Friday, April 20, 2007

Richard Dawkins, Basil Fawlty and Virginia Tech: We Shall Learn to Laugh At Our Mental Constructs of Evil and Good

The quote that follows is what Richard Dawkins had to say previously about the moral responsibility of criminals. He applied his ideas below to rapists, child murderers, thuggish vandals and "any crime, however heinous." So it follows that he would apply it Cho Seung-Hui.

Before reading the following quotation, please note the following so Dawkins is not misunderstood: he is not necessarily suggesting that we laugh at the events and crimes themselves- only our mental constructs of good and evil and our attitudes towards the criminals. He is also not suggesting that we not mourn and express sympathy with the families and friends of those who died.

I considered whether the timing of posting this quotation was appropriate. However, Dawkins makes specific reference to the "visceral" emotions we feel in the face of such evil crimes. Therefore, I thought it appropriate to post this while many of us are still in the midst of our visceral reactions to the tragedy at Virginia Tech. I had a visceral reaction to this passage when I first read it. I hope posting this now will encourage others to think through the consequences of ideas, and work to make this world a better place.

It may be unnecessary to say, but I will say it anyway: I thoroughly disagree with Dawkins worldview, and his evaluation of the reality of good and evil:

Basil Fawlty, British television's hotelier from hell created by the immortal John Cleese, was at the end of his tether when his car broke down and wouldn't start. He gave it fair warning, counted to three, gave it one more chance, and then acted. "Right! I warned you. You've had this coming to you!" He got out of the car, seized a tree branch and set about thrashing the car within an inch of its life. Of course we laugh at his irrationality. Instead of beating the car, we would investigate the problem. Is the carburettor flooded? Are the sparking plugs or distributor points damp? Has it simply run out of gas? Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist? Why don't we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal, just as heartily as we laugh at Basil Fawlty? Or at King Xerxes who, in 480 BC, sentenced the rough sea to 300 lashes for wrecking his bridge of ships? Isn't the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes?

Concepts like blame and responsibility are bandied about freely where human wrongdoers are concerned. When a child robs an old lady, should we blame the child himself or his parents? Or his school? Negligent social workers? In a court of law, feeble-mindedness is an accepted defence, as is insanity. Diminished responsibility is argued by the defence lawyer, who may also try to absolve his client of blame by pointing to his unhappy childhood, abuse by his father, or even unpropitious genes (not, so far as I am aware, unpropitious planetary conjunctions, though it wouldn't surprise me).

But doesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment. Don't judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?

Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live. My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Basil Fawlty when he beats his car. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment.


There are so many things to say in response to this. I will limit my comments to these few.

Dawkins says we should not blame people, but "we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing." But given his contention that our mental constructs of good and evil are just useful fictions, what is the basis for identifying the units (persons) that are working from those that need "fixing or replacing"? Aren't they all working just as they "should" according to his "scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system," and his purely materialistic view of the origin of all life?

Finally, according to how Dawkins sees things, is not Cho Seung-Hui's evaluation of the moral significance of his own behavior closer to "that level of enlightenment" of which Dawkins speaks?

20 Comments:

At April 20, 2007 4:35 PM, Anonymous Tom Gilson said...

It seems that the question you closed with could be answered only with power, under Dawkins's system. This matter of determining values and morality, in regard to acts thought to be criminal, is either based in some objective root or else in the opinions of whoever is in control.

Even other supposed grounds for determining criminality ultimately devolve down to one or the other of these.

 
At April 20, 2007 6:26 PM, Anonymous Lawrence said...

Tom,

Thanks for your comment. I assume you are referring to the third to last question: "But given his contention that our mental constructs of good and evil are just useful fictions, what is the basis for identifying the units (persons) that are working from those that need "fixing or replacing"?"

I pretty much agree. His worldview does not allow for any "objective root" for deciding. Therefore, it comes down to personal preference or taste.

 
At April 21, 2007 1:00 AM, Anonymous Dr Ken said...

If our actions are only the result of our mechanistic nervous system, then our belief in free will, and our desire to punish acts we see as evil, are also mechanistic results of our nervous system. If we delude ourselves into believing in free will , good, and evil, then it is natural for us to do so. Most likely, our belief in free will serves an evolutionary function of which Dawkins would approve. Therefore, we are fully justified in acting as if free will, good, and evil existed, because we are the result of millenia of evolution that rewarded us for believing in free will. I say let's treat these concepts as if they are real, because they have been selected for survival.

OK, really because I believe in free will, good, and evil.

 
At April 21, 2007 11:57 AM, Blogger mattghg said...

Dawkins is one of those thinkers of whom I genuinely wonder just ridiculous his conslusions have to get before he begins to doubt his assumptions.

 
At April 21, 2007 2:40 PM, Anonymous John said...

Here's the progression of a society that has adopted the Dawkinsian idea of no free will:

1) "Crime" becomes a meaningless word, since it implies choice and responsibility.

2) Criminals are no longer punished; they are instead treated as if they have a disease which needs to be cured. This is done with various psychotherapies, ranging from reeducation (the non-euphemistic kind) to drug regimens.

3) Criminals continue to commit crime, and even more criminals are spawned because of the cost/benefit ratio of criminal activity.

4) Crime rates skyrocket, causing much unrest in the gentler populace of the society.

5) Societal leaders either respond to the ensuing chaos or they are replaced with leaders who respond.

6) The leaders' response, if consistent with the idea of no one having free will, will be genocide.

It stands to reason that an individual who has no free will cannot change his or her own fate, so if it is a fate that is detrimental to society, that individual must be eliminated.

7) As more and more trivial individual traits are deemed detrimental to society, the more and more expansive the genocide becomes.
For instance, Dawkins has deemed any sort of religious belief to be harmful to the individual and to society in general. It is doubtless that should he ever become a national (or God forbid, a global) dictator, his reign would be as bloody or bloodier than anything imagined by Stalin or Mao.

 
At April 25, 2007 7:57 AM, Blogger Sean said...

His worldview does not allow for any "objective root" for deciding. Therefore, it comes down to personal preference or taste.

Like the personal preference that murdering me and my loved ones would really put a crimp on my day.

Honestly, you're so literal.

 
At April 25, 2007 8:33 AM, Anonymous Christensen said...

Its scary to think what would happen if Dawkins and gang had actuall political control over us.

Even scarier, when you consider that has historically been the case whenever atheists have had political control.

 
At April 25, 2007 10:03 AM, Anonymous Lawrence said...

Sean-

You said,

"Honestly, you're so literal."

Not sure what your point is. Do you think I am misreading Dawkins? Seems to follow naturally from a natural reading of Dawkins, but feel free to explain.

There either are objective moral principles, or there are not. He contends that our mental constructs of good and evil are just "useful fictions."

 
At April 25, 2007 2:18 PM, Anonymous Paul said...

Would you mind providing a source for that Dawkins quote?

 
At April 25, 2007 2:34 PM, Blogger Forthekids said...

He provided the source at the top of his post.

 
At April 25, 2007 2:48 PM, Anonymous John said...

Paul said...
Would you mind providing a source for that Dawkins quote?

Forthekids beat me to the punch, but for further reading, Google is your friend.

 
At April 25, 2007 6:51 PM, Anonymous Lawrence said...

And now I have added another link closer to the quote . . .

 
At April 26, 2007 8:15 AM, Blogger Sean said...

You paint Dawkins like he's some post-modern automoton "everythiing is without a value" etc.

Have you even read The God Delusion, or did you run screaming from it's title? I'm wagering the latter as you are content to just cherry pick quotes from the Interweb rather than going straight to the source.

I recommend Chapter 6 for a fuller view of Dawkins' morality.

 
At April 26, 2007 8:50 AM, Anonymous John said...

You paint Dawkins like he's some post-modern automoton "everythiing is without a value" etc.

It looks to me like Dawkins does that himself.

It would certainly fit with the philosophy of his sycophant Dennett, who doesn't believe in qualia.

I recommend Chapter 6 [of the God Delusion] for a fuller view of Dawkins' morality.

How about throwing some quotes up for us to kick around instead of trying to sell a book?

 
At April 26, 2007 10:52 AM, Anonymous Lawrence said...

Sean-

Interesting that you think I am "painting" Dawkins as something, when I pretty much just asked some suggestive questions after quoting him. I read and linked to his full essay, so how can you accuse me of "cherry picking quotes"?

You are attacking me without providing anything specific to back it up. Looks like you are the one doing the "painting."

Are you suggesting that I cannot comment on an essay, without reading all his books? That's absurd.

Can you give a quote or summary of what you are referring to?

 
At April 27, 2007 6:41 AM, Blogger Sean said...

What is absurd is me convincing you of anything in a blog comment. Hence my keen ambition to get you to a library (yes, they still exist) and actually read the book. That way you can shake off the ignorance you currently wallow and elevate yourself to the lofty heights that I inhabit.

But to pique your interest -- whet your appetite -- how about starting with the essay you’ve quoted. If you read the page, it’s scientists and other thinkers suggesting their “Dangerous Idea”. As in an idea that makes you go “ooh, that’s hard to think about!” As in an idea that makes you go “ooh, that’s challenging!” As in...oh whatever, you get the point, right?

How about putting that into your initial post?

 
At April 27, 2007 9:36 AM, Anonymous John said...

That way you can shake off the ignorance you currently wallow and elevate yourself to the lofty heights that I inhabit.

ROFL!

No quotes, no summary, and narcissistic snark. That means Lawrence has you dead to rights.

As for the essays on the Edge, Dawkin's supposed "dangerous idea" is one that I've seen teenaged stoners come up with on CounterStrike forums, albeit with much worse spelling and grammar. If this is the best mind the U.K. has to offer the world, their glacial slide into oblivion is justified.

As Templeton prize winner John Barrow once told Dawkins, "You have a problem with these ideas, Richard, because you’re not really a scientist."

 
At April 27, 2007 1:16 PM, Anonymous Lawrence said...

Sean,

I have read enough Dawkins to know that he is a very bad philosopher. Read my post on March 9, which contains this from the NY Times:

So why is the new wave of books on atheism getting such a drubbing? The criticism is not primarily, it should be pointed out, from the pious, which would hardly be noteworthy, but from avowed atheists as well as scientists and philosophers writing in publications like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, not known as cells in the vast God-fearing conspiracy.

Why should I spend my time on such a book after this?

Why can't you just give a brief hint of what Dawkins bases his moral philosophy on?

I did include Dawkins' reference to his "dangerous idea" in my initial post. Your browser may have a "find" function.

By the way, sophomoric insults are not good arguments. Perhaps you picked those up from Dawkins too?

 
At May 01, 2007 2:24 AM, Blogger Sean said...

Heh, as I said: much too literal. Lighten up!

Sure, Dawkins writes the words "...my dangerous idea...", which tells a reader of your blog nothing of the purpose of the piece ("What's your dangerous idea?") and that many other scientists and thinkers were also asked to write to that theme on the site. It's important you put it in context for your readers, Lawrence.

As for that Chapter 6 you won't read: Dawkins explores the possibility that our sense of morality has come out of Natural Selection. This is much more complex than "eat, sleep, sex"! There are good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or 'moral' towards each other.

He then goes on to look at Marc Hauser's research into moral dilemmas, and how there are universal answers no matter your background; whether athiest or religious believer. "This seems compatible with the view, which I and many others hold, that we do not need God in order to be good -- or evil." (p. 226).

Hence his 'dangerous idea' about the punishment metered to people as being pointless (maybe laughable); if they don't hold a moral world view, then maybe their 'wiring' is a bit screwed.

Incidently, just a point at the end of your original post I want to pick your brain about:

Finally, according to how Dawkins sees things, is not Cho Seung-Hui's evaluation of the moral significance of his own behavior closer to "that level of enlightenment" of which Dawkins speaks?

Was Cho actually evaluating the moral significance of his behaviour, or was he simply being narcissistic? Even Socrates wouldn't agree that Cho truly examined his own world view!

 
At May 03, 2007 11:53 AM, Anonymous Lawrence said...

Sean-

Thanks for your comment. I have been planning on responding, but have not had the time to respond fully. I still hope to, but in the meantime, here are some quick comments:

On Dawkins moral reasoning, I think your comments tend to prove my position. Which points of mine do you think your comments refute?

On your last question, I think it is an excellent question, and I have much to say about it. My short answer for now is this: On the one hand he clearly had mental problems and his actions can be chalked up in large part to that. On the other hand, his manifesto showed signs of some moral reasoning.

I hope to say more later.

 

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