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Some People Won't Ask 'Why Not?'

March 26, 2001|SELMER BRINGSJORD | Selmer Bringsjord is a professor of logic and cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y

Guns and schools. You doubtless insist they don't mix, but alas, the brute fact is that many of our youth rather vehemently disagree. Lots of young people these days have decided to bring guns to school and to fire them at their classmates and teachers. You know this.

You know this because you tune into the news, at least every now and then. And so you've seen the blood, the bodies, the SWAT teams, the emotionless shooters in handcuffs and under escort.

I also know something else about you: I know you think that it's morally wrong for students to shoot other students. Well, let's suppose that you're absolutely, positively right. Let's suppose that it is morally reprehensible for one student to shoot another. A question still remains: Namely, why not shoot nonetheless? I submit to you that this is a question our culture no longer wants to ask, because it no longer has an answer.

Ponder the question in earnest and personalize it: Imagine that your fellow students have been taunting you, perhaps because you're not athletic or not prepossessing. You can pick your own reason. So, you're angry, intensely angry. And you hit upon the idea of getting a shotgun and of blowing away your tormentors.

Let's suppose that you know it's morally wrong to pull the trigger, but so what? Why should you be bound by morality? Why should you restrain yourself? This is a question I'm willing to bet no one has asked you to ponder because it's a very scary question.

Maybe you think you have an answer. There are, after all, some standard ones floating about. For example, here's one: "You shouldn't shoot because you're going to eventually get caught, no matter what, and then your life will effectively be over. At best you'll be behind bars until you're ancient; at worst you yourself will be exterminated." Unfortunately, this answer misses the point.

If one is willing to accept the consequences, the question remains unanswered. I suspect this is why people commit premeditated murder every day across this (irremediably violent?) planet of ours.

They know full well that murder is wrong, and that they may well get caught and convicted if they commit it, but they are willing to roll the dice because killing is what they want to do.

Another anemic response is to declare those who shoot to be insane. This response simply changes the subject; elementary logic makes this plain. A question of the form "Why should I refrain from doing X?" isn't answered by a response like, "You're insane!" Besides, many of those who shoot are perfectly sane by the best definitions our scientists can muster.

As to science in general, no answer to the question is forthcoming from this realm. Obviously, if people frequently decide to shoot other people, the survival of our society is in jeopardy from the standpoint of evolution. But our hypothetical shooter, we can assume, readily concedes that if enough people shoot each other, the human race is in dire straits: The extrapolation is thus irrelevant. After all, the shooter is asking why he should refrain from shooting, given that he doesn't care what happens to him and to the society he finds himself in. Science is impotent in the face of fundamental "why" questions.

It's important to realize as well that education, as it is normally carried out, is also impotent in the face of "Why not shoot?" People are inculcated from the crib with the tenet that it's wrong to kill others, save for cases like self-defense. But this pedagogy is irrelevant.

Our hypothetical shooter is agreeing that shooting others is morally wrong. He is asking why he should refrain from doing that which is morally wrong, because the bottom line is that he doesn't want to avoid what is morally wrong.

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