tragedy in Connecticut, we began to hear the age-old rhetoric of retribution and bloodlust. It came in two pieces, sometimes expressed together, sometimes not, but both logically dependent on one another. The first, a reaction of disbelief and exasperation at a seeming lack of causality: "Who could do such a thing?" The second, an impulse to revenge: "I hope he burns in Hell for this."
In the first response, the question is empirical. We actually have a pretty good idea of who do such things. They are usually mentally deranged, due to some combination of mental illness and life trauma. It is very rare that there weren't clear indications of mental distress in their lives leading up to the violence, whether known prior by some or hidden away to be uncovered in subsequent, post-event inquiries. In these cases the question is simply not one of rational action. Statements like "I had a bad childhood", or "I know lots of people (with autism, schizophrenia, etc.) who would never do such things", have no real value. These disorders are large spectrum, as is human experience. There are different types of trauma, and everyone experiences trauma differently. Some people may have the temperament to triumph, while others get pushed in other directions.
What we do know is that mental disorders and trauma have real effects on one's ability to reason, and introduce elements of emotional, behavioral and cognitive impairment. I'm aware of no sociopath ever having existed who had no history of mental disturbance or life trauma. If one did, he or she would be exceedingly rare. In any event, the question would then become how their personality and cognitive capacities were able to form in such a way that committing heinous acts made rational sense to them, in light of the fact that every waking moment, from one's first life breaths, of human socialization in every society in the world has designing effects on our person hood. According to the theory of Societal Capital, such a "normal" person acting so abnormally would be an exceptional outlier.
The second response, calling for bloodthirsty retribution, is logically dependent on the question in the first response going unanswered, and an assumption of free, rational agency. It is reliant both on on there being no good explanation for the individual's behavior, and the assertion that the individual could have done otherwise and yet chose not to do so. As I have tried to show, we know enough in general about human behavior to be able to assume that a a logic reason for the individual's behavior.
The second assertion, about free will, is more difficult. We live in a universe of cause and effect, and it is near impossible to speak of anything existing outside that framework. Yet because consciousness is so complex, and seemingly impenetrable in terms of its causal mechanisms - who can measure the thousands of connections firing from billions of neurons at every second of waking life? - it is often claimed that within this mysterious process there could exist uncaused phenomenon. To put it more simply, the notion of free will is dependent on our being able to act in ways that are free from causality, and thus determine choices ourselves, instead of having them determined for us by the laws of the universe. In this way, we are supposed to be literally supernatural creatures, unhindered by the constraints of reality that everything else - rocks, trees, animals, etc. - are forced to obey.
Incredibly, not only are we imagined to be capable of transcending the physical, spatial world, so too must we transcend the direction of time itself, effecting past events as we would (from some time in the future, if only seconds) like them to have been, freed as it were from the constraints of having had prior reasons for what we had done. A question illustrates this paradox. Can one act for no reason? That is, can one develop reasons for making choices that themselves have no reason? For instance, if I were to decide to make myself a cup of coffee, I would ostensibly have had a good reason for having done so, such as desiring caffeine. And this reason would have been based on prior reasoning - knowledge of the effects of caffeine, knowledge of how to make coffee. To the extent that my ultimate decision was informed, either by conscious cognitive processes, or unconscious emotional, behavioral, etc. processes, there was a reason for it. In fact, it is impossible to imagine a human choice that is not based on a prior causal process. While it is certainly true that we can never know exactly what all of the causes are in a given choice (conscious, unconscious motivation, etc.), there is no way to explain an action without resorting to causation. This seems indeed a tautology, but only in the sense that time moves forward, based on prior interactions within the universe. To assert that consciousness could somehow allow one to step beyond this reality, and to do things that were not caused, is a basic violation of physical law.
The claim that someone "could have acted differently" could have two meanings. The first is simply an acknowledgement that reality unfolds according to prior events; the tree would not have fallen had there not been a wind storm; the dog would not have bit the child had he not been abused as a puppy; things could have been different had prior events been different.
Yet somehow, in humans, we allow often ourselves a different, supernatural meaning. We say that one could have done differently had things been exactly the same. This second meaning is practically quite useful. It serves to reinforce social norms as it reminds us to think of what is good and bad behavior. He should have done this or that. It was great that he did this or that. These are important reminders both to ourselves and to others with whom we share an ever-evolving social sphere of norms and expectations. Through this language of ought and ought not, we contribute to a narrative that solidifies social bonds and contributes to a social project in which our basic desires for a fulfilling, satisfying life are closer to being met. By looking at circumstances as they are, and imagining the possible outcomes of different behavioral choices, we model projections for standards of behavior that we can then hold ourselves and each other accountable for.
Yet of critical importance to this narrative is a model in which we identify with the individual actor. It is of no help to our narrative if we cannot imagine ourselves in their place. When we say an individual ought or ought not do something, we are implicitly injecting ourselves into their position. After all, it would be hypocritical to say an individual ought or ought not do things that we ourselves do not do. Of course, none of us is perfect, and often times our moral convictions are mostly aspirational. In this way though, we are still injecting ourselves into the role of actor, even with the caveat that our projected selves might not be perfectly suited to the role.
In our projections of our selves into the role of actor, reality often gets in the way. That is, the individual is often quite a different person from us. To the extent that this is true, our attempt to reinforce a social narrative is weakened; a story about what I would have done is a story about what everyone should do, and thus a valuable model. However, a story about what someone very different than I am introduces complications. Effective models are clear and easily understood. Effective social models are those in which everyone can imagine themselves a part of. Everybody likes a good story. We want to identify with the protagonist. Ought and ought not stories are no different. It takes a great deal of mental energy to try and comprehend the mind of a psychological stranger. We therefore tend to imagine others as similar to ourselves. The cognitive efficiency of doing so, combined with the handy utility of reinforcing the larger social normative narrative places pressure on us to simplify what are usually very complicated stories behind tragic actions of individuals.
While a more nuanced approach to reflection upon tragic human behaviors such as mass shootings, one that acknowledges the minds of such individuals as very different from our own, and assumes that there is indeed a causal mechanism in place that led to their actions, requires more patience and more mental effort to quiet our more primitive neuro-physiological responses, I believe it ultimately allows us to not only attain a more accurate picture of reality, but indeed to further a stronger social narrative that is based less on the weak bonds of illusion and naivete about human nature and more on a sophisticated understanding of what it means for all of us to be human, fully-caused - and flawed - souls. We are thus ever more prepared in very real ways for active compassion and calm wisdom about the tragedies of human behavior. We no longer need to bother with the empty and nihilistic feelings that come from pointless questions such as "Why would any one do such a thing?", and instead allow ourselves to experience the tragedy as we would any other natural calamity, without unnecessary blame but instead a singular focus on natural grief and constructive reflection upon what we as a society might be able to do to limit such future tragedies.
For those interested in exploring more of what the Naturalistic wordview has to say about free will and human behavior, check out Tom Clarke's excellent Naturalism.org