Sunday, June 01, 2008

From The Book: The Power To Harm

First posted in November of 2005

Mind, Medicine, and Murder On Trial

After all, the goal of the plaintiffs was not so much to establish the exhaustive "truth" of a complex set of events, as to assign blame and put a dollar value on the resulting damages... The litigants' denial of Westbecker's existence as an individual, shaped by his relationships with family, neighbours and co-workers bears the unmistakable hallmark of "reductionist" thinking--the scientific methodology by which entities are described in terms of their smallest material parts.
Reductionist explanations--explaining nature by reducing phenomena right down to the workings of atoms and molecules--have been decisively successful for Western science and technology since the second half of the nineteenth century.
As an account of human identity and society they have remarkable shortcomings... The distinction between body and soul, widely known as "dualism" has gone through many variations since the seventeenth century. And yet dualism, of the kind expounded by Descartes, remains the inevitable consequence of a belief that would say with Francis Crick, "You're nothing but a pack of neurons." For in order to have a human identity composed of both chemical determinacy and moral agency, it is necessary to conjure up, as did Descartes, a will that is as removed from the dynamics of a social context as it is removed from the assemblies of molecules and neurons."
The survival of Cartesian body-soul dualism into the twentieth century is a token of it's extraordinary resilience, not least it's potential to reduce people to exploitable mechanical objects., while nevertheless insisting that they remain wholly responsible for their actions. Hence dualism continues to create a rationale for treating people as machines while insisting that they possess an incorporeal individual freedom that transcends not only deep-seated personality disorders, but familial, workplace, and societal pressures. The social failure of such a model of human nature is it's encouragement of a social climate advantageous to self-seeking individuals with a superficial humanism.
It is against the background of just such a philosophy that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher could assert that there is no such thing as society, only the individual...the application of scientific reductionism to human nature has emboldened the sort of litigation that habitually denies the dynamics of social responsibility in liability suits.

Author: John Cornwell,
Senior Research Fellow,
Cambridge University,
Human Dimension Project

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