Scoring the Noam Chomsky/Sam Harris debate: How the professor knocked out the atheist

Harris and Chomsky fans both claim victories over a recent email debate -- but here's the real reason Chomsky won

Published May 7, 2015 9:57PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Majed Jaber/Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia)
(Reuters/Majed Jaber/Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia)

Sam Harris, the prominent secularist and neuroscientist, recently exchanged a series of heated emails with Noam Chomsky, a linguist and leading social and foreign policy critic since the 1960s. Their discussion was buzzworthy because both men are well-known public commentators with occasionally overlapping subject matter who have never shared a forum before. Unfortunately for Harris, who reached out to Chomsky initially, the conversation didn’t go as well for him as he seemed to hope it would when he embarked on it.

A great deal of fuss was made, both by Harris and by his fans in comment threads, about Chomsky’s cantankerousness. Some readers are anxious to call the “debate” in Harris’s favor because of it. While Chomsky does clearly evince impatience and frustration with Harris, the rhetorical flourishes which so miffed Harris are typical of Chomsky’s manner: phrases like “As you know” and the rather more cutting, “If you had read further before launching your accusations, the usual procedure in work intended to be serious, you would have discovered…”

Chomsky, who has spoken at the UN more times than maybe anyone who doesn’t work there, is entitled to some impatience and frustration. Most of his discussion with Harris is driven by the question of intent on the part of perpetrators of terror and war. Harris charges, “For [Chomsky], intentions do not seem to matter. Body count is all.” For Harris, however, “Ethically speaking, intention is (nearly) the whole story.”

Chomsky’s infamous comparison of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant bombing to the terror attacks ofSeptember 11 frames the bulk of the conversation. President Clinton ordered the bombing of the Al-Shifa facility in Sudan in 1998. As a result, half of the pharmaceutical supplies of Sudan were destroyed, in particular their malaria medicine, chloroquine. Although only one person was killed by the missile itself, estimations by Chomsky and others place the resultant death toll in the tens of thousands.

Thus, Chomsky drew the analogy to 9/11, though he has since retreated from the comparison to clarify that, actually, Clinton’s bombing likely killed a lot more people. For Chomsky, it’s instructive to note that we treat 9/11 as one of the most horrendous acts ever to take place – which it is – but regard crimes with comparable or greater death tolls, routinely inflicted by powerful nations against weak ones, as a fact of life hardly worth mentioning.

Officially, the Al-Shifa attack was retaliation for the bombing of several embassies in Africa, justified by accusations that the plant engineered chemical weapons for terrorists. Harris assumes an awfully charitable disposition toward Clinton, arguing that the given reasons are sufficient to establish a moral difference between the Al-Shifa bombing and 9/11. Chomsky responds that all leaders profess benign intentions before committing their crimes, and notes that the official reasons fall apart on closer examination. Indeed, Clinton never provided evidence of Al-Shifa’s weapons manufacturing and later investigations demonstrated the facility had no ties to terror.

Chomsky even goes Harris one further, suggesting that Clinton probably didn’t intend to kill thousands of people by bombing Al-Shifa – he simply didn’t bother to consider the human cost. “On moral grounds, that is arguably even worse than murder, which at least recognizes that the victim is human,” Chomsky writes.

Harris goes to great lengths to excuse, or at least place on a lower rung of moral transgression, collateral damage in the West’s War on Terror. Right off the bat, it’s striking that someone arguing about morality with such apparent intellectual vigor would use a phrase like “collateral damage,” engineered to be euphemistic and evasive. To that end, Harris conjures up a fantastical thought experiment to persuade Chomsky that some killings are less monstrous than others. Chomsky is willing to make such distinctions in real cases, and objects to Harris’s insistence that he “ignores the moral significance of intentions.” But he rightly calls Harris’s back-bending attempt to analogize idealized thought experiments with real-world killings “so ludicrous as to be embarrassing.”

Abstract models are great for email exchanges between PhDs, but in the real world intent is little consolation to the people affected by "collateral damage." Estimates put the death toll in Iraq as a result of the 2003 invasion at around half a million. Figuring in infrastructure devastation, political destabilization, and the creation of a million or more refugees, the total carnage is impossible to tally. The death toll of 9/11 was less than a hundredth of that, but on Harris’s view of morality 9/11 still ranks as an eviler action because of who did it and why. Even supposing the War in Iraq had only the noblest intentions, it’s hard to see how such a view is morally justifiable.

And it isn’t as though Islamic extremists have no intent of their own. Harris seems to suppose their violence is fully explained as the deranged actions of a death cult’s brainwashed disciples. He takes little time to consider the pivotal question of what might make people angry and desperate enough to join such death cults in the first place – events like the bombing of a pharmaceutical factory, for instance. Even a recent article in The Atlantic exploring the deeply religious philosophy of ISIS admits, somewhat dismissively, “Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe.” There’s a reason ISIS emerged recently out of the rubble of a decimated Iraq and not, say, 50 years ago, when there were already plenty of Korans to go around.

Not only do they have intentions and impetuses, the perpetrators express them explicitly – that’s what all the scary videos are about. In the case of Osama bin Laden, goals included driving Western influence out of the Arab world and helping the cause of Palestinians. Does Harris really want to spend his energy fighting about intentions, which are given to fabrication and may wade him into the murky waters of acknowledging the intent of people he despises? Or should killing just be condemned in all but the most idealized of cases, which Harris enjoys contemplating but are almost inconceivable in the real world?

Listening to Harris talk about the mind, its innermost workings, and free will can be fascinating. But by engaging Noam Chomsky, he only managed to reveal just how out of his league he is on crucial matters on which he fancies himself an informed commentator. In philosophical models, perhaps intent is all. But when the death toll of opposing sides is different by a factor of hundreds, it’s a moral imperative to take note of body count. And when leaders’ professed intentions can’t be trusted, Chomsky’s moral universality is a far more reliable beacon.

By Kyle Schmidlin

MORE FROM Kyle Schmidlin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

9/11 Editor's Picks Noam Chomsky Sam Harris