In light of the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, the debate over access to firearms has again been thrust to the fore of our national consciousness. With the resurgence of this debate, the classic “guns don’t kill people” line of argument will inevitably feature prominently in radio conversations, TV interviews, Facebook posts, and tweets. The “guns don’t kill people” trope is part of a larger pattern in how our society frames the relationship between technology and (lack of) collective responsibility.

“Guns don’t kill people” is a spin on the broader “technology is neutral” trope–still widely-embraced by Silicon Valley–whose function is to absolve the creators of technology from any responsibility for the consequences of what they have designed. The “technology is neutral” trope has long be subject to criticism. From Frankenstein’s monster turning on its creator to Robert Oppenheimer’s own reflections on creating the bomb, Western civilization has wrestled with the question of where responsibility resides in atrocities facilitated by technology, and we, on occasion, are reminded that the choice of what to research and create (or to not research and not create) is an expression of both individual and cultural values. As the great sociologist Max Weber once said, only through “naive self-deception” does a technician ignore “the evaluative ideas with which he unconsciously approaches his subject matter… that he has selected from an absolute infinity a tiny portion with the study of which he concerns himself.” Technology is never neutral because its birth–its very existence–is the product of both political forces and values-oriented decision making.

Both the “technology is neutral” and the “guns don’t kill people” tropes attempt to deflect moral, legal, and political accountability by obscuring our understanding of the causes behind technologically-facilitated tragedies (or triumphs). However, recent global events have made the concept of technological neutrality appear increasingly untenable. For example, social media seemed to play such an important role in the Middle East that many commentators began speaking of Facebook and Twitter revolutions. While social media was not the direct cause of the Arab Spring, it certainly shaped its character and, possibly, its outcome (as Zeynep Tufekci explained in a very astute essay on the causes behind the Arab Spring).

Drawing on Aristotle, Tufekci reminds us that there are four different ways that we can understand how one thing caused another thing to happen:

So what to make of all of this? I say, let’s bring in Aristotle! Aristotle distinguished between four types of causation: material, formal, efficient and final. I want to specifically bring the notions of material, efficient and final causation into this debate. Here’s Aristotle…

“Cause” means: (a) in one sense, that as the result of whose presence something comes into being—e.g. the bronze of a statue and the silver of a cup, and the classes which contain these [i.e., the material cause]; … (c) The source of the first beginning of change or rest; e.g. the man who plans is a cause, and the father is the cause of the child, and in general that which produces is the cause of that which is produced, and that which changes of that which is changed [i.e., the efficient cause]. (d) The same as “end”; i.e. the final cause; e.g., as the “end” of walking is health. For why does a man walk? “To be healthy,” we say, and by saying this we consider that we have supplied the cause [the final cause]. (Full text is here )

In this schema, material causes are the substrate of things. Does metal cause cars? In some sense, cars as we know them wouldn’t exist without metals so it meets a “but for” definition of causality. So, in some sense cars are caused by metals in that no metals, no cars–at least in their current form. However, in everyday usage, most of us tend to use the other two definitions, the efficient cause, i.e. cars are there because someone manufactured them; or the final cause, i.e. cars are there to take us from place A to place B in a speedy (but polluting!) manner.

So, I think most of the people using the term “social media revolution” are using it in the sense of a material cause. As I asked on Twitter during the debate, would we call the French Revolution a printing press revolution? Surely, the invention of the press is a strong antecedent of that revolution. But also surely, that revolution was made by people, through political action. So, the printing press just defines the milieu in which the revolution took place; it is an inseparable part of the French revolution even though it is not the efficient (political uprising) or the final (establishing a republic) cause of the French revolution. But you cannot really imagine a French Revolution, of the kind that happened, without the printing press.

We now need to apply this same schema to guns (and to debunking the “guns don’t kill people” argument). In the Newtown shooting, the efficient cause was perpetrator Adam Lanza’s decision to pull the trigger. Police are still working to determine the final cause or “motive,” though we may find that mental illness is one such cause. While the semi-automatic Bushmaster assault rifle technology available to the perpetrator was not an efficient or final cause of the shootings, it was undeniably a material cause. That is to say, Lanza would not have been able to murder so many people in such rapid succession “but for” the availability of such a deadly weapon.

Without access to an assault rifle (or similar weapon) the quality or character of the killings would have been fundamentally different. If say, Lanza had access only to a manually-operated rifle or a standard revolver, the rampage likely would have been less deadly. This fact is only further highlighted by a similar attack that took place at a school in China on the very same day, but, in this case, the attacker was armed with only a knife. While none of the 22 people slashed and stabbed in China died, all of the victims targeted in Connecticut perished. Intent may have been a factor here, but clearly the two weapons have very different “affordances,” which give the two events each a completely different character and degree of tragicness. [This is, in many ways, an extension of Evan Selinger's critique of the "instrumental" view of technology, but I think drawing on Aristotle (via Tufekci) provides a simple framework for understanding why the cause of a murder is more than just the the murder's decision to discharge a weapon.]

We must ask ourselves: Who benefits from the systematic denial of material causality when it comes to firearms and other technologies? Certainly not the children of Newtown. More broadly, however, we are all directly or indirectly affected by the technologies that industry creates and government allows to circulate. The acknowledgement of causality inevitably leads to the assignment of responsibility. If assault weapons are a cause of this massacre, then surely those who caused the assault weapons to exist bear a share of the responsibility. However, this accountability is something that manufacturers, policy makers, and investors alike are keen to avoid, so they will continue to try and confuse the conversation by reducing all causality to the simple pull of a trigger.

Note: Zeynep and I both skip over Aristotle’s notion of formal causation. A formal cause is “the form or pattern; that is, the essential formula and the classes which contain it—e.g. the ratio 2:1 and number in general is the cause of the octave—and the parts of the formula.” Formal causation, in the cases discussed, would imply an essentialist ontology that most contemporary sociologists would reject.

Follow PJ Rey on Twitter: @pjrey.