Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Sam Harris on Christian and Islamic Morality: Wrong on Both Counts

Rather proudly, Sam Harris offers up an email exchange with Noam Chomsky about morality, Islam and the West.  (Perhaps Harris isn't aware that Chomsky very tolerantly will exchange emails with almost anyone.)  In it are gems like this:
Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century.
Civilized folks of course are not like these many Muslims.  They inhabit "contemporary democracies".  Others may speculate what this is code for.  Suffice it to say that
There is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments.
Long story short, Muslim barbarians kill innocents, and we're better than that for two reasons.

First, we feel just terrible about it, which yer many-Muslims don't.  We deplore deliberate crimes like My Lai, and regret the odd bit of criminal negligence:
What are the chances that Iraqi soldiers would have wept upon killing a carload of American civilians at a checkpoint unnecessarily?
Second, the bad stuff we don't feel quite as terrible about is just collateral damage, of which Harris says:
Nothing in Chomsky’s account acknowledges the difference between intending to kill a child, because of the effect you hope to produce on its parents (we call this “terrorism”), and inadvertently killing a child in an attempt to capture or kill an avowed child murderer (we call this “collateral damage”). In both cases a child has died, and in both cases it is a tragedy. But the ethical status of the perpetrators, be they individuals or states, could hardly be more distinct.
Chomsky might object that to knowingly place the life of a child in jeopardy is unacceptable in any case, but clearly this is not a principle we can follow. The makers of roller coasters know, for instance, that despite rigorous safety precautions, sometime, somewhere, a child will be killed by one of their contraptions. Makers of automobiles know this as well. So do makers of hockey sticks, baseball bats, plastic bags, swimming pools, chain-link fences, or nearly anything else that could conceivably contribute to the death of a child. There is a reason we do not refer to the inevitable deaths of children on our ski slopes as “skiing atrocities.” But you would not know this from reading Chomsky. For him, intentions do not seem to matter. Body count is all.
In his reference to a 'systematic approach to ethics', we find Harris considering himself a philosopher.  It's one of the things he calls himself on his web site.  Rest assured that this claim is almost as offensive to philosophers as his claim about Muslims is, presumably, to Muslims.

A philosopher, at least one minimally competent in ethics, will agree (*) to what follows.

First, pace Harris, (may we say) Western morality, indeed Christian morality, is quite capable of establishing the moral equivalence between intentional acts of, for short, terror, and the sort of collateral damage that has become a Western habit.  Harris' version of Christian morality would be in tatters after one minute in the confessional of a Jesuit-trained priest.

Second, push come to shove, if any morality is stuck in the 14th Century, it is Western and Christian morality.  'Systematic' ethics has another view, and it is the view of many whom Harris considers barbaric.  If there is a gap, not only between Islam and the West, but between anyone who doesn't like getting bombed and the West, an understanding of this fact might help bridge it.

Collateral Damage and Christian morality

Harris has at least one point which is not actually bad but irrelevant.  Yes, even manufacturing plastic bags will eventually contribute to the death of a child.  But that's ok, I think Harris says, because the killing isn't intended.

Two things about that.  First, it's not ok; we don't think children should be exposed to dangerous products.  But second, this isn't comparable the collateral damage inflicted by bombs.

The difference has to do with causality, a complicated matter.  Roughly, manufacturing a plastic bag is a necessary condition of a child being killed.  So is the existence of water on earth: necessary conditions are very far from qualifying as causes.  We consider certain sets of necessary conditions a background to the causal events which, in conjunction with these conditions, produce what we call an effect. (Poignantly this approach to causality is brilliantly systematized by Judea Pearl, the father of Daniel Pearl, victim of terror in Pakistan.)

Manufacturing a plastic bag, and its very existence, are background conditions to what sometimes causes the death of a child, that is, leaving a young child unattended around, say, dry cleaning bags.  The making of the bag is part of an environment; that alone never kills a child.  It takes some act of negligence, a later addition to that environment, to produce the death.  Dropping a bomb and killing an innocent is like leaving the child unattended; it too involves neglect.  We know the bombs can kill children, we know the children are around; we know they are defenceless; we know our bombs don't just hit what, in our infantile slang, we call "the bad guys".  All this belongs to the background or environment of the air strike.  The background conditions, alone, don't kill the child.  It takes the act of dropping a bomb to do that.

So no, the moral difference between collateral damage and terror is not, as Harris suggests, a matter of intention.  Intentions may matter, but not like that.  Whatever the intention, dropping the bomb, like setting off a terrorist bomb, plays the foreground causal role that manufacturing the plastic bag does not.

But does intention matter all the same?   Does it make the two sorts of actions morally distinctive?

The key consideration here is that we're not talking about mere collateral damage.   Such damage comes in two varieties, expected and unexpected. Unexpected collateral damage would occur, for instance, if a destroyer sunk in a naval battle was found to have been transporting civilian refugees. Expected collateral damage occurs when air strikes are called down on an enemy who doesn't operate in nicely isolated battlefields but in or near populated areas. In these cases the attackers fully expect to harm civilians. Is inflicting expected collateral damage better than terrorism?

When Harris appeals to intentions, he is invoking something like what in Christian casuistry is called the doctrine of double effect.  For example: a doctor operates on a woman and knowingly causes the death of her unborn child. For some, that's not sinful because the death of the child was intended only as an undesired consequence of the operation, not as its purpose. But those who inflict expected collateral damage are not like the doctor. Both high-level and tactical decisions to bomb are not made to attain some imminent, urgent goal, like saving a mother's life. The attackers' decision normally stems from concern, not for the lives of others, but for the lives of the attackers themselves.  That's why civilized nations prefer bombing to sending in ground troops, much less ground troops who take great risks to ensure civilians go unharmed. The doctor is concerned for another's life, not his own.

But suppose the attackers do want to save lives other than their own. Still their situation is not like the doctor's. If the doctor spares the child, he assures the death of the mother, and vice versa. He's not, in any practical sense, calculating risks. He is faced with a simple, stark decision, a choice between certainties. He is doing the only thing he can to avert the immediate and certain death of the woman lying before him.

The decision to use air strikes, on the other hand, is usually a choice involving many alternatives. Some mean a slower advance, some are less certain, some more expensive, some riskier - but they're there, and they introduce uncertainties. These uncertainties are not to be compared with the doctor's, whose decision is normally informed by scientific evidence. The decision-makers cannot confidently assert that air strikes are the best way to minimize the slaughter of innocents, or even the attackers' losses. In practice military men use air power largely because they fear that otherwise they'll take considerably more casualties, and because they'd rather not test unproven alternatives.

At no level, then, is the use of strategic or tactical air attacks simply a desperate measure to spare civilian lives. By no stretch of the imagination can our situation be confused with the doctor's. The doctrine of the double effect has questionable authority, but even unquestioned it does little to raise expected collateral damage above terror.

Indeed Harris' appeal to intentions is not an example of Christian morality but of its decline and corruption.  Christian moralists, real ones, examine the intentions and motives of actions with merciless precision.  They would not for a moment let someone off with the lame excuse that they meant well.  They would point out all the alternatives ignored, all the hasty assumptions, all the self-serving prejudices underlying those assumptions, all the weaknesses of character that went along with the conveniently sloppy decision-making.  They would  deliver a verdict of self-deception, willful ignorance, insolent posturing, cowardice and, most likely, mortal sin.

If you don't think so, ask yourself what are, after all, the intentions of pilots or strategists who inflict expected collateral damage.  Imagine something similar in civilian life, and consider the legal notion of intentional murder.  Suppose you intend to kill me by running me over as I stand in line for a movie.  You are driving a Hummer; you are quite sure you will kill some of those next to me as well: they are literally collateral damage. A lawyer friend informs me, emphatically, that you will have committed homicide against all those killed; you are taken to have intended their death. Even if you were acquitted of murdering me - perhaps because I had abused you, severely, for years - you will be guilty of killing those next to me. Their deaths were intended and therefore are inexcusable in law. That you were very reluctant to kill them would be no excuse either.

Who lives in the 14th Century?

So the morality of intention is quite capable of establishing the moral equivalence of civilized and barbaric slaughter of innocents.  (Remember the three million killed in Vietnam if you think that civilized slaughter is less consequential.)  But what of the notion that 'many Muslims', because they apparently ignore intentions and don't excuse civilized collateral damage, are stuck in the 14th Century?

Exactly the opposite is the case.  The morality of intention, as we have seen, is Christian. In Christianity everything - that is, salvation - depends on the condition of your soul.  Contemporary, 'systematic' moral philosophy, beginning in the 18th Century, typically assigns a subordinate role to intentions:  they may help to determine the goodness or badness of the agent, but not the rightness or wrongness of the act.  That's determined by the act's effect: roughly, whether it makes the world better or worse.

The 'many Muslims' Harris regards as barbaric are said to ignore intentions.  If so, particularly when in the West arm-waving about good intentions is thought enough to dismiss the most horrible damage to innocent human flesh, this alleged barbarism may involve a more mature attitude to moral responsibility.  Indeed when faced with big problems of unintentional damage in civilian life, for example the damage inflicted by faulty products, the law takes a similar tack.  It resorts of notions of "strict liability", where guilt and innocence are judged entirely in terms of acts and effects; intentions play no role at all.  If this reduces the suffering of the barbarian inflicted by the civilized, maybe it's not such a bad idea.

Harris and 'many non-Muslims' are not moralists, they are apologists.  They find in good intentions an advantage afforded by Christian morality, an excuse.  And it's not that they refuse to assume the heavy burden of Christian morality, which looks deeply into intentions and very rarely finds them genuinely good.  No, it's that they aren't even aware the burden exists.  For that there is no excuse from any perspective.


 (*)  How do I know?  The arguments here were made at a philosophy conference.  The audience turned out to include, somewhat to my dismay, a whole bunch of Israeli philosophers, who I expected to take offence at my claim that contemporary style air strikes and terrorism were, in many cases, morally indistinguishable.  Their reaction?  Sure, they said.  They were kind of bored.