Motives Don’t Matter

January 11, 2011

The chorus of right wingers defending the actions of the shooter in Tucson as mere insanity is beginning to blow my mind. Repeatedly, politically sympathetic folks seem to be emphasizing Jared Loughner’s mental illness and not the nature of his act; or, at least, divorcing the two: he was sick, and he did a terrible deed as a result of that sickness. Others have taken the opportunity to cry politics, or to claim that we must wait to establish causality.

The left, on the other hand, is taking a somewhat stronger stance. Sandhya Somashekhar at the Washington Post asks whether it stemmed from the state of politics. Vaughan Bell at Salon makes the case that all this talk of mental illness is mostly an easy dodge. Paul Krugman has an eloquent piece arguing that it’s all been building for a long time. Steven Cohen, of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, has this to say.

Much as they may want to hang on to the idea that this was “merely” the act of a mentally ill person, there is at least one fact that cannot be accounted for by the mental illness of the shooter. That is, Giffords was targeted in political discourse, repeatedly, as someone who ought to be taken out. She was also the target of the shooter.

Was she the random target of a deranged person? Possibly…but highly unlikely. She was selected by a mentally ill person in large part because that mentally ill person was under the impression that Giffords was someone to be rid of. That’s what happened. That is an undeniable fact about Saturday’s shooting… and you don’t need to know much about mental illness to acknowledge that fact.

Friend and fellow philosopher Jeremy Bendik-Keymer (Case Western Reserve) put it to me this way:

My partner, Elaine, is a seasoned therapist. We watched Loughner’s YouTube site last night. He’s insane. But Elaine had no doubt that politics *channeled* or *guided* the direction of his insanity. Imagine your head has gone wild with internal anxiety -even voices. You cast about for a direction, an outlet, some way to turn the mess into relief. Now comes a message that for some idiosyncratic reason speaks to you and allows you a modicum of rationality inside your paranoia. And it tells you that you feel so bad because the government and the system –anything that’s not your head- has warped reality & that you must tear it all down. And now there’s a target over this one public officer’s face. And others have shouted -others who say things like you- that she should be shot, or “taken out”. And now you think one day when your head is going nuts — this has been building for you for a while, you may even have been planning it as an apotheosis- this is the chance. Now I will do this. I have been planning to take out the government as the voices advise. I will do it. It follows from my logic, I will start to take down the system. That’s how Palin & co. are responsible. & all of us in this country too — not directly responsible, and not liable, but politically responsible for cultivating an ethos of respect in public debate & in the media. There’s a 9 year old girl who was elected to her student council who is dead because of the way violence in the public sphere glommed onto to some sad, paranoid man’s mind.

I buy this argument, as I think it offers an entirely plausible causality. But it is susceptible to the all-too-frequent objection that the causality is nevertheless unclear. I think there’s a fair bit more to this.

That Loughner’s act may have been caused by mental illness doesn’t suggest that there is no blame to lay at the feet of those who incite people to violence… like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and most of the others. What I mean is that causal responsibility is not the core issue here. Rather, moral responsibility is.

A comparison: if I tell a child that he is worthless and should kill himself, I am being grossly irresponsible. If he does kill himself, there’s certainly a sense in which I can’t be held causally responsible for his decision to do so. He did it himself. Many children would likely hear such a claim and brush it off as nasty talk from a playground meanie. But there’s also a critically important sense in which it is morally wrong of me to say this to the child, not because he does in fact kill himself, nor because I have for certain caused him to kill himself, but because if it were the case that I caused him to kill himself, then I would be responsible. The fact that he did kill himself isn’t doing the heavy lifting.

Similarly, if I wander through the halls of an insane asylum shouting that the doctors are plotting to harvest the organs of the inmates, that they must be stopped by any means necessary, I am committing a wrong. Again, I am committing this wrong whether or not the inmates do kill their doctors. If the inmates do in fact kill the doctors, they may have been plotting so for other reasons–perhaps their craziness was what motivated them–but my hands are dirtied in the killing of the doctors by my act of shouting falsities and inciting crazy people to take action even if the causal link is not made.

Finally, if I screech over the airwaves that some politician is destructive to the fabric of America, and must be targeted and stopped, or that we must not retreat but reload, or that we must begin the revolution, then I open myself to culpability for willing this rule, effectively, into a law; into execution; for having universalized it.

It’s my right to do this, of course, just as it is anybody’s right. It is my right to say awful things to children and my right to tell insane people that they are being persecuted, but it is still grossly irresponsible, terribly immoral, unacceptably impermissible. The banshees of the airwaves—Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and the many others—as well as their defenders, must acknowledge this.

The forward-looking question that we really should be asking is what reasons we might have for defending vitriol and hate speech? Is it an essential part of our political discourse? Does it serve an important role? Is it vital that we paste targets over our political opponents?

Those who profit off it surely have a reason to defend their hate. That’s how they make money. If the public catches wind that what they’re saying is wrong, or morally suspect, this may damage their bank accounts. Here’s a timeline of such talk since 2008. But the rest of America ought to know better.

We can have a sane discourse about differing public policies in this country without resorting to characterizations of one or the other position in Nazi terms.

If I can find any solace in the shootings, it is this: that these sorts of crimes don’t happen more often. Evidently, Americans aren’t as loony as we may sometimes seem. There are thousands of mentally ill citizens in the United States, some of whom have murderous thoughts. Only a few of these, thank goodness, move to take action on these thoughts. Given the state of the political discussion, with all the targets and vitriol, we can thank our lucky stars that more of our brave political figures aren’t victims.

UPDATE: Protevi has a nice piece on this too.


  1. Indeed, when you think about it, if Loughner is prone to violence because of mental illness then this is a bit like aiding and abetting a child to do something bad. In such cases, I think we would say it’s more the adult’s fault. The adults (in this case republican pundits who routinely encourage “2nd amendment remedies”) can’t just say “I didn’t do it. The guy’s just crazy.” Yes, well if he is crazy then YOU’RE the one responsible. Not him.

    Dems should use this talking point.

    • I hope democrats keep running this for the next two years. Nothing shows the idiocracy and irresopnsibility of the lefties in America like balming a crazed violent criminal on someone who never he never met, was politically opposed to her, and stands for things he dislikes. And especially let’s pretned that democrats never use violent metaphors, never talked about killing Bush and other Republicans.
      If the person who wrote the drivel that makes up the post leading this topic really is an academic, I hope they have not yet gotten tenure.

    • Type much?

  2. Thanks, Ben, great work here. The moral responsibility angle is crucial.

  3. Isn’t this an attempt at guilt by association.

    In other words, many on the left are trying to associate Loughner with the right and then blame the right for Loughner’s actions.

    It is beginning to look more and more like Loughner is not associated with the right – or maybe he is associated with the left – so what then?

    Personally, I don’t think any politicians ads or posters, crosshairs or not (left or right – they both do it), has anything to do with Loughner’s actions.

    She may have pissed him off in 2007 or we may find out more about his motives when they release the letter he left in his safe.

    But I think it is really silly to blame his actions on rhetoric, radio or TV.

    Neither side should use this incident as a talking point, at least without actual evidence rather than mere speculation – that is morally wrong in my opinion.

    • His political commitments appear convoluted, but his obsession and opposition to one particular Democratic candidate who was publicly targeted by her Republican opponents is not in dispute.

      • Yes, it is disputed.
        Kos targeted her as well.
        Kos is much more vitriolic and hateful than Palion ever could be.
        Recall Markos he thought it was cool for Americans to get lynched in Iraq.

  4. Nathan:

    I don’t dispute it.

    The question is did the public targeting for defeat of this candidate have anything to do with triggering his attack?

    I don’t know – maybe it did – but to me it is gross speculation to say that rhetoric is the cause of the attack.

  5. Naw, that’s something else. At least in logic, guilt by association is a informal fallacy suggesting that a speaker’s argument is fallacious, or his positions somehow false, by virtue of his known associates. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Association_fallacy

    The point here is that moral culpability differs from causal responsibility. I can be culpable for having contributed to wrongdoing even if I’m not in fact the cause of that wrong.

    Suppose I argue publicly that some nation should go to war for X (call it a “bad”) reason. Suppose that some nation, independently of my argument, goes to war for that X reason. Am I not in some respects blameworthy for having aided in the justification of that war, even though I had nothing to do with making it happen? I think I am.

    Suppose again X. Suppose that some nation, for different reason Y (call it a “better” reason), goes to war with the same nation for which I have argued in X. Though again I am not causally responsible for having started the war, I have made no small contribution to its execution.

    Suppose that I argue X privately and not publicly. Suppose I do this over dinner with my family. The war happens, due to X or Y. Am I morally blameworthy for supporting an unjust war? Yep, I think I am.

    • Ben:

      I see what you are saying.

      But I have trouble calling anyone blameworthy or morally responsible for their private opinion.

      If I say go out and kill and people go out and kill, then I can see the blame link.

      If I am thinking (but not speaking), I hope all of these people (pick your group) die – and they die, do I bear any moral responsibility for this?

      I have trouble with that.

      Suppose Mother Theresa secretly was disgusted by poor or sick people, thought they were lazy or whatever bad thoughts you might wish to attribute. Maybe she even confessed this (private and not public). Don’t we judge people by their actions and not their words, or in this example, their thoughts. Is she morally blameworthy for her thoughts?

      Lets say you are pro-gun, are you then morally responsible for every third party illegal action?

      Does that work in reverse – if you are anti-gun and someone dies because they failed to have a gun to use for self-defense (lets say they are law abiding and there is gun control), are the anti-gun people morally responsible?

      As a lawyer, I can certainly say neither is legally liable under either scenario – but philosophically?

      Does your example work in reverse to.

      Suppose the war is a just war and I argue against the war. Am I morally blameworthy for not supporting a just war? What if the war happens anyway – what if the war fails to happen.

      This is all a little abstract for me – you know, what is the sound of one hand clapping, or if a tree falls in the forest . . .

      Personally, I don’t think Palin’s crosshairs poster had anything to do with this violence, so I cast no blame.

      I blame Loughner.

      • Ha Ha – I just read my own post and see that I am a hypocrite – I cast no blame, but blame Loughner.

        Anyway – I hope you know what I mean.

      • I actually do blame people for their actions; but I take it that an action can’t be understood merely as a movement of the body. It is also an intentional event, meaning that there’s something non-physical behind it, some agential force that contributes to a better description of it. To understand the action, and whether to blame, we have to make sense not only of the physical movement of forces, but also of the reasons that underwrite the physical movement of forces.

        I think you are morally blameworthy for not supporting a just war, yes.

        I certainly blame Loughner. He did the deed, he’s mentally ill, he was obsessed with Giffords, etc. All bad stuff. At the same time, I think you simply can’t ignore the other statements and claims that circulate around the shooting. There is a reason that it was natural for people to connect the dots between the images of guns and the hate and the shooting. People, particularly mentally ill people, are moved and influenced by the circulating discourse.

      • Ben:

        I do understand that we have to take account of the reasons that underwrite the physical movement of forces.

        That is what everybody is speculating about.

        We don’t actually know what his reasons were yet.

        Perhaps he was motivated by the Palin poster, perhaps not.

        The letter(s) Loughner wrote will be released eventually and we will then be in a much better position to determine his reasons.

        If his reasons have nothing to do with right wing rhetoric – then what?

        Is Palin still morally blameworthy?

  6. Hi Ben,

    I like this post a lot. I have a clarifying question, though. It seems to me there are (at least) two ways to interpret your argument.

    (1) You might be arguing that in virtue of using violent rhetoric that people using such rhetoric are increasing the risk of harm to innocents they target in such rhetoric. Since increasing the risk of harm to someone is itself a harm, people using violent rhetoric are morally responsible for harms (namely, increasing the risks of harm), independently of whether or not we can trace a causal chain from a particular instance of violent rhetoric (or a particular pundit) to a particular harmful act.

    (2) You might be arguing that someone need not even increase the risk of harm to innocents in order to be morally responsible for that harm. (this is suggested by your comment at 3:34 pm.) But in that comment you talk about being blameworthy, rather than morally responsible. Do you mean to be distinguishing those?

    I ask because someone might wonder whether the blameworthiness (or moral responsibility) invoked by the two different arguments is equally weighty. By that I mean that there might be an important distinction between someone who has abhorrent attitudes but whose attitudes never have any significant causal impact on the world vs. someone with such attitudes where that person is the cause of *at least* an increased risk of harm.

    My thought is that the second sort of person is much more worrisome, dangerous, and liable when something bad happens. But curious to get your reaction.

    • I’m not arguing 1. Risk doesn’t factor in here.

      I think I’m arguing 2, but I’m worried about the distinction between blameworthiness and moral responsibility, as well as “a moral responsibility.” What has me concerned isn’t your question, so much as the object of blame that I use. I’m worried, for instance, about being blameworthy for the justification of the war as opposed to being blameworthy for the war.

      So, just kinda thinking out loud here, I might advance a bad line of argument X. If the same argument X is used to justify Phi, though it is not my X, but another identical X, that is used to Phi, it seems to me that I can be held accountable for having advanced X even though my X never had any causal uptake with Phi.

      Does this work?

      Suppose Germany develops the H-bomb at exactly the same time that the US develops the H-bomb. Forget the race factor. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are bombed, through no causal participation of Germany. Is Germany somewhat blameworthy for Hiroshima and Nagasaki? I admit, that seems a little nutty… but I think it’s causal responsibility that’s throwing me off. I think Germany is somewhat blameworthy for creating a weapon that might well have been used for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even if it was not Germany that bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Insofar as that’s the case, they’re morally responsible but not causally responsible.

      I think, however, that it’s not the attitudes doing the work. The Kantian in me says it’s the engagement with the principle. It well might be the case that in some universe there is causal uptake; and insofar as this causal uptake is enabled by my action (and my related endorsement of the principle that underwrites the action; the maxim), I am therefore blameworthy.


      • Sorry so long to respond (crazy busy prepping for a talk).

        Here’s as case to get at why I wanted to use the language of blameworthiness. Suppose I aim my rifle at the innocent person’s head and fire the gun. But just as I fire, a bird flies in the flight bath of the bullet and so my bullet doesn’t hit the person. However, the innocent person is killed by a bullet from someone’s rifle a mile away shooting in celebration of his birthday.

        Am I morally responsible for the innocent person’s death? Driver’s piece and many people’s intuition, mine included, suggest the answer is ‘no.’ (Even taking Sartorio’s arguments into account.) But does that mean that there is no further assessment of me–I’m off the moral hook? Obviously, that doesn’t follow.

        That’s why I urged that the real question is whether I’m blameworthy for what I did and I take the answer to this question to be “seriously and obviously.” I think that most people’s concept of moral responsibility is essentially *blameworthiness+causation.* But the question of moral assessment is all about the blameworthiness, rather than the causation. I think this is your point, expressed in a less tendentious way in virtue of getting rid of the MR language.

        You’re arguing that the real issue isn’t whether this piece of speech caused this act. The language of blameworthiness is meant to clarify the point.

      • Zac:

        Maybe I am missing the point of your example.

        As a lawyer I can tell you that you are legally responsible for the crime of attempted murder – because you fired the rifle at the person with the intent to kill them.

        You took an action which is considered a crime – and therefore bear some moral responsibility, even though you were not the person who actually killed, in your hypo.

        However, Palin never took the equivalent action – she never did anything with the intent to kill. She had no intent at all (other than to defeat the congresswomen in the election).

        I don’t understand the MP – casual responsibility stuff you guys are talking about – but that is because I never studied philosphy (I guess).

        To me, Palin bears no moral responsibility, nor casual responsibility, until someone can actually show a link between her rhetoric and the Loughner’s decision to act.

        As far as I know, we don’t have that link yet.

      • Zac:

        Another thought. Lets say a killer decided to shoot, but decided the trigger to actually start the shooting was the state of the union address.

        If the killer leaves a letter saying he decided to time his rampage to start during the state of the union address – and actually kills six people – does either Obama or the broadcasters bear any moral responsibility for the killings?

        I would opine – no!

        The killer’s decision to trigger an action doesn’t impute any moral responsibility to the trigger person, in my hypo.

  7. Well written, but another concept that we have lost in these postnormal times(certainly on the net) is seemliness, and those with a public megaphone are especially guilty in that regard.

  8. Ben, Your post crystalizes the moral bankrupticy of the blame Palin effort perfectly.
    Keep up the good work.

  9. Well as of last night the President has spoken and he said that this incident had nothing to do with a lack of civility in politics. Which I completly agree with. The only ones trying to make political hay out of this are those on the left, a truly disgusting play. Where was the left’s outrage when a movie was made about assassinating a sitting President? Stop speculating and please provide evidence that Loughner listened/heard/read anything from a “bomb thrower” on the right. Or, please continue to make fools of yourselves.

    • Maybe you missed the point. This is about moral responsibility, not causal responsibility. There’s no evidence that could demonstrate this one way or the other.

      • Lack evidence was not a concern over the weekend for many pundits and news organizations. The only moral responsibility I see is all the missed opportunities for law enforcement to investigate Jared’s condition and threats prior to this incident and the purchase of the weapon. There is not a single politician/pundit from either side that has a casual or a moral responsibility in this. Your sly attempts to link this incident to heated rhetoric is truly disgusting. You want a conversation that there needs to be more civility in political discourse, I am with you.

  10. “Was she the random target of a deranged person? Possibly…but highly unlikely. She was selected by a mentally ill person in large part because that mentally ill person was under the impression that Giffords was someone to be rid of. That’s what happened.” No it was not random, Jared asked her a question in 2007 and he did not like the answer. This was before Palin and the Tea Party.. oops. His mental state had him latch onto this moment and seek revenge as his condition deteriorated. Please provide evidence of a linkage between Jared and any vitriol from the right. He could have viewed the Daily Kos on January 6th and have been set off. I see that did not make it into your column. Hmm let me think as to why….

    • Go for it.

      • Already did, as you make fairly easy.

  11. Ben,

    The moral responsibility of endorsing violent retaliation against politicians is tough to separate from its causal force in a public media-sphere.

    So the point I would underscore here is that the moral responsibility is tantamount to causal responsibility.

    I think you were making this point in your initial post with the example of the child, and again later with the war example.

    Jon, I doubt Kos was advocating violence against Americans. And even if he was, try and find another example on the left. The right wing rhetoric is soaking with it. It’s almost gotten to the point of terrorism. Arizona Republican politicians are resigning for fear of the Tea Party extremists:


    • I doubt Kos was either, as much as I doubt any Republicans are advocating violence. I am not interested in finding examples from both sides as I firmly beive rhetoric and words had nothing to do with this incident. We might as well talk about the iced freeways in Atlanta as that had as much to do with this shooting as rhetoric from anyone on the right or the left for that matter. Ironic you are making a point of over the top rhetoric where you are now saying that half the population supports directly or indirectly the equivalent of terrorism. As to your article, I guees all the death threats now coming into Palin are from the Tea Party as well? The circle continues around the people in their boxes and nothing gets accomplished.

      • Writing a somewhat different reply.

      • “Please provide evidence of a linkage between Jared and any vitriol from the right.” Nope nothing different. My Kos example was a question for you, not a belief from me. Having some difficulties today?

      • Maybe you don’t understand the above point. Even still, I’m writing a different reply to a different question now, and I won’t be bothered by your badgering.

  12. Still waiting for Ben to address the fact that Jared become obsessed with Giffords after a 2007 encounter between the two. Long before Palin and the Tea Party and any targeting from anyone. This kills the entire premise of your article and any “point” you are making. Again here is the beginning of your thought and where you state what point you are going to make. “Was she the random target of a deranged person? Possibly…but highly unlikely. She was selected by a mentally ill person in large part because that mentally ill person was under the impression that Giffords was someone to be rid of. That’s what happened. That is an undeniable fact about Saturday’s shooting… and you don’t need to know much about mental illness to acknowledge that fact.” No she was selected by Jared, because of her response to his question in 2007. Please address this.

    • You fail to see the point. Slow down and read the post carefully.

  13. hi ben –

    i think that this is a pretty thoughtful discussion of this difficult issue. i agree that there does not need to be a causal link between any specific speech act and loughner’s actions for us to have moral qualms with the speech act. the reason why is that the speech act *itself* is morally problematic. consequently, we should just put aside the killings and give them their own attention, distinct from our reflections about the speech acts.

    but this is not what you do. you instead base your objection to the rhetoric of the right on it being the case that there is _some_ causal connection or _could be_ a causal connection between the speech acts and the murders. in the former case, the speech was not sufficient to cause the violence but it made a causal contribution and in the latter it is the fact that in some nearby possible world, the speech in fact caused the violence.

    if your argument rests on either of these claims, then you need to do a lot more work making the case for them. and, truth be told, you know – we all know – far too little about laughner to say much about what led him to shoot.

    i think that perhaps the better line of argument is to note that laughner’s actions focus our attentions on domestic political violence and, in turn, rhetoric that appears to endorse such violence. it is unfortunate that it took these killings to get our attention finally turned to this issue, but there it is. the question then is: is such speech morally problematic?

    now, we need to hunker down and think hard about the conditions under which speech, as such, is morally problematic. this is a difficult question, but not one that we can settle by reflecting on the laughner case.

    one final note: the causal contribution to violence standard for immoral speech – the standard you seem to endorse – is a poor standard. for you need to give a minimally sufficient contribution principle in order to avoid almost all speech being in danger of being immoral. why? well, all speech acts might, through some deviant causal chain, partially contribute to a violent act. once you begin to introduce the caveats, you are off to some pretty complicated races.

    Anyway, i do think that this is a really good beginning of an important discussion. I’ve linked to it on FB – hopefully some people are going to the blog as a result.

    • Thanks Matt, both for the link and the comments.

      I like the speech act analysis at the top. I agree that these words do things. I think I’m more concerned that there could be a causal connection than that there is some causal connection. The nearby possible world talk seems close to what I was saying, but thinking about it in terms of speech acts makes me want to revise a tad.

      I guess my thinking was that there is some nearby possible world in which some character — maybe Loughner, maybe someone else — acts because he believes his act to be justified; and his belief about that act being justified is underwritten by the talk of the yammering voices rising to the surface of the Tea Party. (I’m writing up a post on that now, but your comments are helping me crystallize my thinking.)

      Loughner is just a placeholder. I think we don’t really need to know much about him or about his state of mind. We can fill in the blanks with Schloughner, Loughner’s nearby possible twin, who is not mentally ill but nevertheless is motivated to act according to justifications that he takes to be strong.

      If a bad justification is offered, has uptake, and then motivates an actor to kill, whether Schloughner or Loughner, then it would seem that this possibility is what makes the justification wrong, not the killing itself.

      Translating it into speech act talk, those who make these sorts of claims — “Don’t retreat, reload,” for instance — don’t just say things, they do things.

      At minimum, they endorse the position that one should not just retreat but reload, say, supporting the stance that if X politician is to disappear by the implied means, then this is justified. If this is what they endorse, they should be cheering and not mourning the shootings; or they should take pains to be much clearer about what they endorse.

      More broadly, they command others, say, not to retreat but reload. If this is how we are to understand their speech act, then I think a case could be made that they should be held accountable, essentially, for pulling the trigger, though the gun does not fire.

      Having said this, I’m cooking up a post in response to Balloon Juice’s claims about the lies told by the Tea Party.

  14. [...] Mistress Being Human on a Harsh Planet « Motives Don’t Matter The Civility Diversion and Justificatory Closure January 15, 2011 Balloon Juice has a [...]

  15. I think we are taking a too narrow – indeed, a legalistic – view of causal repsonsibility.

    Whether or not there is good reason for the Anglo-American legal understanding of causation, there is no reason that moral judgments should be so restrained. If I shout repeatedly in the ear of a deranged person that so-and-so should be shot, I am part of the causal chain that leads to the killing of so-and-so by the deranged person.

    The distance between the postings and rantings of Palin et alia and the act of Loughner is greater than this example, to be sure. But, if we recognize causal repsonsibility in the hypothetical case, we ought to recognize the possibility of it in the actual case.

    Perhaps we will decide that the connection is too tenuous, given the temporal and physical distances involved. But that is a matter of degree, not of kind.

    • I think I agree with you, Chris, about the causal chain. But this argument seems to derail pretty handily if one denies entirely causal responsibility. I guess my approach is to run the argument through moral responsibility because for some people causal responsibility is a dead end.

  16. [...] One commentator pauses to consider the implications of the fact that the pervasive astrological explanation of the Arizona shooter’s action actually contains no causal account. But the pause is only initial, because he claims that “causal responsibility is not the core issue here. Rather, moral responsibility is” (emphasis in the original). His argument is that even if the “vitriol” in our public political discourse had no causal effect in this case, it does not mean we should not be held morally responsible when we say “grossly irresponsible, terribly immoral, unacceptably impermissible” things. Yes, indeed. But actual (not moral) causality is precisely what is at issue here, because people are laying blame for the event at the feet of people and events other than the shooter himself. [...]

    • What _on earth_ are you talking about? That people are laying blame doesn’t suggest that they understand blame very well. There’s plenty of moral blame to go around, and the causality of the Giffords shooting doesn’t matter in the establishment of that blame.

  17. A comparison: if I tell a child that he is worthless and should kill himself, I am being grossly irresponsible. If he does kill himself, there’s certainly a sense in which I can’t be held causally responsible for his decision to do so

    A better analogy would be this: I tell a child that he is worthless and should kill himself; meanwhile, a different child who never heard my remarks and lived in a different town did kill himself. Even if I’m morally blameworthy for my own comments, isn’t it rather dirty politics to blame me in any way whatsoever for THAT death?

    • Well, you’d have to distance the speaker pretty far from the scene of the crime. It’s not as though those who are calling for an armed revolution aren’t speaking to every child within earshot, so yours isn’t really a better analogy.

      At any rate, it completely misses the point. I’m talking here about moral responsibility, not causal responsibility, and you’d have to get into some pretty heavy metaphysics to argue one way or the other as to whether moral responsibility entails causal responsibility.

      Here, read this:


  18. Are people morally responsible for their actions? Generally yes. Are they morally responsible for actions committed by someone who has no connection to them whatsoever? Not unless you can establish SOME sort of causal connection at a bare minimum.

    That isn’t very hard. Your article is interesting, but it doesn’t (so far as I can see) remotely handle the situation we have here, where there is so far zero evidence that Loughner ever even heard of Palin, let alone was aware of her map (which has now been publicized 100s of times as much as it ever was before), and where indeed the evidence shows that he was described by multiple friends as a left-leaning individual who hated God, and who had borne a grudge against the congresswoman ever since she refused to answer a grammar question 4 years ago.

    As the evidence stands now, a less ludicrously inapt analogy would be this: A football coach says, “I hate the cross-town rival, and we’re really going to target them for defeat,” and then the coach of the cross-town rival gets killed by a jealous mistress who had no connection to or sympathy for the other football coach whatsoever. Was the first football coach “morally” responsible for the death? Of course not.

    • What do you make of Sartorio’s Two Buttons case?

      • OK. So you’re the one in the room with a button, and you failed to push it, and even though the other guy failed to push his button too, you’re still in a place where — no matter how you want to quibble over the nature of causation — it’s indisputable that you had SOME connection to what was going on.

        Thus, it’s nothing like this case, where Loughner’s actions had no more connection to Palin than a wolf attack would have. Would Palin have been “morally” or in any other way blameworthy if a wolf attack had happened?

      • I agree with you about that first case, but what about Two Buttons, One Stuck?

  19. You can still be morally blameworthy for failing to act in a particular way, even if acting in that way wouldn’t (given contingent circumstances) have actually been effective at accomplishing the end. Examples are easy to think of: I refuse to help a Jewish woman running from the Nazis; unbeknownst to me, they would have found her anyway; I’m still blameworthy.

    What that has to do with Palin is beyond me, though.

  20. Suddenly this thread has picked up considerably. Too much to respond to on a teaching day, but here’s the upshot: basically, if you agree that you can be morally responsible without being causally responsible (or morally blameworthy without being causally responsible) — basically, if you agree with the Sartorio case that it is the counterfactual causality and not the actual causality that is doing the work — then it seems to me that the collective calls for armed revolution shouted by Beck, Palin, and others, fall into the category of actions for which one can be found morally blameworthy. That’s the point I’m trying to make.

  21. Incidentally, because of the threaded activity above, it’s a little hard to keep on top of the discussion. Maybe we could post linearly? Just type your reply in the open box below. Try not to thread a reply, which happens if you hit reply.

  22. it seems to me that the collective calls for armed revolution shouted by Beck, Palin, and others, fall into the category of actions for which one can be found morally blameworthy

    Well, let’s be clear: WHAT calls for armed revolution by Palin are you talking about? The mere occasional use of military metaphors that are common on both sides of the aisle (and this includes the “gunsights” map) is not even remotely a “call for armed revolution.”

    In any event, you’re still equivocating over “morally blameworthy” — assume that Palin did call for armed revolution. That’s morally blameworthy in and of itself; there’s no need to bring Loughner into it at all. Bringing Loughner into it necessarily implies that Palin’s rhetoric had some connection to him. After all, you surely can’t be making the following argument:

    1. Palin called for armed revolution.
    2. Someone somewhere in the world got killed for completely different reasons that had zero to do with Palin.
    3. Palin is morally blameworthy.

    What’s number 2 supposed to be accomplishing? You might as well put not just Loughner under number 2, but every other killing in the world during the past few weeks — the bombing in Moscow, or a drunk driver in California, or a suicide in New Orleans. After all, if the objective is to pin blame on Palin, why stop at one random unconnected killing?

  23. Hi RickA: You’re right, my case isn’t directly analogous what to what Palin, Beck, etc. do/did. Even though in my case the person intended the death, I didn’t mean for that feature of the case to obscure the point. The point is about the blameworthiness of actions that increase the risk of harm. A more analogous case would be one where I recklessly or negligently fire my gun. The bullets fail to hit anyone.

    As you may know, there’s some dispute about whether the law should countenance reckless or negligent attempts. That debate is interesting, but to my mind it obscures the moral issue. For surely someone who recklessly or negligently fires a weapon, risking harms to others, is blameworthy for doing so.

    I’m not at all arguing that anyone is legally responsible, neither is Ben. I’m arguing (and I think he is) that Palin, Beck, etc. are blameworthy for certain speech acts. I think that question got obscured b/c Ben used the shootings in Tucson as a jumping off point to discuss the blameworthiness of those acts. But in his post he’s clear he’s not trying to trace a causal route from Palin, Beck, etc. to Loughner.

  24. But in his post he’s clear he’s not trying to trace a causal route from Palin, Beck, etc. to Loughner.

    Right . . . because he’s trying to make the very confused case that Palin, etc. are somehow morally responsible for the shootings despite bearing no causal relationship whatsoever, any more than Obama or Boris Yeltsin or whoever else you could name. It’s one thing to argue that moral responsibility could attach in the lack of direct causation in a few limited and hypothetical circumstances, but another thing entirely to argue that moral responsibility attaches despite the complete lack of causation even in the most hypothetical and imaginative sense.

  25. Hi JD: I don’t think he’s trying to argue that they are morally responsible for the shootings. Nowhere in the post does he say that. In the examples he uses in the post he specifically argues that people can be blameworthy without being causally responsible.

    In the other post he linked to, he says “What is out of bounds is not the calling of names, but the short-circuiting of the justificatory project; the false implication that some such state of affairs is so heinous that it alone justifies violence against a proponent of that view.”

    He’s arguing that is morally blameworthy, for any such speaker, regardless of whether or not we can trace a causal link between that speaker and any violent act.

  26. If that’s what he meant, then why bring up Loughner at all? Why spend the first 6 or 7 paragraphs talking about who to blame specifically for Loughner’s action? Why write this sentence:

    That Loughner’s act may have been caused by mental illness doesn’t suggest that there is no blame to lay at the feet of those who incite people to violence

    You’re saying that after all the talk about Loughner, what he really meant with this sentence was: “That Loughner’s act may have been caused by mental illness doesn’t suggest that there is no blame [that is completely unconnected with Loughner's actual actions] to lay at the feet of those who incite people to violence [but who didn't incite Loughner in any way whatsoever].”

    That makes no sense. No one would have ever suggested the complete straw man that he would have been refuting, on that interpretation. That is, no one had ever suggested, “Because some random guy was mentally ill, therefore in a completely unconnected matter, Palin and Beck and their ilk cannot be criticized for their rhetoric.”

  27. In other words, if you want to talk about the generally left-wing Loughner and his crazy grammar theories, talk about that. If you want to talk about blaming Palin for her rhetorical faults, talk about that. But don’t write a post that so deftly blends the two separate issues and then act like no one ever suggested a connection between the two.

  28. “Why bring up Loughner at all?”

    Because that’s how the conversation gets off the ground. Some people are saying that Palin and Beck are responsible for Loughner’s actions, and in doing so they’re confusing causal responsibility with moral responsibility (or what Zac is (accurately) calling moral blameworthiness). They’re obviously wrong about causal responsibility.

  29. So are you definitively stating, then, that when you talk about Palin’s “moral responsibility,” you’re talking only about her responsibility for her own rhetoric in and of itself, and NOT about any “moral responsibility” for Loughner’s actions?

  30. Presumably, and for largely the same reason, viz that one can be ‘targeted in political disourse’ and that this ‘leads’ in some difficult sense, to actual violence, there is a link (loose? Strong?) between messages, motives and actions. Are you thus in favour of media/politics regulation? If so, of which messages precisely? (AGW, violence against women in films etc?)

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