Tag Archives: Activism

Responsibility for Shootings


In December 2014 two NYC police officers, Rafeal Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were shot to death by Ismaaiyl Brinsley. Brinsley had earlier shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend. Brinsley claimed to have been acting in response to the police killings of Brown and Garner.  There have been some claims of a connection between Brinsley’s actions and the protests against those two killings. This situation does raise an issue of moral responsibility in regards to such acts of violence.

Not surprisingly, this is not the first time I have written about gun violence and responsibility. After Jared Lee Lougher shot congresswoman Giffords and others in 2011, there was some blame placed on Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Palin, it might be recalled, made use of cross hairs and violent metaphors when discussing matters of politics. The Tea Party was also accused of creating a context of violence.

Back in 2011 I argued that Palin and the Tea Party were not morally responsible for Lougher. I still agree with my position of that time. First, while Palin used violent metaphors, she clearly was not calling on people to engage in actual violence. Such metaphors are used regularly in sports and politics with the understanding that they are just that, metaphors.

Second, while there are people in the Tea Party who are very much committed to gun rights, the vast majority of them do not support the shooting of their fellow Americans—even if they disagree with their politics. While there are some notable exceptions, those who advocate and use violence are rare. Most Tea Partiers, like most other Americans, prefer their politics without bloodshed. Naturally, specific individuals who called for violence and encouraged others can be held accountable to the degree that they influence others—but these folks are not common.

Third, while Lougher was apparently interested in politics, he seemed to have a drug problem and serious psychological issues.  His motivation to go after Giffords seems to be an incident from when he was a student. He went to one of Giffords’ meetings and submitted a rather unusual question about what government would be if words had no meaning. Giffords apparently did not answer the question in a way that satisfied him. This, it is alleged, is the main cause of his dislike of Gifford

As such, the most likely factors seem to be a combination of drug use and psychological problems that were focused onto Giffords by that incident. Because of these reasons, I concluded that Sarah Palin and the Tea Party had no connection the incident and should not have been held morally accountable. This is because neither Palin nor the Tea Party encouraged Lougher and because he seemed to act primarily from his own mental illness.

As far as who is to blame, the obvious answer is this: the person who shot those people. Of course, as the media psychologists point out, it can be claimed that others are to blame as well. The parents. The community college. Society.

On the one hand, this blame sharing seems to miss the point that people are responsible for their actions. The person who pulled that trigger is the one that is responsible. He did not have to go there that day. Going there, he did not have to pull the trigger.

On the other hand, no one grows up and acts in a perfect vacuum. Each of us is shaped by factors around us and, of course, we have responsibilities to each other. There was considerable evidence that Lougher was unstable and likely to engage in violence. As such, it could be argued that those who were aware of these facts and failed to respond bear some of the blame for allowing him to be free to kill and wound.

Back in 2011 I did state that there were some legitimate concerns about Palin’s use of violent rhetoric and the infamous cross-hair map. I ended by saying that Palin should step up to address this matter. Not because she was responsible, but because these were matters worth considering on their own. I now return to the 2014 shooting by Brinsley.

Since consistency is rather important, I will apply the same basic principles of responsibility to the Brinsley case. First, as far as I am aware, no major figure involved in the protests has called upon people to kill police officers. No one with a status comparable with Palin’s (in 2011) has presented violent metaphors aimed at the police—as far as I know.  Naturally, if there are major figures who engaged in such behavior, then this would be relevant in assigning blame. So, as with Sarah Palin in 2011, the major figures of the protest movement seem to be morally blameless for Brinsley. They did not call on anyone to kill, even metaphorically.

Second, the protest movements seem to be concerned with keeping people from being killed rather than advocating violence. Protesters say “hands up, don’t shoot!” rather than “shoot the police!” People involved in the protests seem to have, in general, condemned the shooting of the officers and have certainly not advocated or engaged in such attacks. So, as with the Tea Party in 2011, the protest movement (which is not actually a political party or well-defined movement) is not accountable for Brinsley’s actions. While he seems to have been motivated by the deaths of Brown and Garner, the general protest movement did not call on him to kill.

Third, Brinsley seems to be another terrible case of a mentally ill person engaging in senseless violence against innocent people. Brinsley seems to have had a history of serious problems (he shot and wounded his girlfriend before travelling to NYC). Like Lougher, Brinsley is the person who pulled the trigger. He is responsible. Not the protestors, not the police, and not the slogans.

As with Lougher, there is also the question of our general responsibility as a society for those who are mentally troubled enough to commit murder. I have written many essays on gun violence in the United States and one recurring theme is that of a mentally troubled person with a gun. This is a different matter than the protests and also different from the matter of police use of force. As such, it is important to distinguish these different issues. While Brinsley claims to have been motivated by the deaths of Brown and Garner, the protesters are not accountable for his actions, no more than the NYC officers were accountable for the deaths of Brown and Garner.

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Collective Responsibility

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 26:  A man kneels during...

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Protestors, or at least people characterized as protestors, engaged in acts of vandalism and violence in Oakland. These incidents took place after a peaceful protest in the same city. Not surprisingly, the non-violent protestors disavowed these destructive actions.

Not surprisingly, people who are critical of the occupier movement might be inclined to point to the incidents in Oakland and take them as evidence that the movement itself is radical and violent. This sort of “reasoning” is, obviously enough, the same sort used when certain critics of the Tea Party drew the conclusion that the movement was racist because some individuals in the Tea Party engaged in racist behavior. It is also the same “reasoning” used to condemn all Christians or Muslims based on the actions of a very few.

To infer that an entire movement or group has a certain characteristic (such as being violent or prone to terrorism) based on the actions of a few would generally involve committing the fallacy of hasty generalization. It can also be seen as the fallacy of suppressed evidence in that evidence contrary to the claim is simply ignored. For example, to condemn the occupier movement as violent based on the actions of those few in Oakland would be to ignore the fact that the vast majority of protestors and protests have been peaceful (at least on the part of the protestors).

It might be objected that a group can be held accountable for the misdeeds of its members even when those misdeeds are committed by a few and even when these misdeeds go against the general views of the group. For example, if an employee engages in sexual harassment while on the job, the company can be held accountable for these actions. Likewise if an  official engages in misdeeds while acting in her official capacity, the organization can be held accountable. Thus, it could be argued, the occupier movement is accountable for the violent actions taken in Oakland and these actions can be held against them and perhaps taken as defining the movement as violent and destructive.

In reply, the occupier movement is not, as of yet, a unified movement  with an official leadership and official set of positions and goals. As such, treating it as an organization with a chain of command and a chain of responsibility that extends throughout the movement would be rather problematic. To use an analogy, sports fans sometimes go on violent rampages after events. While the actions of the violent fans should be condemned, the peaceful fans are not accountable for those actions. After all, while the fans are connected by their being fans of a specific team this is not enough to form a basis for accountability. So, if some fans of a team set fire to cars, this does not make all the fans of that team responsible. Also, if people unassociated with the fans decide to jump into action and destroy things, it would be even more absurd to claim that the peaceful fans are accountable for their actions. As such, to condemn the rather vague occupation movement as a whole based on what happened in Oakland would be both unfair and unreasonable.

If the movement becomes organized and develops a clear leadership, identity and so on, then it would be reasonable to start considering the movement to be an organization that could be held accountable for the actions of its legitimate members. However, until that happens the responsibility must remain on an individual level. As such, the people who did the damage in Oakland are accountable but the general occupier movement cannot have these incidents laid at its collective doorstep.

Also, even if the movement does become organized to the point that it makes sense to speak of group accountability, this still does not entail that the movement would be accountable for the actions of every person who claims to be a member of the movement or who claims to be acting on behalf of the group.  This, of course, raises the question of the extent to which even an organized group is accountable for its members. One intuitive guide is that the accountability of the group is relative to the authority the group has over the individuals. For example, my track club has no meaningful authority over me and hence the other members have no accountability in regards to my actions. In contrast, my university has considerable authority over my work life and hence can be held accountable should I, for example, sexually harass a student or co-worker. In the case of a political and social movement like the occupiers, it seems unlikely that the movement would ever have a great deal of authority over its members and this would serve to limit the collective responsibility of the movement. Naturally, the same would apply to other political movements with a similar lack of authority (such as some of the Tea Party groups). This lack of substantial collective responsibility does not entail that individuals are not accountable for their actions-far from it.

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Climate Change & Skepticism

Al Gore

Cover of Al Gore

While I am not a philosophical skeptic (I do believe that knowledge is possible), I am a practical skeptic (I require proof before I believe). While some folks are skeptical of climate change, the evidence seems adequate to support the claim that humans have had a measurable impact on the climate. Given the scale of human activity, this seems inherently plausible. The climate data and causal explanations also seem fairly compelling.

Naturally, there are skeptics regarding climate change. Some of these folks are rational skeptics. That is, their doubts are founded on legitimate concerns about the methodologies used in climate science as well as the data in question. This sort of doubt and skepticism is actually a rather important part of the scientific approach: just as Socrates argued for the importance of the gadfly in the context of society, there should also be gadflies in science. Scientists are, after all, only human and are subject to all the same cognitive biases and frailties as everyone else (plus are especially vulnerable to certain biases).

Some folks are, however, irrational skeptics. They base their doubt not on legitimate critiques of the methodology or the data. Some of these folks base their doubt not on logic, but on their emotions. They feel hostility towards the idea of climate change and the people who claim it is real. They feel positive towards the folks who deny it. However, feeling is not a good guide to the truth. John Locke argued quite effectively for this in his essay regarding enthusiasm. However, you can test this yourself: try taking a chemistry test or solving a complex engineering problem solely by how you feel about the matter. Let me know how well that works out. To be fair, there are folks who believe in climate change based on how they feel. While I am inclined to say that their belief is correct, I am even more inclined to say that they are not warranted to hold said belief since it is based on feeling rather than on actual reasons (that is, the belief might be true, but is not justified).

Some of the skeptics base their doubt on the fact that the truth of climate change would be contrary to their interests. In some cases, they are not consciously aware that they are rejecting a claim based on this factor and they might very well be sincere in their skepticism. However, this is merely a form of wishful thinking. Other folks are well aware of what they are doing when they express their “skepticism.” Their goal is not to engage in a scientific debate over the matter-that is, engage in argumentation to achieve the truth. Rather, their objective is to persuade others to doubt climate change and thus protect their perceived interests. To be fair, there are folks who push climate change because doing so is in their own interest. As Al Gore will attest, there is considerable money to be made in this area. This, of course, does not show that Al Gore is wrong-“reasoning” this way would be to fall victim to a circumstantial ad homimem fallacy. Saying that the climate change deniers are wrong because they have an interest in denying it would also commit this fallacy (the sword of logic cuts both ways).

Interesting, while whether climate change is occurring or not (and whether or not it is our doing) is a scientific matter, much of the fighting is done in the realm of politics and rhetoric. However, factual claims about climate are not settled by who has the best rhetoric or who can get the most votes. They must be settled by scientific means. As such, it is important to cut through the rhetoric (and fallacies) and get to the heart of the matter.

While the consensus of the experts is that climate change is real and is caused, at least in part, by humans, I am not an expert on climate change. But, I am rational and, as such, I will accept their view unless adequate contrary evidence is provided from unbiased sources.

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