|John quoted the following passage from Richard Dawkins -- |
Ask people why they support the death penalty or prolonged incarceration for serious crimes, and the reasons they give will usually involve retribution. There may be passing mention of deterrence or rehabilitation, but the surrounding rhetoric gives the game away. People want to kill a criminal as payback for the horrible things he did. Or they want to give "satisfaction' to the victims of the crime or their relatives. An especially warped and disgusting application of the flawed concept of retribution is Christian crucifixion as "atonement' for "sin'. -- and dismissed it out of hand.
Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software.
I too disagree with Dawkins rejection of "punishment" as an appropriate response to crime, but not with his rejection of retribution, which is an inappropriate basis for punishment. There is no rational justification for the concept of "atonement." Deterrence is the only legitimate rationale for punishment. Dawkins likens punishment to the absurd spectacle of a driver beating his car, because it won't start. While I certainly don't endorse the punitive beating of convicted criminals, I don't think this analogy is remotely applicable. The purpose of punishment is to motivate criminals and would-be criminals to refrain from committing crimes lest they suffer the consequences. Inanimate objects, like cars, don't operate on the basis of motivation; they are not goal directed entities concerned with consequences. Dawkins, of all people, should know this. As a zoologist, he should be well aware that, unlike automobiles, animals including human beings, respond to incentives.
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 if, as Dawkins concedes, blame and responsibility can be assigned to antecedent conditions, then there is absolutely no reason that it cannot also be assigned to the acting agent himself. If the antecedent conditions, despite being determined by still earlier conditions, are themselves blameworthy causal agents, then why isn't the acting agent himself, despite being determined by his environment and heredity, also a blameworthy causal agent? Why cannot he too be held responsible for his actions? Dawkins should know that, despite being determined by their heredity and environment, animals themselves respond to punishment and rewards, so why is it such a stretch for him to think that human beings do also? In fact, if we were to adopt his deterministic paradigm, we could say that punishment is itself one of the antecedent conditions determining a criminal's future behavior!
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? No, because we need to know whether or not a person comprehends the meaning of his action; otherwise, punishing him for it will be pointless and ineffectual. In order to deserve punishment for a crime, a person must know what he is doing when he commits it. Suppose, for example, that he is drugged and manipulated into committing a crime that he is not aware of. He is not responsible for such a crime, because he didn't knowingly choose it -- because it isn't a reflection of his moral character. But if he does knowingly choose it (even if his propensity to criminal behavior is due to his bad upbringing and his environment) then it does reflect on his moral character -- on his moral values and choices -- and he is responsible for it. In that case, punishing him can serve as a deterrent to his committing future crimes, as well as a deterrent to others who have similar criminal inclinations. Nevertheless, Dawkins persists,
Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions [that human beings are not responsible for their actions]? 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. Question: Is Dawkins responsible for this allegedly "truer analysis of what is going on in the world?" And if not, how can he claim to know that it's a truer analysis? Conversely, if he is responsible for it, then are we not responsible for having constructed one that is less true? Can we not be blamed for our "false" idea, just as he is credited for his "truer" one? It would seem that Dawkins is committed to the concepts of responsibility and blame even to assert that they are illegitimate concepts.
Nonsense. Dawkins is a superb evolutionary biologist, but he needs to recognize that philosophical concepts like blame and responsibility, are not a product of evolutionary hardwiring. 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.
Dawkins' comments indicate how even scientists as brilliantly insightful as he is can be tragically mistaken when they attempt to apply their science to an area in which it is inapplicable. F.A. Hayek had a similar objection to what he termed "scientism," which is the attempt to apply a certain scientific approach to a discipline (like economics) that does not accommodate it.