June 29, 2001

Strakon Lights Up

"She must have been sick!"
     Thoughts on the drownings in Texas

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Many people who are struggling to comprehend the murder by drowning of the five Yates children in Houston may find that their modern categories are letting them down. Was the murderess evil or sick? Both answers may strike us as unsatisfying.

It's hard to imagine the murderess, as she carried the children one by one to that bathtub, cackling with glee and reveling in self-conscious satanic evil like some movie villain. Imagining such a thing would be doubly hard if the children's own mother  really should turn out to be the killer, as the authorities allege.

Imagining it has already proven to be too hard for many. They have abandoned the "evil" scenario as unbelievable, declaring instead that — in light of the very outrageousness of the act — the alleged killer "must have been sick." Some — mostly women, it seems — are claiming that she was the hapless victim of postpartum depression. It wasn't her fault! An insanity defense may even be gelling around that proposition. Others — also mostly women — are horrified by the proposition that women are slaves of their hormones, and they warn that such an idea altogether undermines feminism and sexual egalitarianism.

However, the belief is widespread nowadays that all craziness, in men and women alike, is indeed the result of "chemical imbalances" or other biological problems. (Except, of course, when it is the result of a bad childhood.) After all, people don't choose  to go nuts, do they? That notion is mediæval! The modern belief in "mental illness" has been fortified by the invention of powerful new drugs that efficiently mask, divert, or cure crazy and anti-social behavior. (I leave it to you to decide which is correct: mask, divert, or cure.)

It's impossible to say what was in the Texas killer's mind and heart. But, speaking generally now, is there really no human evil in the world? That can't be right, can it? Are we really to believe that the worse a man's behavior gets, the less we should hold him responsible for it? As a thousand writers before me must have pointed out, that's a direct path to the utter moral corruption of a society, where no one is responsible for any of his actions.

As we contemplate the vast and awesome felonies that continue to occur in this country despite the Clinton regime's famous Victory over Crime, many of us may feel trapped in a frustrating dilemma. It's a sign that our modern categories of "evil" and "sick" are in need of revision. An additional bit of evidence for that is the odd way in which the Hobson's choice between "evil" and "sick" breaks down and is modified with respect to certain perpetrators: for instance, we didn't very often hear people call Tim McVeigh "sick," although he killed far more children than the drowner in Texas did. The few who couldn't accept the image of McVeigh as a cackling, self-conscious villain — the conventional "evil" scenario — had to dust off a minor substitute category: "tragically mistaken."

Years ago, libertarian philosopher Ronn Neff advanced another telling piece of evidence that there is some confusion inherent in our modern categories. He noted how common it is in the movies for the hero to snarl, "You sick f**k" at the villain — just before blowing him away! And the audience cheers instead of regretting that Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis has unjustly executed a "sick" man who instead should have received kind, compassionate psychiatric treatment. Or at least kind, compassionate drugs.


To revise our categories we require the help of a certain eminent philosophical revisionist. Ayn Rand has never gotten enough credit for one of her observations, even though it's at the heart of her view of human nature and human life. She talked in terms not of "mental illness" but rather of irrationality,  and, without going any further, you may already be able to detect the horns of our dilemma beginning to retract.

But let's do go further. Rand argued that people do choose irrationality and that, once chosen, irrationality is by definition evil  — at least for those of us who have made the fundamental decision to prize our life and well-being as humans over our own non-existence. That's because irrationality promotes our own diminution and, eventually, death: at least the death of our mind and spirit, our death as potentially rational beings, as "man qua man." I should add that, in Rand's view, those who deliberately violate others' rights act irrationally and self-destructively: they are beasts on two legs who deny their own nature as men. And that is destructive not only for their victims but also for the aggressors themselves.

I think Objectivists fell down on the job, a little, in explaining how that business of "choosing irrationality" works. Some people seemed to be left with the absurd image of a man suddenly standing up and declaring, "OK, I choose irrationality!" the way someone else might finally decide and declare in favor of Toyotas over Fords, or salads over hamburgers. In reality, for most people, getting into trouble with irrationality works the same way as getting into trouble with credit-card debt. It is voluntary and inexcusable, to be sure, but it doesn't happen all at once.

It's insidious. A man slips into irrational and self-destructive habits of mind little by little, through a failure to focus that's repeated dozens, hundreds, thousands of times throughout his life over questions big, small, and apparently indifferent. Eventually those bad habits become as hard to shake as overwhelming credit-card debt at 21 percent interest. Few of us revel in credit-card debt, so let's change the analogy: once a man's self-destruction is sufficiently advanced, he may find himself reveling in his irrational habits the same way some substance abusers revel in their abuse.

A sudden explosion of homicidal violence — such as the one in Houston — doesn't contradict the idea of gradually accreting irrationality, any more than does a fatal auto crash "suddenly" precipitated by a drunk who previously had managed to stay out of trouble. "She snapped," some may say of the killer in Texas — and usually that's an apt metaphor, of suddenly snapping under the accumulated weight of bad thinking.


I'm not as sure as I once was that the classic Objectivist analysis explains everything. For example, there are sadistic children in this world, and if they aren't just born bad — "bad to the bone" — they must proceed through the adoption and cementing of evil habits of mind very early and at lightning speed! Moreover, while I reject philosophical determinism as logically untenable, it's hard to deny that, for a child raised in a closet and flogged every hour on the hour, the influence  of his really bad childhood may asymptotically approach determinism  in practice. At the very least we would be astonished if such a child grew up to think clearly or feel the milk of human kindness running through his veins. (I do remain convinced in principle that, sufficiently exerted, man's will can always prevail over his dark side.)

As for "chemical imbalances," no one who has ever over-indulged in alcohol can doubt that what happens to his brain and to the rest of his body can twist and blur his mind no matter how intensely he tries to think rationally. Physical disease can, too. But it remains extremely doubtful whether drugs (or disease, or natural hormonal imbalances) can determine  — rather than merely influence — organized, goal-directed, destructive behavior toward others, such as carrying five children to a bathtub, one by one, and drowning them. I'm pretty sure Rand would argue, and persuasively, that such a plan can't be conceived or accomplished by an automaton; it requires a human mind, calculating and thinking of efficient means to carry out irrational ends.


Whatever our view of Ayn Rand's philosophy as a whole, her synthesis of evil and irrationality does neatly solve our dilemma of having to choose between an implausible presumption of cackling, self-conscious, cinematic evil and an unsatisfying presumption of unwilled sickness. It may even help restrain us from rushing to non-judgment.

June 29, 2001

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