Friday, 16 July 2010

Raoul Moat and Moral Responsibility

Public opinion regarding the Raoul Moat case has reached a familiar fork in the road. On the one hand, those sympathetic to Moat try to portray him as a person with mental health issues, let down by the authorities and society. On the other, some, like the Prime Minister, see him as “a callous murderer, full stop, end of story”. It is a debate that seems to emerge every time there is a high profile crime like this (see, for instance, the apologists for Joseph Fritzl, on the grounds that he was abused as a child).

Yet the disagreement is deeper and more significant than it appears on the surface. It is not simply the usual face-off between bleeding-heart liberals and uncaring conservatives. Rather, the difficulty that most people have in digesting such events has its roots in age-old philosophical tension between determinism and moral responsibility.

Determinism is the idea that all events are inevitable, the result of an inescapable chain of causation that began in the big bang. At its root is the belief that everything can be explained causally. Just as physical phenomena like the tides and the seasons can be understood and accounted for, the same is true for human characteristics and behaviour. The nature-nurture debate exemplifies this idea, seeking to understand how genetic and environmental factors make us the way we are.

The problem with determinism is that it appears to be inconsistent with free will and moral responsibility. If all my thoughts and actions can be explained causally, then it is unjustified to hold me accountable for my actions. I could not have acted in any way other than I did, so why should I be praised or blamed?

The relevance of these ideas to Raoul Moat should be clear. The thoroughgoing determinist will insist that Moat cannot be held responsible for the unfortunate murders that occurred: they were just the result of a toxic mix of circumstance and character that ended tragically. They will claim that you simply cannot put a person like Raoul Moat in a desperate situation like the one he was in, and not expect him to go on a murderous rampage. And Raoul Moat surely did not choose to be the sort of person prone to murderous outbursts, so it would be unfair to blame him for his actions.

The difficulty that society and the media face is their inability to reconcile two inconsistent propositions – that our actions are greatly conditioned by outside forces, and that we are morally responsible for what we do. The result is that certain forms of conditioning – mental disorder, childhood disadvantage – are seen as genuine mitigation, whereas others are not.

The determinist will insist that the question of whether Moat had a ‘genuine excuse’ for his actions as irrelevant. It is a matter of degree, and the threshold for sympathy, the point at which we characterise a person’s actions as involuntary, is arbitrary. To draw an analogy, what is the difference between a kleptomaniac and a person who simply finds the urge to steal harder than most to resist? We all have different inclinations, good and evil, of different strengths and we vary in our capacity to fight them. These are facts about ourselves that we do not choose.

The pertinent question in the aftermath of an incident like this has nothing to do with the character of the protagonists. If we dig deep enough for excuses, we will always find them, because Moat’s actions, like all of ours, were shaped by forces beyond his ken or control. Whether Raoul Moat was a good or a bad man is neither here nor there. The point is that something clearly undesirable (the shootings) has occurred, and the question is how we can avoid things like this happening again.

Ironically, this question feeds right back into the existing discussion. When the Moat sympathisers criticise the authorities for their inability to help him and neutralise the threat that he posed, they are trying to ensure that there is not another Raoul Moat. If social services or the police force act differently, they may prevent people like Raoul Moat being in positions like the one he found himself in.

Those that condemn Raoul Moat, on the other hand, focus excessively on pinning the blame on him, on holding him accountable for his actions. Nevertheless, it is possible that they are unconsciously working towards the same goal as the sympathisers. It is important to understand that while the literal truth of moral responsibility may be redundant, there is still good reason to keep up the pretence that we are morally responsible. A world where those who did wrong were not criticised or punished, by conscience, society or law, would be a world with much more wrongdoing. Therefore, even though it is not fair to blame Moat for his actions, it is necessary to denounce him to show would-be Raoul Moats the cost of behaving in such a manner.

There is a debate to be had, now that Raoul Moat is dead. But it has nothing to do with the man’s legacy. It is rather the question of how best to prevent such events from occurring again.


  1. Ah so this explains your musings on free-will and determinism on saturday. I imagine our conclusions are somewhat similar on the whole philosophical issue, in a completely deterministic world peoples actions are still influenced by a legal system than imposes rules and punishment. Indeed a deterministic system would suggest people will act rationally and logically (of course only within their own idea of such rationality, a insane man thinks himself to be the only sane one...)
    It was nice of you to see each side of the sympathy/condemnation argument about Raoul Moat in a sympathetic light, both sides only wishing to better protect society.
    Hope you keep at these musings, share your talent!

    also, First!

  2. You could have looked at the Moat case through the lens of governmentality versus sovereignty.

    As Foucault points out in D&P, modernity is characterised by the move from punishment as deterrent to punishment as rehabilitation. Clearly in this case the sympathisers blame the states lack of intervention in his past (the abuse etc) and its lack of intervention at his end (to address his issues and rehabilitate him). The PM would then fall into the sovereignistic camp, the death of Moat as a deterrent for other wannabe murdering robin hood-super stars (a title I believe Moat wished to be bestowed).

    However arguably it could be the "kill Moat" camp that have the most sense, from a Utilitarian point of view. Is it worth spending millions (I exaggerate) of the states pounds on rehabilitating one individual to once again become a productive member of society. This also complements the idea of biopower. In this case the death of Moat could be interpreted as the protection of other, more productive, members of the population. This is not dissimilar to the burning of however many thousand foot and mouth infected cows, to save however many hundreds of thousands more cows. It is simply a question of numbers.

    As Zizek would no doubt argue then, Moat's fate in this case is simply an act of Subjective Violence, brought about by the wider Systemic Violence of biopower and the state under governmentality that maintains our normal state of affairs. Perhaps in this case then the Moat sympathisers are actually protesting against this Systemic Violence, seeking a different organisation of society that to a great extent limits the episodes of Subjective violence, like the death of Raoul.

    Finally, I think the issue of blame is an important one. The PM doesn't want to blame the state for failing. As is characteristically Conservative, Cameron objects to a greater degree of biopower and knows that accepting any blame upon the state is tantamount to issuing a statement reading "We are going to interfere more". He simply views Moat case as a freak accident that has nothing to do with his government. The sympathisers then blame the government, removing agency from Moat, and claiming that it was his situation that drove him to commit murder. Personally I feel it is dangerous (and ludicrous) to remove agency from the person as one can then remove blame from anything. This is my real issue with determinism.

    Anyway, no clear argument here, just a few points I thought it was worth thinking about.

  3. Ben - I haven't read Zizek at all, but his stuff about violence does seem relevant. I'm having trouble working out what exactly systemic violence is supposed to be, and how it causes subjective violence. Is it problems like economic deprivation and political neglect which fuel such outbursts?

    On your point about agency, I agree that blame might be seen as a 'necessary fiction' to exert some influence over our choices. But I maintain that it is a fiction.