Sunday, November 09, 2008

Is Weinberg right?

I have much respect for physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg. He's an atheist and has little qualms in calling a spade a spade when it comes to the irrationality of supernaturalism. But the following oft-quoted statement by him has had me disturbed for some time now.
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

If I read correctly Weinberg is saying that the only way for a good person to do evil things is if s/he becomes an adherent of or a believer in some religion. To put it in another way, Weinberg is saying that without religion good people would not do evil things. I haven't been able to put my finger on it but his assertion just didn't seem right. I am leery of blanket statements such as "_____ is the root of (all) evil." Dawkins said it plainly when he objected to his producers' entitling his atheism documentary Root of All Evil? In interviews Dawkins has averred that "no one thing is the root of all anything." (Unfortunately the producers just wouldn't change the title. The only concession to Dawkins' concern was the addition of the question mark.) Be that as it may, Dawkins uses the above Weinberg quote in his The God Delusion (Bantam Press, 2007, p. 249) in a way that implicitly gives the nod to Weinberg. (You've got two very intelligent and eminent scientists here--one making the claim and the other agreeing. I should probably doubt my doubting, shut up and just listen to these giants. But illicit appeal to authority isn't in the critical thinker's toolbox.)

After reading Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, I've finally found reason for my unease. In this important and very enthralling work for the general public (which I most highly recommend to everyone more than any book I can think of right now) the authors show us how ordinarily good people can eventually commit rather atrocious acts. What it takes is baby steps--continually rationalizing and justifying the almost trivial immoral/unethical deeds that we do. One does not commit a really bad thing overnight (unless, perhaps, in a fit of rage). That takes time. One gradually moves down the "pyramid of choice," moving further and further away from a route we would've taken had we made a different choice when we started our journey. Tavris and Aronson articulate this process:
When the person at the top of the pyramid is uncertain, when there are benefits and costs of [sic] both choices, then he or she will feel a particular urgency to justify the choice made. But by the time the person is at the bottom of the pyramid, ambivalence will have morphed into certainty, and he or she will be miles from anyone who took a different route.

This process blurs the distinction that people like to draw between "us good guys" and "those bad guys." Often, standing at the top of the pyramid, we are faced not with a black-and-white, go/no-go decision, but with a gray choice whose consequences are shrouded. The first steps along the path are morally ambiguous, and the right decision is not always clear. We make an early, apparently inconsequential decision, and then we justify it to reduce the ambiguity of the choice. This starts a process of entrapment--action, justification, further action--that increases our intensity and commitment, and may end up taking us far from our original intentions or principles. [p. 33-34]
In the very famous experiment by psychologist Stanley Milgram some four decades ago, subjects were asked to deliver an electric shock to a person whenever this individual made a mistake, under the pretext that they were participating in a study on the role of punishment in learning. The subjects were also instructed to increase the voltage level as the person made more mistakes. The subjects weren't able to see this person but could hear him/her, and thus could hear the groans and pleas and cries as the shocks were applied. This unseen "victim" was in fact a confederate of the research team, and in reality no shocks were ever delivered. In front of the subject was an electrical panel with switches. The labels indicated that the voltage ranged from 10 to 450 volts. As the experiment proceeded the confederate deliberately committed errors and feigned various reactions proportional to the voltage levels. The results of this experiment are most interesting and disturbing.
When people are asked in advance how far they imagine they would go, almost no one says they would go to 450. But when they are actually in the situation, two-thirds of them go all the way to the maximum level they believe is dangerous. They do this by justifying each step as they went along: This small shock doesn't hurt; 20 isn't much worse than 10; if I've given 20, why not 30? As they justified each step, they committed themselves further. By the time people were administering what they believed were strong shocks, most found it difficult to justify a sudden decision to quit. Participants who resisted early in the study, questioning the very validity of the procedure, were less likely to become entrapped by it and more likely to walk out. The Milgram experiment shows us how ordinary people can end up doing immoral and harmful things through a chain reaction of behavior and subsequent self-justification. [p.37]

Thus, if Weinberg is saying that religion is necessary (but insufficient)* for good people to do evil things, then I'm afraid he's wrong. It is in our psychology to justify our actions even if we are mistaken. Self-justification is hard-wired in our brains. Though we may be good we can end up doing bad things, sometimes really bad things, because we have successfully and continually convinced ourselves we have done no wrong while all the while traveling down the road to perdition. Given the findings of social psychology it is plausible if not probable that religion is not a necessary condition for good people to do evil things (even if religion--or certain characteristics thereof--can be--and has been--a causal factor in tipping good people into committing evil).

And rather obviously, we need only find one good person--a nonbeliever--who's committed one evil thing to falsify Weinberg's claim.

That would be the end of my critique were it not for the glaring lack of what "good" and "evil" actually mean operationally. What criteria are we to use in determining whether a person is good or evil, in evaluating which deeds/actions/behavior are good and which are evil? How good is "good," how bad is "evil"? There is a need for clear definitions of these terms, these classes of people and action/behavior. And depending on how these are defined, Weinberg's aphorism may yet withstand falsification. I for one certainly would be most ecstatic if Weinberg's dictum holds.


* in philosophy a necessary condition is one without which some event E cannot occur (but which by itself alone may or may not cause the occurrence.of E). A sufficient condition is one which is necessary and which will cause E to occur. Of course, there may be a number of necessary conditions for E to occur. Taken collectively these will be the sufficient condition that leads to E. For example, a power source is a necessary condition for a lamp to give off light, but it is not a sufficient condition. Another necessary condition is the wire to conduct the electricity to the lamp. Power source and conductor together constitute a sufficient condition for the lamp to light. Given the presence of all necessary conditions the lamp must light. If it doesn't then the sufficient condition was in fact not a sufficient one, i.e., one or more necessary conditions were absent (perhaps there is a switch and we forgot to flip it!). Given that Weinberg says that with or without religion good people will do good things but that it takes religion for good people to do evil things, he is asserting that religion is a necessary condition but not a sufficient one. This means that good people who are religious have gained the potential to do evil things, which they would not have had they not been religious.

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