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.

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