Wednesday, October 13, 2004

False and unjustified bigots' beliefs as reasons

I read in the Houston Chornicle this AP story about a teenager who was brutally assaulted in North Texas. There are lots of things wrong with this story in addition to the fact that it implies that a horrible event has occurred. It's being looked at as a hate crime,
because the three attackers made slurs derogatory to homosexuals, police Sgt. Amy Knoll said Tuesday.
Hate crimes are horrible, and the attackers were probably homophobic bigots, but the fact that they used words like 'fag' while attacking him really just doesn't constitute evidence that they believed he was gay. Rural teenagers in Texas say horrible things like that all the time. Even some of the decent, progressive, liberal-minded people I knew at Rice had to make a conscious effort to remove 'gay as derogator' from their vocabulary. It's everywhere. There's a philosophical point about reasons and normativity, too. I emphatically raised my left eyebrow at this quote:
"We have found no other reason whatsoever for the attack other than their belief that he was a homosexual," Knoll told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Wednesday's editions.
Sgt. Knoll, if she's to be read literally, seems to be committing to an extremely robust form of internalism here -- a belief can be a reason for an action even if (1) the belief is false, (2) the belief is unjustified, and (3) the content of the belief would not, even if true, justify the action! We might charitably read 'reason' as 'cause' here, but if we did that, then the utterance would surely be false -- I'm sure there are *many* plausible causes to be attributed -- they didn't like the kid, or he was looking at them funny, or they were drunk.


  1. It's a really *bad* reason. But bad reasons are still reasons.

    And I don't see why you couldn't understand it as a part cause of the action, even if not *the* cause.

    --John Turri

  2. Thanks, John.

    I go back on forth as to whether bad reasons are reasons. I guess this counts as evidence that they are.

    As for causes, you're surely right that the belief *could* be (and probably was) a partial cause, but I don't think it's plausible to suppose that that's what the Sergeant meant. If she meant 'partial cause' by 'reason', it would have been very, very odd for her to say that they have found "no other reason whatsoever" for the attack. Other partial causes should be *easy* to find.

  3. I don't care if the guys signed a statement saying they hate gay people and go around beating them up for fun every day... the crime is assault/murder/attempted murder/what have you. That's it. They should be punished exactly the same as someone who beats up a guy because they had a bad day at work, or who beats up a guy because he was wearing a boston red sox hat (ha), or beats up a guy because he "looked at him funny"... The entire idea of "hate crimes" as a legal term completely offends me.

    That doesn't really speak to your issue ... but this is just something I feel quite strongly about.

  4. Oops, the above comment was from me.

    Jeremy (Cody)