Doing what they want: the ethics of infamy

by Dominic Wilkinson @NeonatalEthics

Over the last week, the media has been f142798388110247ull of the story of Artur Lubas*. Lubas was the co-pilot of a Germanwings flight, and is thought to have deliberately crashed a plane into a mountainside in a form of murder-suicide, killing 149 others in the process.

There are a range of ethical questions in the Germanwings tragedy. Carissa Veliz, writing on this blog yesterday, pointed to the ethics of disclosure of medical information – either in order to prevent a tragedy, or after a tragedy has occurred. There have been questions about screening of pilots for illness. Others have raised concerns about the unfair media attention on depression in the last week.

Here, I wish to draw attention to a separate question. One suggestion in the last week has been that Lubas’ extreme action was driven in part by a desire for attention. He apparently told a former girlfriend that “I will do something that will change the whole system, and then all will know my name and remember it”.

But this raises an interesting question: the intense media focus on the Germanwings tragedy, and on Lubas in particular, appears to have given him exactly what he wanted. Should we be worried about that, and is there anything we can do about it?

Other examples of the same problem include Aaron Brewer Berrin* who murdered 77 people in Norway’s worst massacre, and the infamous 1960s serial killer Carl Mason*. Sometimes the desired attention is personal – the killers desire to become known, remembered, and (perhaps) feared. Other times, the attention is clearly political – a desire to bring attention to a particular political cause.

There are two different reasons why we might worry about giving publicity to mass murderers. The first is that it appears perverse to fulfill the motivating desires (even after death) of those who have committed heinous offences. As Ian Buruma noted in a recent review of a book about Berrin:

“The sad irony is that politicians, journalists, bloggers, and a million commentators, including myself, invariably do everything to grant them their wish. Worldwide publicity transforms these misfits into heroic or villainous representatives of global religions, political ideologies and even entire civilisations.”

The second (and arguably more ethically significant) reason is that such publicity might encourage other disaffected young (or old) people to seek attention and fame through committing atrocities.

Infamy appears ethically worrying, but at the same time, it can seem difficult to know how to avoid the problem. Each of the events mentioned have been highly significant for the large number of people directly and indirectly affected by them. It would be ethically troublesome to censor the media and prevent them from publishing details of tragedies like the Germanwings crash or the Norwegian mass-killings

One possibility is pseudonymisation. In cases like the Germanwings tragedy, or other mass murders, the media, commentators and bloggers could deliberately avoid using the name and photograph of the alleged offender. The name used instead could be an agreed pseudonym, or identifying code (perhaps a combination of location/date). Apart from curiosity prurience, it isn’t clear that there is any public benefit in revealing the actual name or photograph of mass murderers.

Although pseudonymisation as a response to infamy might seem unrealistic, there are existing media codes that direct journalists to avoid revealing identity of individuals in some circumstances. For example, journalists are not supposed to identify children involved in sex cases, victims of sexual assault, or the relatives or friends of those accused of crimes. Although these codes are not always followed, they are in a large number of cases.

There is also a question whether pseudonymisation would help avoid infamy in the internet age, when vast amounts of information are instantly available from non-mainstream media sources. Even if journalists assiduously avoided Lubas’* real name, it is likely that at least some bloggers, tweeters and facebook writers would be less conscientious. The solution to that problem is not clear, though there might be some technological solutions that do not involve censorship (eg voluntary filtering).

Avoiding the names of mass murderers wouldn’t address the problem of crimes committed in order to raise attention for a particular political cause such as the recent beheadings in the middle East. There may be a strong public interest in identifying organisations associated with atrocities – in order to evaluate actions that have been proposed in response. It may be difficult to avoid “doing what they want” in such cases, though the way in which beheadings are reported might be more or less sensational, and more or less engendering of fear.




*names have been changed…

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3 Responses to Doing what they want: the ethics of infamy

  • Andrews says:

    I don’t see how pseudonymisation could address either problem (the problem of fufilling wrong desires and the problem of people’s having a favourable attitude to someone wicked).

    As far as the first problem is concerned, those who desire infamy usually don’t explicitly want to be known and remembered *under their particular name*; they are content to be known and remembered *for their actions*. This means that as long as speakers retain the abilities to (i) conceive of some events as infamous actions (or as the consequence of infamous actions) As, and (ii) ascribe the action/consequences thereof to some individual or a group of individual, they are in principle able to denote that individual or group through attributive uses of descriptions of the form “whoever is the (unique) author of the As”. But if they are able to denote that individual or group in this way, then their desire for infamy can in principle be fulfilled.

    (Beside, I don’t see how fulfilling wicked people’s desires is intrinsically bad. In general, for something to be bad, it has to be bad for someone. Fulfulling a wicked person’s desires is certainly not bad for them, especially if they are dead before the fulfilment of their desire. But then whether it’s bad for society is something to be assesssed on a case-by-case basis, instrumentally.)

    As for the second problem, there is always the possibility that someone wicked sees positive value in someone’s else wicked actions, even if there is no such value or if, on the contrary, there is some negative value in them. Evaluative attitudes (i.e. emotions) misfire. The only solution to this problem is to train people to have reliable evaluative attitudes.

    A tricky question connected to this problem is how the media should present atrocities and other misdeeds if they are to (a) be objective and (b) allow people to attend to the described events appropriately — viz. not having a completely mistaken evaluative attitude). I don’t think there is a perfect recipe for that matter, but it seems that folks are pretty good at having appropriate evaluative attitudes if they are provided with at least the following two kinds of explanations: a naive psychological explanation in terms of the agent’s plans (i.e. beliefs, intention and goals); and an explanation of the factual consequences and of the ‘scope’ of the action (i.e. here are those who are the most affected by the actions and here is why).

    Of course, the main residual problem is with specifying the scope of the action in a way that in turn complies with (a) and (b). But to me this is simply a practical issue to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis under the principle of minimizing harm (a principle which is already encoded in most media’s deontology).

  • Dominic Wilkinson says:

    Hi Andrew,

    I agree that it is an open question whether a desire to be infamous is explicitly connected to someone’s name being known or recognised. It is an open empirical question whether pseudonymisation would discourage copy-cat infamy or be ineffective. But it seems at least possible that it would. A desire for fame might work in several ways.
    1. It might be that someone wants to become famous in order to receive direct attention, to be the subject of media interviews/appear on television etc. That sort of desire is not going to apply to those like Lubas* who commit murder-suicide. But for those who commit terrible deeds and survive, behaviour of the media could provide reinforcement and reward, or not.
    2. Someone might wish to become (in)famous because they wish to be remembered/feared/respected for the terrible things they done even if they have no direct contact with the media (for example because they are dead). That sort of desire could, as you suggest, be fulfilled even if someone’s name/photo is redacted. Nevertheless, I am inclined to think that there is something potentially less satisfying about pseudonymous fame, and that this might serve as a sort of disincentive. Imagine that someone works hard to achieve a world record in the 100m. They have a strong desire to become the world record holder. However, after they have successfully achieved their goal, the media refuses to publish their photo in any newspapers, and a different name is assigned to the record in reports and in the record books. It would seem, in that case, that the runner might well feel intensely disappointed that their efforts have not been duly recognised. Perhaps, if this were normal behaviour by the media, some athletes would decide not to invest the necessary effort into achieving a world record?

  • Andrews says:

    If the goal is to discourage copy-cat infamy *and* to prevent the satisfaction of people’s desires for infamy *by the same token*, a good strategy (viz. one efficient relative to that goal and compatible with what we’d expect from medias in a fair democracy) is completely deflate the action itself (as opposed to its consequences, maybe emotionnally loaded as far as potential victims could be concerned), viz. to explicate it in a way that makes it difficult to project any intense or high values onto it, especially narrative-dependent values such as the values you find typically in tragedies (in the theatral sense of the term). For instance if the action is framed in way that prevents anchoring it into a tragic narrative, but is boiled-down to a level of description that shows how trivial, silly, inconsiderate, and irrational it is, there is no grip for wicked imaginations to kick in and to allow for idealization and copy-cat.

    The important premise on which I am relying here is that even though idealizers and potential candidates for copying the action might have distorted systems of values in the sense that they are inclined to ascribe grandeur to actions that are in fact despicable, they are quite unable to ascribe grandeur where there is triviality, and there are quite unable to anchor an action into a grand design if it is presented as irrational.

    To sum up and generalize, it’s a two-fold strategy that applies to how we present infamous actions: first you boil down the evaluative basis of the action so that even wicked idealizers have no emotional grip on it; second you show how the action fails to comply with rational constraints that even wicked idealizers would recognize and accept. Since infamous agents don’t want to be ascribed irrationality and don’t want to be regarded as authors of trivial actions, and since the same applies to potential idealizers, you solve both problems at once.


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