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Charles Whitman and Free Will


Free Will is the idea that humans are capable of choosing between actions unimpeded and without reference to previous events or choices. It is what underlies personal responsibility, moral choices and the question about whether we could actually be responsible for our actions if they are not freely chosen. If someone holds a gun to your family and makes you do an illegal act, can you be responsible for that act? If you are childlike and incapable of understanding the implications of your choice are you similarly responsible? Philosophers have discussed and argued over how free is free will and to what extent is our conscious mind actually making choices? The case of Charles Whitman is an interesting case study.

Whitman was an ex-marine who in July 1966, climbed to the observation deck of the Texas University tower and over 96 minutes, shot and killed 10 people, wounding 31 others in the streets below before being killed by police officers. Whitman was a popular and intelligent school pupil and though he had had an abusive father growing up, and though he privately admitted to being violent to his wife on two occasions, he claimed he was "mortally afraid of being like his [abusive] father". He had no criminal history of any other violence. In the year before the shooting, he had attended several doctors and psychiatrists for what he called 'violent impulses' and 'tremendous' headaches.

At an autopsy after his death, a brain tumour was discovered and though neurologists and neuropathologists concluded: "The application of existing knowledge of organic brain function does not enable us to explain the actions of Whitman", Psychiatrists concluded that the "tumor conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions". So if the tumor had hampered Whitman's ability to make rational, empathetic choices in what sense could he be held responsible for his actions? Come and hear Dr Clare Allely talk about the Psychology of Mass Shooters; 7:20 Banshee Labyrinth.

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