In a 2015 private email conversation, published on Sam Harris’s website, he (neuroscientist and popular atheist philosopher) and Noam Chomsky (linguist and prominent critic of US foreign policy) exchange thousands of words in an attempt to reach a common understanding, and get nowhere.
(I don’t particularly recommend reading this conversation. Throughout, Chomsky comes across as rather grumpy, which is human, but perhaps not rhetorically the best choice. Harris is more civil, but is hardly his best self.)
A main point of contention between them is the Al-Shifa bombing: in 1998, shortly following truck bombings at multiple US embassies in which more than 200 people were killed, the Clinton administration destroyed the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, claiming that there was strong evidence that it was manufacturing chemical weapons. Since the bombing, no evidence of chemical weapons manufacturing has been found (and in this case lack of evidence is evidence of lack—if Al-Shifa had been manufacturing chemical weapons there would be certain chemical traces), and the US federal government has since acknowledged that the evidence that prompted the attack was not as solid as first portrayed. Still, the United States has not apologized, nor has it formally investigated the attack or its impact.
Chomsky argues, and Harris appears to take his word for it, that the human loss of life (there are no formal estimates because the attack was never investigated) resulting from destroying Al-Shifa was comparable to, if not greater than, the death toll from 9/11, and he points out that a similar attack in the United States, or in the UK, or in Israel would result in serious outcry, even though in the more developed world redundancies in the pharmaceutical supply chain would make the impact far less.
The consequences of the Al-Shifa attack were, obviously, horrific—I trust Harris would agree, although he never goes so far as to explicitly say so. Instead, he takes issue with Chomsky’s implicit “moral equivalence” between 9/11 and Al-Shifa—within Chomsky’s silence on the relative morality of the two events there is a real sense of moral ambiguity and the suggestion that Al-Shifa may have been worse.
What is lacking in Chomsky’s worldview, according to Harris, is recognition of the importance of intent. Two events with the same body count can have vastly different moral implications depending on the intent of the actors. Murder is wrong. Death as a side effect of sincere humanitarian action is unfortunate, but is sometimes just. Of course, as Chomsky points out, almost all atrocious acts are committed while professing sincere benign intentions (Chomsky cites the examples of Japanese and German fascists), but it is a central tenet of Harris’s worldview—and one that I agree with—that we should not pretend not to know the difference between someone who is fighting with sincere belief for the supremacy of their ethnic group, and someone who is fighting with sincere belief for freedom. I agree, intent is important.
But in his discussion of intent, Harris displays alarming ignorance on how we should judge intent. He ranks the relative evilness of three different actions, in descending order (and I quote):
1. al-Qaeda wanted and intended to kill thousands of innocent people—and did so.
2. Clinton (as you [Chomsky] imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill thousands of innocent people. He simply wanted to destroy a valuable pharmaceutical plant. But he knew that he would be killing thousands of people, and he simply didn’t care.
3. Clinton (as I [Harris] imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill anyone at all, necessarily. He simply wanted to destroy what he believed to be a chemical weapons factory. But he did wind up killing innocent people, and we don’t really know how he felt about it.
(I should clarify that Chomsky’s view is that the Al-Shifa attack was retaliation for the embassy bombings.)
There is, in essence, no evidence for Harris’s version of events. Although the United States government claimed at the time to believe that the factory was producing chemical weapons, they have since mostly retracted that claim. Harris is taking on faith that the intent of the United States government was good. The goal of US foreign policy is always to further Harris’s version of the American Project: to prevent war crimes and oppression; and to advance freedom, democracy and human well-being.
I would hope, that as a prominent atheist, Harris would know better than to have blind faith in the benevolence of institutions.
Throughout history, governments have used religion to grant themselves legitimacy.
In Europe, the Catholic Church maintained control through Christianity for more than a thousand years, and kings ruled through divine right. In the Middle East, the Ottoman empire maintained cohesion through Islam. In India the ruling caste derived its right to rule from the Hindu religion. And so on.
Sociologists have theorized about the American Civil Religion. Although ostensibly secular, the United States government draws much of its legitimacy from quasi-religious structures. There are sacred texts (The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution) and sacred symbols (the flag); and important historical figures are celebrated in state-run
temples monuments and memorials, and their portraits enlarged 100-fold are even blasted into sacred mountains.
This quasi-religiosity isn’t necessarily a bad thing (okay, so Mount Rushmore was definitely a bad thing, but more broadly the American Civil Religion is not necessarily bad). An important part of leadership, and an important function of religion, is fostering positive group identity, and a lot of important activism has been done in the name of American ideals. And if our moral leaders are also in our government, there’s nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, a well functioning democracy would elect many of its moral and spiritual leaders to government positions. But when we find ourselves using religious or quasi-religious reasoning to justify violence we should be very afraid, and very very skeptical.
Suppose I told you that there is a teapot orbiting the sun somewhere in between Earth and Mars.
What? You don’t believe me? Well, why not? Surely you can’t disprove the existence of the teapot.
What if I told you that this outer-space teapot, through the power of caﬀeine and warm water, actually enforces peace worldwide? That would be nice to believe, wouldn’t it?
Well, yeah you can point out that yes it’s a nice story, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. It would be nice if we all lived forever in the sky, but that doesn’t mean we’re immortal. But you still can’t disprove my benevolent teapot.
Oh, you think you can disprove it? There are lots of violent areas that drink tea. Horrible atrocities have been committed in tea-drinking countries!
No, no, no, no, no. The teapot works in mysterious ways.
What Russel’s teapot in its original form (the first two paragraphs of the previous section) sought to show was that the burden of proof should always be placed on the existence side of a debate. Non-existence cannot be proven.
This burden of proof question can be reframed as the question of a default belief. What would a rational person believe in the absence of evidence? Is there a teapot in outer space? No.
Who bears the burden of proof in the question of the intentions of the United States government?
Well, first of all, surely the default answer should not be that any given authority is good. Authorities throughout history have acted in oppressive and tyrannical ways. We should have evidence before we claim that any particular authority is a good authority.
But I would go even further. This question, although it may not be obvious on the surface, is a question of existence: The existence of a fundamental benevolence (or in the case of cynics the existence of a fundamental malevolence). The fundamental benevolence of the US federal government cannot be disproven. Evil doers who ramble at length about their evil plans exist to my knowledge only in movies and in the Nixon White House. We should not have to find definitive proof before we doubt the benevolence behind an action that led to the deaths of thousands of people.
I’m an atheist, but I don’t particularly dislike religion. When I was a child, I thought that eradicating incorrect beliefs could do a lot of good for the world, but I’ve come to realize that beliefs like belief in the Christian God are often harmless, or even beneficial. Yes, Christianity has been used to justify oppression and exploitation, but it has also been used to encourage love and compassion. So to be clear, I’m not arguing against faith in the US government simply because it resembles religion.
Faith in the US government resembles the worst aspects of religion. As Sam Harris has pointed out in his criticism of Christianity, “Religious faith…erodes compassion. Thoughts like, ‘this might be all part of God’s plan,’ or ‘there are no accidents in life,’ or ‘everyone on some level gets what he or she deserves’ – these ideas are not only stupid, they are extraordinarily callous. They are nothing more than a childish refusal to connect with the suffering of other human beings. It is time to grow up and let our hearts break at moments like this.”
Faith in the US government erodes compassion. Thoughts like, “This looks atrocious but it is all part of a sincere humanitarian program,” are the selfish refusal to connect with the suffering of other people.
And the effect of this refusal to connect is horrific. The American Civil Religion isn’t just a personal belief system. It is the story that holds up the most powerful government in the world. Blind belief in the US government does not only prevent empathy: Under the framework of the American Civil Religion itself, belief in the benevolence of the US government makes us complicit in foreign atrocities.
The US government is (to some approximation) democratic, and is held accountable to the American voter. The soul of the average American is good. When we see a stranger suffering, we care. We have compassion for others. The average American does not want to kill thousands of innocents. The average American would be willing to endure significant personal inconvenience in order to avoid personally causing the deaths of thousands of innocents. But when we blindly accept that all foreign intervention is well-intended, we are essentially asking the government to prioritize our personal comfort over the lives of thousands of innocent human beings.
If we believe that the government is democratic (because certainly if we don’t believe the story that legitimizes it, we have no reason to assume that it is benevolent), then by assuming that any given foreign action is benevolent, we are saying that foreign malevolence would make no difference to us. Which changes more votes: The decision to bomb foreign medical facilities, or small changes in domestic GDP?
This is what faith in its worst form does: justifies ill-gotten comfort so that we can live pleasurable lives through the oppression of others. The prosperity gospel tells wealthy people they deserve their wealth and should live luxuriously without interrogating the often exploitative source of their money. The American Civil Religion tells us, when we see innocent people dying of preventable disease in Africa, that this is the world functioning as well as it can. The US government is trying its best. Sometimes it looks like the government committed horrendous war-crimes in retaliation for a relatively small embassy bombing, but we know that the plan is Good, even if there are occasional well-intentioned mistakes.
Maybe this post should end with a call to action, but I don’t know what we should do. Make ourselves more aware somehow ??? of all the times when US foreign policy has looked really atrocious? And then what? I don’t know. I don’t have the answers.
But I will say at the very least we should not assume, when we hear of something horrific the US government has done, that it is an innocent mistake. Even if we trust the people we’ve elected to represent us, we should remember that these people are working under perverse incentives. Clinton wound up killing thousands of innocent people, and we don’t know how he felt about it. I, personally, childishly desire to believe that Clinton is a Good Person. I met him when I was three years old, and he was nice to me. I disagree with his policies and his personal conduct, but deep down, aren’t we all Good? But even if the government is made of Good People, to do the most good they need to be re-elected. They need to focus on what the American voters feel and see.
It is therefore our civic responsibility to feel and see the suffering and deaths of the people who don’t get to vote for the American World Government, to demand evidence for the benevolent intentions of government decisions. It’s not enough to elect good people to the government. The government has to have the right incentives, and those incentives come from the voters. When we hear about an event like Al-Shifa, and we assume without evidence that it was a well-intentioned mistake, we are in essence giving our government permission to make future similar “well-intentioned mistakes.” We are saying that atrocious acts committed abroad will not change our votes. We are asking the government to prioritize our personal comfort over the lives of thousands of innocent people. We are complicit in mass murder.