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Dawkins’ Fawlty Idea

John on January 5, 2006 at 12:08 pm

Richard Dawkins has an amusing take on things. He was recently asked to comment on his dangerous idea for a magazine called Edge. [HT: Telic Thoughts] His response is worth quoting:

Ask people why they support the death penalty or prolonged incarceration for serious crimes, and the reasons they give will usually involve retribution…An especially warped and disgusting application of the flawed concept of retribution is Christian crucifixion as “atonement’ for “sin’.

He’s already into the Christian bashing in the first paragraph, big surprise there. Let’s look at Dawkins’ saner, scientific diagnosis of the problem:

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.

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.

For those of you not familiar with Basil Fawlty, he was the lead character of Fawlty Towers, a short lived British show which is one of the funniest sitcoms ever produced (On this point at least Dawkins and I are in agreement). In one episode, which many fans consider the best in the series, Basil becomes enraged and beats his car with a tree branch, like so:


Dawkins then uncorks his dangerous idea:

Why don’t we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal, just as heartily as we laugh at Basil Fawlty?…[D]oesn’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?

Like most of Dawkins’ ideas, this one is not his and is not new. In fact, this particular idea was famously brought to public attention in the 1924 trial of Leopold and Loeb, a pair of intelligent teens (Leopold was said to be a genius with an IQ of 210) set out to commit the perfect crime. They killed a 14 year old named Bobby Franks by luring him into a car and hitting him repeatedly with a chisel. After he was dead, they poured hydrochloric acid on his face and genitals and dumped the body in a remote culvert. Eventually, their game was uncovered and they were put on trial for their lives.

Clarence Darrow, most famous for his role in the Scopes Trial a year later, was hired as the boy’s defense attorney. Darrow was an atheist and also a believer in the kind of determinsim being recycled by Dawkins. Darrow’s argument in the case was very similar to the one Dawkins proposes. If the boys were guilty it was there parents fault, or the fault of some prior condition. As Darrow put it in his famous closing:

[A]ll the testimony of the alienists [psychiatrists]….shows that this terrible act was the act of immature and diseased brains, the act of children.

And here is Dawkins’ comment from the article for comparison:

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?

Here I will simply say that if this is a purely mechanistic universe then Dawkins is quite right. Punishing the murderer of a child makes no more sense than beating a car. That’s if Dawkins’ is right. But he is not. A human being is not a mechanism as simple as a car engine. We do have freedom and choice. We are responsible for those choices. We are, in other words, real beings and not programmed automatons.

As for Dawkins, I think the best one can say about him is what the alienists said of Leopold when they examined him:

In such a philosophy, without any place for emotions and feelings, the intelligence reigns supreme.

If this were really all Dawkins’ is, we would have reason to pity his wife and family. But I have read elsewhere that, like most atheists, he is a much better man than his philosophy allows.

Update: In a related story, Michelle Malkin has a piece on a judge in Vermont who seems to have taken Darrow and Dawkins to heart. He gave a 60 day sentence to the convicted rapist of a child. If this is the sane world, I’ll pass.

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