Public opinion regarding the Raoul Moat case has reached a familiar fork in the road. On the one hand, those sympathetic to Moat try to portray him as a person with mental health issues, let down by the authorities and society. On the other, some, like the Prime Minister, see him as “a callous murderer, full stop, end of story”. It is a debate that seems to emerge every time there is a high profile crime like this (see, for instance, the apologists for Joseph Fritzl, on the grounds that he was abused as a child).
Yet the disagreement is deeper and more significant than it appears on the surface. It is not simply the usual face-off between bleeding-heart liberals and uncaring conservatives. Rather, the difficulty that most people have in digesting such events has its roots in age-old philosophical tension between determinism and moral responsibility.
Determinism is the idea that all events are inevitable, the result of an inescapable chain of causation that began in the big bang. At its root is the belief that everything can be explained causally. Just as physical phenomena like the tides and the seasons can be understood and accounted for, the same is true for human characteristics and behaviour. The nature-nurture debate exemplifies this idea, seeking to understand how genetic and environmental factors make us the way we are.
The problem with determinism is that it appears to be inconsistent with free will and moral responsibility. If all my thoughts and actions can be explained causally, then it is unjustified to hold me accountable for my actions. I could not have acted in any way other than I did, so why should I be praised or blamed?
The relevance of these ideas to Raoul Moat should be clear. The thoroughgoing determinist will insist that Moat cannot be held responsible for the unfortunate murders that occurred: they were just the result of a toxic mix of circumstance and character that ended tragically. They will claim that you simply cannot put a person like Raoul Moat in a desperate situation like the one he was in, and not expect him to go on a murderous rampage. And Raoul Moat surely did not choose to be the sort of person prone to murderous outbursts, so it would be unfair to blame him for his actions.
The difficulty that society and the media face is their inability to reconcile two inconsistent propositions – that our actions are greatly conditioned by outside forces, and that we are morally responsible for what we do. The result is that certain forms of conditioning – mental disorder, childhood disadvantage – are seen as genuine mitigation, whereas others are not.
The determinist will insist that the question of whether Moat had a ‘genuine excuse’ for his actions as irrelevant. It is a matter of degree, and the threshold for sympathy, the point at which we characterise a person’s actions as involuntary, is arbitrary. To draw an analogy, what is the difference between a kleptomaniac and a person who simply finds the urge to steal harder than most to resist? We all have different inclinations, good and evil, of different strengths and we vary in our capacity to fight them. These are facts about ourselves that we do not choose.
The pertinent question in the aftermath of an incident like this has nothing to do with the character of the protagonists. If we dig deep enough for excuses, we will always find them, because Moat’s actions, like all of ours, were shaped by forces beyond his ken or control. Whether Raoul Moat was a good or a bad man is neither here nor there. The point is that something clearly undesirable (the shootings) has occurred, and the question is how we can avoid things like this happening again.
Ironically, this question feeds right back into the existing discussion. When the Moat sympathisers criticise the authorities for their inability to help him and neutralise the threat that he posed, they are trying to ensure that there is not another Raoul Moat. If social services or the police force act differently, they may prevent people like Raoul Moat being in positions like the one he found himself in.
Those that condemn Raoul Moat, on the other hand, focus excessively on pinning the blame on him, on holding him accountable for his actions. Nevertheless, it is possible that they are unconsciously working towards the same goal as the sympathisers. It is important to understand that while the literal truth of moral responsibility may be redundant, there is still good reason to keep up the pretence that we are morally responsible. A world where those who did wrong were not criticised or punished, by conscience, society or law, would be a world with much more wrongdoing. Therefore, even though it is not fair to blame Moat for his actions, it is necessary to denounce him to show would-be Raoul Moats the cost of behaving in such a manner.
There is a debate to be had, now that Raoul Moat is dead. But it has nothing to do with the man’s legacy. It is rather the question of how best to prevent such events from occurring again.