James Hodgkinson, the Left, and Degrees of Moral Responsibility

By | 2017-06-20T19:38:19+00:00 June 16th, 2017|
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In response to a recent article of mine on James Hodgkinson—the Bernie Sanders supporter and despiser of all things Republican who attempted to assassinate Republican congressmen in Alexandria, Virginia on June 14—a reader who self-identified as being “as far right as it gets” accused me of going “UNDER the gutter” for implicating the Democrats and the left generally in Hodgkinson’s crime.

In my piece, I quoted from the shooter’s Facebook pages and from those who knew him. My aim was to establish that, politically, Hodgkinson was of the same mindset as leftist politicians, celebrities, media personalities, and academics who have been laboring incessantly for many decades now to convince the world that the Republican Party is the embodiment of evil.

As one notable 20th century conservative thinker once famously put it, ideas have consequences. And because ideas are expressed in and understood through words, words have consequences.

It is for this reason that those who espouse ideas, and do so publicly and repeatedly, must assume some ownership of the actions performed by those who have taken those ideas and words to heart and acted upon them.

In most contexts, no one has any difficulty understanding this.

Among the moral philosophical traditions of the West, the oldest is what is known by moral philosophers as “virtue ethics.” Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle endorsed this vision of morality, and Aristotle specifically is universally recognized by philosophers as the premiere exponent of it, the first to give it systematic expression.

Christian thinkers in the classical and medieval periods, like Saints Augustine and Aquinas, would adapt virtue ethics to their faith.

By the lights of the virtue ethicist, morality is not, as many of our contemporaries are disposed to think, essentially a matter of following rules and/or principles. Morality is essentially a matter of character-development. “What kind of a person do I want to become?” This is the key moral question.

Human beings become virtuous or vicious, respectively, by acting virtuously or viciously. Acting leads to being.

Virtues, like their contraries, vices, are habits. Virtues are character excellences that the virtuous person acquires by habitually acting virtuously. Conversely, vices are character flaws that the vicious person acquires by habitually acting viciously.

Human beings become virtuous or vicious, respectively, by acting virtuously or viciously. Acting leads to being. However, the only way for a person who is not yet virtuous to know how to act virtuously is for him or her to imitate someone who already is virtuous.

Knowledge of morality, then, is not, strictly speaking, taught but, rather, imparted. The recipients of a moral education—this would mean all of us—imbibe the knowledge that is imparted to us by moral exemplars, virtuous human beings who today we (in the uninspired and pedestrian rhetoric of our age) simply call “role models.”

We learn morality as we learn so much else in life, through the example of others, whether these exemplars are people who we know intimately, pillars of our local or national communities, historical personages, or even fictional characters.

Of course, we can also learn how to become immoral, or vicious. And we learn this in the same ways in which we learn to become virtuous—through the example of others.

For that reason, words are never mere words. Every utterance is a speech-act, an action of sorts. Again, we all know this to be true, a fact borne out every time we praise and condemn people, especially those in positions of influence, for their words.

We praise and condemn people for their language, for the ideas that they express, because we all readily understand that words and ideas have consequences.

Moral agents, i.e. adult human beings, are unique in that they are not just causally, but also morally, responsible for their actions. These actions, of course, include their speech-acts, what they say and how they say it.

Moral responsibility is not the same thing as causal responsibility. When a bolt of lightning, a force of nature, strikes a power grid, the former is causally responsible for the damage that it inflicts upon the latter. The lightning determines the damage caused to the power grid.

For that reason, words are never mere words. Every utterance is a speech-act, an action of sorts. Again, we all know this to be true, a fact borne out every time we praise and condemn people, especially those in positions of influence, for their words.

In stark contrast, moral responsibility presupposes free will, or indeterminism. No moral act is ever determined by antecedent conditions. Moral acts are determined, if you will, only by those who immediately and directly choose to perform them.

So, James Hodgkinson is causally responsible for firing bullets into those Republicans who he preyed upon on the morning of June 14. He also shoulders the largest share of the moral responsibility for this action, for it was Hodgkinson and no one else who chose to do what he did.

That being said, there are degrees of moral responsibility. To suggest that those Democrats and leftists with loud and influential voices, those who served as Hodgkinson’s moral exemplars, those who imparted and reinforced the ideas that fueled him to go on a Republican hunting spree, shoulder zero culpability for the fruits of their tireless endeavor to demonize Republicans stretches credibility to the snapping point.

It’s like saying that all of the responsibility falls upon a black person who shoots police officers after being exposed to hordes of Black Lives Matter activists chanting, “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!” This person is ultimately the most responsible for the act that he chose to do, certainly. Yet it is equally certain that those who urged actions of the sort that this shooter engaged in also must assume some responsibility for their words, their speech-acts.

Their hands are not without blood on them. They are not without guilt.

And neither are those Democrats and leftists who continually spout the worst sort of lies about Republicans without the blood on their hands of the five Republicans who James Hodgkinson shot up in Alexandria.  

 

About the Author:

Jack Kerwick
Jack Kerwick earned his doctorate degree in philosophy from Temple University. His areas of specialization are ethics and political philosophy, with a particular interest in classical conservatism. His work has appeared in both scholarly journals and popular publications, and he recently authored, The American Offensive: Dispatches from the Front. Kerwick has been teaching philosophy for nearly 17 years at a variety of institutions, from Baylor to Temple, Penn State University, the College of New Jersey and elsewhere. His next book, Misguided Guardians: The Conservative Case Against Neoconservatism is pending publication. He is currently an instructor of philosophy at Rowan College at Burlington County.