Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


Some readers may have noted the blogsopheric controversy over Glenn Greenwald's new book. Many were hyperventilatingly anxious to insist that the White House resident's putative religious motivations for his crimes against humanity are fraudulent, that he doesn't really believe he's acting out of Christian duty, he's just a psychopath. The point of Greenwald's book was never about Resident Bush's psychology, it was about political discourse, but after a brief resistance he did succumb and join the debate about what's really going on in the Residential wetware. (For the record, he thinks the claimed religious conversion was sincere.)

Many in the His Piety is Bogus school seem particularly concerned that granting him sincere religious convictions might serve to excuse his crimes. I have always said, who cares what George W. Bush really believes? Does he really hear God's voice in his head telling him to invade Iraq and torture muslims, does he truly believe he is on a crusade to purge the world of evil? That seems to me equally apalling, repulsive and dangerous as the theory that it's all an act and he is self-consciously a tool of oil company greed and personal lust for power. What's the difference?

After all, it's hardly a secret that many of histories greatest crimes have been committed in the name of God, and specifically the Christian God -- from the Crusades (and yes, they were crimes that included massacres of Jews as well as Muslims), to the Spanish Inquisition and the torture and burning alive of heretics more generally, to the conquest of the Americas and the dispossession, enslavement and genocide of its population, to slavery in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, and the subjugation of women everywhere, all of them proudly and loudly celebrated by Bible-waving preachers. The schizophrenics who put babies in the microwave are as often as not hearing the voice of Jesus. Whether religious motivation is genuine or feigned has no relationship to the depravity of behavior.

But people naturally temper their moral judgments based on what they think is going on inside people's heads. Hence the insanity defense, and lesser extenuation of the guilty due to impaired capacity or a personal history of abuse.

I would say that a humanist position on moral culpability is that it is practically indispensable but ontologically deficient. No-one is self-created. We become what we are, and do what we do, as a function of our genetically determined bio-psychological potential unfolding in the environment in which it happens to find itself. John Wayne Gacy didn't make himself into what he was any more than Mohandas Ghandi. Bush's warped piety may have saved him from the bottle and inflicted disaster on the world, or it may all be an act, but either way, we can only judge him by his deeds.

If we are to judge people at all, however, it is only if by so doing we can improve human prospects for the future. We tell children they have been bad, and punish them, in the hope that they will internalize the rules in question and behave differently in the future. We ritually sentence criminals as a means of publicly declaring society's expectations for its members and discouraging wrongdoing. The only reason that motives enter into the matter is because they are pertinent to the problem of social control. If someone did not intend to violate the rules, there is little sense in punishing them because their behavior does not need to be so deterred, all they need is better information. If someone is insane, there is little point in punishing them because they can't control their behavior and it won't do any good, even as an example to others who are similarly insane.

But whether wrongdoers are pious or not, whether they think God told them to commit mass murder or they did it for Halliburton, is irrelevant. Evil is as evil does.

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