James Holmes: How his case can shed light on discussions of Moral Responsibility.

Posted on July 24, 2012 by

In a recent blog post in Scientific American the author, Larry Geenemeier, suggests that the accused Colorado Shooter was lacking cognitive control and points specifically to one’s cognitive ability in order to try to make sense of the actions in Aurora, Colorado and other recent events by similarly profiled assailants. Though I agree that we should try to understand the psychological states of these individuals, I think it’s wrong to assume that shooters like the accused James Holmes were lacking cognitive control when they decided to act. The purpose of this post will be to try to motivate the claim that James Holmes is (likely) morally responsible for his actions, and, because of that, we can properly blame him for what he did (assuming he is guilty, which seems obvious at this point). In order to motivate such a claim I’ll argue that Holmes, and others like him, have the cognitive capacity of self-reflection and this is where we ought to ground ascriptions of moral responsibility.

What do I mean by moral responsibility? Well, as I mentioned in the comments thread in an earlier post (see post and comments here), I take moral responsibility to be different from legal and causal responsibility. But, for the sake of brevity, rather than recapitulate the differences between the three once again I’ll offer only what I take moral responsibility to be, so that we can move quickly to the discussion of the present case (feel free to re-visit the past discussion where more (not all) of the details are hashed out)

Judgements of moral responsibility are different from judging an act to be morally right or wrong, the latter judgements are cashed out as deontic judgements. Judgements of moral responsibility are, in essence, judgements aiming to gauge whether the accused perpetrator is morally blameworthy or praiseworthy for the act in question, assuming that the perpetrator is causally responsible; that he_in fact_ committed the act . This is an important distinction because it is possible for someone to be causally responsible for an act but not be morally responsible. There are mitigating factors that could play a role in mitigating moral responsibility in the face of being causally responsible. Consider the case of Joe.

Joe walks into his office. Unbeknownst to him, there is a bomb device strapped to his chair and it will detonate a bomb in another city if he sits on his chair. (There were no warning signs that could have led Joe to think there was a bomb connected to his chair and Joe sits on his chair to do his work every morning). So, Joe sits on his chair, BOOM,  a bomb goes off in Chicago killing everyone in the city. Joe is causally responsible for killing millions of people. Am I justified in blaming Joe for killing millions of people? I don’t think so.  Hopefully, this helps to differentiate the difference between causal responsibility and moral responsibility, if one has any questions regarding this we can discuss it further in the comments. For now, let’s discuss the case of James Holmes and some of the other similar cases mentioned in the Scientific American post.


In the above mentioned post, Larry suggested that the James Holmes case was “eerily similar” to the case from Blacksburg, Virginia in 2007 when 32 people were shot dead and 17 lay injured on the Virginia Tech campus. In both cases, the accused shooters “matched a particular profile—a disgruntled loner with grievances against societal institutions and who displayed an abhorrent inability or unwillingness to exercise control over violent impulses.” But, is this an accurate depiction of what was going on for the shooters, particularly Holmes? I don’t think that it is, and, seeing the case this way mitigates the shooters moral responsibility, this isn’t why I disagree with the assessment, however, it is a consequence of seeing the shooters in this light. It also seems that others want to point to a seemingly obvious “mental illness” for the cause of the shooters decision to act in that manner (see comment thread on this CBC news report). But again, I don’t think such claims are warranted. And if they are, then it seems we all act on impulses, which seems quite unintuitive to me. Let me explain.

Impulse is usually defined as (1)”the influence of a particular feeling, mental state, etc.” or, (2)” (the)sudden, involuntary inclination prompting to action”. If either of these is right, then it seems that we all act on impulse (especially when considering the former definition). Because of this, I think that the definition need be a bit more nuanced to get to at what we mean by impulse, or acting on impulse. So, maybe the lack of reflection coupled with the above definition (1) will suffice. That seems a bit more plausible. But, if we think about Holmes, his actions do not seem impulsive at all, whether considering our nuanced definition (1) or (2). He planned out the attack intricately, he prepared for months! These facts seem to point in the opposite direction of impulsive to contemplative. Also, it seems that Holmes was aware of social norms and had an ability to abide by them prior to this action, this also seems to be a point against mitigating his moral responsibility. Now, assuming he had control (that no-one implanted a device in his brain that made him do it) coupled with the knowledge he had of his actions (what his actions could produce, i.e, death), then it seems that he should be held morally responsible.

Now, for many unfamiliar with the free will and moral responsibility literature this point might come off as obvious, but, many within the philosophical community would disagree with my conclusion. For instance, many think that one must see their actions as morally wrong in order to be justly blamed for the act. This is why we may only blame children as a tool to teach them but that we don’t ACTUALLY hold them morally responsible for their actions because they honestly don’t know how some actions would/could affect others and why it’s wrong. Similarly, Holmes could have seen his action as a needed one for whatever reasons he had (like the child), but, as long as those reasons were genuinely his at the time of the shooting and as long as those reasons were grounded in what Holmes thought was right then we lose our ability to hold him morally responsible. This conclusion seems unintuitive, and, when digging deeper to try to understand it, it seems quite wrong. But, that isn’t enough to claim that the conclusion is_in fact_ wrong. Consider this brief example.

One person kills 3 to save 10. Insert your favorite trolley case here _____. Do we blame the person who decides to kill 3 instead of 10 (assuming one must choose as one has to in trolley cases)? Usually not. This provides some support to the conclusion that Holmes might not be morally responsible. If he saw the case in his own deranged way as some sort of trolley like case then maybe he’s not. With that said, it will take a lot of convincing to argue that he in fact saw the case in this way. And, even if he did, I’m skeptical that alone mitigates his moral responsibility, but, I have not provided much of an argument for why he would be morally responsible if in fact he saw the situation as many see the trolley cases above. This is why many within the philosophical community would refrain from holding him morally responsible (if in fact Holmes didn’t think his actions were wrong).


I have offered some reasons to deny the claims made in the Scientific American post that James Holmes was in fact acting on a violent impulse and that he lacked cognitive control when he acted. The contemplative nature of the crime suggests that Holmes was guided by reason. And, even if he was guided by an initial impulse, it seems that Holmes had the reflective capacity to be held morally responsible, assuming he met the other requirements.

With that said, if Holmes thought that what he was doing was genuinely the “right thing to do” then it seems that those (like myself) that want to hold him morally responsible for his actions will be hard-pressed if they want to hold on to the ability to mitigate moral responsibility in the trolley cases. At the end of the day, I think we might be able to get around such conundrums, though I’ll save those musings for another post.