As always happens in the wake of a mass shooting, last week when Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 people at his former Florida high school, commentators spared not a moment to take to the airwaves to bemoan the government’s alleged inattentiveness to the issue of “mental health” or “mental illness.”
And Republicans, i.e. self-described conservatives, were at least as prone as their liberal Democratic counterparts to offer this response.
Few people think through the implications of this line—yet there are many.
First, it is telling that the proponents of “limited government” and “personal accountability” should lament what they evidently think is a failure on the part of the federal government to be sufficiently aggressive in tampering with the minds of its citizens.
Second, the federal government has already spent, and continues to spend, billions of dollars—all taxpayers’ monies, bear in mind—on “mental health” services. Yet “conservative” Republicans don’t think that the Therapeutic State is expansive enough.
Third, those who insist upon identifying “mental health” as the cause, or at least a cause, of mass shootings, usually do so only with respect to: (a) a certain class of mass shootings—school shootings; and (b) a certain class of shooters—young, predominantly white, school shooters.
When suspected Islamic terrorists drive a truck into a crowd, fly jets into skyscrapers, or shoot up a military installation, there is remarkably little said about the “mental health” challenges of the perpetrators. When non-white gangbangers, irrespectively of their ages, or organized criminals of any ethnicity or age commit atrocities, no one talks about “mental health.”
This is telling, for what it suggests is that like, say, “climate change” and “gun-control,” the elasticity of the term “mental health” may very well be the product of design, providing as it does a justification for the potentially limitless centralization of government authority and equally limitless consolidation of government power over every facet of the lives of its citizens.
For the social engineer who aches to fundamentally transform society, the concept of “mental health” is indispensable. Yet it’s also invaluable inasmuch as its immense broadness permits the engineer to exploit it as selectively as the political circumstances demand: Since public sensibilities (at least at present) promise to be offended by the suggestion that the 9/11 hijackers, ISIS, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and mob hitmen are “mentally ill,” the engineer can simply cast his net elsewhere, toward the Adam Lanzas and Nikolas Cruzes of the world.
There are still yet other disturbing implications of the concept of “mental health” or “mental illness.”
To assign “mental illness” as the “cause” of criminality, whether the crime in question is theft, arson, assault, or murder, is to divest the act of all moral value, positive and negative. In short, if we’re going to insist that a person was “caused” by his “mental illness” to, for example, go on a shooting spree at a school, then it is no longer possible for us to condemn that person and his acts as immoral, much less as evil.
The realms of “mental health/illness” and morality are mutually incommensurable: The language of the one cannot be translated into that of the other.
When the world is considered under the aspect of “mental health/illness,” people are regarded as patients whose behaviors are caused by sicknesses that can and should be treated.
In glaring contrast, when the world is considered morally, people are viewed as agents whose conduct is self-initiated based on the agent’s reasons, conduct that deserves to be praised or blamed, rewarded or punished, depending upon whether the conduct is good or bad, right or wrong.
Crucially, the universe of “mental health/illness” is, ultimately, not a world comprised of persons at all. It is a universe inhabited by objects that behave according to quantifiable regularities, objects that can be studied and measured according to the same scientific principles and laws used to study and measure all other objects of non-human types.
In this universe, human beings become addicted to substances. Purely material beings, “substances,” causally determine other material beings, humans, by “hooking” or enslaving them.
The moral sphere, though, is inhabited by persons, by subjects—not objects. It is precisely by virtue of their standing as subjects that it’s meaningful to regard persons as beings uniquely entitled to dignified treatment. Persons or subjects can no more be causally determined then a bachelor can be married or a square circular; if persons can be spoken of at all as being determined, then it is only in the sense of being self-determined, for unlike the human objects that occupy the realm of “mental health,” the occupants of the moral realm are selves.
There are no addictions or addicts on the moral plane of existence. Rather, people develop habits, some of which are good, some of which are bad. The former are virtues. The latter are vices. People are habit-forming beings, for it is by way of repetition, by repeatedly doing, that learning is made possible.
And the kinds of things to which they become habituated are not dead, material “substances,” entities possessed of a set of trans-cultural, trans-historical properties guaranteed to have one and the same effect on all who partake of them. People become habituated, rather, to activities that, being socially and culturally-constituted, are open-ended and, thus, underdetermined.
To put it simply, whether a person will become strongly habituated to using, say, cocaine will depend upon that person’s own proclivities, interests, aspirations, motivation, history, cultural-setting—comprehensively, a broad spectrum of contingencies and relativities that cannot be forecasted in advance.
The bottom line is this: If Nikolas Cruz was “sick;” if he suffered from a “mental illness” that “caused” him to do what he did, then Cruz was not evil. Neither were his acts of murdering 17 people and shooting many more evil acts. This in turn means that Cruz not only doesn’t deserve punishment; he doesn’t deserve so much as to be criticized. After all, sick people are entitled to our compassion. They deserve to be treated.
So, we must choose: Either Nikolas Cruz was evil or he was sick.
He cannot be both.