Do Intentions Matter? On Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky

Do Intentions Matter? On Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky May 13, 2015

I just read a fascinating email exchange between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky. You can read the exchange here, and commentary on it here and here.

In sum, Harris refused to back down from his claim that Chomsky has never thought about the ethical import of intentions, even when Chomsky made it very clear that he has, often, for decades. But what came across extremely clearly was how differently the two feel about whether and how intentions matter.

As Harris put it:

Ethically speaking, intention is (nearly) the whole story. The difference between intending to harm someone and accidentally harming them is enormous—if for no other reason than that the presence of harmful intent tells us a lot about what a person or group is likely to do in the future.

In contrast, Chomski argued that even the Japanese and Hitler during WWII arguably had good intentions.* Chomski made it clear that he sees harm done as significantly more important to the ethicality of an act than the intentions of the perpetrator. He contended that benign intentions coupled with a lack of care for the havoc wreaked by one’s actions could be seen as more ethically problematic than malicious intentions that at least acknowledge the harm caused.

What’s particularly odd is what seems, at least at first glance, like a double standard coming from Harris. When looking at U.S. foreign policy Harris argues, as quoted above, that intentions are “(nearly) the whole story.” He sees the al-Shifa bombings as ethically justified, even though they destroyed half of Sudan’s medical supplies and led to tens of thousands of deaths, because he believes Clinton honestly believed the plant was a chemical weapons plant (something Chomsky contested). But when it comes to religion and intentions, Harris is not generally so charitable.

My evangelical parents had completely good intentions when they adopted the child training methods of Michael and Debi Pearl, and then used corporal punishment to “break” their children’s wills. They believed they were doing what they had to save our souls—to spare us the pain of eternal torment—and that the physical and psychological suffering they meted out was the necessary price to bring about a greater good. Surely Harris would not see my parents’ actions as ethically justified based on their good intentions?

Surely Harris is aware that those doing harm in the name of religion often have the best of intentions, right? I went digging to try to find somewhere where he has addressed this question, and I came up with this footnote from his End of Faith:

Are intentions really the bottom line? What are we to say, for instance, about those Christian missionaries in the New World who baptized Indian infants only to promptly kill them, thereby sending them to heaven? Their intentions were (apparently) good. Were their actions ethical? Yes, within the confines of a deplorably limited worldview. The medieval apothecary who gave his patients quicksilver really was trying to help. He was just mistaken about the role this element played in the human body. Intentions matter, but they are not all that matters.

In other words, Harris contends that baptizing and then killing an Indian infant is “ethical . . . within the confines of a deplorably limited worldview.” He would likely argue, then, that my parents actions were “ethical” within the context of their specific worldview (particularly with it’s emphasis on a literal hell). Yet when it comes to the harm that results from these actions, Harris doesn’t feel the need to bring intentions and ethics into the picture:

There are people who have really been terrorized by their parents, and people who terrorize their kids with a fear of hell, for instance. I hear from people who their entire life — they’re in their 40s and they’re only now just coming out of the prison of having spent their entire lives being afraid of being tortured (for) an eternity by Satan. This is in the 21st century, in the United States.

If you’ve read more of Harris, feel free to weigh in here. To me it feels as though he is unwilling to give religious individuals who cause harm albeit with good intentions much leeway, but is extremely ready to give U.S. foreign policy which cases harm but has (he claims) good intentions all the leeway in the world. Perhaps this hinges on his argument that harm caused by religion may be “ethical . . . within the confines of a deplorably limited worldview.” In other words, he may see harm caused by well intentioned U.S. foreign policy decisions as justified because he believes his own worldview, with its view of the global situation and the role of U.S. policy, is the correct one.

During his email exchange with Chomsky, Harris says that “ethically speaking, intention is (nearly) the whole story.” When speaking of U.S. foreign policy, Harris dismisses harm caused by focusing on intentions.

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. 

I’m pretty sure the tens of thousands of Sudanese who died as a result of U.S. actions would be comforted by knowing that our intentions were pure. Perhaps Harris is so convinced that his particular U.S.-centric worldview is correct that he hasn’t taken the time to step outside of it and look at it from others’ perspective. These Sudanese might be able to see that, within the confines of a specific U.S.-centric worldview, the U.S.’s actions were ethical, but that doesn’t mean they would share Harris’s conviction that this worldview is the correct one.

Harris’s emphasis on intentions bothers me. Don’t get me wrong, understanding intentions is important! But for Harris, intentions appear to matter more to the ethicality of an act than the harm that results from the act. My own ethical system is based more on whether one causes harm than on what one’s intentions are.

I mean gracious, if you look at the writings of antebellum Southerners,the belief that slavery was actually good for blacks was very common. They believed that blacks were naturally inferior and more barbaric, and that without the tutelage of white masters they would exist in a state of lazy and immoral heathenism. They argued that blacks were better off in slavery in the U.S. than they would be had they remained in Africa. Are their intentions really “(nearly) the whole story”?

Perhaps I feel most strongly about this question in part because of my interest in children’s rights. It is very common for a child abuser to argue that beating a child is in that child’s best interests—whether or not the abuse is based on religion. In some cases the parent wants to save the child from hell, and in other cases the parent simply wants to “make a man” of a child, etc. Are we to see child abuse as ethical because the intentions are good?

And honestly, who doesn’t have good intentions? Everyone is justified in their own eyes. If we use intentions to gauge whether or not an act is ethical, we will quickly find ourselves in very deep water. The harm an action causes has to matter more to us than the intentions of the one causing the harm, regardless of the worldview within which they are operating.

* A reader named Cynthia emailed me concerned by the assertion that Hitler had good intentions. She pointed out that Chomsky actually called Hitler’s intentions “sincere” rather than “good,” which is an interesting point that I had missed. I think I overlooked that because whether intentions are “sincere” seemed to me to be irrelevant to whether or not they are “good.” But perhaps Chomsky is conflating the two? I am not sure.

Cynthia also gave me permission to post this excerpt from her email:

Hitler’s actual intentions are well documented.  He intended to build an ever-expanding empire for the master Aryan race, to use “inferior” races as slaves, and to commit genocide against those he deemed subhuman.  He created Hitler Youth specifically to create a youth that was brutal and cruel.  He and his fellow Nazi ideologues even rejected the very notion of “good”.  They adopted parts of the Fascist ideology of Nietzsche, which sees the ubermentsch (“superman”) as being beyond good and evil, and which also sees the very notion of values such as good and evil as tools of lesser beings.  Hitler knew perfectly well that his program of genocide was considered wrong.  That’s why the Nazis went through the effort of constructing an elaborate ruse, the Terezin “model” concentration camp, where they showed the Red Cross that Jews were treated well and made propaganda films.  After they served their purpose, most of the inmates were killed.

You and I would agree that the actual harm done was horrific.  To get personal, my great-aunt and my husband’s great-grandparents were murdered.  In our community, our families are considered to have been almost unaffected – many of our friends are children or grandchildren of survivors, and we grew up surrounded by survivors.

What you need to understand is that for us, it could have been even worse.  We are alive.  The Nazis killed 1/3 of the world’s Jewish population – but they INTENDED to kill the other 2/3 as well.  The intentions make him even more evil and terrifying (especially because aspects of his ideology live on).  You know how you grew up with a fear of Hell?  Well, practically everyone I know grew up with that same fear, except that Hell was the Holocaust.  Instead of scary stories and paintings, we had actual testimony from those who had seen gas chambers and cremetoria, we had news reels showing people turned into living skeletons and piles of dead bodies, and we even had visits where we could see the ashes and bones for ourselves.

Imagine being in my shoes, and reading that someone’s intention to brutally murder you and your entire family, to target the children and the elderly and mothers of young children first, to design an entire program to demonize anyone like you – is being described as being “arguably good”.  Imagine reading further comments describing how he was acting nobly by getting rid of the “scourge” of World Jewry.

Many thanks to Cynthia for her email.

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