Sam Harris, ‘Moral Equivalence’, and Misrepresenting Noam Chomsky


May 2, 2015 by James Crossley

Sam Harris has long been a critic of Noam Chomsky on issues relating to the war on terror and US foreign policy. A couple of days ago, he tried to engage Chomsky in a debate over email. Harris writes on his website:

Last week, I did my best to engineer a public conversation with Chomsky about the ethics of war, terrorism, state surveillance, and related topics. As readers of the following email exchange will discover, I failed. I’ve decided to publish this private correspondence, with Chomsky’s permission, as a cautionary tale. Clearly, he and I have drawn different lessons from what was, unfortunately, an unpleasant and fruitless encounter. I will let readers draw lessons of their own.

Chomsky’s reasons are published:

Most of what I’ve read of yours is material that has been sent to me about my alleged views, which is completely false.  I don’t see any point in a public debate about misreadings.  If there are things you’d like to explore privately, fine.  But with sources.

As it happens, I published something on this issue several years ago (with sources) and it was clear to me then (as now) that Harris does indeed misrepresent Chomsky on a crucial issue for Harris’ critique of Chomsky (and ‘the Left’). The following is based on Harris’ discussion of Chomsky in Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (London: Simon & Schuster, 2004), pp. 139-44.

For Harris, Chomsky is an ‘exquisitely moral man whose political views prevent him from making the most basic moral distinctions – between types of violence, and the variety of human responses that give rise to them.’ Harris also added further to the post-Sept. 11 misunderstanding of Chomsky’s comments on the 1998 bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant in Sudan and the uncounted deaths it caused. Here Harris accused Chomsky of drawing ‘moral equivalences’ between US actions and actions of those such as al-Qaeda, which no ‘honest’ take on current events could make. Before we critique Harris, we might note that this implies that Harris implied opponents are, according to this logic, presumably lying or dishonest.

As with his brief email exchange with Chomsky, Harris focused on motivation and intention: there was, he claimed, no intention to kill as many Sudanese as possible. By contrast, Harris argued, those associated with al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein are in a ‘different moral universe entirely’ to George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Therefore, so Harris’ logic would go, Chomsky’s alleged comparisons between Bush, on the one hand, and a dictator like Saddam Hussein on the other, are facile. Harris acknowledged issues relating to US foreign policy as a potential contributing factor but ultimately claimed (and note the emphasis on intentions) that the US is a ‘well-intentioned giant’ and that it is apparently astonishing that people like Chomsky (and Arundhati Roy) do not see this. For Harris, Bush would not target innocent people if he had a ‘perfect weapon’, unlike, he added, bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. This is because US is deemed by Harris to be far morally developed than many other (Muslim) cultures.  Despite the bad things that may have been done by ‘us’, at the least there is outrage at violence from ‘us’, he argued, which would distinguish ‘us’ from so many of ‘our’ enemies. Harris used the analogy that makers of cars and hockey sticks know people will get hurt and die but that was never the intention.

There is much that could (and has) been said about Harris’ Orientalist approach, individualized rhetoric of ‘intentions’ and, it seems, some sort of triumphal personal morality, which masks the vast complexity of structure and agency involved in trying to explain what might be going on with the emergence of al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, and ‘the war on terror’. And, what happens if we follow Harris’ logic? What should we make of those carpet bombed in Cambodia, however many actually died in the Iraq war, or the recipients of white phosphorus in Falluja? Should they be grateful for Harris’ explanation that, ideally, innocents would not have been killed? Would they be relieved to know that bombs, depleted uranium, white phosphorus, or the arms industry were presumably created as innocently as hockey sticks and cars? Or roller coasters, as Harris adds in his latest post.

But the focus here is on Harris’ representation of Chomsky.  Let’s take the example of ‘moral equivalence’. We might even ask how ‘morality’ might be measured to get ‘equivalence’. But does Chomsky do this? Well, one problem for Harris’ argument is that he does not once cite Chomsky discussing moral equivalence (recall Chomsky’s wish for ‘sources’ in his exchange with Harris). In fact, Harris was discussing Chomsky’s very short book on September 11 (and he continues to focus on this book alone in his email exchange) which is problematic when trying to represent Chomsky given that he has (famously) published countless works relating to American foreign policy.

What is more problematic is that Chomsky actually has discussed the concept of ‘moral equivalence’ on several occasions, up to and before Harris published End of Faith. Indeed, Harris continues this line in his exchange with Chomsky (‘The liberal fallacy that I will attempt to unravel in the present section is the notion that we made these enemies and that we are, therefore, their “moral equivalent.” We are not.’). Here are some of the examples where Chomsky previously and explicitly rejected the concept of ‘moral equivalence’ as meaningless:

…moral equivalence. There is no such notion. There are many different dimensions and criteria. For example, there’s no moral equivalence between the bombing of the World Trade Center and the destruction of Nicaragua or of El Salvador, of Guatemala. The latter were far worse, by any criterion. So there’s no moral equivalence. Furthermore, they were done for different reasons and they were done in different ways. There’s all sorts of dimensions…

The term moral equivalence is an interesting one, it was invented I think by Jeane Kirkpatrick as a method of trying to prevent criticism of foreign policy and state decisions. It has a meaningless notion, there is no moral equivalence what so ever.

Harris was not the first person (or indeed the first ‘New Atheist’) who had accused Chomsky of promoting a concept of ‘moral equivalence’. Here’s Chomsky’s response to Christopher Hitchens in 2001 (which may also shed light on Chomsky’s reluctance to engage Harris):

Hitchens condemns the claim of ‘facile “moral equivalence” between the two crimes.’ Fair enough, but since he fabricated the claim out of thin air, I feel no need to comment.

On this central issue for Harris’ critique, then, he has clearly misrepresented Chomsky and it seems that it continues to be in issue in this present correspondence.


9 thoughts on “Sam Harris, ‘Moral Equivalence’, and Misrepresenting Noam Chomsky

  1. Sir, I have trouble believing that you accept Prof Chomsky’s claim that he doesn’t partake in attempting Moral Equivalence whilst in the same sentence he compares 9/11 with US interventions in Latin American that occurred many decades earlier.
    For me the very fact that Prof Chomsky has to refer to past administrations for his comparison is evidence that he’s claims are very thin. Even in those examples – which occurred during the back drop of the cold war – there’s no evidence that the US were systematically attempting maximum civilian casualties which was the obvious intention of Al Quida.
    Not only does Prof Chomsky attempt Moral Equivalence but he partakes in very poor moral equivocation. Both Harris and Hitchens seem perfectly justified in their accusations.
    Yours sincerely.


    • I don’t think it is that difficult to accept Chomsky’s argument and consistency. He makes no measurement of moral equivalence because, as he says, it is meaningless. He instead asks questions along the lines of whether by the same criteria being used how American actions would fare and whether the questioner might raise different atrocities. It’s a typical move by Chomsky (and plenty of others who do similar things to Chomsky) to ask why emphasise this and why not that. In other words, what interests are at play in making such emphases? This is not the same as moral equivalence which Chomsky (rightly) does not believe meaningful. Yes, Chomsky mentions past administrations but simply dismissing these as being against the backdrop of the Cold War is misleading. With Harris and Hitchens the issue was sparked off by Clinton’s bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant in Sudan in 1998, which was recent enough in both cases and not a Cold War issue obviously. Likewise Chomsky discusses the US-UK sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, again post-Cold War and of direct relevance to the issue at hand. The destruction these sanctions caused was also predicted in advance. If I recall rightly, Chomsky also adds that there is no way of really knowing what discussions of the value of human life happened before the bombing of al-Shifa and the sanctions. What we can say is that there were countless (and presumably not exactly worthy as lives of others from the perspective of the Clinton administration) deaths in Sudan as a result and we know the sanctions were responsible for the deaths of 500,000 children according to the UN (and UN figures resigned because of this). What we probably can say is that concern for death was not high on the agenda but even if it was the results were horrific and so I’m not sure agonising over how ‘we’ are more sensitive matters much anyway.

      Put bluntly, both Harris and Hitchens were wrong. Chomsky never made moral equivalence and they both fabricated these claims. Neither understood Chomsky’s relatively basic point.


    • Neil Godfrey says:

      It appears you have not yet read the Chomsky-Harris exchange where rather than comparing Cold War actions Chomsky is discussing contemporary US administrations (Clinton, Bush) — so your conclusion that his evidence must be very thin because he must resort to very old events is unwarranted.

      Two events being specifically compared are 9/11 and the Clinton bombing of the Sudanese Al-Shifa pharmaceutical facility. Chomsky describes the former as a “horrendous crime” committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty” but makes no such description of the bombing of the Al-Shifa plant. Rather, Clinton did not “intend” or “want” to kill anyone, but his act was carried out with with complete disregard for the certain loss of human life:

      it just didn’t matter if lots of people are killed in a poor African country, just as we don’t care if we kill ants when we walk down the street. On moral grounds, that is arguably even worse than murder, which at least recognizes that the victim is human. That is exactly the situation.

      Moreover, like Harris, you also have avoided Chomsky’s point that intentions are never the basis by which we judge the crimes of our enemies (e.g. Japan’s intention in the 1930s and 1940s was to create an earthly paradise in Asia), so there is a hypocrisy at work when we insist that our own imagined intentions excuse our actions.


  2. Felix says:


    Interesting post.

    What I got from their email exchange was that Chomsky said that intentions aren’t imortant in these conflicts. And isn’t that what Sam has criticized Chomsky of?

    Even though the intentions could be hard to know it is still important to try to figure out what the different sides want.

    It is like watching two people fighting in a bar and you want to know who the aggressor is and who is defending themself. Very important so you can focus on holding down the right person and also who should get banned from the bar in the future.

    Chomsky seems to think that since both people are fighting and both of them are hurting each other, that is all that matters.

    Am I missing something?



    • I think it is more that it is hardly easy to know why individuals have behaved as they have–as Chomsky pointed out, we don’t know what motivations were discussed when Clinton ordered bombings but presumably angst over innocent lives could not have been too high. Chomsky has also looked at various documents stating aims of US foreign policy and analysed general assumed aims of US foreign policy. In the case of Iraq (and elsewhere) he noted that much has to do with establishing a power based and clients in a strategic location (in this case, the Middle East). This is (unsurprisingly) the aim of a dominant power and I guess is covered by intentions. Bringing love and peace is not an easy case to make.

      My own view on this is that Harris is misguided by thinking about intentions. The world is far more complex to be reducing the debates to somewhat individualistic or personalised motivations. How do we reduce geopolitical trends in terms of motivations? It is, of course, possible that there are people with idealised motivations (and some without) but that structure and dominant ideological, geopolitical trends can override personal good intentions. Chomsky discusses just this in the case of journalists: some may think they are doing it for honorable reasons but the propaganda model will typically win out.

      Another reason why I think Harris is misguided is that who doesn’t think what they are doing is for the common or greater good? Almost all imperial powers have claimed that they are behaving so for the greater good (as Chomsky points out), no matter how many massacres take place along the way. al-Qaeda or ISIS would likewise claim that what they are doing is for the good, no matter how disturbing we might find it. Motivations are, then, complex things and I think Harris is naive to be focusing on them the way he does.

      Chomsky is perfectly aware of the complexity of this and the significance of ideological and geopolitical trends. Harris is not and focuses too much of an idealised world of the agency, intentions and the badness of one ideological system (religion/Islam).


    • Schills says:

      I must apologize for not providing a quote as I am replying on my phone.

      Chomsky actually crticises Harris for the false argument regarding intetions. Chomsky says clearly that he has written extensively on the issue of intentions.

      From a practical perspective one’s intentions can never be known directly; intentions can only be inferred based on the logical consequences of one’s actions. If a shooter at a target ranges pulls the trigger of his rifle strike a person standing between the shooter and his target the shooter would be convicted of murder because the law, knowning it is impossible to prove the shooter’s intention, looks to the logical consequence of the shooter pulling the trigger, namely the shooting of the person standing between the shooter and the target, and holds that shooter responsible. The rationlization the Sam Harrises of the world propose is that we should look at the shooters intention based on the prouncements of the shooter. Some Sam Harrises go further and suggest blaming the target for hiding itself behind the person shot.

      The problem with these arguments is the same problems atheists have with the concept of a deity whose existence can only be indirectly inferred at best. In the case of the existence or non-existence of a deity they demand direct evidence to establish the existence of a thing and will accept nothing else, but when it comes to intentions are willing to accept one class of indirect evidence, (a person/nation’s pronounced intent) but refuses to consider other indirect evidence, (the foreseeable consequences of the act). Why precisely the former class of indirect evidence is preferred by the Sam Harrises is unclear.


  3. Mohamed says:

    I can’t help but honestly believe that Harris is plainly and simply put, stupid. He garnered acclaim simply by being a pundit for war, his neurscience degree is worth its weight in single dollar bills (he’s not a doctor, was never involved in anything significant).

    It’s the only explanation how mind bogglingly stupendous his arguments are, Chomsky often uses numbers as his reference point, an objective quantifiable quantity while harris seems to rely entirely on how he feels about who’s genociding who and goes through ridiculous mental gymnastics justifying his positions.


  4. sorenkongstad says:

    A bit late to the discussion. Seeing as Harris has just opened this can of worms again, with his claim that a clearly delusional agent (Ben Carson) would be preferable to Chomsky as president, based on the fact that Carson likes to pour hate on Islam more than Chomsky does.

    What I cannot understand is how Harris on one hand can talk about intentions when looking at acts of war, but then champion a utilitarian moral code. I have not read the moral landscape so I admit my understanding is lacking, but he seems to argue that morality is in some sense objective based on the well-being of conscious creatures.

    But if Act A kills and maims a thousand conscious creatures and Act B kills and maims ten thousand conscious creatures, how is it wrong to call Act B morally wrong based on the intentions of the actor?

    I guess he might have explained it in his book, but barring a different weight placed on the conscious creatures harmed, or on the actor – I have a hard time wrapping my head around it.


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