Guns don't kill people, but ideas do?

A lingering question which arises from yesterday's post about Cultural Marxism is this one:

Are ideas by one person responsible for behavior of others?

Let's start with, Who is responsible for an idea?

Normally, credit goes to whoever has a new or original idea, regardless of the idea's rightness or wrongness. If some engineer were to come up with a proposed solution to the Louisiana oil spill, it would be his whether it worked or not. Credit for a good idea, blame for a bad idea. Of course, in the normal scope of things, those who decided to and did implement the idea would be held immediately responsible. And accountable. That's easy to do when there is a hierarchical chain of command, such as in a corporate setting. With government, it becomes much fuzzier because of the political dimension.

Then there are academic ideas, sometimes taking the form of scientific claims. Anthropogenic Global Warming theory is packaged as scientific fact, even though it is opinion. Those who endorse it are often loud, almost evangelical proponents who liken those who dispute them to Holocaust Deniers.

AGW is not a bad illustration of responsibility. The proponents claim that the opponents should be held responsible for vast environmental catastrophes and untold misery, and the opponents claim that the AGW people will be responsible for the destruction of the economy.

But again, are the ideas of these people responsible? Or are they themselves responsible for their actions? This is an important distinction, because if we blame an idea (at least, in the way the Cultural Marxists of the Frankfurt School are being blamed for many ills of modern society), that switches the focus to the originators of the idea and tends to absolve the later followers. I have long had a problem with that, because it means that Hitler was more responsible for the Holocaust than those who did the killing, even though Germans were at one time perfectly free to ignore or laugh away the crackpot ideas of a failed young artist who became a psychopathic beer hall orator. This is not to say that Hitler was not responsible for the implementation of his ideas, for he was not only the guy with the ideas, he was also the guy who implemented them directly -- by being Der Fuhrer.

Karl Marx is another matter. Wrong as he was, his ideas contemplated the German workers leading a revolution which would represent the next step in human evolution. The idea of ragged country people banding together and murdering urban people en masse (as happened with the Khmer Rouge) can hardly be squared with Marxism, yet the Khmer Rouge called themselves Marxists, and many would argue that Marx's theories "caused" Cambodian genocide. I doubt Marx would agree if he could be awakened from the dead and asked. People say that "ideas have consequences" but how far does it go?

For years it has annoyed me how people will blame Timothy Leary for the fact that young people took LSD.

Wow. It's getting to the point where almost anything you can think of can be found online. I just remembered an interview of Leary on the Wally George Show in which Leary was called on the carpet, and blamed for the ruined lives of millions, and here it is.

(Highly entertaining, and it illustrates what a charming ham of a person Leary was.)

Might as well blame William S. Burroughs for young people using heroin. True, he never coined a slogan like "Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out." But suppose in a fit of advocacy I coined the slogan "RELEGALIZE DRUGS." I did think of it years ago, and while I have no idea whether I was the first, suppose I had the requisite Ph. D. in the right areas and was given credit for it. Would I be responsible if drugs were eventually relegalized? Would I be to blame for all who died of drug overdoses? I don't see how. I can't control people, and I am not responsible for what others do with my ideas. Besides, relegalizing drugs was not my idea, but a copycat idea. Legal drugs has already been tried, in an unwitting "social experiment" which took place from 1776-1914, and which failed utterly to destroy the country or the culture. Even the use of drugs by American presidents raised few if any eyebrows.

So in the absence of compulsion (which is not an idea but an action upon the idea), I have a serious problem seeing the ideas of one person as being responsible for the actions of other people. It makes about as much sense as blaming a distillery for the actions of a drunk driver. Or Nagai Nagayoshi for the actions of speed addicts or meth lab operators. This may all sound childishly simple, but the fact is that we live in a society which blames guns for the conduct of people, and even entire breeds of dogs for incidents which result from the conduct of irresponsible dog owners.

Suppose further that an idea is not especially original, but reflects a crass political attempt to repackage other ideas in the hope of manipulating people, as in the case of what they call "Cultural Marxism." Promote sex, drugs, and rock and roll in the hope of destroying America! The Frankfurt School had a lot of truly obnoxious (and far more dangerous) ideas, like the dissemination of the doctrine that there is no truth, or the idea of "repressive tolerance." But did these ideas really do damage? Or did the people who believed in them do damage and use them as justification? I don't think the problem lies with bad ideas so much as the fact that bad people like bad ideas and use them to do bad things. People gravitate towards what they like; good people tend towards good ideas, and bad people tend towards bad ideas. Not only that, but bad people can use good ideas for bad purposes. The notoriously anti-American Communist Party was really big on racial integration. Eventually, racial integration became a reality. Does that mean the Communist Party should be credited for it? I don't see why.

Whether an idea is good or bad, I think that the greatest single factor which determines how far it will go is how popular it is. Ideas resonate with people who like them. The popularity of an idea says more about the people who made it popular than the originator.

DISCLAIMER: This post was not my idea. M. Simon made me do it.

MORE (07/04/10): Speaking of Cultural Marxism, Ann Althouse has a highly illuminating video showing how Marx's nonsense led to runaway nihilism on a college campus in the 1930s.

Consider yourselves warned -- especially those who are easily offended!

UPDATE: I blame Glenn Reynolds for linking a post which was not my idea! (As I said, M. Simon made me do it.)

Many thanks to Glenn for the link, and a warm welcome to all.

Comments appreciated, agree or disagree.

posted by Eric on 07.03.10 at 03:06 PM


Interesting thoughts, Eric. This topic also connects to religions, which are in part sets of ideas. Christian faith leads me to oppose homosexual behavior and abortion, but if I were to harm an abortion doctor or a gay person, the religion would have made me do it only in the most remote sense.

But what about a faith (rhymes with Bislam) whose founding documents order violence against unbelievers? It seems to me the religion makes them do it in a more direct sense.

notaclue   ·  July 3, 2010 6:09 PM

One of the most pernicious and seductive problems today is the ability for people to blame their problems on others. It used to be if you screwed up it was your problem, today it's society's fault or your parents or your friends or whatever.

Communism or marxism didn't make Lenin do what he did, he did it for power.
Communism was merely the vehicle he used to accomplish what he wanted.
You're a fool if you allow an ideology to pervert your thinking, but it's still your fault.

We are each responsible for ourselves, you can't blame anybody else for your actions.

Veeshir   ·  July 3, 2010 7:22 PM

Pish posh. As is well known, has brainwashed me, and that's what I'll say when I get in trouble.

hanmeng   ·  July 3, 2010 8:25 PM

As always. Honored to be of service.

M. Simon   ·  July 3, 2010 9:23 PM

"G-d damn, I say, G-d damn the pusher man." -- Steppenwolf.

"Go ahead, have some Kool-Aid." -- Jim Jones

Ideas arent' freestanding. They have proponents who are willing to promote them, e.g. George Bernard Shaw who thought killing unproductive people with poison gas was a good idea. Some other people thought so, too, evidently, and at least one of them was able to try this idea out on a large scale. Do ideas directly kill people? Obviously not. Do ideas have consequences, sometimes horrific consequences? Obviously yes.

OCBill   ·  July 5, 2010 6:07 PM

Bad ideas and bad people kill people. Lenin,
Stalin, Mao, Hitler. How many people died
of malaria because of the banning of DDT use? So how about Rachel Carson? What about

ptl   ·  July 5, 2010 6:11 PM

A defective product can be responsible for the deaths of individuals. That doesn't mean that there are not also others who share responsibility for the resulting deaths. We destroy the defective product and punish those who are culpable.

When ideas are responsible for bad results we need to identify them as part of the casual chain and hold them responsible. The proper action is to reject those ideas, and place shared responsibility on any who have accepted such ideas, and spread them.

Brian Macker   ·  July 5, 2010 6:43 PM

Interesting post. Why write it if you didn't think ideas have consequences?

chemman   ·  July 5, 2010 8:13 PM

Come on people, there's more than enough blame to spread around for these kinds of things. Surely psychopaths, the people who incite them, and the ideologies that drive them can all be blamed at once. That's what sharing is all about.

RINO in Name Only   ·  July 5, 2010 8:36 PM

I think people confuse causation with responsibility. Just because a later event would not have happened without a prior event doesn't mean the prior event caused the later event. It's a natural human tendency, but that doesn't make it right.

It's funny how the same person who believes that criminals kill people by accident will try to hold an entire industry responsible for a few zippers with paint that goes 1 ppm over the lead content limit.

Wacky Hermit   ·  July 5, 2010 8:36 PM

"Wrong as he was, his ideas contemplated the German workers leading a revolution which would represent the next step in human evolution. The idea of ragged country people banding together and murdering urban people en masse (as happened with the Khmer Rouge) can hardly be squared with Marxism..."

You seem to have a curiously sterile idea of what "revolution" and "evolution" mean.

DoDoGuRu   ·  July 5, 2010 8:41 PM

That guy is a bad specimen of the preacher type.

Who should take credits for the kids who work hard and succeed?

"When ideas are responsible for bad results ... The proper action is to reject those ideas, and place shared responsibility on any who have accepted such ideas, and spread them."

I blame the educational system in which students are not taught to think for themselves.

Btw, who is to decide whether an idea is bad or not? The loudest, the most powerful people? E.g. AGW. Some people still insist commuinism is a good idea, spread your hard earned wealth to those who don't feel like working is still a good idea, while those who want to keep the fruits of their labor are evil for not wanting to pay their "fair" share. A charitable organization is good, a profit making corporation is bad. Seems the bad people are the ones who give to the good people. A community organizer whose community is forever being organized is good, a mom who raises her Downs Sym kid is bad. I agree totally with the good lady, our current Secretary of State, who once said: sometimes you have to do things for the public good. I just don't agree with her on what the public good is.

Good idea, bad idea. Who decides?

ic   ·  July 5, 2010 9:14 PM

So RINO I guess you are for making baby toys with lead paint, since you don't think consuming lead paint is responsible for mental retardation in children. The belief in such an idea can certainly be responsible for causing harm to children. See how this works?

Causation is intimately involved with responsibility. No causation then no responsibility. Pretty straight forward, and I see no way an entire industry can be held responsible for a causal chain started by an individual company.

Even if one were to confuse causation with responsibility the causal chain would not engulf an entire industry. So I don't see your point.

Brian Macker   ·  July 5, 2010 11:45 PM

I have to take issue with you calling AGW an opinion. It's more in the realm of scientific theory, which means that with all of the current information, it is the best explanation that we have from the observed evidence. It doesn't mean it's 100% correct in every aspect, but it does mean it has to be taken very seriously. Gravity and evolution are scientific theories, and when enough evidence piled up they became excepted facts as a non-scientist would understand it. I know I'll get flamed for this, but almost every single AGW denier out there has no expertise in climatology and specifically statistical climatology. You have a hodgepodge of meteorologists, medical doctors, chemists, doctors of theology, etc., but really no published respected climate scientists. Now many of the people may be good in their fields, but if I had brain cancer I wouldn't seek treatment from an orthodontist. If you want an understanding of the validity of AGW, read what scientifically published experts in climate science have to say and not retired weathermen.

Marcus   ·  July 6, 2010 12:10 AM

I never realized the full extent of my power.

M. Simon   ·  July 6, 2010 12:14 AM

AGW is not a theory. It is a hypothesis.

There are viable alternative explanations. Like natural variation.

And then you have the 15 year stall in temps while CO2 continues to rise. Of course that could be due to ocean cycles. But that leaves open the door to warming was caused by ocean cycles.

M. Simon   ·  July 6, 2010 12:18 AM

Ideological causation is distinctily different from ordinary causation, because of this one fact:

If a proton caused another proton to do X, that is causation based on the nature of the entities that act, and that's that.

Human beings, on the other hand, have free will (the entire concept of "responsibility", and morality, have no basis in reality otherwise).

So, unlike the protons, humans can choose otherwise. They can recognize the logical consequences of an idea, and disregard them -- they can reject the idea, or they can maintain a purported fealty thereto, but be a hypocrite.

Ideas are like roads, and people are the drivers that travel on these roads. We are free to choose which roads to travel, in what direction, and what speed; but as to that road's physical (logical) end, we do NOT have any choice. We are, however, morally responsible for knowing where our chosen road leads; your intention to drive to New York will not absolve you of the responsibility for ending up in Los Angeles.

So: the Marxist is morally responsible for constructing a road to tyranny, and every individual Marxist is responsible for every bit of driving they do on that road, up to and including its ultimate end -- murder on a mass scale.

No amount of screaming "But I didn't mean this!" will absolve either one.

Seerak   ·  July 6, 2010 12:37 AM

"I have a serious problem seeing the ideas of one person as being responsible for the actions of other people."

Really? I see this happening all the time. I'm pretty certain the ideas a mother has while raising her children has some influence on all their future actions. I know the ideas of Jefferson and Franklin and Madison et. al. have a little bit to do with the boundaries on the actions of American politicians today. I deduce that the ideas of Hammurabi are responsible for the actions of a great many people throughout history. The ideas of Plato or Archimedes or Ptolemy or Copernicus or Einstein or Newton or Galileo or Fermi or - you get the picture. And there once was this carpenter in Nazareth...

Ed Minchau   ·  July 6, 2010 1:57 AM

Rino, apologies as that was Wacky Hermit's comment I was responding to.

M. Simon,

Assigning responsibility does not require the existence of free will. If there is a loose nut on my car engine that is causing a rattling noise then I can assign responsibility to it, and fix it. If I improperly assign the responsibility then I will fix the wrong problem and the rattling will continue.

The difference between an inanimate object and a human is not that one has a nature and the other doesn't. Both have natures. It's the differences in their natures that determines how we correct problems caused by either. It would be pretty silly to punish a loose nut for causing a rattling noise because nuts don't learn, and not because they are not responsible for causing problems.

It's quite possible to create a machine that doesn't have anything you would call free will, and yet responds to learning, and perhaps even punishment. In which case the proper response to correct a problem in it's behavior might be some kind of retraining or punishment.

Note that I am not suggesting that punishment is the only possible way to correct behavior, or necessarily the proper method in every case of responsibility.

You need to read some Daniel Dennett to correct some of the misconceptions you have about the nature of free will. The universe could be completely "deterministic" and the concepts of moral responsibility still hold.

In fact, the entire concept of determinism is itself non-falsifiable. I would challenge you to come up with a test that could be used to verify whether the world was deterministic or not. As far as I know it cannot be done.

A non-falsifiable hypothesis is a claim about the world that makes no predictions that could be used to show it false. In doing so it really says nothing about the world, since no matter what happens you can't use the theory to predict behavior. Obviously you can't use such a theory as the basis for deciding what to do in order to correct behavior (inanimate or animate).

Brian Macker   ·  July 6, 2010 7:44 AM

"Ideas are more dangerous than guns. We don't allow our enemies to have guns, why would we allow them to have ideas?" -Joseph Stalin

Matt Groom   ·  July 6, 2010 8:19 AM

I think you are stretching what might be a decent point, and being somewhat flippant about it.

Yes, ultimately, people are responsible for their own actions, except, what if their actions are based on the indoctrination by others, the elimination or surpression of facts and opposing ideas, and the deliberate distortion of reality by those with the ability to do so?

From what I understand of the Frankfurt school and its deconstructionism, it was a deliberate attempt to render all concepts as meaningless, to effectively destroy reason and replace it with ideology, because reason made acceptance of the 'revolution' impossible for those in the West.

Now, you can say that people made the choice to abandon the reason in order to adhere to the principles which became Political Correctness.

However, Reason, with a capital 'R', was developed over the course of thousands of years by mankind to overcome blind adherence to dogma, and the idea that Frankfurt school and its fellow travelers had was to destroy this millenia of progress; to eliminate it.

Basically, similar to Orwell's 1984, they were attempting to eliminate the very ability to choose X over Y, to eliminate all choice, through both the use of force and through the destruction of independent thought.

By your reasoning, those whose idea it was or is to destroy the ability for others to make ANY sort of informed choice, to even conceive of any alternative, are not primarily responsible for the destruction of that idea. Its left to those who, in the wake of those ideas, would be rendered literally helpless to argue against it, or even to know there was any alternative.

Let's go hypothetical for a second.

I take a newborn baby, tabula rasa, and raise

Weary G   ·  July 6, 2010 9:50 AM

Sorry, ignore the last two lines of my post. It was part of something I meant to delete...

Weary G   ·  July 6, 2010 9:52 AM

A better title for this post would have been "Ideas Don't Have Consequences".

On a more serious level, this post neatly demonstrates the fallacy at the heart of libertarianism, the fallacy of the atomic individual. It's actually the opposite of Locke's tablua rasa - libertarians believe that an "individual" is a complete and self-contained unit on which nothing need be or even can be written.

Steve   ·  July 6, 2010 7:41 PM


This has nothing to do with political libertarianism. Libertarians do believe that ideas have consequences, and are responsible for how people act. Nor have you supported your claim that the mistakes of this article are connected to "the fallacy of the atomic individual". In fact, libertarianism is all about how should individuals coordinate in groups. You are just ignorant is all.

Brian Macker   ·  July 8, 2010 7:36 AM

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