G.K. Chesterton says somewhere, I think in Orthodoxy, that given materialist assumptions, it makes no sense to say to someone, “Go and sin no more,” because that involves choices, but you can put the malefactor into boiling oil because boiling oil is an environment.
In his next chapter on moral responsibiliity, Sam Harris tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, he sticks by his deterministic guns.
“No human being is responsible for his genes or his upbringing, yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character” (p. 54).
But, on the other hand, the bright light of this truth is hard to look at straight on, at least for any length of time.
“For most purposes, it makes sense to ignore the deep causes of desires and intentions — genes, synaptic potentials, etc. — and focus instead on the conventional outlines of the person” (p. 60).
Huh? Why should we ignore the truth about human choices, and focus instead on our illusions about them? Because, Harris says, “it’s the easiest way to organize our thoughts and actions” (p. 60). Well, jeepers. Now he tells us.
Just one paragraph more on the running critique I have been offering through this book. Harris says that he has no idea why he prefers beer to wine, but continues resolute in his clear conviction that he wrote the book because the truths contained within it are true. But how does he know that? Why does he think that? His answer ought to be that he has no idea why he thinks these things are true. His predeliction for determinism (and atheism) has to be genetic, just like his predeliction for beer. No accounting for it
Back to the Chesterton point at the top. This chapter is all about moral responsibility, and I do understand why Harris would opt for the “easier to organize” approach when discussing with his wife which restaurant they ought to go to, or the morality of their fair trade coffee choices. But a great deal of the import of this issue has to do with things of greater significance, like what to do with murderers.
Given his premises, sociopathic criminals are simply a bad genetic batch — like one burnt cookie on a tray of cookies. And what would be the most cost effective way of dealing with that? Well, you would throw it away. This is the way of execution — not from a sense of retributive justice, which Harris has thrown out in this chapter, but simply in terms of cost effectiveness. Boiling oil is an environment.
Because he has detached the idea of justice from what we do with bad actors, this means that what we are applying is treatment, not justice. When is a just penalty fulfilled? When the appropriate sentence is complete. When is the treatment over? When the “condition” is gone, or the patient is. This means that if we discover a genetic disposition to petty theft and vandalism is incurable, then there would be no problem with proceeding straight to death row. The only possible problems would arise from a sense of justice, which we have apparently dispensed with. We have a different sense of weights and measures now. Ours is a brave new world.