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.
In the United States, corporations are considered persons and hence it was ruled that
they are entitled to 1st Amendment rights, specifically freedom of speech. While I have argued in other posts that corporations are not persons, I have also played with the idea of accepting corporations as people and seeing where this leads.
Now, if it is assumed that corporations are persons and are thus entitled to 1st Amendment rights (at least in the United States) it would certainly seem to follow that they are entitled to all the rights of persons. Or, at the very least, the other constitutional rights.
Corporations can, of course, be owned. In fact, common stock is bought and sold as a matter of routine business and provides an ownership share in a corporation. Since corporations are people, this means that people are being allowed to legally own other people. Owning another person is, of course, slavery. While slavery was legal at one time in the United States, the 13th amendment is rather clear on this matter:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Now, if corporations are entitled to 1st amendment rights because they are people, it follows that they must also be entitled to 13th amendment rights. That is, corporations have a right not to be owned by other people. Thus, corporations must be set free from their owners and all such ownership must be declared null and void.
It could, of course, be argued that this is absurd. I agree-but this conclusion follows directly from the same logic used to argue that corporations are entitled to 1st amendment rights. So, if it is absurd for corporations to have 13th amendment rights it follows that it is equally absurd for them to have 1st amendment rights.
It could, of course, be argued that corporations are special sorts of people and are such that they do get 1st amendment rights (that is, they can engage in unlimited spending in politics) but they do not get certain other rights, such as not being slaves. After all, the constitution also includes the following:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
The “other persons” were, of course, slaves. Perhaps corporations can be considered a certain fraction of a person in regards not to representation but to rights. So, they get the all important right to spend money in politics on the basis of being persons while being denied the right not to be owned as slaves. I am not sure what the percentage would be or how this would work out, but I am sure that a clever lawyer could make it happen.
In fact, it could be argued that enslaving persons is just a return to an old American tradition-only now we are enslaving corporation-Americans rather than African-Americans. This is not to trivialize the brutal treatment of those toiling under the lash of slavers, but to make the point that it is absurd to think of corporations as people. If it is not absurd and corporations are people, I demand that the corporations be set free!
Protests are often marred by senseless violence and the recent protest on Wall Street was no exception. One incident that has gotten extensive attention is the pepper spraying/macing of penned in women by Anthony Bologna, a relatively high ranking member of the NYC police. These sorts of incidents raise questions about the legitimate role of the police in regards to protests. My discussion is limited to the context of democratic states, such as the United States.
First, it is rather important to acknowledge that the police do have a legitimate role to play at protests. While protests are intended to draw attention and often aim to do so by creating a disruption of the normal course of events, a state of protest does not grant protestors a carte blanche right to interfere with the legitimate rights of others. As such, the police have a legitimate right to prevent protestors from violating the rights of others and this can correctly involve the use of force. Obviously, if it is argued that protestors have a right to protests, this would entail accepting that people have rights and intuitively the right to protest does not automatically trump other rights-especially the core rights of life, liberty and property. Those who claim otherwise would seem to have the burden of proof upon them.
To use an obvious example, people protesting a decision by the parliament or congress do not gain the right to loot the businesses along their path of protest and the police would act correctly in stopping these acts of theft. To use a less extreme example, protestors who are disrupting a legitimate business can legitimately be prevented from doing so by the police.
Second, while protestors do not gain a carte blanche right to violate the rights of others, peaceful protest is a legitimate form of expression and is certainly a form of free speech (far more so than spending money on political campaigns and some rather ludicrous “free speech” defenses launched by corporations such as Google). As such, the right of protest should be respected by the police.
Even when protestors act in ways that are technically illegal, provided that their crimes do not involve violence or property damage (that is, the protests are peaceful), they should be handled with minimal force. After all, the force used by the police should be proportional to the crime and the resistance being offered. Exceeding this would be, by definition, excessive force and hence a wrongful action. The police, after all, have the right to use the force needed to enforce the law. Force beyond that would go beyond their rights and hence cross over into assault and beyond (after all, once they cross the boundary of legitimate force, they have ceased to enforce the law and are engaged in needless violence and may rightfully be regarded as criminals-albeit with badges). Spraying women that have been penned in and are offering no resistance would be, from a moral perspective, an assault with a dangerous weapon and not a legitimate act of law enforcement. The fact that the perpetrator is wearing a uniform does not change this-except to make it an even worse action-a crime committed by someone who is supposed to prevent crime.
Naturally enough, violent and destructive protests can be met with legitimate force. As an example, protestors who are looting or attacking innocent citizens can be treated as the criminals they are and handled accordingly.
Third, there are cases in which violent and destructive protest can be justified. These would involve cases in which the wrong being done was such that it warrants such a response and there is no recourse to an objective, impartial and fair legal redress. In such cases, the police should be acting in defense of the people driven to such acts rather than fighting against such people. These situations are not common in the Western democracies, but have (and no doubt will) occur.
Thus, both protestors and police have moral obligations they should respect.
The rather odd policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has finally come to an end. Since I have been consistently opposed to this policy, I am glad that homosexuals have been given the chance to openly serve their country.
One interesting impact of this change is that there will be empirical confirmation or dis-comfirmation of all the dire consequences and harms predicted by the opponents of this change. If their predictions turn out to be in error, I wonder if they will acknowledge this mistake or if they will simply remain silent and move on to another issue (such as getting the policy put back in place). In my own case, I state now that if the evidence shows I am in error, then I will admit that was mistaken about this matter. Naturally, if people intentionally try to “cause trouble” in response to this change, this does not repudiate my view. After all, the source of the trouble would not be the change in the policy but people intentionally electing to cause said problems.
Another interesting point is that if it turns out that the policy change does not have a negative impact on the American military, will opponents of same-sex marriage take this as evidence against their claims about the threat of homosexuality? After all, if having gays serve openly does not damage the military, then it would seem to indicate that allowing same sex marriage would not damage marriage (which is, I think, already terribly beaten down). Naturally, there are differences between the two situations and these dissimilarities could be enough to break an analogy drawn between them. However, if the end of Don’t Ask turns out to be a military destroying disaster, then it would seem that such a disaster would serve as evidence for the claim that same-sex marriage should not be allowed.