� Thanks To Kennedy | Main | Obligatory Seriousness on Alito & CAP �

January 11, 2006

The Infinite Patience of Richard Dawkins

I ran across this dangerous idea by Richard Dawkins this afternoon.

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 investigate 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: a murderer, say, or a rapist? Why don't we laugh at a judge who punishes 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? Isn't the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes?


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. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment.

My immediate reaction is to wonder how it is that Dawkins got so spoiled that he would think others would bother studying the faults of man as one might study the mysteries of the universe. But that may be a failing on my part. I simply don't see people as so fascinating, and considering his aim for normative corrections to the presumeably congenitive failures, how this is anything more than super socialized medicine. Listen to the Alphas and deploy the Betas, it's time to correct those faulty Gammas. Serious business.

This is truly dangerous. It means that we will become dependent on some institutions that correct us, that perfect us. By definition the budget for such an institution would have to be infinite, because the capacity of humans to be wrong, to be immoral, is practically insatiable. I think Dawkins or anyone could be quickly disabused of this notion simply by dropping them into the appropriate Third World asylum for a seven year stint.

Posted by mbowen at January 11, 2006 08:42 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


I see it as a matter of perspective. For example, if we look at certain societal ills, like armed robbery, we might suggest that pumping trillions into education might fix that problem, just as buying a new engine might keep a car in good running condition for many more years. I can see that it is a slippery slope, and that this type of thinking might lead to restrictions designed to smooth us out, to create a perfect person. But I think that fixing armed robbery or anti-whatever-ism is a good thing to investigate.

Posted by: Stu Mark at January 11, 2006 10:24 AM

I have always been against the idea of rehabilitation as being immoral. You can certainly manage an imprisoned person's rewards and punishments as a way to manage their behavior in order to promote the peace of the larger community. But presuming to be able to "fix" a person to make them become "better" implies that the institution is imbued with the God-consiousness necessary to do a proper diagnosis, and to know with infallability what is "better." It would be a prison system converted into reeducation camps. Or concentration camps.

We could start by putting signs above the gates: "Arbeit Macht Frei" -- Work is Freedom. What a worthy value to fix prisoners with.

Posted by: Scott Ferguson [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 11, 2006 10:28 AM

Well, they do a certain amount of counseling and job training in prisons, and they should. Some folks are in there because they started out on the wrong track, and maybe they would benefit from some help. But two points that the wondrously logical Dawkins skips over is that (a) while the thug/armed robber/whatever is in prison being puniished or rehabilitated he is not on the streets preying on the rest of us, and (b) it is just possible that other people contemplating a life of thugdom will refrain because they don't want to go to jail. These are not frivolous points.

"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?" This is just a weird statement. I don't know of anyone who viscerally hates vandals, for one thing. But "faulty units"? The death penalty is more respectful of a criminal's status as a human being than the view that he is a faulty unit that should be replaced, like a burned-out light bulb.

Posted by: Laura(southernxyl) at January 11, 2006 04:46 PM