"Oughts" divorced from "is"

By Michael Miller
web posted May 1999

Monstrous deeds such as the Littleton school massacre always evoke a torrent of proposed explanations. Men sense a connection between this atrocity and a wider "culture of violence." They know that the same causes are at work throughout the modern world, and that discovering and exterminating those causes is a matter of life and death importance. they are right on both counts.

Begin by throwing out the causes usually offered. The Littleton murderers were not drooling brutes, they were not madmen, they were not helpless puppets of violent games or movies or TV shows. Above all, they were not moved by "hatred." All these attempted explanations are contradicted by the facts.

The essential facts are these. The Littleton murderers were rather ordinary kids of about average intelligence, in full command of their minds. They had been in minor trouble with the police ("vehicular trespass"), but their parole supervisor praised their eager participation in "counseling," and declared them likely to succeed. They were "loving" to their friends during the year they spent planning the massacre.

They planned it meticulously, complete with maps and scheduled rest breaks, "chill time." They systematically acquired and modified guns, laid in adequate supplies of ammo, researched bomb making, and manufactured bombs in a suburban garage with no special equipment.

They executed their plan with precision and good humor. They laughed and joked with their victims -- shooting one girl dead as a jesting riposte to her avowal of religious belief. When they had done all they could, they called it a day: they shot themselves dead. Despite their parole supervisor's glowing report, they achieved only mediocre success; they had hoped to destroy the school completely and kill 500 students, but they killed only 15 including themselves.

Clearly, the Littleton murderers were not the emotion driven monsters of the popular imagination. There is zero evidence that the intensity of their emotions was the least bit out of the ordinary. They displayed neither the soulless indifference of the psychopath, nor the demented glee of the hate-ridden, nor the delight in cruelty of the sadist.

"Violence experts" have explained that the murderers were righteous in their own eyes, and this is abundantly supported by the facts. They were highly moral. They set themselves an ultimate end -- massive murder and destruction -- calculated the means it required, and practiced significant virtues to achieve it -- notably ingenuity, industry and courage. They committed murder with all the high good spirits of a day at the beach because murder was in full accordance with their morality.

Their moral motivation is no mere wordplay, but literal truth. Had they survived their rampage, they would have been free of guilt and remorse; they would have been comforted by the moral satisfaction of having been true to themselves. Only if they had failed to go through with their plan would they have suffered pangs of guilt: guilt for their lack of commitment, guilt for their lack of courage, guilt for allowing their lives to sink into meaninglessness. Furthermore, the motivation of "copycats" (such as the Taber, Alberta murderer) is easily identified as admiration; he recognized his own moral code in the Littleton action, and was inspired to emulate it.

The killers' sin was not immorality, but a morality of evil. They chose their morality freely and consciously, as do the rest of us. They were not driven by their emotions; their emotions fell into line with their moral choices -- as do the emotions of all the rest of us. The killers were free, moral agents; they freely followed their chosen morality -- as do the rest of us.

Unlike most of the rest of us, the end they set themselves was arbitrary, plucked from the ozone. They were not insane, they were irrational. This is the link to today's culture of violence, and a warning of our future. Openly irrational choice of ends is far from unique to high school monsters; it is an everyday commonplace, widely practiced and hailed as praiseworthy. The Littleton monsters simply raised that commonplace to a new level.

The irrationality of ultimate moral ends -- their alleged lack of any basis in facts of reality -- is the ruling doctrine of modern ethics. British philosopher David Hume declared in the 18th Century that it is impossible rationally to derive an "ought" from an "is," and advised us instead to consult our "moral sentiments." Hume's doctrine was enthusiastically elaborated and embellished by a long line of (primarily German) philosophers, and is now entrenched orthodoxy. It is the poisonous kernel at the heart of such modern trends as moral and cultural relativism, and of current events.

The irrationality of ultimate moral ends is, for example, the core of NATO's new steel humanitarianism. When NATO leaders declare the bombing of Serbs to be a "moral imperative," they are declaring the bombing of Serbs to be an ultimate moral end, and thus exempt from rational challenge. They are unimpressed by unanimous military testimony that bombing Serbs cannot help Kosovars because helping Kosovars is not their end. Their ultimate end -- their openly declared moral imperative -- is to wreak death and devastation upon Serbs. They are only mildly interested in other consequences of their actions. They are following the same principle as David Hume and the Littleton murderers: the irrationality of ultimate moral ends.

Irrational ends go hand in hand with violent aggression. Rational men renounce the use of aggressive force because their ultimate moral ends are values, and force cannot produce values. All the tantrums and devastation in the world cannot produce a single syllogism, drop of oil, or grain of wheat: values can be achieved only by reason and production. Only those who set the destruction of value as a "moral imperative" are tempted to resort to force, for force is a means only to destruction.

If history is philosophy teaching by example, then the simultaneous massacre in Littleton and bombing of Serbia is journalism seizing us by our collars and shouting, "Behold! "Oughts" divorced from "is!"

Michael Miller is the peerless publisher of Quackgrass Press and has been absent from these pages far too long.

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