On Chomsky and Harris

Noam Chomsky vs Sam Harris. Any thoughts?

I respect Harris for trying to open a dialog, and Chomsky certainly handled the exchange poorly, but the old man is nevertheless correct.

In a nutshell, Harris suggests that intentions matter when assessing the morality of a given geo-political outcome, and that Chomsky unwisely ignores intentions. Chomsky suggests that Harris is naive about “benign” intentions, and that on the world stage, only outcomes matter.

As an example, Chomsky would not make a moral distinction between the US accidentally killing a dozen children in a drone strike and ISIS deliberately killing a dozen children with a car bomb. On the other hand, Harris very much wants to make that moral distinction. That’s his whole point in starting the conversation. He believes that those identical outcomes would not be equal, and that the US would somehow be morally superior because of the intentionality of the deaths.

Harris’s position is attractive. At first glance, it certainly “feels” right, but that’s just a trick in how he frames his position. It’s fine to talk about the moral intentions of individuals, but his argument ultimately fails because the concept of intentionality doesn’t scale-up to the systemic level of state power.

In other words, it’s perfectly legitimate to suggest that President Obama is morally superior to Abu al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, but so what? The US has visited far more atrocity onto the world than ISIS could ever hope to commit, and the fact that the President is a good guy has almost nothing to do with the intention of the US military industrial complex as a whole. Essentially, Harris is trying to make a systems-level “good guys vs bad guys” type argument, and Chomsky has no patience for that kind of bullshit.

To his credit, Harris is right that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development, but for some reason, he has a blind spot when it comes to the systemic violence inherent to Western state powers, (specifically the US and Israel.) Harris assumes there is a certain benevolence of good intentions with regard to Western state actors, and Chomsky simply refuses to accept his premise.

Put as simply as possible, Chomsky thinks systemically about culture, whereas Harris thinks culturally about systems, and their conversation failed miserably because they got into an academic dick measuring contest.

Oh well.


13 thoughts on “On Chomsky and Harris

  1. Jules says:

    That’s the clearest critique I’ve ever seen.

    Was there any particular book or class that was seminal in teaching you how to analyze like this? Because I’m a geek who’s good with numbers, but I would love to be able to look at words / arguments more critically.

    • Sarah says:

      Read more. Becoming analytical with words means exposing yourself to them often and questioning the why and how. Or, study linguistics. Linguists learn how to develop an analytical view of language using various methods, and there are quantitative approaches for the mathematically inclined. In fact, Dr. Pinker’s “Sense of Style” talks a bit about analyzing other people’s writing to improve your own.


  2. Bec says:

    Wouldn’t you think intentions matter, if only in order to predict future actions of the group if the resources weren’t limiting?

    • Coquette says:

      Yes, of course intentions matter in predicting future actions, but that’s a strategic assessment of intent. Harris and Chomsky are talking about a moral assessment of intent.

  3. chum says:

    Wow, that’s not what I remember reading at all. I don’t think I’ll revisit that painful exchange again, but I seem to remember Harris trying to start a dialog about… anything, really, and Chomsky responding only with contempt for what he believed Harris’s unwritten point to be.

    I guess I didn’t read enough Chomsky in college to appreciate how clever he’s being when he doesn’t even appear to be listening. Oh well indeed.

  4. Adam. says:

    “…Harris thinks culturally about systems…”

    Yes, and Harris is so biased and blinded by his current western cultural environment that he can’t see the world in any other terms.

    What bothers me most about Harris is his banging the science / evidence drum and yet refuses to acknowledge the large body of scholarship with regards to radicalization. His gut feeling that doctrine is all defining in terms of beliefs and actions is embarrassing.

  5. Jonathan Dore says:

    Coquette — sorry, but you’re simply asserting that the relevance of intentions doesn’t “scale up” without demonstrating why. It seems to me self-evident that this relevance does indeed scale up. If it didn’t, the Allies in World War II would have been its *moral* (as opposed to military) victors *only* because they succeeded in killing fewer people, and not because they were trying to stop a toxic form of genocidal fascism. In the view you outline, the moral value of state actions, minus intentions, becomes a mere matter of accountancy: if one state kills a million people and their opponents kill a million and one, one can say automatically that the first is the less evil without knowing *anything* about intentions or whether those deaths occurred in offence or defence. Every death is simply an interchangeable unit, and the circumstances are irrelevant.

    Intentions are not taken out of the equation simply because of a change in scale. State actions are more complex than individuals’, certainly, because they result from the input of many people rather than just one, but they are not, as words like “systemic” imply, purely automatic and impersonal processes, like some sort of geological force, devoid of moral meaning. Every state action of the kind we’re discussing is the result of human decisions, not the turning of cogs.

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