The Las Vegas Shooter: The Absence of Moral Foundations

Normal people do not take 23 guns to a Las Vegas hotel room to randomly kill innocent people attending a concert.  Normal people don’t do that.

Why don’t normal people do that?  Because it is morally repellent.  A person who does that does not live in the same moral universe as the rest of us do. 

The terrorist mind must overcome normal-range morality of right and wrong.  It accomplishes this termination of normal-range morality by developing empty and twisted justifications that excuse the violence as somehow being a “righteous” act of deserved retribution.

In his research on morality, Johathan Haidt identifies six foundations of morality:

Caring

Fairness

Loyalty

Authority

Sanctity

Liberty

The act of the Las Vegas shooter violated all foundations of morality.

Caring

The moral foundation of caring emerges from the love and bonding system of the brain, attachment and empathy.  We feel the pain and suffering of others.  Our empathy and love prevents us from causing harm and motivates us to provide care and comfort to suffering.

This moral foundation is shut down by turning the other person into an object.  When the other person is an object rather than a person, our empathy and care systems don’t activate.  We don’t consider the “suffering” of a chair or a table.  Objects don’t activate the love and empathy systems of the brain (attachment and intersubjectivity systems).

The love-and-bonding system of the Las Vegas shooter was deeply damaged (the attachment and intersubjective systems; emotional bonding and empathy).  The victims weren’t people, they were objects, like chairs and tables.  The attachment and empathy systems of the Las Vegas shooter were silent, and the caring moral foundation was silent.

Fairness

The fairness moral foundation responds to justice.  It is sensitive to proportionality in the rewards and punishments received in social relationships.  The fairness moral foundation evaluates whether the rewards and punishments received are proportional to the person’s contribution and role.

However, dysfunctions to the love-and-bonding systems of the brain (attachment and intersubjectivity) will turn off the moral justice foundation.  Justice is an irrelevant construct when applied to a chair or table. 

In response to the damaged attachment and empathy networks of the Las Vegas shooter, the justice moral foundation was also turned off.  The victims weren’t people, they were objects.

Loyalty

The moral foundation of loyalty binds our actions to the goals of the social group.  From the loyalty moral foundation, the needs of the group take precedence over personal comfort and gratification.  Our actions become motivated toward the common good of the social group.

But objects don’t activate our loyalty obligations.  We are not loyal to a chair or a table.  We are only loyal to our social group, not to an object.  The damaged love-and-bonding networks of the Las Vegas shooter’s brain turned off the loyalty moral foundation as well.

Authority

The moral foundation of authority is closely linked to power, and in the isolation of a narcissistically organized brain the two constructs of authority and power are synonymous.  In a socially bonded brain, authority emerges both from power and also from an agreed social contract in which authority is conferred by consent of the social group.  In the socially isolated narcissistically organized brain, however, the social contract granting authority is not recognized.  To the socially isolated narcissistic brain, only the power component of authority is recognized.

For 64 years the Las Vegas shooter functioned well enough within the shared morality of authority.  Prior to the shooting on October 1, 2017 the Las Vegas shooter did not break the law, although it’s interesting to note that his father was a bank robber on the FBI’s most wanted list.  According to reports, prior to the father’s arrest in 1960 for bank robbery (the father was first arrested in 1946 for multiple counts of auto theft), the father of the Las Vegas shooter was described as a “family man, operating a filling station while raising four boys” (NBC News).  The Las Vegas shooter was born in 1953, meaning that he spent the first seven years of life with his father prior to his father’s arrest in 1960.

Yet despite the father’s apparent difficulty abiding within the authority moral foundation, the Las Vegas shooter had no criminal background.

Yet on October 1, 2017 the Las Vegas shooter violated the moral boundaries of authority and assumed the power to arbitrarily take the lives of innocent people.  For the Las Vegas shooter, the moral foundation of authority was about power, he complied with laws because of society’s power to punish.  On October 1, 2017 the Las Vegas shooter rejected the moral foundation of authority and adopted the narcissistic grandiosity of his own self-perceived power.  The moral foundation of authority no longer prevented his violence, he was outside of our shared social morality, he became narcissistically inflated into his own self-perceived power and he no longer recognized the legitimacy of outside authority, he felt himself to be exempt from the rules and laws that governed other people.

From Beck: “Unlike the antisocial personality, they [the narcissist] do not have a cynical view of rules that govern human conduct; they simply consider themselves exempt from them.” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 44)

From Beck: “Another conditional assumption of power is the belief of exemption from normal rules and laws, even the laws of science and nature.” (Beck, 2004, p. 251-252)

Sanctity

The moral foundation of sanctity recognizes the sacredness of certain ideas and concepts.  The ideas and concepts can have a religious foundation or can be secular values.  The moral foundation of sanctity becomes extremely distorted in the terrorist mind, providing exceedingly important clues into the psychological damage creating the pathological hated and pathological violence of the terrorist mind. 

Following the path into the terrorist mind created by the damage evidenced to the sanctity moral foundation will lead us to critically important insights into the meme-structures – the information structures – at the source of the pathological anger and pathological violence created by the terrorist mind, but I will defer this exploration to a future date. 

Violations of the other moral foundations for caring, and justice, and loyalty, and authority, and liberty will activate our moral judgement of the act as being inherently wrong.   Violation of the sanctity foundation, however, leads to our moral judgement of the act as being “evil.”  The act of the Las Vegas shooter wasn’t just morally wrong, it was evil.

There is a fundamental sanctity to life.  Taking a life is serious and requires moral justification.  Randomly killing innocent people violates the sanctity moral foundation.  Randomly killing innocent people is evil.  When we enter the world of the terrorist mind we transcend normal morality of right and wrong and enter the world of evil.

Liberty

The moral foundation of liberty opposes domination by the oppressor.  The moral foundation of liberty inspired the American revolution, and the activation of the liberty moral foundation continues to inspire many national and ethnic liberation movements around the globe.  It can be challenging to disentangle the pathological violence of the terrorist mind from the violence of a “liberation” movement in response to oppression.  The violence inspired by the liberty moral foundation often combines with the justice moral foundation, and these two moral foundations can activate overtones of the sanctity moral foundation – a “righteousness” of purpose in fighting a “just war” of “liberation” from the oppressor.

No such moral cause inspired the Las Vegas shooter.  He was not “oppressed,” he was not fighting for his liberty from domination by the oppressor.  Instead, he violated the moral foundation of liberty for the innocent people who were simply attending a concert, their fundamental right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

The Origins of Shared Morality

Shared morality binds the social group, building its cohesiveness.

From Haidt: “Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” (Haidt, 2012)

From Durkheim: “What is moral is everything that is a source of solidarity, everything that forces man to … regulate his actions by something other than … his own egoism.” (Durkheim 1984/1893, p. 331; as cited by Haidt)

From Stern: “Cohesion within human groups is greatly enhanced by moral suasion.  I will argue that intersubjectivity is the basic condition for morality.  The “moral emotions” (shame, guilt, embarrassment) arise from being able to see yourself in the eyes of another” (Stern, 2004, p. 104)

From Stern: “In brief, intersubjectivity contributes to group survival.  It promotes group formation and coherence.  It permits more efficient, rapid, flexible, and coordinated group functioning.  And it provides the basis for morality to act in maintaining group cohesion and language to act in group communication.” (Stern, 2004, p. 105)

The enhanced group cohesion created by a shared morality increases survival.

From Haidt: “But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups.  As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists.” (Haidt, 2012)

From Haidt: “Whenever a way is found to suppress free riding so that individual units can cooperate, work as a team, and divide labor, selection at the lower level becomes less important, selection at the higher level becomes more powerful, and that higher-level selection favors the most cohesive superorganism.” (Haidt, 2012)

The terrorist mind violates all of the foundations of shared social morality.  Damage to the empathy system (the intersubjective system; referred to as the “hive mind” by Haidt) creates an isolated, narcissistically organized mind.  The empathy system (intersubjectivity) develops through the use-dependent “scaffolding” it receives when the child is shown empathy by parents during childhood (The Mind of the Las Vegas Shooter: Empathy Deficit).  The absence of parental empathy during childhood creates an isolated brain in the child that has core deficits in its ability to feel empathy for others.

The damage to the empathy system of the terrorist mind is created by a failure of parental empathy during childhood.  The child’s inner emotional and psychological experience was irrelevant to the parent (an absence of shared intersubjectivity), the child was an object rather than a valued psychological person.  The isolated mind created in the absence of parental empathy remains forever apart from the shared social field of humanity, alone and alienated, an object incapable of swimming in the shared social mind of the intersubjective group. 

When the person is an object, everyone becomes an object.

The damage to the attachment system (the love-and-bonding system of the brain) and empathy system (intersubjectivity systems) turns off the moral foundations for caring, justice, and loyalty by making other people objects; chairs and tables rather than human beings.

In the isolated narcissistically organized mind of the Las Vegas shooter, the moral foundation of authority was only power, not the social contract of recognized authority.  Only power is recognized, not laws, not rights, not authority.  In the mind of the Las Vegas shooter, the moral foundation of authority is only power.

Based on the increase in his gun purchases over the last year (33 gun purchases in the year prior to the shooting), it appears that the narcissistic grandiosity of the Las Vegas shooter activated sometime in 2016/2017 to inflate his self-perception of power and entitlement sufficiently to remove the authority-power inhibition on his acts.  He likely made a decision in 2016 to end the psychological emptiness of his life, and his decision on how to end his life was to gratify his narcissistic grandiosity of wanting to be “special” (to fill the deep emptiness within his attachment system).

The guns were an expression of his power, and in his narcissistically organized brain of social isolation he felt entitled to impose his power onto others because they were merely objects – objects just like he was an object.

Without the moral restraints imposed by caring, loyalty, justice, authority, sanctity, or respect for the freedom of others, the Las Vegas shooter felt he was entitled by his self-perceived narcissistic grandiosity to impose the domination of his power onto the objects attending the concert; tables and chairs – objects – devoid of humanity.

But why?  Even if he was absent the constraints of shared social morality, why did he want to kill? 

Because he wanted to inflict immense suffering on others.  This is the third feature of the terrorist mind; 1) damage to empathy, 2) a vacancy of shared social morality, and 3) a desire to inflict immense suffering on others.

The absence of empathy is associated with the capacity for human cruelty, and the absence of empathy is described by Baron-Cohen (2011) as the origins of evil. 

The profound deficits to shared moral foundations, particularly the sanctity foundation, displayed by his act triggers our moral judgement of his actions as evil.

But it is in the psychological gratification he sought in creating immense suffering in others that the core of understanding evil is found.  

Understanding the core of evil will be the next level we’ll uncover.  Why did he want to create immense suffering in others?   Once we uncover the core of evil, we’ll bring all three symptom features together into understanding the terrorist mind and the pathological violence of the Las Vegas shooter.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857

Baron-Cohen, Simon (2011). The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. New York: Basic Books.

Beck, A.T., Freeman, A., Davis, D.D., & Associates (2004). Cognitive therapy of personality disorders. (2nd edition). New York: Guilford.

Durkheim, E. (1984/1893). The Division of Labor in Society. Trans. W. D. Halls. New York: Free Press.

Haidt, J. (2012).  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. NY: Random House.

Stern, D. (2004). The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

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