Sunday, December 23, 2012

Philosophical Response to Serial Killers

I have been putting off responding to the Sandy Hook event, which occurred in this state, although many other philosophy bloggers have felt forced to respond. However, I recently read an article on the subject of mental illness at: that reminded me of the pith of the debate. Essentially mental illness is the only exception granted to those that commit such serious crimes. And even mental illness is not always a guarantee of life over death. That double-condition, both of the strong degree of exception, and the seriousness of the punishment, makes me think that this is a worthy subject.

Writing previously about serial killers on Yahoo Answers, my conclusion was that they function by 'string-thinking', a special phenomenon in which common associations are granted additional evil meanings. This has been noted for example, in the Columbine incident, in which the perpetrators had a kind of living fear of 'normals'. In previous decades, other groups have had similar beliefs about government, business establishments, or even God (what I might call the visual folly of Marx).

These thinking patterns often share similar characteristics, such as simplistic plays on words, exaggerations or assumptions about popular figures such as Madonna, Marx, or Yahweh, and a striking rapid connectivity between one set of assumptions and the next, which may hinge on the previously mentioned plays on words.

Yet, as the problem goes, these problems are contextual: a philosopher can argue that there was some degree of 'authenticity' within these events, which was undeniable for those individuals, just like our own actions are undeniable for us. To some extent, the denial of fundamental authenticity is equally condemnable in anyone. According to that view, the only argument against the killer was that they were being inauthentic. Or perhaps that they were arguing. And their own language patterns may have been based on this same extended argument, with a stipulation for the materialism, e.g. they couldn't argue that guns weren't authentic. But I would like to escape this stem of the argument, because it seems inescapable. Clearly a feminist can argue that guns aren't authentic. They aren't feminine. But at this point the killer says that he wants to see a whore. And then there's no response.

So the choice is to deny authenticity without denying the context (not 'hard' context) so that the philosopher would have a different response. One way to do this is to say that the context is significant. Yet if the context is significant, and the would-be killers are not significant, there is a further problem relating to basic masculinity, which in the worst cases may seem unsolvable. Yet the fundamental choice is a choice for insignificance, at least under the terms that the killer would use, suggesting that barriers may exist that are reinforced by society. These barriers are more real for those people than almost anyone else. If there weren't a barrier, there might not be a problem. On this level, these figures may be looking for political significance like breaking down the Berlin Wall, or someone flirting with them or something. At this point the problem looks emotional. Or, it may be a problem with purposefulness. Purposefulness I think is too much of a confusion. It is better to see that emotions are possible or impossible. The evil caveat looks like 'improbable'. So that's a sort of dead end. We have to conclude either that the individuals are significant, or that the context is insignificant.

What this suggests is that the means to persuade a would-be evil-doer into taking a more emotional approach is to convince them that their context is insignificant, or in some way, that they are significant. While in the second case the route for serious cases looks like hiring them for a guns-related job, which may not be desirable, or may involve charity dollars, in the first case there may be an opening in using propaganda based on government, or even science fiction movies, as a motivator. The evil caveat is that they're ahead of the curve. Reverse psychology no longer works.

So, paradoxically to a psychologist, the thing to do is be positive and authentic. Although this is difficult, it is more statistically relevant than responding to the worst cases with misguided specialized treatment, such as standard morality, reprimands, or reverse psychology. Many of these look like the same thing to someone who would consider shooting people. The vicious circular argument produced here is that at some point in the process of reasoning the would-be-killers are materialists who love their guns. Differences from this line of reasoning are expressed largely in a historical frame of mind, such as land ownership and family feuds.

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