— In his column on the Klebolds, parents of Columbine killer Dylan, David Brooks writes:
My instinct is that Dylan Klebold was a self-initiating moral agent who made his choices and should be condemned for them. Neither his school nor his parents determined his behavior.
Brian Leiter rather uncharitably decides to read Brooks’s comment as either an espousal of incompatibilist libertarian free will (nothing to do with political libertarianism), or an expression of ignorance. Regarding the latter option, Leiter sort of goes off his nut:
Or maybe, just maybe, he hasn’t thought about the issue at all, couldn’t make a coherent argument on the subject if his life depended on it, but knows this is what his stinking right-wing sanctimony requires?
He goes on to spout some Nietzsche psychology about our sad, sad motivation for believing in free-will.
But what did Brooks do to deserve Leiter’s tirade? There is no reason to read “self-initiating” as making any sort of strong metaphysical claim. It seems clear to me that Brooks means to say that Klebold was not being coerced, had not been brainwashed, or some such thing, that the influence of his school and parents was not sufficient to explain his behavior, and that he was in control of himself in the relevant sense of control for ascribing responsibility. How this is “stinking right-wing sanctimony” is totally beyond me. Some–I daresay MANY–left-wing folks think that persons can deserve praise and condemnation in virtue of their choices relating to their actions in the right sort of way. Is it “stinking left-wing sanctimony” to argue that, say, people who contribute their labor to the production of some valuable good or service deserve a fair portion of the value created? Who knows?
It seems Leiter thinks it’s misguided (or pathological, or insufficiently ubermensch, or something) to hold people responsible AT ALL! Here’s Nietzsche:
“Wherever responsibilities are sought, it is usually the instinct of wanting to judge and punish which is at work…: the doctrine of the will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is, because one wants to impute guilt…Men were considered ‘free’ so that they might be judged and punished–so they might become guilty: consequently, every act had to be considered as willed, and the origin of every act had to be considered as lying within consciousness….”
Maybe Nietzsche’s right about this. Maybe the practice of holding others responsible is based on an illusion about some kind of mysterious, deep freedom, which we link in our minds to the idea of guilt. But you can give up on the metaphysical illusion and still see that our categories of agency, responsibility, desert, retribution, condemnation, etc. are part of a general scheme of concepts and behavioral dispositions that has developed to enable humans to coordinate our behavior to our mutual benefit. The “instinct to judge and punish” exists precisely because our existence as the kind of social being we are depends upon it.
Dylan Klebold did make his choices and should be condemned for them. There were, of course, other important contributing causes of Klebold’s actions. And we should try to understand them. If Brooks is saying that we shouldn’t try to understand them, and should instead use our idea of responsibility as an excuse to ignore other contributing causes while we shake our fingers at the perps, then he’s wrong. But he certainly didn’t seem to ME to be saying that. And it’s totally unclear to me how Leiter’s argument counts as a blow against right-wing sanctimony, rather than as a blow against the idea of any sort of viable moral community.
Bonus question: Is peaceful mutually advantageous coordination possible “beyond good and evil” (acknowledging that the relevant notion of “advantage” will be rather different)?