Why so much violence? That’s what everyone asks. Well, obviously I don’t have a concrete answer, and neither does anyone else, but I can offer some ideas as a starting point.
This is by no means a comprehensive answer, nor is it necessarily correct. It’s also philosophically oriented, so if you’re not one for that talk, it’s best to avoid this post.
While this isn’t strictly a political question, it does have consequence on policy, and hence the debate can be political (because there are outcomes that people want). In fact, it probably has more to do with each shooter’s individual situation than with the conditions surrounding them; however, there are also external, societal factors that contribute to such isolation — and this is something I would like to target and explain.
…. I will say to you pro-control advocates: It probably won’t happen anytime soon.
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about America, it’s that substantial change only occurs when opportunity meets perfect timing, meets compatible leaders. American power is essentially a tripartide of people, votes, and timing. Because substantial change in policy is more of a recipe in America, I wouldn’t expect any substantial gun-control policy anytime soon — despite what shootings occur.
Because regulatory measures will only come after an act of fate, the better bet is to examine American society itself, which can have lots of potential answers.
This post will discuss morality (which informs ethics) in some detail, which is hopefully a breath of fresh air from the usual “guns-don’t-kill-people, people-kill-people” and mental health arguments, because those are old and tiring.
First things first, why are we talking about philosophy — THIS IS AMERICA!
It’s true, Americans aren’t predisposed to want to understand, or study, philosophy. It isn’t taught in middle or high school, and I would say a lot of Americans are suspect of those who study it in college. However, in Europe it’s a very popular major, and philosophers have a much more central role in society. … Even Tocqueville noticed how much Americans ignore philosophy in his critique of democracy.
American society is number and big data-driven society; a scientific community. The role of people can be scientifically discovered based on certain measures (job placement tests). The study of virtually any field these days takes advantage of statistics (to include marketing, advertising, criminal justice, politics, really anything). Escaping numbers these days is near impossible, and I find that all to often Americans are more concerned with “growth,” “innovation,” “development,” or some business model than they are concerned with discussing fundamental questions.
While the scientific mind would suggest more data finds truth, the philosopher would encourage thoughtful insight, reflection, consideration, and rejection or acceptance, and an understanding that truth is unattainable (SOCRATES, Whoop Whoop).
I find that well-crafted ideas have far more weight than the best statistical studies. Also, with liberal studies on trial these days, I thought it fitting to see if philosophical approaches could have any substance or applicability for American problems.
So, in that vain, I would like to evaluate philosophically (mainly from a moral standpoint) why this violence persists.
I’ve heard all sorts of stuff about these shooters. They’re influenced by pharmaceutical drugs, they’re crazy (which is a cop out), the illuminati is orchestrating this, or it’s a plan to take everyone’s guns away to make a slave race (my favorite insane theory).
All this crazy stuff comes out because people can’t comprehend why someone would do this. Or, on the other hand, they CAN imagine someone doing this, because they agree with it but mask their true feelings because they’re suppose to feel bad. Either way, the question of why these people commit crimes is masked.
Here, I would invoke Nietzsche (a personal favorite, but one my philosophical friends would probably disagree with).
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche has beef with old philosophers because they judge people on their intentions, rather than the outcome of their actions. Because of this, people are forced to conform to dogmatic conceptions of “good” conduct, and hence people gradually become angry because that’s not really who they are (because it’s an idealized version of people rather than what they genuinely are).
— Instead of this intention-oriented approach, Nietzsche somewhat (he never really flat out says stuff) advocates for a taxonomy of moralities, if you will, and to evaluate each on its own merits. This means that we can’t simply throw particular moral approaches away because the intentions aren’t deemed as “good,” because “good” intentions pave the road to hell, so to speak.
If we were to judge intentions only, Walter White from Breaking Bad would be a hero, because he intended to help himself and by extension his family and do good. However, he ended up turning into a wildly brutal criminal feeding off of those intentions.
By contrast, we look at Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. His intentions are completely selfish, but, if you look at what he accomplished, he actually helped reform school systems, maintain a stable international climate, and grow jobs for EVERYONE despite his vindictive, selfish nature.
If you consider Nietzsche, the philosophers were demonizing Kevin Spacey for being selfish on one hand while glorifying the virtue of Walter White despite outcomes of their actions.
** Note that this isn’t an attack on Christian spirituality, nor beliefs in a singular supreme being; it’s merely an evaluation of how a singular moral outlook can be problematic in modern societies. In this case, the singular morality is a Christian system. **
This last shooter, I read, wanted his 15 minutes, because other shooters got theirs.
His logic was: The only way to get noticed at all is to do something big. I want to do something big, because that’s successful (not to mention it’s power — something a majority of Americans want). Hence, these intentions were perfectly acceptable, from an American standpoint. I also read that his family were a bunch of gun nuts (EXTREME INDIVIDUALISM!).
At face value, these shooters’ objectives are in line with individualistic, American values — up until the point of shooting, because then you’re encroaching on others’ right to life. But, until the act of shooting, these shooters are engaged in American-centric individualism, which is a valued trait by society. Americans LOVE to admire power — look at celebrities, wealthy classes, people of ACHIEVEMENT!
He said that if he spilled a “little blood” that the world would notice. Hence the return is worth the cost (his life and others’). He, in effect, twisted American virtues, and committed a crime he thought he would be remembered for, because getting famous is very important in this society. It’s the American Dream turned nightmare (and they even make a show about all the evil stuff in America, it’s called American Horror Story).
This is the same will all of the shooters; the cost justifies the end, which is to change things, or to make a statement … or to be noticed, which are all American things to do.
So, how do these people conclude to shoot?
First, whatever the logic, the conclusion is to shoot. There are two levels of responsibility here. The first, and most-obvious, is the individual-level of responsibility; but there is a second, which is societal.
Because Americans value individual success ahead of most everything, my best guess is that these individuals were raised to believe that personal success is the most important thing — which is a very American upbringing.
Second, I would say that the American society is at odd mix of Christian-informed ethics on one hand, and extreme individualism on the other. These two systems are at odds with one another, and don’t always interact in a coherent way.
On one hand, societal ethics emphasize universal understandings of “good” and “evil” conduct (manifested into concrete laws). These laws, in turn, govern the society to create ethics (the overall sense of what is right and wrong, for all people). And it’s not surprising that these ethics are Christian ethics (because Christians are the majority in the US).
And on the other hand, there is a constant push to individually compete, create, develop, and flourish (distinctly American principles).
So what does this mean? Well, you’re suppose to be a “good” person; but the problem is that getting ahead doesn’t always mean doing “good” things — look at business, politics, everyday jobs, really anything.
What does this mean?
This means lots of things. But, most importantly, it means that Americans need to rethink what morality is.
I would suggest we take Nietzsche’s lead and start evaluating outcomes, and not intentions. Just because intentions are less-than-desirable doesn’t mean the outcome is necessarily bad (as is the case in House of Cards).
Religion is increasingly causing violent confrontation these days, and it’s because of variations in moral codes (or laws, commandments, principles, pillars … whatever governs the religion). There exist frictions between dietary rules, family rules, the definition of “good” conduct, the role of women in society, alternate lifestyles, and such. Should moral concessions not be made, I’m afraid there’s potential for increased conflict.
Rather than distinguishing universal “good” from “bad,” I suggest thinkers and problem-solvers examine varying systems of morality, and evaluate the consequences. (How is this to be done? I don’t know, leave it to the philosophers to figure out. *But wait, the US has short supply of those.)
I’m sorry to say, the approach of discussing individual morality, in America, is a closed conversation, because of the dominance of Christian-centric morality. Because it’s so embedded in our society (something like 80% of America is Christian), there is constant friction between society-wide Christian morality, and American principles of individual-level contribution and success, and this friction is filtering down to the individuals.
Here are, what I would say, are a few frictional aspects of Christian morality to be:
— You shall not steal (which puts people in very awkward situations in America, because of intense competition — don’t tell me successful business people or politicians never (legally or illegally) steal ideas, patents, talent, or whatever)
— You shall not covet (which is really just asking someone to turn off desires, which is definitely at odds American consumerism, capitalism, and individualism)
— Honor your father and mother (which is good in theory, but gets complex with genuinely irresponsible, abusive, or reckless parental figures)
— You shall not make idols (which is definitely at odds with American pop culture, or materialist economics)
— Obeying the rules of God (which goes against non-Christian individual wills).
But there are two distinct value systems; the first is Christian-centric, and places stock in character (do good things to others). The second values competition, individualism, and success.
… If you think about it, a majority of children are taught to be kind to others, share, follow the rules, and then, in return, they get happiness (the Christian approach, for the most part). This view is engrained in American culture (Disney movies, children’s shows, every-day human interaction at the grocery store).
But, perhaps, when children get older, they see the intensity of peer competition (which is why sports is a good way to introduce “friendly” competition), and are faced with considerable financial and moral obstacles, and find out that their precise dream is far more difficult than they were led to believe.
Meanwhile, the parent who teaches their child how they can use people instrumentally to get what they want is, in turn, a taboo parenting approach. But, perhaps that child grows into a successful leader capable of leading thousands of people at once, because (s)he was taught how to induce some societal-level change by understanding how to use groups of people as chess pieces. … but that type of education isn’t very Christian; hence, it’s frictional.
There are considerable discrepancies between those two realities. But, interestingly, the parent who intends to condition their child to use people could, in fact, raise a very successful, wealthy individual, who in turn is admired for their “leadership” ability.
The world has diversified VERY fast, yet the American culture is dominated by a singularly Christian-centric ethical approach to laws and norms, which contributes to individuals lacking a clear understanding of what is, and is not, acceptable in society. Similarly, the Middle East holds on to a singularly Muslim approach — and most of those countries are fighting, violently, to prevent individualistic-oriented ideas from taking hold.
A lot of people are taught to be “good” on one hand (being nice and respecting others), while on the other they’re taught that there is a HUGE premium on success; because without individual success, you’re lacking the complete American package.
This, in turn, creates a whole lot of pressure on the individual, and it also creates confused people, which, in turn, creates a split-personality of illogical people trying to create a logic that isn’t valid, nor moral, which manifests itself into the ultimate decision to do horrible things (like committing mass shootings).
I would say that something like the following needs to occur to address some of the underlying issues that contribute to the shooting problem:
- American intellectual (and perhaps popular) culture starts developing rhetoric that encourages discussions of morality, because a revision of singular moral systems is needed (and this requires increased roles of philosophers).
- Christians (and Muslims) start examining new approaches to their societal goals, and perhaps curb their expectations (which seems to be going on, starting with Pope Francis).
- American society adopts some form of tolerance outside of Christian-centric ideas of morality (not likely, moving forward).
As of now, Christian ideologies (the majority) dominate the moral realms of the US.
Until some form of tolerance is forged, or morality is examined, I’m willing to bet that a variety of individual-level problems will persist, despite regulatory efforts (even though that is probably needed as well).
… it’s proving difficult to claim an individualistic society on one hand, but demand a completely “good,” ethical, Christian society as well — because some people simply aren’t good-intentioned, which may or may not be a problem.
But, a more-immediate approach to the gun problem would probably be individual-level intervention, which would be quite a drain on resources.
I’m really not sure if this is a complete answer (and I’m hoping it came through as coherent), but it’s an attempt to address underlying aggregate issues that are usually explained away as individual-level “mental problems,” and the society gets away unscathed. The reality is that individuals these days are under immense pressure, and face a multitude of obstacles, which creates frustration.
Of course the individual is responsible for their actions (they broke laws AND societal norms), but I would also take these shootings as warning signs, because the incidents are not isolated, and you can’t just say they’re crazy people — there is something going on, and I’m saying it’s because of frictional values in American society.
Examining morality, I would say, is one of the most crucial, underdeveloped areas of study in America these days.
The only substitute for philosophers in America are lawyers … and what a poor substitute. So, philosophers start talking about solutions (or I’ll look really bad, because I’m placing stock in philosophy).
It’s going to take a lot more than a few laws targeting the sale and trade of weapons to overcome the American-moral dilemma, which I suspect is contributing significantly to contemporary, individual-level isolation and confusion. However, sale and trade needs to be regulated more, because that’s part of a comprehensive approach attacking the problem — let’s face it, there are enough firearms in America to buy, sell, and trade for the next 70 years, and we should curb the number being made every day.