4-30-89 It was another beautiful day in College Station. (I almost wrote “the Old Pueblo”.) The high temperature was eighty-one degrees [Fahrenheit], the humidity was in the high forties to low fifties, and the wind billowed out of the northeast. Though the wind speed increased during my return ride from Navasota this afternoon, it didn’t prevent me from averaging 16.31 miles per hour for the 50.4 miles. In fact, I was fairly consistent all day, averaging 17.06, 16.63, 16.84, 15.87, and 15.34 miles per hour during the ten-mile intervals. One thing I noticed today were certain smells. The countryside is opening up, it seems. With the warm, balmy weather, everything is green and fresh. I smelled cow manure, flowers, newly cut grass, exhaust fumes, and many other things. The air was aromatically rich. I also noticed an unusually large number of dead snakes on the side of the road. They must be coming out of hibernation or moving around in search of mates. I didn’t stop to see what species they were, of course, but some of them were large. There may even have been a rattlesnake or two in the lot, because I read in the newspaper the other day that the Conroe area, which isn’t far from here, is home to rattlesnakes and other poisonous vipers. I’ll stay away from them, thank you. I survived five years in Tucson without even seeing a live rattlesnake. I’d just as soon make it six straight. One more thing: My bike’s odometer is malfunctioning. For some reason it stopped (briefly) during the ride. Damn! I value accurate statistics. At least I know how far I rode today, since I’ve ridden the same route more than thirty times.
This past Thursday I wrote about the incident in New York City’s Central Park in which a gang of black kids assaulted and raped a white woman, leaving her for dead. The commentary has gone roughly as follows. First, there are those who claim that poverty and deprivation are at the root of it. The kids were frustrated and angry, they say, and that explains why they did it. Second, there are those who claim that the kids are bad—morally depraved. They did it of their own free will and should be held responsible for the consequences of their actions. The amusing thing about this debate is that both sides are right. They’re arguing past one another. As Joel Feinberg [1926-2004] wrote many years ago, there are three main purposes in making causal ascriptions. The first is to shed light on what happened. Joel calls this the “lantern criterion”. The second is to prevent the incident from happening again. This is the “handle criterion”. The third, the “stain criterion”, is to blame someone for what happened. Sometimes our concern is to shed light; sometimes to get a handle on a situation; and sometimes to fix blame on one or more people. It sounds like the first group of commentators is concerned with illumination and engineering. “How should we understand what happened in Central Park?”, they ask, or “How can we prevent this sort of thing from happening again?” Their goal is not so much to fix blame as to understand and cope with the phenomenon of random violence.
Members of the other group, who by and large are conservatives, seem to be more concerned with fixing blame (“staining moral character”) than either understanding what happened or trying to prevent it. In fact, some of them accuse members of the first group of excusing or justifying what was done! This is ridiculous. It’s as if, by trying to understand in some deep way what happened, we are letting these young hoodlums off the hook. But that’s silly. It’s not contradictory to assert both (1) that poverty and social deprivation cause young blacks to commit violent acts and (2) that these youths are blameworthy for doing so. There’s a big difference between explaining an event and justifying it. What bothers me about this exchange is that conservatives never get to the main issue, which is how to prevent incidents like this from occurring. As long as they focus solely on blameworthiness, they will emphasize swift, certain punishment for the commission of crimes. They will ignore other, more profound remedies, such as providing better schools, more and diverse recreational activities, and better role models for inner-city children. This is a good example of how ideology prevents people from making relevant and important distinctions. Just once, I’d like to see someone distinguish the three criteria for causal ascriptions. That is, just once I’d like to see a philosopher tackle a social problem. It’ll never happen, of course, because philosophers eliminate conflict by clarifying its terms, and political pundits have a vested interest in perpetuating conflict.