In the heated debate over gun control, with extremist rhetoric proliferating from those on the liberal left and those on the conservative right, I’m finding that many from each of these two sides hold inconsistent views. (The libertarian arguments on this matter are more consistent, but aside from their devotion to liberty, incorporate some of the worst ideas from both sides, in my view.) To paraphrase the main points of each sides’ position:
From the right: A society is engaged in an moral endeavor when it governs itself, and as the arbiter of social rights and responsibilities, social institutions such as the government, the family, and the native religion(s), are an inherently moral institutions. Morality involves the shared code of behavior that every individual is required to follow. The distinction between ‘morals legislation’ and other laws is, therefore, meaningless, since morality is involved in everything we do. As a member of society, just as in a family, each individual has certain rights and responsibilities. Therefore, it is right and just that the laws enforce and support our moral code, and prohibit those actions which would threaten the survival of our social institutions, be it the family or the state. At the same time, each individual has a personal dignity and inherent worth which must also be protected from harm and from the encroachments of others. For example, it’s right that that law punishes rapists, murderers, child abusers, and thieves, since it is the proper role of law to discourage individuals from transgressing the moral order which is essential for familial and societal cohesiveness. The law also should punish these transgressors since they trample on individual liberties, such as rights to life, personal property, and freedom of speech and belief. Since human beings are fallible and prone to error, our social institutions
But it’s not enough that the law should just prohibit us from doing certain things. Besides imposing punishments on immoral behavior, the law should enforce certain duties, certain moral obligations, we should fulfill in order to deserve and enjoy the benefits of living in a society. For example, the law should require everyone to contribute to the overall welfare by paying taxes, to pay for such essential public goods such as infrastructure, defense, and some additional degree of support and protection of the most vulnerable members of society, such as children, the disabled, the elderly, and the very poor. It also includes such reasonable obligations as registering ownership of our motor vehicles, obeying traffic laws, and purchasing auto insurance. These legal obligations should not only enforce the moral duty of citizens to fairly contribute to society, they should also enforce some degree of taking responsibility for some of the costs and and hazards we may potentially impose on others in the course of enjoying out personal liberties. For example, driving a motor vehicle is widely considered a personal choice, but it can easily result in harm to others if not enjoyed wisely. Without such legal requirements listed above, for example, a careless or drunk driver could run down and kill or maim innocent bystanders without fear of suffering any consequences. A road full of vehicles driven without traffic laws would result in severe traffic jams, severely impeding each individual’s liberty to travel, let alone the innumerable deadly crashes that would result.
A certain amount of prudent regulation, therefore, is actually necessary for protecting liberties. After all, when an individual exercises their liberty to fire a gun, they can potentially nullify every single liberty of another with a single shot. When the American Constitution says ‘Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…’ this does not mean that each and every action which could be categorized as speech cannot be limited or regulated if the speech of one can substantially infringe on the liberties of others. For example, Bradley Manning’s right to free speech and Julian Assange’s freedom of the press should be curtailed if their speech substantially threatens the security of other Americans. Therefore, regardless of the literal wording of the First Amendment, there can and should be laws abridging the freedoms of speech and of the press. We recognize that at least some of the Founding Fathers recognized this. For example, President John Adams championed the Alien and Sedition Acts which made it a crime to criticize the government, just a few years after he participated in the formulation of the Constitution.
From the left: Society and its governing institutions are constrained by morality, as is true for the conservative view; the government should never engage in immoral actions, such as infringing on essential liberties of citizens, engage in exploitative and unjust warfare, or be complicit in oppression anywhere in the world. Individuals also have public responsibilities, just as in the conservative view, such as paying taxes and obeying wise regulation. However, it is not the role of government to decide on intimate matters of personal liberty and expression of personality, since such governments have historically oppressed and even killed entire populations of people, such as religious and ethnic minorities, women, and political and other dissenters. Rather, it’s the role of government to protect the life, health, and liberty of individuals from the encroachment of others, such as powerful exploitative monetary interests or religious or ideological orthodoxy. Therefore, government should regulate commerce, since shortsighted financial interests of some can and often do harm the public as a whole, such as environmental polluters and makers of dangerous auto vehicles. But, the government should not not engage in ‘morals legislation’, since this infringes on the rights of individuals to control their own bodies and minds.
Where the right is inconsistent: So American conservatives, like other conservatives throughout the world, agree with the basic principles of political thinker Edmund Burke, who held that a society is a natural, organic institution (rather than a rationally constructed artificial entity), whose traditions must be respected and whose citizens are properly bound by moral duties and prohibitions. Yet, somehow, so many American conservatives argue as if all of these principles evaporate in the matter of gun control. In other parts of the world, the arguments for gun control often come from conservatives, who take the view that morality is the business of society, and people should not have the right to just run around doing whatever they want when and if it’s clear that what they want to do results in a moral wrong. For example, Australia adopted stricter gun control laws following the horrific massacre at Port Arthur, Tasmania, in the mid-nineties, and the arguments in favor of these new restrictions were traditionally conservative ones: the individual has moral responsibilities to society as well as morally determined limits to their behavior. Freedom does not mean people can just do whatever they want and have whatever they want: a responsible, moral member of society expects that some smaller liberties can and should be limited if such limitations lead to an overall more morally sound, liberty-enhancing society. The evidence shows that when weapons proliferate among a population, more people tend to die violent deaths, while populations that are less heavily armed tend to have low homicide rates. For example, consider the low homicide rates in Japan or Great Britain, where private gun ownership rates are also low, compared with the high gun ownership and violent death rates in the United States. Consider also the high death toll of mass attacks in the US, where mentally unhinged people easily possessed themselves of guns capable of killing many people within seconds, compared with mass attacks in China where it’s very difficult to obtain a gun, so the total of deaths and injuries inflicted with far less lethal weapons is a fraction of the US totals. Even if individual gun owners are responsible, the argument goes, it is their moral obligation to give up the particular liberty of owning certain weapons since the proliferation of such weapons undermines the security and stability of society as a whole. Many American conservatives say that individuals owning such weapons should actually make society safer, but this theory is simply not borne out by the evidence. In a morally good society, the right to one’s life is considered prior to and more precious than the right to own property, so the prevention of the moral evil of homicide takes precedence over personal desires to possess powerful weapons.
The American conservative stance against gun control but in favor of proscriptions against birth control and abortion, therefore, is incomprehensible to liberals, who rightly point out that if the right to life and the primacy of the procreative role of sex are greater than all other considerations, then the ‘pro-life’ movement should be at the forefront of the gun control effort, as it is for conservatives in other countries. Yet, the rhetoric of the conservative gun rights movement in the United States centers on a particular reading of the text of the 2nd amendment to the U.S. Constitution and an emphasis on property rights; the pro-life arguments are out the window for conservatives on this one. Therefore, American liberals consider the conservative gun rights position at best inconsistent, and at worst, hypocritical.
Where the left is inconsistent: The liberal left in America, however, does not consider it the primary role of a society and its governing institutions to promote and enforce personal morality. Rather, society’s role towards in the life of individuals is to protect them from harm from one another, and to ensure that each individual enjoys the same opportunities as any other to accomplish their goals and live a satisfying and meaningful life. Yet, arguments against so-called ‘morals legislation’ and arguments in favor of laws that prevent harm and promote equality are all based on moral considerations: that harm is worse than non-harm, that individual liberty is better than oppression, that human rights are sacred and that trespassing on them is wrong. There is no societal rule or proscription that is not derived from one moral precept or another: a human society is an inherently moral endeavor. When American liberals argue for laws that limit gun control but against laws that regulate other activities, such as abortion or sexual behavior, on the grounds that the government’s only task is to prevent harm, the arguments are often so inconsistent on that it’s no wonder that conservatives, in turn, consider liberal arguments to be inconsistent and hypocritical.
Where does the confusion originate? While American conservative arguments are generally based on a foundationalist moral system, which holds that all of morality is derived from a single founding principle (for example, Aristotle’s function-based system, or the divine command theory espoused by evangelicals), American liberal arguments seem to hold that, while the law is based on the foundationalist ethic of utilitarianism, personal behavior is governed by a pluralist moral system, which can differ from society to society. The various and often conflicting values we hold, such as liberty, compassion, beneficence, and so forth, must be weighed and balanced against one another in each matter under consideration. The law and issues of personal morality, then, should be determined separately, because utilitarian considerations are more readily determined and amenable to democratic consensus and evidence than value considerations. For example, it’s easier to find and present evidence regarding rates of gun ownership and crime statistics, and argue that high homicide and suicide rates by gun reveal that the current system in the United States results in more harm than systems in other countries, or vice versa, than to demonstrate clearly that the value of liberty is more important than the value of safety, or vice versa.
I agree overall with the liberal position that the law should be utilitarian, and that moral pluralism seems to be a fact of human nature: I think that there is more evidence that morality is in fact based on a pluralism of values, and that a utilitarian ethic has done more to inform laws that promote human flourishing than laws based on other moral systems. Yet, American liberals so often argue as if their positions are only about harm and fairness, as Jonathan Haidt points out, when really there is and should be a more rich moral system that informs them (I think that Haidt has too simplistic a view of liberal morality, though I agree with his assessment of most mainstream liberal arguments, taken at face value). It seems to me that the choice of utilitarianism as the dominant theory in law formulation is a moral choice, based on the higher valuation of liberty over obedience, individual freedom from harm over social convenience or enrichment, knowledge over ‘blissful ignorance’ (soon to come: my critique of ‘innocence’ as a prized value), etc. The distinction between the harm/fairness basis of legal utilitarianism and the pluralistic basis of personal morality is, then, an artificial one, and American liberals would be well served to take the moral high ground, proudly trumpeting their commitment to moral excellence and responsibility rather than trying to hide it under the relatively dry and uninspiring rhetoric of mere consent and fairness.