Saturday, June 30, 2007


I have written about Sam Harris's gripe with Noam Chomsky in a previous post, and indicated that I believe in a middle ground and consider both their arguments as valid ones; Harris's that hatred of the US springs from faith, Chomsky's that hatred of the US springs as a repurcussion to a long tradition of US imperialism. I am reading Harris's magnificent "The End of Faith" currently, and got a chance to consider his critique of Chomsky in detail.

I in fact find myself agreeing with Harris on many counts. I agree that to consider the Clinton administration's 1998 bombing of the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan as being "morally equivalent" to 9/11 is absurd, even if the act was not justified. The US has blood on its hands, no doubt a whole bloodbath, but Harris says that in very few cases have US intentions been to maim innocent civilians, and this is true. Maybe its aims were misguided, and operations certainly were sloppily carried out, but unlike attacks by terrorists, it is rarely that the US has intentionally aimed to cause the deaths of innocent civilians.

I think Harris is largely right, and that's why I have always written about taking Chomsky with a healthy dose of salt. That's why I have also on numerous occasions said that in the historical book of atrocities, the US would still be way down in the list. But at the same time I think it's important to note that one cannot always put a high premium on noble intentions. For example, the intention of toppling Saddam's Hussein's regime was no doubt a valid and even noble one, especially when we consider it in a sanitized, isolated context; after all, there's no doubt that he was a repressive monster. But does that mean that what Bush did was right, even assuming that he had the truly good intention of getting rid of a murderous tyrant?

No, and of course there are a variety of reasons, but especially one important reason, that intentions put into effect without thinking about consequences can still constitute immoral acts. In case of Bush, apart from the fact that he lied, he also did not think about the bloody and far-reaching consequences of his actions. Sometimes good intentions can have violent consequences, and carrying out those intentions without thinking about those consequences is as bad and irresponsible as having malevolent intentions.

The problem with putting such a high premium on good intentions also is that one can then justify many acts that are carried out under that rubric. In short, it can lead to the ends justifying the means. Many events in World War 2 are good examples; most notably the civilian bombing of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many historians now judge these acts as unnecessary and immoral. But one can always justify them by saying that the intention was to defeat Hitler or Imperial Japan, which was a good one. No doubt it was a good one, but that did not mean that any and every action in support of that intention was justified.

Intentions can be sterling, but actions carried out in their support cannot be justified and are irresponsible if one simply fails to neglect the devastating consequences that follow.

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home