Of the Nature of Agency

There are few things that irritate me more than the unseemly spectacle of someone who claims to be an adult placing blame for some heinous deed on someone or something other than the perpetrator(s). Very simply, the person who commits the act is to blame.

There may be mitigating factors, and there may be complicating factors, but unless the person who committed the act is incapable of understanding what they did, the ultimate fault rests on their shoulders and theirs alone. They chose to bomb a theater full of teenage girls, or to open fire in a crowded nightclub, or to drive a truck through a large crowd. Nobody made that decision for them.

When you stop at a red light even though there is no traffic in the opposite direction, you are making a choice to do this. Your reasons might vary from the practical (“If there’s a cop hanging around I will get a ticket”) to the moral (“The law says you stop at red lights, therefore I am stopping at this red light”) and pass through a mix of both or any other possible reasoning (“I’m doing this now so it’s a habit when it actually matters”). The point is that you and only you make that decision. Nobody makes it for you.

If you find a wallet full of cash, you are the one who decides if you turn it over to the police or do something else with it. Your upbringing might influence your decision, as might your circumstances (I can completely believe some people would be way more tempted if they were extremely broke). If you kept it and then got arrested for theft, being raised to believe that anything lying around was “finders keepers” might count as a mitigating factor, as might you being absolutely skint at the time. That said, it might not – after all, any number of people who share unfortunate circumstances choose to take the moral and/or legal path.

So why, when news of some horrible act hits the news, do some people start blaming other things? Why do they blame guns? The USA? {$PARTY} voters? {$PRESIDENT}?

It seems to me that it’s easier in some ways to blame some third party that doesn’t have agency in the situation than to accept either that someone can be such a depraved monster that they don’t see anything wrong with that they’ve done, or that they themselves might just be tempted to do something heinous themselves. It’s a way, I think, to distance themselves from any need to understand why someone would think it was okay to shoot at people they’d never met, or to blow up little girls. After all, if you’ve never been taught what real empathy is like, you’d be sure to fear that understanding someone meant approving of them. That’s a normal human thing, to fear becoming what you learn to understand, right along with what seems to be a tribal need to split everything into “all good” and “all bad”.

It’s a dangerous thing to do, though. It leads to excusing vile criminal acts because bad things happened to the criminal. Or to excusing nihilist actions because your nation’s government once made stupid decisions relating to the perpetrators’ governments (and may still be making stupid decisions. Let’s face it, stupid is multipartisan and multicultural). It leads to thinking that the United States, despite being a nation where the poorest can have a standard of living that varies between middle class and upper class in most of the rest of the world, despite being one of the free-est and least {$NOUN}-ist societies anywhere in the world, is a horrible place because not everything the United States does is good (regardless of what you consider to be good). It leads to thinking that because Nazi Germany was unquestionably evil, the Soviet Union must have been good because it was opposed to Nazi Germany.

That last one is particularly egregious, given that the Soviets were just as fond of mass murder as the Nazis. The main differences were that they were more or less on our side (really, it was more a case of “had the same enemy”) and that they went after all religions and ethnicities, not just one.

I honestly do not care what religion anyone follows, or what code of ethics they consider to be proper, as long as they do not attempt to force it on me and they don’t harm the uninvolved or innocent. If your culture or your religion or your code of beliefs says that this makes me evil and I have to die, so be it. I will defend myself against you with a clear conscience.

You, however, do not have to believe that someone else must die for your existence. If you choose such a belief, that decision is yours, and ultimately, you are responsible for what you do. Blaming others and claiming they made you kill them impresses only the feeble-minded.


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