Friday, November 21, 2008

Off the hook?

Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Lee Randolph argue that as a result of recent advances in behavioral and neural science it is hard to preserve any meaningful concept of moral blame or praiseworthiness. If our behavioral tendencies are largely determined by genetics, upbringing and peer influence, can we say that we are ever truly responsible for our actions? As Randolph puts it: "Since the brain is a biological device. It can be influenced by physiological factors, and physiological factors induce desire and motivation. Since we cannot get outside of our thoughts and feelings, they make up our personality our 'essence'. This renders any judgment by an external supernatural creator meaningless because it would know that we are helpless to feel any other way than our physiological make up will support at the time, and that our behavior and desire will follow that. We are helpless to think any thoughts that are not supported by our physiological make up at the time. The physiological factors would have to be eliminated to make any judgment meaningful."

I would dispute that physiological factors have to be eliminated in order for judgment to be meaningful. One might as well say that 'soul-stuff' would have to be eliminated if that is the basis for our making decisions under a dualistic anthropology. The fact that our decisions have a structured basis constrained by various rules of operation does not rule out intentional agency.

That said, I do agree that a more nuanced understanding of the causes of human behavior is in order. There are biological conditions which should temper our eagerness to assign blame in the case of unusual or destructive behavior. But are there cases where a person with reasonable mental capacity and no obvious psychological imbalances still engages in calculated, destructive behavior that we can assign blameworthiness to? I believe there are many such cases. I list just a couple below:

1) Human trafficking: the sickening truth about the slave trade today is that it is mostly conducted by people who are in it for the money. The traders are for the most part smart, efficient and well-organized. They did not necessarily come from poverty or domestic abuse. Many were military officers who lost their jobs when the Soviet Union dissolved and borders became porous (see Misha Glenny's McMafia, reviewed here). There are certainly trans-individual factors at work which make women and young girls desperate and likely to be fooled by promises of work and money abroad, and conversely the economic deprivation that makes a 'career' in human trafficking seem attractive to certain people. But the fact is that these are not crimes of passion, they are not the result of seratonin imbalances (in fact many of the traffickers have families of their own whom they care about deeply so we can't argue that they're even psychopathic). Brothel owners and slave traders made a conscious, deliberate decision to profit from human misery and are often astonishingly creative and dedicated to honing their 'craft' by concocting elaborate schemes to fool border patrols and transport the girls to their clients. This is evil, not just inconvenience or a socially conditioned taboo, and the people who perpetrate it are completely responsible for their actions. No insanity plea can be effective here.

2) Pelting: despite PETA's notorious and dubiously effective animal rights activism they have put their finger on a horrifying phenomenon that continues unabated to this day: careless and rampant cruelty to animals in the fur trade and other industries. They have put up a truly disturbing video on their website (I warn you, this is NOT for the faint of heart) of pelters in China taking dogs, foxes and other furry creatures one by one, smacking them against the ground to subdue them (but without actually killing them) and then slowly skinning them alive, occasionally stopping to give the animal another good thwack on the ground if it struggles or twitches. After the skinning, with many of the animals still alive, they are left on a heap to die slowly. Again, this is no crime of passion and is not the result of a bad childhood. These pelters are simply businessmen doing their job. They could easily have chosen to mercifully end the animals' lives before pelting them. No seratonin deficiency would have overriden their conscious action. They make a choice every day to inflict the most monstrous brutality on these animals and no one is responsible but they themselves. (I won't go into the question now of whether God is justified in creating a world in which animals suffer in the wild as a result of natural predation. In the above case the chain of responsibility is clear: it lies with human beings. With God and creation the issue is much less clear cut, because we have to take into account the ultimate purpose of creation, etc.)

Cross-posted at Christian CADRE

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1 comment:

Jim S. said...

The idea that pointing to physical influences on our moral sense thereby thereby renders us unresponsible for our actions was effectively refuted by C. S. Lewis' first misgiving in chapter 6 ("Answers to Misgivings") of Miracles. The same argument could be given against our rational sense too, but they don't usually want to take it that far.