Friday, December 14, 2012

Was the Connecticut school shooting "evil"?

No sooner do you dispose of something than you realize how badly you need it.

There are very few times we trot out the word "evil" anymore. You get the impression we are supposed to have outgrown it or something. But while some people think we have outgrown the word "evil," evidence is still coming in that we haven't outgrown the reality.

Today's school shooting in Connecticut can be added to the long and growing list of such events that force us to resort to what we otherwise think of as linguistic anachronisms. "Evil," said Gov. Dan Malloy, "visited this community today."

When we go shopping for words to describe what the man who perpetrated the shooting did, none seem to quite fit—except one: "evil."

Using a word like this would almost make you think that what the man who mowed down 26 people, 20 of them children, was ... wrong—another word we try to avoid but find ourselves coming back to again and again.

Words like this don't fit in with our modern worldview. We now have scientific ways of thinking about these things. Our behavior, we are told, is merely the result of the previous state of our brain, affected by things like how we were raised—things that are out of our control. "Free will is an illusion," says atheist Sam Harris in his recent book Free Will:
Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we thing we have.
Harris himself draws the obvious conclusion: people cannot be held responsible for what they do, at least not in any sense in which we have traditionally thought such a thing.

Under the modern secularist view, words like "evil" and "wrong" simply make no sense. They are relics of our religious past, when we were under the sway of the superstitious idea that there were objective moral standards in light of which human actions could be judged as being good.

Or not.

They belong to a mindset that may have made sense before the onset of neuroscience and psychology, but which now has been rendered meaningless. A person's action can't be evil when we can explain it in purely therapeutic terms—as being the result of a faulty synapse in the brain, or a bad childhood.

Yet here we are, blowing the dust off of these hoary old terms. And the funny thing is they seem to work pretty well to capture the moment. It makes you kind of question the beliefs that caused us to put them into mothballs in the first place, doesn't it?

26 comments:

KyCobb said...

Martin,

The funny thing is, the policies that make mental health care in this country inadequate, while also making it easy for the mentally ill to acquire rapid-fire weapons and lots of ammunition are promoted by the party which claims to support Christian morality. There was also a school attack in China this week, but there, the maniac was only armed with a knife, so no-one died. So if the party of Christian morality is the one which supports the policies which leads to school massacres, who is evil?

Susan Weston said...

For those who came here hoping to find thoughtful reflection on Friday's tragedy, I recommend Ross Douthat's piece today: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/opinion/sunday/loss-of-the-innocents.html?ref=opinion&_r=0

Anonymous said...

KyCobb, is there anything which you won't twist into partisan gamesmanship? The "mainstreaming" of the mentally ill was a movement of the left based upon privacy and civil rights arguments which limited the previous ability of authorities to involuntarily commit legal age, troubled people for observation, and now we have cops always saying..well, we couldn't do anything until they "did something". Not to say that it should be easy to commit legal age individuals, but now it is incredibly difficult.

Singring said...

Anonymous, you apparently think that the main or only aspect of mental health is committing people.

Issues around mental health and health care come up and you leap to what should be the last resort when treating someone who has a mental affliction. If the young man who did this was indeed suffering from severe mental issues as reports are indicating, then there should have been a lot more intervention a lot earlier. Then maybe he never would have perpetrated this horrendous crime or have to be committed.

There is a constant urge from conservatives to paint issues like this in the simplest crayon colours. Witness Martin swipe aside the notion that children might need counseling with the preposterous assertion that just telling them what happened was evil ought to nicely do the trick. This infantile approach is retarding any kind of meaningful approach to tackling these complex issues.

Anonymous said...

Well, Singring, at least you said "apparently" which allows that your conclusion of my view is wrong. As for "crayon colors" I'm one American who believes that too many American experts and would be behavior controllers are always pushing grey when black or white are plainly evident, which is kind of Martin's point also.

Singring said...

'I'm one American who believes that too many American experts and would be behavior controllers are always pushing grey when black or white are plainly evident, which is kind of Martin's point also.'

Interesting. In what sense then, is mental health a 'plainly' black and white issue? Or do you consider this a grey area?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

It's amusing to hear some talk about the oversimplification of some reality who himself denies the ability to know anything beyond what he things science can show us.

Tells us more.

Singring said...

'Tells us more.'

Well alright, since you ask so nicely.

'It's amusing to hear some talk about the oversimplification of some reality who himself denies the ability to know anything beyond what he things science can show us.'

Let me barrow and oldie but goodie from the Martin Cothran bag o' tricks to respond to this one:

How does it follow logically from there being no metaphysical plane that the physical plane is simple?

That was fun, but now let's try something else. Who said this just a couple weeks ago:

'The object of the old "natural philosophy" was to apprehend nature. Aristotle, for example, practiced science by naming, defining, and classifying . The purpose of what we now call "science" was to behold nature in its fullness. But in the modern view, the whole point of science is to deconstruct nature—to reduce it to its ultimate meaningless components.

In the classical view, the point of science was to apprehend the mystery of the nature; in the modern view, the point of science is eliminate the mystery of nature.

Science begins and ends in wonder, and wonder cannot be had in an approach whose whole purpose is to eliminate it. It can only be accomplished by viewing nature as a mystery we can never resolve, but only marvel at.'

And now you want to pretend that metaphysics adds a layer of complexity to explanations of the natural world? Just read your own words: you explicitly say that in the age of metaphysics, science was nothing more than naming and classifying. Is that a view of nature that appreciates its complexity?

Metaphysics is used to stop inquiry into nature dead in its tracks - you say we should just gape in marvel at nature - apprehending its true complexity as scientists strive to do today you say is just 'eliminating wonder'. This attitude is exactly what stifled progress in the dark ages. Kepler, Galileo, Bruno and Darwin all were ostracised, condemned or worse by metaphysicians (and still are today) for even daring to think there was more to the solar system than just pretty baubels being stuck to a sphere or more to life than just creatures dreamed up de novo by some creator.

It truly is bizarre to hear you decry the loss of the simplicity and uncritical 'wonder' inherent in metaphysically afflicted science one week and then pretend as if those who reject metaphysics in favour of a mechanistic view are not appreciatuve of the true complexity of natural things. Have you ever read any Creationist literature, for example? It positively drips with oversimplification.

In your view and that of many other religious people, metaphysics doesn't add complexity - it removes it. God is the answer when things get a little too complicated.

'How did all these varieties of life arise?'
'Don't think about it - Goddidit.'
'How does the biology of a nematode worm work?'
'Don't think about that. Just name it, classify it and then 'marvel' at it.'
'How can a person pick up an automatic rifle and shoot 20 small children to death? How can we prevent that from happening again?'
'Don't think about that. It's just evil, that's all we need to know.'

Lee said...

> This infantile approach is retarding any kind of meaningful approach to tackling these complex issues.

The less infantile approach of treating "evil" as chemical problems has been in place in our schools for the last generation or so. Plus, we ensure the message sticks by keeping any mention of God out of the schools and making sure that children understand there is nothing special about them: they are not children of God, just bags of chemicals that resulted from an impersonal process. No talk of anyone endangering his soul, because we can't talk about souls, they are not empirically measurable.

How's that working out?

Singring said...

'How's that working out?'

It's working out great in countries where we don't sell 100-round magazines and military-grade assault rifles that can fire 5 rounds a second to people.

It's working especially great in countries where we don't have politicians like Louie Gomert who say that they 'pray to God' headmasters were armed with M4 automatic assault rifles at school.

Lee said...

Really? Then I guess the Cologne school massacre in 1964 never happened. Or the Dunblane massacre in England, 1996.

Besides, Germany has a history, showing us what kinds of massacres can occur when the only people allowed to be armed work for the government.

Lee said...

In any event, I googled school massacres and am struck by the number and frequency in which they've occurred... after 1960.

Before 1960, they run fewer and further between.

What happened around the 1960 timeframe that might have changed? Or perhaps only reflected a more basic change? Engel v. Vitale, perhaps? Murray v. Curlett?

Singring said...

'What happened around the 1960 timeframe that might have changed? Or perhaps only reflected a more basic change? Engel v. Vitale, perhaps? Murray v. Curlett?'

Martin: QED.

Anonymous said...

Singring, as a German, and like many Europeans, has difficulty understanding the American Second Amendment. It was not written for hunting or even self defense, it was written as a right of Americans to defend themselves against future tyrannies of the state. See Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro etc etc etc for evidence of their brilliance. Just as we do not surrender our cars because 40,000 Americans die annually from motor vehicle accidents and hundreds of thousands more are injured, so we do not surrender the Second Amendment because of tragic anomolies.

Anonymous said...

PS America also has a First Amendment. How would the media react to this proposal...from now on only the name and age of the shooter(s) would be allowed...no pictures, no bios, no telling us what bands they liked, no interviews with friends. In other words, a total publicity blackout so as to discourage other would be deranged copycats who swim in America's fame culture and would welcome the "attention" even after they killed themselves following their rampages. Talk amongst yourselves, American media whores.

Singring said...

'It was not written for hunting or even self defense, it was written as a right of Americans to defend themselves against future tyrannies of the state. See Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro etc etc etc for evidence of their brilliance.'

You seem to have forgotten that Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Castro all had a considerable amount of support in the population when they seized power and in many cases, throughout their political hegemony.

Hitler was voted into power democratically and was celebrated jubilantly right up and even during the Second world war. If anything, more arms in the hands of Germans would have made it more difficult for the Allies to defeat Germany.

These nuances, as expected, mean nothing to you. To you its a black and white issue - lots of guns = perfect, no guns = apocalypse.

Also, it might come as a shock to you, but gun ownership is perfectly legal in Germany. Anyone who obtains a license and passes some background checks and clean bill of mental health can get one.

What we don't do is sell 100 round magazines at discount prices at Wal-Mart.

What we don't do is stockpile military grade automatic weapons in constant fear that the Government is going to come and get us while we sleep.

What we don't do is pray that schoolteachers are armed with automatic rifles on the job.

What we don't do is create a political culture in which it is perfectly acceptable in some areas of the country to declare the democratically elected politicians 'communists' or 'secret terrorists' who create 'death panels' and are 'enemies of our country'. Consequently, we don't have celebrities running around telling our Chancellor to 'suck on a machine gun' and we don;t have political parties draw shooting targets on electoral maps.

We prefer to engage with our government in an intelligent, constructive debate, rather than hide and run around in the woods dressed in camouflage and sporting M-16s because we're scared of the big bad world out there that is going to bring about the New World Order.

We tend to think about societal problems on a somewhat deeper level than 'kids got shot because we took prayer out of schools'.

Anonymous said...

Thank you again, Singring, for reminding me how grateful I am that my ancestors left Germany before it was even Germany. Refresh my memory, how many elections were there after Hitler was elected the first time? I'm also tired of your cheap tricks of "re-phrasing" what commenters never said. And , yes, I reject nuance all the time. Since when are scientists so enamored of nuance?

Singring said...

'Refresh my memory, how many elections were there after Hitler was elected the first time?'

None. So shall we wager what kind of support he would have received in an election in 1938, right after the 'Anschluss' of Austria, when people were literally thronging in the streets just to see him drive by in his limousine?

It wasn't until the Russian campaign started faltering that public support started to slowly crumble - and yet you still had resistance right into the heart of Berlin in he last days of the war.

To say that Hitler would have been overthrown by an armed public is delusional, and even gun-rights acrivists say so:

http://www.guncite.com/gun_control_gcnazimyth.html

' I'm also tired of your cheap tricks of "re-phrasing" what commenters never said.'

Where did I do that?

'And , yes, I reject nuance all the time.'

No kidding.

Anonymous said...

Dear Singring, to say that I reject nuance all the time is not to say that I always reject nuance. English is a very nuanced language, dumbkoff.

Singring said...

It's 'Dummkopf', actually.

Anonymous said...

Where I'm from, Singring, it's dumbass, actually. BTW Your Hitler explanations are getting very,very nuanced. And Hitler did love him some science, yessiree.

Lee said...

> To say that Hitler would have been overthrown by an armed public is delusional, and even gun-rights acrivists say so

Maybe not stopped what was going on, but put a damper on it, yes. It would have been hard to put down an armed populace at the same time you're contemplating a war, let alone a two-front war.

Lee said...

> You seem to have forgotten that Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Castro all had a considerable amount of support in the population when they seized power and in many cases, throughout their political hegemony.

Well, so did Romney. But in America, at least not yet, power is not growing out of the barrel of a gun.

>> I'm also tired of your cheap tricks of "re-phrasing" what commenters never said.'

> Where did I do that?

Here you did it:

> These nuances, as expected, mean nothing to you. To you its a black and white issue - lots of guns = perfect, no guns = apocalypse.

Allow me to introduce you to the concept known as the trade-off. Given the world we live in, given the depravity of human nature, and given the horrible things that tend to happen when too much power is concentrated in the wrong hands, guns are the great equalizer. But nobody said gun ownership would make the world perfect.

Singring said...

'Maybe not stopped what was going on, but put a damper on it, yes. It would have been hard to put down an armed populace at the same time you're contemplating a war, let alone a two-front war.'

A 'damper'? What on earth are you on about. You seem to have missed the entire point that the populance was vastly in support of Hitler right into the war. It is abstruse to say that an armed population that adored Hitler would have overthrown him!

This is one of the major historic shames associated with the Third Reich the Germans have been grappling with all these years - the fact that Hitler was voted into power on a wave of support, and then did nothing to stop him or his actions until it was much too late.

There are still plenty of Germans from that generation alive today who, in candid moments, will tell all about how much they loved Hitler and what a great job he did, but too bad about the war and all that.

'Well, so did Romney.'

What the...? Absolutely no idea what you are on about, sorry.

'Given the world we live in, given the depravity of human nature...'

So you think by handing out guns to people who are all - by your logic - 'depraved' is a good idea? If they are all depraved -shouldn't we make sure as few of them as possible have guns?

Anyway - Merry Christmas to you, Lee!

I hope that one day you'll think more of your fellow man than that he is depraved in his nature.

Lee said...

> You seem to have missed the entire point that the populance was vastly in support of Hitler right into the war. It is abstruse to say that an armed population that adored Hitler would have overthrown him!

And you're doing it again. Where did I say an armed population would have overthrown Hitler?

It's an old act, Singring. When you don't like an argument, you morph it into another argument that's easier to attack.

> So you think by handing out guns to people who are all - by your logic - 'depraved' is a good idea? If they are all depraved -shouldn't we make sure as few of them as possible have guns?

Like I said, welcome to the concept known as the trade-off. Unfortunately, we don't have access to a less-depraved species of humanity with which to populate the halls of government.

That's why power is best when there are checks and balances. Gun ownership is a check against overbearing government. It is not a solution. Some problems don't have solutions. It is a trade-off.

Anonymous said...

"There are still plenty of Germans from that generation alive today who, in candid moments, will tell about how much they loved Hitler and what a great job he did, but too bad about the war and all that." American version...Well, other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?