The Ontology of Moral Culpability

Adam Gopnik has a review in the 5 June number of The New Yorker of two recent titles, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France, by David Andress, and Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, by Ruth Scurr. Both books sound very interesting, and Gopnik does an excellent job of piquing one's interest in both the books and the period. One passage of his struck me as particularly insightful:
It is often said that terror of this kind is possible only when one has first "dehumanized" some group of people--aristocrats, Jews, the bourgeoisie. In fact, what motivated the spectacle was exactly the knowledge that the victims were people, and capable of feeling pain and fear as people do. We don't humiliate vermin, or put them through show trials, or make them watch their fellow-vermin die first. The myth of mechanical murder is almost always that.
This strikes me as very true, and it emphasizes, for me at least, the personal nature of evil. It is too tempting to dehumanize the "dehumanizers" by labelling them "evil" or making them a part of some group that is then said to be acting according to the dictates of some mechanistic plan to "exterminate" some other group. (I have complained about this reification of groups and institutions in previous posts.) In general it is safe to say that evil acts are perpetrated by individual persons who have their own passions, desires, and motivations lying behind what they do. They are not robots who "just follow orders"--that is precisely why we may hold them morally culpable for the evil acts that they commit. If they really were just robots then they would have no moral responsibility for their crimes.

This thought makes me wonder about one element of--well, either Gopnik's review, or of the books under review, or perhaps the mindset of Gopnik's editors--it's difficult to tell who is ultimately responsible for this element. As is often the case, there is one of those full-page cartoonish illustrations accompanying Gopnik's review. It is a drawing of Robespierre, who is depicted holding the rope of a guillotine (fully loaded with a moderately corpulent representative of the enemy class) and calmly holding a book with a cross on the cover. The caption of this illustration reads: "The Terror wasn't secular reason run amok. It was a faith-based initiative, and the guillotine was another kind of auto-da-fé". I confess that it was this illustration with caption that first prompted me to read the review: I thought perhaps that Gopnik was going to claim that religion was ultimately responsible for the Terror. The caption is indeed taken directly from the review, but it is not in the least bit representative of the tone taken by Gopnik in his review. His comments on the contrast between Enlightenment rationalism, as personified by Voltaire, and "faith-based initiatives" are contained in less than two paragraphs near the end of the review. Some editor, I suppose, thought it the most interesting--or perhaps the most controversial?--element of the review and solicited the illustration with that in mind.

Whatever--there are no sweeping claims about the ills of religion, not even of Robespierre's vaguely deistic kind (Gopnik does not distinguish between deism and theism in his review, and one does not know whether to blame this on him or on the books he is reviewing). Which is a very good thing: even if one were to grant that Robespierre was himself motivated by religious sentiments (and it is not clear from the review whether this is a claim made by Scurr herself or is merely Gopnik's own extrapolation from the claims that are made in the book), it by no means follows that the massive outpouring of sectarian violence over which he presided was in every case motivated by similar sentiments. People do what they do for their own peculiar reasons, never because they are mere automata following the programming of a Robespierre.

One often hears secular humanists complain of the violent impulses of the religiously inclined. Even in a university setting one find folks clinging to the myth that "more people have died because of religious extremism or persecution than for any other cause" etc. etc. Granted, it is usually students--most often freshmen--who make this claim, but I can't say that I've never heard it leaking from a professor's lips. It may actually be true that a lot of carnage has been due to mistaken application of religious principles, but it is no more interesting a claim than the fact that people have also fought and died and killed in defense of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, not to mention all sorts of other political ideals that have no connection to religion at all other than to be opposed to it (Communism, for example). To say that sectarian violence, or the sort of tribalism that would drive one to eliminate, even by violent means, other tribes, is a characteristic of "religious sentiment" per se is banal and simplistic. In every case of hatred, violence, oppression, and killing of innocents, what is to blame is not religion or atheism or any political ideal, but some individual human being who has made a mistaken decision to hate, harm, oppress or kill an innocent. All such decisions are in themselves mistaken, and they would be as mistaken if they were made by an atheist for atheistic reasons as they would be if they were made by a religious person for religious reasons.


Apollodorus said…
I think it should be admitted that religions, insofar as they promote an exclusivist view of their members' relationship to the rest of the people in the world, can not only be easily manipulated, but can also actively lead people towards easy justifications of violence against those others. Yet it is not religion per se, not even exclusivist religions per se, that can be said to cause such behavior; they just provide easy ways to make that behavior seem like it makes sense. Yet religion is not alone in that, as you know well; secularist ideologies can and have done the very same thing, and it seems to me that the people who insist that religion per se is a problem are heading in the same direction. People who openly pride themselves on being 'secular humanists' and 'freethinkers', for instance, sometimes talk in ways that seem as dismissive of religious people as people as most of the bigotry that I have heard from religious people when speaking about people outside of their own faith.

Religions have also been partly responsible for a great many things that most sane people would have to consider positive, of course, and that alone should be enough to deflect the suggestion that most people are making when they go on about all the monstrous things that have been done in the name of religion. What I think that the nay-sayers have right, though, is that organized ideologies like we find in religion and likewise in secular governments can play a very large role in helping people to make sense, however spurious, of their injustices. You are right that most human beings possess the capacity to step back from the judgments promoted by their religions and societies and to evaluate them for themselves, but it would be a mistake, I think, to deny the tremendous role that those shared and inherited judgments play in people's actual decision-making.
Scott Carson said…
I'm not sure what you mean when you write " easily manipulated", or that thay "can...actively lead people towards easy justifications of violence against...others." These are, at least at face value, precisely the sorts of claims that I think mistakenly reify religion as an institution. If what you really mean is that people who hold certain religious beliefs often will justify their actions by appealing to said religious beliefs, I take that as obviously true, but not all that relevant to the point I was trying to make. It seems trivial to me that every individual person chooses to act on the basis of his/her beliefs, and if religious beliefs happen to be among the beliefs of the agent in question, then clearly, in that individual case religious sentiment will have an effect on the choice that is made. The difficulty lies not here, but in the claim that religious belief per se has this or that effect on whole groups of people. I'm happy to admit that the same holds true not only for morally culpable choices but for morally praiseworthy choices.

Whenever I see a sentence that starts off with "Religions [or change that to any other institutionalized ideology you wish] have...been partly responsible for..." I immediately lose interest, since I cannot for the life of me find a way to make sense of the claim that something that is not an agent in any sense can have any sort of moral or even causal "responsibility". I think what such sentences always really intend to say is nothing more than that there are some folks, who happen to be religious, who do things for reasons that they would, when pressed, attribute to their own religious sentiment. But what that means is not that religion is "responsible" for anything, but that some particular individual agent is responsible for something that s/he attributes to one of his beliefs, in this case a religious belief.

But I'm quite wary of taken such attributions very seriously. All sorts of people attribute all sorts of things to their beliefs when their beliefs do not, in fact, entail anything like what they think they do. Some Christians claim that "God hates fags" and use this belief to justify violence against homosexuals, an attribution that is plainly nuts on its face. We don't take such claims very seriously because they are extreme, but of course there is a continuum off nuttiness, and where we draw the line between those judgments that strike us as just plain silly and those that seem reasonable is an inevitably subjective matter. God most certainly does not "hate fags", but is it equally certain that he does hate this or that activity, or that he loves that or this? Granted we may say that he hates sin, so perhaps he does hate, say, murder, but does God's hatred of murder justify the use of the death penalty against murderers? I think the jury's still out on that one--at least it's not the slam dunk that "hating fags" is. In short, I don't really see that any appeal to religious sentiment automatically entails or justifies any particular response on our part in such a way as to say that it was really the religion itself that is responsible for the action. It is always necessary that some individual agent interact with the religious belief in a certain way, and the ensuing action is always a function of the religious belief along with that particular agent's other beliefs and desires.

One sense in which I may agree with you is this. Certainly groups of agents can band together and promote a certain ideology in such a way that more and more people come to subscribe to that ideology. What gets done in the name of that ideology will be, as I said, a function of the semantic content of the ideology itself and the other beliefs and desires of those who subscribe to it. It may be the case that certain actions simply can never fall out of that function when certain kinds of beliefs are present in the ideology, or that certain actions always do. But I have no idea how one could go about formalizing anything like that.
Apollodorus said…
I agree with you that reification of 'religion' or 'religious belief' is a mistake. I do think, though, that there is a fair amount of interesting philosophical work to be done to show that individual human beings are agents of the sort that you and I take them to be rather than the agents of larger ideological or institutional forces. Of course, I probably take such claims seriously in part because I study in a discipline where claims about the socio-cultural construction of human agency are often taken for granted while claims about individual agency are not. My own sense is that claims about 'social forces' should be, in principle at least, reducible to claims about individual human agents, even where it is impossible in practice to point to all of the individual human agents involved. At any rate, though I agree with you, I am not convinced that it is obvious that we are entitled to reject the reification of social forces above individual human agents.

I don't think that any reification is necessary, though, to maintain that religious ideologies possess tremendous power to motivate and/or justify both acts of violence and acts of tremendous charity. You write:

"It seems trivial to me that every individual person chooses to act on the basis of his/her beliefs, and if religious beliefs happen to be among the beliefs of the agent in question, then clearly, in that individual case religious sentiment will have an effect on the choice that is made."

Would it really be trivial, though, if a system of beliefs could be shown to have provided the motivation and/or justification for coordinated, cooperative acts of violence or other forms of oppression? History bears this out; groups have killed and oppressed one another in the name of religion, as they continue to do. My sense is that in many cases religious justifications are sought after the fact, where other motivations are present and religious beliefs can not be simply said to have motivated action. My understanding of some of the medieval Christian justifications for the Crusades, and of some of the contemporary Muslim justifications for terrorism, fit such a description, though I admit to being no expert about what various Crusaders and various terrorists really thought about their own actions. My first-hand experience with many contemporary Christian fundamentalist treatments of homosexuality leads me to believe that the religious justifications are really just justifications, and that the real motivation is disgust, fear, and hatred. Nonetheless, some unnecessary violence (e.g., torture in the Inquisition) is probably best described as actually motivated by the relevant religious beliefs. In either case, it seems like a simple historical fact that shared religious beliefs have provided the motivation and/or justification for acts of violence and oppression, and that should be non-trivial.

The reducibility of institutionalized action to individual human action would not seem to make much difference. The claim need not be that 'religious belief' acts on people from above, but rather that religions represent, in part, systems of beliefs which possess an extraordinary motivational and justificatory power. That power comes, in part, from the fact that religions tend to offer explanations for an individual's existence and relationship to the whole of reality; they accordingly play a fundamental role in shaping people's judgments about how they should live their lives. Secondly, religions tend to be based on some form of institutionalized authority, an institutional arrangement that prepares people to be persuaded by others in positions of authority. That allows religions to be easily manipulated. Third, many religions promote a view of their members as different from everyone else who fails to be a member; exclusion from the group that knows the truth about the universe can lead in harsh directions. None of these characteristics requires that 'religious belief' be some thing over and above the beliefs that people actually have.

Whether or not religious beliefs could ever be sufficient to explain action, I do not know. What seems indisputable, though, is that they have been implicated in and co-opted for the purpose of violence and oppression. I doubt, for instance, that Jews in medieval and early modern Europe would have lived a trouble-free existence if Christianity had not existed, but it would be difficult to deny that Christian beliefs played no part in their oppression -- one need only think of paintings of Satan with Jewish features to get the point. It would probably be false to say that Christians treated Jews poorly simply because of their religious beliefs about the Jews, but it would definitely be false to say that Christians' views of the Jews (whether negative or positive) have ever been independent of their religious beliefs.

I don't think that there is any way to deny those things, but I also don't think that they show what anti-religion folks would like them to show. In the first place, if religious beliefs have the power that I take them to have, they are not alone in that. Secular ideologies can be broadly similar to religions insofar as they promote an exclusivist view of the truth about reality and support it with a more or less institutionalized authority, whether that authority is the State or Science. Secondly, the power that such beliefs have can be and has been used as much for, if not more for, good than for evil. Communities organized around deeply shared beliefs in the meaning of existence can get things done -- the fact that they have gotten some very nasty things done as well as many very, very good things does not invalidate them on principle. Thirdly, it remains possible for religious believers to defend their religious beliefs against charges that they have been responsible for evil, either by showing how some set of actions was not in accordance with the true teaching and spirit of the religion, or by showing how they were in fact justified.

People who want to discredit religion as such will not be successful by pointing out that it has been implicated in evil. Defending religion, on the other hand, does not require that we deny that it has such power.

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