Sam Harris and the politics of ‘good intentions’

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Sam Harris, the prominent “New Atheist” author and vocal proponent of the US “war on terror,” has repeatedly attempted to justify the projection of American military power abroad, especially in the Middle East, by invoking noble Western intentions. In a fairly recent exchange with Omer Aziz on his Waking Up podcast, the famed neuroscientist stated, in the context of a discussion on the ethics of warfare, that “Intention is the only guide to what someone is going to do next.” Previously, in an interview with the radio program Secular Talk, Harris made a similar point by constructing an ideal thought experiment (one of his favorite tactics) in which a sniper, while attempting to shoot a terrorist hostage taker, ends up accidentally killing a civilian. Harris then deduced the key lesson from his hypothetical: “Intentions are everything.”

This focus by Harris on the benign intentions of US policymakers was thrust into the spotlight after the author publicized his email correspondence with Noam Chomsky. In that exchange, Harris essentially accused Chomsky of ignoring the moral implications of intentions, and forwarded the famed linguist a passage from his first book, The End of Faith, in which he summarized what he perceived to be the main weakness in the professor’s worldview: “For him, intentions do not seem to matter. Body count is all.”

Although much has been written on this cyber debate since their exchange was publicized, most of the commentary has focused only on whether the emphasis on intentions detracts from the moral implications of civilian deaths, while ignoring a more fundamental question: Is Harris’ characterization of Chomsky’s approach correct? In other words, is it in fact true that this vociferous critic of American foreign policy has ignored the ethical significance of the intentions behind US interventionism? A brief foray into the written record reveals that the answer is no, and that Harris has either willfully misrepresented another author’s work or is wholly ignorant on matters that he considers himself an expert. Moreover, the moral significance of Chomsky’s actual argument reveals the ethical bankruptcy of the New Atheist movement, at least on matters concerning Western intervention.

The dispute over what the distinguished scholar had written on the relevance of intentions was framed early in the exchange when Harris informed Chomsky, after the latter author referred him to some of his earlier work, that he had not read that particular book and had simply treated his tract on 9/11 “as a self-contained statement on the topic.” This alone is a remarkable admission from an individual who routinely accuses others of misrepresenting his views or quoting passages from his work out of context. Chomsky has written prolifically on US foreign policy and Western interventionism since the 1960s, amassing dozens of books and articles on the topic, and yet Harris apparently thought that it was appropriate to characterize his views after having read what was not even one of his books but only a slim collection of interviews.

If Harris had bothered to explore even just a fraction of Chomsky’s political work, he would have discovered multiple instances where the renowned scholar delved into precisely how the deeply rooted economic institutional structure in America has shaped the ‘intentions’ of US foreign policymakers, and that their intent is to secure a favourable investment climate throughout the developing world, by whatever means necessary. Chomsky’s analysis of US intervention in Vietnam and Central America illustrate this principle well. In a 1975 article entitled ‘The Meaning of Vietnam,’ published in The New York Review of Books, he stated: ‘The US goal was to eradicate the revolutionary nationalist forces which, US officials estimated, enjoyed the support of half the population. The method, inevitably, was to destroy the rural society.” Prior to this essay, Chomsky had written in a 1971 article entitled ‘After Pinkville’—a reference to the My Lai massacre—that “It is important to understand that the massacre of the rural population of Vietnam and their forced evacuation is not an accidental by-product of the war. Rather it is of the very essence of American strategy.”

Perhaps Chomsky’s most comprehensive examination of the motivations driving US foreign policy, in essay format, can be found in his 1985 paper, published in Monthly Review, entitled ‘Intervention in Vietnam and Central America: Parallels and Differences.’ Citing declassified National Security and State Department documents, as well as a study conducted by his co-author Edward Herman on the correlation between mass killings, US foreign aid and an improved investment climate, Chomsky drew the only logical conclusion regarding intentions: “US foreign policy is in fact based on the principle that human rights are irrelevant, but that improving the climate for foreign business operations is highly relevant.” It follows from this principle, as Chomsky went on to argue, that since the investment climate can often be improved through torture, subversion, and the mass murder of dissidents, there is a clear connection between such atrocities and US ‘intent’.

These examples don’t just illustrate that Harris wandered into an exchange for which he was wholly unprepared, although the latter point is certainly telling. After all, Chomsky’s analysis is predicated on the examination of official top level government reports and academic studies. Following a careful evaluation of such documents, he then draws the appropriate inference regarding the intentions of policymakers. Harris, on the other hand, seems to have based his conclusion regarding the nobility of Western intentions on the public statements of government officials and his own impression of US altruism, as expressed through his idealized thought experiments. This is quite an interesting research methodology for an atheist who prides himself for his tendency to favour rational thought and scientific reason over religious dogma.

More importantly, however, this small sampling from Chomsky’s work also highlights a central flaw in the thought process of the New Atheists and humanitarian imperialists in general; namely, the implicit assumption that the civilian death resulting from US interventionism are ‘collateral damage,’ the unfortunate by-product of a noble effort to spread democracy, human rights and secular values. If, during a particular period the latter are compatible with investment and business operations, as in post-World War II Europe, then they will be tolerated, but if profits require subversion, massacres, and atrocities, then such acts will be pursued as well.

In other words, Chomsky does not simply stop at ‘body count,’ as Harris alleges, but rather explores how the body count compiled through decades of US interventionism has benefitted the interests of a small percentage of American elites.

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When “your side” does most of the killing, of course you don’t want to focus on body count. You want to come up with some fairytale of noble vs. evil intentions so you can eventually arrive at the pre-ordained conclusion. Whatever “we” do is justifiable at worst and whatever the… Read more »

Chomsky is right that our foreign policy is unethical, but he is wrong to focus solely on economic motives for our ridiculously close relationship with and subsidization of Israel. The Iraq War was primarily for Israel, though certain military industrial interests surely benefited as well from that stupid war. Our… Read more »

A small point first. Harris is not a famed neuroscientist. He has made no contributions of any note to that area of science. My main point is that one of the reasons Harris places such a great emphasis upon the importance of intention is to hold Israel blameless for the… Read more »

SAM HARRIS- “Intention is the only guide to what someone is going to do next.” This is a strange post. Sam Harris is a credentialed propagandistic jerk who earns his living as an apologist for imperial interventions. Shaukat Ansari should easily be able to shred Harris’s pilpul without dragging in… Read more »