The Truth About Morals

A Sudanese man looks at the ruins of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in the yellow glow of a sandstorm in Khartoum, Sudan. - photo by Scott Peterson/TCSM/Getty Images

A Sudanese man looks at the ruins of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in the yellow glow of a sandstorm in Khartoum, Sudan. – photo by Scott Peterson/TCSM/Getty Images

Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky recently argued (via email) about whether or not the intentions behind an action determined if the action was moral, and I thought this was an interesting question.  We are all busy people, so I will toss aside the nuances of this argument and try to reduce it to its simplest terms.

First, let me introduce the two people arguing:

  • Sam Harris is an author, philosopher, and neuroscientist, who is a critic of religion and proponent of scientific skepticism and the “New Atheism.”  He is also very publicly anti-Muslim (which I can appreciate).
  • Noam Chomsky is sometimes described as the “father of modern linguistics” and is a major figure in analytic philosophy.  He has written many books attacking US foreign policy, and after 9/11 he basically said that it was a terrible tragedy, but the US is the biggest terrorist state in the world.

Now let me get to the argument:

Harris tries to make the case that the US government, while it does do some terrible things, is morally superior to Islamic terrorists because it has good intentions and only kills lots of civilians by accident, whereas Islamic terrorists do not have good intentions and kill civilians on purpose.  Harris berates Chomsky for ignoring the intentions of the actors.

Chomsky sputters in response that he damn well has considered the intentions of the actors and, in fact, has been studying these questions for 50 years.  He treats Harris like a pipsqueak for not having done his homework, stating:

“As I’ve discussed for many years, in fact decades, benign intentions are virtually always professed, even by the worst monsters, and hence carry no information…”

So basically what he’s saying is that everyone believes that their intentions are good, and history can show that the worst atrocities have been committed with good intentions in mind.  For example, Chomsky points out that the Japanese fascists slaughtering the Chinese were sincerely trying to bring about an earthly paradise.  Similarly sincere intentions could be assigned to the Germans during WWII or to certain Stalinist officials, who also thought they were creating a utopia.  This reminds me of Haidt’s theory in the Righteous Mind that people generally think they are doing the right thing, even if they seem like bad actors from another point of view.

So Chomsky claims that nothing in general can be said about intentions in moral decisions, in other words, you can’t say that all acts done with good intentions are therefore good.

The main example Chomsky gives is a case in which the US did not appear to have good intentions.  Apparently, after a US embassy in Africa was bombed, President Clinton ordered the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory.  This factory was one of the only factories in Sudan that made pharmaceuticals.  It was bombed under the premise that it was producing chemical weapons, but no strong evidence of that was ever presented to the public.  This probably resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands who did not get the medicines they needed.

Chomsky takes the position that there was never any strong evidence that the factory actually produced nerve gas, and the timing of the event, which occurred just after the embassy bombing, makes it look like a retaliation.  Harris counters by parrotting the US government’s story and claiming that President Clinton didn’t want to kill innocent civilians, he just wanted to keep Al Qaeda from getting nerve gas.

Chomsky agrees that Clinton’s goal was not to kill civilians, but that he and his advisors must have known that destroying the main medicine factory in Sudan would have that result.  Yet he bombed away anyway, treating those African lives as so many ants one might crush on the street.  Ouch.  Then Chomsky wonders if this isn’t WORSE than a terrorist who intends to kill civilians, but at least recognizes the humanity of their victims.  This is a problem for me, since killing someone isn’t good evidence that you have recognized their humanity, but that’s beside the point.

Even Chomsky wasn’t cynical enough in my mind.  There is this thing called the military industrial complex and there is this thing called the secret government, which means that we sometimes drop bombs because we need to keep the work orders flowing for the defense industry.

“Rumsfeld complained that there were no decent targets for bombing in Afghanistan … we should consider bombing Iraq which he said had better targets.” – PBS.org

But I like Sam Harris and I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I agree that Western morals sure look a lot more sophisticated than those in the rest of the world.  We have PETA for chrissake.  We care about animals and gays and minorities now, which Peter Singer calls the expanding circle of empathy.

But I’m afraid Harris doesn’t consider the idea that our leaders might not share the moral values of our population.  In fact, it seems that our systems are set up such that the least empathetic psychopaths can rise to the top of many organizations because they aren’t hamstrung by what we might refer to as common decency.  The morals required to survive as a bureaucratic foreign policy maker probably look very strange to the common American.  If you don’t value defense industry profits over the lives of remote foreigners, you might not be able to keep your job for very long.

Harris has this other idea about morality that he calls the Moral Landscape.  In this theory, he proposes that there must be a way to find objective moral truths.  He takes as a premise that all morals basically boil down to achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of conscious minds, more or less.

But what if we treat morals as memes?  What if morals are behaviors that evolve to allow us to survive in different environments?  The rich West has a different environment generally than the Global South.  The US Defence Department has a different environment than GreenPeace.  This fellow Axelrod used this thing called game theory to simulate simple games among agents to see which strategies survived.  He discovered that a tit-for-tat strategy was the most successful; so people who cooperate at first, but are willing to punish bad behavior, will be more successful.  There is also this idea that forgiveness can help people break out of the cycles of vengeance we see in Hatfield and McCoy sort of conflicts.  Morals are probably a lot more like these strategies, and Harris would do well to put survival as the starting premise.

If we recognize that morals are strategies that help us survive in our local environments, then we can move closer to discovering the real objective truth about morals.

3 thoughts on “The Truth About Morals

  1. I took Chomsky’s main point to be that *strong* claims about moral superiority, such as the one made by Harris, are at best indefensible, for a couple of reasons. One is that there is copious evidence that good intentions are in the eye of the beholder (aka monsters believe they are not monsters). But the second line of attack he uses is that there really is no reliable calculus to be had. Sometimes, there is no relation that consistently assigns greater-than to all items in a set.

    I am not sure how far the latter claim can be justified, but there is merit in it.

  2. Great writing Scott.

    I think you make a great case for the dangers of seeking out “objective moral values”. The belief in universal moralism leads oh so easily to a belief that my morals are somehow “more true”. It’s a slippery slope from that position to good, old fashioned bigotry.

    A relativity of moralism leaves the door open to the possibility of alternate points of view.

    The wonderful thing about the human mind, is that it can actually hold more than one set of values and think from multiple perspectives. However morality has historically been a powerful social engineering tool, used to close out paths of thinking that question established dogma.

    The suppression of Galileo is the classic example of this. Today, instead of a flat world, think of a world made up of surveillance states. Instead of Gallileo think Snowden. Now think the morals through from both sides.

    Is one point of view really more valid than the other?

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