A Philosopher's Blog

The Gun and I: Feeling & Thinking

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 22, 2016

After each eruption of gun violence, there is also a corresponding eruption in the debates over gun issues. As with all highly charged issues, people are primarily driven by their emotions rather than by reason. Being a philosopher, I like to delude myself with the thought that it is possible to approach an issue with pure reason. Like many other philosophers, I am irritated when people say things like “I feel that there should be more gun control” or “I feel that gun rights are important. Because of this, when I read student papers I strike through all “inappropriate” uses of “feel” and replace them with “think.” This is, of course, done with a subconscious sense of smug superiority. Or so it was before I started reflecting on emotions in the context of gun issues. In this essay I will endeavor a journey through the treacherous landscape of feeling and thinking in relation to gun issues. I’ll begin with arguments.

As any competent philosopher can tell you, an argument consists of a claim, the conclusion, that is supposed to be supported by the evidence or reasons, the premises, that are given. In the context of logic, as opposed to that of persuasion, there are two standards for assessing an argument. The first is an assessment of the quality of the logic: determining how well the premises support the conclusion. The second is an assessment of the plausibility of the premises: determining the quality of the evidence.

On the face of it, assessing the quality of the logic should be a matter of perfect objectivity. For deductive arguments (arguments whose premises are supposed to guarantee the truth of the conclusion), this is the case. Deductive arguments, as anyone who has had some basic logic knows, can be checked for validity using such things as Venn diagrams, truth tables and proofs. As long as a person knows what she is doing, she can confirm beyond all doubt whether a deductive argument is valid or not. A valid argument is, of course, an argument such that if its premises were true, then its conclusion must be true. While a person might stubbornly refuse to accept a valid argument as valid, this would be as foolish as stubbornly refusing to accept that 2+2= 4 or that triangles have three sides. As an example, consider the following valid argument:

 

Premise 1: If an assault weapon ban would reduce gun violence, then congress should pass an assault weapon ban.

Premise 2: An assault weapon ban would reduce gun violence.

Conclusion: Congress should pass an assault weapon ban.

 

This argument is valid; in fact, it is an example of the classic deductive argument known as modus ponens (also known as affirming the antecedent). As such, questioning the logic of the argument would just reveal one’s ignorance of logic. Before anyone gets outraged, it is important to note that an argument being valid does not entail that any of its content is actually true. While this endlessly confuses students, though a valid argument that has all true premises must have a true conclusion, a valid argument need not have true premises or a true conclusion. Because of this, while the validity of the above argument is beyond question, one could take issue with the premises. They could, along with the conclusion, be false—although the argument is unquestionably valid. For those who might be interested, an argument that is valid and has all true premises is a sound argument. An argument that does not meet these conditions is unsound.

Unfortunately, the assessment of premises does not (in general) admit of a perfectly objective test on par with the tests for validity. In general, premises are assessed in terms of how well they match observations, background information and credible claims from credible sources (which leads right to concerns about determining credibility). As should be expected, people tend to accept premises that are in accord with how they feel rather than based on a cold assessment of the facts. This is true for everyone, be that person the head of the NRA or a latte sipping liberal academic who shivers at the thought of even seeing a gun. Because of this, a person who wants to fairly and justly assess the premises of any argument has to be willing to understand her own feelings and work out how they influence her judgment. Since people, as John Locke noted in his classic essay on enthusiasm, tend to evaluate claims based on the strength of their feelings, doing this is exceptionally difficult. People think they are right because they feel strongly about something and are least likely to engage in critical assessment when they feel strongly.

While deductive logic allows for perfectly objective assessment, it is not the logic that is commonly used in debates over political issues or in general. The most commonly used logic is inductive logic.

Inductive arguments are arguments, so an inductive argument will have one or more premises that are supposed to support a conclusion. Unlike deductive arguments, inductive arguments do not offer certainty—they deal in likelihood. A logically good inductive argument is called a strong argument: one whose premises, if true, would probably make the conclusion true. A bad inductive argument is a weak one. Unlike the case of validity, the strength of an inductive argument is judged by applying the standards specific to that sort of inductive argument to the argument in question. Consider, as an example, the following argument:

 

Premise 1: Tens of thousands of people die each year as a result of automobiles.

Premise 2: Tens of thousands of people die each year as a result of guns.

Premise 3: The tens of thousands of deaths by automobiles are morally acceptable.

Conclusion: The tens of thousands of deaths by gun are also morally acceptable.

 

This is a simple argument by analogy in which it is argued that since cars and guns are alike, if we accept automobile fatalities then we should also accept gun fatalities. Being an inductive argument, there is no perfect, objective test to determine whether the argument is strong or not. Rather, the argument is assessed in terms of how well it meets the standards of an argument by analogy. The gist of these standards is that the more alike the two things (guns and cars) are alike, the stronger the argument. Likewise, the less alike they are, the weaker the argument.

While the standards are reasonably objective, their application admits of considerable subjectivity. In the case of guns and cars, people will differ greatly in terms of how they see them in regards to similarities and differences. As would be suspected, the lenses people see this matter will be deeply colored by their emotions and psychological backstory. As such, rationally assessing inductive arguments is especially challenging: a person must sort through the influence of emotions and psychology on her evaluation of both the premises and the reasoning. Since arguments about guns are generally inductive, it is no wonder it is a mess—even on the rare occasions when people are sincerely trying to be rational and objective.

The lesson here is that a person needs to think about how she feels before she can think about what she thinks. Since this also applies to me, my next essay will be about exploring my psychological backstory in regards to guns.

 

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  1. TJB said, on June 23, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    Mike, I think the first step in thinking logically about guns is to define one’s terms.

    For example, the term “gun violence” is used rather loosely to obfuscate the fact that 2/3 of the victims of “gun violence” are suicides.

    Does anybody really believe that an assault weapons ban will do anything to affect the number of suicides committed with a gun?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 26, 2016 at 3:59 pm

      A good point. While “gun violence” does cover all gun violence, the types of violence need to be broken down by type. This is analogous to talking about disease.

      As you note, assault weapons are rarely used in suicide. They are also rarely used in crimes. Not surprisingly, handguns are the most commonly used gun in gun violence.

      • david halbstein said, on July 2, 2016 at 9:00 am

        The way that gun violence is talked about and broken down, I don’t think it’s analogous to talking about disease at all – it presupposes that the root cause is the gun and/or the type of gun rather than the individual wielding it.

        Perhaps it’s more similar to talking about traffic fatalities and cars. We can talk about automobile deaths as a whole, and some might find it useful to break those deaths down more – i.e., “More people are killed each year in Corvettes than in Volvos”, but to conclude that Corvettes are inherently more dangerous is, in my view, a very limited and meaningless conclusion. Yet, it’s done all the time, in the rankings of the “Safest Cars” – ignoring the all-important differences in the driver profiles of the two types of vehicles.

        A gun is merely a convenience in the hands of a killer. It is impossible to know whether that killer would act the same in the absence of a gun, but statistics definitely show that non-firearm murders exist and even proliferate.

        This begs the “Greater Good” question. If some guns, some types of guns, or all guns, are banned, they are taken out of the hands of law-abiding citizens as well as murderers. If murderers fail to see this as a deterrent, and either continue their heinous acts with illegal guns or other weapons, has any good been done? In fact, it may accomplish the opposite – do nothing about the murder rate and infringe upon what peaceful law-abiding citizens may view as their rights.

        Taking Corvettes off the road will not reduce traffic fatalities – it will only put aggressive drivers behind the wheels of other cars.

        Surely some reduction can be anticipated, but would that reduction would be on a large enough scale to make a dent in murder? A comparison to other countries with gun bans is also difficult because of too many variables. A country with fewer gun owners per million than the US may have a greater or lesser murder rate due to demographics, poverty, police presence, etc.

        I think that when we discuss the issue of “Violence” in this country, we should focus on the causes of ALL violence; we would be better served by breaking it down by “gang violence” “violence in the commission of a crime”, “racial violence”, “domestic violence”, etc; calling it “gun violence” merely politicizes the issue.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 5, 2016 at 6:46 pm

          I would say that because guns make it easier to kill, they can play a role in a person deciding to engage in crime. To use an analogy, consider a person thinking about going to a store five miles away. If she has to walk, she might still go. But, if she has a car, she is more likely to go. But, if the person has no reason to go to the store, then the car won’t make any difference-she won’t go whether she has one or not.

          • david halbstein said, on July 7, 2016 at 10:30 am

            By the same logic, though, if a person had a dire need to go to the store because they were starving – or even if they had an irrational craving for ice-cream, they would find a way to get there one way or another. If they didn’t have a car they would hitch a ride, take a bus, ride a bike or walk. Going to the store is a casual, socially acceptable no-risk activity. Crime is passionate, driven, socially isolating (or at least commits one to “the other side”), and high risk.

            I don’t believe that the gun is a deciding factor. I believe it can be a deciding factor as to the means of the crime (I’m talking about murder here, not necessarily armed robbery – in which case I’d be more inclined to agree with you) but the missing statistic here is whether or not a gun ban would have a meaningful impact on violent crime. We can’t really make an accurate comparison to other countries because there are too many variable factors, including culture, demographics, diversity, police presence and even the way in which crime is recorded and reported. There many examples of other developed countries with very strict gun bans, with higher rates of violent crime than the US, and many with more lenient gun measures with higher violent crime rates.

            • Anonymous said, on July 7, 2016 at 2:12 pm

              meant to say “…many [countries] with more lenient gun measures with LOWER violent crime rates”. One additional thought is that if trying to use the store/car example, I would submit that if a person has decided that they want to go to the store, having a car might have an impact on her decision to use that car as a means to get there (rather than walk or bike), but not so much on her decision to go or not go.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 8, 2016 at 5:39 pm

              Your points are certainly reasonable. I agree that a person committed to killing would do her best to find a way. After all, people do kill with improvised weapons. However, this is also consistent with there being cases in which the lack of a gun would mean that no one dies. For example, a person might attack another person with a less effective weapon and stop or be stopped before death occurs. Or a person might think that without a gun, the chance of success is too low to try. Take road rage. While it is true a person without a gun might grab a tire iron and run at the other driver, the tire iron is way less effective. Also, even an enraged person might rethink running up to fistfight another person in traffic while they might have simply shot away if they had a gun.

  2. david halbstein said, on July 1, 2016 at 6:24 pm

    Mike, I disagree with your first premise, “If an assault weapon ban would reduce gun violence, then congress should pass an assault weapon ban.”

    What that is tantamount to saying is “If it will produce a result we want, then congress should not worry about exceeding its Constitutional authority, and act accordingly”. I think that’s a huge problem we have in this country right now, with all three branches of government trying to work around the other two in order to flex their muscles. Rather than cheer them on because we agree with the result, we should be very cautious about letting them get away with it.

    Before Congress acts on a gun ban, we need to decide as a country whether or not the Constitution still represents the law of the land. If we decide that, and we still want to enact an assault weapons ban, then the correct action to be taken is to form a Constitutional Convention and amend the Second Amendment.

    I’ve said in other posts that based on advances in technology and “loophole” interpretations of our laws, we could stand to have both the Second and Fourteenth Amendments revisited and clarified.

    But the problems we have today in no way justify Congress, the President, or the Supreme Court acting on their own.

    I also disagree with the second premise. While it may be true that an assault weapons ban would reduce gun violence, it would reduce it by only a small amount. That small amount is what happens to get the most public attention, which feeds into the rest of your argument. If we are to truly address the problem of gun violence in this country, we need to look at all the causes – including gang warfare, drug addiction, disenfranchisement, racism and xenophobia, and mental illness as well as the availability of all kinds of weapons – and as a result of that look it is best to take the action that will have the most meaningful impact.

    Statistically, assault rifles will be at the bottom of that list.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 1, 2016 at 6:55 pm

      That is fine-I’m advancing the argument as an example, not as my actual arguments for my actual position.

      Your comments are helpful-they illustrate my overall point that even though the logic of the argument is impeccable, the premises are open for dispute based on how people see them.

  3. david halbstein said, on July 2, 2016 at 8:02 am

    Yes, I see your point and I agree. The premises are the sticky parts. I need to read more carefully – thanks for the clarification. (“it is important to note that an argument being valid does not entail that any of its content is actually true.”)


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