Friday, July 27, 2007


Of Supermen and Lessons Unlearned

Richard Brookhiser has a piece in Time, entitled "Matters of Morality," on the clash between what we can do, with the aid of science, and what people, often uneducated in science, think we should do and the effect the twain has on politics.

One story I did not know was how we almost lost one of the Founders to a battle over the limits of science:

Medical students learn anatomy from cadavers, and in the past they got them on the sly, digging up fresh graves. In April 1788 a student at a New York City hospital jokingly told a boy that he was dissecting the boy's mother. When the boy's father found that her coffin had been robbed, the discovery set off two days of uproar. Many of New York's doctors hid in the city jail, where they were defended by local civic leaders, including diplomat John Jay. A mob pelted them with stones, knocking Jay unconscious. Only a volley from the militia, which killed three rioters, dispersed the crowd. The people of New York acknowledged, as a petition against grave robbing put it, that dissection served the "benefit of mankind." But they didn't want their loved ones "mangle[d] ... out of a wanton curiosity ..." After the riot, the state legislature appeased the public by giving doctors the corpses of executed criminals.
Another that Brookhiser raises is the clash between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes "Monkey Trial." Since I did a series of posts about the trial recently, I had run across the story before. Brookhiser didn't get it quite right, however.

[T]he Scopes trial also made a moral point. Bryan reminded the court that two Chicago teenagers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, had murdered a younger boy the year before to prove that they were Nietzschean supermen, capable of committing the perfect crime. Their attorney, Darrow, had saved them from the death penalty by arguing that Friedrich Nietzsche, and the universities that put him in their curriculums, bore the responsibility for the defendants' actions. If the philosophy of the superman could lead to murder, Bryan argued, then the state had good reason to control what was taught in schools.
Bryan did indeed try to make that point. But Darrow, reading from the same summation he made at the Leopold and Loeb trial that Bryan quoted, had an answer (from Ray Ginger's Six Days or Forever?, p. 136-37):

Even for the sake of saving the lives of my clients, I do not want to be dishonest, and tell the court something I do not honestly think in this case. I do not believe that the universities are to blame. I do not think that they should be held responsible. ... [Y]ou cannot destroy thought because, forsooth, some brain may be deranged by thought. It is the duty of the university, as I conceive it, to be the great storehouse of the wisdom of the ages, and to let students go there, and learn, and choose. I have no doubt but that it has meant the death of many; that we cannot help. Every changed idea in the world has had its consequences. Every new religious doctrine has created its victims. Every new philosophy has caused suffering and death. Every new machine has carved up men while it served the world. No railroad can be built without the destruction of human life. No great building can be erected but that unfortunate workmen fall to the earth and die. No great movement that does not bear its toll of life and death; no great ideal but does good and harm, and we cannot stop because it may do harm.
While there may be more that we could do to keep knowledge from resulting in harmful action, Darrow was certainly right that ignorance can never serve as a shield against the wrong.

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