On Humanism

One of the various labels variously applied to the group of people who don’t believe in the supernatural is “secular humanist.” This emphasizes the importance of ethical behavior by and toward other humans. Indeed, you’ll sometimes see “secular humanist” and “atheist” used interchangeably. Richard Dawkins seems determined to clarify the difference.

In a piece written for the Los Angeles Times, he writes Saddam should have been studied, not executed, and argues in particular that:

Hussein is not in the same league as Hitler, but, nevertheless, in a small way his execution represents a wanton and vandalistic destruction of important research data.

Also of, you know, a human being. But as they say, c’est la vie.

Dawkins’s argument has flaws beyond that, though.


He argues that:

Hussein could have provided irreplaceable help to future historians of the Iran-Iraq war, of the invasion of Kuwait and of the subsequent era of sanctions culminating in the invasion. Uniquely privileged evidence on the American government’s enthusiastic arming of Hussein in the 1980s is now snuffed out at the tug of a rope ?.

Political scientists of the future, studying the processes by which unscrupulous leaders arise and take over national institutions, have now lost key evidence forever. But perhaps the most important research in which a living Saddam Hussein could have helped is psychological. Most people can’t even come close to understanding how any man could be so cruel as Hitler or Hussein, or how such transparently evil monsters could secure sufficient support to take over an entire country.

All of this presumes that Hussein would have had any interest at all in helping historians, political scientists or psychologists to understand him and his life. As do his arguments against the death penalty for someone like Hitler. I’m not aware that Hussein displayed any interest in being so helpful, and Hitler’s suicide is a pretty good indication that he didn’t care to help Allied scientists understand the roots of his madness.

There is, however, a case to be made there. After his capture and conviction, Jeffrey Dahmer volunteered to work with psychologists to help them better understand the psychopathology which led him to kill and consume so many victims. Had another inmate not killed him, who knows what benefits his help might have brought to society?

Examples like that of Tookie Williams, a gang leader who became a voice against streetgangs while on death row also remind us that people are capable of change and of redemption. Whether Tookie’s work in prison saved more lives than he took is unknowable. Whether we feel any redemption can wash away the volumes of blood that any of these people soaked themselves in is a question well beyond any scientific testing, and different people will see this in different ways.

Dr. Myers responds to critics of the piece as follows:

Barbara calls him a “fundamentalist atheist” (that tired old slander), Chris is horrified that Dawkins seems to feel “justified in objectifying Hussein” (scientific curiousity being so much more awful than the political objectification that goes on), John talks about “the value of justice over science” (where, of course, the non-scientific approach has certainly demonstrated its nuanced appreciation of justice in this case), and Mike simply agrees with the critics.

In order, I would reply by asking when being called an atheist of any sort was considered slanderous, when we started considered a thing good merely because other things are worse, why we consider a thing good simply because the other side is worse, and whether agreeing with correct critics is bad.

For whatever reason, Dr. Myers’s major defense of Dawkins is simply that what was actually done to Saddam Hussein was really bad. After all, he observes, “the contrast is with a bunch of people who joyfully killed a man while chanting politial and religious slogans. Get some perspective here; who has committed the amoral act?” I can only wonder why both can’t be wrong?

This is not to say that I think Dawkins’s argument is without merits. A prisoner who volunteers his or her assistance to scientists can indeed provide real benefits to society. On the other hand, prisoners forced to assist scientists with their studies taint any scientific results and the society that permits compulsory experimentation on anyone at all. It is disappointing that Dawkins does not even address the issue of consent, nor the thornier issues of consent to experimentation from a person involuntarily constrained. Such experimentation is a common part of many authoritarian societies, religious and irreligious, and scientists should be on the vanguard against any such regime.

The objections to this article, like many objections to The God Delusion, do not seem to rest on the merits of the basic argument. Most of the negative reviews of TGD here at Scienceblogs and in other academic settings do not claim that Dawkins is wrong to say that atheists should be more vocal, nor that he is wrong to raise consciousness about the power of science to explain much of what we see in the universe. His negative reviews tend to argue that his style of argumentation is poor, that his research looks mediocre, and that the writing is at times simply obnoxious. It may be that the same problem applies to this op-ed. The problem may be less in the idea than in the writing.

It wouldn’t be hard to re-write that piece to talk about the importance of human dignity, of understanding the ability of people to change, and of giving people a chance to redeem themselves through, for instance, psychological evaluations. But that is not what Dawkins wrote.

Dawkins knows that one of the great concerns that many people have about atheism and atheists is a misguided fear that without belief in God a person cannot have morality. Say what you will about the merits of his case, but I’m astonished that Dr. Myers found the piece as written to represent “a purely scientific motivation for committing a moral act, the sparing of a man’s life, as part of the whole parcel of demonstrating that an atheist’s and scientist’s position is not an amoral one.” In fact, “amoral” is exactly the word that best describes the way that the piece is written, and as such, I dare say that it harms Dr. Dawkins’s broader social goal of making people more accepting of atheism.

Any humanist ? secular, agnostic or religious ? will agree that the life of a human being ? any human being ? is worth more than a brick wall. Dr. Dawkins does not display any such recognition when he concludes with the question: “Wasn’t the judicial destruction of one of the very few research subjects we had [among ruthless national dictators] ? and a prime specimen at that ? an act of vandalism?”

Only if Hussein’s decision to gas his own people and those of his neighbors, and to torture, rape and murder dissidents, were merely a series of acts of vandalism. We regard Saddam Hussein as a ruthless dictator because he treated human lives with contempt, as means to his own private ends. If we were to treat his death as a vandalism or his life as a tool for our own studies, we would be little better.

Comments

  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    January 6, 2007

    It is disappointing that Dawkins does not even address the issue of consent, nor the thornier issues of consent to experimentation from a person involuntarily constrained. Such experimentation is a common part of many authoritarian societies, religious and irreligious, and scientists should be on the vanguard against any such regime.

    I don’t know if I would agree with this. A prisoner doesn’t consent to being imprisoned either, so you’re really already on the slippery when it comes to conduct with prisoners. It comes down to where one draws the line between ethical conduct of prisoners and torture. Though on the other hand I do agree with at least one thing that others have been saying, which is that I don’t think scientific experiments would have been very valuable in the case of Hussein. If anything they wouldn’t have resulted in much more than self-serving propaganda for BushCo (judging by how the rest of the war was conducted).

  2. #2 gengar
    January 7, 2007

    All of this presumes that Hussein would have had any interest at all in helping historians, political scientists or psychologists to understand him and his life.

    Thank you for actually airing a valid objection to the Dawkins piece. However, I think the ‘amoral’ classification is a little off the mark. 3rd and 4th sentences:

    This was an opportunity to set the world a good example of civilized behaviour in dealing with a barbarically uncivilized man. In any case, revenge is an ignoble motive.

    Those sound like moral sentiments to me – as is trying, however clumsily, to raise the possibility that despite his crimes, Hussein was a person with unique insights and value beyond being a morsel to throw to the baying mob.

  3. #3 Orac
    January 7, 2007

    I don’t know if I would agree with this. A prisoner doesn’t consent to being imprisoned either, so you’re really already on the slippery when it comes to conduct with prisoners. It comes down to where one draws the line between ethical conduct of prisoners and torture.

    You’re comparing apples and oranges here, and, to this medical professional who is involved in clinical research, in a rather disturbing way.

    Imprisonment is punishment for a crime; of course coercion is necessarily involved. Not so with biomedical research. However, one of the most important points of emphasis in bioethics is informed consent. There must be no coercion in recruiting research subjects, a condition that is very difficult to meet when studying prisoners. The reason for this rule, of course, came from the horrific experiments that the Nazis (and, although it’s much less often mentioned, the Japanese) carried out on prisoners. Informed consent is about as ironclad a principle in bioethics as there can be, and that’s why any experimental protocol or study that will be carried out on prisoners is subject to especially.

    Read the Belmont Report, which forms the basis of the rules governing human subjects research in the U.S.. Some excerpts:

    In most cases of research involving human subjects, respect for persons demands that subjects enter into the research voluntarily and with adequate information. In some situations, however, application of the principle is not obvious. The involvement of prisoners as subjects of research provides an instructive example. On the one hand, it would seem that the principle of respect for persons requires that prisoners not be deprived of the opportunity to volunteer for research. On the other hand, under prison conditions they may be subtly coerced or unduly influenced to engage in research activities for which they would not otherwise volunteer. Respect for persons would then dictate that prisoners be protected. Whether to allow prisoners to “volunteer” or to “protect” them presents a dilemma. Respecting persons, in most hard cases, is often a matter of balancing competing claims urged by the principle of respect itself.

    And:

    Questions of justice have long been associated with social practices such as punishment, taxation and political representation. Until recently these questions have not generally been associated with scientific research. However, they are foreshadowed even in the earliest reflections on the ethics of research involving human subjects. For example, during the 19th and early 20th centuries the burdens of serving as research subjects fell largely upon poor ward patients, while the benefits of improved medical care flowed primarily to private patients. Subsequently, the exploitation of unwilling prisoners as research subjects in Nazi concentration camps was condemned as a particularly flagrant injustice. In this country, in the 1940’s, the Tuskegee syphilis study used disadvantaged, rural black men to study the untreated course of a disease that is by no means confined to that population. These subjects were deprived of demonstrably effective treatment in order not to interrupt the project, long after such treatment became generally available.

    The only real “slippery slope” is if we start saying it’s OK to use coercion for some prisoners and not others to involve them in biomedical research, be it because of the nature of their crimes or whatever other reason.

  4. #4 Josh
    January 7, 2007

    “clumsily” indeed. And not really on point, because my issue about amorality is not that Dawkins is amoral, but that he advances his research argument in a moral vacuum. It could have been given that moral frame, but wasn’t. I don’t think that makes the claim more or less valid, it’s just a poor presentation of the claim.

  5. #5 Southern Fried Skeptic
    January 8, 2007

    I think Dawkins frequently directs arguments toward an audience of those whose views are least compatible with his own. In “The God Delusion” he was often criticized for having a narrow understanding of theological perspectives. I believe in that case he was not necessarily ignorant of the variety of perspectives, but simply directed his arguments toward the narrow group to which it was applicable, namely the fundamentalists and literalists that are most harmful. I think it may be a similar situation in the article. Mr. Dawkins may feel strongly that all life is important and worthy of respect and may stand against the death penalty on noble principles in his personal life. However, others who feel that way need no convincing about the moral vaccuum that promotes execution. Dawkins, rather than preach to the choir -so to speak- instead presents a rational argument that, while lacking humanity, is necessarily so since it is written for an audience which has already dehumanized Saddam Hussein. Just a speculation.

  6. #6 Josh
    January 8, 2007

    I know what you’re saying, but that isn’t what Dawkins did. He presented a purely utilitarian argument against killing Hussein, that he might be useful as a means toward our ends. When you violate the Categorical Imperative, don’t be surprised when people question your morality.

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