Mass murder and morality

by Joachim Krueger

It is soothing to think of morality as goodness, to consider a person moral inasmuch as he or she (hereafter: he) acts to benefit others. A person is moral a fortiori if he pays a price in order to perform such acts. Moral goodness thus defined is hard to sustain. Game theorists — evolutionary or otherwise — point out that paying a price in order to help others reduces one’s own fitness to survive. That’s what paying a price means. The conundrum is how morality survives with Darwin’s wind blowing in its face.

Perhaps the riddle is not so deep. Pure altruism is, after all, a rare occasion. A more common variety of morality has a judgmental side. The yin of concern for others entails the yang of judgment and punishment. Morality is just as much about retributive justice as it is about altruism. If being moral is doing right by others, then being immoral is failing to do so. Such failures demand a response. It is morality that licenses the punishment of those who violate social norms.

Doing good deeds of compassion and punishing bad deeds of norm violation are not mirror images of each other. Any individual can perform acts of kindness, but not everyone has license to punish acts of selfishness. In a society of individuals, the privilege of punishment is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful individuals or institutions that act on behalf of the group. When social power asserts itself by executing offenders, it commits violence in the name of morality. This violence, and the threat thereof, is perceived as a necessary evil, or not as an evil at all. Often, the executioner gets applause.

When unempowered individuals deliver retributive justice, reactions are mixed. Vigilantism has its sympathizers, particularly in the United States. This sympathy feeds on the assumption that the social institutions responsible for justice are inefficient or lenient. There is no sympathy, however, for a gunman who leaves blood in his path. Wanton killing is seen as an outcome of individual psychopathology, not morality.

A mass killer who holds no personal grudge against his victims must be insane. The task for pundits, analysts, and experts is to figure out the nature of his insanity and explain it to the public. Part of their task is to disarm (as it were) the alternative narrative, which stresses the role of opportunity — that is, the easy availability of weapons of mass destruction — where a classroom full of students qualifies as a mass.

Once the nature of the gunman’s insanity is understood, residents sleep better, believing that they themselves are not insane in that way, and that the purchase of a weapon of mass destruction at the local mall will reduce their own likelihood of victimhood. Meanwhile, advocates of gun control despair. Their argument is a hard one to make because the availability of guns only registers as a necessary cause of violence. Most gun owners do not kill. The public, however, wants sufficient causes, and insanity seems to fit the bill (given that guns are available). Loose gun control cannot explain individual massacres, whereas a psychiatric profile (seemingly) can.

Neither the psychopathologists nor the gun controllers consider the gunman’s point of view. How does he perceive his action? How does he opt for atrocity? What is his goal? What is the message that he seeks to send? The insanity theory nips such questions in the bud because they presuppose rationality, and a rational gunman is not a madman.

How does the gunman see himself? Perhaps he casts himself as a warrior. He dons battle fatigues to show his martial ambitions, and the guns support his identity claim. If he is a warrior, who is his foe? If he forces his way into a school, his choice of victims can only be strategic and not tactical (unless, of course, he is insane). Children in a school, like civilians in a bombed city, are noncombatants. If they are not his true targets, who is?

If he were after the pleasure of shooting, the gunman might choose his victims for their availability and defenselessness, but why would he then shoot himself? A murder-suicide does not seem rational because it is hard to see how shooting children could be so pleasurable that it is worth dying for. If the gunman is sane, he must be choosing his victims for reasons other than availability, defenselessness, or kicks. To extract the meaning behind the shootings we must look for the consequences of the attack. In particular, we must ask who else is getting hurt.

Children depend on their parents and others who invest in them emotionally and materially. The pain inflicted on these individuals is severe and long-lasting. The wounds will never completely heal. If the pain of others is the primary consequence of the shootings, the anticipation of this pain may play a motivating role. If the gunman intends to hurt the parents, the question is why. It is unlikely that he has personal scores to settle with all individual parents. But the idea of revenge does not require the idea of a direct payback. Perhaps the only thing that matters to the gunman is what the parents represent in the community and the greater society.

If the gunman perceives himself as a social failure — perhaps because he has no prospects and lives with his mother — prosperous families are daily reminders of this failure. Young adults with children, careers, and SUVs are cashing in on the American promise. They have the bigger piece of the cake and they eat it too, leaving him with nothing but crumbs. So he says nyet in a horrendous way. He sends a terrible message, but it is a clear one. It is so clear that no one wants to see it. It is safer to look to the psychopathologists for an explanation.

Behavioral economists are familiar with the nyet response to a bad deal. Studies on the ultimatum game are en vogue. In the ultimatum game, one person proposes how to split a sum of money, and the other person has the right to say no (nyet). If the proposal is accepted, the money is divided accordingly; if it is rejected, no one gets anything. Most proposers offer 50 percent. If they offered only 1 percent, the chances of acceptance would be virtually nil. Yet, traditional rationality demands that any non-zero offer be accepted because something is better than nothing.

If the preponderance of nyet for offers below 20 percent is irrational, it may nevertheless be moral. Adepts of the Zürcher Schule of behavioral economics delight in pointing out that stiffed responders experience moral rage. Their indignation gives them the energy to punish the proposers at a personal cost. The more unfair the proposal is, the greater is the moral rage, and the lower the cost.[1] The ultimatum game is everywhere. Any purchase completed in a culture ignorant of the fine art of negotiation, that is, in a culture in which the seller sets a take-it-or-leave-it price, is the result of a successful ultimatum. More often than not, the seller realizes a profit that is larger than the value added to the buyer’s wealth. Moral rage, and the nyet that it begets, puts the brakes on greed.

The gunman is not playing a typical ultimatum game. The community of prosperous family men and their loved ones has not made him an offensive offer in any direct or explicit way. Rather, they serve as referents for social comparisons. Hence, the gunman only perceives his situation as analogous to the game. Some people get to live the dream (so he thinks), while he barely gets a consolation prize. His response is revenge, and he is willing to pay a high price as long as the damage inflicted on his victims is far greater.

Morality is not nice. The idea of compassion may seem to define the concept of morality when it is contemplated over a glass of Sauvignon after a lecture by the Dalai Lama. However, the reach of morality is broader because it involves a suite of emotions. Many of the emotions triggered by perceived violations of the moral order are visceral and brutish. When turned into action, they bring destruction. The moral nature of these emotions and behaviors cannot be qualified by who it is that experiences them and puts them into action. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, and he destroyeth the wicked and the righteous alike (cf. Deuteronomy, 32:35). He is being moral in the full sense of the word. When Joe Cracker Jack does likewise, he is just as moral. What kind of a morality would it be that is not good for the gander when it is good for the goose?[2]

Being dreamy-eyed about morality is a dangerous game.

[1] If moral outrage provides the energy for retaliation and the will to pay the price, it is ironic (and wasteful) that the most energy is produced when the least is needed (i.e., when the offer is particularly bad).

[2] While I have reached the heterodox conclusion that a homicidal gunman can be seen as moral, I must leave the verdict on his rationality open. According to traditional analysis, he should rationally accept his position as a social loser; according to evolutionary models of rationality, he need not.

Special thanks to Andrew Monroe for thoughtful comments on this article.

Joachim Krueger is a Brown University Professor in the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences


photo of memorial for Sandy Hook Elementary victims courtesy of flickr_kerina: