Friday, November 13, 2009

Reductionism and Responsibility

Today, the Obama Administration announced that 5 suspects in the 9/11 conspiracy, including alleged mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will be transferred to New York to go on trial in civilian court

In light of this announcement - and last week's decision by an Italian judge to reduce a killer's sentence because he had "aggressive genes" - now might be a good time to examine the implications of Reductionist philosophy on our criminal justice system.

In 2006, the king of Reductionist philosophers, Richard Dawkins, said the following...

Concepts like blame and responsibility are bandied about freely where human wrongdoers are concerned...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.

I'm just glad Dawkins won't be on the 9/11 jury.

H/T: Darwinian Fundamentalism

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