What is your dangerous idea?
by Richard Dawkins
(Top Posts - Philosophy (General) - 012406)

- - -
Let's all stop beating Basil's car
- - -

Complete segment of article
by Richard Dawkins

[inserts from yours truly, not part of the
original article, added in brackets]

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 deter-
rence or rehabilitation, but the surround-
ing 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 appli-
cation of the flawed concept of retribution
is Christian crucifixion as "atonement' for

Retribution as a moral principle is incom-
patible with a scientific view of human be-

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 com-
ponent, either in hardware or software.

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 investi-
gate 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 [or woman or child]: a mur-
derer, say, or a rapist [or a thief, or one who
goes over the speed limit, or a robber or a
burglar, or a tax cheat, or a liar, or one who
lusts in his heart in ways deemed unaccep-
table by a particular society or religion]

Why don't we laugh at a judge who pun-
ishes 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?
[or to all those who, after the terror of the
Christmas season tsunami of 2004, blamed
(or credited) the sea God, or various Hindu
Gods, or Allah, or the Christian version of
God, or humans of a particular group held
in low esteem by the blamers]

Isn't the murderer or the rapist just a
machine with a defective component? Or
a defective upbringing? Defective educa-
tion? Defective genes? [instead of defec-
tive, note that the cause is perceived in
a positive or negative way based on the
combination of genetic -and- memetic
programming each individual consists
of as of a particular time]

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? [the society and
religious influences the child exists within
as a whole, the child's genes, other influ-
ences not the least of which is perceived
acrimony, hatred, rejection resulting in
despair, and of course, one of the most
culpable, that being mental disease and
disorders caused by childhood abuse,
while keeping in mind, at times, entire
societies have had a so-called 'morality'
which resulted in acts that were later
condemned as immoral?]

In a court of law, feeble-mindedness is
an accepted defence, as is insanity. Dim-
inished responsibility is argued by the
defence lawyer, who may also try to ab-
solve his client of blame by pointing to
his unhappy childhood, abuse by his
father [or mother or other caregiver(s),
either thru acts of omission or acts of
, or even unpropitious
genes (not, so far as I am aware, unpro-
pitious planetary conjunctions, though
it wouldn't surprise me).

But doesn't a truly scientific, mechan-
istic view of the nervous system make
nonsense of the very idea of responsi-
bility, whether diminished or not? [not
really, because the idea of responsi-
bility is inherent in both the genetic
and the memetic instructions each
individual is bounded by, however
flawed those concepts may be]

Any crime, however heinous, is in prin-
ciple to be blamed on antecedent con-
ditions acting through the accused's
physiology, heredity and environment.

Don't judicial hearings to decide ques-
tions of blame or diminished responsi-
bility make as little sense for a faulty
man as for a Fawlty car? [to some de-
gree, -but- unlike a Fawlty car, humans
have yet to arrive at a capability of fix-
ing faulty or malfunctioning humans,
though research into fixes more en-
lightened than mere imprisonment,
torture, death, radical brain surgery,
& brainwashing are progresssing at
a disappointingly slow pace]

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 van-
dals, when we should simply regard
them as faulty units that need fixing or

[see above, and until workable fixes are
discovered, the ancient concepts of hurt-
ing the hurter, even a concept of hurting
someone who may be acting within the
constructs of a defensible moral alterna-
tive to the societal one (for example, one
who gains a perceived or actual benefit
from a medication or drug far outweigh-
ing actualized or propagandized risk of
harm, with said medication or drug con-
demned by the society {BIG DADDY as
employer, government, law, in-laws, fam-
ily members, religion, school} at large),
will persevere]

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 inten-
tional 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.

- - - end of segment by Richard Dawkins - - -