One rather important matter is determining the appropriate trigger point for regulation and law. The basic challenge is determining the level at which a problem is such that it warrants the creation and enforcement of regulations and laws.
While it would be unreasonable to expect that an exact line can be drawn in all or even any cases (to require such an exact line would be to fall into the line-drawing fallacy, a variation on the false dilemma fallacy), a general level can presumably be set in regards to tolerance of harm.
Naturally, the level of reasonable tolerance would involve many variables, such as the number of cases of harm, the severity of the harm, the cost of regulation/laws, and so on. For example, paying a cost to regulate or outlaw something that causes no harms would seem to be unreasonable and wasteful. As such, the various “morality” laws that regulate consensual sex between adults would be unreasonable and wasteful. As another example, paying a modest cost to regulate or outlaw something that causes considerable harm in both numbers and severity would seem reasonable. Thus, the regulation of alcohol and tobacco seems reasonable.
While the specifics will vary from case to case, there should be a consistent approach to these determinations based on general principles regarding costs, number of incidents, severity of the harm and so on. In general, a utilitarian approach would be sensible—weighing out the likely benefits and harms for the various approaches to determine the most reasonable approach.
Not surprisingly, people tend to approach the trigger point of law and regulation very inconsistently. As with most matters of law and regulation, people tend to assess matters based on what they like and dislike rather than rationally assessing the relevant factors.
As a matter of comparison, consider the gun related deaths of children and voter fraud. While there is some dispute about the exact number of children who die from accidental gunshot wounds children obviously do die in this manner. Not surprisingly, some people have endeavored to strengthen the regulation of guns and pass laws that are aimed at preventing the accidental death of children from gunshots. It is also not surprising that the National Rifle Association (and other similar organizations) have lobbied against such efforts and have argued about the statistics regarding the gun related deaths of children. While the N.R.A. is obviously not in favor of the death of children, the approach taken has also included the standard method of contending that the problem is not at the trigger point at which new regulation or laws should be created and enforced. The general idea is that the harm being done is not significant enough to warrant new regulation or laws regarding guns, such as rules for the safe storage of weapons. In support of this, the N.R.A argues that the death rate from accidental shootings is less than falls, poison or “environmental factors.” That is, not enough children are dying to warrant new laws or regulation (I will assume that the death of a child is regarded as being a serious harm).
There is also considerable dispute about voter fraud, although even those who regard voter fraud as a serious problem admit that the number of incidents is tiny. However, after the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding the Voting Right Act several states enacted laws alleged to be aimed at addressing voter fraud. These laws include those requiring voters to have the proper ID (which former Speaker of the House Jim Wright was not able to get) and those aimed at reducing or eliminating such things as early voting. In general, these laws seem to be ineffective in regards to actual fraud and the existing laws seem to be adequate for catching fraud. For example, eliminating early voting would not seem to have any capacity to deter fraud. While the voter ID laws might seem to have the potential to be effective, actual voter fraud typically does not involve a person voting in person as someone else. Even if it did have some value in preventing voter fraud, it would do so at a great cost, namely disenfranchising many voters. Overall, the main impact of these laws is to not reduce voter fraud (which is miniscule already) but to disenfranchise people. In some cases politicians and pundits admit that these laws are intended to do just that and in some cases they get in trouble for this.
Given the low number of incidents of voter fraud and the considerable harm that is done by the laws allegedly created to counter it, it would seem that such laws would be rather unjustified when using a rational approach to setting a trigger point for new laws or regulations. It could, of course, be argued that the harm done by allowing a miniscule amount of voter fraud is so serious that it warrants disenfranchising people—that is, trying to prevent a few fraudulent votes is worth preventing many legitimate votes from being cast.
Interestingly enough, some of the folks who are pushing hard for new laws to “prevent” voter fraud are the same folks who push hard to prevent new laws to reduce the deaths of children. This presents an interesting look at how people actually make decisions about trigger points.
Presumably in response to the secrecy of the Bush administration, Obama made the promise that his administration would be transparent. Those who have Obama derangement syndrome claim that Obama is a Communist while those with a milder form of the affliction claim that he is a Socialist. His secret Free Trade Agreement seems to take a hammer to his own claim and the fearful fantasies of his foes.
While some information about the Free Trade Agreement has been leaked, there was considerable effort to keep its details hidden from not only the voters but also the Congress of the United States. Conveniently enough, some of the top corporations were in the know and presumably involved in laying out the details of the agreement.
Not surprisingly, this agreement seems to be incredibly beneficial to multinational corporations at the expense of sovereign nations and their citizens. For example, the agreement seems to include provisions that allow corporations to sue sovereign states if their laws (such as environmental laws against fracking in certain areas) would impede their profits. These lawsuits would apparently be brought in an international court with authority over sovereign states.
As might be imagined, some of the folks on the left (including people who are real communists and socialists) find this agreement to be of considerable concern. After all, it seems that it is tailored to grant corporations considerable advantages and to infringe on the usual rights of states.
Interestingly, this agreement should also bother many of the folks on the right. While there is obviously a strong pro-corporate camp among conservatives, there is also a strong element that has long been opposed to the notion of world-government and strongly opposed to the idea of the United States being subject to international courts. These people, if they are consistent, would presumably be as opposed to this agreement as they were to other proposals to limit American sovereignty.
That said, there does seem to be a difference between the past cases and the proposed agreement. In the past, those who opposed impositions on American sovereignty were generally imposing attempts to limit what the United States could do. For example, attempts to get the United States to accept internationally based limits in regards to environmental issues were strongly opposed. The rhetoric used included appeals to national sovereignty. Of course, this appeal to sovereignty was beneficial to corporations—they could exempt themselves from laws imposed by other nations behind the shield of United States sovereignty.
In contrast, the proposed agreement removes the shield of sovereignty in ways that are beneficial to the corporations. Obviously, it is rather useful to corporations to be able to hide behind the shield of a sovereign nation when they want to do things they would otherwise be prevented from doing and have that shield set aside when they want to do things to a sovereign nation.
It will be interesting to see how those who influence the conservative base will sell the proposed agreement to those they have long trained to cry out against world government and impositions on sovereignty. My guess is that they will make use of the magic words “free trade” and “free market” to sell the imposition on sovereignty. I also suspect they will make use of the notion that they have been pushing for quite some time, namely the idea that government is a bad thing.
Those who get the notion of consistency will, of course, note that the only consistent principle in use here is the idea that what is good for the profits of the few is good, whether what is good for profits defending national sovereignty in one case or ignoring that sovereignty in another.
Mass murders, defined as four or more people killed, occur with unfortunate regularity in the United States. These murders typically involve guns—most likely for the obvious reason that guns make killing much easier. The latest incident to grab the public’s attention was a shooting in a Washington Navy yard in which twelve people were murdered. As with each such horrible event, the gun cycle has been restarted.
As always, some people demand that “something be done” while others rush to head off any attempts to actually do something that might involve guns. As with each previous cycle, this one will slowly spin down and lose the eye of the public. Until the next shooting.
I have written so many times about guns and violence that I suspect that I do not have anything new to say about the matter. From what I have heard, seen and read, it seems like the same is true of other people.
In defense of guns, people trot out the usual line about it being people that kill rather than guns. This is, obviously enough, a true claim: guns are tools that people sometimes use to kill other people. Guns do not engage in murder by themselves. Another way to look at it is that it is true that guns do not commit gun crimes—people do. Of course, the same is true about drug crimes: drugs do not commit drug crimes—people do.
While muttering about guns not killing sounds callous when bullet ridden corpses so recently lay on the ground, this approach does have some merit. After all, when people do kill people with guns, there is some reason (a causal chain) behind it and this reason is not simply that the person had a gun. Rather, they have the gun and use it for reasons (in the sense of there being causes).
In the case of the latest alleged shooter, there seems to be evidence of mental health issues, such as his allegedly telling the police about voices and attempts to beam messages to him with microwaves. He also had a police record that included “minor” gun incidents, such as shooting a coworker’s tire and discharging a firearm through his ceiling into the apartment above. Despite all this, he was still able to legally purchase a gun and even keep his security access to military bases.
Looking back at other shootings, some of them are similar in that the shooter had mental issues that were known but did not reach a level at which legal action could be taken. This, of course, suggests that changing the laws would be a potential solution. However, the obvious concern is that the majority of people who fall below the level at which legal action can be taken to deny them guns never engage in violence. I have written extensively about this before and hold to the same position, namely that denying people their rights requires more than just the mere possibility that they might do something.
It is interesting and disturbing to note that it is worth considering that our entire society is mentally deranged. This point was made quite some time ago by Emma Goldman in her essay on anarchism. She noted that we are like animals in captivity and our behavior is deranged by the conditions that are imposed on us by those who hold power. We face a society with grotesque inequalities, ethical problems, drug abuse (which is both a cause and effect), little social support and great stress. Most people who are ground down by this situation break down in non-violent ways, but it is hardly a shock that some people respond with violence. If this is the case, then the violence is a symptom of a greater disease and gun laws would fail to address the disease itself—although they could make gun violence less likely.
In previous essays I argued in favor of splitting marriage by proposing theological unions (for the religious folks) and civil unions (to cover the legal contract aspect of marriage). However, there does seem to be one aspect of marriage left out, namely the matter of love.
On the one hand, it is sensible to not include the notion of love in marriage. After all, a couple that is getting married does not have to prove that they are in love. People who do not love each other can get married and people who do love each other (in the romantic sense) need not get married.
On the other hand, the notion of marriage for love does have a certain romantic appeal—fueled by literature and movies (if not reality). As such, it seems worthwhile to include a third type of marriage, namely the love union. While the romantic image is appealing, there is also a more substantive basis for the love union.
As noted in another essay, the theological union was proposed to allow people to exercise both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. As was noted in the essay after that, the civil union was proposed to handle the legal aspects of marriage. In the case of the love union, the purpose is to allow couples to create their own relationship bond (and rules) apart from that of religion and the state. That is, this is a relationship defined entirely by the couple. While the couple might involve others and have a ceremony, a love union would not be a theological union and would have no legal status. That is, the rules are only enforced (or not) by the couple. Naturally, a love union can be combined with the other types. A couple could, for example, get a theological union at their mosque, get a civil union from the state, and then have an event with friends to announce their love union.
Given that the love union has no theological status or legal status, it might be wondered what it would actually do. The answer is, of course, that this would vary from union to union. However, the general idea is that the couple would define the aspects of their relationship that are not covered by theology (which might be all of it) and do not fall under the dominion of the state. This sort of definition might be something as simple as a declaration of eternal love to a fairly complex discussion of the nature of the relationship in terms of rights, expectations and responsibilities. While not every couple will want to establish a love union, this does seem like a good idea.
Love is, apparently, the least important aspect of marriage when it comes to the political debates over the matter. This might be a reflection of the reality of marriage (that it is about religion and legal rights) or a sign of misplaced values. Because of this, I thought I would at least give love a chance.
In an earlier essay I argued in favor of splitting marriage and focused on the creation of theological unions. Each religious institution could define its own theological union in accord with its doctrines, thus allowing people to exercise their religious freedom. However, the theological union would have no legal status—thus allowing people to exercise their right to freedom from other peoples’ religions. Marriage as currently practiced does have numerous legal aspects that range from tax status to hospital visitation rights. On the assumption that these legal aspects are worth preserving, I propose a second type of marriage. At the risk of some confusion, it could be called a “civil union”—but I am not wed to this name. I am also open to the idea that some or even all of the legal aspects of marriage are not worth preserving and would certainly consider arguments to that effect.
A civil union of the sort I am proposing would actually cover a variety of legal relationships and would allow people various options. I base this on the idea that people should, in general, have the freedom to define their legal relationships in this context.
Those who prefer a more traditional approach could select the full traditional marriage civil union with all the legal obligations and rights that compose current marriage. In terms of who should be allowed to engage in such unions, the answer would seem to be that it is open to all adults who are legally capable of giving consent. Thus, this would exclude civil unions with turtles, corpses or goats. The basis for this is the right of legally competent adults to enter into legal contracts. As I see it, the legal aspects of marriage (such as joint property, insurance coverage, and so on) are merely legal agreements that hold between adults and the sex of the individuals seems to be irrelevant. As such, same-sex civil unions would be just as legitimate as different-sex civil unions. People engage in business contracts with people who are of their same sex all the time and the legal aspects of marriage are rather similar to a business contract—most especially in matters of divorce.
In addition to the “standard package” based on traditional marriage, people could also create more personalized contracts of union. This would involve specifying the legal obligations and rights that define the union. In terms of why this should be allowed, it is absurd that the marriage merger is a one size fits all deal when any other contract can be custom made. As such, I propose that people can create contracts of union that would allow couples to specify the legal aspects of their civil union. While many of these would be drawn from the “standard package”, these could also include tailored specifications. For example, a contract of union might specify the division of property that will occur in the case of divorce. In fact, given the high divorce rate, such contracts would be rather sensible and would save considerable problems later on.
Given that the legal aspect of marriage are based on a contract, it seems reasonable that many of the rights and privileges should be open to people who are not in a union. For example, people should be able to designate the people who get to visit them in the hospital.
It might be contended that this approach to marriage fails to consider the role of religion in marriage. My obvious reply is that this is exactly right. The religious aspects of marriage should be made distinct from the legal aspects, which is why I proposed the religious union as well.
It might be objected that this contract view of marriage would sully the sacredness of marriage. This proposal would seem to reduce marriage to a legal contract and, of course, people might enter into such unions for impure reasons such as financial gain or to get a green card.
The easy and obvious reply to the sully objection is that marriage has already been well and thoroughly sullied. Hence, replacing traditional marriage with a civil union would hardly sully it. To use an analogy, adding a bit more dirt to a mud puddle is not going to sully its purity, for it has none.
In regards to the impure reasons, it is obviously the case that people engage in traditional marriage for such impure reasons. Thus, this would make civil unions no worse than traditional marriage.
As a final point, it can be argued that marriage is defined by the state to encourage a certain type of marriage and in accord with traditional rights. The easy reply to this is that the state can still encourage marriage types by specifying the contracts and that an appeal to tradition is a mere fallacy.
Since I am a philosopher and am often cast as a liberal, people are sometimes surprised to find out that I am not anti-gun. After all, those seen as good liberals are supposed to be against guns as are folks in academics. In the light of the terrible murders at Sandy Hook and in Colorado, it might seem even more odd to not be anti-gun.
In terms of how I feel (as opposed to think) about guns, the explanation is rather easy. When I was a kid, I grew up around guns and hence they were something quite normal to me. When I was old enough to handle a gun, I went shooting and hunting with my father-after being properly trained in gun safety. I remember well the lessons I learned about how to handle a gun safely and the great responsibility that comes with carrying and firing a weapon.
My personal experiences involving guns have, at least so far, been positive: hunting with my dad, target shooting with friends, and learning about historic weapons. I have not had any personal experiences involving gun violence. None of my friends or relatives have been harmed or killed by guns (other than in war). Naturally, I have been affected by the media coverage of the terrible murders at Sandy Hook and elsewhere. However, the impact of what a person sees in the media is far less than the impact of personal experience-at least in terms of how one feels (as opposed to how one thinks) about a matter. In contrast, I have had friends hurt or killed by vehicles, drugs (legal and illegal), and other non-gun causes. I have had complete strangers try to hurt (or kill) me with their cars while I was biking, walking or running-but I have never been threatened with a gun. As such, I generally feel more negatively towards cars than I do towards guns.
Obviously enough, how a person feels about a matter is no indication of what is true or moral. Feelings can easily be distorted by a lack of sleep, by drugs (legal or illegal), by illness or by other temporary factors. As such, attempting to feel ones way through a complex matter such as the topic of guns is a rather bad idea. As such, while I generally have a positive feeling towards guns, this is no evidence for the claim that I should (morally) not be anti-gun.
In my last post I considered the stock argument that civilian gun ownership is necessary as a defense against the tyranny of the United States federal government. As I argued, the radical changes in weapon technology has made the idea that civilians can resist the onslaught of the entire United States government backed by the military rather obsolete. Back when the black powder muzzle loading cannon was the most powerful battlefield weapon it made sense to believe that plucky civilians armed with muskets could stand against regular army soldiers with some hope of not being exterminated. However, the idea of fighting against tanks, Predator drones, jet fighters and so on in the blasted ruins of American towns using AR-15s is absurd. I ended this post noting that there are other arguments for civilian gun rights that have actual merit.
From the standpoint of reason, the main reason I am not anti-gun is because of my acceptance of the classic right of self-preservation (as laid out by Thomas Hobbes) and self-defense (as argued for by John Locke). While it is rational to rely on the state for some protection (which is what Locke, Hobbes and other classic thinkers argued for) it would be irrational to rely completely on the state. This is not because of a fear of tyranny so much as because of the obvious fact that the state cannot (and should not) be watching us at all times and in all places. Should a person be pulled back into the state of nature, she will only have herself (or those nearby) to rely on. If she is denied the gun as a means of self-defense, then she is terribly vulnerable to anyone who wishes to do her harm in those times when the state’s agents are not present (such as while she is in her home). I find this argument to be compelling and hence I am not anti-gun.
It might be countered that if the state was guarding us at all times and in all places, then there would be no need for the individual to have a right to a gun as a means of self defense. While this might be true, the obvious concern would be the price paid in privacy and liberty to enable the state to guard us so thoroughly. While I value my safety and I do not take foolish risks, I also value my liberty and privacy. My pride also motivates me: I am not a child that must be guarded at all times. I am an adult and that means that I must take responsibility for my safety as part of the price of liberty and privacy. On my system of values, the price is worth what I gain in terms of freedom and privacy. Others might well wish to be enveloped in the protective embrace of the state and thus live as perpetual children, unable to make the transition to the risks and rewards of being an adult.
Another, more reasonable, counter is that the cost in blood and life of allowing private citizens to possess guns is too high and thus one should be morally opposed to them. While restricting guns would mean that people would be more vulnerable, it can be argued that the harms done to the unarmed will be vastly exceeded by the reduction in, well, harms done to the unarmed. That is, fewer people will be killed because they lack guns relative to those being saved because of the restrictions on guns.
Even if it could be shown that such controls would be effective and also worth the cost, I would still not be anti-gun. After all, the fact that tens of thousands of people die because of vehicles does not make me anti-vehicle. Rather, I am anti-harm and anti-death.
After the murders at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, a standard script was followed by the media and the pundits on various sides. Part of this script is that people who are against guns typically demand more gun control and some people who are pro-gun counter by claiming that the time after such a terrible incident is not the time to discuss changes in law.
My focus in this essay is to address the matter of when it is time to discuss gun violence and, in particular, changes in laws or policies regarding guns.
On the one hand, those who claim that the matter of gun laws should not be discussed right after a tragedy do have a reasonable point. After all, people reason even more poorly than usual when they are experiencing strong emotions. There is, of course, an abundance of fallacies that are “fueled” by the power of emotions to lead people astray from good reasoning. Examples include the classics such as appeal to anger, appeal to pity, and appeal to fear. In these fallacies, the general idea that something that creates an emotional effect (anger, pity or fear) is used as a substitute for an actual reason to accept a claim. As might be imagined, people are even more likely to commit such fallacies when they are in emotional states.
The reasonable concern is, of course, that people will make poor decisions regarding laws or policies while under the influence of their emotions and that these decisions can have negative consequences or, at the very least, lead to ineffective “solutions.” Presumably better decisions would be made after the emotions have cooled and, of course, we should endeavor to make laws and policies when our reasoning is at its best.
On the other hand, there are reasonable concerns that waiting to discuss such matters could be problematic. First, there is the worry that concern about gun violence will simply fade away as people are distracted by other things and forget about the murders at Sandy Hook. As such, a delay could result not in a more reasonable discussion of gun laws and policies but in no real discussion at all. This seems to be a common cycle: the media focuses on a terrible event involving guns for a few days and then the matter just fades away until the next incident. As such, it seems reasonable to push for serious discussion now when people are paying attention.
Second, there is the worry that the push to wait is not really a call to wait until we can have calm reflection on the matter but a considered tactic on the part of certain people to take advantage of the media’s and the public’s short attention span. That is, if the discussion can be held off long enough, people will forget about the matter (as noted above) and the status quo will continue.
While I certainly favor a rational discussion of the matter, I think that this can be done without waiting until people have mostly lost interest in the matter. As such, I think it is certainly time to discuss the matter seriously.
In politics it is often claimed that perception is reality. The basic idea is that politicians and their minions can shape the perception of people and thus define what they take to be reality. A quick look at the political landscape in most countries shows that politicians and their minions are rather good at this sort of thing.
In some cases, the idea that the shaped perceptions are the reality has some appeal. After all, some matters are such that whatever people think is thus correct. A non-controversial example of this is etiquette: what people think about manners determines what is polite or rude. As might be imagined, things get a bit more controversial when it comes to matters of value, such as ethics. While it can be argued that ethics are merely a matter of perception (that is, what people think is bad is bad because they think it is so), this is not something that can simply be assumed. Not surprisingly, politics often involves battles of value and the various sides attempt to define and redefine the perceived “reality” of particular values.
However, when it comes to physical reality, it would seem absurd to say that perception is reality and it would seem rather odd to try to impose on reality through laws. After all, reality is reality and this can be easily and painfully tested. As philosophers and scientists see it, we should generally endeavor to make sure that our perceptions are matching reality rather than assuming that what we believe is the reality because we believe it. Rational people also endeavor to make decisions based on reality rather than attempting to mentally re-define matters to suit what they would like. After all, insisting that something is not true because one does not want it to be true is the classic wishful thinking fallacy.
One unpleasant fact that people would general prefer not to be true is that the sea level is supposed to rise. In particular, a recent study for the NC Coastal Resources Commission predicted that the sea level in North Carolina would gradually rise by about one meter. Given the importance of coastal property to North Carolina it is no surprise that the Republicans in the state legislature sprang into action. What is surprising is the response: Replacement House Bill 819 seems to make measuring the rise in sea level using the methods used by scientists against the law. A key bit of wording is that “these rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of seas-level rise may be extrapolated linearly. …” In short, scientists would be forbidden from extrapolating exponential (which seems necessary to account for the existing data) and would be required by law to extrapolate linearly and within the time limit set by the law.
This, to say the least, seems rather bizarre. To use an obvious analogy, it would be like addressing an oncoming storm by forbidding meteorologists from using certain data when making predictions. To use another analogy, it would also be like address a patient’s illness or injury by forbidding doctors from using certain data that would show that the patient is very ill or seriously injured.
This approach is also rather problematic on at least two grounds. One obvious concern is that this sort of approach seems rather Orwellian-that is, if reality does not suit the views of those in power, then the response will be a law aimed at redefining reality. This seems to be a clear form of willful and systematic deception which seems to be rather immoral.
A second obvious concern is that the approach does nothing to solve the problem. In fact, it makes its less likely that the problem will be solved by requiring that the data be re-calculated to show that there is not a problem. This will clearly cause more harm than good, making it rather wrong-if only on utilitarian grounds. To use an obvious analogy, this would be morally comparable with responding to a predicted severe epidemic by insisting that the doctors change the tests so that the epidemic is no longer predicted to be severe.
It could, of course, be replied that the bill can be justified on utilitarian grounds, namely that changing the methodology so that the results are better would have more positive than negative consequences for the right people. The challenge is, obviously enough, showing that this is the case. While not impossible in principle, it does seem unlikely.
Another possible reply is that the scientists who conducted the initial study are in error and they have been using the wrong method. The bill, it could be contended, does not seek to change things so the data looks better. Rather, the bill is aimed at ensuring that the science is being done properly. It is presumably merely a matter of coincidence that the redefined data would be in accord with what certain people want others to believe (and perhaps wish to believe themselves). This is, of course, a matter that would need to be settled by those who are experts in the relevant fields-that is, a matter best addressed by scientists rather than politicians. Naturally, if the majority of experts agree that this new methodology is correct and the other usual conditions for an argument from authority are met, then the new methodology should be accepted. However, to accept that the methodology should be changed merely because a bill says so would be poor reasoning indeed.
I have been somewhat reluctant to write about the death of Trayvon Martin. This is not because of a great uncertainly regarding the ethics of the matter but rather an uncertainty regarding the facts.
In this case, the ethics are potentially fairly clear. If Zimmerman simply killed Martin without justification, then he clearly acted wrongly.If Zimmerman acted merely in self defense, then he was not in the wrong.
There is, of course, also the real possibility that the death resulted from both Zimmerman and Martin acting in ways that seemed quite justified to each of them and thus it could be the case that neither person was completely in the wrong. To be specific, Zimmerman might have sincerely believed that Martin posed a legitimate threat to the community and acted to address that threat. Martin, of course, might have been acting in complete innocence and became convinced that Zimmerman was stalking him with the intent to attack him. In this scenario, both people would be acting from self-defense as each would legitimately believe that his life was in unwarranted danger from another person.
While, as of this writing, the facts of what occurred during the final confrontation are not known, quite a bit is known about what led up to the tragic event.
It has recently been revealed that Martin had been suspended from school because an empty bag that apparently had contained marijuana was found in his possession. As such, this is one reason why Martin was there rather than where he normally would be. While this lends some credence to Zimmerman’s view that there was “something wrong” with Martin (that is, he might have been high), even if Martin was high, this does not justify Zimmerman shooting him. After all, a person being high does not, in itself, present a danger that warrants an act of violent self-defense. As such, even if Martin was high, then this would not (by itself) entail that Zimmerman killed him in legitimate self-defense.
It might, of course, be contended that if Martin was acting suspiciously then Zimmerman would have the right to be justly concerned about his presence in the area. This is a legitimate point and if Martin was acting suspiciously, then Zimmerman was acting in a morally acceptable way to investigate. In fact, such a concern for the safety of the community could be regarded as morally commendable.
However, there is the question of how far that concern should extend to action. The 911 calls indicate clearly that the police told Zimmerman to stop following Martin.
On the face of it, after Zimmerman had done his duty of alerting the police of his suspicion, he should have (as the police said) stopped following Martin. After all, Zimmerman is a private citizen and not a police officer. As such, Zimmerman lacks the training of a police officer, the legal authority of a police officer and (rather importantly) lacks the means by which to identify himself as a legitimate officer of the law. As such, when Zimmerman was following Martin, it seems reasonable to believe that from Martin’s perspective he was being followed by some guy in a car. Even if Zimmerman had identified himself as part of a neighborhood watch, Martin would have no reason to believe that claim and certainly no reason to accept that as proof of legal authority.
While, as noted above, key facts of the case are still not known, it is known that despite being told to stop following Martin, Zimmerman ended up in a situation in which he was allegedly struck by Martin and then apparently shot and killed Martin. Given that at the start of the encounter Zimmerman was in a car and Martin was on foot, it would seem that Zimmerman could have easily avoided Martin. This seems to suggest that Zimmerman forced the encounter with Martin. Since Zimmerman is not police officer, Martin would have had no reason to think that Zimmerman was acting with legal authority and hence a plausible case can be made that Martin believed he was being pursued and threatened to a degree that put his life in danger. As such, it could very well have been Martin who was using force in self defense.
It might be objected that citizens should have the right to pursue and question people they regard as suspicious. After all, citizens do have the right to self defense and citizens should protect their community.
While self-defense is a right and citizens should act to protect each other, this is distinct from pursuing and questioning people. It is one thing if a person is clearly posing a threat but quite another to take on an investigatory role that can easily escalate. For example, if someone is punching my neighbor or trying to break into her house while she is there, then I would have legitimate grounds to intervene because there is an immediate threat and waiting for the police to arrive could result in her being injured or killed.
However, if I happen to see someone in public I merely think is suspicious and I go and harass that person, then I am not acting in response to a clear and immediate threat. Rather I am merely acting upon a suspicion and my behavior could legitimately be regarded as threatening. After all, merely seeming suspicious is not a crime nor is it a threat that warrants acting in self defense.
I would, of course, be within my rights to ask such a person a question or two-but they would equally be within their rights to ignore me. After all, as a citizen I have no right to compel other people to answer my questions. I do, however, have the right to contact the police and they can, if they think my concern has merit, come to sort things out. After all, that is what the police are for. This case, sadly, shows why private citizens should not attempt to take on the role of the police-even if they are part of a neighborhood watch. This is not to say that citizens should not take an active role in protecting the community, but rather to say that citizens should be aware of the limits of what they should be doing. After all, while citizens do have the right to protect their community, they do not have the right to act as if they have police powers. That is why we have a state and a legal system.