Harris believes that reason or logic can effect change. This seems radically optimistic to me. I think, instead, that the force behind the triumph of reasonable positions is not the reasoning mind but something woven into the fabric of being. The arc of history is not a human endeavor: it is a byproduct of the universe. That resulting justice is likewise outside of human purview. We can no more claim good as a victory than we can claim evil a defeat.
This gets disturbingly close to religious principles of divine goodness and sovereignty, replacing ‘divine’ with ‘universe.’ In the end, will we argue semantics? I don’t think so, and I desperately hope not.
Each time I have heard him speak Chomsky begins from a position of moral superiority by pointing out many great ills and then indicting those who have not fought against them. Taking his side instantly renders one morally superior. Yet ‘taking his side’ and delivering a philosophical argument require no real sacrifice. Chomsky has lived a long life in relative comfort and has certainly received a healthy share of adulation.
But, to use my own argument for every effort counting, Chomsky has certainly fought for his cause through words. He has not fought in deed. This does not render his fight invalid or useless or inferior, but, to my mind, it does call into question his indictment of those who have gone a step further than speech and entered the arguably much more complex and subtle realm of politics, military, science, or art. One may have a long-lasting impact as a philosopher, but I would argue that Chomsky has had no great impact when one considers his work in the context of…life.
The tenor of American politics is undeniably conservative and hawkish, whether Democrat or Republican. One could say this is merely a condition of the present, that it has not always been so, that his impact remains to be seen, but Chomsky has hurled some of his most invidious claims in the past several years, not the 1970s. Surely he could have had a greater impact in some other realm than philosophy? Surely he could have reached a wider audience by adopting a different tactic or strategy?
Again, my argument is not that his effort has been in vain, but that his broad indictment of 99% of the population of the United States is laughable. And that leads me to my last thought…
The great advantage of Christian ethics, in this situation, is that it imparts something Chomsky lacks, and that is humility. In recognizing the sins of omission and commission of…well…everyone…one must recognize the same flaw in oneself. In doing so, one realizes that any effort for the good, no matter how small or large, is a joy, but is a mere drop in a sea of evil. To criticize another’s effort is the meanest and most transparent sort of self-aggrandizement.
The reverse of this argument is the mote and the plank. I’m not sure I can come up with an analogy to compare…but perhaps a neighbor’s flower garden compared to one’s own PTA membership, or a neighbor’s NPR contribution compared to one’s own mulch heap. Is one self-interested effort for the good better than the other? Can either be considered sufficient material to grant one sainthood? How about Chomsky’s philosophical career compared to whatever good Bush might have done? Would he dare to compare them? I think he would, and I think that’s the problem.
I don’t know Noam Chomsky’s work very well, but I do know that, each time I’ve heard him summarize his work, it has boiled down to one basic idea: the United States and other nations commit horrible atrocities in the name of foreign and domestic policy, and we must all take responsibility for that. We must all fight against those atrocities’ continuation, and those of us who do not are morally bankrupt.
My reaction to that has been the same for quite a long time now. Fighting for something that is good is not made less meaningful by the presence of a greater evil. To give a practical and notorious example, it is my feeling that wearing a ribbon to raise awareness for a cause, while it does not do anything quantifiable to aid that cause, probably does aid that cause, and is therefore worthwhile. One could argue that such gestures actually sate the desire to do more substantial good for that chosen cause, but I would argue that a) something is better than nothing and b) that argument is probably far too optimistic. In all likelihood, no such deeper desire exists to be sated. I would be interested to read research to the contrary.
To take another example from Chomsky’s own mouth, he claimed that the US reaction to Osama Bin Laden’s death should be compared to the following imagined scenario: Iranian commandos land on US soil and assassinate George W. Bush, someone who, according to Chomsky, was guilty of far greater crimes than Bin Laden. According to my argument above, even if Chomsky’s claim is true, and it might be that Bush caused far more harm during his time as a politician than Bin Laden, both deaths might have been a good. If one does not believe any death to be a good, if one believes all humankind to be guilty, the counterfactual and argument surrounding it become not only pointless but risible.
One might point out that these principles of nonviolence and universal guilt are basic tenets of the Christian faith. They are almost universally ignored, however, and so there is an argument to be had on agnosticism, even among Christians. This leads me to another thought…