been discussing these things for about 50 years and then proceeds to teach the great moral thinker what morality by state actors is all about. He argues in two responses (both April 27, 2015) that claims of sincere benign intent are not good enough, saying:

I also reviewed the substantial evidence about the very sincere intentions of Japanese fascists while they were devastating China, Hitler in the Sudetenland and Poland, etc. There is at least as much reason to suppose that they were sincere as Clinton was when he bombed al-Shifa. Much more so in fact. Therefore, if you believe what you are saying, you should be justifying their actions as well. I also reviewed other cases, pointing out that professing benign intentions is the norm for those who carry out atrocities and crimes, perhaps sincerely – and surely more plausibly than in this case. And that only the most abject apologists justify the actions on the grounds that perpetrators are adopting the normal stance of criminals.

As for Clinton and associates being “genuine humanitarians,” perhaps that explains why they were imposing sanctions on Iraq so murderous that both of the highly respected international diplomats who administered the “Oil for food” program resigned in protest because they regarded them as “genocidal,” condemning Clinton for blocking testimony at the UN Security Council. Or why he poured arms into Turkey as it was carrying out a horrendous attack on its Kurdish population, one of the worst crimes of the ‘90s. Or why he shifted Turkey from leading recipient of arms worldwide (Israel-Egypt excepted) to Colombia, as soon as the Turkish atrocities achieved their goal and while Colombia was leading the hemisphere by far in atrocious human rights violations. Or why he authorized the Texaco Oil Company to provide oil to the murderous Haitian junta in violation of sanctions. And on, and on, as you could learn if you bothered to read before launching accusations and professing to talk about “ethics” and “morality.”

I’ve seen apologetics for atrocities before, but rarely at this level – not to speak of the refusal to withdraw false charges, a minor fault in comparison.

There are two important questions about these: (1) how seriously do we take them? (2) on moral grounds, how do we rank (a) intention to kill as compared with (b) 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).

Chomsky also challenges Harris as to why, if he is so condemnatory of “God-intoxicated sociopaths” when they are Muslims, he has not also vigorously condemned “the perpetrator of by far the worst crime of this millennium because God had instructed him that he must smite the enemy” when he is Christian (i.e., George W. Bush).

Chomsky then contemptuously dismisses Harris’s self-regard as a great moral thinker, saying (April 30, 2015):

[Y]ou issue lectures condemning others for ignoring “basic questions” that they have discussed for years, in my case decades, whereas you have refused to address them and apparently do not even allow yourself to understand them. That’s impressive.

I’ll put aside your apologetics for the crimes for which you and I share responsibility, which, frankly, I find quite shocking, particularly on the part of someone who feels entitled to deliver moral lectures

The last few exchanges reveal a pathetic Harris being reduced (April 27, 2015) to whining about tone (usually a sign that things are not going well for you) and about Chomsky’s “uncharitable attitude—really bordering on contempt” and being “prickly” and “cantankerous” and that he lacks a “spirit of genuine curiosity and goodwill”, before finally throwing in the towel (April 30, 2015):

Rather than explore these issues with genuine interest and civility, you seem committed to litigating all points (both real and imagined) in the most plodding and accusatory way. And so, to my amazement, I find that the only conversation you and I are likely to ever have has grown too tedious to continue.

It was a downright embarrassing admission of defeat. Surely Harris should have known that Chomsky has been demolishing these kinds of moral claims of the US government from before Harris was born and has dealt with example after example of the kind of propagandistic apologetics that Harris has swallowed whole? Anyone who has seen Chomsky demolish other apologists of American atrocities like William F. Buckley (scroll down), who incidentally is a much better debater than Harris, during the Vietnam war should have known better than to accuse him of being ignorant of the subtleties of the moral dimensions of actions by governments, including the question of intent.

After Harris closes down the exchange and publishes it, he writes a postscript where he says “It would not be productive—or, I think, fair to Chomsky—for me to argue my case in great detail after the fact” and then proceeds to do just that, where in a lengthy statement he tries to explain away his poor performance without a chance for Chomsky to rebut.

It is true that Chomsky was quite contemptuous of Harris. It seemed to me that Chomsky had started out not very sympathetic to Harris because people had forwarded to him Harris’s attacks on him that he felt misrepresented his views, and because of Harris’s close association with fellow warmonger Christopher Hitchens. And it went downhill from there. Chomsky seemed to quickly reach the conclusion that Harris is an intellectual lightweight with moral pretensions and an apologist for US crimes who lectures other people with smug arrogance about things he has not really thought through.

Apologists for US atrocities tend to treat each one as a special case, concocting all manner of contrived reasons why, even if the past actions did not turn out well, this one was a truly noble cause. But long-time Chomsky observers know that for every excuse you bring up for one particular atrocity, Chomsky will come back with a barrage of counter-examples from actual history for which that excuse no longer holds. If you are not ready for that, you are doomed and that is what happened to Harris.

Harris’s stock-in-trade in these arguments is the carefully contrived extreme hypothetical scenario that sounds like something out of a James Bond film of the kind that he uses to justify torture (something like “Would torturing someone be justified if only he had the code to a doomsday machine that would destroy the world in a few minutes?”) but Chomsky was having none of that and simply ignored them. Chomsky’s stock-in-trade is the much more potent ‘reverse hypothetical’, where he takes actual actions by the US that Harris approves of and switches the protagonists and asks him if he would still approve of that action. This seemed to catch Harris off-balance. Harris had brought the proverbial knife to a gunfight and was left licking his wounds.

Chomsky is on every list of the most influential intellectuals in the world while Harris’s sphere of influence is far more limited. The fact that Harris had been badgering Chomsky, both directly and through intermediaries, to have this exchange, gives the impression that by engaging publicly with Chomsky, Harris sought to elevate his own profile. Despite the humiliation, maybe Harris can be happy that at least Chomsky now knows he exists.

I would have felt quite sorry for Harris if it were not the fact that it was he who had initiated this exchange with the intent of showing that he (Harris) had a far more sophisticated understanding of morality than Chomsky. He thoroughly deserved the beating he got.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Harris had brought the proverbial knife to a gunfight

    Prop knife. While wearing clown shoes.

  2. Lee Witt says

    Despite the humiliation, maybe Harris can be happy that at least Chomsky now knows he exists.

    Knows of him, but I wonder if it didn’t sting a little when Chomsky said

    Easy to know why you’re unaware of my having written about your work. I haven’t done so.

    Chomsky knows of Harris but doesn’t consider it important enough to write about. That has to leave a mark.

  3. funknjunk says

    One of the more basic/foundational Chomsky beliefs I think really lies at the heart of their friction in this exchange (and Glenn Greenwald uses the following Chomsky quote often). Harris not only shows himself to be a naïve believer that the US state is a force for good in the world, and that the bad acts that it is responsible for can be defended with sophistry about intention, but he doesn’t hold the same beliefs that Chomsky does about what it means to be a responsible US citizen. Chomsky says: “”My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.” Harris doesn’t understand that this is where Chomsky is coming from. As a citizen of the US, ethically our energies should be spent on stopping the violence of our OWN state, because that’s where we have any power at all …..

  4. deepak shetty says

    According to Harris, much of the carnage that the US has inflicted on the world in due to good intentions gone awry.
    Yes – thats exactly how Dick Cheney and George W Bush and well I dont know , most of the Republicans party(and a good number of Democrats) are . Good intentions gone awry.
    Similarly Al Qaeda et al. also have very good intentions at heart – They want everyone to know the wonderfulness about Islam , and everyone should submit to its rules and laws once people realise the awesomeness of the one true version of Islam – everyone gets to goto heaven and lead a nice fulfilling worthy life. Its just the implementations goes awry and sometimes there is collateral damage.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Harris’s stock-in-trade in these arguments is the carefully contrived extreme hypothetical scenario that sounds like something out of a James Bond film …

    More than a bit ironic, as it’s the American president we see routinely acting like a Bond villain: “Who shall we execute today with our flying death robots?”

  6. mnb0 says

    I’m willing to grant Harris the good intentions of USA governments, including Clinton and even Bush jun. But this

    “that the deaths of tens of thousands of people as a result of his actions should not be held against him”
    is simply a non-sequitur. Especially if Clinton was “just a poor soul whose intentions were good” (from a song about a wife beater) this should be hold against him, because his actions were a total failure.
    And I think Clinton one of the better American presidents since WW-2.

    One reason I don’t call myself a New Atheist is that I simply can’t share the admiration for the four horsemen, except for Dennett to some extent. Harris is an intellectual dwarf compared to Chomsky. His criticism of religion can be very harsh:

    “Do I believe in God? Can’t answer, I’m afraid. I’m not being flippant, but I don’t understand the question. What is it that I am supposed to believe or not believe in? Are you asking whether I believe there is something not in the universe (or the universes, if there are (maybe infinitely) many of them), and that somehow stands above them? I’ve never heard of any reason for believing that. Something else? What? There are many concepts of spirituality …. Anyway, without clarification of a kind I have never seen, I don’t know whether I believe or don’t believe in whatever a questioner has in mind.”—-.htm

    As for Harris’ morals, it might be interesting that it has quite a few things in common with RCC morals, especially regarding intentions.

    One might conclude that Harris is a catholic unbeliever.

  7. propater2 says

    This is weird, I thought Harris was bending strongly utilitarian/consequentialist… While it is certainly possible for utilitarians to allow intent to color the moral evaluation of actions, the actual consequences must stay front and center. How can he insists so much on intent without being self-conscious? Is he compartimentalizing?

  8. says

    Something that’s been annoying me since I read this several days ago:

    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.

    Chomsky isn’t only one of the most influential intellectuals – he’s probably the most famous living anarchist on the planet. He’s been criticizing the “liberal critique of power” for decades.

  9. Hoosier X says

    Yeah, but Chomsky once wrote a preface defending free speech for Holocaust deniers … so Harris wins!

    Because I say so.

  10. Ben Finney says

    Harris was asking, from the beginning, about Chomsky’s moral position. It’s normal and useful to ask about extreme cases, in order to clarify just what a moral position is.

    It astounds me that people think this is some kind of rhetorical trick.

  11. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    @Ben Finney
    In my experience, Sam Harris badly and perhaps even dishonestly extrapolates from such answers. I can easily imagine a highly contrived and unrealistic scenario where it would be moral, even compulsory, to engage in all manner of horrible acts like torture. However, these scenarios are so contrived as to have effectively zero impact on real world policy discussions. Whereas, Sam Harris wants to extrapolate from the hypothetical and mythical ticking time bomb scenario to torturing people who might be innocent because they might maybe have some information that maybe might prevent some crime at some unspecified future point in time. It’s one thing to defend torture in esoteric cases, and if that was just it, then I would think Harris was getting a bad rap. I used to think that, but then I actually read more of Harris’s work, and it’s not just a bad rap. Harris actually defends torture in practice, in specific cases, in Guantanamo, and that is unacceptable. And that’s just one morally outrageous thing of many which Harris has said.

  12. John Black says

    What an embarrassment to see former professors from a respectable university authoring tripe like this. Objectivity is the first casualty in your opening paragraph: Harris “pontificates” while Chomsky “proves.” The endless ad hominems in this “essay” prove nothing useful or new in the non-debate between Harris and Chomsky.

    Just because you dislike someone’s views doesn’t entitle you to read his mind nor attack his personality.

  13. Mano Singham says

    John Black @#14,

    Just wanted to point out that while I do say that Harris ‘pontificates’, it is in the second paragraph, not the opening one. Also I never use the word ‘proves’ (or even ‘proof’) even once in the entire essay.

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