Last week we all witnessed the widely-covered “March for Our Lives” event in Washington D.C. and elsewhere. Highlighting the event were impassioned speeches from a few of the survivors of the recent mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Some of what I saw these students say was problematic, to say the least. David Hogg, who seems to be the most active of the students, used a rather underhanded rhetorical tactic to unfairly smear the reputation of Senator Marco Rubio. He made the implication that Marco Rubio has accepted “blood money” from the NRA to virtually enable the Parkland shooter to do what he did. This, ultimately, is a tactic designed to place a high degree of moral responsibility on Marco Rubio for what happened in Parkland. And while David Hogg’s claims were plainly misleading and downright slanderous, there is a lot about such rhetoric that I find quite worrisome. Mr. Hogg’s fiery rhetoric is reflective of our society’s diminishing understanding of what moral responsibility is, and who is morally responsible.
The question of moral responsibility has been debated by philosophers and legal experts for a very long time. Indeed, virtually every judicial system I know of is centered on the idea of moral responsibility. When someone does something wrong according to the law, he is prosecuted. His actions go punished according to the law. He could be fined, sent to jail, executed, etc. These punishments are inflicted upon him because he is found, at least by the judicial system, to be morally responsible for his actions. I am not too aware of judicial systems that will prosecute a person’s parents because the person’s unfavorable upbringing influenced his criminal behavior.
Before I continue, I must try as best I can to establish what I mean by moral responsibility, as this is actually a rather abstract concept that is difficult to precisely pin down. Moritz Schlick, a prominent contemporary philosopher, has remarked that moral responsibility means the one “who is to be punished is found in the person who committed the reprehensible act, according to his own desires and intentions.” Of course, this might seem obvious, but does not become so obvious when we look at the way our society places moral responsibility today.
Think, for example, how perpetrators of heinous crimes often have to be deemed competent to stand trial before actually being brought to trial. A number of factors are considered: is the person mentally competent? Can he fully understand the gravity of his crimes? Can he fully understand the charges being brought against him? Was he forced by someone else to commit the act? Was the person abused as a child? All these factors muddy the waters of understanding moral responsibility.
And this fact becomes all the more evident when we observe the way in which our society has responded to the recent high school shooting in Florida. While many have indeed condemned the shooter for his actions, many people on varying sides of the issue have pointed the finger of blame at a number of factors. Some have pointed the finger of blame at the disproportionately high number of firearms in America with respect to other nations. Some have pointed the finger of blame at advocacy groups such as the NRA, going so far as to label them “child murderers.” Others have pointed at the actions of both the FBI and the Broward County Police Department in addressing the concerns of the community towards the shooter. Others have pointed the finger of blame at the current gun laws in the United States. Others blame the police officer who allegedly stood outside while the shooter was active. And still others point the finger of blame at how we handle mental health in our society. And some others point the finger of blame at violent video games and movies.
And so, moral responsibility is being placed in a number of different places, and this is honestly rather concerning to me. To point the finger of blame at such a wide number of allegedly culpable individuals and institutions perhaps diminishes the significance and meaning of moral responsibility. In the same way that presenting multiple “smoking guns” in an argument ultimately weakens one’s argument, could it be that placing moral responsibility on individuals and institutions other than the shooter himself diminishes the shooter’s own moral responsibility? And could it be that all of this is what inclines people to commit such heinous acts?
To be sure, there were a number of institutional failures that, had they been addressed properly, could have prevented the shooter from ever carrying out his massacre. And in the event of the massacre itself, there were some things that could have been done differently that would perhaps have saved more lives. But we must not forget that there was still only one person who had a gun in his hands and was pulling the trigger on innocent people. According to Moritz Schlick’s definition of moral responsibility, he – and only he – can be held accountable for this act. Nobody else – not the NRA; not the police department; not the legislators who made the gun laws; not the businesses who sold this person his weapons; not the businesses who manufactured the weapons – were in that high school holding the gun and pulling the trigger. Indeed, nobody else involved in this massacre would have been up there with the gun pulling the trigger. To anyone other than the shooter himself, committing such a crime is horrendous even to think about and is utterly inconceivable.
But of course, we cannot forget the troubled upbringing of the shooter. He came from an already broken home and had to suffer through the death of his parent at an unfortunately young age. A well-written piece at the Daily Wire highlights the fact that a common denominator among the vast majority of mass shooters is that they grew up in fatherless homes and had troubled upbringings. And this only highlights the serious need our society has for revitalizing marriage culture, but that is a topic for another time.
These factors do not mean that the shooter himself is not responsible. Schlick goes on to point out that, regardless of external influences that might play a role in a person’s actions, the person upon whom a motive must act in order to prevent an action from occurring is the one who is morally responsible. This is why we don’t hold people accountable for certain actions if they are forced into such actions by having, say, a gun held to their head. The shooter in the Parkland massacre had no such coercion brought upon him. His motives were the sole cause of his actions. Only if his motives were different would he have acted differently. No one else can be blamed for his pulling the trigger on those innocent people. To draw moral responsibility away from the shooter, even if it is unintentional, is to virtually absolve him of accountability for his own actions, in which case he has no reason to abstain from committing mass murder. If he does not see himself as being accountable for his own actions, what’s to stop him from committing horrible acts? What’s to stop other potential shooters from doing so?
Here is where I find the inherent danger in placing moral responsibility on anyone other than the shooter. Doing so might enable people in the future to rationalize their own actions. If we say the NRA is responsible, or are, to use the implicit language of some of the students-turned-activists, child murderers, then could it be that future shooters will say, “Well, if the NRA is responsible for what I am about to do, then I am not responsible for what I am about to do.”
In truth, what I am saying here probably sounds rather absurd. But if we are to speak philosophically, then we must learn not to be afraid of the absurd. I honestly do not find it so absurd to ask if our society’s constant scapegoating and finger-pointing in the wake of these tragedies diminishes people’s ability to recognize their own moral responsibility with respect to such heinous crimes. Could it be that our heated rhetoric in this regard is conducive to the occurrence of these shootings? There is already research to suggest that news coverage that highlights the names and faces of mass shooters actually correlates with the occurrence of mass shootings. So is it so far out there to ask if the misplacement of moral responsibility also contributes to the occurrence of such shootings?
To be sure, I do not mean that we should just brush over any apparent institutional and societal failures. Nor am I saying that we should not consider changes to gun laws in the United States. Nor am I proposing that we give no consideration to changing the gun laws in America. But I am saying that we, with our heated rhetoric regarding the culpability of various individuals and institutions with regard to this shooting, are diminishing the significance and meaning of the actual moral responsibility of the shooter himself.
Now, lest I be accused of making the common “blame the shooter, not the guns” argument, I should point out that I am not saying that guns had no part in this shooting. I only mean to point out that we probably need to change the way we talk about moral responsibility. I recognize that I do not have any empirical research data to support my argument here, but I still posit that the way we talk about moral responsibility in the wake of these shootings plays a factor in other shootings, just as news reporting of shooters plays a factor.
In in any case, if we want to make any true progress in preventing these things from happening, we need to have an open and fair and reasoned conversation with people on all sides of this issue. Absolutist rhetoric will ultimately do more harm than good in that respect.
 I make a specific note of this particular accusation because it is very relevant to the issue at hand. To say that the NRA is an advocacy group of “child murderers” is to put it on the same plane of moral responsibility as the shooter himself. This highlights the way in which we identify moral responsibility.
 Moritz Schlick, When is a person responsible, p. 63