All Good Intentions: But does Sam Harris have what it takes to be Buddhist?

All Good Intentions: But does Sam Harris have what it takes to be Buddhist? May 26, 2015

A guest post by Marek Sullivan:

The recent email scuffle between linguistics professor and political commentator Noam Chomsky, and atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris has brought to light the severity of Harris’s emphasis on intention as the ultimate moral parameter in questions of military ethics. According to Harris, “Ethically speaking, intention is (nearly) the whole story.” This is how he can claim that Bill Clinton and Osama Bin Laden live “in a different moral universe entirely,” or elsewhere that “There is a difference between the Dick Cheneys of the world, and the Al-Baghdadis of the world.” Cheney’s intentions, insofar as they are aimed at preserving the integrity of American values (freedom, democracy, etc.), are good. Al-Baghdadi’s intentions, insofar as they are aimed at destroying those same values, are bad. Cheney: good. Al-Baghdadi: bad. Simple.

But is it? Chomsky is surely right to point up the gap between intention and effect. Every tyrant and war criminal has acted under the aegis of “good” intentions: what they perceived to be good really was “good,” not just for them but usually for those around them too. This is not to give in to moral relativism; it is to accept that what is “good” is at least partially contingent upon a social consensus grounded in specific historical and cultural circumstances, and hence open to revision as history unwinds. With regard to Iraq and the events at Guantanamo Bay, history will be the judge, though one may reasonably hold that waterboarding and rectal feeding constitute grounds for moral contestation even now, and even at the level of intention. Were the intentions “good” when hunger-strikers at Guantanamo were rectally-fed so forcefully they suffered anal fissures and permanent rectal prolapses? (Cheney’s response: “I believe it was done for medical reasons” or, tit for tat, “Torture to me is an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death on the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11.”)

Many of my friends support Harris’s neuroscientific work and “secular spirituality” while condemning his views on Western intervention. Even Salon, Harris’s online nemesis, endorses this split evaluation of Harris’s work: “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.” The assumption here is that Harris’s neuroscience-cum-spirituality can—and should—be clearly distinguished from his politics, a convenient assumption, but one that should be challenged.

I want to do this by focusing on two aspects of Harris’s work: (1) his emphasis on lucid detachment as a cornerstone of spiritual practice, and (2) his foregrounding of intention as the basis for morality. While it may seem that linking Harris’s Buddhism to his politics compromises Buddhism, I will suggest that, on the contrary, a proper understanding of Buddhism compromises Harris’s politics. By examining Buddhist approaches to intention, and a third aspect of Harris’s ethics (his extrapolations from the Buddhist/neuroscientific theory of “no-self”) this article shows that it is Buddhism, not Harris, that holds the higher moral ground.

Detachment is a running theme throughout Harris’s work. His recent book Waking Up (2014) is all about achieving a state of detached lucidity wherein the workings of the mind reveal themselves of themselves, simply by cultivating attentive awareness or “mindfulness.” Such detached awareness is naturally conducive to happiness as we are no longer blown around by our tempestuous thoughts and emotions. The mind comes under control. We can see clearly, we are awake.

Mindfulness and detachment, of course, have a long history in Buddhism. They are crucial to attaining Buddhism’s final goal, nirvana. What is less obviously Buddhist, however, is Harris’s mindful and detached endorsement of torture.

In his antireligious polemic The End of Faith (2004), Sam Harris draws a startling analogy between torture and a well-known optical illusion. According to Harris, our revulsion vis à vis torture is analogous to the “big moon” effect: the moon seems much bigger low on the horizon than high in the sky, but once we hold a ruler out against the moon we see that its size stays the same wherever it is. Similarly, once we realise the greater number of potential casualties involved in a bomb plot we will stop feeling so guilty about the micro-problem of torture. Ethical problems surrounding torture are an illusion. A detached and lucid perspective tells us torture is necessary if only we could see it. Detachment and torture thus go hand in hand: the first is necessary for the moral integrity (or perception thereof) of the second.

Although Harris has not made this clear, perhaps because of his general anti-religious agenda, “intention” lies at the heart of Buddhist ethics. But it receives far subtler treatment there. In fact, Buddhist thought on intention (cetanā) challenges Harris’s ethical arguments at quite a fundamental level. How?

In his essay ‘Can Killing a Living Being Ever Be an Act of Compassion?’, Rupert Gethin, Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol, points out that ‘for Theravāda [i.e. “mainstream”] Buddhist thought the motivation underlying the intention or will to act is sufficient to determine an act as “moral” (kusala) or “immoral” (akusala).’ (189) In other words, intention is everything when it comes to moral judgments, exactly as Harris suggests. But this does not mean that killing is permissible, even if the intention is apparently “innocent.” Even, that is, in the context of euthanasia.

The problem is that purely “innocent” or “good” homicidal intentions are quite literally impossible from the Buddhist point of view. This is because every violent act (and killing is always violent) always throws up the possibility of a less than good intention at some deep level of our psyche. According to Gethin, mainstream Buddhism sees compassionate killing as a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron, which brings us up against a ‘psychoethical puzzle or riddle’ grounded in uncertainty: ‘If you can intentionally kill out of compassion, then fine, go ahead. But are you sure? Are you sure that what you think are friendliness and compassion are really friendliness and compassion? Are you sure that some subtle aversion and delusion have not surfaced in the mind?’ (190)

To be sure, there is a difference between euthanasia and “collateral damage,” Harris’s principal focus in defending American intervention. Euthanasia is deliberate, targeted homicide according to the wishes of the “victim.” Collateral damage is, at least according to Harris, “accidental,” an undesired side effect of “doing the right thing.” You just can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

But the point concerning uncertainty holds. It is this that is radically absent from Harris’s writings. He is sure that Dick Cheney’s motives were good during Iraq, as were Clinton’s when he bombed al-Shifa, even though the multitude of agents and possible vested interests surrounding these interventions muddies their underlying intentions. The mere shadow of “profit” or “PR” could be enough to compromise any American intervention from a Buddhist point of view. Indeed, even putting these issues aside, a Buddhist might well ask how Harris can be so sure of anyone’s motives—let alone the motives of an abstract, multi-agencied government—if we cannot be so sure of our own.

Gethin finishes his essay by concluding that ‘In the end ethical principles cannot solve the problem of how to act in the world. If we want to know how to act in accordance with Dhamma, we must know our own minds.’ (190) The question, then, is whether our minds, pending enlightenment, are really so transparent to us as Harris makes out. Gethin doesn’t think so, and everything in the histories of psychoanalysis and neuroscience (Harris’s own discipline) agrees. Perhaps Harris’s mind is crystal clear to him, and he can say with absolute certainty that this or that action of his is genuinely well intentioned. I know that I could not. And even if I could, that would not bring me one step closer to determining the rightness of someone else’s actions.

To summarize so far, Harris’s spirituality is closely bound up with his military ethics. If detachment and intention are central to Buddhist ethics, they are also central to Harris’s. Yet Harris works only with a superficial understanding of intentionality. Buddhism is more cautious, more sophisticated when it comes to questions of “true” intent.

But Buddhism is also more sophisticated with regard to Harris’s ethical deployment of the Buddhist doctrine of “no-” or “not-self.” According to Harris, the absence of a united self behind the diversity of human experience has ethical implications inasmuch as it erodes the artificial boundary built up between self and other: ‘Almost every problem we have can be ascribed to the fact that human beings are utterly beguiled by their feelings of separateness. It would seem that a spirituality that undermined such dualism, through the mere contemplation of consciousness, could not help but improve our situation.’ (The End of Faith, 214) Realising ‘the selflessness of consciousness’ should naturally lead to more ethical behaviour, for ‘A vast literature on meditation suggests that negative social emotions such as hatred, envy, and spite both proceed from and ramify our dualistic perception of the world.’ (Ibid, 219)

Here, Harris is in strict agreement with the metaphysical underpinnings of so-called “deep ecology.” For deep ecologists, a more caring, environmentally friendly attitude can emerge from recognising our embeddedness in, and dependence upon, the world. If there is no boundary between our “selves” and the world, or our “selves” and “others”—if we are deeply interconnected with the universe—then injuring the world or “others” is equivalent to injuring ourselves. And why would we do that?

Apart from the massive irony involved in learning about non-dualism from a man who has made a career out of reifying and antagonizing different peoples and points of view (e.g., science versus religion, the West versus Islam, Israel versus Palestine), there are some very basic philosophical issues surrounding this kind of non-dual ethics. Most obviously, it enables no categorical distinction between desirable and non-desirable things: as the late Buddhist scholar  and eco-critic Ian Harris asked, how, based on a metaphysics of non-duality, can we favour polar bears over toxic waste? And how do we praise the hero and punish the criminal, something Harris dissonantly insists upon with his adversarial, neo-conservative stance, despite paying lip service to non-duality?

I will not dwell on this issue here (plenty has been written on it elsewhere), but will point rather to a more sinister aspect of non-dualism: its compatibility with fascistic totalitarianism. Indeed, it is a little known fact that the metaphysics of deep ecology formed the basis of Joseph Stalin’s dialectical materialism, and hence for the ideological unity and repressive totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. In a passage that could come straight out of a deep ecological (or indeed Buddhist) text, but in fact comes from Stalin’s own pen, we read that:

[N]ature [is not] an accidental agglomeration of things, of phenomena, unconnected with, isolated from, and independent of, each other, but … a connected and integral whole, in which things, phenomena are organically connected with, dependent on, and determined by, each other …. [N]o phenomenon in nature can be understood if taken by itself, isolated from surrounding phenomena, inasmuch as any phenomenon in any realm of nature may become meaningless to us if it is not considered in connection with the surrounding conditions, but divorced from them; and … vice versa, any phenomenon can be understood and explained if considered in its inseparable connection with surrounding phenomena, as one conditioned by surrounding phenomena.[1]

That Stalin, one of the most murderous dictators of the twentieth century, endorsed precisely the non-duality that Harris uses to ground his ethics should give pause for thought. It should certainly make us question any claim that realising non-duality “could not help but improve our situation.” In fact, even in the twelfth century Buddhist practitioners were questioning this naïve assumption. Here is one of the most important East Asian Buddhists of all time, the Korean monk Chinul (1158 – 1210), speaking on ethics and non-duality:

To see clearly one’s Buddha-nature is to realize that sentient beings and the Buddha are equal and that there is no discrimination between “me” and others. However, I worry that if one does not make the vow of compassion, s/he will stagnate in the state of calmness. The Exposition of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra says: “The nature of wisdom being calm, it needs to be guarded by the vow.”[2]

Perhaps this ambivalence over the ethical import of non-duality explains why eminent contemporary teachers like the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh still maintain a system of moral rules (a reinterpretation of the five Buddhist precepts called the “Five Mindfulness Trainings”) despite simultaneously advocating our interconnectedness with the world. For Chinul and Nhat Hanh, vows are important. They express a commitment to something beyond our immediate impulses. They are perhaps a more honest response to human impetuosity.

All of this shows, I think, that Buddhist ethics are more complex and mature, by virtue of their inherent uncertainty and ambivalence, than Harris imagines (putting paid to the New Atheist trope that “Religion deals in certainties, science in doubt”). There is a reason for Buddhism’s complexity. Like all the “world religions,” it has the benefit of an accumulated body of knowledge, centuries old, around some of the most difficult moral questions we ever have to face. These questions are inevitably messy and must remain as such: no appeal to intention or non-duality is ever likely to settle complex issues like euthanasia and the “benevolence” of Western military intervention.

Despite his general anti-religiosity, Harris has made his Buddhist favouritism clear:

the esoteric teachings of Buddhism offer the most complete methodology we have for discovering the intrinsic freedom of consciousness, unencumbered by any dogma …. Though there is much in Buddhism that I do not pretend to understand—as well as much that seems deeply implausible—it would be intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge its preeminence as a system of spiritual instruction. (The End of Faith, 214-5)

Elsewhere Harris wants to get rid of the “religious” bits and keep the “essence” of Buddhism, such as its emphasis on detachment, intention, and non-duality. He wants to “Kill the Buddha” in Linji’s oft-quoted phrase.

But I want to end by suggesting the “religious bits” are absolutely non-trivial, especially when it comes down to questions of ethics. The messiness of Buddhist ethics is not jettisonable; it is part and parcel of the eightfold path. This path, like every religious path, is hard to follow. It involves humility, self-searching, determination, and, perhaps above all, doubt.

So next time you hear Harris say that “we should dispense with Buddhism,” remember it may be the other way around: Buddhism should dispense with Sam Harris. Because when it comes down to it, one really has to ask: does Sam Harris have what it takes to be Buddhist?

[1] Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938)

[2] Han’guk Pulgyo chonso 韓國佛教全書, 4.755b, cited in Park, Jin. Buddhism and Postmodernity: Zen, Huayan, and the Possibility of Buddhist Postmodern Ethics (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008), 198.

Marek is a PhD candidate in Theology at the University of Oxford (Balliol) with a research background in Buddhist philosophy and ethics, particularly Buddhist environmentalism. He has a Master’s in Oriental Studies (also from Oxford), and a BA in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol. While maintaining a strong interest in Buddhist thought, he has recently shifted his focus to the contemporary phenomenon of “New Atheism,” and ways in which it may distort its object of derision — religion — for ideological purposes.

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