Wednesday, August 07, 2019

God, guns, and tipping-points

1. Every time there's a mass shooting in the USA, the anti-gun lobby tries to make political capital out of that tragedy. In my experience, those opposing private ownership of guns suffer from self-reinforcing ignorance. They have no idea what the gun-right arguments are because they don't study the other side of the argument. Indeed, they think it's inconceivable that there ever could be good arguments for private ownership of guns. So their incredulity is circular. 

Someone might object that I'm burning a straw man. They don't oppose private ownership of guns. Rather, they advocate "sensible gun control". But that's just a euphemism. A ruse for an incremental strategy that terminates in a total gun ban and mandatory confiscation of guns in the possession of private citizens. They think that ultimately the only people who should have guns are agents of the gov't. 

2. When anti-gun opponents make political capital out of the latest mass shooting, the assumption is that this issue ought to have a tipping-point. How many mass shootings does it take before gun-right advocates change their minds? 

Keep in mind that any figure for what constitutes a mass shooting is arbitrary. That will be a stipulative definition.

I think for many gun-right supporters, the answer is: there is no tipping-point. That's why each new "mass shooting" doesn't move the needle. Each new shooting doesn't change their minds because their support for private gun ownership was never a quantitative calculation. 

Of course, it's easy to posit extreme hypotheticals that put a strain on that position, but hypotheticals cut both ways. It's just as easy to posit hypotheticals that put a strain on the anti-gun position. So that philosophical strategy is self-canceling. 

4. I'll comment on the gun-right position directly in a moment, but first I'd like to draw a comparison. Every time there's a natural disaster that kills lots of people, atheists try to capitalize on that tragedy by asking, "What's the tipping-point?" How many more natural disasters does it take before you change your mind about God? And the answer for sophisticated Christians is: there is no tipping-point. 

Whether it's one more natural disaster or one less natural disaster makes no difference, since the position wasn't quantitative to begin with. Rather, it's a matter of principle. If we have adequate theodicies to cover one natural disaster, then the same theodices are adequate to cover more than one. There's no logical cutoff. 

It's really not about the number of examples, but the kind of examples. One more example or one less example doesn't affect the kind of example. If God's existence and benevolence are compatible with certain kinds of evil, then it's not a question of percentages. 

The only tipping-point would be a hypothetical world containing sheer evil with no redeeming values. But that's irrelevant to the actual situation.

Moreover, the objection cuts both ways. If it's a question of how much evil is permissible, then by the same token it's a question of how little evil is permissible. You can go from the horrific end of the continuum to the slight end of the continuum.  

5. To take another illustration, I think there's a tipping-point when it comes to "torturing" terrorists. Take the ticking timebomb scenario. I think it's possible for some people to forfeit their prima facie immunity not to be harmed. The rights of a terrorist don't supersede the rights of innocent victims.

However, some critics of the ticking timebomb scenario take it to the next step: if the terrorist doesn't break under torture, is it permissible to torture his 5-year-old son, in case he will break when he sees his son subjected to torture? In contrast to the first situation, my response in that situation is: there is no tipping-point. 

And the logic is the same. Protecting the innocent from harm was never a sufficient condition to torture someone for information. The individual had to do something to forfeit his prima facie immunity. And, of course, the 5-year-old hasn't done that. It would be morally contradictory to torture the innocent to spare the innocent. It was never a merely quantitative calculation. 

We could also use the thought-experiment from consequentialism: is it justifiable to harvest the organs of one healthy person to save five deathly ill patient? Most people balk. 

Sometimes there's a tipping-point and sometimes not. Adding more examples doesn't automatically shift the moral considerations.  

6. One reason cumulative mass shootings don't make a dent in the gun-right position is because the position is a matter of principle. A moral obligation. It's not primarily about gun rights but the right of self-defense. Guns are just a concrete means to enable that right. And I'm using "self-defense" in a broad sense: not just protecting yourself from harm but protecting others from harm. Protecting the innocent. That's a standing duty.

In addition, social obligations are concentric. I have a greater duty to protect my mother than your mother. 

Mass shootings can never abrogate the right of self-defense. They can't override the right of a woman to have a gun or carry a gun to protect herself from muggers, or rapists, or a homicidal ex-boyfriend. The common good doesn't obviate individual rights. While there may be a balance between the good of the one and the good of the many, individuals have certain inalienable rights.

Indeed, since the common good is just a collective, the common good presupposes a minimal threshold of individual rights. The common good is just a collection of individuals. You can't logically say individuals have no rights, while only collectives have rights. Group rights make no sense if no one in the group has rights. 

7. In addition to the argument from principle there's a pragmatic argument. Just as there's a pragmatic argument for banning and confiscating civilian guns, there's a pragmatic argument against it. 

i) To begin with, there's the deterrent value of private gun ownership. Although guns are used to commit crime, guns are used to deter crime.

ii) Furthermore, when it comes to curtailing or eliminating social evils, there are tradeoffs. Suppose, for argument's sake, that a blanket gun ban and mandatory confiscation drastically reduces the number of mass shootings. While that would eliminate one evil, the cost of eliminating some evils is to replace them with different or even worse evils. Gun opponents myopically focus on mass shootings, but giving gov't a monopoly on gun ownership creates an opening for a much more oppressive and pervasive evil than mass shootings, which–however horrifying–are statistically negligible. It creates a police state, a totalitarian regime that poses a far greater danger than mass shootings. It empowers the few, who use their unchecked power to engage in systematic abuse of authority. And this isn't hypothetical. There are many examples. That includes Communist regimes.

But to take a less overt example, consider modern-day England. It's a surveillance state with ubiquitous security cameras. Yet disarming the public hasn't made the public safer. The police don't protect the public. Crime spirals out of control while the police monitor and prosecute political dissent. 

It's very shortsighted to fixate on one social evil in particular without regard to how the means necessary to eradicate or curtail that evil is offset by evils on a far larger scale. You create a monster that can't be contained. 


  1. --Keep in mind that any figure for what constitutes a mass shooting is arbitrary. That will be a stipulative definition.--

    Case in point, it's purported that NO mass shootings have ever been stopped by a gun-wielding responder.

    Well of course, if there was a legal gun-owner on the scene when the shooting starts, the murderer wouldn't be able to rack up the killcount in a leisurely manner!

  2. Anti-gun advocates act like if there's a deadly shootout in the Wild West, then that's sufficient reason to ban guns. Take away all the guns from the cowboys so they won't kill each other. That reflects a paternalistic perspective. As if they know what's best for others.

    Related, this often reflects a bourgeoisie or elitist attitude. Many if not most anti-gun leaders like progressive politicians, professors, and news commentators live upper middle class if not upper class lifestyles. However, if they had to live and raise a family in the Wild West (e.g. a remote town on the prairies, the inner city, a border town), then they might feel differently about having guns to protect them and theirs.

    Anti-gun advocates act like if guns are banned, then the government will be benign. They distrust guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens, but they trust guns in the hands of the state. A state which they themselves believe is anti-women, racist, white supremacist, and more (e.g. supposedly cops are racist against blacks).

    1. Hawk, here's something interestingly odd... I saw your comment, then posted my previous comment, but mine has an earlier timestamp than yours - which makes mine appear before yours.

    2. Oh, that's because I had posted the same comment twice, but then deleted the first comment! :)

    3. I notice many conservatives in the GOP are supporting "red flag" gun control bills. Apparently if these bills pass, then it will mark a significant step toward gun control. However, liberals are already dissatisfied with these bills. It's not good enough for them. They're saying these bills are leaving it up to each state to decide when it should be the federal government which decides.

      As far as these red flag gun control bills are concerned, I don't know the ins and outs of them, but on the face of it, it looks like there's potential for abuse. For example, what in these bills will keep someone from falsely reporting a person as a "danger", which would result in their 2nd amendment rights curtailed and their guns confiscated?

  3. Steve, your good elaboration and defense of individual gun ownership makes me think of wisdom of Chesterton's comment, "Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up".

  4. Steve, I'm wondering if you think mental illness should be a factor in gun ownership? Of course, 'mental illness' can be whatever the gov't wants it to be, but should we be allowing guns to be obtained by someone who thinks the Illuminati is sending him messages through his toaster?

    1. It's obviously imprudent to put a gun in the hands of a psychotic. So in principle I don't object to common sense restrictions like that. But it's a dilemma because progressives use common sense restrictions as a wedge tactic. They don't stop with that. Because they're uncompromising, it's impossible to arrive at a reasonable compromise.

      I also object to the idea that we must convince a bureaucrat to give us permission to exercise a Constitutional right.

      Finally, this little guy is deeply offended at your derogatory comments about talking toasters:

    2. I was going to post a witty rejoinder, but the hair dryer said no.

    3. The core objections to most of the current round of proposed laws comes in 3 forms.
      1. It is already illegal for someone who has be judge as mentally ill to buy firearms in the US. Red flag laws are about circumventing due process to take the guns away before they do something. As has been mentioned, this is ripe for abuse. I will just report my ex to the police, because it will be easier to murder her after they disarm her for me. Extreme example, but we are talking about people who have already decided to commit murder. Do we really think the threat of going to jail for filing a false police report is going to stop them?
      2. The consequences of being adjucated as mentally ill become so severe that it prevents people from seeking the help I need. If, for example, I had a psychotic episode 15 years ago, should I be prevented from owning guns today? This idea also extends to convicted felons. Not only are convicted felons unable to legally defend their families after they get out of prison. The laws also greatly restrict the gun rights of the non-felons who live under the same roof.
      3. As Steve says, it is a wedge issue in the form of a slippery slope. The definition of mentally insane is not a constant. Homosexuality used to be considered a mental illness. If some people had their way, not being liberal enough would be classified as a mental illness.

      The really crazy part is that there is a huge overlap between...
      1. People who think there is no valid reason for anyone to own a gun, especially a "weapon of war" like an AR-15.
      2. People who think Trump is literally Hitler reborn and is putting immigrants in concentration camps.