Sam Harris on ‘Perfect Weapons’ and the morality of ‘Collateral Damage’

EndOfFaithCoverMy next post will be an analysis of Christopher Hitchens and A C Grayling’s 2006 debate on Among The Dead Cities: Is The Targeting Of Civilians In War Ever Justified?.  The closing paragraphs of that post cite Sam Harris’ discussion of the philosophy of “perfect weapons” and collateral damage in The End Of Faith.   So that my post on the Hitchens/Grayling debate does not spiral out of control any more than it already has, I have posted an edited version of the passage below.  (H/T: Otto Spijkers and Nick Li on Invisible College Blog for typing out and publishing most of it, so I didn’t have to!)

The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror And The Future Of Reason [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006] pp. 142 – 147:

Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of “Collateral Damage”

What we euphemistically describe as “collateral damage” in times of war is the direct result of limitations in the power and precision of our technology.  To see that this is so, we need only imagine how any of our recent conflicts would have looked if we had possessed perfect weapons – weapons that allowed us either to temporarily impair or to kill a particular person, or group, at any distance, without harming others or their property.  What would we do with such technology?  Pacifists would refuse to use it, despite the variety of monsters currently loose in the world: the killers and torturers of children, the genocidal sadists, the men who, for want of the right genes, the right upbringing, or the right ideas, cannot possibly be expected to live peacefully with the rest of us.  I will say a few things about pacifism in a later chapter – for it seems to me to be a deeply immoral position that comes to us swaddled in the dogma of highest moralism – but most of us are not pacifists.  Most of us would elect to use weapons of this sort.  A moment’s thought reveals that a person’s use of such a weapon would offer a perfect window onto the soul of his ethics.

Consider the all too facile comparisons that have recently been made between George Bush and Saddam Hussein (or Osama bin Laden, or Hitler, etc.) – in the pages of writers like [Arundhati] Roy and [Noam] Chomsky, in the Arab press, and in classrooms throughout the free world.  How would George Bush have prosecuted the recent war in Iraq with perfect weapons?  Would he have targeted the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were maimed or killed by our bombs?  Would he have put out the eyes of little girls or torn the arms from their mothers?  Whether or not you admire the man’s politics – or the man – there is no reason to think that he would have sanctioned the injury or death of even a single innocent person.  What would Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden do with perfect weapons?  What would Hitler have done?  They would have used them rather differently.

It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development. . .

Consider the horrors that Americans perpetrated as recently as 1968 [during the Vietnam War], at My Lai: . . .

(…)

This is about as bad as human beings are capable of behaving.  But what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us.  The massacre at My Lai is remembered as a signature moment of shame for the American military.  Even at the time, US soldiers were dumbstruck with horror by the behaviour of their comrades.  One helicopter pilot who arrived on the scene ordered his subordinates to use their machine guns against their own troops if they did not stop killing villagers.  As a culture we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents.  We would do well to realize that much of the world has not.

(…)

Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims are standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century.  There are undoubtedly historical and cultural reasons for this, and enough blame to go around, but we should not ignore the fact that we must now confront whole societies whose moral and political development – in their treatment of women and children, in their prosecution of war, in their approach to criminal justice, and in their very intuitions about what constitutes cruelty – lags behind our own.  This may seem like an unscientific and potentially racist thing to say, but it is neither.  It is not in the least racist, since it is not at likely that there are biological reasons for the disparities here, and it is unscientific only because science has not yet addressed the moral sphere in a systematic way.  Come back in a hundred years, and if we haven’t returned to living in caves and killing each other with clubs, we will have some scientifically astute things to say about ethics.  Any honest witness to current events will realize 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.  Chomsky seems to think that the disparity either does not exist or runs the other way.

Consider the recent conflict in Iraq: If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Republican Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties?  What are the chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human shields?  (What are the chances we would have used human shields?)  What are the chances that a routed American government would have called for its citizens to volunteer to be suicide bombers?  What are the chances that Iraqi soldiers would have wept upon killing a carload of American civilians at a checkpoint unnecessarily?  You should have, in the ledger of your imagination, a mounting column of zeros.

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.

We are now living in a world that can no longer tolerate well-armed, malevolent regimes.  Without perfect weapons, collateral damage – the maiming and killing of innocent people – is unavoidable.  Similar suffering will be imposed on still more innocent people because of our lack of perfect automobiles, airplanes, antibiotics, surgical procedures, and window glass.  If we want to draw conclusions about ethics – as well as make predictions about what a given person or society will do in the future – we cannot ignore human intentions.  Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything.

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One Response to “Sam Harris on ‘Perfect Weapons’ and the morality of ‘Collateral Damage’”

  1. Hitchens and Grayling debate ‘Among The Dead Cities’ | manicstreetpreacher Says:

    […] …religion, politics, philosophy, history, debate… « Sam Harris on ‘Perfect Weapons’ and the morality of ‘Collateral Damage’ […]

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