2007-08-17

Beyond Christian ethics – crime and punishment

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by Neil Godfrey

The foundational institutions, attitudes and values of our modern societies are still based on a legacy of Christian and pre-Christian assumptions of human nature that take no cognizance of the modern advances in biology, neurology, genetics, psychology. The power of the black book still binds our ethical senses.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn and the meek. As if people can and must choose to be this way to attain the blessed reward. And many do so choose, which is a good start for conditioning the mind for what follows. Readers are told not to feel an angry or sexual emotion right beside being reminded that they must not kill or look at a woman with sexual desire — as if it is just as easy not to feel anger as it is to choose not to kill, or not to feel sexual desire as it is to avoid the act of adultery. And there is a condign judgment waiting to befall those who make the wrong choice. As if such feelings are a choice! And so on. I’ve addressed these enough already.

But this principle of free choice and full responsibility for one’s feelings and actions is still at the heart of the laws and standards on which our society is based.

Our legal systems, not to mention our frenzied media and public attitudes, still respond as if a child rapist freely chose to commit his crime after opting to reject, say, a normal healthy sexual relationship with a consenting woman and choosing rather to destroy the life of a youngster. Accordingly we incarcerate the culprit to suffer the whims of other rapists and abusers. Good riddance. Or if he is released then communities will demand to impose upon him a life of hellish public opprobrium.

It as if all the progress that has been made in understanding the effects of brain tumors, chemical or other neurological imbalances, very specific retinal blind spots, sleep disorders, and a host more. Is such conditions are allowed to testify in defence at all they do so with the indulgence of the faintest tolerance only. It is as if they assume the status of the “devil within” that we all have and that we can and must all freely choose to deny or overcome.

The myth of free choice is necessary to justify the divinity’s intent to execute a final judgment — or to justify the execution of State power. Yet everyone knows they have failed to always at all times “choose” to do what they want to do or think they should do. So to maintain belief in the myth of free choice many learn to blame themselves, even hate themselves, or go through life “putting on” a suprahuman godly front while simultaneously beating themselves and crying out continually for the mercy of the great judge, all the while telling themselves that they are living life abundantly and comforting themselves in the belief that they are the salt of the earth.

Fear that science has the power to undermine this myth can also prompt ignorant straw-man and bigoted railings. How dare anyone suggest we are machines or animals! Where is the concern for the victims? Godlessness will lead to a complete breakdown of society, criminals will run rampant.

The hope and possibility of humane treatment and genuine progress for human society and individuals must be denied by those who fear the loss of ancient and medieval beliefs about humanity’s place in relation to its God.

Archaic religious belief is not the only obstacle to human progress. The legacy of general understanding of human nature arising from those beliefs is pervasive. The education required will need more than the simple propagation of bare facts to make the breakthrough.

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Neil Godfrey

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