Intent matters – but Sam Harris is still wrong

In his e-mail debate with Chomsky, Harris makes much of intent – but again, the analysis is either intentionally(see what I did there, hur, hur, hur) or unintentionally naive and flawed.

this kitten did not intend to be cute, but you're still in a cute-coma aren't you?

this kitten did not intend to be cute(or did she?), but you’re still in a cute-coma aren’t you?

Now, intent matters – if you kill someone by genuine accident vs. reckless disregard vs. intentional killing – you will be charged with a different crime, with different penalties. I think that’s fair. Intentionally causing harm is worse than making a genuine error in judgement. However, being so reckless or so racist that you don’t realise that your actions will cause severe harm is nowhere close to accidentally causing harm – in fact, in extreme cases I think such reckless harm is far worse than deliberate harm.


Let’s play a game: The body of Mr. Ari Phat was found, dead, apparently from being run over by a vehicle. There is a witness to the incident Ms. Jour Naliste who saw a man, later identified as Richard(Dick) Bibiyahoo, speeding as Mr. Phat was crossing the road. The car hit Mr. Phat and drove off as nothing had happened. An autopsy confirms that Mr. Phat was killed by trauma caused by being hit with a car. Mr. Phat’s family insists that Bibiyahoo intentionally ran over Mr. Phat because of a long standing conflict arising when Bibiyahoo stole a bunch of stuff from Mr. Phat that he’s refused to return. Bibiyahoo’s lawyer, Mr. Derpowitz, insists Mr. Phat intentionally jumped in front of the car to make Mr. Bibiyahoo look bad, and in any case, Mr. Phat is imaginary and doesn’t exist and the court is being anti-Dickish to Mr. Bibiyahoo by accusing him of wrongdoing.

We have three stories – intentional murder, reckless homicide and “it was the victim’s fault and stop being a Dick-hater.” Which one is the most plausible? So far Derpowitz seems insane, the family is not impartial and is not a witness. We have a witness to Mr. Phat being run over and evidence to support that.

But, of course the investigation is not over. Police continue to look into the matter and learn than Ari Phat had filed a lawsuit and that the lawsuit had revealed not just Bibiyahoo’s theft but also very embarrassing details about his wife’s theft of bottle cap money which could become a major scandal as this trial was likely to go public and endanger Bibiyahoo’s job as CEO of the Fear and Misery Co. Further inquiry reveals a witness, a Ms. Infa Ramant, who says Bibiyahoo called her husband, a man who worked with Ari Phat and who told Bibiyahoo that Mr. Phat liked to cross that particular street at that particular time to go gather stones for his rock garden. Evidence also finds that Bibiyahoo’s car sped up before it hit Mr. Phat and finds Phat’s blood on the car.

Now it is starting to look more and more like intentional murder, however, it is not a slam dunk, it could be reckless homicide, and it’s also possible that it was an accident, although that looks less and less likely. Rational analysis would take all of this into consideration, even if rational analysis did come to a conclusion on the matter.


Harris’ problem is that he would take Mr. Derpowitz’ statements at face value and ignore everything else. That is neither “rational” nor an accurate way to determine intent. In Harris’ pieces on Israel, he routinely uses propaganda from the Israeli government on human shields, on Hamas. He harps on suicide bombers being the ultimate threat to this day, in 2015, even though suicide bombing has been out of fashion in Palestine and much of the rest of the world for over a decade. So, yes, intent matters, but that’s not what this is about.

In his argument with Chomsky, Harris impugns good intent to the U.S. despite there being ample evidence that the bombing al-Shifa hospital would cause massive catastrophe. Again, intent matters but you need to be right about the intent.

oops we didn't intend to kill 551 of your children? Sorry guys... wait why do you hate us? Bloody antiSemites!

Oops we didn’t intend to kill 551 of your children? Sorry guys… wait why do you hate us? Bloody antiSemites!

I agree with Harris that neither Israel nor the US (as state agents, not individual soldiers) do not intentionally go in to kill civilians – I think, and evidence shows, that they do not care. Israeli propaganda routinely dehumanises Palestinians, to the point where killing them is not a big deal, while the lawful killing of a single soldier is seen as an act of horrific terrorism(worse than the deaths of civilian Jews). Similarly, the Islamophobia industry and American “exceptionalism” has dehumanised Muslim/Arab/brown/black lives. Killing Iraqis, Libyans, Palestinians, young black “thugs” is no big deal, we don’t need to take precautions to minimise casualties (maybe just some PR moves to save face).

To me, such reckless disregard is the same, if not worse than intentional murder. At least when you intentionally kill someone, you acknowledge they are human and you are taking their life – here, the victims are not even seen as human – the worst of intent.

Ah, but let me be nice and agree with Harris, for a bit.

sticker_niceperson_b

I agree with Harris on drug policy. Sort of.

The Drug War is a disaster. The Drug War destabilises states, it empowers bloody violent gangs in Latin America, it funds groups like Al Qaeda. Domestically, it ruins lives due to violence, unnecessary (racist) criminal penalties for non-violent offences.  On top of all that human misery, it does not work.

Sam Harris thinks drug laws exist because of religious puritanism and need to be abolished to be a “civilised”(read: atheist) society. People like Bill Maher mostly support drug legalisation because they want to get stoned. What is the intent here? Is it moral? Immoral? I would say it is neither – it is morally neutral and rather selfish. Screw people who are being hurt by the drug war, I want to get high – that is not moral judgement.

we interrupt this essay to bring you a stoned-looking kitten for no good reason

we interrupt this essay to bring you a stoned-looking kitten for no good reason

So you’ve got a moral result with neutral intent – does that make the result less worthy? No. Does it make Harris or Maher virtuous for proposing the right result with morally neutral intent? That’s arguable. A good result for bad or neutral reasons is still a good result and in an age where good results are few and far in between, practically, one should take it. Morally? Again, that’s a matter for much debate.

There is another problem with this analysis – it ignores why the drug war exists, which isn’t, as Harris puts it – because of religious puritanism and fear of pleasure. The drug war is big business. Really, much of it is about capitalism and companies making gigantic profits off of human misery. It is also about social control, about oppressing the masses and keeping them distracted. Lord Shang, a legalist of the Qin kingdom suggested over 2,000 years ago that government should have laws governing people’s sex lives – this was a purely secular analysis borne not out of social good, but out of social control – keep people busy worrying about laws they are sure to break and government will have an easier time controlling them.

And while Harris, to his credit, does touch on the criminal profits and historical racism behind the drug war, but he doesn’t touch on either the government/police/military issues that keep the drug war running nor the current racism that results in so many black men being arrested, serving time and having convictions on their records that harm their entire future while white men, if they are punished at all, mostly get slaps on the wrist – probation, drug treatment, no convictions to taint their record. The harm done by the war on drugs to the black community is staggering – not just people whose lives are destroyed by prison, but their spouses, their children, their parents, their whole communities.

The white middle class male privileged syndrome strikes yet again, and of course we’re not going to touch capitalism – not capitalism – that shining beacon of Western civilisation and progress. Let’s just blame religion on everything, yep that works.

Intent is important and it should not be ignored, but it needs to be looked at objectively. It also does not erase the good and bad that results from one’s actions. Accidentally killing someone and intentionally doing so still results in a dead person. Giving money to the poor because of a chance to win a lottery or our of the goodness of one’s heart still results in good. In the end we live in a practical world and while it is fun to debate intent, it cannot override the most important thing and that is action.

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