As I am writing this, the Democrats and Republicans are still driving towards the fiscal cliff. Interestingly, the cliff is a death trap of their own creation, forged to spur them into acting because the consequences of not doing so would be so terrible. We are now in the last hours before the country goes off the cliff, so there is still time for a deal. Or a delay-essentially changing roads to the scenic route towards the cliff.
Crudely put, the main sticking point has been the tax cuts for a tiny percentage of rich Americans. The Republicans, it could be said, would rather take us over the cliff than willingly allow the Bush era tax cuts to expire for the exceptionally rich. The Democrats, it could be said, would rather take us over the cliff than willingly extend the Bush tax cuts for the tiny percentage of Americans that are very wealthy. A few folks actually think that going over the cliff would be a good idea-something that is certainly worth considering.
Since politics is often about placing blame, it is worth assessing whether the Democrats or Republicans are worse in regards to this matter. It is, of course, tempting to simply curse them both for being unwilling to drive away from the cliff months ago. However, the Republicans seem somewhat worse in that they are apparently devoted to protecting a tiny percentage of Americans who are already exceptionally well off. After all, even if the wealthy lost those tax cuts, they would still be taking home vastly more money than the vast majority of Americans. That is, they would still be incredibly well off. I must admit, that I am seeing the matter from the perspective of a person whose yearly salary is about equal to what Mitt Romney makes per day from his passive income. I have, as might be imagined, a hard time worrying that folks like Mitt will be hurt if those tax cuts are allowed to expire. However, I can worry about the folks who make a lot less-after all, many folks are literally just getting by with what they have and hence an increase in taxes will hurt them in meaningful ways. I do not, however, regard the Democrats as virtuous in this matter-just less bad.
One of my main complaints about the matter is the fact that they have left things to the last minute. As a professor, I am accustomed to students doing this. In some cases, students do put things off in one class because they are doing work for another class. However, congress lacks this excuse-they only have this country to run (off the cliff). In other cases, students wait to the last minute because the professor sets the deadline rather than the student. However, congress set its own deadline-they know exactly when it is and what will happen if they do not act (or add an extension). In most cases, students put things off because they would rather not do the work. As long as it is not due right away, a person can always say “I’ll do it latter.” However, there comes a time when there is no latter. We are at this point now.
When a student puts off work to the last minute, the results are generally quite predictable: usually such work is of far lower quality than could have been produced if the work had been started at a reasonable time. If congress hacks out a last second deal, I suspect it will have roughly the same quality as a paper typed out in the last minutes. Unless, of course, they already have most of the work done and are just delaying in regards to a small part.
One rather important difference between a student putting things off and congress putting things off is that the student is putting only herself (her grade) at risk. If a student does not meet the deadline, she does not bring the whole class down with her. In contrast, congress putting things off has already had an effect on the economy-primarily by creating intense and unnecessary uncertainty. If a deal cannot be made, the consequences will obviously be far worse than a student not getting her paper done by the deadline. Also, we get to pay the cost for congress’ procrastination and apparent inability to do its job.
It could, of course, be argued that we do get some of the blame. After all, we elected the members of congress and they act in ways they believe will get them re-elected. That is, they act in ways they think will please their constituents (which can be distinct from acting in ways that will benefit their constituents). One of the moral pluses of democracy is that we get the government we deserve. So, if our elected officials are driving us towards a cliff, it is because we handed them the keys.
The extreme partisanship is also something that has been fed and watered by others. The politically leaning news media on the left and right has contributed to this situation. The people have also played along, thus helping to get us on the edge of the cliff.
It is also worth noting that many of the Republicans signed Grover Norquist’s pledge. While it is reasonable to point out that elected officials should not make themselves beholding to one man, a person should honor his commitments. As such, the Republicans who are sticking to the pledge and refusing to compromise could be seen as acting in a moral way-assuming they are doing so on the principle that a person keeps his obligations. Those that are sticking to it from fear would not, of course, be acting in a commendable way.
The idea that morality has its foundations in biology is enjoying considerable current popularity, although the idea is not a new one. However, the current research is certainly something to be welcomed, if only because it might give us a better understanding of our fellow animals.
Being a philosopher and a long-time pet owner, I have sometimes wondered whether my pets (and other animals) have morality. This matter was easily settled in the case of cats: they have a morality, but they are evil. My best cats have been paragons of destruction, gladly throwing the claw into lesser beings and sweeping breakable items to the floor with feline glee. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I really like cats—in part because they are so very evil in their own special ways. The matter of dogs and morality is rather more controversial. Given that all of ethics is controversial; this should hardly be a shock.
Being social animals that have been shaped and trained by humans for thousands of years, it would hardly be surprising that dogs exhibit behaviors that humans would regard as moral in nature. However, it is well known that people anthropomorphize their dogs and attribute to them qualities that they might not, in fact, possess. As such, this matter must be approached with due caution. To be fair, we also anthropomorphize each other and there is the classic philosophical problem of other minds—so it might be the case that neither dogs nor other people have morality because they lack minds. For the sake of the discussion I will set aside the extreme version of the problem of other minds and accept a lesser challenge. To be specific, I will attempt to make a plausible case for the notion that dogs have the faculties to possess morality.
While I will not commit to a specific morality here, I will note that for a creature to have morality it would seem to need certain mental faculties. These would seem to include cognitive abilities adequate for making moral choices and perhaps also emotional capabilities (if morality is more a matter of feeling than thinking).
While dogs are not as intelligent as humans (on average) and they do not use true language, they clearly have a fairly high degree of intelligence. This is perhaps most evident in the fact that they can be trained in very complex tasks and even in professions (such as serving as guide or police dogs). They also exhibit an exceptional understanding of human emotions and while they do not have language, they certainly can learn to understand verbal and gesture commands given by humans. Dogs also have an understanding of tokens and types. To be specific, they are quite good at recognizing individuals and also good at recognizing types of things. For example, a dog can distinguish its owner while also distinguishing humans from cats. As another example, my dogs have always been able to recognize any sort of automobile and seem to understand what they do—they are generally eager to jump aboard whether it is my pickup truck or someone else’s car. On the face of it, dogs seem to have the mental horsepower needed to engage in basic decision making.
When it comes to emotions, we have almost as much reason to believe that dogs feel and understand them as we do for humans having that ability. The main difference is that humans can talk (and lie) about how they feel; dogs can only observe and express emotions. Dogs clearly express anger, joy, fear and other emotions and seem to understand those emotions in other animals. This is shown by how dogs react to expression of emotion. For example, dogs seem to recognize when their owners are sad or angry and react accordingly. Thus, while dogs might lack all the emotional nuances of humans and the capacity to talk about them, they do seem to have the basic emotional capabilities that might be necessary for ethics.
Of course, showing that dogs have intelligence and emotions would not be enough to show that dogs have morality. What is needed is some reason to think that dogs use these capabilities to make moral decisions and engage in moral behavior.
Dogs are famous for possessing traits that are analogous to (or the same as) virtues such as loyalty, compassion and courage. Of course, Kant recognized these traits but still claimed that dogs could not make moral judgments. As he saw it, dogs are not rational beings and do not act in accord with the law. But, roughly put, they seem to have an ersatz sort of ethics in that they can act in ways analogous to human virtue. While Kant does make an interesting case, there do seem to be some reasons to accept that dogs can engage in basic moral judgments. Naturally, since dogs do not write treatises on moral philosophy, I can only speculate on what is occurring in their minds (or brains). As noted above, there is always the risk of projecting human qualities onto dogs and, of course, they make this very easy to do.
One area that seems to have potential for showing that dogs have morality is the matter of property. While some might think that dogs regard whatever they can grab (be it food or toys) as their property, this is not always the case. While it seems true that some dogs are Hobbesian, this is also true of humans. Dogs, based on my decades of experience with them, seem to be capable of clearly grasping property. For example, my husky Isis has a large collection of toys that are her possessions. She reliably distinguishes between her toys and very similar items (such as shoes, clothing, sporting goods and so on) that do not belong to her. While I do not know for sure what happens in her mind, I do know that when I give her a toy and go through the “toy ritual” she gets it and seems to recognize that the toy is her property now. Items that are not given to her are apparently recognized as being someone else’s property and are not chewed upon or dragged outside. In the case of Isis, this extends (amazingly enough) even to food—anything handed to her or in her bowl is her food, anything else is not. Naturally, she will ask for donations, even when she could easily take the food. While other dogs have varying degrees of understanding of property and territory, they certainly seem to grasp this. Since the distinction between mine and not mine seems rather important in ethics, this suggests that dogs have some form of basic morality—at least enough to be capitalists.
Dogs, like many other animals, also have the capacity to express a willingness to trust and will engage in reprisals against other dogs that break trust. I often refer to this as “dog park justice” to other folks who are dog people.
When dogs get together in a dog park (or other setting) they will typically want to play with each other. Being social animals, dogs have various ways of signaling intent. In the case of play, they typically engage in “bows” (slapping their front paws on the ground and lowering their front while making distinctive sounds). Since dogs cannot talk, they have to “negotiate” in this manner, but the result seems similar to how humans make agreements to interact peacefully.
Interestingly, when a dog violates the rules of play (by engaging in actual violence against a playing dog) other dogs recognize this violation of trust—just as humans recognize someone who violates trust. Dogs will typically recognize a “bad dog” when it returns to the park and will avoid it, although dogs seem to be willing to forgive after a period of good behavior. An understanding of agreements and reprisals for violating them seems to show that dogs have at least a basic system of morality.
As a final point, dogs also engage in altruistic behavior—helping out other dogs, humans and even other animals. Stories of dogs risking their lives to save others from danger are common in the media and this suggests that dogs can make decisions that put themselves at risk for the well-being of others. This clearly suggests a basic canine morality and one that makes such dogs better than ethical egoists. This is why when I am asked whether I would chose to save my dog or a stranger, I would chose my dog: I know my dog is good, but statistically speaking a random stranger has probably done some bad things. Fortunately, my dog would save the stranger.
Each time a mass shooting occurs in the United States, there is an effort to determine the causes (or lay the blame). This process generally follows a predictable script. Those who hate guns, blame the guns. Those who love guns say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Those of the cult of pop psychology appear on the news shows to discuss whatever “theory” they are currently selling in their self-help books. Those who study the workings of the mind present their latest theories. And, of course, there is the ritual blaming of violent video games and violent movies. This time around, the National Rifle Association explicitly blamed Hollywood while proposing that the United States should post an armed guard in each school.
While I have written often about video games, movies and violence I clearly have my own small part in the scripted play and here I am writing about them again.
The archetype argument for the claim that the arts (in this case video games and movies) can cause people to behave badly is based on Plato’s argument in the Republic. In that work, Plato contends that the arts can corrupt the soul and cause people to give in to feelings such as lust, anger and humor in ways that they should not. In the case of mass shootings, the basic idea remains the same: exposure to violent content in video games and movies can cause people to engage in real violence, such as engaging in a mass shooting at a movie theater or school.
The idea that violent video games and movies can affect people is not implausible. In fact, I have my two standard arguments in support of the claim that violent media can play a causal role in actual violent behavior.
First, repeated exposure to game or movie violence can condition a person to accept violence as normal. This is because people generally base their conception of normal based partially on what they generally experience. So, if fictional violence becomes a normal part of a person’s life, it makes sense that she might become desensitized to violence (or accustomed to it) and thus less more likely to give in to violent impulses.
Censoring such violence would reduce the exposure of people (or certain people) to virtual violence and thus they would presumably be less likely to be violent.
My second standard argument is based on the idea that the violence of movies and games is a curriculum of virtual violence that often teaches that violence is an effective and acceptable solution to problems. Popular video games such as Halo 4 and World of Warcraft are focused on violence, albeit in the context of science fiction and fantasy. There are also popular first person shooters, such as the Call of Duty series, that involve engaging in violence against other virtual humans. There is also the infamous Grand Theft Auto series of games in which one plays a bad person doing bad things. In the case of movies, even movies such as the Avengers and the Hobbit include considerable violence. Given the lessons taught by these movies and games, it makes some sense to think that people exposed to them might be more inclined to consider violence an option, perhaps in emulation of the games or movies. As such, perhaps some blame can be placed on video games and movies.
While a reasonable case can be made in favor of being suspicious of violent video games and movies, there is the rather important matter of sorting out the extent of the influence. That is, working out the causality of the matter.
Obviously enough, exposure to violent movies or games is not a necessary condition for a person engaging in violent behavior. A necessary causal condition is a condition that is required for the effect to occur. Put another way, without the necessary condition, what it is necessary for cannot be the case. For example, the presence of oxygen is a necessary causal condition for human life.
While humans have been engaging in violence since there have been humans, movies and video games are rather recent inventions. As such, exposure to them cannot be a necessary cause of violence. After all, there would have been no violence until they were invented if this were the case.
Naturally, it could be claimed that any violent art (such as a story about war) or violent games (like chess) can cause people to be violent and these are rather old. However, the obvious counter is that humans were probably killers before they were artists and gamers.
Equally obvious is the fact that exposure to violent movies or video games is not a sufficient cause of violence. A sufficient causal condition is such that it will bring about its effect by itself. For example, decapitating a human is sufficient to cause death.
Millions of people (including me and many of my friends) have played violent video games without ever having engaged in acts of significant violence, such as murder or mass murder. Also, billions of people have probably seen violent movies without engaging in such violence. As such, exposure to violent movies or video games is clearly not a sufficient condition.
As might be imagined, sensible people do not claim that such exposure is a necessary or sufficient cause of violence. However, there are other types of causal connections.
One plausible type of causal connection is that exposure to such video games or movies is a contributory cause. That is, such exposure is one more straw on the camel’s back and the weight of various causes can result in that final break. On this view, merely seeing such virtual violence would not cause someone to engage in violence. However, it does contribute to the person’s tendency towards violence and hence is a causal factor. As might be imagined, determining the contribution of a contributory cause can be challenging—especially if the contribution is fairly weak.
Sorting out such weak casual factors typically requires relatively large causal scale studies (or experiments). In such cases, the goal is to determine the effect of the alleged cause on the population in question. When talking about causation in a population, the bar is set fairly low (but sensibly so). To claim that cause C causes effect E in population P is to say that there would be more cases of effect E in population P if every member of P were exposed to C than if none were so exposed. This does make sense. After all, if C does bring about a difference, even a tiny one, it would be a causal factor.
On the face of it, it is not implausible to claim that exposing everyone on the planet to violent video games or violent movies would result in some (more than zero) increase in violence. However, this is no doubt true of many other things—even seemingly innocuous things like refined sugar or Justin Bieber’s music.
Even if it is assumed that such exposure can have a causal role in actual violence, there is the rather obvious concern about the extent of the casual role and to what extent (if any) this warrants controlling people’s exposure to these violent movies and video games.
As noted above, people who were never exposed to violent video games or movies have engaged in violence over the centuries. Also, the overwhelming majority of people who have been exposed to violent video games or movies have not engaged in unusual acts of violence. As such, the causal connection (if there is one) seems to be extremely weak.
Given such exposure could play a causal role it might be tempting to support the censorship of such violent works. After all, reducing the chance of violence might be regarded as worth the infringement of the freedom of expression. As might be imagined, when people are still emotionally reeling from a terrible event there is often a desire to do anything that might lower the chances of such a thing happening again. Of course, making a rational decision requires considering the matter properly and this involves considering the potential harms and costs of such an approach, however well intentioned.
Obviously enough, human societies typically operate in a way that involves tolerating things that cause harms based on the perceived benefits of those things. For example, although tens of thousands of people die each year in events involving automobiles, we tolerate automobiles because of their benefits. As another example, we allow drugs with awful side effects to be legally sold presumably because of their benefits. We also tolerate war because of the alleged benefits. We do, of course, ban some things because of the harms they do (or could do). For example, people cannot legally sell contaminated food. As another example, I cannot legally own biochemical weapons.
Sorting through the various things that are banned or illegal, it would seem that we are generally willing to tolerate a considerable amount of harm provided that there are some benefits (typically profits). Consistency would, of course, require us to apply the same principle to violent movies and violent video games.
As such, one way to look at the matter is to imagine that violent movies and video games were pharmaceuticals, foods or automobiles and apply the same basic standards used to assess whether such things should be banned.
As noted above, millions of people are exposed to violent video games or movies. These people typically enjoy them and most of them certainly seem to be unharmed. In fact, people seem to be in far more danger from the junk food they typically eat and drink at the movies or while playing video games. They are, obviously, vastly less dangerous than automobiles in terms of the body count generated—even if we assume that such exposure does cause people to behave violently. Video games and movies are also big money makers.
Violent video games and movies also seem to have far fewer negative side effects than many legal medications—even those sold without prescriptions. Also, there are reasonable grounds to believe that people can, as Aristotle argued, experience an emotional catharsis by being exposed to the arts. As such, while some people might experience negative side effects from such exposure, other people might be “medicating” themselves by exhausting their violent impulses in art rather than reality.
As such, if censoring video games and movies would be warranted because of the alleged harms, then consistency would require that we also ban many other things that are clearly far more dangerous. After all, if the goal is to prevent harm and death, it hardly matters whether those who die do so because of a bullet, a car, a pill, or a Big Gulp.
While we consider ourselves to be the dominant species on the planet, we do face dangers from other species. While some of these species are large animals such as lions, tigers and bears our greatest foes tend to be tiny. These include insects, bacteria and viruses.
While we have struggled, with some success, to eliminate various tiny threats advances in technology and science have given us some new options. One of these is genetically modifying species so they cannot reproduce, thus resulting in their extermination. As might be suspected, insects such as disease carrying mosquitoes are a prime target. One approach to wiping out mosquitoes is to genetically modify mosquito eggs so that the adults carry “extermination” genes. The adult males are released into the wild and reproduce with native females in the target area. The offspring then bear the modified gene which causes the female mosquitos to be unable to fly (they lack flight muscles). The males can operate normally and they continue to “infect” the local population until (in theory) it is exterminated. As might be imagined, this approach raises various ethical concerns.
One obvious point of concern is the matter of intentionally exterminating a species. On the face of it, such an action seems to be morally dubious. However, it does seem easy enough to counter this on utilitarian grounds. After all, if an organism (such as a mosquito) is harmful to humans and does not have an important role to play in the ecosystem, then its extermination would seem to be morally justified on the grounds that doing so would create more good than harm. Naturally, if a harmful species were also beneficial in other ways, then the matter would be rather more complicated and such extermination could be wrong on the grounds that it would do more harm than good.
The utilitarian approach can be countered by appealing to an alternative approach to ethics. For example, it could be argued that such extermination is simply wrong regardless of the beneficial consequences to humans. It can, however, be pointed out that species go extinct naturally and, as such, perhaps a case could be made that such exterminations are not inherently wrong. The obvious counter would be to point out that there is a significant moral difference between a species dying of natural causes and being destroyed. The distinction between killing and letting die comes to mind here.
I am inclined to accept that the extermination of a harmful species can be acceptable, provided that the benefits do, in fact, outweigh the damage done by exterminating the species. Getting rid of, for example, the HIV virus would seem to be morally acceptable. In the case of mosquitoes, the main concern would be the role of the mosquito in the ecosystem and the impact that its extermination would have. If, for example, the disease carrying mosquito was an invasive species and its elimination would not impact the ecosystem in a negative way, then it would seem to be acceptable to exterminate it. Naturally, if the extermination is local and the species remains elsewhere, then the ethics of the situation become far less problematic. After all, I have no moral objection to the extermination of the roaches, termites, fleas and other bugs that attempt to reside in my house—there are plenty that remain in the wild and they would pose a threat to the well-being of myself and my husky. Naturally, I would only accept the extermination of a species on very serious grounds, such as a clear danger presented to my species. Even then, it would be preferable to see if the extermination could be avoided.
A second point of concern involves the methodology. While humans have attempted to wipe out species by killing them the old fashioned ways (like poisons), the use of genetic modification could be morally significant.
There is, of course, the usual concern with “playing God” or tampering with nature. However, as is always pointed out, we routinely accept such tampering as morally acceptable in other areas. For example, by using artificial light, vaccines, surgery and such we are “playing God” and tampering with nature. As such, the idea that “playing God” is inherently wrong seems rather dubious. Rather, what is needed is to show that specific acts of “playing God” or tampering are wrong.
There is also the reasonable concern about unintended consequences, something that is not unknown in the attempts to exterminate species. For example, DDT had a host of undesirable effects. I do not, of course, think that modifying mosquitoes will create some sort of 1950s style mega-mosquitoes that will rampage across the land. However, there are reasonable grounds to be concerned that genetic modification might have unexpected and unpleasant results and this possibility should be seriously considered.
A final point I will address is a practical one, namely that even if a species is exterminated by genetic modification another species might simply take its place. In the case of mosquitoes it seems likely that if one type of mosquito is wiped out, then another one will simply move into the niche vacated and the problem, such as a mosquito transmitted illness will return. The concern is, of course, that resources would have been expended and a species exterminated for nothing. Naturally, if there are good grounds to believe that the extermination would be effective and ethically acceptable, then this would be another matter.
When a person does terrible things that seem utterly senseless, like murder children, there is sometimes a division in the assessment of the person. Some people will take the view that the person is mentally ill on the grounds that a normal, sane person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Others take the view that the person is evil on the grounds that a normal, non-evil person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Both of these views express an attempt to explain and understand what occurred. As might be imagined, the distinction between being evil and being mentally ill is a matter of significant concern.
One key point of concern is the matter of responsibility and the correct way to respond to a person who has done something terrible. If a person acts from mental illness rather than evil, then it seems somewhat reasonable to regard them as not being accountable for the action (at least to the degree the person is ill). After all, if something terrible occurs because a person suffers from a physical illness, the person is generally not held accountable (there are, obviously, exceptions). For example, my running friend Jay told me about a situation in which a person driving on his street had an unexpected seizure. Oddly, the person’s foot stomped down on the gas pedal and the car rocketed down the street, smashing into another car and coming to a stop in someone’s back yard. The car could have easily plowed over my friend, injuring or killing him. However, since the person was not physically in control of his actions (and he had no reason to think he would have a seizure) he was not held morally accountable. That is, he did nothing wrong. If a person had intentionally tried to murder my friend with his car, then that would be seen as an evil action. Unless, perhaps, the driver was mentally ill in a way that disabled him in a way comparable to a stroke. In that case, the driver might be as “innocent” as the stroke victim.
There seem to be at least two ways that a mentally ill person might be absolved of moral responsibility (at least to the degree she is mentally ill).
First, the person might be suffering from what could be classified as perceptual and interpretative disorders. That is, they have mental defects that cause them to perceive and interpret reality incorrectly. For example, a person suffering from extreme paranoia might think that my friend Jay intends to steal his brain, even Jay has no such intention. In such a case, it seems reasonable to not regard the person as evil if he tries to harm Jay—after all, he is acting in what he thinks is legitimate self-defense rather than from a wicked motivation. In contrast, someone who wanted to kill Jay to rob his house or just for fun would be acting in an evil way. Put in general terms, mental conditions that distort a person’s perception and interpretation of reality might lead him to engage in acts of wrongful violence even though his moral reasoning might remain normal. Following Thomas Aquinas, it seems sensible to consider that such people might be following their conscience as best they can, only they have distorted information to work with in their decision making process and this distortion results from mental illness.
Second, the person might be suffering from what could be regarded as a disorder of judgment. That is, the person’s ability to engage in reasoning is damaged or defective due to a mental illness. The person might (or might not) have correct information to work with, but the processing is defective in a way that causes a person to make judgments that would be regarded as evil if made by a “normal” person. For example, a person might infer from the fact that someone is wearing a blue hat that the person should be killed.
One obvious point of concern is that “normal” people are generally bad at reasoning and commit fallacies with alarming regularity. As such, there would be a need to sort out the sort of reasoning that is merely bad reasoning from reasoning that would count as being mentally ill. One point worth considering is that bad reasoning could be fixed by education whereas a mental illness would not be fixed by learning, for example, logic.
A second obvious point of concern is discerning between mental illness as a cause of such judgments and evil as a cause of such judgments. After all, evil people can be seen as having a distorted sense of judgment in regards to value. In fact, some philosophers (such as Kant and Socrates) regard evil as a mental defect or a form of irrationality. This has some intuitive appeal—after all, people who do terrible and senseless things would certainly seem to have something wrong with them. Whether this is a moral wrongness or health wrongness is, of course, the big question here.
One of the main reasons to try to sort out the difference is figuring out whether a person should be treated (cured) or punished (which might also cure the person). As noted above, a person who did something terrible because of mental illness would (to a degree) not be accountable for the act and hence should not be punished (or the punishment should be duly tempered). For some it is tempting to claim that the choice of evil is an illusion because there is no actual free choice (that is, we do what we do because of the biochemical and electrical workings of the bodies that are us). As such, people should not be punished, rather they should be repaired. Of course, there is a certain irony in such advice: if we do not have choice, then advising us to not punish makes no sense since we will just do what we do. Of course, the person advising against punishment would presumably have no choice but to give such advice.
The mass murder that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school has created significant interest in both gun control and mental health. In this essay I will focus on the matter of mental health.
When watching the coverage on CNN, I saw a segment in which Dr. Gupta noted that currently people can only be involuntarily detained for mental health issues when they present an imminent danger. He expressed concern about this high threshold, noting that this has the practical impact that authorities generally cannot act until someone has done something harmful and then it can be rather too late. One rather important matter is sorting out what the threshold for official intervention.
On the one hand, it can be argued that the relevant authorities need to be proactive. They should not wait until they learn that someone with a mental issue is plotting to shoot children before acting. They certainly should not wait until after someone with a mental issue has murdered dozens of people. They have to determine whether or not a person with a mental issue (or issues) is likely to engage in such behavior and deal with the person well before people are hurt. That is, the authorities need to catch and deal with the person while he is still a pre-criminal rather than an actual criminal.
In terms of arguing in favor of this, a plausible line of approach would be a utilitarian argument: dealing with people with mental issues before they commit acts of violence will prevent the harmful consequences that otherwise would have occurred.
On the other hand, there is the obvious moral concern with allowing authorities to detain and deal with people not for something they have done or have even plotted to do but merely might do. Obviously, there is rather serious practical challenge of sorting out what a person might do when they are not actually conspiring or planning a misdeed. There is also the moral concern of justifying coercing or detaining a person for what they might do. Intuitively, the mere fact that a person could or might do something wrong does not warrant acting against the person. The obvious exception is when there is adequate evidence to establish that a person is plotting or conspiring to commit a crime. However, these sorts of things are already covered by the law, so what would seem to be under consideration would be coercing people without adequate evidence that they are plotting or conspiring to commit crimes. On the face of it, this would seem unacceptable.
One obvious way to justify using the coercive power of the state against those with mental issues before they commit or even plan a crime is to argue that certain mental issues are themselves adequate evidence that a person is reasonably likely to engage in a crime, even though nothing she has done meets the imminent danger threshold.
On an abstract level, this does have a certain appeal. To use an analogy to physical health, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a condition occurring, then it make sense to treat for that condition before it manifests. Likewise, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a person with mental issues engaging in violence against others, then it makes sense to treat for that condition before it manifests.
It might be objected that people can refuse medical treatment for physical conditions and hence they should be able to do the same for dangerous mental issues. The obvious reply is that if a person refuses treatment for a physical ailment, he is only endangering himself. But if someone refuses treatment for a condition that can result in her engaging in violence against others, then she is putting others in danger without their consent and she does not have the liberty or right to do this.
Moving into the realm of the concrete, the matter becomes rather problematic. One rather obvious point of concern is that mental health science is lagging far behind the physical health sciences (I am using the popular rather than philosophical distinction between mental and physical here) and the physical health sciences are still rather limited. As such, using the best mental health science of the day to predict how likely a person is likely to engage in violence (in the absence of evidence of planning and actual past crimes) will typically result in a prediction of dubious accuracy. To use the coercive power of the state against an individual on the basis of such dubious evidence would not be morally acceptable. After all, a person can only be justly denied liberty on adequate grounds and such a prediction does not seem strong enough to warrant such action.
It might be countered that in the light of such events as the shootings at Sandy Hook and Colorado, there are legitimate grounds to use the coercive power of the state against people who might engage in such actions on the grounds that preventing another mass murder is worth the price of denying people their freedom on mere suspicion.
As might be imagined, without very clear guidelines and limitations, this sort of principle could easily be extended to anyone who might commit a crime—thus justifying locking up people for being potential criminals. This would certainly be wrong.
It might be countered that there is no danger of the principle being extended and that such worries are worries based on a slippery slope. After all, one might say, the principle only applies to those deemed to have the right (or rather wrong) sort of mental issues. Normal people, one might say in a calm voice, have nothing to worry about.
However, it seems that normal people might. After all, it is normal for people to have the occasional mental issue (such as depression) and there is the concern that the application of the fuzzy science of mental health might result in incorrect determinations of mental issues.
To close, I am not saying that we should not reconsider the threshold for applying the coercive power of the state to people with mental issues. Rather, my point is that this should be done with due care to avoid creating more harm than it would prevent.