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The best intentions

May 24, 2015

A few weeks ago Sam Harris published a series of emails between him and Noam Chomsky that offers an excellent case study in how arguments can go wrong. The topic is, supposedly, politics and ethics, and, specifically, whether intentions matter for our ethical evaluation of polities’ actions. Really, it’s about something else entirely. The crucial passages come near the end, as both parties begin losing their tempers:

[Harris said:] Your dismissal of an idealized thought experiment as “embarrassing and ludicrous,” and your insistence upon focusing on real-world cases about which our intelligence is murky is not helping to clarify things.

[Chomsky said, not in direct reply to the above:] I agree that I am litigating all points (all real, as far as we have so far determined) in a “plodding and accusatory way.” That is, of course, a necessity in responding to quite serious published accusations that are all demonstrably false, and as I have reviewed, false in a most interesting way: namely, you issue lectures condemning others for ignoring “basic questions” that they have discussed for years, in my case decades, whereas you have refused to address them and apparently do not even allow yourself to understand them.

Harris thinks the he needs to make sure Chomsky agrees with him on ethical first principles before they go on to discuss specific ethical judgments, while Chomsky sets out to teach Harris a lesson about how poor an ethical judge this obsession with first principles makes him. Both, unsurprisingly, fail.


But why didn’t they just come out and say this? Harris, for example, could have said:

[But Harris didn’t say:] Clearly we find different facts to be important with regard to these specific cases, and this is likely the cause of much of our disagreement. I’m unsure, however, whether, even if we did agree on how to describe these cases, we would agree in our ethical judgments of them. Therefore I’d like to discuss first principles for a while–for example, what role does intention play in our ethical judgments?–before we sit down to look at specific cases.

Or, conversely, Chomsky could have said:

[But Chomsky didn’t say:] You want our disagreement to be philosophical, so that our conversation can remain far enough removed from the facts of the matter to enable you to avoid confronting your own hypocrisy. But our “disagreement” is not philosophical; it consists in nothing more than your failure to pay the facts of the matter the attention due to them. You do not see the situation clearly, and if you did, you would see how your present desire to focus on philosophy is just a distraction from it. I cannot explain the situation to you in an email exchange. It’s complex, it involves close attention to facts, and I’ve written about these facts and what they mean for fifty years. Read all my writings, not just one short book; then, maybe, we can have a conversation.

The closest they come to this is in the passages I quoted earlier, neither of which are intended to shift attention to this disagreement; Harris merely invokes the importance of “clarity” against what is “murky,” assuming that clarity can be reliably achieved through a sincere amateur investigation, while Chomsky berates Harris for his ignorant arrogance, without making any effort to tell Harris why his lack of expertise matters. Harris speaks as a liberal, Chomsky speaks as a radical, and neither makes any effort to remedy the situation.


As Harris admits in his epilogue, Chomsky is right; Harris did misread him:

[Harris says:] I can see that my point was not that he literally hadn’t asked these questions but that the answers he arrived at are, in my opinion, scandalously wrong. Perhaps Chomsky didn’t literally “ignore the role of human intentions,” but he effectively ignored it, because he did not appear to give intentions any ethical weight.

Sadly, Harris continues to misread him. The first of these sentences is right, the second is wrong. Part of the problem is that Chomsky and Harris disagree about what the word “intention” means. Chomsky uses it to refer to what, when asked, an agent will say he means to do. According to Chomsky, this is meaningless, since agents are often (self-)deceiving in their avowals; even the Nazis claimed to be humanitarians. Harris uses the word to refer to what an agent really wants; though the Nazis might have claimed to be, and even have believed themselves to be, “humanitarians,” what matters isn’t their use of that word, but rather what their intentions amounted to, which, in the case of the Nazis, was the murder of twelve million people.

At any rate, Harris would say, and Chomsky would not, or at least need not, diagree, that, even though both the Nazis and a hypothetical group, call them Mazis, avowed humanitarian motives, and even though both performed actions that led to the deaths of twelve million people, we could still draw a distinction between them, if the Nazis intended these deaths (through, for example, thinking being humanitarian means purifying the race), while the Mazis didn’t, but brought them about accidentally (through, for example, thinking that a poisonous compound was actually medicinal).

Chomsky would only disagree that such distinction-mongering had any relevance. In his view, it’s worse than irrelevant: it helps people like Harris to excuse American atrocities, through conflating the mere ability to draw such distinctions with the actual possession of good intentions. “We can see that Nazis are worse than Mazis” is not the same as “We know ourselves to be more like Mazis than Nazis.”


If this was clear to me, why wasn’t it clear to Harris and Chomsky? Well, it might have been. They’re not idiots. But both are ideologically committed to proceeding in the way they did.

Harris, who has no expertise in the matter, cannot admit that expertise might be relevant without calling into question his own standing to participate in the conversation. So he adopts a tone of amateur inquiry, of having an “interesting” debate, of proceeding with “civility,” in an attempt to make it sound as if these are matters which any person of good will can understand if he just thinks them through for an hour. He is, in short, a liberal, in the traditional sense: one who believes that no problem is so great a gentleman amateur cannot solve it. Gentlemen amateurs being, of course, the opposite of fanatics.

Chomsky, who has devoted his life to studying such issues, and who has adopted positions starkly at odds with the norms of liberal discourse, is precisely the fanatic Harris detests. He is an “expert,” to be sure, but so are myriad other people, most of whom disagree with him. To differentiate himself from them, he must constantly accuse them of hypocrisy, and project his own moral authority. He must take for granted that Harris already knows, at some level, why his position is wrong, which makes it pointless to explain to him his mistake: you don’t tell a narcissist that he’s a narcissist, you treat him in a way that will get him to change.


Harris and Chomsky’s tones here are both understandable, but both constitute, it seems to me, a failure of charity. Not an absence of charity. We can, I think, take Harris at his word that he doesn’t want to fight with Chomsky, he actually wants to learn; the problem is that he either cannot or refuses to conceive of a learning which takes place other than through the discourse of gentlemen amateurs. Nor do I think Chomsky is just performing his prophet-act for an audience–he really does intend to call Harris to account for his sins; the problem is that Harris’s supposed sins, even if they are at some level ethical, are also intellectual, and cannot be repented of without their error being made plain to him.

The problem, in sum, is that neither side can allow itself to consider the possible legitimacy of a rival mode of discourse, or the possible inadequacy of its own. Both have good intentions, but due to inadequate imagination, their intentions lead to ruin. Harris has, however, this last consolation: Chomsky, thinking no good could come of it, wanted their conversation to fail; Harris did not, but merely proceeded in a way that made failure inevitable. Harris’s intentions were, in this limited sense, more pure. It remains unclear whether and how much Chomsky thinks this difference matters.

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