One of the various labels variously applied to the group of people who don’t believe in the supernatural is “secular humanist.” This emphasizes the importance of ethical behavior by and toward other humans. Indeed, you’ll sometimes see “secular humanist” and “atheist” used interchangeably. Richard Dawkins seems determined to clarify the difference.
In a piece written for the Los Angeles Times, he writes Saddam should have been studied, not executed, and argues in particular that:
Hussein is not in the same league as Hitler, but, nevertheless, in a small way his execution represents a wanton and vandalistic destruction of important research data.
Also of, you know, a human being. But as they say, c’est la vie.
Dawkins’s argument has flaws beyond that, though.
He argues that:
Hussein could have provided irreplaceable help to future historians of the Iran-Iraq war, of the invasion of Kuwait and of the subsequent era of sanctions culminating in the invasion. Uniquely privileged evidence on the American government’s enthusiastic arming of Hussein in the 1980s is now snuffed out at the tug of a rope ….
Political scientists of the future, studying the processes by which unscrupulous leaders arise and take over national institutions, have now lost key evidence forever. But perhaps the most important research in which a living Saddam Hussein could have helped is psychological. Most people can’t even come close to understanding how any man could be so cruel as Hitler or Hussein, or how such transparently evil monsters could secure sufficient support to take over an entire country.
All of this presumes that Hussein would have had any interest at all in helping historians, political scientists or psychologists to understand him and his life. As do his arguments against the death penalty for someone like Hitler. I’m not aware that Hussein displayed any interest in being so helpful, and Hitler’s suicide is a pretty good indication that he didn’t care to help Allied scientists understand the roots of his madness.
There is, however, a case to be made there. After his capture and conviction, Jeffrey Dahmer volunteered to work with psychologists to help them better understand the psychopathology which led him to kill and consume so many victims. Had another inmate not killed him, who knows what benefits his help might have brought to society?
Examples like that of Tookie Williams, a gang leader who became a voice against streetgangs while on death row also remind us that people are capable of change and of redemption. Whether Tookie’s work in prison saved more lives than he took is unknowable. Whether we feel any redemption can wash away the volumes of blood that any of these people soaked themselves in is a question well beyond any scientific testing, and different people will see this in different ways.
Dr. Myers responds to critics of the piece as follows:
Barbara calls him a “fundamentalist atheist” (that tired old slander), Chris is horrified that Dawkins seems to feel “justified in objectifying Hussein” (scientific curiousity being so much more awful than the political objectification that goes on), John talks about “the value of justice over science” (where, of course, the non-scientific approach has certainly demonstrated its nuanced appreciation of justice in this case), and Mike simply agrees with the critics.
In order, I would reply by asking when being called an atheist of any sort was considered slanderous, when we started considered a thing good merely because other things are worse, why we consider a thing good simply because the other side is worse, and whether agreeing with correct critics is bad.
For whatever reason, Dr. Myers’s major defense of Dawkins is simply that what was actually done to Saddam Hussein was really bad. After all, he observes, “the contrast is with a bunch of people who joyfully killed a man while chanting politial and religious slogans. Get some perspective here; who has committed the amoral act?” I can only wonder why both can’t be wrong?
This is not to say that I think Dawkins’s argument is without merits. A prisoner who volunteers his or her assistance to scientists can indeed provide real benefits to society. On the other hand, prisoners forced to assist scientists with their studies taint any scientific results and the society that permits compulsory experimentation on anyone at all. It is disappointing that Dawkins does not even address the issue of consent, nor the thornier issues of consent to experimentation from a person involuntarily constrained. Such experimentation is a common part of many authoritarian societies, religious and irreligious, and scientists should be on the vanguard against any such regime.
The objections to this article, like many objections to The God Delusion, do not seem to rest on the merits of the basic argument. Most of the negative reviews of TGD here at Scienceblogs and in other academic settings do not claim that Dawkins is wrong to say that atheists should be more vocal, nor that he is wrong to raise consciousness about the power of science to explain much of what we see in the universe. His negative reviews tend to argue that his style of argumentation is poor, that his research looks mediocre, and that the writing is at times simply obnoxious. It may be that the same problem applies to this op-ed. The problem may be less in the idea than in the writing.
It wouldn’t be hard to re-write that piece to talk about the importance of human dignity, of understanding the ability of people to change, and of giving people a chance to redeem themselves through, for instance, psychological evaluations. But that is not what Dawkins wrote.
Dawkins knows that one of the great concerns that many people have about atheism and atheists is a misguided fear that without belief in God a person cannot have morality. Say what you will about the merits of his case, but I’m astonished that Dr. Myers found the piece as written to represent “a purely scientific motivation for committing a moral act, the sparing of a man’s life, as part of the whole parcel of demonstrating that an atheist’s and scientist’s position is not an amoral one.” In fact, “amoral” is exactly the word that best describes the way that the piece is written, and as such, I dare say that it harms Dr. Dawkins’s broader social goal of making people more accepting of atheism.
Any humanist – secular, agnostic or religious – will agree that the life of a human being – any human being – is worth more than a brick wall. Dr. Dawkins does not display any such recognition when he concludes with the question: “Wasn’t the judicial destruction of one of the very few research subjects we had [among ruthless national dictators] — and a prime specimen at that — an act of vandalism?”
Only if Hussein’s decision to gas his own people and those of his neighbors, and to torture, rape and murder dissidents, were merely a series of acts of vandalism. We regard Saddam Hussein as a ruthless dictator because he treated human lives with contempt, as means to his own private ends. If we were to treat his death as a vandalism or his life as a tool for our own studies, we would be little better.