Moral Luck, Sarah Palin, And The “Targeting” Of Gabrielle Giffords

Moral Luck, Sarah Palin, And The “Targeting” Of Gabrielle Giffords January 10, 2011

Contrary to first impressions, it does not seem at this point that Jared Lee Loughner’s shooting of Congresswoman Giffords and nineteen other people was directly inspired by the Tea Party movement or by Sarah Palin. What has dribbled out so far about Loughner’s ideas seems closest to anarchism in ideology and there are amateur diagnoses about schizophrenia as their cause. Much is left to be learned, but there thus far are few signs of Loughner seeing himself as any sort of “patriot” or a Palinite. And so far there are no signs he is fixated on illegal immigration or health care reform or the Obama administration.

And for Sarah Palin and the Tea Party this is a “morally lucky” coincidence.

And I mean that in a technical sense. “Moral luck” is a problem that moral philosophers in recent years have discussed a great deal. The problem is straightforward: Two people perform essentially the same action and yet in one case the result is great and we praise this person and in another the result is terrible and we blame this other person. Even though both agents acted on the same essential sort of information, employed the same essential sort of judgment, and made the same essential choice, we tend to judge each differently based on the actual results of their actions even though the final outcomes of their actions varied because of factors beyond their control.

Morally it strikes many people as unfair to hold people responsible for what they had no direct control over. Morally it seems only fair to judge people based on the choice they make given the information available at the time of their choice and not to judge them based on how unpredictable factors they do not control intervene after their choice. Of course, we can blame someone for making a choice which will have probable, predictable negative outcomes. But we should not change our judgment of someone’s choice when unforeseen contingencies intervene to make a reasonable choice lead to an outcome beyond the agent’s control. And we should not let someone off the hook when a choice that was unreasonable at the time it was made winds up with a positive or neutral outcome after all.

When people act, it seems only morally fair, we should assess the quality of their moral reasoning at the moment of their action. If it was bad, they should be condemned for their judgment and choice, regardless of whether anything bad ever comes of it and even regardless of whether things turn out surprisingly positive in improbable or unpredictable ways. We should not hinge our praise or blame on someone’s luck. We should hinge it on the quality of their initial moral judgment.

So there were three alternate universes we could have lived through on Saturday.

(A) In one universe, Jared Lee Loughner was an ardent Palinite and devoted member of the Tea Party. He was an ardent gun rights advocate who adamantly believed both that the 2nd Amendment is there to assure that the citizenry is always armed and capable of overthrowing the government should it become tyrannical. He was convinced by incendiary right wing rhetoric that the government, under the Obama administration, had in fact become tyrannical. And it logically followed in his mind that armed revolution by “patriots” was at minimum morally justified or at maximum obligatory.

Also in Universe A, he followed his local Congresswoman and resented her support of Obama’s health care reform and followed the news of a brick being thrown the window of her office last March and interpreted the event as one carried out by a patriot like him, in the name of opposing tyranny with force, as he believed was morally justified at least and obligatory at mos. And a week after that incident he saw Sarah Palin’s map of gun sight targets and a message not to retreat and reload and took the message to be that patriots like him and his unknown brick throwing ally should not be intimidated away from doing everything it took to remove traitorous tyrants from office.

And of course for now this meant voting out his Congresswoman but if need be, it could very well involve a “2nd Amendment remedy” should she remain in office. One way or another she had to go and that’s what the gun sights represented to him. And when she was reelected and sworn back into office, in Universe A, he responded to the news, looked at the chart of targets Palin reposted in November and took to heart her admonition never to retreat and always to reload and less than a week after the Congresswoman was sworn back into office he loaded up and headed out to kill the Congresswoman.

In Universe A, there is a direct connection between the Tea Party’s rhetoric of taking violent recourse to solve political problems and Loughner’s actions. He embodies and acts out the Tea Party’s confrontational, anti-social, violent, revolutionary fantasies. He is motivated by the feeling of moral and religious superiority that Sarah Palin exudes that in his mind justifies his violence as beyond reproach. He is directly influenced, both subconsciously and consciously, by Palin’s choice of the gun sight image in “targeting” Congresswoman Giffords.

In Universe A the Tea Party and Sarah Palin would be seen as morally responsible for Loughner’s actions and condemned for them. They are morally lucky that, by most indications thus far, we are not living in Universe A.

But they would not have done anything different in Universe A than they would have done in Universe B. In Universe B, on Saturday we woke up in a world in which Jared Lee Loughner not only had no Tea Party sympathies but no political interests at all. He was just a schizophrenic who committed the massacre and claimed that it was because he believed Congresswoman Giffords had put a chip in his head and he wanted her to remove it. In Universe B, he did not even comprehend she was a Congresswoman but just recognized her from the television and thought she was following him and the one behind the chip in his head. In fact, he does not even realize what year it is. He thinks that it is still the year 1990 and that space aliens have been resetting the same year ever since he was a toddler and only giving the illusion that time was passing while they finished their plans with him. And he was convinced Giffords was one of the space aliens.

In Universe B, Palin’s gun sights are an utter and complete coincidence to the massacre Loughner carried out. The only explanation for his actions is an apolitical conspiracy delusion driven only by his own insanity. Palin and the Tea Party are absolved of all moral responsibility, direct or indirect, for the thoughts in the head of Jared Lee Loughner. They are a total coincidence.

The problem of moral luck here is that the actions and rhetoric of both Palin and the Tea Party which preceded Saturday in Universes A and B were identical. In Universe A, they were gravely unlucky and someone took seriously their rhetorical and symbolic conflations of patriotism, guns, and revolution, and as a result they were held morally accountable for the dire results of their rhetoric. Palin’s stoking violent people who had already thrown a brick through a Congresswoman’s office with a message to “reload” combined with a gun target placed over that same Congresswoman’s district on a map, was part of a sequence of events that was causally responsible in Universe A for the deaths of six people and the wounding of 14 others.

That causal responsibility is universally judged to have some moral import. Some people in Universe A say it is real but relatively small since Palin obviously had no intention of literally sparking violence but was only trying to be provocative by showing a rallying solidarity with gun rights advocates and getting under the skin of uptight, humorless liberals. Others in Universe A say that her recklessness’s consequences reaches the level of criminal incitement, regardless of lack of all express intent to have the effects she had.

In Universe A, Palin’s purely political intentions do not absolve her of moral blame for the consequences of what she has done. In Universe A, the Tea Party is confronted with the (Universe A) reality that someone has done what they have explicitly been threatening to possibly do if they do not get their way politically and the moral judgment of their abstract fantasy when seen in concrete form is repulsion and horror and severe moral blame.

Sarah Palin and the Tea Party are very morally lucky we do not live in that Universe. Many people of all political persuasions right now and for the foreseeable future will be looking at the evidence that comes out about Jared Lee Loughner in deciding how much, if any, causal responsibility it is just to attribute to the Tea Party or Sarah Palin or other Republican politicians. And they will likely, if they are normal, be inclined to either morally blame or exonerate the Tea Party and Palin to a comparable extent to which they can form causal links. They will gauge moral responsibility in terms of causal responsibility.

This will not change one iota the actions or rhetoric of the Tea Party or Sarah Palin which led up to the events of Saturday.

There are some of us who have felt since long before Saturday that whether we wound up with Universe A ever materializing that right wing conflations of patriotism with revolutionary anti-government violence were the sorts of things that could, with enough probability, inspire people from anywhere on a wide spectrum of susceptibility to commit acts of domestic terrorism. We have therefore judged that such rhetoric, whether or not it ever is causally responsible for violence should be stigmatized and all who engage in it should be (informally, non-legally) ostracized from civilized discourse as beyond the pale and dangerous.

The moral line that matters is not what is out of the control of Palin or the Tea Party—how the extremists actually manifest themselves and what they actually are inspired or not to do by the reckless words of Palin and the Tea Party. The moral line that matters is the line crossed with the symbols and words Palin the Tea Party choose. Their language, their ideology of close association between patriotism and violence, and their gun fetishization all cross the line into incitement, whether or not they ever actually are effective in inciting anyone. They should be morally condemned and politically ostracized for so recklessly playing with gunfire in our culture.

When they promoted the language and ideology of self-righteous, self-avenging patriotic violence as an ideal and litmus test of true Americanism they crossed a moral line. Saturday looks to be a false alarm as to whether or not their recklessly violent ideology had led to a consequence that they had been threatening in so many words for 2 and a half years. It looks like we are living in a universe closer to Universe B than to Universe A, at least in most of the morally relevant respects.

And so, the Tea Party and Palinites are insisting that without an actual direct demonstrated causal responsibility they are not to blame. They are implicitly accepting the gamble of moral luck when it comes to responsibility (or at least they are accepting its logic insofar as they think it exonerates them of all charges of blameworthiness. Whether they would have another excuse if Loughner is a Tea Partier is another issue. Likely they would not, since they are also denying implausibly that Timothy McVeigh is at all the responsibility of right wing ideology either).

But moral judgments should not be the results of who wins or loses a gamble. And those who gamble that their violent rhetoric will not incite violence should not be exempted from blame as long as they are successfully lucky in not actually inciting violence. They do not deserve that latitude and benefit of the doubt. They do not get to “wait and see” before they accept blame for the intrinsic wrongness of their carelessness. Even if they get “morally lucky”, it is immoral and unfair of them to get away with that.

Those of us more leftish in our sensibilities initially saw this event as the confirmation of our judgment that violent right wing rhetoric and ideologies made political violence highly probable and predictable. Based on our preexisting judgment that violent rhetoric risks violent deeds, we had all along been condemning Palin and the Tea Party as immoral and dangerous, regardless of whether they ever actually inspired the violence they baited.

Seeing that violence come to life, eerily in the form of the shooting of someone specifically graphically targeted with a gun sight by Palin, creates a symbolic association which confirms our initial preexisting and already morally justified moral repulsion at her and the Tea Party’s rhetoric, symbols, and ideology. Even without the direct or, possibly any indirect, causal connections, what we see on the left is the fantasy the right has been crowing about in all its gruesome, deadly, conscience-shocking reality. This exposed the sick cavalierness in the way Palin and the Tea Party have treated the lives of government officials when they have employed violent images and rhetoric.

What to Palin is a fun graphic represents in fact bloody and destructive possibilities. When one of those possibilities was in actuality realized, the symbolic connection between what the far right talks about and what it would look like if it happened clicked on an emotional, visceral level for most of us. And may it be the end of the reckless way that the far right is allowed to threateningly wave their guns in our collective faces in order to intimidate us on the left and the end of the way that they are allowed to invoke veiled and unveiled threats of governmental overthrow with political impunity (or, worse, reward).

It seems to have turned out, fortunately for all of us, but specifically morally luckily for Palin and the Tea Party, that we do not live in Universe A. It seems in many respects that it was a false alarm on that score. But we on the left do not need to live in Universe A to denounce the rhetoric, symbols, and ideology that could create Universe A just as morally forcefully as if we did live in Universe A. Only luck presently separates our present world from Universe A. And that, for now, is all of our luck. Let’s do everything (nonviolent of course) that we can to make sure it does not run out.

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