Re Sam Harris’ “The Limits of Discourse” article, specifically the “Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of “Collateral Damage” “ section

It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development. This is a radically impolitic thing to say, of course, but it seems as objectively true as saying that not all societies have equal material resources.

Sam’s point here, essentially, appears to be that people in certain countries around the world are stunted in their ability to make moral decisions, or at least that is what is implied when talking about ‘stages of moral development’. He claims that this is not due to biological circumstances: “It is not in the least racist, since it is not at all likely that there are biological reasons for the disparities here “ (which is surely obvious given that humanity is so globally intermingled at this point, after centuries of conquests and migration, that there could be no real discrepancy in evolutionary advancements, if there have even been any such significant advances since humanity branched off from its African roots), but due to a lack of “Political and economic stability, literacy, a modicum of social equality “.

This argument is founded on a belief that a person’s morals are established not by the way their brain is formed, but by the circumstances of their upbringing, or exposure to moral and/or immoral acts throughout their life. To me, this is simply incorrect. The way a person acts is a product of both nature and nurture, but that is not to say their ‘morals’ are affected by nurture. We know that a person’s morals can be very significantly affected by nature, but can a person’s morals be affected by circumstance? No. The fundamental flaw in Sam’s argument here is that he is mistaking immorality with ignorance.

In countries like Thailand and China, where dogs are often skinned and boiled alive for their meat, are we to believe it is because the people there are inherently evil? More likely it is because they have not been educated that animals feel pain the same as humans, that it is possible to make a meal without putting animals through excessive amounts of suffering beforehand. Do we call this ignorance a lack of moral development? No, because the decision to skin an animal alive in this context isn’t even a moral decision to the butcher: they are simply carrying out their job, more or less unaware of the full consequences of their actions.

So it is with religious suicide bombers, who believe that by killing themselves and dozens of others, they are committing a good deed in the eyes of their god, and they will collect their reward in the afterlife. This is also based on an ignorance of the actual moral circumstances of their situation. A person who does this could very well be a moral person, who has chosen to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, even if they do not truly believe in the afterlife. Does that make them immoral? No, it makes them ignorant. People who follow Sharia law and other extreme forms of Islam are not morally inferior to people in the west. Some may follow due to a blind sense of religious duty, and some may revel in harming other people. This is true of both Islamic terrorists and soldiers of the US military.

Consider the horrors that Americans perpetrated as recently as 1968, at My Lai:

Early in the morning the soldiers were landed in the village by helicopter. Many were firing as they spread out, killing both people and animals. There was no sign of the Vietcong battalion and no shot was fired at Charlie Company all day, but they carried on. They burnt down every house. They raped women and girls and then killed them. They stabbed some women in the vagina and disemboweled others, or cut off their hands or scalps. Pregnant women had their stomachs slashed open and were left to die. There were gang rapes and killings by shooting or with bayonets. There were mass executions. Dozens of people at a time, including old men, women and children, were machine-gunned in a ditch. In four hours nearly 500 villagers were killed.45

This is about as bad as human beings are capable of behaving. But what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us.

I can agree with Sam here. Being indignant about the indiscriminate violence we have inflicted on the world does distinguish us from “our enemies”. Where I will disagree, however. is his claim that this distinction should put the USA in a positive light. “As a culture, we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents. We would do well to realize that much of the world has not. “ We have outgrown our tolerance for torture and murder. Yet we continue to do both anyway. Does this make us morally superior to our enemies? If you remove knowledge and ignorance from the equation as Sam has, then perhaps. However, if we accept that ignorance and incorrect information are the primary motivators of Islamic terrorists, then we must begin to wonder what our own excuse is for the atrocities we carry out. If we truly do have the ability to fully comprehend the consequences of our actions, in a way that those blinded by religious faith do not, then we are even worse than our enemies for choosing to go through with our rampages anyway.

Do the actions of the American soldiers described above indicate a morally superior society? No. Given that a lot of Sam’s justification for the swathes of bodies that have been left behind by the “well-meaning giants” of the west is that our intentions were pure, this seems like an odd example to choose. Invasion after invasion has led to situations reminiscent of this one, so to say that the leaders of the western world are trying to help the victims of such “morally inferior” nations by invading them is completely and utterly naïve. Sam gives our leaders far too much credit. Perhaps some attempt to do good with the time they have, but by and large the governments we elect disregard all but the interests of their own country, or more often than not their own political careers. If we follow Sam’s logic that “Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything. “, would we not then be led to believe that the pure intentions of Jihad suicide bombers, who see the west as evil and themselves as good, makes these people ethically superior to us? Perhaps in the west, our intentions are far too muddled by the overload of knowledge that we now have, the knowledge that things are not always as they seem, that it’s difficult to know who to trust, even (especially) within our own countries. This would, by Sam’s logic, make us morally inferior to many of the religious warriors of Islam. Therefore we must accept that if ethics are defined by pure intentions, then the key to creating a better world is not simply morality and ethics, but knowledge. How can Sam justify the destruction wrought on the world by the west by saying our intentions are more pure than our enemies’, when we know from experience that our current foreign policies only lead to ever worsening global tensions? Chomsky is right to criticise the foreign policies of the USA, because they simply do not work. Justifying the USA’s actions by ‘good intentions’ (whether they truly are ‘good’ or not) makes no sense because the intentions of the footsoldiers of Islam will always be ‘good’, simply because they actually believe in what they are fighting for, and yet both sides are equally capable of making the world a worse place.


4 thoughts on “Re Sam Harris’ “The Limits of Discourse” article, specifically the “Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of “Collateral Damage” “ section

  1. I saw your comment on Open Culture and came over. I enjoyed your writing though I disagree on some points. So that you know where I’m coming from I am a big fan of both Chomsky and Harris though I subscribe to neither’s core ideology. I am likely to appear a defender of Harris here, but that is only because its his ideas you are tackling.

    When you say “the fundamental flaw in Sam’s argument here is that he is mistaking immorality with ignorance” I think you are making an unnecessary distinction. It’s not that Sam mistakes immorality for ignorance, he believes the two are the same. You rightly point out that ignorance leads to more immoral behavior. You can therefor suggest that more ignorant cultures will be by definition be less moral. In saying “We have outgrown our tolerance for torture and murder. Yet we continue to do both anyway. Does this make us morally superior to our enemies?” you are missing the argument. The argument is not that state violence is more moral, or that we have done less evil, it is to say that within our culture exists the cure to our own evil, can that be said of “our enemies”? In a big picture sense of course it does, since the source of our moral vigor comes not from the systems we live in, but the nature of humans themselves, however which system is working harder against that cause?

    “How can Sam justify the destruction wrought on the world by the west”. He doesn’t justify it (save for the case of Israel which is a different debate in my opinion). If you’ve listened to his actual suggestions for policy he is largely aligned with Chomsky. He is in favor of the West getting out of the Middle East and dropping ties with Saudi Arabia. He is merely stating that despite our evils we are not the same as Al Queda or ISIS or as Chomsky argues, worse. In large part because we allow people like Chomsky to speak their views.

    “Perhaps in the west, our intentions are far too muddled by the overload of knowledge that we now have, the knowledge that things are not always as they seem, that it’s difficult to know who to trust, even (especially) within our own countries. This would, by Sam’s logic, make us morally inferior to many of the religious warriors of Islam.” The realization by westerners that this issue is morally complicated does not in anyway makes us inferior to “religious warriors of Islam”. It is exactly because we admit how impossibly difficult these issues are that we are morally better suited to solving the problem than those that celebrate the death of child martyrs for no reason other than ignorance. Harris’ point about intentions is not that the purity or the “goodness” of intentions mean anything, what matters is what is the world we are left with when those intentions are allowed to flourish?

    Thanks for continuing to discuss these ideas and largely ignoring the surrounding drama. The email exchange has left me greatly disheartened. I expected far more from both of these men.


  2. Thanks for the response. I can understand why the distinction between immorality and ignorance may come across as needless semantics, but to me it is important as immorality implies malicious intent, whereas ignorance is more accurate in that it conveys a lack of understanding of the consequences of one’s actions. Like I said, what I wrote was pretty stream of consciousness but I think the distinction between the two is important for my “central” point which is that western society lacks the ignorance part but is still immoral, and so doesn’t have the same kind of excuse for its actions. I agree to an extent that the cure to our own evil exists within our culture, as it’s the only reason we are able to have conversations like this. But when criticising the people making foreign policy, you’re not criticising the people within our society who seek to make things better, you’re criticising the people in power, who are unfortunately not interested in making things better most of the time. Regardless of the internal struggles our society goes through, the people representing us are often just as bad as those we are fighting abroad.

    It was probably a bit hyperbolic of me to suggest that Sam was trying to ‘justify’ the destruction, but I do believe he is overly apologetic of many of the violent actions the west has taken in the past. I believe that there are ways in which we are better than Al Quaeda/ISIS, like you said because of our right to free speech, though I don’t doubt that many people in power would take it away from us if they could (and actively try to whenever given the chance). But there are ways in which we are worse in my opinion, not least of all because we are capable of causing much more destruction than those two groups combined, and threaten to by the mere possession of nuclear weapons (though that is a debate for another time).

    Regarding muddled intentions: I wasn’t trying to suggest that we were morally inferior for that reason, rather I was pointing out that following Sam’s logic would lead to that conclusion. I don’t agree with his over emphasis on intention when it comes to morality. It seemed to me that he was suggesting the purity/goodness of intentions was important in assessing morality, though perhaps I misread what he said.

    Again, thanks for the response. The conversation definitely seemed overly aggressive, almost condescending from Chomsky. But I think there were some interesting issues raised, even if they weren’t explored as much as they could have been.


  3. I think a big part of their disagreement comes from conflating different interpretations of “intent matters.”

    Chomsky seems to interpret it in the sense of the end justifying the means, e.g. Hitler’s actions can be justified if one can accept that he intended to improve humanity.

    Chomsky rightly rejects this interpretation, but I don’t think that is how Harris meant it at all.

    It seems to me like Harris interpreted it in the sense of unintended consequences, i.e. if someone performs an action expecting it to have a good result, but it has a bad result instead, the morality of the action should be judged by the intended outcome, rather than the actual outcome.

    Used in this sense, Hitler is still culpable because he INTENDED to kill civilians.

    The big difference lies in the assumptions they make about the facts that we don’t have, specifically the motives of the Clinton Administration.

    To Harris, the deaths that resulted from bombing the Al-Shifa plant were unintended and unexpected, which absolves the US of responsibility.

    Chomsky, on the other hand, believes that there is no way the US could not have known what would happen, in which case the decision to bomb the factory anyway was pure evil.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Part of the problem with Sams argument is that he seems to think that morality, and hence immorality, is seemingly always a clear, objective concept. It is not, and hence using intent as the basis for his argument fails.
    Does Harris really believe that ISIS honestly believes that they are being immoral when they slaughter innocents? Or do they believe they are being righteous, as circumscribed by their beliefs, that to any sane person, seems entirely bankrupt. If they are not intending to be immoral, does that justify their actions?

    The same is true in reverse, of course. perhaps the U.S. did try and minimize collateral,damage in some situations. But clearly our government also fabricated a reason to go to war in the first place. So who is worse here? AQ in Iraq (now ISIS) engaged in utterly evil behavior, or our own government, also engaged in utterly evil behavior.

    Harris seems to believe that two wrongs don’t make a right – but three does. This was the point that Chomsky made effectively . Harris is an utter lightweight and this publicly seeking behavior transparent and childish.s

    Liked by 1 person

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