By Robert Schmaltz
December 3, 2015, a BBC News headline reads “California Shooting: Just another day in the United States of America, another day of gunfire, panic, and fear.” By all measures this act of violence claiming the lives of at least fourteen persons, maiming over twenty bodies, and shattering the lives of countless others, constitutes another mass shooting spilling blood over the social fabric of these United States.
Undoubtedly, there will be a lot of frustration and fury expressed directly toward our elected public servants in the U.S. Congress and select lobby groups such as the National Rife Association, whose Executive Vice President will no doubt keep the resolve of all passionate gun rights advocates nationwide.
U.S. citizens are again left staggered and wanting a response from leadership that is somehow proportional to the pain inflicted by these travesties, best sought in the form of justice. Again, we will hear the human cry reflecting the desperate need for sensible gun control. A lot of numbers will be held up meant to reflect the number of mass shootings that have occurred this year alone, and how very rare these incidents are elsewhere in world.
To say that gun regulation laws are just fine as they are, given what it is we have come to live with as a national epidemic, does seem without a doubt tragically naïve. A matter of fact that is arguably worse for our collective conscious is something Ted Alcorn, a researcher for Everytown for Gun Safety, points out, “…it’s worth remembering that on average, 88 Americans die by gunfire every day, outstripping any mass shooting in our nation’s history” (emphasis added).
What is missing from the conversation is a willingness to address the moral implications of these actions and our reactions publicly. Relating to the moral implications is to ask what these acts of seemingly random acts of cruelty and brutality, of citizen-against-citizen reflect about the condition of our national commitment to the public good? This is to question the correctness of the moral compass used to guide our personal and collective agency.
In place of mourning the losses and embodying the pain of those most directly tortured by these events, the response is typically one of rage and railing against. It is through mourning that we may learn to empathize more not only with the needs of those holding on to loved ones lost but also with the needs of each other. These incidents come very close to uniting the public in a common place of affect, but that ripeness quickly disintegrates from the exasperated heat of fury. Mourning presents us with the opportunity to solidify our fundamental human ties with each other in both body and spirit, in dignity.
By recognizing the dignity we share in each other through mourning together, and ordering our thoughts toward recognizing where we have each come to ignore the impulse toward the aim of collective good, we add content to the hope for peace. Peace and nonviolence cannot be expected to emerge from the state, or from the orientation of individual interests around desires and against that which conflicts with those desires. Peace and nonviolence can only emerge socially, through social cohesion, socially recognizing our personal and collective vulnerabilities along with our social and collective need to give and receive to one another according to the awareness of common needs.
In light of another bloody day in the United States of America, we find that a sensible, or better yet, reasoned approach to public ethics is in order as much as if not more desperately than gun regulation. We still do manage to exhibit traits of good graces, even as it becomes more rare to know anyone who hasn’t in some capacity been touched by random acts of gun violence or more broadly vicious civilian-on-civilian violence. Ethics teaching and questions of moral agency have all but completely collapsed in the social sphere; those spheres of human endeavor specifically and historically committed to fostering human excellences, peaceful cohabitation, and social flourishing. For Aristotle, politics was not the first principle of a just society; ethics was the first principle of a just and good society.
The cause of expanding the sphere of well-being, facilitating social progress toward states of non-violence and dynamic congruity begs for the re-direction of politicized responses toward ethical responses. That is to say humanity desperately requires that our emotional selves be aligned with the aim to understand the values expressed by our lesser nature and the values of our greater nature, grounded by a commitment to an inclusive order of human flourishing.
Arguably, the pressures of society, the injustices, the corruption, the greater aggressions against peoples as subjects to larger powers can be blamed for the distress. Though, without balance, this takes on the shape of misappropriated accountability. Our collective responsibility as humans of a kind and as a nation gathered together conditionally requires that we ask how the conditions cultivating civilian violence have come about.
We are charged with the responsibility to venture to re-create the social and ethical conditions on more sustaining grounds in accordance with the importance of life’s concrete particularity, lived locally, bodily, and through the senses from womb to tomb. This is the nature of human freedom, to share our being alive this way. Human freedom cannot be infringed upon, or subject to terror. It can be repressed. This freedom grounds us, transcends politics, and is central to ethics. It is, in the Kantian sense, the human agency that prevails as a synthesis of the dying and living, suffering and joyful, self; The self relying on a moral compass to navigate the uncertain terms of possibility and necessity. And this freedom requires decentering our passions from our own sense of personal supremacy in it’s politicized form, and being open to the fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility we have to each other.
What is of primary importance is not that legal corrections are put in place, but rather, guidance that steers society away from the habits of cruelty and brutality for the grace of non-violence in living together and flourishing.
Robert Schmaltz is completing an M.A. in Ethics & Society at Fordham University. His research interests include Political Philosophy, Biopolitics and Bioethics. You can follow him on Twitter @RLSCHMALTZ and read more of his work on his blog.