For any Sam Harris? and Noam Chomsky? fans out there, this is a blog post that I wrote and just posted on planksip.org. If you like it share it, if not then talk about it.
Sam Harris is a brilliant and careful speaker, period. Brilliant because his careful use of language is challenging even to Chomsky. This is a mighty claim to accuse Noam Chomsky of ignorance on any level, especially an academic one. Sam pushes new boundaries in areas like moral intentionality and challenges the categories and scale in which Chomsky has so passionately exploited in his language of anti-American propaganda. The skeptical mind must wonder if Chomsky feels threatened by the challenge to the foundation of his ivory tower? Perhaps it’s the “unpacking” of principles and psychological knowledge-base that signals a cease and desist order in the Noam neurology. Does it damage the Chomskonian foundation and dilute the strength of his gospel? As a life-long educator, Noam Chomsky’s should feel ashamed for not engaging in an honest and constructive conversation with Sam Harris. How do you scold an old man, a living legend for the anti-establishment? Whatever you want to call him; Communist or Socialist, Noam Chomsky is also an American playing for the lefties and should be a team player. Both Chomsky and Sam understands the power of language, it’s influence and the importance of conversation in society so neither should hog the media. I wish this conversation happened, and even more, I wish it would have flourished and changed both Noam and Sam. This would have been a gift for us all to see.
There was a poorly delivered overture made to an old crabby guy. Nothing surprising followed. I’m not sure what the world missed out on.
There was a poorly delivered overture made to an old crabby guy. Nothing surprising followed. I’m not sure what the world missed out on.
Taking note of ‘body count’. Who has killed more innocent people, ISIS or the U.S.?
Is ‘intention’ the important word - the key to the moral high ground? “On 9/11 they intended to kill 3000 innocent people and terrorize a nation, but we didn’t intend to kill 500,000 civilians, destabilize the Middle East, and bring injury, misery and ruin to millions.
I created this thought experiment after reading an interchange between [Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky](
https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-limits-of-discourse). I’d like to focus on a point that I feel that Harris missed. This thought experiment also relates indirectly to a discussion between [Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson](https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/speaking-of-truth-with-jordan-b.-peterson).
## Setting of the thought experiment ##
There are two neighboring tribes located in the same part of the world that share a common border. There is no higher level authority, so the tribes are essentially sovereign nations and there is no rule of law shared between them. I will refer to the two tribes as Alpha and Beta.
## The seeds of the conflict
In the beginning there is relative peace. The Alphas and Betas go to the same schools. In one of the schools there are two students “A. Alpha”, and “B. Beta”. “A. Alpha” is a bit mean, and constantly bullies “B. Beta”. “B. Beta” grows up hating the Alphas and later on in his life he writes an essay called “The Beta Manifesto” and starts a cult called Betaism. In his manifesto he advocates killing of the Alphas (among other things) and he recruits 5 or 6 people to his cult (who were also bullied as kids). With his cult he plots and carries out the Murder of “A. Alpha”, the person who picked on him in school.
“L. Alpha”, the current leader of the Alphas, is outraged. There is no common law between the two tribes, so “L. Alpha” seeks to exact revenge by attempting to kill “B. Beta”. But “B. Beta” hides out in Betaville and the Alphas aren’t willing to send in an army to invade. Through the use of sophisticated drone surveillance the Alphas track “B. Beta”‘s location, discover the house that he is living in with his family, and drop a bomb on the house, killing “B. Beta” and his entire family including innocent men, women and children.
The Betas are furious about the loss of innocent life and the Betaist cult grows in number from 5 to 100 members who adopt the principles of Betaism and explicitly advocate the death of any Alpha. Many of the other Betas are sympathetic to the Betaist cult, but don’t advocate violence.
Because of their relatively primitive technological capability the Beta cult are unable to get near or harm “L. Alpha”, the person actually responsible for ordering the bombing. In frustration they seek revenge (and possibly to deter future acts) and carry out a terrorist bombing that kills 5 completely innocent Alphas.
## Cycle of violence
The Alphas are filled with moral outrage, and label anyone who belongs to the Betaist cult evil for advocating murder of innocent Alphas. They no longer try to kill only terrorists, but expand their targets to any member of the Betaist cult. They state very loudly that they have nothing against Beta tribe members who are not part of the Betaist cult, and that they are doing everything they can to avoid killing of innocent non-cult Beta tribe members.
The Alphas start a campaign of bombings. They carefully track Betaist cult members through drone surveillance and start dropping bombs on them. They use the utmost care and are actually perfect in their execution, every single bomb targets and kills at least one member of the Betaist cult. However, there is often collateral damage. The Alphas know that they are likely to kill innocent betas but feel they are justified because their intention is to kill the betaist cult member. Each bombing in fact kills more innocent Betas than Betaist cult members.
Each time innocent Betas are killed, more Betas are filled with moral outrage, and the Betaist cult gains new members. They continue to advocate the death of all Alphas and carry out terrorist acts against innocent Alpha tribe members. This results in more bombings, and so on and so on.
Over the years 100 members of the Alpha tribe are killed, and 100000 members of the Beta tribe are killed: 100 of the killed Betas actually took part in planning or carrying out terrorist acts that resulted in the deaths of innocent Alpha members. 10000 of the Beta deaths were people who belonged to the Betaist cult, but did not actually contribute to the terrorist acts. The rest of the deaths were innocent men women and children of the Beta tribe who did not belong to the cult nor advocate violence. Now 20% of the beta tribe belong to the Betaist cult, and some of them continue to carry out terrorist acts. The Alpha’s continue their drone bombings.
## Back to Harris and Chomsky
I’m now going to try to apply my understanding of Harris’s and Chomsky’s arguments to this thought experiment. Obviously this is my interpretation of their positions, so may have gross errors. I invite anyone to correct me where I’m wrong.
Harris seems to be arguing that the Alpha tribe has the moral high ground because their intention is always to kill a member of the Betaist cult. The Betaist cult is “evil” because their cult advocates the death of innocent Alphas and some members of the Betaist cult actually carry out terrorist acts to kill innocent Alphas. Consequently the Alphas are justified.
Harris advocates a sort of moral scoring system that includes both intentions and outcomes and seems to be saying that intentions always outscore outcomes. He claims that the Alphas technically have a more justified intention, consequently the outcome (no matter the body count of innocent lives) is irrelevant and can be completely ignored. Since the Alphas intention was to kill Betaist cult members, the Alphas are on the moral high ground. The Betaist cult members whose intention was explicitly to kill innocent Alphas (whether or not they killed a guilty Alpha) are wrong and deserve to be killed.
Chomsky seems to be arguing that the Alpha tribe is morally wrong because of their flagrant disregard for the value of the lives of the innocent Betas. The Alphas ought to be judged on the outcomes of their actions, not on their intentions. If the Alphas know that innocent Betas will be killed when they drop their bombs, they are morally wrong, no matter what their other intentions are. There are many historical examples of deluded people who carried out atrocities against innocents in the name of some good end. For example: Stalin may have believed that he had good intentions (to bring about a communist utopia) when he created a system that resulted in the deaths of 10’s of millions of people. He is still one of the most Evil persons in human history.
In their emails, both of the writers talk past each other, and neither actually addresses the others argument.
## Harris’ position
I agree with Harris in one sense: Intentions do matter when evaluating moral situations. If you are comparing two homicide cases, and you are trying to decide who should have a longer sentence in jail, their intentions are very important. It is clear that a person who kills someone through voluntary manslaughter is morally superior to a person who meticulously plans out the murder a total stranger for fun. (had Chomsky admitted this point, the discussion might have proceeded further).
I wonder how Harris would score a person whose voluntary manslaughter resulted in the death of 10000 people verses a murderer who killed only one person. More importantly: How important is this moral superiority when it comes to the context of a global ideological war that involves the MASSIVE loss of innocent human life on both sides?
Harris seems to disregard that there is intentionalty involved in the bombing of innocent Betas. If the Alphas drop a bomb on a house that they know has innocent people in it, they are intending to kill those innocent people. The fact that they ALSO intended to kill the evil Betaist certainly factors into the equation. But it cannot be ignored.
Harris is trying to make the technical point similar to the homicide example. If you compare the Alphas to the Betas, you may be able to conclude that the Betas have an inferior moral position because they carry out acts that result in the death of innocent Alphas by blowing up houses even when they know that there aren’t any guilty Alphas present. However this ignores many other possible intentions that the Betas may be holding. They may be intending to cause change in the Alpha culture so that the Alphas will stop bombing them. Do these intentions matter? Should we spend time evaluating who had the greater justification of their intentions? Does it matter who started this (that the initial murder was committed by a member of the Beta tribe), what if the situation was reversed? Would that change the justification?
There are other problems with Harris’ position. One is a reductio-ad-absurdum: Imagine the conflict grows and grows, there are millions of deaths on both sides. Betaism cult membership grows to the point where nearly every member of the Beta tribe is a cult member. Finally the Alphas get fed up and proceed to commit genocide claiming that their intention is to rid the world of those evil Betaists who have grown out of control. At this point this may actually BE the only way to get rid of Betaism. Are the Alphas morally justified? Is there contribution to the cycle of violence irrelevant?
The more fundamental problem with Harris’ argument is that it implicitly adopts an “ends justifies the means” moral system. The intended end (the removal of the evil Betaist cult members) is used to justify the means (using crude bombs that result in loss of innocent life.) This is precisely the moral failure of both sides. Both sides try to justify the taking of innocent lives of their enemy with the intention of trying to protect the innocents in their own tribe. Interpreted in this context, they are fundamentally identical moral positions.
Harris’ technical argument misses the forest for the trees.
## Jordan Peterson
This reminds me of the discussion between Harris and Peterson. Harris seems to be stuck on his principled derivation of the role of intention in evaluating moral positions. Peterson might argue that you need to include the entire context. I suspect Peterson would look at the situation as a whole, and conclude that the ideology of BOTH parties is evil because neither one of their ideologies leads to a good outcome for the people involved. Both of their ideologies lead to the direct loss of innocent life, and both contribute to sustaining the cycle of violence that will continue indefinitely.
Harris’s position on the importance of intentionalty is a micro-truth. This micro-truth has such a small impact on the evaluation of this situation as to be basically irrelevant. (Perhaps it is a micro-truth that applies only in contexts with equal outcomes e.g. a single manslaughter vs. a single murder). I don’t see how it applies in this ideological war.
I find Peterson’s approach to be more compelling in this specific case (though I reserve judgment on other cases).
# The solution
Harris is trying to justify horribly evil actions that result in the massive loss of innocent life by saying that the west’s intentions are less evil than jihadists intentions.
Even if you grant Harris’ relative measure of evilness, you don’t attain the moral high ground and you don’t attain peace by being “slightly less evil” than your opponent. You attain peace through righteous moral action and rule of law. The righteous process can start only with the utmost devotion to the sanctity and value of innocent human life. We need to value innocent human life WITH NO EXCEPTION. We need to somehow bring in the RULE OF LAW. We need to punish those who are evil and protect the innocent. We need to establish rights. Ruthlessly treat people as innocent until PROVEN guilty, and punish only those who have been proven guilty beyond the shadow of doubt.
Only then will we have the moral high ground to stand on.