The mind of a mass murderer

In the wake of the recent killings in California that have grabbed the public’s attention, there has been an odd trend in the debate over the motives of the killer. Was it misogyny? Or was it some other cause such a mental illness or video games or films or even homosexuality? For some reason, there has been a reluctance in some circles (especially Fox News) to blame the killer’s actions on his attitudes towards women and shift the focus to these other factors.

It should be fairly obvious that human behaviors of any kind can rarely be traced to a single cause. But it is possible to identify the various possible causes and place them on some continuum ranging from proximate causes (the ones that manifestly caused the action) to ultimate causes (the ones that lie buried deeper in the killer’s psyche). There seems to be little mystery in this case as to what the proximate cause was. The killer’s manifesto and actions directly implicate a sense of raging anger against women whom he felt were not appreciative of what he had to offer them, were denying him his ‘right’ to have sex with them, and were instead bestowing their sexual favors on (in his eyes) less worthy men. He wanted revenge against women in general. The male roommates he killed before he went out were because he wanted to make his apartment into a torture chamber for women.

If that is not an open-and-shut case of misogyny, I don’t know what is. But one can go deeper and seek the ultimate causes of this misogyny and here things start to get messy. We have many possible interrelated factors that may not be easy to line up on the proximate-ultimate continuum.

How about the media? One possibility is that the fault lies with the media that widely propagates the idea that college is a place where one loses one’s virginity, and that he was frustrated that he was an anomaly. So this could have fed his sense of sexual entitlement and resentment.

How about Hollywood and video games that glorify violence and objectify and demean women? It is undoubtedly the case that nowadays one sees a tremendous amount of this in these forms of media and this could feed the killer’s sense of how to carry out his revenge spree.

How about the easy access to lethal weapons? This is undoubtedly another non-proximate factor at play.

How about mental illness? On the surface, any mass murderer can be assumed to be mentally ill but this may be a little too facile. We tend to give that label to people who deviate too far from the norms of behavior. But what does saying someone is ‘mentally ill’ really mean? We usually use that term to suggest that the person who so suffers is somehow less responsible for their actions because they were slaves to an abnormally functioning brain that overrode their ‘moral sense’, while those who lack a moral sense or have a deviant morality are more culpable. But this assumes a separation between the moral sense and the actions of the brain, and that does not stand up under scrutiny. We all act according to the dictates of our brains. Our moral sense originates in the brain too so why should one set of brain commands be seen as more culpable than others? When we say the mass murderer was mentally ill, what exactly are we implying should be done? There are very tricky issues involved here that resist easy categorization.

It seems to me to be pretty clear that while ultimate causes and their degrees of separation from the proximate causes are hard to discern and may never be known, misogyny was clearly the proximate cause of this particular rampage.


  1. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    I have been formulating and reformulating a concept that I call Brain Wellness. Brain, as opposed to mental, because my understanding of the present state of knowledge in Neurology is that we are increasingly moving toward placing brain chemistry at the center of why we do what we do. This is an extremely subtle point and I accept that my understanding borders on the gross, but I think that mental illness, at least in the understandings of our general society, implies that the mind is somehow separate from the brain and therefore attributable to bad choices, in some portion of the population, on the part of the mentally ill. Brain Wellness and Brain Illness disposes of that false dichotomy.

    From there, I think, we can point to all anti-social behavior as attributable to Brain Illness and make a decision as to whether or not an individual’s anti-social behavior is dangerous to society or not. If I choose to not wear socks and love to wear my Mickey Mouse sweatshirt at all functions, I may be seen as anti-social (I don’t make an effort to fit in) but I’m not dangerous to society. If I wreck property, throw rocks at cars and urinate in public because I enjoy experiencing the discomfort of others I may be judged a danger to society and be separated from society until such a time as a well-established system of review judges I am able to rejoin society as a non-dangerous member.

    There is a lot of wiggle room in the above, but, like your proposal to require training for gun owners, I see this as a starting point for a much broader discussion.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,


  2. anat says

    There was also a racist component in his manifesto. He was obsessed with wanting to date and have sex with blonde white women in particular. And in the past he bleached his hair in attempt to look whiter than he was. He was of mixed white-Asian background and felt that his Asian heritage was standing in his way to success. I’m guessing this has to do with the stereotype of Asian men as effeminate. So I’d say there was an intersection of internalized racism with misogyny. The fact that he saw women as things that measured or indicated his worth is grounded in misogyny, but the roots of his sense of frustrated entitlement included internalized racism. We can also ask what was the root of his sense that the universe owed him everything that he wanted.

  3. karmacat says

    Someone who is psychotic, is likely to have a delusion that is someone is going to hurt or kill him. So he may kill out of self-defense rather than because he is ignoring morality. It is difficult to be considered not guilty by reason of insanity. Only about 1% of defendants use that defense. And of that 1%, only 1% are found guilty by insanity. So there is a difference between having a serious mental illness and just being an immoral asshole.

  4. hyphenman says

    @ karmacat

    That’s true. You’re absolutely correct. And that is one of the major flaws in our justice system.

    I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on television, so I don’t know how far back the principle behind our present metrics for determining legal sanity as regards a specific crime goes, but I don’t think that standard makes great sense any longer in light of what we have learned about the way our brain works.

    We need to reboot the whole concept.

  5. dannorth says

    In the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition the definition of insanity is usually based on the M’Naghten rule.

    ” it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.” (wikipedia).

    In the case is question there is no doubt Elliot Rodgers doesn’t meet the criteria since it is clear from is manifesto that he knew what he was doing.

    This criteria is of course very restrictive and it doesn’t mean his mental health wasn’t a factor but mental health is not a binary state but a continuum on multiple axises of personality.

    So Rodgers’ mental may well have been a factor among, as Mano said, many.

  6. Mano Singham says


    The trouble is that the strict M’Naghten rule was relaxed by the US Supreme Court in the 1954 case of Durham v. United States that I discussed back in 2010, resulting in the proliferation of the use of the insanity defense because it enabled the introduction of speculation about ultimate causes.

  7. Trebuchet says

    A lot of his fellow misogynists are excusing his actions on the basis of mental illness. As if the two are mutually exclusive. They’re not.

    The knee-jerk right-wing accusations of “Hollywood Culture”, video games, and homosexuality are disgusting. But the knee-jerk left-wing accusation by an FTBlogger of him being a “right-wing gun nut” is just as bad.

  8. says

    Misdirection and false argument are so often used to avoid genuine discussion of problems:

    * US foreign policy causes terrorism -- “Yer anti-Murrican!”

    * 100,000+ unregistered guns -- “second amendment rights!” or “you’re insulting the victims!”

    * point out the link between right wing extremism and violence in the US -- “political gamesmanship!”

    * mention the US banking system and the 2008 crash -- “you hate capitalism!”

    * talk about a thousand catholic priests raping kids -- “you’re anti-catholic!”

    * question Israel’s policy and actions -- “anti-semitism!”

    * question terrorism driven by religion -- “you’re offending my beliefs!”

    * discuss evolution in schools -- “it’s ONLY a theory!” or “freedumb of religion!”

    * mention ‘abstinence-only sex ed’ and teen pregnancy and STD -- “it’s their own fault!”

    * mention disparity of race in prison populations -- “THEY are all criminals!”

    * mention poverty and the injustice system -- “pay for a better lawyer!”

    * mention inadequate schools and tax bases -- “no, THEY don’t want to work hard!”

    * discuss suicide among gay teens caused by anti-LGBTQ hate -- “being gay makes them suicidal!”

    * discuss violence against immigrants -- “if they went home, there would be no violence!”

    * discuss global climate change -- “you hate America/capitalism/economic growth/freedumb!”

    * discuss misogyny and violence -- “he’s crazy (or gay, says fox nuisance), it’s not sexism!”

    And so on. I could list dozens more.

    More often than not, those who (or their positions) are the cause of the problem are the ones who don’t want any discussion of the problem. They know their words and positions are causing or perpetuating the problems, and will do any say anything to avoid examination of it. Those who have unearned privilege never want to give it up.

  9. Heidi Nemeth says

    Those who are diagnosed psychotic are either a danger to themselves and/or others. There is no other way to get a diagnosis of psychosis.

    Medically, if you are a danger to yourself and/or others you are mentally ill. Maybe not legally, in the sense of culpability, but in most manifestations of the law, if you are psychotic you are mentally ill. If you are psychotic, your legal rights are curtailed. You can be hospitalized without your consent. You may not legally own a gun. You can not give away your money.

    Trying to understand a mentally ill person’s thinking or motivation is a futile task because the mentally ill are…unreasonable. Blaming misogyny, guns, homosexuality, parents, etc. doesn’t explain why the psychotic person goes ballistic over environmental influences most of us are exposed to and tolerate well.

    Environmental influences certainly have an impact, but brain chemistry is fundamental to the understanding of mental illness and could well be said to be the proximate cause.

  10. Bweeng says

    Yes, Trebuchet, calling a guy who killed three and wounded thirteen others with a firearm a “right-wing gun nut” is so disgusting, so unfair.

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