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.