Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Explaining is not Excusing

     I was talking with a friend a few weeks ago who expressed a certain dissatisfaction with my earlier post on the Man-Cold. It's not that she thought it was necessarily false, she said. She just didn't like my giving men an excuse to be such wimps. Well, I don't think I did that. I gave an account for why it might actually have been a survival trait for men in our evolutionary past to be laid low by a simple cold, but I never said anything about whether or not it was morally appropriate. Indeed, while it might once have been sensible, most of us don't hunt mastodons anymore, so being unable to wash the dishes or take out the garbage just because you have a cold is just silly. We no longer live in an environment where being a wimp about a simple cold has any practical justification. We can understand why men might be wired this way without committing ourselves to saying it's perfectly all right for them to lie incapacitated on the couch if they get the sniffles.

     But the tendency to equate explanation with excuse is powerful and widespread. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker discusses at some length the surprising levels of anger faced by scientists who make any pronouncement about, say, the reproductive advantage that a tendency to rape might offer. Now, I should think it would be uncontroversial that, all other things being equal, a male of some species who was willing and able to force his attentions upon an unwilling female would have more reproductive opportunities than one who wasn't, and that it therefore shouldn't surprise us to find that some males carry such an urge. (Unless, of course, there really were some sort of magical shut-down system in the case of "legitimate rape", as a certain woefully ignorant politician recently claimed.) Yet, thanks to this instinct we have to confuse explanation with excuse, the very suggestion that some men might have an instinctive desire to rape is tantamount to declaring open season on women.

     It's not, of course. Recognizing that people have desires or instincts that may be inherited says nothing about the morality of acting upon those desires. No one would suggest that hunger is a culturally learned behaviour, that we only eat because we've been taught to. Hunger is a perfectly natural and hardwired instinct, but that doesn't mean we excuse all acts of eating as appropriate. (And we almost never justify cannibalism, an act of eating with a human victim. When we do, it's always in survival situations: "But I was really, REALLY hungry" is not the defense; "But I was going to die otherwise" is.) So what if we have a hardwired instinct to get horny? Unless it's possible to actually die of lust (I should be dead if it were, and I say this as someone who's been through cancer and chemotherapy), there can be no excuse for rape.

     In fact, I think those who object to explanations of bad behaviour as "excusing" it are promoting a very dangerous idea. The argument that a hardwired biological urge absolves us of moral responsibility is absolutely poisonous, because if it turns out that as a matter of scientific fact we do have hardwired biological urges, then we can no longer object morally to anything. Far better, and far more realistic, would be to acknowledge the plainly obvious fact that people do have instincts and desires, sometimes very powerful ones, that push them in the direction of doing evil things, and to say that we ought to cultivate the self-discipline to overcome these urges. Denying the reality of these feelings helps no one to resist them.

     There's another aspect to this that I feel is also morally dangerous. I had a conversation with another friend last week who said that she would rather not understand some things, because she never wants to understand how some people can do the evil they do. I can sympathize with that sentiment, but I think it's dangerous because it encourages us to think of evil as something other people do, and thus something we don't really have to worry about.
     That isn't how it works. People don't do evil because they are privy to some sort of secret knowledge that authorizes them to do things the rest of us find abhorrent. They generally do evil because they lack some belief or understanding or value that the rest of us consider important, or because they have managed to convince themselves that what they do is necessary and right. Or, I should say, that is why we do evil. We are unaware of mistakes we have made in our moral reasoning.
     That's the important point I want to make. Our moral responsibility is for what we do, and to ensure that we have made the best choice of action available to us. To do that, we need to be alert to the kinds of errors we might make, and to take seriously the idea that we might be wrong. The greatest evil is done by those who refuse to consider that they could be wrong, and the refusal to try to understand evil-doers is no protection against becoming an evil-doer oneself. It only makes it likelier.

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