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.

Causal Analysis, Moral Culpability, And Gaza

If X causes Y, and Y causes Z, then surely X is the cause of Z? So goes the intuition–very roughly–that the causal relation is transitive. It thus often underwrites arguments about moral culpability and responsibility–sometimes even in legal settings. If I am the cause for your actions, then I am culpable, by one reckoning, for the effects of your actions.  (Again, very roughly, for there are very interesting interactions with moral agency here.) The skeptical have, for a long time, pointed to a possible W, the cause of X, which might be dragged into this business, thus endlessly postponing the business of causal ascription as the chain of causes is extended backwards to the origins of the universe. The distinction between distal and proximal causation in legal contexts is sometimes taken to clarify the confusion that might result if this causal chain were to be so extended.

As most pragmatically inclined folks never tire of pointing out, causal ascription is an inherently interest-laden enterprise; our identification of causes is driven not so much by metaphysical clarity about the necessary and sufficient conditions for causation as it is by our desire to be able to produce certain effects and not others, to assign blame and responsibility at some points in the causal chain and not at others. Some parts of the causal chain appear more amenable to our influence than others and thus influence our causal ascriptions in legal and moral analysis. We cannot, for instance, do much about the chemical properties of water and its effect on human lungs when it comes to preventing deaths by drowning, but we can certainly offer swimming lessons and put up warning signs around large bodies of water. (The distinction between distal and proximal causation is a related pragmatic aspect of causal analysis; see too, my little pointer to moral agency above.) And of course, our identification of points in which culpability originates are driven very much by our–sometimes overt, sometimes concealed–motives and interests. What ends are we interested in bringing about? Where might our sympathies lie?

I was reminded of some of these considerations during a discussion on Facebook,  where the following question was asked, in relation to the assignment of responsibility and culpability for the deaths of civilians in Gaza: .

What…is Israel supposed to do? What’s the right response to having a country on your border that sponsors – rather openly – rocket attacks on your territory, and has built a network of tunnels under the border and a whole terror infrastructure from which its operatives can enter the territory and attack your citizens?…I can’t get my mind around the notion that anyone other than Hamas bears the responsibility for this horror. 

Here, Hamas bears moral culpability for civilian deaths: they fire rockets (or kidnap teenagers), which provoke Israeli retaliation, which causes the deaths of Gazan civilians.

In one of my responses, I asked:

Is your general claim that any cross-“border” violence is an invitation to massive, violent retaliation that might involve as an unfortunate side-effect eighty percent civilian casualties?

This was responded to with:

If some crazed Canadian drug lord starts firing mortars into Buffalo NY I wouldn’t recommend massive, violent retaliation. If the Canadian government refused to recognize the US and armed fighters to attack across the border, and refused to assist in their capture … different story. It’s an act of war ON HAMAS’ PART, and when Israel responds with additional acts of war, I don’t think they are culpable.

I then responded with:

As for culpability, is Hamas also responsible when Israel is told by independent relief agencies that children are sheltering in a particular venue and still bombs them anyway?

And then, to bring us to the subject matter of this post, I wrote:

To grant your point about culpability is to do no more than to stop the analysis of the causal chain at a point that suits the thesis you want to establish: that Israel is not morally responsible for the deaths of innocents.

And I then asked the rhetorical question:

You’ve studied proximal causation in legal theory. Who is culpable here?

This discussion, I think, illustrates quite well, the points raised in my preliminary discussion above. Note too, that one response to the Israeli claim that Hamas is culpable for the current deaths of civilians–because of rocket attacks, or the kidnappings of Israeli teenagers–always has been: What about the occupation?

A Puzzle about Karmic Doctrine – Contd.

Reader theendlessknot3d writes in with an interesting comment to yesterday’s post on the doctrine of karma as explicated by Daya Krishna:

You say that karma is working, in the case of B, to bring retribution for a past action, Y, which B had previously inflicted on another, and that A is therefore potentially free of guilt/responsibility for having spilled the hot water on B. A would just be the agent who is ‘used’ by karma to bring about this retribution. But I think the paradox of such a situation is pretty clear: that there is really no such thing as freedom in action, despite the appearance of free will which we would all intuitively think exists. It’s an unfree freedom, since karma informs or utilizes our motivations to bring about the actions which we otherwise think we are freely performing.

But I’d probably say that karma isn’t only being exercised against B through A’s act of spilling the cup, because we know that A deliberately chose to do it. I’d think that, if karma is a true description of agency, there would be a potential argument of infinite regression, since B’s act in his previous or present life also wouldn’t strictly speaking be his act; it’d be another act of retribution directed at some third agent, C, which was caused by C’s act of Z-ing. So it seems that there isn’t a way out of this circular argument with its intrinsic paradox unless we either at least admit to a rendition of the theory of compatiblism or reject the theory of karma outright.

Both these points are useful in that they illuminate the puzzle I was raising. I think there is another facet to the doctrine of karma that arises when you consider that in my original post, I had relied on a too-neat slicing up of events, their causes and effects.

To see this consider that in the original example, A‘s action does not have one effect alone; it has several. It hurts B, but it also spills water on the floor, wets B‘s clothes, perhaps breaks a glass and so on. These effects may in turn impinge on other agents; again, in each case, these accrue because of the affected agents’ pasts. So A‘s actions are not determined by B alone but by a much larger assemblage. Similarly, A‘s action is not the cause of B‘s injuries; it is one of the events–the availability of hot water, fuel for its heating, a glass to hold it in, and so on–that may be causally implicated.  Each of those events’ effects contribute to B‘s injuries; each of them is due to B‘s actions in the past. In ascribing responsibility to A we rely on some ends to guide us: perhaps our society is interested in assigning tort liability and individual actors are the most appropriate loci of causal influence for it. But the presence of the other events  implicated in B‘s injuries means that the deserts for B’s actions flow through multiple channels.

These points do not affect the ones made by theendlessknot3d above; the puzzles of responsibility and free will noted there still stand.

Daya Krishna on the Doctrine of Karma: A Puzzle

During the course of a series of lectures delivered at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in 2005–in an attempt to explicate what he saw as one of the primary distinctions between the ‘Western’ and the ‘Indian’ conceptions of the relationship of the individual to society–Daya Krishna noted:

The idea that one may be responsible for actions that have not been taken by one’s own self and that one may be redeemed by someone else’s action [as man’s by Christ] may seem positively outrageous to a sensibility that treats the individual as essentially apart for his relationships with others, relationships in which he may happen to be accidentally involved. The doctrine of karma in traditional Hindu thought primarily reflects this basic presupposition that it would be an immoral world indeed if one were to reap the fruits of someone else’s actions. The monadic morality of the Hindu is thus conceived of in an essentially asocial manner. It does not derive from an other-centered consciousness in which the consequences of one’s actions on others are the subject of one’s focus of attention. Rather, it is the consequences of one’s actions upon oneself which provides the main ground for morality in Hindu thought and thus paves the way for a very different kind of perspective on the entire issue of action and one’s relations with others. At the deepest level, not merely does what one does have consequences upon oneself but, conversely whatever happens to one could only be the result of one’s own actions. Thus, not only do one’s own actions have consequences on oneself, but also, if the world is to be a moral world, nothing else could. [Civilizations: Nostalgia and Utopia, Sage Publications, 2012, pp. 13-14]

This explication of the doctrine of karma raises, I think, a pair of vexing questions.

To see this, consider some actor A that takes action X. The consequences of X can only accrue to A. But Y may have–visibly, in this world–effects that impinge on another being B. For instance, I may tip a cup of hot water–as a cruel joke–on a waiter at a restaurant. According to Krishna, what has happened to B–the waiter–is a consequence of B‘s actions, perhaps in a past life, perhaps in the present one. But A is the actor, the agent, that brought about those effects on B, so are the causes of A‘s actions B‘s actions?

Furthermore, actions are, I presume, within the karmic doctrine, reckoned as good or bad, moral or immoral, a calculus which then plays out in the effects that will take place in the future on their actor. A‘s action X of tipping a glass of hot water–purely for jest–on a waiter is, let’s say, an immoral one: it is gratuitously cruel. A has then presumably accrued a ‘negative credit’ of sorts in the karmic ledger, one which will presumably result in some negative effect on A in the future–again, either in this life, or in some future one. But will A then be chastised for an action, X, that was the result of B‘s actions?

I hope the puzzles of responsibility and action that I had in mind are visible. I welcome clarification if I’ve misunderstood Krishna in any way. (Perhaps Y‘s effects on B are only apparent etc.)