Hypotheticals, Hitler, and Human Atrocity

“Baby Hitler” was trending on Twitter on Friday. After investigating, I found that New York Times Magazine had posed this question:

Dylan Matthews wrote this response: “The philosophical problem of killing Baby Hitler, explained over at vox.com. He takes up the classical responses to posing such a hypothetical problem, and he makes good points about time travel and consequentialism. I want to go further and explore the only thing I’ve ever gotten out of such thought experiments–the further affirmation that philosophy, and ethics in particular, doesn’t (and shouldn’t) happen in a vacuum.

Wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.

Wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.

Granted, it can be kind of fun to think about hypothetical situations, especially about time travel. And maybe thought experiments reveal something about our intuitions. Ethical thought experiments can show the basic idea behind consequentialism, and perhaps they can make you reflect on how you would act differently if faced with an ethical dilemma. The problem, of course, is that you are never going to be in a situation where there are five people tied to a trolley track and your mother tied to another. Just like you are never going to be able to go back in time and kill baby Hitler.

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I went to Edinburgh and also went crazy

Me and Robert Ferguson out for a stroll.

Me and Robert Ferguson out for a stroll.

I visited Edinburgh, Scotland last weekend. (Yes, just for the long weekend. Stop giving me that look. I don’t get much time off from work.)

I might also be going a little crazy.

I lived in Oxford, England for a spell. I’ve visited a few places in Europe—mostly old cities rich in history. I’ve stood in front of Titian paintings and been overwhelmed. I’ve walked through Mozart’s house and swore I could feel his energy lingering in the walls. I’ve seen ancient relics in museums. I’ve been inches away from The Rosetta Stone.

I have all this proof that humanity has existed for thousands of years. I know people are a blip on the radar of time, but when I try to think about all the individuals who have existed, all the things they’ve created, all the skirmishes that have been fought, it’s still too much to fathom.

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People Kill People

Names have been cropped.

Much as it pains me to admit because I think the woman is the exact opposite of what is truly needed in a government official, I don’t think Sarah Palin really had much to do with the shooting in Tuscon this weekend. Even with the awful map that she promptly took down from her website.

There’s nothing the news media loves more than a tragedy. It’s a time when anchorpeople can try out their “solemn voices” and they can interview people who went to elementary school with the cousin of a victim and pretend that they have anything to say other than what is obvious: when people die from the gunfire of a mentally unstable person, it’s awful.

And it shouldn’t happen.

The worst part of the media coverage is all the speculation about “why?” and “how?”.

It’s times like these that I want to start passing out Hume tracts. Let me sum up: According to Scottish philosopher and empiricist David Hume, there is no such thing as causation. It’s not real. We don’t experience it. There is only constant conjunction, and we human beings try to explain things by causation because it’s easier for us than to admit that there’s really no infallible way of understanding or predicting any of this.

The alleged gunman (Jared Loughner, 22) in this weekend’s attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was known for having bizarre, nonsensical outbursts in classes at his community college. He smoked marijuana and salvia. He was a stickler for grammar. He found skulls aesthetically pleasing. He liked conspiracy theories. He was known to be mentally unstable and possibly an undiagnosed schizophrenic.[1] He had access to guns.

The media likes to lump all of these things together as causes, playing into the stereotype that being a little morbid or skeptical of reality makes you a violent lunatic capable of murder. That he had access to guns I would say we can reasonably call a cause, even with the Humean stipulation, because any idiot will tell you that getting shot can kill you. That he was prone to crazy outbursts and threatened to kill people I think we can reasonably consider a warning sign, though having schizophrenia (or whatever label you want to stamp on him) does not necessarily entail violence. That he smoked marijuana has a lot less bearing on the matter, unless a) he was smoking something that was a bit more potent than marijuana, or b) that he had smoked enough marijuana in his short lifespan that he suffered severe brain damage.

But the media doesn’t distinguish and stamps a big “cause” sign on all of these things.

It doesn’t work that way.

We’ll never know all the contributing factors. We can never really identify a true series of causes because we aren’t omniscient, but it worries me that we don’t even separate between reasonable conjunctions and completely contingent correlations. The fact that the obvious contributing factor – access to a 9mm semi-automatic pistol and extended clips[2] – is being lumped with a fondness for conspiracy theories really troubles me.

If we were truly interested in preventing things like this from happening, we’d at least be logical about this. Nearly 12 years ago Marilyn Manson’s name got unfairly lumped in with the Columbine High School massacre, when the fact that the highly constant conjunction that gunfire kills people is never dealt with in legislation. I can only conclude that lawmakers don’t actually want to prevent people, including children, from being shot to death.

You tell me why.


[1]I don’t know how accurate that bit of speculation is, and I think perhaps the discourse of “mental illness” needs to be re-examined.

[2]I should probably note that I’m not opposed to gun ownership for hunting, but I live in a city where errant gunfire is a legitimate risk, and I don’t think civilians need to own handguns. I find it troubling that people who cling to the 2nd Amendment refuse to treat the Constitution as a living document, thus missing the original point of it entirely. (I’m looking at you Justice Scalia.)