Morality 101

See, I focus my efforts against the terror and violence of my own state for really two main reasons. First of all, in my case the actions of my state happen to make up the main component of international violence in the world. But much more importantly than that, it’s because American actions are the things that I can do something about. So even if the United States were causing only a tiny fraction of the repression and violence in the world–which obviously is very far from the truth–that tiny fraction would still be what I’m responsible for, and what I should focus my efforts against. And that’s based on a very simple ethical principle –namely, that the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated consequences for human beings: I think that’s kind of like a fundamental moral truism.

So, for example, it was a very easy thing in the 1980s for people in the United States to denounce the atrocities of the Soviet Union in its occupation of Afghanistan–but those denunciations had no effects which could have helped people. In terms of their ethical value, they were about the same as denouncing Napoleon’s atrocities, or things that happened in the Middle Ages. Useful and significant actions are ones which have consequences for human beings, and usually those will concern things that you can influence and control–which means for people in the United States, American actions primarily, not those of some other state.

Actually, the principle that I think we ought to follow is the principle we rightly expected Soviet dissidents to follow. So what principle did we expect Sakharov [a Soviet scientist punished for his criticism of the U.S.S.R.] to follow? Why did people here decide that Sakharov was a moral person? I think he was. Sakharov did not treat every atrocity as identical–he had nothing to say about American atrocities. When he was asked about them, he said, “I don’t know anything about them, I don’t care about them, what I talk about are Soviet atrocities.” And that was right-because those were the ones that he was responsible for, and that he might have been able to influence. Again, it’s a very simple ethical point: you are responsible for the predictable consequences of your actions, you’re not responsible for the predictable consequences of somebody else’s actions.

Now, we understand this perfectly well when we’re talking about dissidents in the old Soviet Union or in some other enemy state, but we fail to understand it when we’re talking about ourselves–for obvious reasons. I mean, commissars in the old Soviet Union didn’t understand it about dissidents there either: commissars in the old Soviet Union attacked Sakharov and other Soviet dissidents because they weren’t denouncing American crimes. In fact, an old joke fifty years ago was that if you went to a Stalinist and criticized the Soviet slave-labor camps, the Stalinist would say, “Well, what about the lynchings in the American South?” Alright, in that case the dishonesty’s obvious, and we can easily understand why.

Now, just personally speaking, it turns out that I do spend a fair amount of effort talking about the crimes of official enemies–in fact, there are a number of people now living in the United States and Canada from the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe who are there because of my own personal activities on their behalf. But I don’t take great pride in that part of my work, particularly: I just do it because I’m interested in it. The most important thing for me, and for you, is to think about the greater consequences of your criticisms: what you can have the most effect on. And especially in a relatively open society like ours, which does allow a lot of freedom for dissent, that means American crimes primarily.

–Noam Chomsky, from interviews in the 1990s, in Understanding Power, edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel

GTU, Berkeley, April 1994

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