(Part 1: The Non-Evidential Discussion)
I find myself writing a draft off this post every few months. Every time there is a horrific shooting, often worse than the one before, my mind races and my fingers search for a keyboard. If Facebook and Twitter are any indication, then most of you do the same. I usually soak in what ever I can of popular opinion and the arguments from social media to get a sense of where people are in the discussion. I check news sources too, (no, not TV news) to get a feel for the particular narrative that always seems to take on new characteristics and new language after each shooting. On every occasion I feverishly hash out a draft, and for some reason it never seems to make it to my wall. There are too many digressions. There are too many distractions. Every argument smashes into the rear end of the next without getting resolved. So now it is about a week since the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and I wonder if I can flesh this out. Oh, and it isn’t too soon. There is no such thing.
Friendly Argument about Guns
I decided the best way to tackle the issue of gun control is to split it up in parts. The first part will consist of the non-evidential arguments for gun control. Most people immediately refer to what ever statistics or anecdotes that they can muster when arguing for or against gun ownership, as they absolutely should! However, statistics, examples, and stories are easy to be skeptical about and often refute one another without legitimate sources and research involved. Keyboard crusaders are all but credible authorities, myself included. In the social-media arena, it is enough to post a quickmeme with an eye catching graphic or phrase for the tidal wave of comments ensue. My first post won’t do any of that. Instead I’d like to focus on what most people agree is an irreducible, irreconcilable, source for debate and conflict. That topic is Rights.
There is a constant back drop of rights talk that requires a little elucidation. What does it mean to have the “right to bear arms?” What does it mean to have the right to anything? This is a word we use fairly loosely in conversation but it is never really brought to the forefront of an argument and explained. Can rights change? Are they strictly bound to a specific text or do documents like the Constitution just reflect some basic societal intuition? In talking about gun control, it seems like the most common deflection immediately goes into rights talk and what had started off as a wonky back-and-forth between friends peters off to a stalemate. Without delving into the historical context of the Constitution and talking about what the founding fathers meant/thought/believed about the 2nd amendment (that would be an evidential argument), let’s actually talk about rights.
The idea of people having a certain right may have erupted around sometime in the early 1700s. It wasn’t until the old European monarchies started to crumble that people started to gain a real sense of individualism. Suddenly the majority of people weren’t just uneducated slaves. A great secular awakening and philosophical writings churned a feudal European serfdom into an era that would soon be called the Enlightenment. A reverence for science and knowledge grew and this was also reflected in the new science of political theory. Up until that point, with perhaps the exceptions of Aristotle and Thomas Hobbes, political concepts were not based on community or individuals. Instead, things like divine right theory and hereditary totalitarianism were the norm.
It wasn’t until the late 17th century that John Locke developed social contract theory wherein the individual has a direct relationship with the state. This empowers the citizenry in a society to be able to participate and affect the governing body. While versions of democracy had made appearances in different forms up until this point, it wasn’t until Locke wrote his two treatises of government that individual’s rights started to make their appearances. At this point also, political pamphlets were readily available and literature was starting to become the 17th century equivalent of the internet. Literacy was at an all time high, especially in the United States which had the highest rate of literate citizens in the world. So when Locke wrote about individuals in a state of nature are entitled to “Life, Health, Liberty, and Property” (property has a different meaning here than it does today), it resonated with a population with a new sense of individualistic value. Nearly a hundred years later, our founding fathers and namely Thomas Jefferson included the phrase, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” in the Declaration of Independence, which was directly influenced by John Locke. At this point in history, another major thinker that revolutionized the concept of inherent rights was emerging. Philosopher Immanuel Kant lays the groundwork for what would become the major moral dichotomy of our time.
While rights were becoming a meme worthy of replication in a society like America, the going moral philosophy was utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham and later on John Stewart Mill (another philosopher that influenced our Constitution) developed a view wherein moral acts were contingent on their utility to society. It is easy to see how this view would become popular in the nationalistic sense. Things were morally good if they benefited the greatest amount of people to the greatest extent that it could. This is as altruistic as anything could be. It is of course, not without its short comings. While intuitively beneficial, it does seem to demand a lot of people to be self sacrificing and unselfish to one degree or another. In a world where individualism was taking over, utilitarianism may ask people to do things for the greater good that seemed undesirable. A good example is the ol’ train track scenario in moral philosophy. So there was a need to leverage strict utilitarianism with whatever it is that leads us to ascribe special privilege to individuals.
So when Immanuel Kant, produced his Critiques of Pure Reason he stood at odds with Utilitarianism with his own philosophy, Deontology. Kant’s arguments can get lengthy and convoluted but in the shortest terms possible Deontology says: 1) People have a duty to do good, 2) Good is only good if it is a good in and of itself, and that it can apply universally to all people, it cannot be related to a want or desire 3) People are an end in and of themselves. It’s because people are rational beings and they are able to distinguish between treating people with dignity and as a reason to do good and not merely as a means to a desirable end. So we have a duty to do good things, regardless of their benefit to people. For Kant, lying is never good because it treats people as a means to an end and serves to undermine their dignity—even if a lie were to save the planet from destruction!
Instead of using these terms, we’ll use more accurate terms for the gun debate and call them it the Good (utilitarianism) vs. the Right (deontology). Almost every moral debate that I can think of is framed within these two ideological sides and documents like the Constitution itself carefully balances between them. When someone embraces one side, they are sacrificing the advantages of the other. When a right overlaps with what we consider to be a greater good, then we don’t really have any controversy. A good example could be something like voting rights for women, or equal education opportunities for people, or religious freedoms. These are by and large uncontroversial, whereas at one time in the past they may have needed some debate. To say that we have the right to be treated equally serves the benefit of the society and treats people as ends in themselves. Dignity is assigned to everyone equally in this instance.
When we start approaching the right to own guns, things get a little hazy. Is the right to own guns a way to treat people as dignified ends? We in the Unites States take it for granted that any extension of freedom is a moral good. Freedoms in almost every other context seem to be uncontroversial and beneficial as opposed to a lack thereof. However once freedoms for individuals start to breach the well being of other individuals, we begin to see structures for which law must create a workable boundary. We are not free to murder. We are not free to drive drunk. We aren’t even free to plagiarize the ideas of others, or libel against them. So, why all the hoopla over guns?
Once the gun debate is reduced to the idea of rights, the only response is to combat it with notions of the good. If you have ever participated in friendly arguments at bars or on social media, you may have already noticed. In order to establish a right, there must be a correlation with the good in order to justify it. Once you ask someone who believes in a right why they believe in that right, the response must come in the form of how it benefits society (unless you’re arguing with a philosopher and there’s a good chance it’ll happen anyway). If you ask someone why it is important that we have the right to bear arms, people will cite the 2nd amendment. We know that rights precede the Constitution, so we can ask why it was considered a right in the first place (by the way, the Bill of Rights was very nearly not even included in the Constitution). So the answer must come in the form of, “because it is better than to not have the right.” The response is, “why?” That’s where all the crazy answers start to come out because not enough critical thought it put into the answer. People start invoking Hitler’s gun policy on Jews, or that crime will increase, or that the right is God given, etc. All of which are evidential arguments that require data to support. Rarely, if ever, are arguments from these grounds substantial or coherent. Frustration ensues.
Right vs. Good
That isn’t to entirely dismiss the claim that maybe we do have a morally defensible right to guns. We still have to wonder, at what cost? We know that roughly 10,000 to 30,000 deaths occur each year from shootings. Without going any further into the statistics, we can see that no other right affects the potential ending of human life so directly. There are of course evidential reasons (that I will get to in future posts) that can factor into why the number is what it is, but this will only distract from the fact that the prevalence of guns, lead to the existence of gun deaths. It could be argued, and indeed it has, that guns don’t cause guns deaths–people do. While on the face, this could be seen as true, but that doesn’t absolve the usage of guns altogether. Clearly guns are present at the scene of a crime where a shooting occurs. Even if it’s in a small degree, guns carry at least some responsibility for the deaths that occur from the bullets that were in them. Secondly, the argument that our culture in America has a special relationship with guns unlike any other country seems to be untrue even on its face. It is possible to delve into the historicity of firearms and combat in at least 100 countries that would negate this theory from “specialness.” Nevertheless, I’ll assume that this is true. It then seems funny that the immediate defense of many gun advocates, most notably the NRA, is that our culture of violence is to blame for gun deaths vis a vis video games, movies, the media and comics. It is blaringly evident that gun culture must carry its negative aspects into the definition along with what ever goods may be found in it. To blame gun culture for deaths but use it as a reason for the a right to have a gun, well it seems silly.
The question must be asked: How many gun deaths is the right to own guns worth? The right for freedom of slaves (amongst other things) was worth a civil war with hundreds of thousands of deaths. Is the right to own guns worth 30,000 deaths? 100,000? 1,000,000 per year? Of course it is possible to hedge what the right to bare arms means and currently I’m not advocating banning guns altogether, but I am offering the question up hypothetically. What amount of deaths per year would make it considerable to pro-gun advocates to submit that maybe banning guns unilaterally is a necessary action? Let’s say the number is a mere 100,000. The follow up questions must inquire as to why that number is significant? If 99,999 deaths occur in one year, then it isn’t worth considering? The goal would be to find a common ground with some reason for there being a non-arbitrary number. For defenders of the right, the number is infinite. There may not be a sufficient correlation between guns and gun deaths, or the right supercedes any consequences, or libertarian freedom is the highest value, but sufficient reason must be given to defend these positions. As for defenders of the good: the number is 1. The right to own guns for these group is directly related to death and it represents a verifiable evil that must be suppressed. Extreme positions on either side are impractical. Seeing as how the law is based on normative intuitions; that the general feelings of the citizens are reflected in law then it seems likely that people in the frame work of this argument would most likely want to keep the number as low as possible while still maintaining the right.
There are a number of prescriptions as to how to balance this argument. The point is that for the right, the only thing worth preserving is the right itself. For the good, it is people’s lives that are paramount and this reflects a more sensible attitude toward a very real state of affairs in relation to gun deaths. If the number of gun deaths per year fluctuated wildly, then the argument might take on a different tone. It would be possible to differentiate between bad years and good years and discovering the causal relationships between the two to work toward a compromise between the good and the right would be a matter of working toward the better years. The fact of the matter is that the number of gun deaths remains on a steady rise and so does the general consensus about stricter gun laws. In my opinion, by defending the right to own a gun we are obscuring what it means to treat people with dignity in the Kantian sense. Human dignity has been surpassed by ideology and a sort of religious belief in adherence to rights. We accept rights with the costs that come with it, but the 2nd amendment might straddle the fence as to how much we are actually willing to pay in a modern, peaceful society.
If the right for one individual to protect themselves (a speculation at best), is worth the deaths of some 10,000 people nation wide, then how can we say that this does not exemplify our worship of the mere thought of security versus actual safety. The defense of this statement inexorably leads us into the evidential arguments which will be submitted in the coming weeks. I hope to receive some feedback for this post along with counter arguments. I have given a really basic account of rights and utilitarianism in order to keep it friendly to everyone so if the best a comment can do is critique my portrayal of Kant or the Constitution then save it unless you’re really trying to assert something worth talking about. Remember, the core argument is Right versus Good. It doesn’t matter which side that you tend to fall on, but there is a resolution that must be accepted between both. Imagine yourself as the single decider in the matter. The fate of the country rested on you. How would you decide the law of guns and why? How would you explain yourself to the people that went against you?