• Whitman, tumours, the neurotypical and moral responsibility

    There was a famous case of a terrible shooting in 1966. Charles Whitman, an otherwise intelligent (138 IQ), ‘normal’ man, did a very abnormal thing. Charles Joseph Whitman (June 24, 1941 – August 1, 1966) was an American engineering student and former U.S. Marine, who killed seventeen people and wounded thirty-two others in a mass shooting rampage located in and around the Tower of the University of Texas in Austin on the afternoon of August 1, 1966. Three people were shot and killed inside the university’s tower and eleven others were murdered after Whitman fired at random from the 28th-floor observation deck of the MainBuilding. Whitman was shot and killed by Austin police officer Houston McCoy.

    Prior to the shootings at the University of Texas, Whitman had murdered both his wife and mother in Austin.

    According to wiki, this is what happened:

    The day before the shootings, Whitman bought a pair of binoculars and a knife from a hardware store, and Spam from a 7-Eleven convenience store. He picked up his wife from her summer job as a telephone operator, before meeting his mother for lunch at the Wyatt Cafeteria, located close to the university.

    At approximately 4:00 p.m. on July 31, Charles and Kathy Whitman visited their close friends John and Fran Morgan. They left the Morgans’ apartment at 5:50 so that Kathy could get to her 6:00–10:00 p.m. shift.

    At 6:45, Whitman began typing his suicide note, a portion of which read:

    I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.[38]

    Whitman wrote that he requested an autopsy be conducted upon his body, to determine if there was a biological reason for his actions and increasing headaches. He also wrote that he had decided to kill both his mother and wife. Expressing uncertainty about his reasons, he stated he wanted to relieve his wife and mother from the suffering of this world and to save them the embarrassment of his actions.[39] He did not mention planning the attack at the university.

    Just after midnight on August 1, Whitman drove to his mother’s apartment at 1212 Guadalupe Street. After killing his mother, he placed her body on her bed and covered it with sheets.[40] His method of murder is disputed, but officials believed he rendered her unconscious before stabbing her in the heart.[41]

    He left a handwritten note beside her body, which read in part:

    To Whom It May Concern: I have just taken my mother’s life. I am very upset over having done it. However, I feel that if there is a heaven she is definitely there now […] I am truly sorry […] Let there be no doubt in your mind that I loved this woman with all my heart.[42]

    Whitman then returned to his home at 906 Jewell Street, where he killed his wife by stabbing her three times in the heart as she slept. He covered her body with sheets, then resumed the typewritten note he had begun the previous evening.[41] Using a ballpoint pen, he wrote at the side of the page:

    Friends interrupted. 8-1-66 Mon. 3:00 A.M. BOTH DEAD.[40]

    Whitman continued the note, finishing it by pen:

    I imagine it appears that I brutally killed both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job […] If my life insurance policy is valid please pay off my debts […] donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type […] Give our dog to my in-laws. Tell them Kathy loved “Schocie” very much […] If you can find in yourselves to grant my last wish, cremate me after the autopsy.[38]

    He also left instructions in the rented house requesting that two rolls of camera film be developed. Whitman also wrote personal notes to each of his brothers.

    Whitman last wrote on an envelope labeled, ‘Thoughts For the Day,’ in which he stored a collection of written admonitions. He added on the outside of the envelope:

    8-1-66. I never could quite make it. These thoughts are too much for me.[40]

    At 5:45 a.m. on August 1, 1966, Whitman phoned his wife’s supervisor at Bell System to explain that Kathy was ill and unable to work that day. He made a similar phone call to his mother’s workplace five hours later.

    Whitman took his 12-gauge shotgun, and packed the weapon, together with a Remington 700 6mm bolt-action hunting rifle, a .35 caliber pump rifle, a .30 caliber carbine, a 9mm Luger pistol, a Galesi-Brescia .25-caliber pistol and a Smith & Wesson M19 .357 Magnum revolver, and over 700 rounds of ammunition into his footlocker. He took these weapons with him in a trunk and lugged them up three flights of stairs at a tower at the University of Texas. There he killed a receptionist with the butt of one of his guns, before barricading himself in at the observation deck to the tower.

    He shot at two families of tourists coming up the stairs before shooting upon the people below. What followed was a further travesty; the first woman he shot was pregnant, and he fired upon the people who went to help her. He shot at pedestrians and the ambulance drivers who went to assist them. Let me remind you of part of his suicide note:

    I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts

    The tragedy ended with Whitman’s eventual death at the hands of the authorities at the scene. Some 17 people died and over 30 were wounded.

    I partly give more details here than I would because it is a fascinating account of a terrible set of events, and partly because it gives you an insight into what took place and how serious a tragedy this was, how much thought went into it in one respect, and how significant the intention of Whitman was.

    As according to his wishes, an autopsy on his body took place and it revealed much to explain the man’s actions. This former Eagle Scout, marine, bank teller, volunteer, man with good IQ, had (you guessed it) a tumour about the size of a nickel. The glioblastoma had grown beneath the thalamus in the brain, impressed upon the hypothalamus and compressed the amygdala. The amygdalae are involved in emotional regulation, particularly fear and aggression. Damage to this part of the brain, known since the late 1800s, causes emotional and social disturbances; biologists in the 1930s (Kluver and Bucy) had found that damaging monkey amygdalae caused blunting of emotion, lack of fear and overreaction. Female monkeys with such damage showed inappropriate maternal behaviour, neglecting or abusing their infants.

    Whitman hit the nail on the head when he predicted that his behaviour, increasing in oddity, was rooted in an issue in his brain. Remember his appeal to give any monies remaining to a mental health foundation.

    His friends had noticed changes too. Here is how David Eagleman, in Incognito, describes it:

    Others had noticed the changes as well. Elaine Fuess, a close friend of Whitman’s, observed, “Even when he looked perfectly normal, he gave you the feeling of trying to control something in himself.” Presumably, that “something” was his collection of angry, aggressive zombie programs. His cooler, rational parties were battling his reactive, violent parties, but damage from the tumor tipped the vote so it was no longer a fair fight.

    The point I want to make here is that most people think that such a tumour would abrogate moral responsibility in the agent. In other words, Whitman should not be deemed morally culpable for his actions since his brain was impaired: he couldn’t help himself.

    I want to look at this claim because it implies that a neurotypical person is categorically different to someone with a brain tumour.

    I contest this.

    Of course, the tumour makes a person act differently to that which they would have done. But all it actually does is change one form of determined outcome into another. It is not, I posit, a categorical difference.

    I think people make this mistake too often in such a situation, and I myself have done so. For example, on one other discussion thread where this came up, someone stated:

    “I think it’s not sensible to infer anything about ‘normal’ cognition from experience of people who exhibit obviously-abnormal cognition.”

    Which was in response to me replying to this comment:

    “To use the analogy with computers, the underlying hardware and its limitations have little bearing on what you can do with the software, even though the software imposes specific limitations, creatively you might write a novel or digitally paint a picture and the underlying hardware will not prevent you from painting whatever picture or book you choose.”

    I replied:

    That’s simply not true. As a teacher, particularly so, but also in any understanding of neurology / neuroscience. Hardware has huge bearing on the outcome. Did you ever have a Spectrum ZX? Paint many pictures with it?


    I have taught ZX humans. I have taught humans with every shade of autism, dyscalculia, dyslexia, etc etc. Sometimes there is genetic component connecting this dysfunction with their parents, sometimes it is biological/neural. But they never choose to struggle with x or y. Look, we can change people’s moral judgements by sending in transcortical magnetic stimulations into the brain, or by priming. It is fairly clear that the mental supervenes on the physical.

    So, back to this claim: “I think it’s not sensible to infer anything about ‘normal’ cognition from experience of people who exhibit obviously-abnormal cognition.”

    What I was doing was illustrating areas of causality. Behaviour X is caused by brain state/neural circumstance/genotype Y. The commenter here is separating neurotypical people from non-neurotypical. This is problematic and perhaps entirely subjective anyway. Another oft stated highly problematic issue, which could be what he was stating, is that non-neurtypical behaviours are uniquely caused by certain circumstances. I.e. autism is caused by X (brains state, genes, brain dysfunction etc). But of course, we should be able to infer that since causation is happening in such abnormal situations, to claim that mental causation from physical scenarios does not take place in the neurotypical is special pleading.

    In other words, because someone ends up doing something ‘normal’ does not mean they are exempt from causality. Rather that a ‘normal’ behaviour results from ‘normal’ brain states (labelling notwithstanding). This seems to be what the commenter was saying here in another quote from him (he is actually a determinist, as a point of interest):

    “It’s also true that we can disrupt cognition, as you suggest: the question is whether that type of coercion – where people can’t choose because their cognitive processes are interrupted – is necessarily evidence that ‘volition’ is invalidated. I can’t think of a good counter-metaphor at the moment, because I’ve been drinking since midday and it’s currently 6:35 pm.”

    I would say, it’s true that we can have non-disrupted cognition, from neurotypical brain states etc. This uses EXACTLY the same causality. It’s just easier to understand causality in subjects which exhibit non-typical behaviour. But the causality is equally in place for the control group.

    So I would say that, with this uniform, universal causality, we have identical scenarios: brain states and physical phenomena causing mental phenomena. That some of the phenomena were in some subjective sense a-typical (tumour etc) is neither here nor there. To claim this makes the causality categorically different is nothing more than special pleading. The neurotypical person may have fully functioning rational architecture, but they have no control over choosing that architecture. The outcome is still determined by such processes.

    Another way to put it, neurotypical brains don’t suddenly give the agent special ability to evade logic and philosophy and magically allow the agent the ability to do otherwise.

    Now, of course, one would then need to establish whether we are morally responsible in events derived from neurotypical brain states. All or nothing!

    Category: FeaturedFree Will and DeterminismPhilosophy


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    • labreuer

      Stories like this teach me that we ought to make ‘safe zones’ for people to talk about what they are struggling with, no matter how dark the struggle is. Perhaps this sort of thing could have averted the tragedy. Perhaps the person would not have felt the need to struggle in silence.

      It seems to me that if a similar situation reoccurs, we are more morally culpable for not doing something to make such a situation less likely to happen. I’m a big fan of properly attributing culpability—like noting that the bullies who drive some people to become school shooters are somewhat culpable. But I am also convinced that I am my brother’s keeper, which is explicitly anti-individualist.

      • Given when it happened, I am not sure anyone was in a position to have known what was going on….

        • labreuer

          I was pretty careful to say that this situation provides sound reason to alter how we behave now. I could argue that other evidence existed to sufficiently undergird the importance of ‘safe zones’, but that’s a different discussion.

          This situation does provide a nice way to talk about ‘moral evidence’, or whatever you want to call it. It is relevant to the problem of evil, for there is the question of how much ‘moral evidence’ we need to adjust how we act, such that further evil is less likely.

    • pboyfloyd

      I think it’s hilarious that he seems to be saying one thing and disagreeing with himself when he reports that he can’t think of something since he’s drunk. (or did I read him wrong?)

      It’s my ‘off the cuff’ observation that you wrote this entire post just so you could use the word ‘oft’.

    • pboyfloyd

      I’ll never understand how it can be that some very smart people believe that morality has an objective, um, counterpart, that we can compare to.
      It’s like we know that if we’re brought up by thieves who constantly brag about the stuff they pinched we won’t(don’t necessarily ‘have to’) become thieving braggarts ourselves, but those raised by very smart people who believe that morality has an objective, um, counterpart, are being smart and philosophical to believe that exact same thing.
      (this comment has been brought to you by Lamb’s Navy Rum, now see if you can not just dismiss it as the ravings of a drunkard, hmm?)