by Sanjay Perera
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. — An aphorism
Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. …We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas. – Sam Harris
This essay is a follow-up to the debate of sorts held between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky. But importantly, it is an attempt to robustly point out what seems a strategy of obfuscation used by Harris in trying to justify his stand as he states how unreasonable his critics are while he continues to brandish his right-wing capitalist fundamentalism. However, he is entitled to his view and ideological belief system (including his anodyne claim that the quote from him above does not suggest what he implies.) Part of the strategy of trying to make his support for US aggression more acceptable is to rationalize it with his scientism (but this is not examined here.)
In the now notorious email exchange with Chomsky, Harris adds a “Postscript” (see the end of that post) in which he tries hard to convince others that his publishing of the exchange on his blog is driven by a genuine desire for a conversation with Chomsky as part of his scheme of apparently similarly doing so with others holding differing views. The term ‘conversation’ is a mantra for Harris that he chants repeatedly as if to conjure up the idea of how reasonable he is (at least in his own mind) and thereby rationalize his admittedly unsuccessful encounter with Chomsky. This use of ‘conversation’ as a mantra reaches an apogee in the transcript of his podcast entitled “My final thoughts on Chomsky.”
(This essay is based primarily on what Harris claims to be his final thoughts on Chomsky, as well as from some aspects of his email exchange with the latter, and a broad look at some of his other thoughts.)
[Credit: Fabrizio Cassetta.]
It becomes apparent from Harris’s final thoughts on Chomsky that the email clash is going to haunt him and so he carefully plays the victim in the encounter. A close reading of Harris’s self-justifying monologue reveals a rather fantastical and paranoid (but we shall generously characterizes as a) Kafkaesque streak which is weirdly entertaining. He is almost like the lead character from The Trial (for he is the hapless misunderstood victim in his encounter with Chomsky and is in the thrall of judgement by the rest of whom Harris calls “the Left”); though we seem to be expected to sympathize with him more as the protagonist of The Metamorphosis.
The pathology of victimhood becomes apparent in Harris’s account when he quickly tries to clear any misunderstanding that he was debating Chomsky. Lest there be any further misunderstanding Harris informs us that in a debate one tries not to admit that one is wrong as it would be a loss of face (he then quickly qualifies this by stating he is not above admitting to be wrong.) But all he tries to do is a have a conversation. Therefore, those who think he ‘lost’ to Chomsky in anything are mistaken. Harris admits to missteps but it is Chomsky who creates a situation wherein Harris laments he “encountered little more than contempt, false accusations, and highly moralizing language—accusing me of apologizing for atrocities—and weird evasions, and silly tricks.” (All quotes from Harris in this piece are from “My final thoughts on Chomsky.”)
We are then informed by Harris that the so-called conversation with Chomsky was in fact a “horror show.” Harris is fast and loose with the horror of things when it comes to him being taken to task. He has apparently also been called a “racist” by a celebrity and implies that is all it takes for him to be subject to a form of ‘tarring and feathering’ (Harris does not use the term, but we are trying to sympathize a little with the fellow) and, of course, misunderstanding. But Chomsky takes the cake, for in his aggressive prosecution of his stand against Harris’s (inaccurate) charges against him — Chomsky does not seem to engage with the intentionality of things which is Harris’s primary concern in his defence of US aggression; for Harris, the intention of the US and its key personalities in waging war and attacks on the ‘bad guys’ absolves them compared to what ‘terrorists’ and their like do to the civilized Western world (this is an extension of Harris’s point but he is careful not to phrase it this way in “Final thoughts.”)
[Credit: Unknown Master — Portugal, 1st third of 16th century.]
Harris then reasserts his fear that people think he had a debate with Chomsky and that “moralizing accusations work” against him so that comments about his ‘racism’ among many other things give the impression that there is truth to them. He follows this with an obscure remark that many people are trapped into thinking “where there’s smoke there must be fire.” Perhaps this is a reference to the frisson incurred in others and himself resulting from his exchange with Chomsky which gives the impression of a debate (or vice versa?), and therefore people tend to believe there is truth to claims made in that context: but this would be a non sequitur.
For if that follows, as Harris seems to suggest, this means that when there is a heated exchange of words, there is truth to them. This whole conversation thing is a fixation with him, for Harris implies that people are less willing to believe so-called accusations if they happen in the context of a conversation rather than a debate. This kind of thinking is most strange since the nature of a discussion (be it a contretemps) or debate has nothing to do with the validity of claims made. Harris is obfuscating things as is his wont to heighten the charge of unreasonableness in others and play up his sense of victimhood (and how misunderstood he is) by bandying words.
Harris has the tendency to be so ambiguous in so many crucial instances that we can be forgiven for thinking this is a strategy of obfuscation (please see end note  and the links that follow it.) This claim is made because we give the benefit of the doubt that Harris is intelligent enough to indulge in some clarity if he wants to; the corollary would be that he is not: we are not imputing that as such.
Interestingly, Harris soon assails us with the analogy of a house that burns down to explain his point about intention thereby reinforcing his attraction to images of smoke, fire and burning. Presumably in this instance where there is smoke there is indeed fire.
We are then confronted with the matter of intentionality. Harris believes Chomsky does not seem to grasp that even in the legal system the intentionality of acts counts. Harris explains that if you want to know “what the hell happened” if your and your neighour’s home burns down, there is a need to examine intentions. We need to know if the disaster is a result of an accident or something far more sinister. Indeed, Harris fears that it could be that your neighbour wanted “to burn down the whole neighborhood, because he just hates everyone… Intentions matter because they contain all of the information about what your neighbor is likely to do next.” This is indeed a disturbing thought and makes us want to re-examine our relationship with our neighbours, after all who can we really trust?
However, this is also symptomatic of Harris’s fondness for thought experiments and it is quite interesting that he admits that there could have been a conspiracy of sorts in acts of violence when things explode and buildings burn down. He is subtle that way.
[Credit: George Tooker.]
Presumably, Harris in his burning neighbourhood example is trying to make yet another profound point about the ethical issues surrounding collateral damage that Chomksy went on about in the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant. At this point we must be clear that it would be obtuse to deny that Harris is indeed an apologist for American violence, for perhaps with a straight face we are informed that those who charge the US with being the same as Al-Qaeda and ISIS are…masochists. This is Harris’s clincher of the argument (or conversation):
This kind of masochism and misreading of both ourselves and of our enemies has become a kind of religious precept on the Left. I don’t think an inability to distinguish George Bush or Bill Clinton from Saddam Hussein or Hitler is philosophically or politically interesting, much less wise. And many people, most even, who are this morally confused consider Chomsky their patriarc [sic]—and I suspect that’s not an accident. But I wanted to talk to him to see if there was some way to build a bridge off of this island of masochism so that these sorts of people, who I’ve been hearing from for years, could cross over to something more reasonable. And it didn’t work out. The conversation, as I said, was a total failure. But I thought it was an instructive one.
To Harris, the Kafkaesquely outlandish points above show that those who see Chomsky as their intellectual elder are “morally confused” and besides, those disagreeing with Harris’s worldview of American exceptionalism especially by those on “the Left,” are simply masochists. Harris suspects that those who seem to be aligned to Chomsky’s view are so willingly and “that’s not an accident.” Obviously, there is collusion of sorts by “the Left” against Harris’s worldview and that of other American-Western exceptionalists.
Here is a phrase that may suit Harris’s worldview: he looks through a glass, darkly.
[Credit: Martin Senn.]
In the end, we should be charitable and understand that all Harris is trying to do in his non-debates and conversations is to build “a bridge” from the masochistic idea (and island some of us are stuck on) to take us away from thinking that there is something dangerously wrong with the US and its capitalist dogma and power brokers: he wants more of us to crossover the US greenbacked road-bridge to his wonderful Land of Oz where he is the presiding genius. Most importantly, Harris wants to save us; he is after all a zealot of sorts, it just happens that he is an atheist.
Another remarkable claim by Harris is why Bush and Clinton, like the US, should be exempt from scrutiny or condemnation or any comparisons made to Saddam Hussein or Hitler simply because it is neither “philosophically or politically interesting, much less wise.” How did the chap come to this conclusion?
Harris’s solution to the world’s problems is the use of conversations. These are needed for since he has nothing spiritual to fall back on in his world of non-divinity and the absence of free will except his scientific materialist nihilism which also happens to be moralistic (not the kind Chomsky and “the Left” subscribe to): conversations, we are flatly told, “are our only hope.” But like the materialist who is ever faithful to American violence and the cruelty of capitalism that he is, Harris earlier on in “Final thoughts” tellingly informs us: “Apart from violence and other forms of coercion, all we have is conversation with which to influence one another.” Is this a Freudian slip (as opposed to subtlety) by Harris? For he is a believer in violence as long as its intentions are aligned to his, that is, American exceptionalism. Make no mistake of that. It is in his writings.
(We should also note that in the infamous passage that forms the epigraph of this essay, Harris states: “There is, in fact, no talking to some people.” So it is unlikely that conversation is our only hope for we can also keep ourselves secure by subjecting others, due to their beliefs, to “other forms of coercion;” justifying torture is not far away from the man’s mind. Ultimately, Harris believes some people deserve to be killed for what they may do based on their beliefs, that is, preemptive murder is alright; so the point is that you do not need to rely solely on dialogue to get the message through to others — for more please see end note .)
[Credit: Robert Crumb.]
Here are some points to consider in Harris’s apologia for his worldview in “Final thoughts”:
- he claims that nowhere in his exchange with Chomsky did he signal an “unwillingness to acknowledge or to discuss specific crimes for which for [sic] the U.S. government might be responsible.” Notice he never admits to crimes and atrocities by the US but that it only “might be” responsible for them.
- he shows how broadminded he is in stating that the “United States, and the West generally, has a history of colonialism, slavery, collusion with dictators, and of imposing its will on people all over the world. I have never denied this.” This carefully avoids going into specific acts of violence done by the US government upon its own citizens domestically, or to countless others abroad. If/when he does so elsewhere he seems to do so largely via his penchant for thought experiments; when an actual instance is mentioned it is as a reference point, for it is not examined in depth. The hypothetical situations are designed to showcase the atrocity of the other/someone else and rhetorically ask what can the US/the West do other than reply through violence? This justifies America’s intentions in acts of torture and death. One suspects this is no accident (irony, intended.)
- he states that those who think the following, in comparing the US to ISIS, are examples of masochists whom he is trying to save from themselves with his bridge, atheism and materialist zealotry (Harris’s italics): “‘…well of course ISIS and al-Qaeda are terrible, but we’re just as bad, worse even, because we created them—literally. And through our selfishness and ineptitude, we created millions of other victims who sympathize with them for obvious reasons. We are, in every morally relevant sense, getting exactly what we deserve.’”
The upshot is that Harris believes intentions can tell us if someone or a group of people are guilty as in a court of law. But how does one do this with acts of the US government or that of George W. Bush or Clinton unless they are brought before a court of law? Will the American people ever be able to bring Dick Cheney and his cohort to trial for the violence they have inflicted on fellow citizens and so many others elsewhere to show what their intentions actually were? To Harris this would be an act of masochism – truth, justice and clearing the air of misapprehensions are irrelevant in this context.
Indeed, part of Harris’s obscurantist strategy is to indulge in so-called thought experiments to give a sense of scientificity and faux reasoning so as to avoid having to look too closely at actual examples of US violence domestically, regionally or internationally. After all, the use of analogies of burning buildings and razing things to the ground should suffice instead.
Moreover, what Harris is implying is that morality does not enter the matter, intention does. If you intentionally act in an instrumental manner that so happens to initiate collateral damage on others purportedly for the ‘good’ of your people and national interests — that should absolve you. If the other side blows up something in your home town because their intention is to punish you for what you do overseas to others and (even worse) they are further fueled apparently by some form of religious thinking, then lo and behold: you have your pet narrative finding its official ‘bad guy.’ To think otherwise is to be a masochist and not build bridges, maybe even stifle conversation. Perhaps even burn bridges (to be consistent with images that fascinate Harris’s mind like smoke, fire and burning.)
Does Harris ever wonder if the intentions of Chomsky and others who criticize him are meant to do good in the highest interests of all though unpalatable to him, and therefore all of us should be absolved? But any sharp disagreement with Harris’s thinking is reminiscent of a “horror show” by “morally confused” admirers of Chomsky from “the Left.” Harris somehow fails to see the true horror of things such as the killing of thousands upon thousands through economic violence, bigotry, neoclolonialism and fulfilling capitalist fantasies via war (whatever the intentions may have been) by the US of A. He only gives us throwaway lines on how he does not deny some of this.
In any case, apart from the difficulty to date of placing George W. Bush (and his dad), Clinton, Cheney, Rumsfeld or Tony Blair in the dock to ferret out their intentions in state sponsored violence: is not the evidence of the violence itself through the years enough to raise concern and point to the actual horror of our world brutalized by the sadists churning out of much of US domestic, economic and foreign policy?
Are self-interest and hunger for power and domination not intention enough of the evil that men do in the name and guise of patriotism and nationalism?
It is worth looking at this provoking and essential report from The Guardian: “Coal giant exploited Ebola crisis for corporate gain, say health experts.” We learn that the US- based firm Peabody Energy, the largest privately owned coal business in the world, tried to make people believe that the generation of energy through more mining and burning of coal would have helped spread a “hypothetical Ebola vaccine.” Interestingly, health experts shot the suggestion down as being opportunistic and directed clearly towards increasing coal revenue.
Peabody Energy predictably denies being incentivized by monetary gain in bringing in the Ebola crisis in this context. The corporation claims that insufficient (coal fueled) energy hampers the attempt to house and spread any such vaccine. But at least one expert says there is sufficient energy to spread vaccines in Africa as it is. This hypothetical vaccine posited by Peabody Energy would in Harris’s world be a signal of its intention to do good works in Africa. The fact that the company lost money for various reasons which may have partly been the result of a divestment campaign against usage of coal globally would not be seen as a motive for its caring for what happens in Africa in the form of justifying the increase in coal usage. It also so happens that the multinational is in denial of climate change.
[Credit: Chris O’Neal.]
From a related article in The Guardian, “The truth behind Peabody’s campaign to rebrand coal as a poverty cure,” we discover:
When the campaign launched, Peabody invited the public to “take action” by writing the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to oppose the clean power plant rules as a way of helping poor people in Africa. The “take action” option was later removed.
And Peabody has admitted the true measure of success of its Advanced Energy for Life campaign will not be measured in developing countries, but by the degree to which it has managed to lead the attention away from coal as a cause of climate change.
‘We will achieve the highest level of success if we are able to change the global conversation to focus on energy poverty as the world’s number one human and environmental crisis.’ Beth Sutton, Peabody’s vice-president for global advocacy communications said.
The article mentions several times how Peabody Energy tries to change the “conversation” – a seemingly innocuous term – from issues of coal usage and climate change problems, to something else. Indeed, Harris’s method of intentionality would absolve Peabody Energy even in this move to distract the world from climate change issues, as it claims that its intentions are in any event also meant to help Africans and Ebola victims. Although the multinational has financial reasons for promoting its industry we would be uncharitable in assigning profit as a primary motive for such enterprises. This would be too much of a critique from “the Left” which is “morally confused” if it were to think that profit not people is what is uppermost in Peabody Energy’s collective mindset. Besides we would be wallowing on an island of masochism that makes that of H.G. Wells’s Dr. Moreau seem a paradise.
What indeed would Harris say to economic theory and the profit motive and the violence that ensues from it? Perhaps since the intention of the profit motive in itself is harmless and economic theory may not always be formulated as a means to bamboozle and exploit, we should all be reasonable and not masochistically attribute something sinister to capitalist doctrine. Moreover, to examine such instances in detail and the ethical implications of the capitalist system and the violence that accompanies it may not be to Harris “philosophically or politically interesting, much less wise” – but let that not hinder conversations.
[Credit: Manoj Sharma.]
What Harris fails to do is show a connection between intentionality and the morality of things. This is not the place to look into it in detail and it may be examined in another context subsequently, but the ideas of Immanuel Kant are far superior to those of Harris. The following is only meant to take a quick pass at what should be investigated with more depth. Early in his path-breaking Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals, Kant says (his italics):
Thus in practical knowledge as a whole, not only are moral laws, together with their principles, essentially different from all the rest in which there is some empirical element, but the whole of moral philosophy is based entirely on the part of it that is pure. When applied to man it does not borrow in the slightest from acquaintance with him…but gives him laws a priori as a rational being…
A metaphysic of morals is thus indispensably necessary, not merely in order to investigate, from motives of speculation, the source of practical principles which are present a priori in our reason, but because morals themselves remain exposed to corruption of all sorts as long as the guiding thread is lacking, this ultimate norm for correct moral judgement. For if any action is to be morally good, it is not enough that it should conform to the moral law—it must be done for the sake of the moral law: where this is not so, the conformity is only too contingent and precarious, since the non-moral ground at work will now and then produce actions which accord to the law, but very often action which transgresses it. (Kant 57-58)
There is much that is crucial here even in this “Preface” of Kant’s; but briefly, unless the intentions of those who act on behalf of the state stem from their moral consciousness rather than being contingent upon an understandable but shaky premise of ‘national good-interest’ and ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ and other such utilitarian notions, we cannot state categorically that our acts are morally motivated. While the motivations may seem to mimic the mode of formulating a response based unconditionally upon moral principles, this is not so whether one is aware of it or not.
It is therefore, much easier and convenient to use utilitarian justifications and ideological categories based on a sense of national, political, racial, and ideological exceptionalism (e.g. ‘democracy,’ ‘the American way,’ ‘Western civilization,’ etc.) for acts that destroy many lives and the environment and pretend (or at least maintain) that one is doing the ‘right thing.’ To predicate action on anything external to the moral ground from a good will as such, as in such things as ‘security’ or ‘national interest’ and therefore subscribe to a first strike doctrine, use of atomic weapons, and wage wars of ‘liberation’ on peoples pigeon-holed as enemies — is to depend on anything other than said moral ground or good will.
Is there anything that can be harnessed by Harris and similar apologists of American violence in any way stand up to the scrutiny and stringency of the Kantian critique? Of course, the strategy of Harris and those who think like that may be to side-step this and mumble their way incoherently across what Kant says via using so-called science as a means of pushing for a nihilist materialist worldview (and/or one of American exceptionalism) wherein much that is the noumenal in the Kantian sense would be illusory. To be fair, such a technique is easy to understand on a basic level when posited by those with drug addled brains whose neurocircuitry has been tampered with by hallucinogens,
The other strategy is to obfuscate what Kant says and twist it to support ideas à la Harris.
Indeed, the Kantian aspect on a philosophical and political level has to be argued elsewhere as it rises above the crudity of Harris’s subterfuge.
Meanwhile, according to Harris’s mode of thinking there is no need to act and stop the mind-numbing and soul-destroying sadistic theories, ideologies and actions that engender violence if you are from “the Left” (unless you intend to do so as part of a cycle of permanent violence in the name of American and Western superiority.) What we need to do as a therapist may advise is to take a pill, converse more about things, and soon all will be well.
[Credit: Talissa Mehringer.]
 Marx also had some use of this renowned aphorism: “Our capitalist, who is at home in his vulgar economy, exclaims: ‘Oh! but I advanced my money for the express purpose of making more money.’ The way to Hell is paved with good intentions, and he might just as easily have intended to make money, without producing at all.” Karl Marx, Capital Vol. I, Part III, The production of absolute surplus value. Ch. 7: “The Labour-Process and the Process of Producing Surplus-Value”: Link.
 Here is Harris’s so-called defence:
The following passage seems to have been selectively quoted, and misconstrued, more than any other I have written:
The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.
This paragraph appears after a long discussion of the role that belief plays in governing human behavior, and it should be read in that context. Some critics have interpreted the second sentence of this passage to mean that I advocate simply killing religious people for their beliefs. Granted, I made the job of misinterpreting me easier than it might have been, but such a reading remains a frank distortion of my views. To someone reading the passage in context, it should be clear that I am discussing the link between belief and behavior. The fact that belief determines behavior is what makes certain beliefs so dangerous.
When one asks why it would be ethical to drop a bomb on Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda, the answer cannot be, “Because he killed so many people in the past.” To my knowledge, the man hasn’t killed anyone personally. However, he is likely to get a lot of innocent people killed because of what he and his followers believe about jihad, martyrdom, the ascendancy of Islam, etc. A willingness to take preventative action against a dangerous enemy is compatible with being against the death penalty (which I am). Whenever we can capture and imprison jihadists, we should. But in many cases this is either impossible or too risky. Would it have been better if we had captured Osama bin Laden? In my view, yes. Do I think the members of Seal Team Six should have assumed any added risk to bring him back alive? Absolutely not. (Source: Link.)
For those interested, a good response to Harris’s never-ending apologia for his views: “Beyond belief: On the ethics of killing.”
And an iconic take on Harris’s worldview: “Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus.”
Goldenberg, Suzanne. “Coal giant exploited Ebola crisis for corporate gain, say health experts.” The Guardian, 20th May 2015.
_____. “The truth behind Peabody’s campaign to rebrand coal as a poverty cure.” The Guardian, 19th May 2015.
Harris, Sam. “My final thoughts on Chomsky.”
_____. Harris’s blog: http://www.samharris.org
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals. Trans. H.J. Paton. Harper Perennial Modern Thought (New York): 2009.
The writer is the editor of Philosophers for Change.
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[This clip is for those interested in smoke, burning and bridges.]