Last month science evangelist Bill Nye the Science Guy weighed in from a Darwinian perspective on the problem of suicide. His advice? Give him your stuff then take the black capsule.
Last week evolutionary biologist and aspiring science evangelist Jerry Coyne weighed in on the intersection of free will, moral responsibility, crime and punishment, all from a Darwinian perspective. As fate would have it, yesterday this intersection was illustrated by some front-page news.
On Wednesday, an Arizona jury convicted Jodi Arias of first-degree murder, which puts the death penalty on the table. To arrive at this serious decision the jury first had to decide, under instruction by the court, what was going on in the mind of Ms. Arias.
Did she plan to kill victim Travis Alexander? Did she act with intent to kill Alexander? Or was her mind at this time unable to form such intent due to sudden provocation by Alexander — did she briefly go nuts in the heat of the moment? Or was Alexander the aggressor all along, a domestic abuser who backed Arias into a corner leaving her little room but to defend herself using deadly force?
For four days the jury wrestled with questions of planning, knowledge, intent, rage and fear — mental states — in order to decide, in descending order of moral and legal seriousness, whether to convict Arias of murder one, murder two, manslaughter, or to acquit her altogether upon finding justifiable homicide in the evidence.
Because the jury settled on murder one, they found that (1) Arias planned in advance to kill Alexander and that (2) she intended her conduct at the time of the killing to result in Alexander’s death. They decided her relevant mental states — premeditating murder then acting with intent to kill — were morally culpable.
She knew better, and could have done better, but chose a bad path. Or so the law presumes.
Now, is Arias justly held responsible for the morally deficient mental states that produced this tragedy? Or was her antisocial behavior caused by factors outside of her control? Doesn’t neuroscience show that DNA sequence and environment determine conduct, rendering “choice” a hangover of pop psychology from a pre-scientific era? Jerry Coyne thinks so. He writes:
The idea of moral responsibility implies that a person had the ability to choose whether to act well or badly, and (in this case) took the bad choice. But I don’t believe such alternative “choices” are open to people, so although they may be acting in an “immoral” way, depending on whether society decides to retain the concept of morality (this is something I’m open about), they are not morally responsible. That is, they can’t be held responsible for making a choice with bad consequences on the grounds that they could have chosen otherwise.
Does that mean Coyne would let Arias go free? Not quite.
I favor the notion of holding people responsible for good and bad actions, but not morally responsible. That is, people are held accountable for, say, committing a crime, because punishing them simultaneously acts as a deterrent, a device for removing them from society, and a way to get them rehabilitated–if that’s possible.
Coyne’s point? Choice is out so retribution is out. But that’s no big deal. We don’t need a moral vocabulary filled with terms like right and wrong and retribution in order to punish people. There are plenty of non-moral reasons to do that. Consider an example.
We cage a tiger because it is dangerous, not because it did wrong. We don’t inquire into tigerly mental states to determine moral culpability, whether the tiger could have and should have chosen otherwise. Would Coyne jail Arias? Yes. But not because she did wrong. She just happens to be dangerous, like a tiger.
Of course, I don’t know what it is like to be a tiger, but I have no reason to think it is anything like what it is like to be human. And neither do you. Science hype aside, no one can ever know whether some stretch of DNA caused Jodi Arias to do what she did. Morality we know. The penal code and jury instructions are in no need of a complete rewrite.
To take the science evangelism of Coyne seriously would be to replace judges and juries — people like you and me — with a panel staffed by men and women in lab coats who would determine whether those brought before them endanger society. Darwinian thinking is nothing if not counterintuitive and dystopian.
Any system of justice that would not meaningfully distinguish between man and beast is not worthy of the name. And any “science” that leads to this odd result should be viewed with suspicion.