Questioning Humanist Orthodoxy: Introduction to a Series

May 18, 2015

About ten days ago, I wrote an essay for Huffington Post on the death penalty, in particular, focusing on how some of those who oppose the death penalty support imprisonment in a supermax facility as a supposedly more humane alternative—a position I find logically dubious if not hypocritical. The recent decision of the Dzhohkar Tsarnaev jury to sentence him to death made me think about this issue again. It also made me think about how humanists all too often commit the cardinal intellectual sin of many of the religious. That is, they hold certain principles as beyond question. This is not a good thing.

Indeed, what should be distinctive about humanism is that we humanists have no authorities or dogmatic principles. Granted, from time-two time, CFI publishes in Free Inquiry “the Affirmations of Humanism.” But these affirmations are not doctrines that humanists must accept on pain of being expelled from the humanist community. Instead, they represent the consensus viewpoint of humanists on a number of important issues. They have no binding force, and they are persuasive only insofar as they are supported by reason and evidence. Put another way, they are not doctrinal principles that channel all our reasoning; rather, they are the principles most humanists arrive at after utilizing critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning.

Unfortunately, at least in my experience, some humanists do treat certain views and principles as “sacred.” These principles appear to be adopted more out of reflex, emotion, or groupthink than evidence-based reasoning. The emotional basis for these principles is revealed not only by the tenacity with which the principles are held, but also by the denigrating rhetoric directed against those who dare to question the principles. Opposition to the death penalty, for some humanists, appears to be one such unquestionable tenet.

Have you ever been to a dinner party with humanists and expressed support, in principle, for the death penalty? I have, and I don’t think the stunned, negative reaction to my remarks could have been more pronounced than if I had insisted on saying a prayer or had expressed admiration for Pat Robertson. More disappointing was the lack of any reasoned rebuttal to my position. Instead, the response was mostly along the lines of “I don’t think we should seek vengeance” or “the state shouldn’t be killing people.”

Claiming that the death penalty is based on vengeance is a standard assertion of death penalty opponents, including many humanists. I recall reading one essay by a humanist philosopher in which this death penalty opponent decried “the vengeful spirit” of “pro-deathers,” lamented their “drive to vengeance,” and condemned the death penalty as an “institution that … encourages vengeance and retribution.”  But these assertions really say nothing substantive; this is mere name-calling masquerading as an argument. Few if any death penalty supporters would claim they want vengeance; rather, they believe the death penalty is a just penalty to express the community’s condemnation of an especially heinous crime or crimes.

The emptiness of the vengeance accusation is revealed when one realizes the same accusation could be made against punishment in general, and especially against the harsh prison conditions that are typically imposed on some murderers in lieu of the death penalty. After all, why do we condemn such criminals to life in prison, often with extreme restrictions on their activities and ability to interact with others? Isn’t this simply being “vengeful”? One can’t say that these prison sentences are necessary to remove dangerous persons from the community, because obviously that objective could be accomplished by placing them in a remote, secure location, but one with much better living conditions. Likewise, few prisoners get “rehabilitated” in a supermax facility.

We could treat prisoners quite differently, including mass murderers, terrorists, and those who committed their killings with other aggravating factors (e.g. torture). Norway’s prison system is often cited as an example of how a humane prison system should operate, but apparently even Norway is hesitating to provide mass murderer Andres Breivik with the latest version of PlayStation. How can Norway’s refusal to provide this relatively inexpensive toy to Breivik be explained as anything other than an act of vengeful retribution inconsistent with humanism?

I don’t need to belabor this. The point is that any system of punishment is just that: a system of punishment, but that doesn’t imply that vengeance is at the root of the criminal justice system, whether it’s the death penalty or some lesser punishment that is being imposed. Among other purposes, the criminal justice system serves an expressive function. It is a special set of social norms that convey moral condemnation and, at least in the opinion of some, certain criminal acts are so heinous, so destructive of the community, that the perpetrators of these acts deserve the ultimate penalty.

There are other arguments against the death penalty, of course, other than the vacuous accusation that it is vengeful. But some of these similarly do not withstand scrutiny. (See my Huff Post essay for more detail.)

There is one forceful, empirically grounded argument against the death penalty which I consider dispositive, and that is the high error rate in death penalty cases. DNA evidence has confirmed what before was only suspected, namely that juries get it wrong— far too often. Given the irreversibility of executions, this is a powerful argument against capital punishment. It is bad enough to be wrongly imprisoned for 20 or 30 years, but at least when one is exonerated one can walk free. Corpses don’t have that option.

Some may wonder why if, ultimately, I oppose the death penalty, I bother criticizing those who also do so, but on other grounds. Because reasons matter. Evidence matters. Why someone holds a position can be, in some circumstances, as important as the position itself, especially if someone’s dogmatic adherence to a viewpoint betrays a tendency to accept a position simply because that is what Christians are supposed to believe, or Muslims are supposed to believe— or humanists are supposed to believe.

Humanists should not blindly accept any position. We should question everything. Critical thinking implies trying to find flaws in a position, not just parroting what others say. We should leave dogma and empty rhetoric to the religious.

As suggested by the title to this post, I think there are some other issues where there is a lamentable tendency among some humanists to embrace certain viewpoints without adequate justification. On occasion, this is because commitment to some principle causes humanists to dismiss relevant empirical evidence; on other occasions, it is because muddled thinking allows emotional reactions to prevail over reason. Over the next few months, before I leave CFI, I hope in this space to address some of these issues. My primary goal in doing so is not necessarily to convince others or to prove a point. Instead, I believe it is a valuable exercise for all of us to question the basis for our viewpoints from time-to-time, to explore their implications, to consider objections, and to expose possible inconsistencies. In other words, my forthcoming essays are designed not so much to persuade, but to make us think carefully about the grounds for our opinions. It seems to me this work is in furtherance of CFI’s mission. We are the Center for Inquiry, after all, not the Center for Ideology.

Given my schedule, I’m not sure when my next essay will appear, although it will most likely be after our June conference. In any event, the next topic will be male circumcision and, more specifically, whether it is ethically impermissible to allow parents to decide whether to circumcise their male children. Other topics will likely include animal rights, the legalization of prostitution (here there are dogmas on both sides), and the misuses of the concept of privilege.