Littleton massacre (2)

S Pawlett epawlett at
Mon Apr 26 23:05:41 PDT 1999

Greg Nowell wrote:

> What is the point? The point is that viewed as an
> ensemble of possibilities we do not really "arrive at
> an understanding" of the behavior.

Understanding someone's behavior usually occurs when you have given a causal explanation of it. That means knowing the particular beliefs/desires the person had which caused her to act a particular way, knowing how those particular beliefs/desires were formed by the individual in question and knowing why the individual had those particular beliefs/desires and not others. Since one cannot perceive beliefs/desires we ascribe beliefs/desires to people on assumption of their perceptual abilities, epistemic needs, biological needs and personal history in order to predict their behavior. This theory is called "folk psychology" and there are problems with it.

The are other ways of approaching the problem like giving a causal theory of action pace Donald Davidson that states that the reasons a person does action x is the cause of the person doing action x. So the reasons those two acted the way they did are the causes of their behaviour. Their behaviour is rational insofar as they had a goal and found the means of reaching that goal or they had desire x and found the means of satisfying that desire. So the puzzle is: why did they have that particular desire?

> We merely arrive at
> some preferred reconstruction and interpretation of the
> event, which may or may not further our objectives in
> other matters (such as making manufacturers make better
> cars, getting the local police to enforce anti-drunk
> driving laws, getting zoning and other rules changed to
> favor cities, changing the cultural biases which
> influence sexual relationships, etc.).
> But I'm not certain that we really "understand" even so
> simple an event as a car accident when we bring to bear
> these multiple heavy duty theoretical interpretations,
> some of which are emninently plausible.

Certainly there can be multiple causes of an event. The problem is narrowing down the causes which are most plausible yielding an adequate explanation. There are events that may appear to be causes of other events. The real work is figuring out what is a real cause and what isn't. The causes of Littletoon were probably multiple. When you mix certain chemicals an explosion occurs. When you have people who are angry, confused, insecure, unstable and are under the influence of DOOM and Goth music, an explosion occurs. To prevent future massacres we should try and prevent the preconditions from occuring.

> And for this
> reason I am loath to conclude that I will arrive at an
> "understanding" of what caused a 17 and 18 year old to
> spend a year planning to assassinate not just jocks and
> minorities, but to blow up the whole fucking school,
> presumably with everyone in it.

It is certainly hard to comprehend but not that hard to explain. Given the beliefs/desires those boys had, other people with the same psychological constitution would have acted in a similiar fashion. The hardest part and the key to the whole tragedy is trying to figure why those boys had those particular beliefs/desires and what in the outside world caused them to have those particular beliefs/desires. What is hard to comprehend is that those boys had beliefs/desires that they ought not to have had given their class position, intelligence and personal backgrounds. When people do not have the beliefs/desires they ought to have, folk psychology breaks down.

Sam Pawlett

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