What is this blog about?

What is this blog about?

I am a political philosopher. My 'political philosophy' is a form of 'liberal egalitarianism.' So in this blog I reflect on various issues in political philosophy and politics (especially Canadian and American politics) from a liberal egalitarian perspective.

If you are curious about what I mean by 'liberal egalitarianism,' my views are strongly influenced by the conception of justice advanced by John Rawls. (So I sometimes refer to myself as a 'Rawlsian,' even though I disagree with Rawls on some matters.)

Astonishingly, I am paid to write and teach moral and political philosophy. I somehow manage to do this despite my akratic nature. Here is my faculty profile.

Friday, October 30, 2015

An armed society is an unfree society

[Image from here.]

Having decided that they haven’t quite ruined the University the Wisconsin system enough yet, the Republicans in Madison are now are considering a bill that would allow students (if they have ‘conceal and carry’ permits) to bring guns into campus buildings.  Students sitting in classrooms during lectures and seminars, or in offices meeting with professors, may soon be packing heat.

This is a horrible idea, one manifestly harmful to the educational mission of universities, including especially the free and vigorous exchange of controversial ideas and views.  Moreover, it is premised on false beliefs about the role of guns in reducing violent crime, and a misguided conception of the relation between guns and freedom in society.

It sometimes is claimed by American gun advocates (including the two legislators pushing this bill) that the presence of guns reduce violent crimes.  The reasoning seems to be that guns act as deterrents to criminals and/or can be used by ‘good guys’ to stop ‘bad guys’ (to use some technical terms favoured by the NRA) in the process of harming or killing innocent people.

That this claim is false should be obvious to anyone who bothers to look at other liberal democratic societies.  The United States has six times as many firearm homicides as Canada, and over fifteen times as many as Australia and New Zealand.  The reason for this is clear: “The US is an outlier on gun violence because it has way more guns than other developed nations.”  An American gun advocate might acknowledge this fact, but claim that guns nonetheless reduce the overall homicide rate.  That is, perhaps once homicides not caused by firearms are taken into account, it turns out that the United States has a lower homicide rate than, say, Canada thanks to the deterrent effect of all those guns.  But this is not the case either.  The homicide rate of the United States is three times that of Canada.  Again, this should be no surprise.  It’s a lot easier to kill people with guns than with hockey sticks.  Simply put, the idea that citizens legally permitted to carry concealed firearms are an effective force in reducing homicides is a myth.

Guns are inherently threatening.  If students are allowed to bring guns into classrooms, many other students will feel less safe.  It already is quite difficult to help students feel comfortable enough to discuss freely – and disagree openly with each other over – contentious issues like race, gender, and economic inequality, or the moral permissibility or impermissibility of abortion and euthanasia.  The presence of guns lurking in the background of future such discussions invariably will make them even more difficult.

The debate over gun control, at least within the United States, often is cast as a conflict between the values of ‘freedom’ and ‘welfare’ (or security).  Even defenders of robust gun control frequently characterize the debate in this way.  This is a mistake.  The debate instead should be construed as one concerning the distribution of freedom.  Should the freedom of gun owners take priority over the freedom of citizens in general?

The science fiction author Robert Heinlein once famously declared, “An armed society is a polite society.” But the reason such a society is ‘polite,’ of course, is fear.  (The second sentence of the Heinlein quote is: “Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.”)  The reality is that an armed society is an unfree society.

The threat of gun violence is coercive.  While easy access to firearms may expand the scope of (what the political theorist Isaiah Berlin famously called) the ‘negative liberty’ of those who like to carry around guns (such citizens can do something that they could not do, or not do as easily, in a society in which access to firearms was restricted), it restricts the scope of all citizens’ negative liberty.  It does so by introducing a coercive threat into all citizens’ public interactions.

To connect my discussion here with my previous post, a society in which guns are widely available is one that more closely resembles Thomas Hobbes’s ‘state of nature’ than do societies in which guns are rare.*  That is, making guns readily available creates a more miserable and insecure condition, one in which everyone becomes a potential threat to everyone else.  Such a society is less free overall; its citizens face a greater range of interferences (potential threats) than citizens in unarmed societies.

Of the four countries that I’ve lived in as an adult – Canada (where I’m from), England, Ireland, and the United States – I’ve felt the least free within the U.S., despite its self-conception as ‘the land of the free.’  And the prevalence of guns in the U.S. is one of the main reasons for this.  In Canada, if an argument breaks out in a coffee shop, a pub, or on a street, I think: “Ugh – How annoying.”  In the U.S., when the same sort of thing happens, I think: “Bloody hell! What if one of those idiots has a gun?!”  And I flee.

Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry and behavioural medicine at Stanford University, describes precisely this phenomenon: “In the U.S., whenever there is a angry argument, whether over a traffic accident, someone being fired from their job, or for that matter over nothing of any consequence, it always lurks in one’s mind that someone could have a gun and could start shooting.”  He describes this as “the oppressive psychological weight of America’s gun violence,” and explains how (perversely) this psychological weight “is part of what makes some gun owners scared of gun control (If I don’t have a gun, how will I defend myself against those who do?).”  (Notice the paradigmatically Hobbesian reasoning of the gun owner described by Humphreys.)

And now some Wisconsin legislators want to allow guns into university buildings, including classrooms.  Classrooms in which controversial ideas are debated, and feelings can become intense.  Classrooms in which professors sometimes have to give students bad grades.

Well, at least explaining Hobbes's version of the state of nature will be a bit easier in my political philosophy courses if the legislators who cravenly are doing the bidding of the NRA in Madison get their way…

[* Allow me address a potential nitpick for any Hobbes scholars who might be reading this.  The state of nature, according to Hobbes, is a state of complete freedom, as there is no political authority to establish and impose laws upon persons.  But if we employ Berlin’s notion of negative liberty – according to which, roughly, interferences to potential courses of action count as restrictions on one’s freedom, irrespective of whether they are brought about by the state or by non-state agents – then people are quite unfree within the state of nature, as they face all kinds of interferences on what they can do, namely, continual threats from others.  It is this fear of others that compels rational individuals within the state of nature to act in certain ways (namely, to take pre-emptive actions against others whenever possible).  This is why within the state of nature there is “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  If we employ something like Berlin’s concept of negative liberty, then, the Hobbesian state of nature is a radically unfree condition.]

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