Oh, Harris. Oh, Chomsky

The intellectual internet reverberates. Small gods pause for a moment. Something interesting happened yesterday. The moral philosopher, neo-atheist, critic of Islam and all things religious (and secular proponent of meditation and spirituality) Sam Harris released a fascinating recent e-mail exchange with the intellectual giant of the Left: Noam Chomsky, the number one linguist and political commentator in the world.

“I believe that there is a position that is analytically superior to that of both Harris and Chomsky, and that a person adopting this position can avoid the problems raised by both authors.”

With a touch of self-irony, Harris entitled the exchange “The Limits of Discourse: As Demonstrated by Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky”. On Facebook alone, the post has attracted over 4000 likes and 1500 shares. The discussions rage on as people take stands and assess their discussion. These two famous people, who Harris estimates have about a million readers in common, are at each other’s throats.

They are trying to resolve some issues of mutual accusations in the public debate and to understand each other’s position to clarify their own points and moral assessment. I will try to give my input into their discussion, leaving out assessments of who did best (or worst) in their mail exchange. I believe that there is a position that is analytically superior to that of both Harris and Chomsky, and that a person adopting this position can avoid the problems raised by both authors. Such a position concedes that both writers are partly right, but also holds that they are both partly wrong.

What their quarrel is about

Basically, the two authors are arguing about whether or not war crimes perpetrated by the US, the Clinton administration in particular, are as bad as Al Qaeda’s attack during 9/11.

Chomsky holds that the crimes of the US are perhaps not equivalent with Al Qaeda’s attack on 9/11, that they are of a different kind and character, but that they are nevertheless just as morally appalling. He exemplifies this with the bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan 1998, the Al-Shifa plant. This factory seems to have been bombed as a retaliation for the bombing of the US embassy. The results were catastrophic as Sudan, already a country in deep crisis, could not replenish the vital medicines and thousands of innocent people died from curable diseases as a result. Chomsky draws the conclusion that President Clinton must have understood these consequences and acted callously to reach his political goals, ignoring the fates of so many innocents simply because they were Africans.

Harris holds that the US is morally superior to Al Qaeda and that the chief difference is that Al Qaeda hold irrational beliefs derived from their religion, Islam. He concedes that the US is guilty of many crimes, but that there is a severe difference of degree and intentionality between these and groups like Al Qaeda. He believes that the Clinton administration must have accidentally caused the deaths of so many innocents while having more morally viable intentions, like believing that the Al-Shifa plant was in fact producing chemical weapons.

Chomsky in turn sees Harris’s position as offering an excuse for aggressive and tyrannical foreign policy. He means that Harris is not using the same yardstick for US aggression as for the terrorists. If US aggression caused more deaths – and crueler, slower deaths by diseases – it must be just as bad, or worse, than 9/11, and it is the duty of citizens of a democratic society to speak out against and condemn such actions. He feels that just because the US government may not have acted following the word of God, it doesn’t make its crimes any less serious.

When Harris insists that there is a difference of intention, that the intentions of the US government was almost certainly not to cause harm to innocent people, Chomsky retorts that he is not interested in such benign intentionality because all kinds of bad guys have “nice intentions”, like when the Japanese attacked China filled with the conviction that they were creating the foundations for an earthly paradise.

“I would like to add some notions to develop their points towards a common understanding – but also towards a metamodern critique of both.”

This is about as far as the two authors get in their exchange. I would like to add some notions to develop their points towards a common understanding – but also towards a metamodern critique of both.

Intentionality vs. consequence

The first point is the simplest. There are four different schools of ethics, four major ways of ascribing moral value (or lack thereof) to actions: intentionality, consequence, virtue (personal character of the individual) and principle (universal, logical moral principles).

We can use all four, or combinations between them, to resolve the dispute. But let’s stick with the two that the authors employ in this particular mail exchange. (Note however that both authors have used all four forms of ethics in their earlier works and thought).

If we look at the intentionality it arguably seems that 9/11 is more murderous than the bombing of Al-Shifa, because people are directly targeted as victims. It simply seems implausible that Bill Clinton’s mind and heart were filled with hatred and mayhem when he ordered the bombing. This is the same guy who tried to get health service to the US population and stop the Rwanda genocide and today is an advocate of an equitable, green global community. Of course, we cannot know for sure. But it seems likely that he must not have been able to grasp the full human consequences. It seems likely that he cognitively failed to realize the abstract notion of so many lives at risk through his actions in a pressed situation. This can be contrasted to the 9/11 bombers who worked hard for years to inflict very direct and tangible harm to people. That requires a quantity of malign intention that we’d be hard pressed to find in Mr. President even if we squeezed his deep psyche dry of every drop of repressed anger. In this school of thought Harris is right – unless we adopt a conspiracy theory induced worldview where we honestly believe that the US is run by murderous psychopaths.

If we look at consequences, US aggression is way worse. More people killed, more lives destroyed, greater messes made. So from a consequence ethics perspective, Chomsky is right.

So far so good. But it doesn’t really resolve the conflict. Is Chomsky correct to let actions and consequences speak for themselves, ignoring stated “benign” intentions? Is Harris excusing cruel US aggression by adding a spiritual, vague factor like “intentionality”?

Beyond Chomsky and Harris is Jürgen Habermas

If we look at this question from the perspective of another intellectual giant, Jürgen Habermas, the field clears. In his theory of communicative action he distinguishes between three fundamental requirements of statements or other actions.

      • Truth value – is the statement correct, compared with “objective reality”?
      • Moral value – is it morally justifiable?
      • Truthfulness – is the speaker honest about his/her intention?

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If you break down 9/11 and Al-Shifa into these three parts, it becomes much easier to distinguish between them and the intentionality behind them.

In terms of truth value, the crucial question becomes if the US government fully realized the consequences of their actions. Again, this we cannot know, but it is less clear that they did than Osama bin Laden and friends.

In terms of moral value, they have different justifications. The US government believes that they are upholding a certain political order or system; let’s call it a modern democratic capitalist world order on which large parts of the world population depend. Al Qaeda terrorists believe that they are fighting oppression and bringing a holy kingdom into the world. More people would buy the moral grounds of the US government, as the order they are defending is more inclusive and ethically defensible than that of Al Qaeda, even if it is far from the highest conceivable moral principle.

“To what extent are they perpetrators of these different crimes deluding themselves, emotionally and intellectually? How much are their respective justifications just “excuses” for acting from hurt, hateful emotions that wish to harm and degrade others?”

The real action happens at truthfulness. To what extent are they perpetrators of these different crimes deluding themselves, emotionally and intellectually? How much are their respective justifications just “excuses” for acting from hurt, hateful emotions that wish to harm and degrade others? The US government seems guilty of many such ideological excuses and manipulations, but compared to Al Qaeda, they would pass the truthfulness test with flying colors. It is simply much less believable that Al Qaeda acted, in all honesty, from the love of their hearts or from a wish for peace and stability. The intention to harm is so obvious in their ideology and activity that their project must be seen as a much greater lie than the US bid for world power.

With Habermas then, Harris takes a solid lead over Chomsky. Chomsky collapses these three dimensions of communicative action and fails to see that Al Qaeda act from a less generalizable moral system and that they are less truthful in their intentions.

The answer is moral development

What both authors miss, even if Harris mentions it briefly but seems to lack the theory to explicate what he means, is that Al Qaeda and the US government act from two distinctly different stages of moral and psycho-social development. In the light of this part of the argument Chomsky comes out ahead of Harris, but only somewhat, as you will see. Here’s what I mean.

There are specific moral systems and social orders in human societies that can be ranked according to complexity and inclusiveness. They have been described in many forms, the simplest one being Spiral Dynamics based on the developmental psychology of Clare Graves. Here are some simplified stages:

        • Tribal values
        • Warrior-king imperialist values
        • Traditional values
        • Modern values
        • Postmodern values
        • Metamodern values

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Now, Al Qaeda is a radicalization of traditional Islam. They don’t only seek to achieve a peaceful albeit somewhat medieval order like most traditional Muslims (like the Saudi government, etc.), but put holy war, sacrifice and killing at the heart of their religion and ideology. In a psycho-social sense, this is a regression to an earlier stage – from the relatively stable traditional stage to an earlier one: warrior-king imperialist values. When societies break down or experience great pressure and instability, parts of the population may regress to earlier stages and the simpler cognitive frames, interpretations of the world.

Regressions of these kinds are often very destructive. Imagine having Genghis Khan running a modern bureaucracy – and you get the Nazis. When modern global networks use the internet to achieve a holy war for the sake of the struggle itself – you get Al Qaeda. Originally this stage emerged when some tribes grew in strength and began conquering surrounding tribes, taking slaves and imposing their power gods linked to a strong leader. They were aggressive, but also achieved the first centralized, urban societies.

The US government is largely working from modern values. They believe themselves to work for a universal, enlightened and fair order of economic competition, democracy and free speech. They at least attempt to uphold and defend human rights.

What happens with Harris is that he takes the modern values for granted and does not offer due respect to earlier or later stages of moral development. He simply believes that large parts of the world population are under the influence of some strange spell he calls “irrational religious beliefs”. He believes that, if only this strange spell were broken, people would reason like himself, like a modern mind. He fails to see that the world and the manifold of constructed meaningful universes within it are under development. He thinks that if you just criticize and ridicule God enough, people will snap out of it and start acting normal. In fact, people are responding to whole psychological worlds that they encounter, and they take the explanations at hand that speak best to their emotions given the social settings they are in. He fails to see that Al Qaeda fighters are not primarily Muslims, but hurt souls with regressive psycho-social development. And you must see the specific historical events that caused this harm – in which US foreign policy played a large and often unfortunate part. Harris does not sufficiently distinguish between traditional Islam and the regressive warrior-king imperialist version of Al Qaeda. Nor does he concede that there can be modern and postmodern forms of much more up-to-date Islam (which do exist).

“Harris does not sufficiently distinguish between traditional Islam and the regressive warrior-king imperialist version of Al Qaeda. Nor does he concede that there can be modern and postmodern forms of much more up-to-date Islam (which do exist).”

Here Chomsky is better. He understands that strange beliefs and social, political and structural pathologies are not contained within religion. He understands that modern ideologies can be just as irrational, sectarian and oppressive – and often much less innocent than believing in the odd miracle or that Jesus walked on water. He sees that Al Qaeda and others like them are reacting to real, political issues that have messed up their lives and made them who they are.

Where Chomsky goes wrong is when he does not admit to Harris that there is indeed a great – vast – difference of quality between the terrorism of Al Qaeda and US aggression. The US is working from a modern set of values where all humans are seen as equal. They often fail to live up to those values and sometimes colonial or traditional religious values sneak in and cause regression or hypocrisy, but their general set of norms are just much higher and more developed than those of Al Qaeda.

This is because Chomsky himself, an intellectual anarchist, operates from postmodern values, which themselves emerge by critiquing modern values and the inconsistencies of modern society. Doing this, he fails to offer due respect to the real progress made in societies like the US, which is what seems to tick Harris off.

Oh Harris. Oh Chomsky

US atrocities exist, but they are a much smaller part of the US than terrorism is of Al Qaeda and they happen in a completely different moral universe. Compare the two institutions, US government and Al Qaeda. The US has much, much greater power and budget. This means that whatever they do in the world, it is amplified thousandfold for good and bad. Consider the US budget. It has a solid percentage of its expenses in the military, but still a small percentage. Out of this military power only a fraction is actually employed in very aggressive or harmful ways. Now imagine that Al Qaeda had that power. Would they not be doing stuff that is much, much worse than what the US has been up to the last decades? Would not Chomsky be a much busier man writing about their foreign policy? Wouldn’t we expect, like with ISIS today, mass deportation, rampant aggression, oppressive laws on women and genocide left and right?

There’s the difference that Harris is looking for. And as far as the moral difference between the US and Al Qaeda goes, Harris is right and Chomsky is wrong. But Chomsky is right in criticizing the US government for not being postmodern enough. Harris is doing something considerably less fruitful and insensitive to historical context: criticizing Al Qaeda for not having values modern enough, without looking for what part the US may have played in the creation of such pathology.

My five cents is to critique Harris and Chomsky, both – for not being metamodern enough. Metamodern thought and sentiment are sensitive to the multiple dimensions of ethics, to historical context and to the crucial role of moral, psychological and social development.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.