I am going to try something hard, and I may just crash and burn, in which case, simply avert your eyes and move on. Here is the background. I posted a remark triggered by Michael Eric Dyson's attack on Cornel West, and Chris responded with a link to a different dispute between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky [embarrassed disclosure: I did not actually know who Sam Harris is until I read the exchange and then looked him up on Wikipedia.] I read the entire exchange, which Harris posted on his blog. It seems to have taken place over four days in late April [irrelevant aside: how on earth does Noam find the time for all of this? He is even older than I am.]
As it happens, I read the exchange right after lunch. Now, pretty much every day I have the same lunch: no-fat cottage cheese, no-fat yoghurt, some sugar, and a lot of seedless grapes on top. I eat it sitting on my bed watching Television. Today, I caught a few minutes of the latest remake of King Kong, which I have seen several times before. This is the one in which Adrian Brody is miscast as the hero and Naomi Watts plays the Fay Wray part -- Jack Black, as usual, is great. I tuned in as Kong is trying to figure out what he has taken prisoner and Watts is dancing and doing her vaudeville turns in an effort to distract him.
With this as background, perhaps you will understand why I felt so strongly, as I read through the extended Harris/Chomsky exchange, that it really just wasn't fair to put little Sam Harris, hopping and skipping and singing as fast as he could, up against this enormous overpowering Great Ape, Noam Chomsky. It was like a boxing match between a Flyweight and a Heavyweight. Noam is so much smarter than Harris, and knows so much more, and is so much more relentless.
Chomsky makes reference to President Clinton's decision to blow up one of the only pharmaceutical factories in Sudan, thereby leaving that poor country with no way to replenish desperately needed medicines. Harris [you need to read the exchange to get the full story] is trying to defend the view that America, despite all the harm it causes in the world, has good intentions and its actions therefore ought not to be equated with those undertaken by al Qaeda. He coughs up a hypothetical about al Qaeda good-heartedly blowing up a pharmaceutical factory in the American heartland because it mistakenly thinks that drugs are being produced at the site which threaten to cause uncounted deaths and injuries in American children. He is trying to separate out analytically consequences from intentions, in order to make a point in what I think he imagines is moral theory. Chomsky is having none of it, and brushes the hypothetical aside, pointing out that Clinton had every reason to know that the factory he ordered destroyed was indeed making pharmaceuticals and not munitions. Harris is clearly frustrated by Chomsky's apparent inability to understand this standard move in modern philosophical discussions -- i.e., the use of hypotheticals constructed to make a point about morality.
OK, got that? What I want to talk about is not Sam Harris or Noam Chomsky or Bill Clinton or al Qaeda or the Sudan, but this technique of argument in contemporary analytic philosophy. Some of you may be familiar with a relatively recent example of this technique, the trolley car hypothetical in all its variants, about which so many words have been written. The idea is [I am not kidding] that a trolley car is out of control, bearing down on some people trapped in a car [or whatever], and you are standing on an overpass watching this horrified. The only way you can stop the slaughter is to push a fat man, conveniently positions, off the overpass so that he will hit the tracks and derail the trolley. You are not permitted by the terms of the hypothetical to question the factual premises of the hypothetical, which are constructed so that there is no other way to save many lives save by sacrificing one innocent life [the fat man.] You, we are asked to assume, are thin and your body would not suffice to stop the trolley. You get the idea.
There are many things you can say about this example, and almost all of them have been said by one or another eager participant in the debate. To my way of thinking, the only really interesting thing to observe is that there are actually otherwise apparently intelligent and accomplished university professors who think that this is an appropriate way to talk about Ethics. Sam Harris is clearly one of them. In my view, this is utter nonsense -- not this or that or the other particular take on one or another hypothetical example, but the notion that anything of the slightest value can be arrived at in this manner of reasoning.
I am quite convinced that these sorts of thought experiments are nonsense, but it is not so easy to say why That is why I warned that I might crash and burn. Let me have a go at it, nonetheless.
In formal logic, we routinely abstract from the content or matter of an argument in order to reveal its form, about which it is quite often possible to say something extremely interesting. That is the idea behind the syllogism [If All A are B, and all B are C, then All A are C, regardless of what A, B, and C are, and also regardless of whether in fact all A are actually B, etc.] Philosophers, entranced for two and a half millennia by the power of such arguments, are forever seeking to import that technique into ethical theory or metaphysics or political philosophy. I engaged in a bit of it myself in In Defense of Anarchism. But the process of abstraction on which the process of formal argument depends presupposes that we can precisely and accurately distinguish the several elements of a real world action in such a fashion as will permit us to detach them from one another in constructing hypotheticals. It also assumes that we can use terms like "intention" as though they were the names of simple identifiable particulars that can be safely abstracted from the complex context in which they are normally embedded. Harris and Marvin Kalb and all those philosophers talking about trolley cars suppose that we can identify, let us say, President Clinton's intentions in abstraction from the knowledge and circumstances in which they occur, so that we can judge the intentions independently of the actual consequences or the knowledge that actors should have had, or -- and this is quite important -- independently of the institutional, historical, and bureaucratic context of the actions. And that, I suggest, is wrong.
Whenever one of those factors is cited by someone objecting to the hypothetic example, the person posing the example will wave a hand and say "I will assume that consideration is not operative here." Let me now say something peculiar, but really quite important. The dismissal of the objection with a wave of the hand is too easy. Not wrong, exactly, but too easy. The right to set aside that consideration has not been earned, by hard study, by experience, by history, or by personal sacrifice. Philosophy done that way requires no heavy lifting, so to speak. You can be as ignorant as a new born babe and yet, with a fertile imagination, you think to brush aside the hard-won wisdom of those who have actually been trolley car conductors or military field commanders or operating room nurses or heavy equipment operators by abstracting from it.
Now, to be sure, if all the A's really are B's, and all the B's really are C's, then all the A's really are C's, regardless of the life experiences of those who have dealt with A's, B's, and C's for decades. But in the real world, there are always hidden filiations, caveats, connections, and exceptions that experience and knowledge [and sometimes the bearing of responsibility] teach us. And too often, philosophers ignore those and are taken in by the false simplicity and specificity of actually quite complex matters.
So when Sam Harris conjured up that example of the al Qaeda well-intentioned bombing of an American pharmaceutical factory, I cringed. "Oh Lord," I thought, "it is trolley cars all over again." And when Noam brushed the example aside, I thought he was right to do so, even though Harris thought he had scored an unacknowledged debater's point.
Well, time to prepare dinner.