Monday, May 26, 2014

Confusing causality and moral responsibility

In the days following the shooting at UC Santa Barbara, many of my friends are arguing about the meaning of the attack.  Is this reflective of a larger culture of misogynistic violence?  Should violent crimes be used to launch political points, or is this unfair?

In these arguments, I'd like to point out a distinction that many people often overlook.  Determining the cause of an event is not the same as determining who or what deserves blame.  (No, this isn't the first time I've discussed this topic.)

Let's talk about another problem, the more general problem of violence against women.  Many people react to this problem by advising women on how to be more safe.  Don't wear revealing clothing.  Don't walk alone in the streets at night.  Don't hang out at bars or clubs.  Don't drink too much without some friends to keep you safe.  Don't lead men on.  Carry pepper spray, learn some self-defense.  As a counterreaction, feminists argue that violence and sexual assault are not caused by women's failure to take safety precautions, but are instead caused by people who commit violence against women.

A friend of mine once said feminists seemed to be denying that women played any causal role whatsoever.

I don't think this is true, though, since I've never seen feminists say women should never take any safety precautions.  Rather, there seems to be some conflation between causality and responsibility.  In a sense, women have no moral responsibility to take safety precautions, because the truly moral thing would be to end rape culture.  And since moral responsibility is conflated with causality, feminists sometimes speak as if women's behavior plays no causal role whatsoever.

And this is understandable, because people on the other side conflate causality and responsibility too.  If someone says, "But surely women who hang out at bars are at higher risk of violence!" then literally speaking they are making a claim about causality.  But one strongly suspects that they are trying to make a claim about moral responsibility, trying to say that women should change how they socialize in order to reduce risk of violence.

In general, every event is caused by many many things.  The shooting at UCSB was caused in part by the flapping of wings of a particular butterfly in 1984.  What's more, in general it doesn't make sense to ask which causes played a greater role than other causes.  If this butterfly didn't flap its wings, that would have prevented 100% of the shooting, so the butterfly is 100% of the cause, but that just doesn't make sense, now, does it?

Usually, we're only interested in causes that have a much clearer connection to their consequences.  We simply can't control all the butterflies, or predict what effects they will have.  So the butterflies are best treated as random background.

But even when we confine ourselves to causes that clearly connect to their result, this is insufficient to assign moral responsibility to the cause.  Moral responsibility is basically a tool we use to get more desirable results in society.  We hold people morally responsible when we think that this could influence behavior in similar situations, and that this will result in better outcomes in the future.  In order to hold a behavior morally responsible for some outcome, it must have a causal relation to the outcome.  But the fact that a behavior causes an outcome does not necessarily mean it should be held morally responsible.


Let's consider a few points of view on the UCSB shooting.

Some people resist assigning any moral responsibility to killing sprees.  There are simply too few of them, and it seems like no matter how we reconfigure society and its moral values, we may never be rid of them.  Holding people morally responsible will be futile, and change nothing.  It's not that shootings don't have causes, it's that we can't influence those causes with moral language.

Some people have held the MRA, PUA, and incel communities responsible.  The general idea here is that while we may not be able to eliminate shooting sprees, we may be able to mitigate the more general problem of violence against women by countering misogyny among men.  Basically, countering misogyny is something we should be doing anyway, but here we have a prominent example of violence explicitly motivated by misogyny, so let's make hay out of it.

Some people argue that it's caused by mental illness, or by the shooter being "crazy".  However, it is not clear that people suffering from mental illness are any more likely than people who don't to commit violent crimes.  Upon a brief search, I could not find any meta-analysis backing up such a claim (even in the case of schizophrenia, the link is questionable).  So this fails as a causal claim.

But it fails even more as a moral claim.  I don't think people intend to hold mentally ill responsible, but perhaps they intend to hold poor mental health care responsible.  But this assignment of responsibility does not lead to a better outcomes.  It has the unintended effect of stigmatizing mental illness, which discourages people with mental illness from seeking help.  Further, it could worsen the problem of violence against people with mental illness, which meta-analyses show is a real problem.