Sam Harris: ‘Morally confused’ liberals thought I lost debate with Noam Chomsky -- but they don’t get it
Neuroscientist Sam Harris speaking at TED2010 (Steve Jurvetson/Flickr)

Sam Harris offered what amounts to a 10-minute author rebuttal to a negative book review in a podcast on his disastrous debate with Noam Chomsky.


The pair recently engaged in an email exchange on the ethical importance of intentions – and while Harris agrees it was a disaster, he’s not sure it was actually a debate instead of a conversation.

“They’re superficially similar when the parties disagree, but to have one’s mind changed in a debate is to lose the debate and very likely to lose face before one’s audience,” Harris said. “Now this is an incredibly counterproductive way to frame any inquiry into what is true.”

Harris published the exchange, which he had hoped would be “a civil conversation on an important topic with a very influential thinker,” as a way to salvage something of value from what turned out to be “a truly pointless exercise.”

He said Chomsky’s supporters accused him of trying to “steal some measure of his fame” and immediately found himself out of his depth when the famed linguist “devastated (him) with the evidence of my own intellectual misconduct and my ignorance of history and my blind faith in the goodness of the U.S. government.”

The neuroscientist said he was “flabbergasted” by that response.

“Anyone who thinks I lost a debate here just doesn’t understand what I was trying to do,” he said.

Harris said he had hoped to learn what Chomsky actually believes about the ethics of intent, and he hoped his own arguments would steer leftists away from their “masochistic” tendencies.

He said Chomsky’s followers believe the U.S. was morally worse than ISIS because it had, through “selfishness and ineptitude,” created ISIS and victimized millions of people in other nations.

“This kind of masochism and misreading of both ourselves and of our enemies has become a kind of religious precept on the left,” Harris said. “I don’t think an inability to distinguish George Bush or Bill Clinton from Saddam Hussein or Hitler is philosophically or politically interesting, much less wise.”

He said most people who hold this “morally confused” view “Chomsky as their patriarch, and I suspect that’s not an accident.”

Harris complained that he encountered “contempt and false accusation and highly moralizing language” throughout his exchange with Chomsky – and he now wishes he had addressed those points immediately and directly.

“Highly moralizing accusations work for people who think they are watching a debate,” Harris said. “They convince most of the audience that where there is smoke there must be fire. For instance, when Ben Affleck called me and Bill Maher racist, that was all he had to do to convince 50 percent of the audience.”

Harris said he’s never approached debates like a “high school exercise,” where he remains committed to his point of view, because he doesn’t "want to be wrong for a moment longer than I need to be.”

“I wanted to talk to him to see if there was some way to build a bridge off of this island of masochism so that these sorts of people that I’ve been hearing from for years could cross over to something more reasonable, and it didn’t work out,” he said. “The conversation, as I said, was a total failure, but I thought it was an instructive one.”