Are all ‘Darwinists’ morally responsible for the fact that some people used Darwin’s theory to justify social policies of racism, sexism, and oppression – even the genocide – of ‘inferior’ groups by ‘superior’ groups? Or does the responsibility for those evils rest entirely on those who drew these unsupported conclusions?
This is just one example of a series of questions that one can find in the general topic of holding people responsible for the mistakes of others.
Another example comes from the Bush Administration’s claim that anybody who criticizes the President’s policies is aiding and abetting the terrorists – the idea that “You are either for the President, or you are for the terrorists.” The argument is that, since some people can use this criticism in arguments that ‘justify’ fighting the Americans in Iraq that the criticism itself is immoral and should be silenced.
I am going to defend the latter position. A person is morally responsible only for his own beliefs and the conclusions that logically follow from those beliefs. He is not responsible for the fact that other people use those same beliefs in invalid arguments that claim to ‘justify’ harms and abuses inflicted on others.
In the two examples that I used above, I suspect that many atheists would agree with this position. It is simply wrong to condemn all Darwinists for the excesses of the social Darwinists, or to condemn all critics of the Bush Administration’s policies on Iraq for the implications that the Jihadists make of those criticisms. Instead, moral responsibility can be assigned only to those who make these mistaken inferences. They are the evil ones. They are the ones to be condemned – not Darwinists or Administration critics in general.
Indeed, this is the response that I have often given to those who claim that ‘atheism’ is responsible for the worst atrocities committed in the history of mankind. My claim has always been that I am responsible for my own beliefs and attitudes, and I refuse to accept guilt for somebody else’s wrongs. I find Hitler’s and Stalin’s crimes no less objectionable than others, and I can offer my reasons for doing so (based on the desire utilitarian theories that are the foundation for this blog). Your decision to hold me morally responsible for their crimes is as flawed as saying that all people with mustaches are to be condemned because Hitler and Stalin both wore mustaches.
Yet, many atheists are lending support to exactly the same moral crime – holding all theists morally responsible for the excesses of religious fundamentalists. In this case, many are perfectly willing to embrace the idea that a person who believes that God exists is morally culpable for every act committed by somebody who used the proposition ‘God exists’ in defense of any atrocity committed against other humans. Here, they say that a person can be held morally responsible for somebody else’s inferences and that the condemnation can be legitimately extended to theists in general.
This is wholly hypocritical.
This post is actually an extension of an earlier post where I criticized the views of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.
I want to make it clear – my position is not that we ought to be nice to theists for the sake of being nice to theists. My position is that Dawkins and Harris are making a logical error with negative moral implications – a discriminatory and prejudicial error of the form, ‘Some X are P; therefore all X are P, where being P is a morally contemptible state.” Some theists use God to support morally objectionable acts (e.g, terrorism, murder, and other forms of abuse). Dawkins and Harris further assert that even religious moderates are to be held morally responsible for these abuses. This inference is invalid.
I also want to make it clear that I agree with part of what Dawkins and Harris defend. There has been a tendency, particularly in recent decades, to assert that it is wrong to criticize another person’s religion. The instant a person refers to God in defense of a act or policy, we are supposed to give that act special protection – even when that act (such as banning same-sex marriage, blocking stem cell research, and barring euthanasia and abortion) are harmful to others – others who do not share that same religion. This is an absurd position, and I fully favor criticizing religious beliefs that are directly harmful to others, to the degree that they are harmful to others. What I object to is criticizing less harmful, harmless, and beneficial religious beliefs as if they are morally equivalent to their more harmful brethren.
This is true in exactly the same sense that I would use to condemn the social Darwinist who uses evolution to defend genocide, slavery, racism, and sexism. The person who draws unsupported conclusions that are directly harmful to others is to be condemned, but that condemnation cannot legitimately be applied to those who do not make that inference.
This is true in exactly the same sense that I would use to condemn the atheist who says, “No God exists, so I may do whatever I please regardless of who might suffer for it,” without condemning all atheists – including those who would never support or endorse such an inference.
All of these are consistent applications of the same moral principle. Furthermore, it is a principle that I have used in other areas. It is the principle of aversion to punishing people for wrongs they did not commit. It is the principle that I have used to criticize Iraqi citizens who blame all members of a whole religious sect (Shiite or Sunni) because some of them commit murderous atrocities. I suggest that the killing in Iraq will not end unless and until the people learn to quit blaming Shiite or Sunni for each atrocity and instead blame (if you can believe the absurdity of it) the people who are making and setting off the blasted bombs! regardless of their religious affiliation.
Judge an individual on what he does or does not believe – and how dangerous he or she is to others as a result. 'Darwinists' are not responsible for the invalid and socially destructive conclusions of those who use Darwin's theories to defend evil actions. The person with honest criticism of the Bush Administration is not responsible for the fact that others are looking for any excuse to do harm. And moderate theists are not morally responsible for the wrongs of extreme fundamentalists, and Shiite and Sunni Muslims who are not involved with or condone bombing are not morally responsible responsible for those who do.
All of this follows the same principle.
Blame the guilty, let the innocent go free.