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.