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Sam Harris and the politics of ‘good intentions’

US Politics
on 23 Comments

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.

About Shaukat Ansari

Shaukat Ansari is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. His research and teaching fields are comparative politics, international political economy and development studies, and his work has appeared in several scholarly journals.

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23 Responses

  1. Emory Riddle
    Emory Riddle
    August 3, 2016, 11:40 am

    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 “other” does is not.

    At core, Sam Harris is a tribal loyalist who uses his atheism as cover for what he really is.

    • Atlantaiconoclast
      Atlantaiconoclast
      August 3, 2016, 6:49 pm

      Call it what is is, Jewish supremacism, even if you don’t know for sure, cause there is never hesitancy to call out Whites for their assumed supremacist views. Turn about is fair play. Time to use language against the Zionists.

    • inbound39
      inbound39
      August 5, 2016, 5:06 am

      He seems to be an apologist for war crimes.As for ridding Vietnam of its rural population I question that because I-Corp an American Military unit worked behind the lines ensuring villages remained functional and safe from VC Fighters. Ask I-Corps personnel how many villages they saw the VC slaughter.

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        August 5, 2016, 1:24 pm

        ” I-Corp an American Military unit worked behind the lines ensuring villages remained functional and safe from VC Fighters.”

        This “I-Corp”?

        Did not know that.

  2. Atlantaiconoclast
    Atlantaiconoclast
    August 3, 2016, 1:33 pm

    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 hostility to Iran is primarily because of Israel. And in regards to Syria, Wikileaks released discussions between Hillary and the administration in which it was revealed that she was arguing for regime change in Syria to help Israel. Would be nice to see Chomsky talk about this other motive for US foreign policy.

    • Emory Riddle
      Emory Riddle
      August 3, 2016, 1:50 pm

      Chomsky does not do that. He seems to imply there is some shadowy American elite who are really pulling the strings and downplays the power of “The Lobby”. I suspect he is not dishonest but that he just cannot accept the obvious reality.

    • Kay24
      Kay24
      August 3, 2016, 2:41 pm

      Yes, Israel has so deviously made it so, that American tax dollars and might fight their bloody wars, and that none of their precious citizens end up fighting “shoulder to shoulder” with our kids. Our only “ally” in the ME is always at the bottom of our incursions into Arab nations, to shock and awe the citizenry of that nation.
      They apparently give us “logistical” support. What a joke.

      The minions who pretend to be Americans here are paid to make sure the master plan is carried out through our congress, media, and various other institutions. Drumpf is an idiot, and Hillary is a pawn of Israel and dangerous. What a choice!!!!

  3. John Douglas
    John Douglas
    August 3, 2016, 5:53 pm

    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 thousands of Palestinians killed by the IDF and Israeli policy in general. His claim is that the “terrorism” of Hamas is evil whereas the “collateral damage” of 500 Gazan children is an unintended consequence of proper behavior and so it is morally acceptable. This hinges on the claim that the suffering by collateral damage is unintended whereas the suffering by terrorism is intentional. But this is untrue. In most cases, and certainly in Gaza 2014, the suffering by collateral damage was predictable and was at best necessary in order to kill Hamas soldiers. It was, therefore, a decision to kill civilians in order to achieve the political goal of punishing Hamas. Except for the fact that the Israeli killers were soldiers (excluded by governments’ definitions of terrorism) collateral damage fits the definition of terrorism. The morality of the two is the same.
    Harris’ example of the accidental killing of the hostage is therefore unlike collateral damage in that the hostage’s death was surprising and unpredicted. This is not true of the deaths of the 500 children in 2014. Or suppose in Harris’ example, the shooter used a rocket propelled grenade and killed both and 20 others near them and did it without remorse. The deaths were intentional and morally blameworthy.

  4. Keith
    Keith
    August 3, 2016, 6:00 pm

    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 Noam Chomsky, which only serves to provide the illusion of gravitas to Harris’ agitprop. And yet, the quoted statement has merit. The rather obvious problem is how do we determine a person’s or organization’s intention? The only way I know is to ignore their rationalizations (people lie, particularly those in power) and observe their actions and from their actions infer their intentions. Actions speak louder than words. And unless you are brain dead, it should be obvious that empires don’t exist to do good deeds. The purpose of all empires has been and will always be to secure and increase the power of the empire’s dominant elites. Period. Full stop. Only an imbecile would believe that an empire is destroying a country for humanitarian reasons. Yet, many do. This is the modern version of the white man’s burden. Namely, the grotesque misrepresentation of vile deeds as somehow noble and laudable. And people believe because they want to believe. Liberals are particularly susceptible to these types of conscience salving rationalizations.

    I bring this up because of the contention among the “liberal” cadre that Hillary is the lesser of two evils. A defensible position only if you believe what she and The Donald say while ignoring her long history of saying one thing and doing another, and of up front warmongering. The current outrageously dishonest demonization of Putin is similar to the demonization of the Serbs in the Bill Clinton administration prior the imperial intervention there. It would seem that the American people are being prepared for yet another intervention against Russia, this one infinitely more dangerous than the Yugoslavia intervention. We are at the end of an era and the empire is attempting to achieve total hegemony prior to a restructuring of the global financial system and the entire global political economy. Hillary has surrounded herself with hyper-militaristic neocons who are pathological risk-takers, Victoria Nuland (Mrs. Robert Kagan) a telling example. For all of these reason’s and more, I have concluded that Hillary Clinton may well be the most dangerous person on the planet, hardly the lesser evil. Even though I predicted much of what is happening, to actually experience it is frightening.

  5. klm90046
    klm90046
    August 3, 2016, 7:42 pm

    I remember watching our African-American hero, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Colon Powell on CNN while he was bombing Saddam Hussain’s Iraq in 1991. To a reporter’s question, “Have there been civilian deaths?” this uber-American replied, “I don’t think I have much attention on that.”

    • RoHa
      RoHa
      August 3, 2016, 10:27 pm

      I thought Powell was Jamaican-American.

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        August 4, 2016, 3:20 pm

        “I thought Powell was Jamaican-American.”

        I know what you are thinking,”RoHa”, but I doubt it is true.
        Reggae would have been popular without any help from the Defense Department.

  6. oneangrycomic
    oneangrycomic
    August 4, 2016, 8:35 am

    If my intention is to save lives by installing a new type of airbag, body count DOES matter if my invention actually causes three times as many deaths. My INTENTION is pretty irrelevant to the victims and their families. Maybe it would matter to my attorney during the trial? The jury would tend to focus on the body count more than my good intentions – especially if I fought against and delayed a recall, resulting in more deaths.

    But, as Chomsky points out, the US can’t even argue that they had good intentions because the slaughter and so-called collateral damage of their campaigns WAS the intention!

    The fact that the US military is merely a mercenary army for Israel does not relieve it of the responsibility for the deaths of millions of innocents (including our own troops). Our action and inaction has allowed for a de-facto Israeli coup; our continued blind support for the terrorist government of Israel is inexcusable. Our government has been infiltrated by Zionist puppets like Hillary Clinton. By voting these ZioPuppets into office, we are all responsible for the consequences!

    When the civilized world finally demands justice, our argument that we were forced to fight unjust wars on behalf of Israel will NOT work. It’s ironic that the “Judgement at Nuremberg” helped set a precedent that will contribute to our inevitable demise!

  7. Ismail
    Ismail
    August 4, 2016, 9:39 am

    Hasbaristas often make the claim that their wanton murder of children in Gaza was merely the regrettable and unintended consequence of the Gazans stubborn insistence on living on their land. Military targets exist among the general population, it’d be too costly to send IOF forces on the ground to wipe ’em out, so imprecise artillery shelling is the way to go. Mind, the intention is to take out the bad guys. Those civilians? Too bad they were in the way, but they weren’t our intended targets (although their demise was absolutely predictable). And by the way, it’s Hamas’ fault for putting them in harm’s way (i.e., not evacuating them to Switzerland.)

    Compare: An IOF soldier is riding in a bus loaded with Israeli civilians. He’s a legitimate target of occupied resistance. The intention is to take out the soldier. But he’s usually in a heavily fortified facility or surrounded by well-equipped comrades. The resistance has an opportunity to get him, but the window is narrow (how often has this been offered as a reason that Israel tearfully had to demolish a bldg. full of civilians to get a wanted target?). So they bomb the bus with the intention of getting the soldier, and they do so, along with the inevitable and predictable massive loss of innocent life.

    But intention is everything, right? So, no biggie.

    How’s that for a thought experiment, Harris ?

  8. lyn117
    lyn117
    August 4, 2016, 10:10 am

    “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 Noam Chomsky, which only serves to provide the illusion of gravitas to Harris’ agitprop.”

    Indeed he does earn his living that way, and also by spreading Islamophobia. However, he has an adoring fan base, who will never realize Harris’s pilpul has been shredded.

    • annie
      annie
      August 4, 2016, 12:24 pm

      Shaukat Ansari should easily be able to shred Harris’s pilpul without dragging in Noam Chomsky, which only serves to provide the illusion of gravitas to Harris’ agitprop.”

      i’m confident Ansari could shred harris sans chomsky, but don’t believe he should have and glad he didn’t. harris is way out of his league using chomsky as an agitprop to boost his claims (as evidenced by his fall out in this exchange https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-limits-of-discourse )

      he’s an excuser of state atrocities and his theory of intention is an exercise in futility. it is harris (and his islamophobic ilk), who seek to drag chomsky into the theory to enhance his status and that of his theory.

      unlike chomsky, harris is not a scholar yet seeks to be perceived as one. lacking the rudimentary principles of a scholar, meticulously researching the facts one is writing about and building theory based on those facts, harris (it seems) makes declarations that suit his “ethical” theory (designed to excuse state terror) conjuring and criticizing chomsky’s ethics to prop up his theory and then tries to snag chomsky into an exchange after the fact.

      ansari:

      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.

      it is absolutely remarkable. ethics is not lightweight stuff, people lie about their intentions all the time. in one on one relationships people base their judgements on anothers sincerity by evidence, actions, and outcomes not merely by their professed statements. why should it be any different for governments and state actors. and yet harris, as ansari pointed out, “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”

      so i think the chomsky exchange is the perfect example to shred harris because in the exchange (that i just linked) harris demonstrates he’s no match whatsoever for chomsky and admits at the end chomsky “had asked the [ethical] questions I said he hadn’t; I just didn’t like the answers. ”

      and even that is not accurate because harris had not researched or even read the bulk of what chomsky had written about the ethical implications. he just wants a public debate to launch himself as an equivalent adversary of chomsky — which he is clearly not (chomsky wiped the floor w/him).

      harris is a charlatan selling a magic “ethical intention” potion and he has no more qualifications to be making ethical theories than a traveling salesman has selling shoe polish to cure your ills. the charlatan would challenge an einstein if it boosted his status and the sale of his shoe polish — that’s what’s going on, nothing more nothing less.

  9. Elizabeth Block
    Elizabeth Block
    August 4, 2016, 12:09 pm

    I quote Naomi Klein: When the same mistakes are repeated over and over again, it’s time to consider the possibility that they are not mistakes at all.

    I think that most American people have good intentions. They were probably taught, as I was, that the US supports democracy all over the world. I know now that that is not true. But if the people intend well, what of the leaders?

  10. Harry
    Harry
    August 4, 2016, 3:02 pm

    Never mind the politics for a minute — Sam Harris wanted to go one-on-one with Noam Chomsky, in public. Nothing would be better for an intellectual’s public reputation than to engage Chomsky—who stands above most all intellectuals—on equal terms. In the crass contemporary way we talk about things, it builds the brand when you’re going mano a mano with someone bigger than you are.

    Returning to politics for a minute — since you’re talking to a linguist, “war on terrorism” is a good place to start. Do we make war on amphibious landings or helicopter assaults? If you have an enemy, it is identified by its ideology, not by its strategy for killing people.

    • annie
      annie
      August 4, 2016, 3:31 pm

      Nothing would be better for an intellectual’s public reputation than to engage Chomsky—who stands above most all intellectuals—on equal terms.

      exactly! that is what i meant when i wrote “the charlatan would challenge an einstein if it boosted his status and the sale of his shoe polish”.

    • Mr.T
      Mr.T
      August 4, 2016, 4:03 pm

      “Nothing would be better for an intellectual’s public reputation than to engage Chomsky—who stands above most all intellectuals—on equal terms.”

      Which made it all the more sweet when Chomsky kicked him back to the kids’ table.

  11. Shingo
    Shingo
    August 4, 2016, 4:42 pm

    Good article.

    Harris’s justifications are so banal and juvenile. Based on his argument about intentions being based on statements given, Assad is just fighting terrorists, El Sisi is just protecting democracy, Stalin was benevolent leader a even Hitler would have been on the right side of history.

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