Become a Fan

« Very Big Crime in Canada | Main | On homeless philosophical notions... »

23 December 2012


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Post Newtown thoughts:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Jeff Bell

Think Kateshon think
Many of us have read our Camus and know precisely what that means
Quit posing

Jeff Bell

Oh really. Explain. And remember you are a guest to this blog

Roberta L. Millstein

"A gun can make a 95lb woman the equal of a 250lb man who desires to rape her. It can help an 87 year old wheelchair-ridden widow stop two meth-addicted hiphop-listening thugs from 'hood who break into her home with bloody felony on their twisted mind. And a gun makes an elementary school teacher, principal, or janitor able to stop a rampaging young man on psychotropic medication."

Possession of a gun can get a 95lb woman shot. It can get an 87 year old woman in a wheelchair shot. And it can get a teacher, principle, or janitor shot. It can also result in the death of bystanders. Those results are far more likely than those people actually being able to defend themselves with a gun in a crisis.

"Do you know why he shot himself? Seriously, do you?"

No, and neither do you.


Hi Roberta: I've been thinking about the disturbing practice of replacing the folk and theological notion of evil by "mentally ill". I think that's a very bad idea. Dubbing those people mentally ill not only may turn out like an attempt to strip them of culpability, but it also stigmatizes people who have an atypical mental life. I would strongly object to calling people with Asperger's mentally ill. According to some recent theories (e.g., by Penny Spikins) humans evolved a variety of cognitive profiles, including Asperger's, which is often accompanied by a high ability to systemize, and which would have conferred an adaptive advantage. I know several people with Asperger's who function perfectly well in society, who have interesting well-paid jobs, and innocuous hobbies (like solving programming puzzles for fun). It would be very unfortunate if the recent and other incidents would make people conceptualize them as ticking time bombs. This is also the reason I am deeply disturbed by the post "I am Adam Lanza's mother". How many people with atypical cognitive profiles will not be stigmatized in this way?
In many cases like this, the diagnose of mental illness is also (attempted) to be made after the person has committed the crime - often to see how/whether he should be punished.
So perhaps it is not a bad idea to go back to theological notions like evil and sinfulness. In what follows, I will be using some concepts from Christian theology, which means that they will not be widely shared, but since so many gun supporters are Christians, it might be useful for them to reflect on it.
I think I prefer the term "sinfulness" to the culpability and "evil" for what is being done - it is unhelpful to call people "evil", rather they are "sinful" (of moral agents, only demons are presumed to be evil). There is another reason not to use the term evil. Using a term like evil essentializes people into good and evil. And that can lead to assertions that strike me as obviously naive, such as that a bad guy with a gun can only be stopped by a good guy with a gun. What exactly is the difference between a good guy and a bad guy? Was the mother of the killer not a good guy with a gun?
A Christian perspective would say that we are *all* in a state of sinfulness. Which means that there are no good guys with guns. There are only bad guys with guns, except that some have more bad intentions than others. Of course, not everyone turns to mass killing, but there are many cases where so-called good guys caused harm with their legally bought firearm, for instance, accidentally, or in a domestic argument that got out of hand. Such incidents statistically outstrip cherry-picked examples of good guys saving the day with their concealed weapon.
According to Schleiermacher, original sin is a social fact. Schleiermacher was a theologian who tried to make sense of the concept of original sin. This was traditionally regarded (e.g., by Augustine) as a biological form of transmission. In the traditional theological picture, Adam ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and the state of sin he fell in was transmitted biologically to all his progeny. Schleiermacher wanted to fill in the concept of original sin more socially. We are born in a world that affords a context, social and physical, that encourages us to do evil acts, such as mass shooting. So a "good guy" born in America today is not born as a tabula rasa, but born in a society where guns are regarded as efficient killing machines (to kill "bad guys", to defend yourself lawfully, etc etc but still *to kill*). And where these guns are also widely available. In the Schleiermacherian picture of original sin, this creates a social environment where guns come to be regarded as things that you can kill others with, the bad guys of course. Because, let's not forget, most people think of themselves as good guys. The social fabric of easy gun access, idealizing and idolizing violence, etc provides a fertile social background for evil acts to be committed.
BTW: I have lived in Belgium most of my life, where, as the NRA etc would have it, only the "bad guys" and the police have guns. Recently, a friend of mine was threatened with a knife, and hit over the head when he refused to give his wallet. He spent a few hours in hospital with a light concussion. If it had been America, he might have been shot dead.


I don't see what good comes from calling people "evil" or "sinful" or other like terms. If we can trace a person's crime to his physiology or environment or whatever, it'd be foolish to ignore all of this just so that we could extract retribution in good conscience. If this shooter did suffer from some mental illness, we could more effectively prevent future shootings by first acknowledging the role this illness played in the shooting. Maybe if this shooter had proper mental health treatment, none of this would have happened. Maybe not, but we lose nothing by looking into it (except the self-satisfaction that comes from calling someone evil and inflicting pain upon them). That a person's physiology or environment played a role does not necessarily mean we lose the "right" to punish that person. Punishment itself is a deterrent and therefore an effective means of preventing future crimes. If the mental illness is especially severe, such that the prospect of punishment would not deter such a person, then punishment loses its utility and devolves into mere cruelty. But not all mental illness is that severe, and the law already acknowledges this. One of the tests some U.S. courts use in ascertaining whether a defendant can claim insanity is whether that defendant understood the nature and quality of his act, or whether that defendant knew that what he was doing was (morally/ethically) wrong. The logic seems to be, if either scenario is the case, then punishment would be useless as it would not deter such a person. In short, the question (in court) isn't whether that person's actions resulted from physiology and/or environment, but whether punishment can serve any legitimate role here.

And yes, if murderous KKK members or Nazis were in fact mentally ill, I still think it would be good to acknowledge this, so that we can more effectively prevent those kinds of actions from occurring again. I don't care that I'll thereby lose the right to call them evil; I'd take no pleasure in doing so anyway, and I feel comfortable endorsing the punishment of such people, evil or not.

I understand that your claim is that it is implausible that such people were mentally ill--but that doesn't mean that we should call such people evil, and thereby shut down any conversation on the role physiology and/or environment played in such murders.

As to the argument that calling such people mentally ill stigmatizes the non-violent people who also suffer from mental illness, I think this argument rests on the premise that it's too difficult for the general public to understand that not all or even most mentally ill people are dangerous. Maybe so, and if you'd like to institute a policy that misleads the general public for the greater good, that's another argument, but I don't think this argument can say anything about whether the shooter was, in fact, mentally ill (it only touches on whether we _should_ say the shooter was mentally ill, regardless of whether in fact he was).


P.S. the fact that we (as a culture) are even considering having armed guards and/or armed teachers in schools (and elementary schools at that) is insane. And if you think stricter gun control laws don't curb mass shootings, look at Australia.

Mark Lance

A couple thoughts:
I personally don't think we - as a whole - have a very good grip on what we mean by "mental illness". We have a few semi-understood conditions, but even there we don't understand a great deal. And the notion in general seems to me to be pretty muddled. So, is it plausible that anyone who would do something like this is mentally ill? Well, fwiw - and I think very very little - it strikes me as eminently plausible. Indeed, my inclination is to say that any notion of illness that doesn't treat this as one is deficient. Note that this is quite different from the KKK or other ideologically driven mass murders. Even there, I'm inclined to say that there should be a good sense of "mental illness" according to which the internalization of vicious racism as a guiding ideology of one's life is a mental illness, but the case seems much easier in instances where there is no stable ideology behind the killing.

On the good vs bad guys with guns: even if we are willing to take on such a general categorization of folks, surely no one thinks that good guys are always good. Generally good guys sometimes get pissed off, or drunk, or stupid, or drunk, pissed off, and stupid. And then things do tend to go better when there aren't firearms lying about.

Well, aside from that, the above discussion informed me about one thing: I had no idea that Ft Hood was a gun-free zone. I guess the army has been listening to Gene Sharp.
And of course said discussion provided yet more evidence in favor of the already well-supported correlation between arrogance and stupidity.

Mark Lance

Following up on what M.N. said, I have been seeing this line that if we attribute mental illness as a cause of violence in some case, we endorse the idea that most mentally ill folks are violent, and it is rather driving me to distraction. This is like complaining that CDC warnings about the transmissability of the flu are a bad thing because they stigmatize all those people with non-communicable diseases. Our role as philosophers should be to educate people about patent fallacies not to throw up our hands and accept that they will be made.


I agree with Mark's points about mental illness. First, the concept is very muddled to begin with (but I'll continue to talk about it anyway). Second, invoking mental illness to explain some of these crimes does not (or should not) implicate all mentally ill people; there are many different kinds of mental illness, and I don't think the suggestion that *some* of them can cause unpredictable bursts of violence will lead anyone to suspect such behavior, from, say, an anorexic teenager.

Roberta L. Millstein

"So? What's your point?

There ARE guns. Are you suggesting that sovereign power could eradicate guns? Oh oh. Even while it's impossible to stop drug from entering prisons? LOL."

You stated that various individuals could protect themselves by having guns. My point was that having them carrying guns would make them *less* safe, not more safe. See, for example, this study:

where it was determined "that people who carried guns were 4.5 times as likely to be shot and 4.2 times as likely to get killed compared with unarmed citizens."

As for banning guns entirely, I suggested no such thing. However, we could follow the example of Australia:

Since implementing their gun control laws, they have not had a mass shooting like the ones we have been having in the U.S. Many rapid-fire guns were taken off the street through a buy-back program.

Again, we need to make decisions based on the available scientific evidence, not grand fantasies of 95lb women acting like Sarah Connor in The Terminator or fantasies that the Newtown shooter would have dropped his gun immediately upon seeing the principal wielding a gun.

Roberta L. Millstein

I share your concern that people with mental illness are being stigmatized. Whether or not we want to count Aspberger's as a mental illness -- and I leave that for others who are more knowledgeable to decide -- the Newtown shooter's Aspberger's keeps being trotted out as part of the explanation for the killing, when the truth is that we don't know why he did what he did, and may never know. I even read one piece last night where his hair stylist reported being disturbed by the shooter because he didn't speak to her while his hair was being cut. Other newspaper pieces trot out the tired old "he was a loner" lines. Even if he was isolated, and even if that isolation played some role in his doing what he did, it cannot be the whole explanation, or even most of the explanation, given that plenty of other people share those same characteristics without becoming mass murderers.

As for "evil" and "sinful," I would prefer less religiously loaded terms, yes, although I have been unable to think of one. Suggestions welcome. I also should have been clearer: I think we need to say that the Newtown shooter performed an evil (or some better adjective) *act*, not that *he* was evil. While I think people can have certain tendencies to act in certain ways (i.e., that they have dispositions), I think all of us can act in bad ways and in good ways, depending on circumstances. And the Newtown shooter acted very, very badly. Whether mental illness was part of the explanation for that action remains to be seen; I would not be surprised, but I don't think it is true by definition that anyone who would do that is mentally ill.

Roberta L. Millstein

"So, is it plausible that anyone who would do something like this is mentally ill? Well, fwiw - and I think very very little - it strikes me as eminently plausible. Indeed, my inclination is to say that any notion of illness that doesn't treat this as one is deficient. Note that this is quite different from the KKK or other ideologically driven mass murders. Even there, I'm inclined to say that there should be a good sense of "mental illness" according to which the internalization of vicious racism as a guiding ideology of one's life is a mental illness, but the case seems much easier in instances where there is no stable ideology behind the killing."

I agree that it's plausible that he was mentally ill. My point is simply that we don't *know* whether he was mentally ill, or if he was mentally ill, how much of a factor that was in the massacre (and we may never know). Perhaps he was driven by ideology like the KKK; I don't share your intuition that internalization of vicious racism might be a form of mental illness (were U.S. slave-owners all mentally ill, too?). Perhaps he was retaliating against his mother, as one news report has suggested. Perhaps he wanted to be famous. I don't mind pursuing the hypothesis that he was mentally ill and that that played a role in the massacre. I do mind the suggestion that *anyone* who would perform mass killings is mentally ill.

Mark Lance

"were U.S. slave-owners all mentally ill, too?"
I think the answer to this depends on whether you are thinking of mental illness as some sort of specifically biological condition, or whether you think that larger scale social structures and the concomitant habits and physical states of individuals can legitimately count as an illness.
As I said, I think the very idea of illness here needs a great deal of careful thought before we are in a position to draw conclusions. For myself, I'd be inclined to pursue lines of thought according to which, indeed, slavery is a sort of social-mental illness.


in the medical realm we need to drop the term "mental" illness and talk about diseases of neuroanatomy.
On the bigger picture of reporting/analyzing this story and the leap to talking about people with psychiatric illnesses it's a real shame that the public only really cares about treatment for such folks when it becomes an issue that might impact their own lives, forget about the fact that thousands of people are suffering and even dying from such lack of care all the time, this is apparently not worthy of public outcry/attention. Reminds me of NO and Katrina, where was the national outcry over the suffering and deaths of poor people in that area before the storm or to this day? Talk about social ills...


"They also seem to imply that members of the KKK, Nazis, gang members, and others who have killed en masse were mentally ill, an implication I find implausible." - Hit the nail on the head, but I disagree with most everything else you said. Everyone's hopping on the Clarence Darrow bandwagon.

Michael Kremer

Especially but not only in reply to troll Kateshon.

I turn from reading this discussion to facebook and immediately am confronted with this story:

Note that "One of the dead firefighters was also a town police lieutenant; it wasn’t clear whether he returned fire. An off-duty police officer who was driving by was injured by shrapnel, Chief Pickering said."

These were presumably good guys with guns. Their presence did not stop 4 firefighters from being killed and two more from being wounded. When the police arrived with more guns, the gunman exchanged fire with the police officer before eventually killing himself.

Michael Kremer

Correction to my post: 4 were shot, 2 were killed. And a note: obviously the eventual arrival of police with guns, prepared for the situation they were called into, may well have saved lives. But the presence on the scene of other men with guns who were ambushed did not save lives. That is a key difference.

On the other hand, if the shooter had not had access to guns, this would not have happened. And it is not impossible to ban virtually all guns (though it won't happen in this country). They have managed to do this in Japan.

Roberta L. Millstein

Ok, yes, I was thinking of mental illness as some sort of biological (mental, neuro-physiological) condition. I am not sure what it would mean to think of it as part of larger scale social structures, but I am interested to hear more -- I am not opposed to the idea.

But to elaborate a bit more on the ethical concepts that I think it is important to preserve: assuming that a person is not completely indifferent to the rights and feelings of all others -- i.e., assuming that there are some people, whether members of the same family or race or nationality or whatever, who the person in question considers to be part of their moral community -- then that person, upon reflection, ought to be able to determine that they have drawn their moral community too small. A failure to make that determination, whether through laziness, stubbornness, etc., is a moral failing, and acting on that misguided notion of one's moral community is likewise a moral failing. I want to preserve the notion that certain actions are wrong, and that a person ought to be able to recognize them as wrong and be held accountable for them, even in an unhealthy social context where slavery is considered to be acceptable (or a similarly toxic social environment).

Roberta L. Millstein

Good point. We really do need to do better at helping people with psychiatric illnesses -- for their sakes. In California (and I assume elsewhere) it is very sad to see that many of the homeless population are desperately in need of such care.

Mark Lance

One of the many things I wish I had time to think more about.

On your second paragraph, depending on the details of "holding accountable" I don't think I disagree with any of this. I don't think that causal explanations of behavior obviate moral criticism of them.

Roberta L. Millstein

One of the many things I wish I had time to think more about.

I know what you mean.

On your second paragraph, depending on the details of "holding accountable" I don't think I disagree with any of this. I don't think that causal explanations of behavior obviate moral criticism of them.

Well, I think in certain cases of mental illness we do think that the person is no longer legally or ethically responsible for their actions -- thus my worry about some of the media coverage. However, I fear we are straying into issues of free will here, so perhaps it's best not to go down that path, at least not today. :-)

Mark Lance

Indeed we are, and probably not.
Suffice to say that I have thought a fair bit about those issues, and that I find the typical view that mental illness and reasonable attribution of moral responsibility are simply incompatible to be wildly oversimplified.

Happy holidays.

Dan Kervick

I assume human actions are part of the natural world, and they they generally have intelligible causes. I think we should all be interested in understanding the causes of homicidal acts, so that we can respond intelligently to the task of preventing similar acts in the future. I don't really see whether it matters much in terms of the rationality of our actual responses if we label the mental causes "mental illness", "evil" or something else. In some cases, the cause of something awful might be some kind of Sartrean spasm of momentary homicidal caprice. But I don't think that kind of cause is likely to apply much to extended murderous rampages. If the point of labeling something "evil" is to mystify an event, and place it beyond the pale of things that we can hope to understand and prevent, then I would resist that kind of move.

It is certainly possible that part of the cause of the act might be something like extremely intense malevolence or hatred, or disgust felt toward living things, or toward innocent things, or toward one's own kindly responses to those things. Is having that level of hatred or disgust an illness, or something we should classify as sane, but evil? Why does it really matter? It is a mental state that we can study, and we can also study how to prevent its occurrence in the human race - or to lessen its frequency of occurrence.

It could also be that part of the cause of some homicides might be a kind of emotional blankness or deadness that allows impulsive or even frivolous conceits or fantasies to become a person's dominant motive, without the kind of affective check that stands between most people and the actualization of their more extreme antisocial whims, or prevents them even from feeling fear responding in the usual way to threats of punishment. Again, however we classify these kinds of states, they are something we should want to try to prevent.

Jeff Bell

Your characterization of Foucault's conception of power is oversimplified. When you say that 'mental illness' is a psychiatric concept used "to take power over an individual" you need to be careful to differentiate on the one hand between the negative conception of power, the power to coerce and impel by force, and ultimately by means of threats of death - this is the traditional conception of power - and on the other hand Foucault's innovation, see especially his "Two Lectures" and "Truth and Power" essays from Power/Knowledge, was to argue that there is a positive, constitutive form of power. This form of power builds on our desire for life, health, safety, etc., and provides justification for the exercises of power that satisfy these desires, desires constituted by this very form of power itself (in a self-organizing feedback loop on my reading). When the "scientific" findings (and here the whole relationship to regimes of truth, discourses, etc., enters the scene) regarding second-hand smoke came to light, it was easy to use people's desire for health and the avoidance of cancer that had now been linked to second-hand smoke in order to push through anti-smoking legislation. Interestingly, and this ties in to John's post, you use the same desire for life to justify carrying weapons everywhere so that no place is a gun free zone. By operating in a realm of fear, power doesn't need to be repressive (traditional form) in order to legitimize the practices that oppress us. Not surprisingly, a new poll out today shows Republicans are much more fearful than democrats -

Eric Winsberg

"It is about recognizing the potential danger of standing armies, about insuring that that every citizen has the right to own and bear the same type of basic arms as a soldier in a modern military."

I basically agree with this. That's what the framers wanted. But it is no longer possible. The modern military has unmanned drones that can fire hellfire missiles with pinpoint satellite accuracy, laser-guided bunker buster bombs, apache helicopters, abarms tanks, infantry in full body armor with night vision capability, and, if push comes to shove, nuclear weapons. No "well regulated militia" made of up ordinary citizens packing even the most powerful weapons we can conceivably imagine them keeping in their homes could stand up to the modern American military in the way the framers had in mind. To think that private ownership of guns provides a check on government power in this day and age is pure fantasy.

John Protevi

Add to the firepower the ability to capture cell-phone and email communications.

Mohan Matthen

Kateshon, Sorry to come into the discussion fairly late. It's possible that in the US, there's a certain amount of cultural inertia that prevents a quick reduction of gun crime reduction in jurisdictions with gun control legislation. But why do you think that Canada and Europe have such low gun crime rates compared to the US?

Roberta L. Millstein

"Suffice to say that I have thought a fair bit about those issues, and that I find the typical view that mental illness and reasonable attribution of moral responsibility are simply incompatible to be wildly oversimplified."

Fair enough. On this, we agree.

Roberta L. Millstein

Here's my point: if you venture into the realm of the political, you need to use concepts, not only functions. And here's one important concept: the CONSTITUTION, namely the Second Amendment.

My post is not about the Second Amendment. It's about whether we should be arming all principals, teachers, and custodians, and about whether we should have armed guards in all of our schools. The Second Amendment does not require that these people be armed and so is irrelevant to these issues. Thus, in deciding whether it is better or worse to have guns in schools, we should look at the best available scientific evidence. The evidence is pretty clear that we would not make things safer.

You'll have to go elsewhere to discuss the Second Amendment, I'm afraid.

Roberta L. Millstein

" If the point of labeling something "evil" is to mystify an event, and place it beyond the pale of things that we can hope to understand and prevent, then I would resist that kind of move."

No, that is exactly the sort of move I want to forestall. I don't want such actions to be seen as mystifying. Rather, I want to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator, except in very rare cases when we might want to say that the killer could not help him/herself or was not acting autonomously. If in addition, we want to seek causes, I have no objection, so long as those causes do not interfere with our judgments concerning the person's actions and their responsibility for them.

It may just be that you and I are focused on different aspects of this situation. You are focused on identifying causes in order to try to prevent future occurrences. I am focused on preserving our ethical concepts and our judgments about people's actions in particular. Presumably, there ought to be a way to do both.


If only Kateshon would titrate his "Ma'am" sexist dismissals with equivalent "Sir" snaps of the finger I might hold him in higher esteem. This libertarian rant on steroids is obviously immune to data, practical reason about the use of firearms in real life (I speak from experience), or the civilized influence of the cool temperance in expression maintained by other commentators. I can't abide it, and just had to say.

Dan Kervick

Rather, I want to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator, except in very rare cases when we might want to say that the killer could not help him/herself or was not acting autonomously.

Rebecca, this seems like a secondary matter to me. Why does it matter where we place the blame? To me it seems neither here nor there whether we blame the perpetrator or adopt some other reactive attitude toward the perpetrator. What seems important is learning what factors caused the perpetrators' actions, and using what we have learned to prevent similar factors from coming together in the minds of future human beings in ways that cause them to do something similar. In this case, the perpetrator is dead. So what category of moral appraisal we attach to him doesn't seem very significant, other than to the extent that attaching that category plays a constructive role in our prevention of future events of a similar kind.

Dan Kervick

You know what's one of the most interesting common characteristics of our illustrious founders? They're dead. All of them. Dead and buried around two centuries ago. That means they don't live here anymore. We do. So I would suggest we do the best we can in making the kind of world we actually want to live in, and stop fawning and groveling around the totems of the ancestor-gods.

Dan Kervick

Hi Roberta. Sorry about the "Rebeccas". Too much holiday cheer I suppose.

Dan Kervick

The actual framework of the Republic comes from the Constitution.

To some degree. It's a mix of constitutional germs and historical accretions. I also carry the genetic information of my great, great grandparents. But they're dead, and I'm here, and I'm not bound to live whatever kind of life they might have conceived for me. Let's move on.

John Protevi

Y'all need to make up your own minds about interacting with Kateshon, but you can take my lack of interaction with him as my judgment as to the worth of his comments and the prospective value of interaction. (Basically, he's exceeded the allowable all-caps ratio.) Or if you want it in blog-speak, DNFTT.

This is not my first rodeo, so I can tell you how it's going to go. He's going to outlast all of us, since this is all so DREADFULLY IMPORTANT. The length of the longest comments will increase until there will be a 5000 word essay with graphs and charts and photo links, showing how it all fits together, can't you see? Then, with a truly irritating faux bonhomie, he'll go "thanks for the conversation." Followed by "this is my last comment." He'll then return within 15 minutes for another two or three comments, then leave with a "I'm truly disappointed no one has a real commitment to argument and rationality here."



Here is Justice Scalia, writing for the majority in the case (DC v. Heller) that interpreted the Constitution (for the first time) as entailing an individual right to carry a firearm:

“Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues. Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

"We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. Miller said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those “in common use at the time.” We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of “dangerous and unusual weapons.” It may be objected that if weapons that are most useful in military service—M-16 rifles and the like—may be banned, then the Second Amendment right is completely detached from the prefatory clause. But as we have said, the conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment’s ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home to militia duty. It may well be true today that a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms that are highly unusual in society at large. Indeed, it may be true that no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks. But the fact that modern developments have limited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right cannot change our interpretation of the right" (slip. op. 54-56, internal citations omitted).

He adds in a foonote: "We identify these presumptively lawful regulatory measures only as examples; our list does not purport to be exhaustive."

This reasoning was affirmed by Justice Alito in the case (Chicago v. McDonald) applying Heller to the states.

Have a nice day.

Roberta L. Millstein

Hi Roberta. Sorry about the "Rebeccas". Too much holiday cheer I suppose.

It's OK. There seems to be a lot of that going around today. :-)

Roberta L. Millstein

You're right that in this case, the perpetrator is dead, so assigning him blame is not important. I was just worried about using our concepts in such a way that in future cases of mass murderer, blame cannot be assigned because we have essentially defined it away. I don't want to let anyone off the hook for their bad actions, whether they be Newtown shooters, Nazis, Klansman, or drug dealers.

Bruce Gabrana

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Roberta. It seems the original discussion point has been largely hijacked! Though now that it has, it's hard not to be sucked in. One thing I have a difficult time understanding is why the Second Amendment is viewed as sacred in such a way that, in discussions of gun control, it is customary to preface that "I of course am not challenging the Second Amendment...". If it turns out that the Second Amendment has as a consequence that assault rifles are readily available, then unless a compelling argument can be made that assault rifles are necessary for a free democracy (an argument that's not going to succeed!), the reasonable thing to do is to challenge the Second Amendment which entails such a consequence. Of course, as Gordon points out, the Heller ruling suggests that the Second Amendment affords no such explicit right and is compatible with gun control legislation. What this suggests then is that supporting gun control legislation that bans assault rifles should *not* be met with the challenge "How dare you challenge the Second Amendment."First, the Second Amendment is compatible with gun control legislation on assault rifles, and secondly, if it turns out that it *isn't* then, since assault rifles aren't necessary for a free democracy, the reasonable thing to do would be to amend any doctrine (including the Second Amendment) that has such a consequence. Unless of course the Second Amendment is not subject to reasonable revision. But if something is not subject to reasonable revision, it should take on the status of a religious doctrine--but then, of course, it should be treated as such.

Bruce Gabrana

Kateshon, the point you quote of mine--and to which you respond with your discussion about genocide--was a point specifically about assault rifles. This is not an argument that has been made a "long, long" time ago because (unlike muskets) assault rifles were not in existence a long, long time ago. This historical point aside: If you think assault rifles specifically are needed for a free democracy, then please present the argument. I want to see the premises and conclusion of the argument. (p.s. Jim Pryor has some useful tips here for presenting arguments in propositionally valid form).

Best wishes!

Bruce Gabrana

Thanks, I accept as a fact that the first semi-automatic shotgun was invented in 1902, quite a bit later than 1791, the date of the Second Amendment. But at any rate, what's at issue is whether these 20th century assault rifles are necessary for a free democracy. I am interested in evaluating a propositionally valid argument to the effect that they are necessary. Something like:

Premise 1...

Premise 2...

Conclusion: Therefore, assault rifles are necessary for a free democracy.

Bruce Gabrana

Objection to Premise 1: Suppose I want to protect my life by setting near-invisible trip wires all along my yard, such that: if one stumbles upon the trip wire, dynamite will explode in that area. Of course, if someone's car breaks down, and that person (quite reasonably) walks up to my yard to ask to use the phone, that person will die. The activity I mention here counts as acting to protect my life, a natural right. Unless you think I have a natural right to set up trip wires such as the one I mention here, then you have to qualify premise 1 to reflect that the natural right to protect one's life must itself be qualified and does not extend indefinitely.

Objection to Premise 2: Other things, besides guns, can stop guns. For instance, suppose X fires a gun G at time T1, wounding some one. One way to prevent this event from happening is to act at T0 in such a way to prevent X from having G at T1. So it's not the case that only guns stop guns. But even if it was, accepting P2 isn't nuanced enough to support the position that it is the citizens themselves that require the guns needed to stop guns (as you put it). Nor is this premise nuanced enough to capture the point about assault rifles specifically. So to refine the challenge: Let's see an argument to the effect that: Assault rifles in the hands of citizens is necessary for a free democracy.

bianca steele

I’m coming to this late and I’m not a philosopher or academic, but I’m unsure what exactly is meant by the idea that attributing mental illness strips a person of the ability to be culpable for their acts, and I’d like to read more about this. Surely there is some middle ground between that and saying even a delusional person who then kills people must be evil.

There was a case in the Gloucester, Mass., area around 1999 or 2000, a workplace shooting, where the culprit seems actually to have believed that he’d gone back in time to kill Hitler and his cronies, and that the police station where he was sitting after he’d been apprehended was in Hell. I’d be unhappy with a refusal to call him mentally ill in order to say he was responsible (in some, possibly extralegal, sense) for his murders, or in order to allow him to retain the dignity due to a person. In the same way, “violence detection training” that was instituted—possibly for entirely separate reasons—at some workplaces in later years—does, on a guess, seem likely to pick up people with Asperger’s, and doesn’t seem obviously the best way to pick up on people with schizophrenia who may stop taking their medications. (As a blogger and a mother, the “I am Adam Lanza’s mother” post raises questions for me: it seems to be a confession of implications the woman can’t shake, but at the same time seems to strengthen false assumptions that I would want to weaken, personally, if I were in her situation.)

Bruce Gabrana

Kateshon, regarding your new argument:

Objection to Premise 1: Consider that nuclear weapons pose a *potential* danger to free democracy (after all, a nuclear weapon *could* blow up the constituency of a free democracy). Now your implicit premise that gets you from (1) to (2) however seems to be: if something X poses a potential danger to free democracy, then free citizens need X to face X. But this reasoning (along with the fact that nuclear weapons pose a potential danger to free democracy) generates the reductio that free citizens need nuclear weapons. But surely we don't individually need nuclear weapons to live in a free democracy.

Roberta L. Millstein

Bianca, thanks for your on-topic question. :-)

I didn't mean to suggest that we should *never* attribute mental illness to a mass murderer. Surely there are cases where a person has a serious mental illness and for that reason cannot be considered to be responsible for their crimes. If, for example, the person is delusional and thinks they are doing one thing when in fact they are doing another, it is hard to hold them responsible. I'm not a lawyer and I am not not well versed in this area of law, but my understanding is that U.S. law currently recognizes the idea that a person with certain types of mental illness cannot be held responsible for their actions. Wikipedia has some information on this topic that it is a useful starting point: . There is also a "middle ground" where a lawyer can argue that the defendant had a "diminished capacity" and should thus receive a lesser sentence:

My concern in the original post is that we ought to preserve just these sorts of distinctions, namely, when someone has committed a mass murder, we then need to determine whether they suffered from some sort of mental illness that would affect our judgment of their responsibility for the crime and act accordingly. But what we should not do, in my opinion, is assume without further evidence that anyone who would do such a crime is mentally ill, because such an assumption may in fact be false and may allow someone who could have chosen not to engage in mass murder to avoid the punishment and blame that their actions deserve.

Does that make sense?

V. Alan White

Just to say a little about the current state of US law and the insanity defense: it's insanely inconsistent. The Federal law maintains the defense but only with respect to substantial capacity to appreciate wrongfulness assessed by clear and convincing evidence (proof burden on defense). Here in Wisconsin state law adds substantial capacity to conform to the law, proof burden on prosecution (I think assessed by preponderance though I might be wrong about that). The Feds used to have the latter (including proof burden on prosecution by PBRD!)but dropped it after Hinckley. Some states still use old-fashioned McNaughten sometimes combined with "irresistible impulse". Some states have "guilty but insane" provisions as well, and four states--UT, MT, ID, and KS--have dropped insanity entirely as a separate defense (and so far held Constitutional). As a country we were moving more toward uniformity until the Hinckley case politically derailed that.

A terrific single resource here is A Case Study in the Insanity Defense: The Trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr. by Jefferies, Low, and Bonnie (3rd edition). The authors keep updating the book in light of recent developments in that case and in the law as well.

Roberta L. Millstein

Thanks, Alan. I had no idea that the legal area here was such a mess, although I guess these are such complicated and controversial issues that it's not surprising. I think the basic idea that someone's mental state is such that they cannot be held responsible for their actions is a sound one, but I can see how making and implementing the relevant laws would be extremely challenging.

bianca steele

Thanks for the response. I’m not a lawyer either but was thinking in part of discussions I heard on the news in, probably, the 1980s, about the insanity defense: the idea that someone’s mental illness could actually consist of the inability to tell right from wrong, and that this could be caused by upbringing, diet, etc., and should result in acquittal (or at least a lighter sentence). The lawyer/pundit was claiming that the original idea—that “by reason of insanity” should mean something like thinking one was taking a baseball bat to a pumpkin, not to a human head—had been lost, and there should instead be something like “guilty by reason of insanity” for people who can’t tell good from evil. Even if my memory is accurate (it sounds a little like what V. Alan White says in his comment), I don’t know whether this is a good description of any current legal question.

I actually thought you were talking more about how we should think of crimes, in a more general sense: should we look for extenuating circumstances, possible causes for a criminal’s not being able to do the right thing, or would that be making excuses for evil? When people put the two questions, of mental illness and evil, together, these days, it usually sounds to me as if they’re implying mental illness doesn’t really exist, or that people who are mentally ill are somehow simply evil. I share Helen’s concern, in her earlier comment, that there seems to be a risk of stigmatizing people whose mental processes are different. And it seems to me there’s a continuum, from hallucination to “mere” delusion to metaphorical thinking to playing with fictions, and not everybody would necessarily agree where the dividing line should be, between what’s stigmatized and what’s not. A passionate atheist might (or might not) put the line between fictions and metaphors. A religious person might say there ought to be something between metaphors and delusions, and put the line between delusions and whatever they called that thing. In the case of Asperger’s (or its popular (mis)understanding) there’s an additional question whether lack of appropriate emotions rises to the level of mental illness.

I agree that we shouldn’t think, “only a crazy person would do that,” and conclude a murderer has to be clinically insane. Or that we should jump from “loner” to “Asperger’s,” or from the fact that someone was known (or suspected) to have a mental illness, to the fact that the mental illness explains all their actions. It seemed, though, that the argument is that inserting “mentally ill” into the explanation is supposed to mean none of the usual explanations about reasons for action, and responsibility, apply. That doesn’t seem plausible for most mental illnesses.

bianca steele

That was meant to be in reply to Roberta. I didn't realize I could click "reply."

John Protevi

Kateshon, you're banned for a week. You apparently don't understand the meaning of "quasi."

John Protevi

Kateshon, if you try any other way of avoiding this ban, I will erase all your comments. One week, or forever, it's up to you.

bianca steele

I had thought refusing to attribute agency meant treating a person as if they were subhuman or animal-like. But here's a letter (regarding a recent murder case) that uses exactly the terms from the OP, arguing in favor of refusing to attribute agency to someone who committed a crime while mentally ill, apparently considering the refusal to attribute agency as an act of kindness (unless I'm missing something here too), and considering the lack of ability to exercise agency as a reason for a lenient sentence, despite signs of premeditation, etc.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.