The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson (3): A Series

I’ve previously written two posts on the Scot Peterson case under the title of “The Premature Demonization of Scot Peterson.” Here’s the first post, and here’s the second. Here’s background on the criminal case.

Having revisited and followed the case for the last few weeks, and having had a couple of conversations both with Peterson and with one of his colleagues, I’ve decided to turn this into an ongoing series. But there’s no need at this point for the overly cautious title I initially used. The demonization of Scot Peterson isn’t just “premature”; it’s an act of collective irresponsibility verging on hysteria. I so far have not been convinced that Peterson deserves to be called either a “failure” or a “coward,” much less a criminal. It seems more apt to describe him as the unfortunate victim of a society addicted to loose talk and unrestrained vindictiveness. As I see it, even commentators properly skeptical of the criminal charges against Peterson have bought too easily into the claim that he “failed” to stop the shooter out of “cowardice” (and have irresponsibly repeated those claims).

My advice to anyone who wants to pass judgment on Peterson: first master all of the relevant facts of the case. Then put yourself fully in Peterson’s shoes, taking stock of the duress he was under, the uncertainties of the situation, and all of the variables he had to juggle under the circumstances. Then ask yourself, realistically, what you would have done in his shoes. Then ask whether you really have the experience to know what you would have done. Then judge–if you can.

When I undertake this exercise myself, I come reluctantly to the conclusion that I would at best have done what Peterson ended up doing–assuming that I didn’t panic and run for my life. I say this as someone who’s been threatened by a gunman, has seen a knife attack, has been in a couple of riots, and has been shot at. Though I felt my heart pounding in my throat every time I was in one of those situations, I didn’t panic. But then again, none of the situations I was in was nearly as frightening or dangerous as the one Peterson confronted. So I can’t tell you with any certainty how I would have reacted to the Parkland shooting, and wouldn’t bother trying–unlike, say, such bona fide heroes as Donald Trump.

Now that Peterson is facing criminal charges, it’s become harder to discuss his case: anything that anyone says, especially someone in contact with him, could be distorted, taken out of context, and used against him in a court of law. To see what I mean, just look at the warrant that established probable cause for his arrest, which reads like it was written by a bunch of teenagers. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think there was probable cause for any of the eleven charges brought against Peterson, including perjury. But Peterson now faces almost 97 years in prison for what is widely (but unwarrantedly) believed to be his quasi-murderous act of “cowardice.” Despite what anyone thinks, or thought, he won’t be the last victim. Once they’re done with Peterson, they’ll go after his colleagues in law enforcement (starting with this clown), then school officials, then people in the mental health field, and the like. One scapegoat is never enough for a mob.

Anyway, here’s one of the best things I’ve read on the case–in USA Today, by Philip Hayden, a former FBI agent and expert on police procedures. I don’t think Hayden goes quite far enough in defense of Peterson, but what he says makes good sense as far as it goes. The last few lines:

I’ve testified in hundreds of use-of-force cases, and I know that many times the actions that led to a trial were considered “right” at the time. As someone with extensive experience in law enforcement, I see no easy answers here.

Nonetheless, we should at least be asking the right questions, such as what realistic expectations we should have of people in Peterson’s role, and what sort of schools we want to have.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to vilify a single person than it is to address some of the bigger issues his actions, or lack thereof, raise.

Read the whole thing. If only the prosecutors had.

10 thoughts on “The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson (3): A Series

  1. I don’t know all the details, but from what I do know it’s hard to disagree with your conclusions, at least broadly. Here’s a sort of a fortiori argument for the same conclusion.

    It’s sensible enough to suppose that Peterson did act in a cowardly way. He should have done more to protect the people in the school, perhaps by attempting to confront the shooter, perhaps instead by doing more to help others to escape, perhaps by gathering more information (as Hayden suggests). He didn’t, because he was frightened and because his fear led him either not to think straight or not to be able to bring himself to do what he rightly judged that he should do. That’s what acting in a cowardly way is: acting unreasonably in the face of fear, whether the fear prevents one from forming reasonable conclusions about what to do or simply prevents one from acting on reasonable conclusions. So it appears that Peterson acted in a cowardly way. (Hayden suggests that he wasn’t acting in a cowardly way, but “was just someone who froze because he wasn’t mentally ready for this type of situation,” but that’s a pretty apt description of acting in a cowardly way).

    Even so, it would be inappropriate to regard Peterson as a despicable human being on the grounds that he acted in a cowardly way. It would not simply be inappropriate for those of us who would likely do no better to regard him that way. Even courageous and heroic people who would have acted quite differently should nonetheless recognize that acting courageously in Peterson’s situation is highly demanding and that most people without experience and training would struggle to act well in such circumstances. Although one sometimes hears of people who do exceptionally courageous things and yet disavow any courage on their part, some studies suggest that people who show a pattern of physical courage tend to attribute it to training, models, and upbringing, regarding it as learned and acquired and not simply as something that they’re just naturally able to do. If we’ve learned anything from situationist social psychologists, it’s that people tend not to have stable and reliable dispositions that manifest themselves consistently across diverse and novel domains; such traits as we do have are probably domain specific, and someone with no experience facing life-threatening or otherwise demanding situations most probably isn’t going to display a great deal of courage simply because he thinks he should.

    We can regard Peterson’s behavior as a failure, and perhaps he should so regard it and regret his choices. But quite apart from the fact that most of us would likely not have done any better, his failure is unsurprising. It does not warrant condemnation, because what he failed to do was exceptionally demanding and because condemnation of him, as distinct from a negative verdict on his acts in these circumstances, should be sensitive to his whole character and to his rational will, not simply to his emotions, let alone to his fairly ordinary human emotions on one extraordinary occasion. The most we should conclude from the incident is that people in Peterson’s position should be better suited to demanding acts of physical courage. Hayden’s reflections on that question suggest that the answer to it is, at least, not obvious.

    That seems to me to be the most negative assessment of Peterson that could be justified given what I’ve read about him. I don’t mean to endorse the claim that he acted in a cowardly way; it seems very plausible that he did, but I’m not really in a position to judge that. The point is, rather, that even if he did act in a cowardly way, that’s not an adequate justification for condemnation or hostility. I feel pretty bad for him quite independently of the public demonization he’s being subjected to. His hostile detractors like to say things like “he’s got to live with this, he’s got to look in the mirror every day!” Yes, he does, and that’s pretty terrible. It’s not hard to see why the parents and other people in the school community can’t muster much sympathy for him; after all, other people with no weapons and virtually no training did act to protect their kids, and some of them died doing it. But the idea that he should “rot in hell” or in a prison cell seems, well, a bit much.


    • I agree with that in a general way, but I don’t think there’s much logical space between a negative (culpability-ascribing) verdict on someone’s actions, and a condemnation. Once Peterson gets described as a “coward,” it matters a little, but not that much, that he shouldn’t be condemned as a despicable human being for being the coward he supposedly was. I guess it takes some of the sting out of the claim to say that anyone would be a coward under circumstances like that, but before we went there, I would want to exhaust all of the explanations of his behavior that don’t require us to ascribe cowardice to him. Yes, if we exhaust them and discover that he was a coward, fine. But it’s an understatement to say that no one has exhausted the relevant explanations. No one has even thought to exhaust them. I’m not sure anyone out there even has any sense, conceptually, of what it would mean to exhaust them. But as a general principle, I think we should exhaust the charitable interpretations of someone’s behavior before we start reaching for the uncharitable ones.

      A zealous advocate for Peterson would master all of the facts in all of the relevant detail and ask whether it was possible to explain what he did by relying primarily on one explanatory variable: uncertainty. Is it plausible to think that Peterson acted as he did because he was uncertain of where the shooter was? That was my hunch I had when I wrote my first post on the subject, back in 2018. But as I had no particular reason to follow up on it, I didn’t. Now that I’ve re-visited the issue (starting back in May), it’s become increasingly obvious to me that you can explain a lot of what seems puzzling about Peterson’s inaction by asking what he knew or could reasonably have known at the time he was “failing” to go into the building, i.e., taking cover.

      I don’t claim to have sufficient mastery of the facts to be able to say conclusively that Peterson’s uncertainty is the conclusive explanation for his not-going-into-the-1200-building. But once you start to understand the details (and the details really do matter here), my uncertainty hypothesis is at least as plausible as the suggestion that he “froze” and “failed” to go in out of cowardice or fear.

      Just a few of the details: He claimed only to have heard the first few shots from the vicinity of the 1200 building. He claims not to have heard the subsequent ones because there was a hurricane proof door that muffled the sound. There were reports or evidence at the time that shots were being fired from outside of the building (from the football field), and also from inside of the building out.

      There was no clear way to identify the exact location of the shooter from Peterson’s vantage point. That he took cover under conditions of uncertainty is not an objection to his conduct, and not even remotely indicative of “cowardice.” Even if or once he knew that Cruz was in the 1200 building, that fact wasn’t conclusive: it’s a big building. Knowing “Cruz is in the building” doesn’t tell you what to do next, and absolutely does not entail “rush into the building.” If you rush into the building, and Cruz is right there behind the door, you walk directly into an ambush. Not a success. If he’s sniping from the top of the building, you’ll never get to the building. You’ll die before your heroic entrance.

      Even if you go inside, SOP requires you to clear each room on the first floor (then the second, then third) in methodical order. If you start in (say) the bottom northeast corner of the building, and he is at the top southwest corner, going in could precisely be the thing that allows him to escape. If the shooter snuck into a room with other students, how exactly will you differentiate him from them? And so on. There are dozens of high-stakes variables here, and near-impossible questions to answer, and no clear way of getting real knowledge in real time about any of them (knowledge of a kind that you’d gamble your life on). There is just something deeply unrealistic–to the point of stupidity–of demanding that a lone police officer, even an armed one, clear a building all by himself, even if he knows that a shooter is inside killing people. You can’t reasonably expect people to rush into danger when it’s completely unclear what is going on. It’s as though people thought police officers were some combination of Superman and Jesus Christ–the one capable of leaping tall buildings at a single bound, the other embracing his own death as the key to human salvation.

      It’s worth poring through the police chatter on the radio. Much of it is wrong. Much of it is so hedged and tentative as to be useless. Peterson has complained that he had no useful real-time intelligence by which to figure out what was happening. That’s obviously true. But how was he to know what to do if he had no real idea what was happening? It isn’t to the point to watch him in video footage and wonder: “Why isn’t he doing anything?” That question should be asked by bracketing what you the viewer know or think you know about what happened. The question to ask is: how would Peterson have figured out what was happening from where he was?

      Contrary to virtually all of the news reporting, there is no clear answer to that question. The arrest warrant insinuates that Peterson should have known where the gunfire was coming from (and that he lied about it) because other witnesses on the scene claimed, retrospectively, to know where it was coming from. Even putting aside questions about the veracity of the witnesses and unreliability of eyewitness testimony (or better yet: earwitness inferential testimony about gunfire), why would any sane person think that what one person heard at a confused scene is just exactly what a different person heard? (On top of that, some of what these witnesses say is exculpatory of Peterson, a fact that the arrest warrant duly records, then glides past as though it didn’t much matter to anything.)

      Unlike a lot of people, I’ve actually been in gunfire. Absent some super-duper training that I know nothing about, there is no fucking way to tell where it’s coming from. What you hear is: clack clack clack, or BOOM BOOM BOOM. Unless you see the guy shooting (at you), you’re at a loss to know what the hell has just happened except “shots fired.” All you know is: shots fired and I’m not hit. The human ear is not a bullet-compass that somehow localizes and gives you the direction of gunfire. All you need is a little breeze and a few ricochets, and you’re totally lost.

      When I lived in Abu Dis, I would consistently hear gunfire, go out in search of it, and fail to find it. It sounded like it was coming from over there. Then you’d go over there–and nothing. Did I miss it? Or was it somewhere else? Oh wait. I hear something. Gunfire! Then you’d go over there. And nothing. Etc. Repeat.

      Day after day, I’d make the same mistake. Am I just really dumb? How did I keep failing to find the gunfire I heard if gunfire is so easy to localize? Answer: because it isn’t! And I was out in the open, in relatively quiet streets, trawling through a small town–looking for army patrols shooting at groups of stone throwers! I only found them when I asked someone where they were. The idea that you can localize one guy with an AR-15 somewhere on a big high school campus from behind a hurricane door while mayhem is breaking loose around you–is simply fucking crazy. That professional investigators would insinuate such a thing in an arrest warrant tells you nothing about Peterson’s “cowardice.” It shows you in vivid detail why law enforcement investigators with the mentality of ill-educated teenagers are not to be trusted. Scot Peterson presents no danger whatsoever to human society. They do.

      I could go on. The rush to judgment in this case has been one of the most frightening and most demoralizing things I’ve ever seen. But in a world where the president sees thousands of people celebrating 9/11 from Trump Tower, or claims that he’d have saved the day by rushing into the path of an armed maniac, or insists that the Central Park Five are still guilty–honestly, anything is possible. It’s more obvious that I should feel guilt for being surprised by it than that Peterson should feel guilt for not rushing into the 1200 Building.


      • Having looked back at your earlier posts and read some other stuff (but not listened to the police radio), I was convinced that it’s at least unclear how much of his behavior is to be explained by non-culpable uncertainty. There’s no question that a firm judgment either way requires a whole lot more attention to a whole lot more evidence than most of the folks condemning him have given.

        I do think, though, that there’s quite a serious difference between judging that someone acted in a cowardly way on a given occasion and condemning their character. Culpability-ascribing negative verdicts on actions are of course inconsistent with judging a person to be morally impeccable, but they’re a long way from judging a person to be thoroughly vicious, even in some limited respect (e.g., with respect to fear and danger), let alone across the board. For one thing, a culpability-ascribing negative verdict says nothing on its own about whether the person in question accepts his culpability, and whether or not he does makes a pretty big difference. For another thing, if there were little or no logical space between the two, we’d have to suppose that the only people who ever stand in need of forgiveness are people worthy of our condemnation, and to think that would require either excessive laxity or excessive severity.

        I suspect that one thought driving some condemnation of Peterson is that he didn’t just act in a cowardly way, but he then lied about it and continues to insist on rationalizing his cowardice. If that were so, it would certainly be worse than just the cowardice alone. But of course that thought simply assumes that his claims about why he did what he did are lies and rationalizations, and that is what is in question. It strikes me as wild that he’s being criminally charged, but even from a moral and professional perspective, it’s really unclear how unreasonably he acted, if at all.


        • Well, what I said was, “I don’t think there’s much logical space between a negative (culpability-ascribing) verdict on someone’s actions, and a condemnation,” meaning that there’s some, but not enough to matter in this case. Any culpability-ascribing verdict on someone’s actions will be somewhat condemnatory of the person: that’s just implicit in the idea that the person is culpable, i.e., did something wrong. I’m assuming that all acts of wrongdoing are condemnation-worthy. In cases where there is little (but some) culpability, there’s little (but something) to condemn, on pain of leaving the culpability of the action unexplained and inexplicable. But something isn’t nothing.

          That goes for one-time acts of minor culpability as much as it does for anything worse: breaking one promise (or one resolution to oneself), telling one lie, being unfaithful once, stealing one item, being cowardly once, etc. are all culpable acts, and deserve condemnation insofar as they are. Something culpable differentiates the character of the one-time wrongdoer from the person who does no wrong, and whatever it is deserves condemnation. But to conflate a one-time wrongdoer with someone who hasn’t engaged in wrongdoing at all is a colossal mistake, and worse than a mere mistake if the conflation is itself culpable–which is how I read the Peterson case.

          I’d said:

          Once Peterson gets described as a “coward,” it matters a little, but not that much, that he shouldn’t be condemned as a despicable human being for being the coward he supposedly was.

          My point is that if he’s not a coward, the significance of the distinction between “he’s a coward, but let’s not condemn him too much” and “he’s a coward, so let’s really condemn him” is a distraction. Both claims concede without argument that he is a coward, then quibble over what is, in this particular context, a morally inconsequential matter: how much condemnation does he deserve for his cowardice? But if he isn’t a coward, and deserves no condemnation for being one, the preceding question represents an inversion of moral and discursive priorities.

          As I read the facts, no one has successfully made the case for Peterson’s being a coward. And it really is not plausible to think he was one. Most if not all of the pressure to describe as a coward arises, transparently, from the sheer malice and vindictiveness of the mob. The sad truth is that much of it arises from the cowardly inability to face down the parents of the victims and tell them pointblank that their losses, however tragic, cannot justify defamation of character, much less defamation leading to a 90+ year prison sentence. If anyone deserves a verdict of “cowardice,” it’s the people who have cowered before these victims as though they were the first people on the planet to have discovered the phenomena of tragedy and premature death, and figured that since they lost their sons and daughters in the shooting, they should be allowed to express their most debased and psychopathic feelings with impunity. No one has had the courage to tell these people: feel free to do that within the confines of a private consultation room, or a confessional, or a private journal, or some equivalent, but be sure to keep it there.

          I remember once being accused of anti-Semitism on a certain Objectivist website. Having been accused of it, my accusers then began to debate the question: is Khawaja a Holocaust denier, or is he just a garden variety anti-Semite? Eventually, they came to the magnanimous conclusion that Khawaja wasn’t clearly a Holocaust denier–or if he was one (that possibility always being held in reserve in case there was the slightest occasion to use it), he must be a rather odd kind of one, the kind that doesn’t ever overtly deny the Holocaust but could plausibly be thought to harbor the denial anyway. I’m sure that there’s plenty of logical space between being a Holocaust denier and being an ordinary anti-Semite who doesn’t deny the Holocaust (or doesn’t overtly deny it), but from the perspective of someone falsely accused of either thing, that distinction is beside the point.

          Another example in the same moral vicinity: think back to the controversies surrounding Amanda Knox. For years, the question that consumed public attention was: was Knox a slutty-pervert murderer or just a plain old murderer? Lost in the shuffle was the possibility that she hadn’t murdered anyone at all. Here we are years later, and people still find themselves mesmerized by the more salacious possibilities: yeah, okay, maybe she didn’t do it, but if she had, why would she have? Was she sleeping with the victim? Or was she sleeping with the perpetrator? Did Knox kill the victim during some weird sex game (and if so: what was it?), or was she (alas, yawn) killed for some mundane reason? With depressing regularity, such questions always seem more interesting to people than: what motivated the prosecution to waste eight years of Knox’s life on charges supported by weak, equivocal, and shoddily-processed evidence?

          I don’t disagree with the point you make below as a general matter, but this way of putting it abstracts far too much from the Peterson case to be helpful in discussing it:

          Culpability-ascribing negative verdicts on actions are of course inconsistent with judging a person to be morally impeccable, but they’re a long way from judging a person to be thoroughly vicious, even in some limited respect (e.g., with respect to fear and danger), let alone across the board. For one thing, a culpability-ascribing negative verdict says nothing on its own about whether the person in question accepts his culpability, and whether or not he does makes a pretty big difference.

          The first claim depends on the particularities of a given verdict: judging someone guilty of a single act of rape is not that far from judging them to be thoroughly vicious. In some contexts, one act is all it takes for a judgment of thoroughgoing viciousness.

          As for the second claim: it would be very odd in a real-life case for someone to offer a single culpability-ascribing negative verdict “on its own” and leave the matter there. In general, the weightier the verdict, the more complex the narrative offered to make sense of it.

          And so it is in this case. There are two distinct versions of the culpability-ascribing negative verdict here made against Peterson. If you accept the factual claims involved, neither of them is that long a way from judging him thoroughly vicious in some respect. What I would dispute is that the factual claims are warranted. They’re not.

          The milder version of the cowardice accusation is that, in full knowledge of where the shooter was, in full consciousness of his duty to confront the shooter, and in full awareness of the fact that his inaction would cost dozens of lives, Peterson “froze” in fear for forty five minutes, free-riding on the efforts of his colleagues (to whose efforts we owe Cruz’s arrest), letting them risk their lives while he sat there doing nothing, and then lying (for more than a year) about what had happened.

          The stronger version of the accusation subtracts the “paralysis by fear” element and basically leaves the rest: on this interpretation, the claim is that Peterson didn’t so much freeze in fear as coldly calculate from the outset that it was best to take cover and free ride on the actions of his colleagues (or just ride out the event and let people die) than take action of any kind. He then, in continuation of the same coldly-calculated plan of self-preservation, lied about it to investigators (themselves conceived of as paradigms of impartiality and investigative thoroughness), and continues to lie about it to this day.

          On both interpretations, Peterson’s cowardice was sustained, consequential, and dishonest. In this context, a culpability-ascribing negative verdict of cowardice is not that far from a strongly adverse judgment of character. And it’s misleading to think of the ascription of cowardice as the ascription to Peterson of a single one-shot (so to speak) failure in the face of life-threatening danger. The claim is not that he generally made a good faith effort to take action, but evinced a bit of cowardice in this or that respect. The ascription of “cowardice” consists in the claim is that he made no good faith effort to take any significant action at all: he “took cover,” pulled out his weapon, then sat there cowering, whimpering, and muttering to himself in a corner, “doing nothing” as others did everything for him.

          There’s no realistic way to detach the ascription of cowardice to Peterson from either the mild or the strong version of the case against him; the ascription of cowardice makes little sense except as a part of the narrative. It would be hard to call him the “Coward of Broward” if he’d been thought to face danger, but had evinced a bit of cowardice in some limited respect. The ascription of cowardice just is: he did nothing and lied about it.

          On this:

          For another thing, if there were little or no logical space between the two, we’d have to suppose that the only people who ever stand in need of forgiveness are people worthy of our condemnation, and to think that would require either excessive laxity or excessive severity.

          I actually do think that, though I would put it differently: as I see it, anyone who stands in need of forgiveness is someone worthy of condemnation. I don’t know whether that’s excessively lax or excessively severe. I think it’s just right. As I see it, wrongdoing always deserves condemnation. Forgiveness doesn’t change or affect that.

          The truth is that I don’t really believe in “forgiveness” as it’s ordinarily understood. Take any culpable act, where the culpable act is to some degree other-regarding. In such cases, someone beside the agent is wronged by the act. Qua culpable, any such act deserves condemnation (as does the agent for engaging in it). That’s just what culpability is. To be culpable of wrongdoing is to deserve some measure of condemnation for that wrongdoing (even if the only appropriate condemnation is self-condemnation, in cases where no one but the culpable agent has standing to condemn).

          As for forgiveness, I see the use of that term as reducing to one of the following:

          (a) the victim’s literally forgetting that the act happened, whether voluntarily or involuntarily,
          (b) the victim’s remembering that the act happened, but setting it aside as not worth pursuing,
          (c) the culpable person’s rendering adequate compensation to the victim, and the victim’s accepting it as such. (Where the culpable person renders adequate compensation but the victim fails to accept it, the victim becomes culpable–at least in cases where the failure to accept compensation is culpable rather than merely mistaken.)

          Cases (a) and (b) are not really cases of forgiveness at all; they’re cases where people commonly misuse the term “forgiveness” to refer something else.

          Case (c) is an unorthodox or revisionist conception of forgiveness. Someone might insist that it’s not what forgiveness has traditionally been understood to mean, which I wouldn’t dispute. In that case, I’d say that I just reject the legitimacy of forgiveness in the ordinary or traditional sense, which leaves us with a familiar dispute over whether I’m allowed to use the word “forgiveness” if I use it in the reductionist sense represented by (c).

          I suspect that one thought driving some condemnation of Peterson is that he didn’t just act in a cowardly way, but he then lied about it and continues to insist on rationalizing his cowardice.

          That way of describing things strikes me as making too sharp a distinction between cowardice and dishonesty. The claim typically made about Peterson is that his lies were an expression of his cowardice: he lied for the same reason that he took cover during the shooting, the reason being that he was a coward fundamentally motivated by self-preservation (where that motivation is to be understood in an ignoble way). If anything, the underlying accusation made of him is not so much cowardice or dishonesty but selfishness: Peterson thought only of his own self-preservation (it’s said), when he should have been thinking primarily about the lives of others. His selfishness (the accusation continues) led naturally to cowardice, which itself led naturally to dishonesty, but selfishness, cowardice, and dishonesty are really just different aspects of a single stable trait, vice, that explains his behavior since February 2018.

          This, I suspect, is why people take such satisfaction in the thought that Peterson has trouble looking himself in the mirror (and why that idea recurs so often in discussions of this case): if only he did look squarely at himself, the thought runs, the whole edifice of lies would stare back at him, and he would come to grasp his true essence as a human being: a self-seeking, self-deceived loser, indifferent to the lives of others, indifferent to his duty, indifferent to the truth.

          Once you accept the claim that he was a coward, and accept the factual and explanatory basis of the claim, I think you’re at least half-way to the preceding conclusion. I guess Bernard Williams was right that “coward” is a thick ethical concept: once you call someone a coward, you’re bringing a kitchen sink of adverse judgments to bear on his character, and pouring them all over your intended target. (“Racist” functions much the same way.) My point is that we should not, unless absolutely forced to it by the facts, take a single step down a road that leads us either to the “cowardice” verdict, or to the narrative surrounding it. Frankly, as I see it, the Peterson case lays bare the essential psychopathy of the people who rule us, as well as that of many of the people who surround us. The only form of resistance we have left is to refuse to concede an inch to either of them.

          Far from Peterson’s being a coward, or there being probable cause for any of the criminal charges against him, it seems plausible to me to think that the prosecutors in this case know full well that the charges they are bringing against him are sheer nonsense. It’s not that they honestly want to bring Peterson to justice because they honestly regard him as a coward or a criminal. It’s that, abetted by the adversarial nature of our system of criminal justice, they regard themselves as absolved of having to think very hard about the justice of what they’re doing.

          To paraphrase Richard Rorty, these prosecutors see justice as little more than what they can get away with. So with the assistance of public opinion, they’ve thrown a series of utterly irresponsible criminal charges at the wall to see what will stick, comforted (I guess) by the thought that Peterson has a defense attorney and money from his pension to pay that attorney–which makes it OK. Yes, they’re gambling with his life, but they regard criminal prosecution as a kind of fun, career-promoting game, which rationalizes the thought that it’s perfectly OK to “let the chips fall where they may.” The worst that can happen to them is that they’ll lose the case a few years from now, when most people have lost interest in it anyway. “We tried our best,” they’ll say, and then proceed to the next psychopathic vendetta on their agenda.

          This is a case that exemplifies those classic thought experiments critical of consequentialism (Foot, Anscombe, Williams), some variation on: what if a sheriff in a Southern town decided to execute an innocent man in order to appease the demands or expectations of a riotous mob? The cases are always described as though you face two clear, difficult choices: if you execute an innocent man, why, that’s a terrible injustice, but if you don’t, then the whole town will run riot and kill dozens of innocent people, and you can’t have that, can you? It’s an infernal irony that no one in the literature ever thought to ask an even easier question: what if an entire law enforcement establishment decided to destroy a man’s life in order to appease the demands of a not-particularly-formidable mob, not because they feared a murderous rampage by that mob, but simply because they figured that it was politically expedient to appease the mob, might score them some cheap political points, and wouldn’t cost them very much in any case?

          No one ever bothered to ask that question, I guess, because the answer must have seemed so obvious. What this case teaches us is that once you close the pages of a textbook and take a step into the “real world,” the obvious ceases to be obvious: nothing remains obvious once it’s smothered in the irrelevant. Scot Peterson just happens to be latest casualty of that tendency. He won’t be the last.


          • I disagree with a good bit of that, but I think most of my disagreement is pretty tangential to the main points about Peterson. I wonder, though, whether you are beginning to shift from holding (a) that the evidence is not in favor of his having been in a position to know what to do and failing to do it because he was afraid, but is equally or more consistent with his having lacked enough information or the ability to acquire it, so that he did not act unreasonably, to holding (b) that he in fact did not act unreasonably and simply lacked information that he was not well positioned to get. I accept (a) and find (b) plausible, but I don’t think we’re in a position to say whether (b) is true. Maybe you don’t really either; in any case, (a) is enough to justify your main point, viz. that the public condemnation of him is unwarranted.

            On the more general issues that I think are too tangential to have much direct bearing on the case, I think I draw stronger distinctions between negative verdicts on acts and negative verdicts on character, and between negative verdicts and condemnation. I’m not sure whether you’re too lax or too severe, but it’s possible to be both: too lax in some cases, refusing to criticize at all to avoid having to condemn, and too severe in other cases, condemning in order to avoid having to refuse criticism. Really I suspect that we’re just thinking about ‘condemnation’ differently, with you including some things that I’d think aren’t harsh enough to merit that description (“he is a despicable human being and I hope he rots in hell” meets the description). But it’s also possible that from your point of view I’m far too lax, since I would sympathize with someone like Peterson who met Hayden’s description of him and felt bad about it, whereas what you say above seems to suggest that you wouldn’t (contrary to the suggestion of your original post). I would, however, not much sympathize with him if he met Hayden’s description — freezing because mentally unprepared, etc. — and then, far from feeling remorse or regret, shamelessly rationalized his behavior (though, given the absurdity of the charges against him, I’m not sure I’d fault him for accepting his attorney’s defense strategy even if it weren’t entirely true — as you remark, the prosecution isn’t really concerned with truth either, and the punishment would be unjust in any case). I’m not sure what your assessment of your own virtue is, but perhaps I’m just too lax because I know myself to be very far from virtuous.

            Perhaps another way of putting my original point is that quite apart from the difference between character and episodic actions, cowardice is a case where the difference between vice and akrasia can be especially difficult to discern, and the corresponding virtue can be exceptionally demanding. Full scale condemnation — “he’s a despicable human being and I hope he rots in hell” — is not warranted for akratic cowards even if it is for vicious ones, and even if Peterson made a bunch of unreasonable decisions because he couldn’t control his fear, that is consistent with his being an akratic coward and not a vicious one. A fortiori, the condemnation is unwarranted if his decisions were driven not by fear, but by inevitable or at any rate non-culpable lack of information, and of course it is unwarranted if they were not even unreasonable. But the case against the demonization doesn’t depend on the case for his having acted reasonably or with a lack of information.


            • My position is (a), not (b). It’s easy to slide into (b) as you process the evidence and it tends to confirm (a), and then hear loose talk that insists on the wholesale denial of (b) and respond to it in your head. One heuristic for “responding in one’s head” is to imagine a plausible scenario consistent with the evidence that amounts to (b). But of course imagined scenarios as heuristics, not necessarily what happened. So my actual view is (a). In any case, I have not gone through all of the available evidence.

              I’m not sure whether you’re too lax or too severe, but it’s possible to be both: too lax in some cases, refusing to criticize at all to avoid having to condemn, and too severe in other cases, condemning in order to avoid having to refuse criticism.

              Neither. I’m pretty sure I hit the mean.

              Really I suspect that we’re just thinking about ‘condemnation’ differently, with you including some things that I’d think aren’t harsh enough to merit that description (“he is a despicable human being and I hope he rots in hell” meets the description).

              That is entirely possible, and has been a stumbling block in my discussions on this topic with Michael (also in different contexts with various wives: “But it’s not a condemnation to say that you have once again failed to…”). I regard reproach, reprimand, adverse comment, and criticism (in the negative sense, even the implicitly negative sense) as species of “condemnation.” Maybe that makes clear why I see such a tight connection between culpable action and condemnation: on my view, the accurate description and explanation of an act qua culpable either is a condemnation, or is an implicit condemnation just a few semantic steps from becoming an explicit one.

              By my lights, “Peterson is a despicable coward who deserves to rot in hell” is not merely a condemnation, but a wholesale condemnatory assault. On my view, simply to ascribe culpable failure to him is condemnatory (though ascribing non-culpable failure isn’t). And I wouldn’t describe the quoted condemnation as a “full scale condemnation,” as though a lesser condemnation somehow didn’t cross the condemnation threshold. That’s like regarding nuclear war as “full scale war,” but regarding a conventional invasion as not quite warfare by comparison. On my view, “He’s despicable” is a condemnation, but so is “What he did is despicable,” along with “He’s a coward,” “He’s an akratic coward, but I feel sorry for him,” “What he did is cowardly,” and even, “Look, at the end of the day, what he did was wrong, however excusable and understandable, poor guy.”

              So yes, this is moral semantics for unapologetic snowflakes. I’m hypersensitive about what constitutes condemnation. But I’m also a big fan of condemnation (including self-condemnation). See? Told you I hit the mean.

              On my view of Hayden’s assessment, this is a little complicated. I take it you mean this claim from Hayden’s article:

              More likely, he was just someone who froze because he wasn’t mentally ready for this type of situation. In other words, he was like nearly everybody else.

              Just to be clear, I don’t think the factual record shows that that is what happened. But suppose, ex hypothesi, that it is what happened.

              I would certainly sympathize with Peterson if it did, feel bad for him if it did, and refrain from criticizing him on the grounds that I personally (as a philosophy professor) lack the moral standing to criticize an SRO facing a life threatening situation. I would even be reluctant to grant that “coward” is the right description of his actions, not quite because I think it’s false, but because I think we have to be careful with claims like this. If “coward” is a thick ethical concept (as per Williams), and it is hard to differentiate vicious from akratic cowards (as per your comment), then just calling someone a coward and leaving the matter there is bound to be misleading, and therefore should be avoided. But so is calling someone a coward and producing a whole narrative to justify the claim. A narrative that fails to deal with the complexities of ascriptions of cowardice should also be avoided. So my point is not so much that Hayden’s description is not a description of cowardice, or that it can somehow be ruled out, as that there are complications here that justify treading lightly.

              But with all those qualifications in, I would have to admit that if Hayden’s scenario obtained, then someone besides me (maybe Hayden himself) might be justified in calling that hypothetical scenario cowardice and condemning it as such–but condemning it in my sense of “condemnation,” not yours, i.e., in a sense that implies that highly qualified criticisms amount to condemnation without having to go beyond that. Even, “Look man, this was a tough call but you really should have gone in, and you have to admit that you didn’t go in because you were too afraid to go in” is a condemnation, however hedged. “You have to admit you were too afraid to go in but you really should have” is just elliptical for “You acted in a cowardly fashion, however understandably, when the situation called for courage. So you culpably failed in an understandably human way, but we [meaning: genuinely qualified judges with standing to judge] can’t avoid the conclusion: it was culpable, and the name of that form of culpability is cowardice.”

              I guess it’s good to be clear about the preceding possibility just as a matter of conceptual clarity, but it does irritate me how little effort has been spent, especially by journalists, in considering the other possibility: that no cowardice was involved, that no condemnation is warranted, and that most critics and commentators have simply failed to get key facts straight as they actually happened.

              I’m more than just irritated at how law enforcement has handled the criminal charges and the findings of probable cause. The fact-free condemnations were bad enough, but to prosecute on this basis is an outrage, and a threat to all of us. The truth is that I don’t think it’s all that unprecedented. To prosecute Peterson on grounds of “child neglect” is no crazier than holding a gun manufacturer liable for the crimes committed by a gun owner, holding pharmaceutical companies responsible for the “opioid epidemic,” holding educators responsible for bad student “outcomes,” or holding therapists responsible for the suicidal or homicidal behaviors of their clients.

              Yes, I’m ranting now. I prefer to call it well-deserved condemnation.


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