Chomsky and Harris – Making and Crossing the Bridge

HarrisChomskySam Harris recently published e-mail correspondence between him and Noam Chomsky which was, to say the least, unhelpful and downright useless as it stands. What is needed, it seems, is a bit of distillation. We need to understand where the difference between them is. Anyone who has read enough Harris and Chomsky (who have apparently not read much of each other’s work) may understand where that difference truly lies. Seeing nothing but banal summaries and shameless side-taking, I feel it worth it try to make some inroads. Here is how I see the difference and how to resolve it.

Harris sent to Chomsky his section in the “End of Faith” that discussed, as he saw it, Chomsky’s lackluster, if not absent, attention to intention as a motivating factor in his moral condemnation of America’s bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant in Sudan. He sent to Chomsky his explanation which included the following questions and terse answers:

“What did the U.S. government think it was doing when it sent cruise missiles into Sudan? Destroying a chemical weapons site used by Al Qaeda. Did the Clinton administration intend to bring about the deaths of thousands of Sudanese children? No. Was our goal to kill as many Sudanese as we could? No. Were we trying to kill anyone at all? Not unless we thought members of Al Qaeda would be at the Al-Shifa facility in the middle of the night. Asking these questions about Osama bin Laden and the nineteen hijackers puts us in a different moral universe entirely.”

Harris asserts that the specific intent of the Clinton administration had in bombing the factory was not to cause human harm, though he concedes that was the ultimate result. Harris concludes, both in his writing and in a recent Joe Rogan podcast that he does not believe that the administration had any intent to kill anyone and ostensibly bombed the factory because they believed it was manufacturing chemical weapons in aid to terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

If that was indeed the case, the moral culpability of the bombing is much less on Harris’ terms than if the Clinton administration had intentionally bombed the factory to bring about the deaths of thousands, which was, after all, the end result. Collateral damage, based ostensibly on a mistake, simply does not rise to the same level of culpability as if they had coldly intended to bring about those deaths. Harris does not consider that the possibility that the Clinton administration bombed the factory out of retaliation for the embassy bombings that happened just before the attack. Chomsky adamantly asserts in response and explains that it was, for the worse, representative of cold indifference to the results that is the most morally corrupt aspect of the bombing given the available evidence at the time. Harris does not consider that it may have been a wag the dog situation (that the 9/11 commission denied) to distract from the failures of Clinton administration policies, which has also been suggested. Harris takes the government at its word, and further bolsters that belief by saying in the Rogan conversation that he couldn’t fathom Clinton rationally behaving to the contrary. That, needless to say, gives Bill Clinton far too much credit.

This is precisely what Chomsky is annoyed about. It is part of the reason he, poorly in my view, categorized Harris and Hitchens as “religious fanatics” of the “state religion.” It seems to me that Chomsky ought to, at minimum, clarify his position and to walk back from his irresponsible turn of phrase, a kind he so uncharacteristically engaged in here. That being said, and not to defend his unnecessary callousness in his personal emails with Harris, he has legitimate concerns about the nature, truth, utility, and indeed rationality of Harris’ position regarding the bombing of the Al-Shifa factory and the presumed intentions and moral culpability of the Clinton administration.

What Chomsky failed to adequately express to Harris is Harris’ fundamental misunderstanding of American foreign policy, propaganda and the moral aspects of both. He assumed that Harris would understand this point because he assumed Harris had read him but only because he hasn’t read any Harris, which Harris assumed. That fundamental mistake helps to understand why Chomsky dismisses Harris and Hitchens arguments as “fanatics” of the “state religion.” He sees Harris like the follower of a prophet, simply buying the American exceptionalist position, as mouthed by that government. Harris, it seems, believes America (at least vis-a-vis the government) is a genuinely positive moral agent, because it is so in contrast to ISIS or some other horrific group. But when our (America’s) agency creates moral hazards, Harris sees them as an aberration of our inherent moral worthiness, whereas Chomsky sees it as indicative of the precise opposite character that America holds.

Basically Harris believes that America is good and has made mistakes; Chomsky believes those “mistakes” are in fact the intended, or allowed collateral results of our actions which show our amoral (if not immoral) nature. This is the fundamental difference. Chomsky is unwilling to believe or apologize for American actions which have, as intended or at least collaterally “tolerated” resulted in the deaths of hundreds to millions of people, as merely moral mistakes. Harris it seems to take, a priori, America as a positive moral agent and when it fails to be so, it is because something went wrong, or something was coopted by other immoral forces. Chomsky denies this, suggesting the evidence just is not there to support such a claim.

Harris suggests a way to think about his point by way of two thought experiments. The first he made in the correspondence. In the first case we are to imagine that al-Qaeda is filled with genuine humanitarians.

“Based on their research, they believe that a deadly batch of vaccine has made it into the U.S. pharmaceutical supply. They have communicated their concerns to the FDA but were rebuffed. Acting rashly, with the intention of saving millions of lives, they unleash a computer virus, targeted to impede the release of this deadly vaccine. As it turns out, they are right about the vaccine but wrong about the consequences of their meddling—and they wind up destroying half the pharmaceuticals in the U.S.

Harris says this would be “a very unfortunate event—but these are people we want on our team. I would find the FDA highly culpable for not having effectively communicated with them. These people are our friends, and we were all very unlucky.

Counterpoised to the la-Qaeda humanitarians Harris then asks us to consider that “al-Qaeda is precisely as terrible a group as it is, and it destroys our pharmaceuticals intentionally, for the purpose of harming millions of innocent people.

Then Harris would simply “imprison or kill these people at the first opportunity.”

The second thought experiment asks us to consider the results of the possession of a “perfect weapon” by different forces. The perfect weapon is one that insures against the possibility of collateral damage. Armed with this weapon how would the various agents in the world use them? Harris argues that terrorist or religious extremist forces would use them to cause wanton destruction of their apostate enemies, civilians and military forces alike, despite their ability not do so. Harris believes, and has good reasons to believe, that these forces want to destroy a world that does not conform to their religious conservatism.

Harris rejects, through silence it seems, another potential of the use of this perfect weapon for the Islamists. It is possible that they would be used to rid the Middle East or other “Muslim Lands” of infidels (Westerners) and would do so without collateral damage. It may go further, with a Muslim conquest of the whole world, yet without civilian deaths or “terrorism.” Harris has to admit this is, at least, a possibility. Those who have studied modern warfare understand that guerrilla war tactics (which may include suicide bombings, car bombs, hostage taking or other “guerrilla” activities) is the only one capable of successfully contesting something like the American military. There is at least the potential that they are related, albeit distorted through the realm of religion with all its vulnerabilities, to military and other international interventions. Harris is silent on all of this.

However, the fear that Harris presents is understandable. There is something to the fact that there are people who would act in conscious disregard for the value of human life. That is a real threat, one Chomsky too easily dismisses. After the seeming demise of the Communist opposition to capitalist imperialism, Islamic Jihad has taken its place. The difference between these ideologies is crucial to understand why Harris is right to be concerned, and Chomsky is dismissive. Whereas the Communist revolutions of the late 20th century attempted to usurp the power of capitalism with socialism, the Islamic “revolutions” are reactionary in nature. They seek to pull the world back to the 5th century, all with 20th and 21st century technology. This is not a situation to take lightly. Chomsky, unfortunately, does just that.

The odd result of this concern for Harris appears to make America, as the countervailing and therefore morally benign (or indeed superior) force without exception. Going back to his perfect weapons thought experiment America would likely use them to advance democracy and freedom or at least to minimize casualties in pursuit of its otherwise noble interests. In this sense, he has bought – hook, line and sinker – the propaganda campaign of American bourgeois forces to convince its population that it is not the imperialist juggernaut the way the majority of the rest of the world sees it. The thought experiment leads to an absurd and useless line of questions with corresponding untenable answers regarding a false analogy with Iraq from Harris book.

“Consider the recent conflict in Iraq: If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Republican Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties? What are the chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human shields? (What are the chances we would have used human shields?) What are the chances that a routed American government would have called for its citizens to volunteer to be suicide bombers? What are the chances that Iraqi soldiers would have wept upon killing a carload of American civilians at a checkpoint unnecessarily? You should have, in the ledger of your imagination, a mounting column of zeros.”

While this might sit well with a generally liberal audience, one that accepts the rhetoric and propaganda of American moral virtue, it does not conform to the realty that Chomsky has diligently spent his life carefully and methodically attempting to dismantle. It is more a representation of the success of the propaganda that Harris seems to accept without exception. Chomsky has become famous as someone consistently critical of the way America both behaves in the world, as well as how it perpetrates that myth at home. His catalog is a robust denunciation of the very myth that Harris appears to accept. Harris’ misunderstanding of Chomsky is clear from this confusion, as is Chomsky’s of Harris’ perspective. They really need to sit down and read one another’s work.

If Harris is right in his presupposition of American moral virtue, then his argument would make sense. But Chomsky has the lead here, because America and its foreign policy is not positive, or even benign, it is quite the contrary. This is not to say that America could not change this, but there is no evidence that these policies would change without mass action by the population of the US. Chomsky has shown time and time again that American military force is consistently used, in contradiction to international law and general moral principles, not as an aberration of American virtue but a representation of its malignancy.

Chomsky expressed his dissatisfaction by bluntly dismissing the thought experiments especially when the assertions of whatever reasonable intentions the administration may have had, the truth is they do not have “even the remotest relation to Clinton’s decision to bomb al-Shifa – not because they had suddenly discovered anything remotely like what you fantasize here, or for that matter any credible evidence at all, and by sheer coincidence, immediately after the Embassy bombings for which it was retaliation, as widely acknowledged.” Beside the lawyerly argumentative tone, not helpful for the kind of dialogue Harris intended to foster, the point remains the same.

Chomsky roundly rebuffed both of the thought experiments in his responses, again not in useful ways or with a respectful tone. Basically he explained to Harris that he is not in the business of hypotheticals. He wants to live in the real world where the decisions and resulting consequences are real. He used the words “ludicrous and embarrassing” to describe the thought experiments. That seems unnecessarily rude and contrary to Chomsky’s own assertions that one ought not to convince but to explain. The thought experiments help make Harris’ philosophical point, but at the expense of understanding the applicable actual material conditions that are at play. This is useful for armchair philosophy, but not for moral, political, and policy analysis. You can abstract things to make your point, but the world is not abstract. This, I believe, is the source of Chomsky’s consternation, but also representative of his ignorance of Harris intent. That is not necessarily merely as personal misunderstanding, yet the exchange certainly went there. That is what made it useless.

America was the lone superpower for a while in the last century. It maintains this hegemony in relatively 19th or 20th century fashion. It maintains control through neo-imperial policies of intervention and outright invasion, followed by business integration into the world market. A foreign policy truly based on genuine desire to raise the standards and freedom of people would not look like what American has consistently (not contrarily) engaged in. However, if America is a neo-imperial superpower, with the intention to ensure the stability and lucrative nature of the world capitalist economic system for which it’s ruling class gains the windfall, then it would behave precisely as it has.

The main difference, the ships that are passing in the night in their exchange, is that Harris does not consider the geo-political and economic components of American foreign policy and therefore its intentions, whereas Chomsky not only considers those factors, but identifies them as the mechanism by which the intention of American action arises while failing to consider the relative importance of the intentions of those who would, if able, do mass harm to much of the world. For Chomsky, intention is evidenced by prior and consistent action. For Harris it is implied by relation less moral agents. Chomsky looks through the record to see how decisions are made, and understand why in the context. Harris uses abstraction to make a larger philosophical point. There is value in both, but this fundamental difference must serve as the starting point to further communication.

To not bridge this gap is to fundamentally misunderstand the value and utility of both sides. Add to that public and seemingly disparaging comments and we the readers lose (in Chomsky’s words) the value of a public discussion in which this fundamental difference can be explored. I do think this was Harris’ intent, and Chomsky just shut it down before it really got going. Both Chomsky and Harris’ fame and public personas are based on the validity and truth of their statements. For both to feel as though the other spoke so flippantly about the other shows that fundamental misunderstanding and then immediately stalls it. Harris is right that the medium of e-mail was, in retrospect, a less than valuable way of attempting to get something resolved.

Harris and Chomsky would do well to speak to one another in private with the specific intent to come to the understanding I have outlined here. In doing so, hopefully the dialogue may carry a different tone and allow for the noble, if not slightly naive, desire that Harris attempted to engage Chomsky in the first place. I would be interested to hear from either Chomsky or Harris if my reading of the situation is correct.


  1. “Harris’ misunderstanding of Chomsky is clear from this confusion, as is Chomsky’s of Harris’ perspective. They really need to sit down and read one another’s work.”

    No, Noam understands Sam Harris and put him in his place. Harris made accusations during this private correspondence that ignored a lifetime of Chomsky’s work. You, the author of this article, are confused about the decades of Chomsky’s work, which are a goliath compared to anything Harris has done. You might as well compare Aristotle to Pat Robertson, they’re not in the same ballpark. One man is genuine with integrity, the other a salesman.

    “I do think this was Harris’ intent, and Chomsky just shut it down before it really got going. Both Chomsky and Harris’ fame and public personas are based on the validity and truth of their statements. For both to feel as though the other spoke so flippantly about the other shows that fundamental misunderstanding and then immediately stalls it.”

    No, that is not the case at all. Did you actually read the private emails? If you print them out, it’s about 31 pages. It would take me at least a week to articulate the thoughts that Chomsky expressed to Harris over the emails. Noam was and is always generous with his time. Sam initiated the end of the conversation:

    “Noam —

    I’m sorry to say that I have now lost hope that we can communicate effectively in this medium. Rather than explore these issues with genuine interest and civility, you seem committed to litigating all points (both real and imagined) in the most plodding and accusatory way. And so, to my amazement, I find that the only conversation you and I are likely to ever have has grown too tedious to continue.

    Please understand that this is not a case of you having raised important challenges for which I have no answer—to the contrary, I would find that a thrilling result of any collision between us. And, as I said at the outset, I would be eager for readers to witness it. Rather, you have simply convinced me that engaging you on these topics is a waste of time.

    Apologies for any part I played in making this encounter less enlightening than it might have been…


    Noam replies:

    “It would also be interesting if, someday, you decide actually to become concerned with “God-intoxicated sociopaths,” most notably, the perpetrator of by far the worst crime of this millennium who did so, he explained, because God had instructed him that he must smite the enemy.”

    Harris then went on to say: “I’m afraid I won’t take the bait, apart from asking the obvious question: If you’re so sure you’ve acquitted yourself well in this conversation, exposing both my intellectual misconduct with respect your own work and my moral blindness regarding the actions of our government, why not let me publish it in full so that our readers can draw their own conclusions?”

    Noam Chomsky replied:

    “The idea of publishing personal correspondence is pretty weird, a strange form of exhibitionism – whatever the content. Personally, I can’t imagine doing it. However, if you want to do it, I won’t object.”

    ” . . . . hopefully the dialogue may carry a different tone and allow for the noble, if not slightly naive, desire that Harris attempted to engage Chomsky in the first place.”

    Harris knows exactly what he is doing and Chomsky is not going to play along. You, as an author, are very naive to categorize Harris as “slightly naive.” Harris, as someone who claims to be an expert on human intent and has gotten rich off of writing about such issues is not naive and the fact that he published this correspondence with Chomsky shows is desperation to be validated as serious intellectual.

    As far as the tone of the conversation goes, Noam was on point from the beginning. Noam is not a fool, and had no reason to give Harris a cordial tone. Harris latching onto the tone and manner of the conversation, as if publishing it was a threat to Chomsky that Harris will run home to his mother or the principal’s office because Chomsky was mean to him (which Chomsky wasn’t). Harris says he doesn’t want Noam to look like “the dog who caught the car,” what the hell does that mean?


    1. That’s an unfair characterization, colinkapernick. I’m not sure why you’re so confident about what each of their ulterior motives were, but it seems to be clouding your judgment of how each of them should have behaved in this correspondence. You say Chomsky had no reason to extend a “cordial tone” to Harris, but why would extending a “cordial tone” ever be something to avoid? To suggest that is to flout the principle of charity outright. (No serious thinker justifiably ignores this principle.)

      And to suggest Harris is not a serious intellectual is both ludicrous and jus another ad hominem.

      I don’t agree with everything in this characterization of the email exchange. But I think it largely gets things right. It would be gratifying if both of these two could learn a bit from the exchange and decide to try again.

      (BTW, Mr. Gustafson, both Chomsky and Harris are “Drs.”, and should be described as such.)


  2. >Harris asserts that the specific intent of the Clinton administration had in bombing the factory was not to cause human harm, though he concedes that was the ultimate result. Harris concludes, both in his writing and in a recent Joe Rogan podcast that he does not believe that the administration had any intent to kill anyone and ostensibly bombed the factory because they believed it was manufacturing chemical weapons in aid to terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

    A politicans stated intention isn’t worth the paper its printed on. Anyone can state anything, this is naive and stupid.


  3. Since Harris has published his exchange with Chomsky, people are declaring winner and loser all over the place as if it was a boxing match. But the debate didn’t even get to a meaningful start, simply because Chomksy was clearly dishonest in this exchange and blocked the conversation effectively from the very beginning. I am not talking about his smugness and basically calling his opponent an idiot. He might be entitled to that.

    But he rejected the role of intentions in ethical judgements and he did it wholesale. Sam pressed him to admit that intentions have at least a minimal role, but he didn’t give in and threw whatever he could at his opponent. He brought up Al-shifa, Japanese fascists, and Stalinist officials just to evade a very simple question: Do intentions matter at all in ethical judgement?

    I am saying he was dishonest, because it is very improbable that he is an ethical consequentialist. To illustrate my point consider this moral truism: murder is bad. Everyone agrees to that. However, if a girl murders a rapist in self-defense, other factors begin to weigh in and our final judgment could be in the murderer’s favor. But when we insist that we can’t know anything about her real intentions and her professed intentions don’t matter at all, then we could easily sentence her to death without trying to get to the truth of the matter. Is this the kind of justice that he believes in? Most probably not, but he didn’t want to go down that road. Because it was easier to engage in sophistry rather than a difficult debate.

    As for Al-shifa, Harris later pointed out that despite Chomsky’s claim, Human Rights Watch has never conducted an on-the-ground inspection so he simply lied about that part. Some of his other claims are dubious too. I also think that he did it just to make the discussion laden with emotions and he was quite successful in doing that: what a monster Harris should be because he defends someone who has deprived those poor black African people from their medicine. I find it sad that a thinker in the caliber of Noam Chomsky could sink to such low levels on intellectuality and integrity in a private email exchange.


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