Sam Harris Should Read Bernard Williams

In Shame and Necessity (Sather Classical Lectures, University of California Press, 2nd ed., 2008, pp. 68-69) writing on the ancient Greeks’ conceptions of responsibility and human agency via the tale of Oedipus, Bernard Williams writes:

[T]here is another aspect to responsibility, which comes out if we start on the question not from the response that the public or the state or the neighbours or the damaged parties demand of the agent, but from what the agent demands of himself….

Oedipus’s response, when he made his discovery, was self-imposed: “I have done it with my own hand,” he says of his blinding….he says that he afterwards came to think that what he had inflicted on himself was excessive. He also, at Colonus, says that he did not really do the things for which he blinded himself—and in a notably compacted expression: “I suffered those deeds more than I acted them…What these words express is…Oedipus’s attempt to come to terms with what his erga, his deeds, have meant for his life.

For what, if one can ask a very ingenuous question, is one supposed to do if one discovers that not just in fantasy but in life one has murdered one’s father and married one’s mother? Not even Oedipus…thought that blinding and exile had to be the response. But should there be no response? Is it as though it had never happened? Or rather, to put the right question: Is it as though such things had happened, but not by his agency….The whole of the Oedipus Tyrannus , that dreadful machine, moves to the discovery of just one thing, that he did it. Do we understand the terror of that discovery only because we residually share magical beliefs in blood-guilt, or archaic notions of responsibility? Certainly not: we understand it because we know that in the story of one’s life there is an authority exercised by what one has done, and not merely by what one has intentionally done.

In recent days, Sam Harris has, by virtue of an embarrassing–for him–email exchange with Noam Chomsky, made much of how some actions which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocents should be subjected to far less moral condemnation (if any) than those which resulted because of expressly ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ intentions. Bill Clinton’s orders to bomb a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Sudanese innocents thus gets off the hook rather lightly – as say, compared to the ISIS‘ slaughter of innocents (you may, if you like, substitute your favorite act of Islamist mass murder here to get the flavor of Harris’ arguments.)

In the course of the email exchange cited above, Chomsky rather effectively eviscerated the simplistic understanding of politics and human nature this view of Sam Harris’ rests on. Furthermore, as I noted in my initial response to a podcast in which Harris makes this claim in ponderous and pedantic detail, Harris’ view leads to the worst excesses of utopianism:  “I intended to bring about this future desirable state, therefore, all else is excusable, as I certainly didn’t intend to bring about any of these intermediate states. My mind is fixed firmly on the state to be realized, the one I intend to bring about. ” Or more colloquially, “it’s ok to climb over heaps of bodies if you are going to a ‘good’ place.” This sort of argument has the bizarre consequence of considering Dick Cheney to not be a war criminal for the mass murders he is responsible for–after all, Cheney did say he was doing it all for democracy.

As the excerpt above shows, Harris, who considers himself an educated man, should really read some Bernard Williams, and using him as an introduction, read some more about the ancient Greeks. Otherwise, he will find himself, time and again, getting schooled by those who know better.

Shame, Rage, and Fascism

Jonathan Lear, in the course of a memorial address to the American Philosophical Association–dedicated to Bernard Williams–noted:

For Williams, shame needs to be conceived in terms of its inner psychological structure, in particular, in terms of internal objects and our relations with those objects. The basic experience connected with shame is of being seen in some kind of bad condition by an observer whose judgment matters. But: ‘Even if shame and its motivations always involve in some way or another the idea of the gaze of another, it is important that for many of its operations the imagined gaze of an imagined other will do’. This is what is involved in shame’s being an internalized emotional capacity, not merely an occurrent emotion in childhood in embarrassing circumstances.

Now, if shame is to function as a complex psychological phenomenon and if it is partially constituted by the imagined gaze of an internalized other, then we will have to admit that this internalized other is, to a significant degree, operating unconsciously. For we need to account for more than the relatively simple phenomenon of consciously experienced feelings of embarrassment before the consciously imagined gaze. In particular, we want to account for experiences that we take to be shame-filled, though they are not consciously experienced as such.

From there on, Lear is off and running, as part of his establishing that:

Williams’ approach to ethical life requires that we turn to human psychology; and the form of psychology required will have to be of a broadly psychoanalytic bent.

The unconscious operations of shame, of course, are of especial interest to therapists and their clients because of their peculiar and particular phenomenological manifestation: feelings of shame are visceral, tinged with a sense of abject humiliation, which, if not allowed to find expedited expression, may be directed outwards in ways intensely damaging to not just the subject but to those around him. Shame is intensively corrosive.

So shame and rage often go together. No one, it seems, is quite as angry, violent, or  murderous as the shamed one. When those feelings congeal into the  basis for a political ideology, they can become more broadly dangerous.

Fascism thus begs for psychoanalytic investigation; some of its central claims–like those of an imagined glorious past, lost to the machinations of a devious Other–rely on the creation of a social and political superego that instills shame in its adherents. The world becomes a stage populated by reminders and monuments of this humiliating defeat, grinning and leering from every corner. The associated shame is relentless in its invidious presence; the only escape from its sensations is a removal of those objects–humans included–that offend. Mere removal will not do, of course. The sensations of shame might only be assuaged by violent, destructive actions.  These become even more frenzied when it is realized that, shamefully, the Other was never a worthy opponent, never one that should have been victorious. The more this inferiority is emphasized, the greater the shame, the greater the rage.

It’s not just ethical life that requires a moral psychology with a psychoanalytic bent; so does politics.