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Nutters.org The Nutter Log
Dawkins' Dangerous Idea Entry id: dangerous-dawkins
By The Famous Brett Watson
On Thu, 05 Jan 2006 10:34:00 +0000

It seems like only yesterday, but it was actually early in 2003 when I described The Edge as "a respectable centre of pontification on the Internet". I'm again prompted to counter-pontificate, as they have asked their Big Question for 2006, "What is your dangerous idea?" My specific response will be to the idea presented by Richard Dawkins, which he entitles, "Let's all stop beating Basil's car". I will here criticise his idea, so you may want to read it before proceeding further.

Richard's dangerous idea, in a nutshell, is that we are machines. Machines aren't good or evil, merely broken or working. A mechanistic view of human beings undermines the notion of responsibility, which has drastic implications for crime and punishment. Dawkins' idea of enlightenment is where we think of crime in terms of corrective adjustment rather than retribution. Not only is this idea dangerous — "poisonous" is a term I've used to describe it while discussing the matter with fellow students in a Metaphysics class — but it's also wildly inconsistent. Let's examine the assumptions, inconsistencies, and general badness in Dawkins' idea.

Richard starts by assuming that retribution is wrong. He draws the analogy of Basil Fawlty losing his temper with his broken-down car, and subsequently flogging it with a tree branch. A nice analogy, but is it valid? Flogging a car with a tree branch is generally the wrong approach to fixing a car, but it doesn't follow that punishment is the wrong approach to crime. The suggestion is that the problem is a matter of plumbing, more or less, in both cases: broken cars are fixed by inspecting the engine, and criminal inclinations ought to be treated clinically, but is it so?

The error here is to assume that a mechanistic view of humans implies "getting under the hood" to fix any problem. While this may be appropriate for cars, it's not necessarily so for brains. A person with a normally functioning brain is quite capable of socially unacceptable behaviour, but will typically be socially conditioned not to engage in it. Certain forms of pain and suffering may be exactly appropriate to condition a normally functioning brain against engaging in the undesired behaviour. The "retribution reflex" which motivates the "punishment" approach to crime could easily be a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

There may be cases where the brain is not functioning normally, rendering the "punishment" approach either inappropriate or ineffective, and some form of clinical approach may be appropriate in those cases, but it's a grand and irrational leap to hold that "retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour." Retribution may be metaphysically incompatible with a mechanistic view, but this in no way implies that the associated conduct is incompatible.

Suppose for a moment that Dawkins is right, and that we are merely deterministic machines. Which of us is then in a position to call another "defective"? Clearly Dawkins finds murder and rape abhorrent (along with most of us), but he then leaps to the position of declaring murderers and rapists "defective", which is unwarranted. Use of the term implies a proper function — an ideal from which the criminal has deviated. This strikes me as unacceptable from the perspective of a materialist. A rapist or murderer is, in the materialist model of things, only doing what any similarly arranged collection of molecules would do in the given situation. What is "defective" about that?

By asserting that a particular kind of entity behaving in a certain way is genuinely defective, as opposed to personally disagreeable, Dawkins asserts (by implication) that he knows the purpose for which the entity is intended, and that the behaviour lies outside the intended range. This whole line of thinking requires some sort of creator acting in an intentional manner and knowledge of those intentions. Thus he can assert that Basil Fawlty's car is defective because cars are (in general) made for the purpose of transporting people, and defective if they fail to do so. But this approach to defect analysis won't do for humans, because Dawkins denies any kind of intentional act of creation so far as humankind is concerned. No grounds for declaring anyone "defective" can be found here.

The problem here is that Dawkins is unreasonably selective about what he classifies as myth. If "blame" and "responsibility" are illusions — mere by-products of evolutionary history — then why stop there? Dawkins asks us, rhetorically, "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?" But why should we regard them as faulty at all? They may be faulty relative to some personal ideal, but so what? Surely "faulty" is every bit as mythical as "evil" so far as a purposeless evolutionary happenstance like humanity is concerned?

But even if we grant there is some "proper function" against which we can judge faultiness, and grant that the clinical approach to correction is reasonable, it may still be a dangerous idea. Whether or not human beings are deterministic machines, they behave differently when treated as deterministic machines rather than free-willed beings with personal accountability. In general, the less respect given to a person's "personhood", the less socially cooperative they become. Until such time as the clinical treatment of human behaviour is so thorough as to override all the negative psychological reactions people have to being treated as objects, the process won't be viable.

And even if we could magically reprogram murderous criminals into friendly neighbours rather than jail them, the process would probably be perceived as a punishment (and thus deterrent) far more severe than simple incarceration! It's the stuff of science fiction horror to think that one's personality might be forcibly re-shaped into a more acceptable and compliant form. It's the ultimate in personal violation.

So even if we grant Dawkins his assumptions, gloss over his inconsistencies, and accept the basic premises, it still looks like a horrible idea. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure how much more dangerous the idea is if it turns out that we aren't simply deterministic machines after all.

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