The United States, like all societies, suffers from a range of ills. This include such things as mental illness, homelessness and drug addiction. There are, of course, many ways that these problems could be addressed. Unfortunately, the dominant approach has been to recast these ills as problems to be solved by law enforcement and criminalization. I will briefly consider the failures of this approach in these cases.
In the 1980s there was a major shift in America’s policy regarding mental illness: in the name of fiscal savings, the mentally ill were released from the hospitals into the community. One major impact of this change was an increase in the number of homeless people. 20-25% of the homeless suffer from severe mental illness, compared to 6% of the entire population. The mentally ill who are homeless, as one might suspect, are generally not treated. People with untreated severe mental illnesses often behave in ways that the public finds problematic, which often leads to their being arrested and imprisoned. Prisons are ill-equipped to deal with the mentally ill and mainly serve to warehouse these people until they serve their sentences. Having a criminal record simply makes matters worse, thus it is likely that they will simply be returned to prison and remain untreated—thus creating a hopeless cycle which offers little chance for escape.
The criminalization of mental illness has not solved the problem, rather it has made it worse. As such, it is a failure from a practical standpoint. It has not helped treat people and the cost of operating mental health institutions has been replaced with the cost of maintaining prisons. Perhaps someone does profit from this system; but it costs society as a whole a great deal.
It is also a moral failure. On utilitarian grounds, it is morally wrong because it has increased rather than decreased unhappiness. Put informally, it has done more harm than good. For moral systems that focus on obligations to the wellbeing of others (such as the version of Christianity that embraces the parable of the good Samaritan), this approach is also a moral failure. As such, criminalizing mental illness has proven a resounding failure.
While mental illness leads many to the streets, America’s economic system also generates a large number of homeless people. Many of the homeless end up that way due to being bankrupted by medical expenses. Since the homeless have no homes, they tend to live and sleep in public areas. As would be expected, the presence of the homeless in such areas is regarded as a problem and some cities try to address the matter by criminalizing such things as lying down or camping in public areas. The ordinances that do this typically impose fines, but since the homeless generally cannot afford to pay fines they usually end up in the criminal justice system—which is often a pathway to prison. A criminal record only makes matters worse for the homeless and increases the chance they will remain homeless. This means that they are likely to be arrested again for breaking the ordinances that target the homeless, thus creating a vicious circle.
As might be suspected, this approach to homelessness comes with a significant monetary cost. For example, Denver spent over $750,000 enforcing its homeless targeting ordinances. Other cities pay comparable costs, making the criminalization of homelessness costly to everyone. There have been some efforts to address homelessness through other means, such as providing affordable housing, but dealing with the underlying causes is certainly challenging given existing values.
Once again, trying to solve a problem through criminalization proves to be a terrible approach. Even on the heartless grounds of saving money, it fails—the cost of policing the homeless would seem to consume whatever savings might be accrued for letting people fall through the social safety net. This, of course, could be countered—one might be able to show that the monetary cost strategies aimed at getting the homeless into homes would exceed the cost of policing the homeless on the streets. After all, the politicians could lower the cost significantly simply by not policing the homelessness who do not commit serious crimes, such as robbery. This, however, does still leave the homeless without homes and this can impose other economic costs—such medical expenses paid for by the public. This could be countered by arguing that the homeless should be completely abandoned—this would certainly yield financial savings.
Such abandonment does, however, run into a moral challenge. The harms suffered by the homeless (and society) would seem to make a compelling utilitarian moral argument in favor of approaches that aim at getting the homeless back into society. Moral views that accept that people should love one another also enjoin us to not abandon our fellows. In any case, criminalizing homelessness is no solution, financial or moral.
Drug addiction is another problem that has largely been addressed by criminalization. About half of the people in federal prisons and 16% of those in state prison are there for drug offenses. This is the result of the war on drugs, which endeavored to solve the drug problem by arresting our way out of it. Since the negative consequences of this approach fell mainly on minorities and the poor, there was little interest among politicians to take a different approach. However, as prison populations swelled and public attitudes towards drug use changed, there was some talk of reconsidering this war. The biggest change in the public discussion arose from the opioid epidemic—a drug epidemic that goes beyond ravaging the poor and minorities to impacting the white middle class. This has resulted in some changes in the approach to the problem, such as the police offering free treatment for drug users rather than arresting them. It does remain to be seen if these changes will be lasting and widespread. However, this is certainly a positive change to a failed approach to the health issue of drugs.
While some for profit prisons have done well for their shareholders in the war on drugs, the financial cost to society as a whole has been substantial. Criminalization of addiction has also failed to reduce addiction. As such, this approach has proven a practical failure.
As above, there are also the moral concerns about this approach in terms of the harms being inflicted on individuals and society as a whole. Fortunately, there is a chance that America will rethink the war on drugs (in which we are the enemy) and recast it as a health issue. This not only has the potential to be far more of a practical success, it also would seem to be the right thing to do morally. Transforming people in need into criminals cannot solve the ills of society; addressing those needs can.
After the terrorist attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, commentators hastened to weave a narrative about the murders. Some, such as folks at Fox News, Lindsay Graham and Rick Santorum, endeavored to present the attack as an assault on religious liberty. This does fit the bizarre narrative that Christians are being persecuted in a country whose population and holders of power are predominantly Christian. While the attack did take place in a church, it was a very specific church with a history connected to the struggle against slavery and racism in America. If the intended target was just a church, presumably any church would have sufficed. Naturally, it could be claimed that it just so happened that this church was selected.
The alleged killer’s own words make his motivation clear. He said that he was killing people because blacks were “raping our women” and “taking over our country.” As far as currently known, he made no remarks about being motivated by hate of religion in general or Christianity in particular. Those investigating his background found considerable evidence of racism and hatred of blacks, but evidence of hatred against Christianity seems to be absent. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to accept that the alleged killer was there to specifically kill black people and not to kill Christians.
Some commentators also put forth the stock narrative that the alleged killer suffered from mental illness, despite there being no actual evidence of this. This, as critics have noted, is the go-to explanation when a white person engages in a mass shooting. This explanation is given some credibility because some shooters have, in fact, suffered from mental illness. However, people with mental illness (which is an incredibly broad and diverse population) are far more often the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.
It is certainly tempting to believe that a person who could murder nine people in a church must be mentally ill. After all, one might argue, no sane person would commit such a heinous deed. An easy and obvious reply is that if mental illness is a necessary condition for committing wicked deeds, then such illness must be very common in the human population. Accepting this explanation would, on the face of it, seem to require accepting that the Nazis were all mentally ill. Moving away from the obligatory reference to Nazis, it would also entail that all violent criminals are mentally ill.
One possible counter is to simply accept that there is no evil, merely mental illness. This is an option that some do accept and some even realize and embrace the implications of this view. Accepting this view does require its consistent application: if a white man who murders nine people must be mentally ill, then an ISIS terrorist who beheads a person must also be mentally ill rather than evil. As might be suspected, the narrative of mental illness is not, in practice, consistently applied.
This view does have some potential problems. Accepting this view would seem to deny the existence of evil (or at least the sort involved with violent acts) in favor of people being mentally defective. This would also be to deny people moral agency, making humans things rather than people. However, the fact that something might appear undesirable does not make it untrue. Perhaps the world is, after all, brutalized by the mad rather than the evil.
An unsurprising narrative, put forth by Charles L. Cotton of the NRA, is that the Reverend Clementa Pickney was to blame for the deaths because he was also a state legislator “And he voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.” While it is true that Rev. Pickney voted against a 2011 bill allowing guns to be brought into churches and day care centers, it is not true that Rev. Pickney is responsible for the deaths. The reasoning in Cotton’s claim is that if Rev. Pickney had not voted against the bill, then an armed “good guy” might have been in the church and might have been able to stop the shooter. From a moral and causal standpoint, this seems to be quite a stretch. When looking at the moral responsibility, it primarily falls on the killer. The blame can be extended beyond the killer, but the moral and causal analysis would certainly place blame on such factors as the influence of racism, the easy availability of weapons, and so on. If Cotton’s approach is accepted and broad counterfactual “what if” scenarios are considered, then the blame would seem to spread far and wide. For example, if he had been called on his racism early on and corrected by his friends or relatives, then those people might still be alive. As another example, if the state had taken a firm stand against racism by removing the Confederate flag and boldly denouncing the evils of slavery while acknowledging its legacy, perhaps those people would still be alive.
It could be countered that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and that it is not possible to address social problems except via the application of firepower. However, this seems to be untrue.
One intriguing narrative, most recently put forth by Jeb Bush, is the idea of an unknown (or even unknowable) motivation. Speaking after the alleged killer’s expressed motivations were known (he has apparently asserted that he wanted to start a race war), Bush claimed that he did not “know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” While philosophers do recognize the problem of other minds in particular and epistemic skepticism in general, it seems unlikely that Bush has embraced philosophical skepticism. While it is true that one can never know the mind or heart of another with certainty, the evidence regarding the alleged shooter’s motivations seems to be clear—racism. To claim that it is unknown, one might think, is to deny what is obvious in the hopes of denying the broader reality of racism in America. It can be replied that there is no such broader reality of racism in America, which leads to the last narrative I will consider.
The final narrative under consideration is that such an attack is an “isolated incident” conducted by a “lone wolf.” This narrative does allow that the “lone wolf” be motivated by racism (though, of course, one need not accept that motivation). However, it denies the existence of a broader context of racism in America—such as the Confederate flag flying proudly on public land near the capital of South Carolina. Instead, the shooter is cast as an isolated hater, acting solely from his own motives and ideology. This approach allows one to avoid the absurdity of denying that the alleged shooter was motivated by racism while denying that racism is a broader problem. One obvious problem with the “isolated incident” explanation is that incidents of violence against African Americans is more systematic than isolated—as anyone who actually knows American history will attest. In regards to the “lone wolf” explanation, while it is true that the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone, he did not create the ideology that seems to have motivated the attack. While acting alone, he certainly seems to be the member of a substantial pack and that pack is still in the wild.
It can be replied that the alleged shooter was, by definition, a lone wolf (since he acted alone) and that the incident was isolated because there has not been a systematic series of attacks across the country. The lone wolf claim does certainly have appeal—the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone. However, when other terrorists attempt attacks in the United States, the narrative is that each act is part of a larger whole and not an isolated incident. In fact, some extend the blame to religion and ethnic background of the terrorist, blaming all of Islam or all Arabs for an attack.
In the past, I have argued that the acts of terrorists should not confer blame on their professed religion or ethnicity. However, I do accept that the terrorist groups (such as ISIS) that a terrorist belongs to does merit some of the blame for the acts of its members. I also accept that groups that actively try to radicalize people and motivate them to acts of terror deserve some blame for these acts. Being consistent, I certainly will not claim that all or even many white people are racists or terrorists just because the alleged shooter is white. That would be absurd. However, I do accept that some of the responsibility rests with the racist community that helped radicalize the alleged shooter to engage in his act of terror.
Mass murders, defined as four or more people killed, occur with unfortunate regularity in the United States. These murders typically involve guns—most likely for the obvious reason that guns make killing much easier. The latest incident to grab the public’s attention was a shooting in a Washington Navy yard in which twelve people were murdered. As with each such horrible event, the gun cycle has been restarted.
As always, some people demand that “something be done” while others rush to head off any attempts to actually do something that might involve guns. As with each previous cycle, this one will slowly spin down and lose the eye of the public. Until the next shooting.
I have written so many times about guns and violence that I suspect that I do not have anything new to say about the matter. From what I have heard, seen and read, it seems like the same is true of other people.
In defense of guns, people trot out the usual line about it being people that kill rather than guns. This is, obviously enough, a true claim: guns are tools that people sometimes use to kill other people. Guns do not engage in murder by themselves. Another way to look at it is that it is true that guns do not commit gun crimes—people do. Of course, the same is true about drug crimes: drugs do not commit drug crimes—people do.
While muttering about guns not killing sounds callous when bullet ridden corpses so recently lay on the ground, this approach does have some merit. After all, when people do kill people with guns, there is some reason (a causal chain) behind it and this reason is not simply that the person had a gun. Rather, they have the gun and use it for reasons (in the sense of there being causes).
In the case of the latest alleged shooter, there seems to be evidence of mental health issues, such as his allegedly telling the police about voices and attempts to beam messages to him with microwaves. He also had a police record that included “minor” gun incidents, such as shooting a coworker’s tire and discharging a firearm through his ceiling into the apartment above. Despite all this, he was still able to legally purchase a gun and even keep his security access to military bases.
Looking back at other shootings, some of them are similar in that the shooter had mental issues that were known but did not reach a level at which legal action could be taken. This, of course, suggests that changing the laws would be a potential solution. However, the obvious concern is that the majority of people who fall below the level at which legal action can be taken to deny them guns never engage in violence. I have written extensively about this before and hold to the same position, namely that denying people their rights requires more than just the mere possibility that they might do something.
It is interesting and disturbing to note that it is worth considering that our entire society is mentally deranged. This point was made quite some time ago by Emma Goldman in her essay on anarchism. She noted that we are like animals in captivity and our behavior is deranged by the conditions that are imposed on us by those who hold power. We face a society with grotesque inequalities, ethical problems, drug abuse (which is both a cause and effect), little social support and great stress. Most people who are ground down by this situation break down in non-violent ways, but it is hardly a shock that some people respond with violence. If this is the case, then the violence is a symptom of a greater disease and gun laws would fail to address the disease itself—although they could make gun violence less likely.
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.
In the United States, the number of homeless shelters increased in the 1980s due to a variety of factors. One factor was the recession of that time which resulted in more people being unable to afford housing. A second factor was a shift away from single room housing. Though rather limited in size, this sort of housing was cheaper than the alternatives. Back in the early 1990s, some of my fellow graduate students lived in singles, but these seemed to be (like most graduate student housing) relics from another time. A third factor was the infamous closing of mental institutions and reduction in care for the mentally ill. While proponents of the approach lauded the cost savings, some critics saw it is as simply dumping the ill onto the streets.
In the face of this surge in homelessness religious groups, charitable organizations and governments increased the number of homeless shelters. The intent was to provide people with a place to stay until they could sort out their problems and thus be able to have a permanent home. This approach does make a certain sense and did work in some cases. After all, it seems reasonable to infer that people become homeless because of problems (financial, mental and so on) and that once these problems are fixed, then a person will be ready to have a home. Unfortunately, this approach did not prove very successful and there are about 640,000 homeless Americans with about 110,000 of them being chronically homeless.
Fortunately, an alternative approach seems to be having a more positive impact. This approach reverses the old approach: rather than “fixing” people so that they are ready for permanent homes, this approach involves getting the homeless into more home-like shelters or permanent housing. Those who need treatment are given treatment and the results seem to have been very positive: 85% of those involved in this approach remain in their homes rather than ending up back on the streets.
While this approach seems to have merit, there is the stock concern that the state funded programs are wasting the taxpayers’ money by supporting free-riders. Somewhat ironically, the troubled economic times that increase homelessness also decrease the funding available for such programs and also gives some support to claims that scarce financial resources should be better used, perhaps by allowing more tax breaks for the job creators. As such, there seem to be two main arguments against funding such programs with state money.
The first is a utilitarian argument. Because of the recession, there is less state money available than what was normal before. As such, it is even more important that the money be spent effectively. Putting money into shelters, programs and permanent housing for the homeless would yield less positive results than using the money elsewhere (such as deficit reduction, tax breaks for the job creators or maintaining infrastructure). As such, the money should be spent in these other areas rather than in addressing the problem of homelessness.
This argument can, of course, be countered by showing that the money spent on addressing homelessness would be less than the cost of not addressing the problem. If this is the case, than the cost argument favors spending the money rather than incurring the costs that can be avoided or mitigated by spending.
While homelessness is clearly bad for the people who are homeless, it also is rather costly to society as a whole.
One area of cost is the medical costs of homelessness. On average, homeless people average hospital stays four days longer than comparable non homeless people. This costs about $2,414 per hospitalization. Also, since homeless people tend to not have insurance, the cost is born either by the state (that is, us) or by those with insurance (in the form of increased premiums).
Not surprisingly, people do become homeless because of medical problems and medical problems are also caused by being homeless. Those who are homeless are more likely to become ill than those who have homes and are more likely to suffer from problems of greater severity. As such, homelessness adds a burden to the health care system, especially the emergency rooms. Addressing the problem of homelessness would help reduce these costs.
Another area is crime and prisons. People who are homeless tend to spend more time in prison than the non-homeless. In some cases, they are arrested for “general” criminal activity, but they are often arrested for breaking laws that are aimed specifically at the homeless, such as laws against loitering and begging.
While prisons can be quite profitable for the private companies that run them, it costs an average of $20,000 a year to keep a person in prison. The specific costs vary due vary. For example, a prison stay in California costs $47,000 a year. While those who profit from prisons will not see it this way, reducing homelessness would be a good thing because it would mean fewer people in prison and thus lower the cost to the taxpayers.
A third factor is the cost of emergency shelters—the traditional homeless shelter. These shelters are considerably more expensive than the cost of a permanent residence. As such, permanent housing would provide a savings over temporary shelters.
Naturally, it is reasonable to wonder what impact the permanent home programs might have on the cost to society of homelessness.
One program resulted in a savings of $2,449 per person each month compared to the cost of temporary shelters. A study in my home state of Maine showed that the permanent housing approach yielded a 57 decrease in the cost of mental health services, mainly due to a 79% reduction in the cost of hospitalization. In Los Angeles, a study showed that putting four people into permanent housing saved over $80,000 per year.
Of course, this savings assumes that the temporary shelters would be funded. For those willing to allow homeless people to live on the streets, this sort of program would not yield the highest savings. After all, the cost of housing the homeless on the street would be nothing. Of course, this would not reduce the other costs associated with homelessness and would almost certainly increase them. After all, people living on the street are more likely to get ill or injured and also more likely to be arrested.
Of course, the medical costs could be addressed by changing the law so that people can be refused even emergency medical care if they cannot pay and ending all state-funded treatment programs for addiction and mental illness. That is, we could entirely abandon the homeless, other than providing them with prison when they are arrested. Of course, there would still remain the question as to whether or not this would result in a cost saving. After all, the abandonment approach might result in a large enough increase in number of homeless people being imprisoned to offset the savings from abandonment. Naturally, this does not take into account the moral cost of abandonment, just the financial cost.
Overall, the evidence does seem to be that providing permanent housing for the homeless would be a cost saver, though perhaps not as big a cost saver as comprehensive abandonment. The second argument is a moral argument or, rather, various moral arguments. One stock argument is based on the idea that we have no moral obligations to others and hence it is not the case that we should provide such support to the homeless. On this view, we could provide such support, but we are not obligated to do so.
A second stock argument is that providing such support is immoral because it creates a culture of dependency. That is, by providing the homeless with permanent homes and treatment for any health problems they might possess they are learning to depend on others and will be unable to carry their own weight. While not supporting them might seem harsh, the argument is that this sort of “tough love” will enable then to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
While this line of reasoning has some appeal, one obvious reply is that this approach seems analogous to addressing a broken leg by refusing to treat it because putting a cast on a broken leg will just make the person dependent on the cast. As with a broken leg a person whose life is broken needs support until she can stand on her own again.
One reply to this is that while this might hold for those who will be able to stand on their own, it does not address the problem of those who will remain dependent on support forever. These people, it can be argued, are just parasites and should not be supported.
I do, of course, agree that someone who is just free-riding the system should not be supported. However, the number of people who will become homeless and unemployed just so they can free-ride seems to be rather low (but more than nothing). After all, most people want to be self-supporting rather than dependent on others. To deny people who need the support to rebuild just because some small percentage of people would free-ride seems as unreasonable as getting rid of handicapped parking because some people will get decals for those spaces that they are not really entitled to. It can also be countered that supporting a free-rider in such a program would be cheaper and less damaging than having them free-riding on the alternative system.
Another stock moral argument against providing support for other people is that those being supported are stealing from the taxpayers by having their housing and treatments being paid for by others. As such, the homeless are morally in the wrong and we should not enable their theft by allowing such programs. Alternatively, the homeless people could be cast as being pawns used by the politicians who are stealing money from taxpayers and giving it to the homeless. Or, for extra immorality, the homeless and those who enable such support can be seen as being in wicked (or at least misguided) cahoots.
One obvious reply is that by this sort of reasoning we all spend years as thieves. After all, as children we live off our parents (or whoever is keeping is alive), we steal education from the state (or whoever is paying for it), and until we pay enough in taxes to pay for all the public goods and services we use we are stealing every time we walk down a public sidewalk, drive on a public street or go to free a public park. We also steal from all those who have come before us and who enabled us to live in a modern society with technology, medicine and such. That is, we are all beneficiaries of the labor, money and ideas of others. As such, it would be somewhat hypocritical to regard the homeless as thieves because they are assisted by others.
The obvious reply is that the non-homeless who do pay taxes (and presumably pay off their financial debt to their families) eventually pay back what they stole (or borrowed) from society when they were young thieves. Of course, the same could be said of the homeless—if they are able to return to society and work, they can repay what they owe to others.
This does not, however, address the problem presented by those who will either never be able to return to contributing to society or who will not be able to repay what they cost society, perhaps because of mental illness. The obvious reply to this is that it would seem unreasonable to see such people as thieves. It could, of course, be argued that we should be rid of those who cannot support themselves—but this would be a different moral argument than the one based on thievery.
What, then, about people who could return to society but elect to be free-riders? That is, their situation is entirely a matter of choice and tomorrow they could be at a job earning enough to pay their own way. In this sort of case it would be reasonable to regard these people as thieves. After all, they are taking what they could earn by honest labor and there would be (by the scenario presented) no justification for them receiving support. However, these cases seem to be rather limited in number (but more than none, I am sure). As argued above, the fact that a very few people might exploit something intended to help people in need does not give an adequate reason to treat everyone in such a program as being an exploiter.
In light of the above arguments, providing permanent housing for the homeless seems to be both a cost saver and morally acceptable.
Jared Loughner was able to legally purchase the gun he allegedly used to kill and wound people in Arizona. As with every such incident, people are wondering how he was able to legally purchase a gun.
The obvious answer was that he was legally able to purchase a gun because apparently nothing had been legally done to ensure that he did not do so. While he had apparently been removed from the community college because of his behavior, his apparent instability was not reported to the relevant authorities. In any case, even if he had been diagnosed as being mentally ill, this would not have prevented him from legally buying a gun. By Arizona law a person has to be ruled mentally ill by a judge before he can be denied the right to purchase a gun on the grounds that he is mentally ill.
While Jared Loughner was apparently removed from school, he was never ruled mentally ill by a judge. As such, when the background check was conducted, nothing was amiss and he was able to legally purchase the gun.
Since it seems reasonable to keep guns away from people who are mentally ill, it seems reasonable that there needs to be a change in the laws or with they way they are currently enforced.
On one hand, the laws seem to be adequate. After all, people who are judged mentally ill cannot legally buy guns. It seems reasonable to require that a due process be followed before people can be ruled mentally ill and that this process should offer suitable protections to people to avoid abuses. After all, ruling someone mentally ill is not something that should be done lightly and we should be careful to sacrifice rights for the hope of greater security. Naturally, no laws are perfect and terrible things will happen. To use an analogy, people who legally get licenses sometimes get drunk and cause terrible accidents-even when people know that they are drinkers.
On the other hand, repeated incidents of mentally troubled people getting guns legally and then shooting people does show that there might be a serious problem that needs to be addressed. One factor worth considering is that there needs to be more communication between schools and the legal authorities in regards to troubled students.
Of course, this raises concerns about privacy and also the practical matter of how to fund the sort of bureaucracy that would be needed to handle these situations.
Another factor worth considering is that the system for background checks probably needs to be improved to ensure that the information is accurate and up to date. This is, of course, a practical problem that requires adequate funding as well as adequate competence. Folks who are skeptical about the state’s competence will no doubt be worried that people who should be excluded from buying guns will not be on the list and folks who should be allowed to buy guns will end up on the list by error (as happened a lot with the no fly list). However, this is a reason to be careful about the information and not a compelling reason not to use such information.
One matter of great concern is, of course, the fact that gun ownership is a constitutional right. As such, impinging on this right is a serious matter. Of course, people have argued that it is correct to impinge on other rights so as to ensure safety. As such, the sort of arguments used to justify violating or impinging on rights to counter terrorism could be re-tooled a bit to argue for restricting gun ownership. In my own case, I am inclined to be wary of sacrificing rights in the name of security-a position I consistently hold whether it is a matter of privacy rights, due process rights or gun rights.
Jared Loughner is the accused shooter in the terrible incident in Arizona. Before that he was apparently a troubled student at a community college.
Since I am a professor, people have asked me if I have ever had students like that. While I have never had a student go on to shoot a politician, I have had students who were clearly disturbed or troubled by psychological issues. In some cases, these students were able to function reasonably well and they sometimes asked some very interesting questions or brought a rather unusual, but intriguing, perspective to various matters. In other cases, the students were actually rather scary and made the other students afraid with their behavior. Over my years in academics, I have seen or heard of students at various schools actually getting to the point where the police had to intervene, sometimes physically. In some cases, these students were actually legally banned from returning to campus or even ended up in jail.
In the light of the shooting, people might wonder why such students do not get locked up or forced into some sort of treatment. There are, of course, various reasons.
One reason is that professors and universities are often very worried about law suits and are hence reluctant to take action against troublesome students until they become truly troublesome. It can also be difficult to distinguish between a student who is a bit odd from one who might be violent, at least initially, and to take action against a student without sufficient justification can be a legal mess.
A second reason is that it can be difficult to distinguish between a student who passionately holds unusual views from someone who might become violent. Very intelligent people are sometimes very odd (I had a professor who would hide behind the drapes in class and make strange noises-but he was very sharp) and hence it can be hard to discern between the harmless oddities and those who will cross over into actual violence. Obviously enough, most professors and college officials are not experts in mental illness and hence are generally not qualified to make evaluations-except when it is rather evident.
A third reason is that colleges are rather limited in their intervention powers-or are at least reluctant to intervene. People sometimes think that college works like high school, but this is not the case. If a student is disruptive, I have two basic tools: persuasion and calling the police. Colleges are also different from high schools in a very important way: we are not dealing with legal minors and hence this limits what can be done. For example, calling the parents is not generally an option. College officials can, of course, suggest counseling and can get the police and other officials involved. However, students are generally legal adults and hence are free to do as they wish as long as they remain within the law.
A fourth reason is that college officials and professors are just like everyone else: they have other concerns to deal with and when it comes to disturbed students the main hope is that they will either settle down or go away. In the case of colleges, their main function is not to sort out which students are unstable and treat them. That seems to be a responsibility of the state.
While there are state mechanisms in place for dealing with mentally troubled people, they seem to need some improvement. While violent incidents do serve to illustrate the cracks and holes in the current system and lead to discussions about the system in the media, it seems that little is ever changed. After all, when an incident occurs, I always seem to hear all the same things I heard after the last incident. I predict that when the next incident takes place we will see yet another rehash of the same comments.
Of course, dealing with such people does seem rather problematic. One obvious problem is balancing the rights of individuals against the need for community safety. While we do want dangerous individuals dealt with, due care must be taken not to violate rights in the name of security.
Another obvious problem is funding. While funding for things relating to defense and terrorism has been quite good, the funding for treating people with mental illnesses or emotional problems tends to be lacking. In general it seems that the matter of emotional/mental problems is largely left to individuals-at least until a criminal action is committed. From a practical standpoint there is the usual concern: would the cost of dealing effectively with such people be worthwhile in terms of the harms prevented? We obviously live with the system as it is and generally seem to be content with it-at least between incidents.
A final obvious problem is the challenge of treatment. While we have advanced a bit beyond lobotomies and electroshock, our ability to deal with emotional and mental problems is still extremely limited. It can also be argued that our society and culture is highly damaging to people and that having a mentally healthy population would require significant changes to society.
Put rather simply, a werewolf is a person who has the ability to transform from human form into wolf form (or a hybrid wolf-human form). The werewolf is typically cast as a monster whose taste for human flesh is exceeded only by the amount of fur that he (or she) sheds.
Throughout the years, folks have offered various explanations for the werewolf myths and legends. Some of the scientific ones point to mental illnesses. Those based in the supernatural tend to point towards vague curses. However, my objective is not to hash through these various theories. Rather, I am going to present a completely made up account of the werewolf using Plato‘s theory of forms. This is, of course, not intended to be “serious” philosophy but rather a little Halloween fun.
While there are different interpretations of Plato’s theory of Forms, the general idea is that the Forms are supposed to be eternal, perfect entities that exist outside of space and time. Most importantly, all the particular things in the imperfect realm (that is where we hang out, at least while we are alive) are what they are in virtue of a mysterious participation in the Forms. For example, take a particular being, namely me. On Plato’s view, I would be a man because I participate in the Form of man. Likewise, I am a runner because I participate in that Form as well. And so on, for all my properties.
As is rather evident, the particular things here in this realm lack perfection. For example, while I am obviously damn manly, I am not a perfect Man. Likewise, while I am, according to my mother, a handsome fellow, I obviously do not possess perfect Beauty. Plato explains this lack of perfection, at least in part, by the fact that particulars participate in the Forms in various degrees. He also seems to indicate that a particular entity might participate in “contrasting” Forms. For example, a particular person would participate in both Beauty and Ugliness (assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that ugliness would be a Form). Thus, the person’s beauty (or ugliness) is a “mix” of Beauty and Ugliness. Since people can look more or less beautiful (or ugly) over the course of time, this mix can presumably shift or the degree of participation can change.
At this point, you might be wondering what this has to do with the werewolf. Not to worry, grab some candy because I am getting to that bit right now.
So, if we assume that a thing is what it is because of its participation in Forms and that the Forms can be “mixed” in a thing (or rather, their instantiations), the werewolves are easy to explain. Plato’s werewolf would be a being that participated in the Form of Man but also the Form of wolf. As such, the being (let us call him “Lon”) would be literally part man and part wolf. When Lon is participating most in the Form of Man, then he would appear (and act) human. However, when the Form of Wolf became dominant, his form and behavior would shift towards that of the wolf.
Since Plato mentions the Sun in the Allegory of the Cave, it seems appropriate that the moon (which reflects the light of the sun) is credited with triggering the transformation from man to wolf. Naturally, I have no idea how this would work; but I also have no real idea how participation was supposed to work either. So, let it be assumed that both work and thus Plato’s werewolf is free this Halloween. Naturally, this werewolf would hunger for wisdom and not human flesh, so be sure to keep some philosophy books on hand, should you run into one of this furry philosophers.