Noam Chomsky answers some queries about Moral Principles and International Law (from a ‘bonus commentary,’ ZNet, May 9, 1999):

Question: What's the basis of valid moral principles?
Answer: I'm afraid the question is not a "genuine question." It is no more a "genuine question" than such pseudo-questions as "why do things happen?"

Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky

1. Intellectual and truth
In a ‘Preface’ to the French edition of Noam Chomsky's Powers and Prospects, Michael Albert writes:

‘‘The French edition of Powers and Prospects revolves in considerable part around that question, one that Chomsky is asked often. Chomsky generally replies that an intellectual should tell the truth ‘as best one can’ about ‘things that matter, to the right audience.’ He elaborates ‘the responsibility of the writer as a moral agent is to try to bring the truth about matters of human significance to an audience that can do something about them.’ ’’
Truth and Morality are high words—even the highest, since we can not think of them apart from other concepts like Justice, Freedom, Peace and Love. They certainly are not supra-human things to be given up, or to be eternally hopeless for. Their comprehension is their actualization. They are human abilities, or, if we prefer, they are values which are our real being, just as their opposites express only the absence of human quality.

Yet for many it takes courage in these postmodernist/relativist days to speak of the truth and morality, conscience and justice. And we see that in these painful days of war Mr. Chomsky talks a lot about ..., no, not about truths, but about half-truths. And, as we are going to see their logical grounds, he does it quite consistently. That also leaves his use of the word ‘morality’ meaningless—as he himself can give the term no meaning in the above quotation. Armed with half-truths, it is still possible to induce the right audience to ‘do something.’ Yet as long as justice needs full-truths, even half-lies can only harm it. Justice itself is the full truth, the absolute truth of our existence.

The term ‘intellectual’ may have many meanings. And this simple fact has very disturbing implications. Yet we have to be ready to accept the  reality, the plasticity of the term. By itself, the term ‘intellectual’ does not necessarily entail the knowledge of the truth. Mr. Kissinger and Mr. Brzezinski both are intellectuals in the proper sense of the term. So are Göbbels and Sartre, for example, or Lenin and Mussolini, Marx and Bakunin, Nietzsche and Popper. An intellectual may be existentialist or Nazi, communist or fascist, socialist or anarchist, nihilist or positivist, materialist or spiritualist. In fact, his or her consciousness is a battle ground for the abstract concepts, open to the countless configurations of their connections, determined in each case by a dominant one which arranges them into a more or less consistent structure, that is, into an ideology. 

Intellectualism is not a matter only of speculation or pure theory. Quite the contrary, intellectual proudly dismisses such ‘abstract’ attitudes which he opines as indifferent to reality. It is not interested basically in non-practical matters like mathematics or physics. Intellectualism is a matter of practical significance. To be intellectual is first of all to moralize.
Jean-Paul Sartre Jean-Paul Sartre. He declared Marxism to be a version of humanism while according to the founder, Karl Marx, the new ideology was in no way different in its content from the earlier ‘utopian’ forms except involving a plus, a ‘scientific’ factor of violence and terror to attain its humanitarian goal. 

Yet since in spite of his being an intellectual he too must use his natural reason to work out his argumentations, judgments, and conclusion, it is not unlikely that he too may err like anybody else. 

But since he has rejected and left behind his common sense by deconstructing his reason into its abstract concepts without putting them back in their proper place yet, the support of conventional wisdom misses him, and his logical errors expose him to much greater moral risks than would otherwise have been the case. So it is not unusual to see the intellectuals often going astray while pursuing the logic of abstract/analytical ideas, and landing in immoralism or even espousing despotism. Still there is nothing to prevent them from being called intellectuals.

Or, an intellectual may try to preserve a healthy soul capable to feel decently, so that he may at least be right relative to common wisdom of the world. But to this extent he risks relinquishing his quality of being an intellectual, grows common, gets closer to Larry King. We never call a mathematician an intellectual just because he is mathematician. It is same with the medical doctors, physicists, chemists; and also with painters, poets, and philosophers. Intellectualism has a certain practical concern that separates it from the other activities of the intellect. In its moral quality, it exists for the sake of amending the world.

But to whatever audience he may present his services, in the capacity of mere intellectual he or she is in no position to claim the truth for personal opinions and convictions. Intellectualism is not enough. It is too loose a concept to justify any claim to the truth. With its relativism and skepticism inherent in it, it seems almost impossible to connect the term ‘intellectual’ with the non-relative, i.e. absolutely certain truths. At best, it can be connected with approximate truths, half-truths, and so if we believe in truth, that is, full truth, intellectualism itself has only its unconscious role to play in the drama of humanity, whatever important or unimportant that role may be. Revolutionary intellectuals played big parts in their time and culture—for better or worse. On the whole, they were simply toys in the hands of the social processes working behind their back. They were totally innocent of the the truth. Soon, their relative, temporary half-truths turned out to be wrongs, grow stale, and were replaced by others, similar to themselves.

Marx, Engels, LeninA special class of materialist intellectuals were born in the last century in Europe. From the resources of their materialism, they deduced a spirituality which was absolutely unrivaled in the annals of history, a flawless morality which not only overshadowed that of the prophets but declared them to be working in the service of evil all along. They accursed  the whole history as false, as an intrigue of the ruling classes. They denied the whole philosophy as an appendix to the superstition, the wise men as castle-builders. They were total in anything. They claimed to be the true liberators of humanity from injustice. They assumed a responsibility for history which was virtually divine. They saw an absolute right in themselves to decide for every single person, every single people, every single nation in the world, a power to control the total destiny of humanity. They had an ego-ideal never matched in the blank centuries of the world history. They had a conscience so clear, so pure, so spotless that with which it would never be a problem to resort to violence, to punish, to annihilate—all without any shred of feeling of guilt.

Their race is not lost yet. Their claim is something quite different from any particular historical role, any finite goal. It is beyond history. It is almost infinite. And they achieved an important degree of realization for their ideologies. Through illusions supported by the ignorance of the masses, they succeeded in organizing new ‘states’ in the vast spaces of despotism. It was the miracle of the ideology, created by the reason and passion of the intellectual. Ideology needs no other justification than its sublimated purpose. It has megalomania in its service, an ego-ideal able to degrade everything but itself. Its inner consistency and stability is supplied by the mental labor of the intellectual. He ‘knows’ with full certainty that his ideas and principles, as soon as translated into practice, will lead to justice and freedom once and for all. His knowledge must be irrefutably true, for it is basically a moral one based on the best intentions. Moreover, even if the knowledge is not commensurate with the facts, the latter are reasonably obedient to be converted. No problem. Does not ideology exist for the sake of changing the facts?

The arguments of the Left considered here are seen from a non-personal point of view. That is, we have to try more to follow their consistency than to detect their inconsistency. They are simply the unfolding of the principles or ideas which serve only as departure points of several lines of reasoning. To the extent that the personal element is the basic factor responsible for the inconsistencies in the arguments, it must be disregarded. Even the materialist ideology has a basic right to claim consistency.

The word ‘change’
In these essays we’ll attempt to evaluate mainly the sort of intellectual who wants primarily not to understand but to change the world. So by implication, the opposite type, the conservative one, would also be dealt with. Yet this reservation seem to exclude a good potion of the term, the ‘neutral’ ones, so to speak, from the consideration, but only as long as we are ready to concede that there may be intellectuals who have no interest in ethics, morality and aesthetics.

The reality is process. The world changes every moment. So the term ‘change’ which is underscored in the ideological attitude can not be taken in this its common meaning. Moreover, it is a fact that no reasonable person in the world is ready to accept the reality as it is without changing anything in it. Therefore the ideological usage of the word must have a content which would be different from the latter usage too. That special meaning given the term by the ideology involves nothing less than a total transformation of social reality. It means to alter the world systematically. It is a moral, social and political matter. And it needs equally dramatic justification.

  1. The transformation may be in harmony with the essential development of the human race.
  2. Or, it may be an external, artificial one imposed over humanity in total disagreement with the human nature.
Philosophy is, in contrast to ideology, concerned with the understanding of the reality. It is a speculative science which accepts the truth, the whole truth, as its subject-matter. The critical thing with the philosophy is the fact that its ideal content is at the same time the true form of the consciousness. The pertinent question therefore is: Might it be possible for the human mind to dismiss the truth?