By: Doron Levine  | 

How Many Victims Died in the Plane Crash?

Was Andreas Lubitz a mass murderer? The co-pilot of Germanwings flight 9525 was the direct cause of the death of 150 people (including himself). The innocent passengers and flight crew members expected a routine flight from Barcelona, Spain to Dusseldorf, Germany, but instead met their untimely deaths in the Alps of southeastern France. Should the pilot who locked the door of the cockpit and calmly guided the plane on its deadly descent be labeled a cruel villain? Should the man who kept the plane on its collision course, even as his passengers screamed and his co-pilot frantically knocked and yelled “Open the damn door!”, enter the history books as a cold- blooded butcher?

Not so fast. Many have hesitated to assign Lubitz this degree of moral responsibility due to his stormy psychological history. Though the Chief Executive of Lufthansa, Germanwings’s parent company, said that Lubitz passed the company’s health checks and “was 100 percent flight worthy, without any limitations,” recent reports challenge the airline’s assessment. According to Der Spiegel, Lubitz was seeing at least five doctors, among them a neurologist and a psychiatric specialist. He had been treated for suicidal tendencies and antidepressants were found in his apartment in Dusseldorf along with a medical note that deemed him unfit to fly. Pilots are required to alert the airline of any mental illnesses that they suffer from, but Lubitz seems to have hidden his condition from his superiors.

Because of Lubitz’s depression, the media has been reluctant to saddle him with full moral responsibility. The media response has largely avoided calling Lubitz a mass murderer. Instead, the flashy headlines have emphasized Lubitz’s mental condition and demanded to know why a depressed man was allowed to pilot a commercial jet. Some have even made the case explicitly. In an opinion piece for CNN, Les Abend, an experienced commercial pilot, explained that pilots are subject to high levels of stress, especially during their training period. Suffering from depression, Lubitz was a “sick man” who found himself in “a perfect storm of stress.” Thus, Abend says, this tragic incident was “an accident waiting to happen.”

Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, was even more forthright. In an op-ed for the LA Times, Sapolsky admitted that “it is immensely rare for depression to result in violence to others.” Nevertheless, Sapolsky wrote, Lubitz’s depression caused him to crash the plane. Depression is a “neurochemical disorder rooted in genetic vulnerability and stressful environmental triggers” which causes the affected person’s “essence” to be “made unrecognizable by biology gone wrong.” A person cannot choose to not be depressed any more than he can choose to not have diabetes. Because of this diagnosis, Sapolsky delivered an unequivocal verdict: “It was not Lubitz who did this; it was his disease. Or to state this as explicitly as possible, the Germanwings crash had 150, not 149, victims.”

Many have strongly objected to shifting the blame from Lubitz to his depression. Some have pointed out that depression usually does not lead to homicide. Others, like Dan Diamond writing for Forbes, have admitted that “there is a possible link between depression and violence,” but nevertheless “blaming a person’s depression for his evil acts is ridiculous.”

Some have suggested that, as opposed to or in addition to being depressed, Lubitz may have been a psychopath or a sociopath, and was therefore responsible for his violent act. But this does not solve the problem; many psychologists believe that psychopathy, like depression, is a neurological condition with a large genetic component and can be observed already in young children.

In 2009, Professor Declan Murphy of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London studied the brains of psychopaths who had been convicted of crimes including murder and rape and he found that the brain structure of psychopaths differs from the normal brain structure. The uncinate fasciculus (UF) is a tract made of white matter that connects the area in the brain associated with emotions, fear, and aggression to the area associated with decision making. The study found in brains of psychopaths “a significant reduction in the integrity of the small particles that make up the structure of the UF.”

The researchers suggested that this biological difference might “help to explain [the psychopaths’] offending behaviors.” So according to this study, homicidal psychopathy is a biological condition just like depression. Instead of blaming the psychopathic murderer himself, we should blame his brain structure.

But even though biological states are correlated with mental disorders, depression and psychopathy are still diagnosed based on their behavioral and emotional symptoms. As Dr. Richard Friedman, professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, explains, though we can study and measure activity in different areas of the brain and then “correlate them with various behaviors and mental states,” there is still “no singular neural signature yet identified for any psychiatric disorder.” Doctors diagnose depression by observing feelings of sadness and hopelessness in patients, and they diagnose psychopathy by noting lack of emotional response, pathological lying, and remorseless indifference. The diagnosis does not require identification of a biological abnormality.

When some remove the blame from Lubitz by pointing to his depression and others respond by diagnosing him as a psychopath, neither side is addressing the real question. Let’s grant the modern neuroscientific assumption that depression, psychopathy, and other similar mental diseases have neurobiological brain states associated with them. In order to determine where the moral responsibility lies, we have to consider how these distinctive brain states relate to Lubitz’s “essence.” Who was in control here? If Lubitz was psychopathic, did he himself make decisions which caused his brain states to be a certain way, or was he under the influence of a disease, an outside force that he had no control over? In which direction was the causation?

More generally, we can ask, do we make choices that affect our brain structure, or does our brain structure affect how we act? A psychopath has a distinctive brain structure, but modern neuroscience tells us that a regular person also has a unique brain structure that correlates to all of his thoughts and activities. Maybe people who are particularly kind tend to have an unusually well developed UF. Why, then, are we more likely to say that an abnormal person’s brain states cause his actions? Why not say the same thing about the actions of regular people?

This is the tension of the materialist conception of the mind. The more neuroscience tells us that our minds are entirely physical and all of our decisions are determined by chemical processes in our brains, the harder it is to blame people for their actions. If a person’s mind is composed of physical matter and if the activity of physical matter is entirely determined by the laws of physics, then a person’s thoughts and actions must be completely determined by these unalterable natural laws. And if our mental activity is entirely controlled by physics, then we have no freedom.

So while it might be comforting to blame Lubitz’s actions on the depressed state of his brain, absolving him of moral responsibility invites us to take the reasoning employed in cases of mental illness and apply it to all cases of mental activity. And this might lead to surprising results. We cannot blame someone for a crime that he could not have avoided performing, and we also cannot praise someone for a good deed that he was determined to do.

Granted, outside forces can affect a person’s thought processes—for example, if I knock someone out with a shovel, he will temporarily become unconscious. But if we wish to point to a depressed person’s brain states as an excuse for his actions, then we must be able to offer a method of identifying which brain states leave a person with no free will and which brain states are caused by a person’s choices. If we cannot, then we may be in serious trouble.