The Ethical Life

Richard Kyte: Defining the monsters in us

2013-01-13T00:30:00Z 2013-06-27T10:03:46Z Richard Kyte: Defining the monsters in usBy Richard Kyte | La Crosse La Crosse Tribune
January 13, 2013 12:30 am  • 

In 1774 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” in which a young man kills himself after the woman he loves rejects him. The novel, popular throughout Europe, had an unanticipated, regrettable effect: a number of young men committed suicide due to romantic despair, something virtually unknown before that time.

Human beings are instinctively imitative. We shape our lives according to the images that we ourselves invent. Those images provide us with new possibilities of emotion, action and reaction, creativity and destruction.  

What images shape our lives in unanticipated, regrettable fashion today?

According to Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, they are the images placed into our homes by the purveyors of violent movies and video games, “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people.”  

But what LaPierre failed to note is the extent to which all of us, he included, have been influenced by the media he condemned. Take, for example, the following remark, which has passed virtually unnoticed: “The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them.”

Hannibal Lecter, the Joker, Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort: the most notorious villains of movies and books are indeed monsters. They are so far removed from humanity as to be incomprehensible. That is precisely what makes their hold over our collective imagination so pernicious.

But what does it mean to think of real people as “monsters?”

All ideas have a history, and this particular one can be traced back to Manichaeism, a religious view dating to the 3rd century in which everything that happens in the universe is shaped by two equally powerful forces of good and evil.

It provides a simple explanation for why people do bad things: it is because they have been contaminated by evil. And since good and evil are mutually exclusive, there is no point in trying to gain some sort of understanding. The only way to win a dispute with evil is by force.

The contemporary expression of Manichaeism is this: You can’t reason with monsters like Adam Lanza; the only way to protect ourselves from them is to lock them up or kill them.

But human beings, even those who do monstrous things, are not monsters; they are human beings.

The first task of ethics is to describe the world correctly. True descriptions of fundamental things are crucial, because when it comes to finding practical solutions to problems, which laws or policies seem reasonable depends to a great extent on how they fit with the way we see the world.

How does this apply in the case of someone like Adam Lanza? Well, for starters, it reminds us that we should not simply dismiss him as a “monster.” If we want to prevent future shootings, we should try to understand what motivated him, which means trying to understand how his actions may have seemed reasonable to him at the time.

Of course, this means we have to acknowledge that Lanza, and other young men who have committed mass murder like Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold, are perhaps much more like ourselves than we want to admit. This is not to excuse or minimize the terrible wrongs they committed; rather it is to face the fact that their wrongs are human wrongs, something to which any human being, given certain circumstances, say of mental illness, or distorted perception, or strong emotion, may be susceptible.    

None of this leads us in a straightforward fashion toward a solution to school shootings, because there is no simple true answer to the question of why some people do terrible things to others. But there are many simple false answers. When it comes to phenomena that are widespread and enduring, the answers that point the finger at someone else and say, “It is their fault and none of mine,” are generally among the false ones.  

As long as we remain under the influence of a distorted picture of human nature, any reasonable solution will escape our grasp.

The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(11) Comments

  1. Buggs Raplin
    Report Abuse
    Buggs Raplin - January 16, 2013 8:17 am
    Of course, I meant to say the gullibles have NO sense of our Constitution or government tyranny. Indeed, they can't read the handwriting on the wall. It's there, but they just can't read it.
  2. Buggs Raplin
    Report Abuse
    Buggs Raplin - January 16, 2013 8:13 am
    The gun violence in this country is not by those loitering outside of convenience stores, and we don't lock up people in jail for being ill. We lock them up when they committ crimes. It is a fact that 90% of school shootings are committed by people who have been on anti-depressants. But Big Pharma has been a big fan of his royal highness Caesar Obama, who loves children so much he's murdered 178 of them in Pakistan and Yemen with his drone program. But the gullibles, who have sense of the Constitution and government tyranny will clamor for gun control. Oh save us, big government by restricting our guns. Sort of like a mouse asking a cat for protection.
  3. Buggs Raplin
    Report Abuse
    Buggs Raplin - January 15, 2013 4:01 pm
    Hypocrisy, thy name is Michael Welch, a supporter of the child killer, his highness the imperial warmonger Caesar Obama, who draws up kill lists of people to assassinate,and who has paved the way for the indefinite detention of Americans without trial. Welch wants to 'break the back of the NRA." Presumably,then, Welch wants to do away with the 2nd Amendment, as that is what the NRA is all about. Welch, who reads history, but has no sense of it. A gullible, liberal socialist fool.
  4. Michael Welch
    Report Abuse
    Michael Welch - January 15, 2013 1:19 pm
    If those so adamantly against ANY "gun control" will pony up the tax monies required to REALLY care for the mentally ill and stop relegating them to panhandling outside the local Kwik Trip or being imprisoned for BEING ill, THEN I can believe in some "sincerity" here.

    If the Republican house of reps will INCREASE funding for mental health clinics and ongoing care for those suffering that will be the greatest surprise, considering they can't even bring themselves to fully fund aid to the victims of superstorm Sandy.

    "Hypocrisy thy name is Republican!"...
  5. LesTrafik
    Report Abuse
    LesTrafik - January 14, 2013 5:04 pm
    I wonder what the author would say about a Dexter Morgan type?
    “there is no simple true answer to the question of why some people do terrible things to others.”

    To a ‘hedgehog’ there is only 1 identifiable reason or solution: theirs. A hedgehog is a repeat offender of his or her mistakes and has the invariable ability to look away as the cliff approaches. Hedgehogs are ‘loud’ or strive to draw attention. But ‘loud’ has been proven more wrong than right over the long-term. Best not to gamble on the hedgehog over the long-term when it comes to ownership of specific types of guns or the labeling of others as "monsters".
  6. Buggs Raplin
    Report Abuse
    Buggs Raplin - January 13, 2013 11:40 am
    Kyte, the Tribune's "ethics" columnist makes a big error here convicting Adam Lanza of this tragedy. "Alleged" gunman would be the correct identification. Yes, I know I'm committing a faux pas amongst those who, for some reason, believe everything they hear in the mainstream media when I suggest Lanza may or may not have been the killer. There are a lot of unanswered questions at this point and authorities are not saying much. For starters, it's been reported that Lanza's vehicle with license plate 872-YEO is registered, not to his mother, but to a Chris Rodia. If that's true, then we have to wonder how Lanza got to the school in the first place. But then maybe the car was his mother's and maybe Lanza was the killer, but I would hope that asking legitimate questions has not become a forbidden thing in 2013 America.
  7. blacksunshine
    Report Abuse
    blacksunshine - January 13, 2013 9:49 am
    People can talk all day, and try to understand why people do such unspeakable things. In the end there are just people with issues, and maybe there isn't the explanation that we so desire.
    With that being said, I think the schools should highly consider having staff trained in firearm use, and have protocals for safely securing the firearms on premis.
  8. FUBAR
    Report Abuse
    FUBAR - January 13, 2013 9:19 am
    But, our Political Liberal leaders have armed guards at THEIR children's schools. Weird Huh?
  9. Buggs Raplin
    Report Abuse
    Buggs Raplin - January 13, 2013 9:04 am
    The NRA has proposed a reasonable solution to reduce school tragedies. Armed guards. But what has been the response of so many liberals. "Oh, no, we can't have guns in the schools." Well, it seems to me if there'd been an armed guard at Newtown, there'd be a lot of people who would still be alive.
  10. Buggs Raplin
    Report Abuse
    Buggs Raplin - January 13, 2013 8:59 am
    More liberal gibberish from Richard. Liberals appear to believe that somehow with the necessary help from government a utopia can somehow be created where we're all safe from harm. Such a belief is utter nonsense.
  11. Napoleon
    Report Abuse
    Napoleon - January 13, 2013 5:15 am
    Kyte: "..we have to acknowledge that Lanza, and other young men who have committed mass murder like Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold, are perhaps much more like ourselves than we want to admit."

    Obviously, there is much truth to that: ordinary Germans becoming concentration camp guards and so on.

    Some scientists say that there is something different in the psychopath, perhaps a malformed amygdala:

    "Neurobiological basis of psychopathy"

    As an individual, it's not within my power to fix all that. So I carry a gun, lock my doors, and turn on my burglar alarm. I want to see violent felons kept in jail, kept away from society because, when released, they might do harm to me and my family. I want our nation to look into sociological and economic factors, to research the psychology and the biology, to not create so many monsters.

    "You cannot save the planet. You may be able to save yourself and your family." - Clint Smith
Add Comment
You must Login to comment.

Click here to get an account it's free and quick