I’m not saying you’re vengeful; you’re just deficient in empathy

May 26, 2015

So I wrote a blog post the other day the principal point of which was to argue for the proposition that it is not enough to be correct in your conclusion on a policy issue. How you arrive at your conclusion is also very important. I used the dispute over the death penalty as an illustration. A blogger vigorously objected to my post. In so doing, he confirmed the relevance of the point I was making.

Before responding to this blogger, though, I want to step back a bit. Why is it that we humanists, atheists, freethinkers, etc. (hereafter, I will use “seculars” as an umbrella term) expend so much energy criticizing religion? Yes, the religious believe in beings that do not exist, but so what? Some people believe in ghosts, but the attitude of most of us toward these sadly mistaken individuals is to smile, shake our head, and, if possible, change the topic of the conversation. God is, in some ways, just another ghost, so why the difference in treatment?

It’s because people listen to the God-ghost, right? They think the God-ghost has spoken, if not to them, to some long-dead prophet who wrote down what the God-ghost said. And they need to follow the commands of this God-ghost. As a result, when there’s a question about what to do, many of the God-ghost believers (to be fair, far from all of them) think they need to look up in their book what the God-ghost supposedly said or they need to have someone experienced in Godspeak interpret these commands for them. Moreover, too frequently the commands of the God-ghost require believers to do things the rest of us consider harmful to others.

We seculars think listening to the God-ghost is the wrong way to go about resolving moral issues or public policy questions with a moral dimension. We think this even when the followers of the God-ghost agree with us on some issue. To use the death penalty again as an example, all the recent popes have condemned the use of the death penalty. Many of us seculars also think the death penalty is unwise, but presumably most of us do not reach that conclusion by the same route that the popes used. The Catholic Church considers itself unconditionally “pro-life” and believes it is wrong to violate the sanctity of life in any situation, including imposing the death penalty on an unremorseful mass murderer. Life is a gift from God and, under almost any circumstance, no human has the right to deprive another of their life. (There are “just war” and self-defense exceptions.)

 Many seculars find this sanctity of life rationale unsatisfactory, both because of its theological foundation and because it is so muddled. Its vagueness allows the Church to use it to justify its doctrinal commitments on other issues. Thus, the Church employs this sanctity of life rationale not only in the context of the death penalty but also to justify its opposition to contraception, abortion, and physician-assisted dying. The sanctity of life rationale serves as a fig leaf to mask what the Church is really doing, which is to instruct the world on its version of Godspeak.

We seculars think we can do better. We don’t look for answers in scripture. We have no holy texts. We don’t defer to some authority who will instruct us on what to do. We have no authorities. We think morality serves human interests and human needs, and when deciding on the proper course of action, we carefully consider the objectives of a particular policy or practice, examine the relevant evidence, and then reason together.

Well … ideally that’s what we do. Of course, sometimes we fall short of this ideal.

Which brings me to my blog post.

Sometimes, I think we seculars respond reactively on some issues. To use the colloquial expression, we give a knee-jerk response. All of us do this on occasion. We’re human. But I think we can do better, and if we maintain that our way of addressing moral issues is an improvement over the traditional religious method, then we have an obligation to do better. In particular, we need to provide arguments supported by evidence. We can’t just dismiss those who disagree with us by questioning their motives or ascribing to them some psychological problem. That’s just name-calling.

In the context of the debate over the death penalty, I’ve noticed that seculars  sometimes don’t provide much by way of an argument. They’ll just say that those in favor the death penalty are vengeful. Or they’ll make some assertion that evaporates quickly upon scrutiny. One example is the assertion it’s wrong for an “impersonal state” to carry out executions. Think about that. Does that mean it would be better if we allowed individuals with a personal stake in the matter to determine the appropriate punishment in murder cases and carry out executions when death was the punishment? One might have thought that unbiased (theoretically, at least) individuals with some emotional distance from the matter and who, in a democracy, represent the community should have responsibility for determining the outcome and imposing the penalty in capital cases.

There is a very strong argument against the death penalty that in my view is dispositive. It’s an argument that is grounded firmly in empirical evidence. It’s an argument that I highlighted in my blog post not only because it is a very strong argument, but because it’s the type of argument that seculars should make—not some emotional reaction, some hand-waving punctuated by meaningless references to “vengeance” or “sanctity of life,” but an argument based on facts and a careful consideration of the objectives of the criminal justice system. This is the argument that the judicial system arrives at the wrong conclusion about guilt a significant percentage of the time. The best estimate is that in capital cases people are wrongly convicted about 4% of the time. Because death eliminates the possibility of meaningful exoneration, capital punishment in such a fallible system is unacceptable.

But is not sufficient for the blogger, PZ Myers, that I oppose the death penalty based on empirical evidence. Instead, like him, I need to be viscerally opposed to it. Otherwise, I am “deficient in empathy.”

There you have it. It’s not that I’m “vengeful.” No, Myers, wouldn’t stoop to using such an insult. No, anyone who, like me, even considers that capital punishment could be justifiable in some circumstances is “deficient in empathy.” I guess this means that the prosecutors at the Nuremberg war crimes trial, or the Israeli prosecutors in the Eichmann case, or the Iraqi prosecutors in the Saddam Hussein case must have been borderline sociopaths because they not only contemplated the possibility that the death penalty might be justifiable, but they vigorously sought to impose the death penalty.

Let me repeat what I said in my earlier blog post:

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.

Calling someone “vengeful” or “deficient in empathy” solely on the basis that they think capital punishment could in principle be justifiable in some cases is a secular analog to the religious assertion that someone who supports the right to an abortion or marriage equality is a “sinner.” It’s simply a way to dismiss an opponent by insult. If all giving up the God-ghost means is that we replace insults using religious terminology with insults using psychological terminology then I’m not sure secular morality will be much of an improvement over religious morality.