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?