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.


#1 anon1152 (Guest) on Monday May 18, 2015 at 4:18pm

Is there any chance of you writing about “the misuses of the concept of privilege” in collaboration with (or, at least, after some discussion with) Ophelia Benson (and/or others)… if they were opened to that idea?

#2 David Galiel (Guest) on Monday May 18, 2015 at 8:39pm

Anon1152 - thank you for making Ron’s point.

#3 Randy on Monday May 18, 2015 at 10:11pm

Despite my nitpicking, I do largely agree with what you’ve written here and in the earlier article.

“Indeed, what should be distinctive about humanism is that we humanists have no authorities or dogmatic principles.”

I’m not sure how you get to that.  If you were speaking about atheists, I would agree, because atheism is such a small claim or position.  But humanism is a larger position, and must have some principles that are decided by its promoters as fundamental, and presumably the value of human life is one of those principles.  (We could discuss why humanists, and others, claim human life is of value but that’s for another time).  So this dogmatic principle is going to remain in humanism, even though its boundaries may change. Without it, do you have humanism at all?

“these affirmations are not doctrines that humanists must accept on pain of being expelled”

I’m not too sure how to weigh this.  In comparison, Christians seem to disagree about ... everything its possible to disagree about, in their Christian universe.  Yet this label is self-adopted, and externally-recognized, and can be the basis for certain rights. 

“vengeance”: I agree with you that the prison system (including death) is openly and primarily about vengeance, which is why people delight in prison rape jokes, and the concept of vengeance is why prison needs reform

“condemnation”: I disagree.  Money is not speech.  Corporations are not persons.  Killing is not condemnation (unless by “condemnation” you mean “casting off” rather than “denouncing”... it’s a loosely-defined word)

“any system of punishment is just that”.  Sure.  But ought the prison system be a system of punishment, or something else?  To what end?

“the ultimate penalty”  Interest word “ultimate”.  It depends on how you order the penalties, doesn’t it?  I can think of many things that are worse than death, and also worse than supermax.  Your logic (limited to this particular spot) appears to approve all of them, because after all, it’s just “expression”.

“the high error rate”:  It’s not only that people may be wrongly imprisoned.  It’s also true that laws can change, and people who absolutely were properly convicted and sentenced under the old ways, might be re-considered in light of a new way of thinking or new values.  If the old law itself (e.g. witchcraft) came to be regarded not only as inapplicable to the current time, but in fact wrong for its own time, those convicts must be re-evaluated if they can be.

“Humanists should not blindly accept any position”.  Except that one, right? 

“We should leave dogma and empty rhetoric to the religious.”  Not possible.  The Venn diagram, if I could draw one here, would show many groups neither humanist nor religious in nature (e.g. political groups) which are nonetheless swimming in dogma.

In the linked article, your argument “it is precisely the state” is incorrect.  If the death penalty is appropriate, but we assign the task to an entity that shouldn’t kill its own electors (for example), then it cannot be carried out in that case.  It doesn’t transform the state in particular into something that can do this, just because it might be appropriate in a general sense.

I know your topic here is about dogma, but perhaps you could also point us to someone else’s discussion of justice.  Where do we get the idea that we can put someone in a box, just because most of us don’t like something they did?  It’s a numbers game.  As the world shows, in other regions, sometimes “they” can be the majority, and then we get put in the box instead.  What sense does that make?  It feels an awful lot like might makes right, and then we find some smart people to tell us why their particular mighty friends are righty.

#4 Randy on Monday May 18, 2015 at 10:17pm

Aw.. it deleted my smiley.  Now it looks like I was being snarky.  I would put a frowny face here, but… well you know.

#5 Ronald A. Lindsay on Tuesday May 19, 2015 at 9:33am

Randy, thank you for your thoughtful response. It is so thoughtful, I’m not going to be able to respond to it in full today. Perhaps over the weekend. But let me address a couple of your points.

First, as to whether humanists have any dogma, you suggest we humanists have to accept some principles as foundational, such as the value of human life. I’m not sure that’s the case, at least not if we take a pragmatic approach to ethics. As I have argued elsewhere, both on this blog, see and in my recent book, The Necessity of Secularism, we should regard morality as serving certain functions, such as keeping peace, ensuring stability, fostering cooperation and collaboration, and so forth. I would argue that human experience has established that the best way to achieve these objectives is to inculcate a morality that values (all) human lives. So in my view, the claim that human life has value is not some principle writ large in the sky, but rather a principle that has been pragmatically justified through the course of human conduct.

Of course, one could dispute that morality has the functions I have outlined, but then one has to suggest a plausible alternative, and I don’t think there is one, at least if we disregard arguments that rely on the supernatural.

On another point, you suggest that the criminal justice system does not serve to express condemnation. Indeed, you seem to suggest it’s silly to hold such a view. Actually, many scholars hold the view that the law does have a critical expressive function. See, for example, the law review article by Cass Sunstein, “On The Expressive Function Of Law,” 144 U. Pa. L. Rev. 2021 (1996). (If you do an online search, you may be able to come up with a copy of this article.) Of course, the fact that a number of scholars agree with my position doesn’t make it right. But if you think about this issue further, you may be persuaded. Surely you’re not maintaining that only the spoken word can be a means of expression.  It seems to me that there are solid grounds for thinking that many of our actions can be effective means of communicating messages. For example, if I turn my back on you, I’m conveying a pretty clear message. When the state punishes a criminal, it is, among other things, conveying a message of condemnation, the severity of which varies (roughly) with the severity of the punishment.

You also take issue with my use of the term “ultimate penalty” to describe capital punishment. You suggest that some punishments, from a certain perspective, could be worse. I don’t think we have a substantial disagreement here. As I pointed out in my Huff Post essay, imprisonment in a supermax facility constitutes, in my view, a form of psychological torture, which is one reason I think it makes no sense to hold this out as an alternative to capital punishment, as Tsarnaev’s defense attorneys did. However, I was using “ultimate penalty” to describe capital punishment because it is uniquely final and irreversible.

#6 =8)-DX (Guest) on Wednesday May 20, 2015 at 1:46am

There is a lot of poisoning the well in this article, as well as a number of other fallacies, but what I found most annoying was the insinuation that any opponents to the death penalty only argue from emotion or “dogma”, while failing to represent their actual rational arguments correctly. Pretending to have a discussion of the morality of execution vs. incarceration in an impartial “emotion-free” way is nonsense. The morality of the situation is by necessity based on value judgements and if the values are what is in conflict here (for instance valuing punishment in itself vs. the expected corrective influence, valuing the perpetrator’s humanity vs. the victim’s/society’s need for justice vs. protecting society), pretending a Spock-like rationality is disingenuous at best.

#7 Lady Mondegreen (Guest) on Wednesday May 20, 2015 at 7:15pm

@David Galiel #2

Anon1152 - thank you for making Ron’s point.

Ron hasn’t made a point on the subject, yet.

The suggestion that Ron discuss the subject with Ophelia Benson is a good one. I second it.

(I suspect that David Galiel thinks he knows what Benson has to say on the subject—just as he apparently thinks he knows what Lindsey’s “points” will be despite the fact Lindsey hasn’t made them yet.

And I’m willing to bet both are cartoonish misrepresentations.)

#8 John (Guest) on Saturday June 06, 2015 at 10:03am

The reason a humanist would be concerned about crime is the impact it has upon human society and societal cohesion, which underlies all human communities.
Dealing with crime is dealing with factors - such as crime - which undermine social solidarity.
Where punishment is concerned - and as you point out towards the end of your article - there is no such thing as a fault-free justice system.
The number of people state-murdered as a result of faulty convictions is certainly unknown and may be small in number but in terms of overall humanity even the few who have died in this way are too many.
That is my principal objection to state-sanctioned murder, even though states and semi-states are bent on murdering people all around the planet daily.
As far as legal punishment is concerned, this has to be addressed by what is best for society and the individual.  If it is possible to make individuals better for themselves and society, then we should.
Where this becomes problematical - in my opinion - is when we deal with paedophiles, who are wily and unscrupulous. 
Personally, I think they should get life sentences that mean life, i.e. they die in prison. 
Anything less is just a threat to children.
Finally, sometimes we have to have a default set of values in our minds because trying to think-out everything is like trying to figure out just how - exactly - we should get out of a chair. 
Which muscles to use and how much exact pressure to apply after converting precise amounts of fats into energy - and everything else that is associated with this form of action is simply way too complex for us to fathom out.
Of course, we all should always retain an open mind in order that our thinking and way of thinking can become more rational and better, and our mental as well as physical operations can be enhanced.

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