Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Consolations of Literature

My first reaction to Sam Harris' argument here is that, on the moral question, he makes a curiously legalistic defense of American (i.e., Western) actions.

In law there are degrees of criminal culpability.  If I run you down with my car, it matters whether I saw you in the crosswalk, gripped the steering wheel tightly, and accelerated at you; or if I looked down to change the radio station and looked up too late to avoid you.  Either way, you're dead; but my intent determines the nature of my crime, the severity of my punishment.

But it isn't a moral judgment made by society, much as we say it is.  It's really a determination of what I did; either way, I'm morally responsible for your death.  The state isn't really concerned with my morality; the state is only concerned with my actions, and what it can discern of my intent.

So Sam Harris argues to Noam Chomsky that as long as the West doesn't intend for there to be collateral damage (and just yesterday on BBC World Service I heard some apologist for some attack by Western forces arguing that everything was done to reduce civilian casualties that could be done, so, hey, we're still the "good guys!"), the West isn't as morally culpable as "Islamic terrorists" who, in Harris' example, execute criminals in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (before the US invasion) on a soccer field at half-time during a soccer game.  These executions were carried out by hand, not by firing squad or lethal injection or gas chamber or electric chair; and somehow this makes the executions both "barbaric" and "wrong."  I'm not a supporter of the death penalty, so it seems to me dead is dead, whether by needle or by machete, and chopping off a thief's hand is as brutal as solitary confinement or sending a child to prison for 20 years.

But Sam Harris says it's all about "intent" so what we do is much better than what they do.

Chomsky eviscerates that argument after his fashion; I have my own response to it.*  Intent is a smokescreen when its a matter of the actions of nations.  As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out almost a century ago, nations act in the name of self-preservation; it is the only way they can be expected to act.  They cannot be moral:  period.  Terrorists act in reaction to what is done to them; the "West" acts in reaction to what is done to it, by people it labels "terrorists."  Auden's lines from "September 1, 1939" never enter into Harris' calculus:  we are morally superior to them, and that's an end to the discussion.

Intent is not the deciding factor, especially since no court ever sits in judgment over the nations to decide what intent was actually involved.  If I can escape the consequences of my criminal actions by simply declaring "I didn't mean to do it!", what criminal justice would any nation ever effect for its citizens?  We have no court of nations to decide such matters, but neither can we self-justify by declaring our hearts pure, their hearts foul.  The fact that we think we can do it just makes our claims of superiority ring ever more hollow among the other nations of the world.  Just ask George Orwell.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again:  Sam Harris is a putz.

*Although this is worth pulling out of the to and fro (if you don't want to plow through the whole thing; it does border on being too long).  The topic is the al-Shafira bombing carried out by Clinton in retaliation for the embassy bombing carried out by Al Qaeda:

Apologists may appeal to undetectable humanitarian intentions, but the fact is that the bombing was taken in exactly the way I described in the earlier publication which dealt the question of intentions in this case, the question that you claimed falsely that I ignored: to repeat, it just didn’t matter if lots of people are killed in a poor African country, just as we don’t care if we kill ants when we walk down the street. On moral grounds, that is arguably even worse than murder, which at least recognizes that the victim is human. That is exactly the situation. 

emphasis added 


  1. The reactions in the comments are interesting and seem, to me, to fall on a line between those who either can deal with or care about detail and accuracy and those who either can't or don't care. I can well imagine lots of people calling what Chomsky said "word salad" though what he said was clear and lucid and backed with factual support and clear parallels in history.

    I think that explains a lot about internet and public discourse in the new millennium, so far.

  2. I agree, but I found the split to be along the lines Harris is guilty of: a complete inability to self-examine.

    Harris insists he is holy, and the "other" is unclean. That's the real basis of his analysis, but he can't look at himself in the mirror clearly enough to even acknowledge it. Chomsky shows him the mirror again and again, and Harris only asks "Who's the fairest of them all?"

    The comments in support of Harris follow pretty much the same standard. Interestingly, a few people seemed to realize their emperor had no clothes. But, taking a cue from you about the important of religion, I really can't overemphasize the importance of humility and self-examination. Chomsky is not quite interested in that particular topic, but he does understand that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

    Harris still imagines he stands apart from the world and, from the Olympian perch, he is above and apart from mere human concerns and actions which have consequences (just as the Greek gods actions had consequences, but not for them, so what did they care?).