For a great many people, it is simply not enough to mourn the losses in the Newtown massacre. They want to think about preventative measures, to figure out how to stop these events from happening in the future. I too am interested in prevention but I want to avoid a lot of the unseemly ideological reactions to the killing, in particular the instant reaction that the right way to solve the problem is through legislation.
So here’s my contribution. Like most of my co-bloggers, I’m a political philosopher and policy dabbler so I thought I’d share my thoughts on how to learn from tragedies like the Newtown massacre so as to effectively stop such events from happening in the future. I think these nine steps, if followed, would help us to make real progress.
Step One: Calm Down.
The Newtown massacre is a nightmare. You’re right to be upset about it. But don’t let your grief or fury determine your thinking. Making decisions based on raw emotion is often a bad idea and it is an even worse idea when it comes to politics. Politics makes us stupid most of the time. Also remember one of the great lessons of 9-11: making policy based on emotional rage and ignorance can be a complete disaster. The American response to 9-11 was horrific, making us no safer, wasting trillions of dollars and losing hundreds of thousands of lives.
Step Two: Get the Facts.
We don’t know a lot about what led to Adam Lanza’s decision to kill his mother, several adult educators and twenty little children. We don’t know much about his family life or about his relationship with his mother. We don’t know a lot about him at all, actually. So before determining what to do, we need to get the facts about Lanza’s motivations, insofar as we can.
Second, we need to get the facts about the frequency of such mass shootings, and the kinds of events, circumstances, character traits, family history, firearm access that correlate with these mass killings. Some bloggers have started to put the facts together, but there’s still a lot to know. If you want to learn from this tragedy, wait until the facts come in.
Step Three: Avoid Bias.
Avoid bias if you can, two in particular: availability and ideological bias.
The availability heuristic is a cognitive mechanism people use to make probabilistic judgments based largely on cases that come to mind. For many ordinary decisions, the availability heuristic works well. But it’s bad for making policy because policy applies to millions of people and will affect millions of events. We should not make policy decisions based on a single case. So when learning from this tragedy, try to set the availability heuristic aside and determine the frequency of this event in comparison to the frequency of other terrible events.
Ideological bias occurs when you let predetermined views about your values, empirical judgments and the like get in the way of properly assessing evidence. Unlike many, I don’t think holding an ideology is morally problematic. But be careful that your ideology doesn’t make you insensitive to good reasoning. This is really very hard.
Step Four: Enumerate Causes.
The next step is to enumerate the potential causes for the tragedy in question. Undoubtedly one necessary condition for the Newtown massacre was that Adam Lanza had access to powerful weapons. But there are a great many other necessary conditions, among them some form of (so far undetermined) mental illness. I imagine family conflict was also a necessary condition, as early reports indicate that he did not handle his parents’ divorce well. I’d also bet that his moral views and desensitization to violence via computer or video games were (mild) necessary conditions as well. I also suspect some neurochemical imbalance was at work, perhaps via a change of medication or a cessation.
But what do I know? I don’t have all the facts. So remember, completing step four requires a successful completion of step two.
Step Five: Consider the Evidence for Blocking the Causes.
Suppose we decide that the salient necessary condition for Lanza’s actions was his access to handguns. If so, we need to review the evidence on the correlation between legal firearm access and mass killings, or at least whether the availability of handguns makes mass killings more likely in a statistically significant way.
In completing step five, it is critical not to confuse correlation and causation. Even if more available guns correlates with more mass killing, we cannot easily infer that the former caused the latter. Perhaps both are caused by a more general “culture of violence” that would have led Lanza to kill anyway.
Step Six: Ask Whether Coercion Is Required.
One thing that progressives and conservatives can learn from classical liberals is the plain truth that coercion sucks, both morally and economically. In many cases the use of legal coercion is ineffective and usually requires pushing people around. If we can avoid using coercion to solve an important problem, we probably should. So if we can reduce the likelihood of future shootings via cultural and moral change, then we should prefer these options to the use of coercion.
Step Seven: Outline and Rank Proposals (Include Opportunity Costs).
At some point, we will need a list of proposals for solving the problem. We will then need to generate a ranking and determine which policy is most worth the effort. Some proposals will require changes in customs and moral conventions, while others will involve changing laws or policies at various levels of government.
In determining your ranking, please consider opportunity costs. Legislation usually has significant costs, some of which are hard to identify and anticipate. On the other hand, moral change is much slower and harder to bring about.
Step Eight: Discuss With Others. Be Civil.
You’re not that smart, particularly when it comes to making policy. So make sure to share your thinking with others you respect to check for errors. If you disagree with others, make sure to be civil. The point of discussion is not to “win” the argument but rather to figure out whether your reasoning is sound.
Step Nine: Advocate.
If you’ve followed steps one through eight, you have learned from a tragedy and have a high degree of justification for the beliefs formed in the process. So you’re ready to advocate for your preferred norm change.
I know most people don’t have time to complete steps one through eight. In fact, most people don’t even know how to complete them. So in most cases, people will have to rely extensively on testimony from trusted sources to determine which norm alteration to endorse. If you do, you should be especially sure that your sources are trustworthy and smart. Make sure they’re providing you with good information and that you aren’t agreeing with them merely due to ideological bias.
Conclusion: Learning from Tragedy is Hard.
Learning from a tragedy is pretty difficult. There are many potential pitfalls. But if you really care about the children who died, you’ll try to avoid ideology, ignorance and incivility in figuring out how to respond. When it comes to a policy response to Newtown, I’m not going to make up my mind for a while. Maybe you shouldn’t either.
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