GUNS FOR GOODNESS SAKE
© 2001 by Robert E. Podolsky
Should guns only be permitted in the hands of special people? Should every gun in the world be found and destroyed, so no one has guns? What would be the most ethical way for today’s decision makers, influential individuals, and power groups to align themselves? What can the law ethically do to make the world a better, safer, more habitable place in which to live? What other institutions than the law might properly be involved?
Rather than asserting answers to these questions on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, which would simply sort my readers into those who think, “I agree” and those who think, “I don’t agree”, I prefer to establish a basis for agreement at the outset by defining the ethical criteria to be imposed, and then using simple logic to derive the answers to the questions posed. In this way we may be able to achieve a better mutual understanding of the issues involved. Finally, when I reach the end of this process and some of us disagree again, we will have a structure in place that lets us examine exactly how we disagree; to determine which ethical definition or step in my logic is actually the point of disagreement.
All systems of ethics begin with an arbitrary definition of what is “good”; that which the ethic seeks to maximize. Before offering a definition I point out that the arbitrary nature of the definition that defines an ethic does not imply that all ethics are equally valid. In the Soviet Union, for example, the primary value of the prevailing ethic was the maximization of material well being for everyone. The result was the creation of universal poverty. The founders of the United States sought to maximize personal freedom. Since the framing of the Constitution we have enjoyed less personal freedom each year but two (see Book 2) than we had the year before. Many churches and religious organizations have preached for millennia that the highest value should be faith in the revealed word of God. Yet those who have adopted this ethic have perpetrated an unending series of wars, pogroms, witch-hunts, crusades, jihads, and inquisitions encompassing murder, rape, slavery, torture, exploitation, and genocide. While few would argue that material well being, freedom, and faith in one’s ethic are not necessary for humans to thrive, it is a telling fact that an ethic whose adoption creates the opposite effect from the desired outcome is not a very good ethic…. certainly not a valid ethic.
Over the many years that I have sought to find valid ethics, I have found only one whose adoption does not ultimately create its own opposite. This one has been tried in many settings and has consistently created the results that it seeks to maximize. So I offer it here for your approval:
Definition: A good act is one which increases access to objective truth and its logical equivalents for at least one person (including the one performing the act) and which neither limits nor reduces any person’s access to objective truth.
For clarification we should note that:
1. Only actions are subject to ethical evaluation, not people.
2. Objective truth is truth that is independently verifiable as scientific truth is.
3. The logical equivalents of objective truth are those other resources that are increased when objective truth is increased and decreased when objective truth is decreased. Logically equivalent resources to objective truth also have the property that if the availability of one of them is increased or decreased the availability of objective truth is correspondingly increased or decreased. Awareness, creativity, love, and evolution are but a few of the resources logically equivalent to objective truth.
4. A person is a being that has awareness of its awareness. Besides humans, this definition probably includes great apes, and cetaceans (whales and dolphins).
5. And finally, children and animals are not fully aware of their awareness, if at all; and are therefore exempt from moral or ethical judgment.
Before we go any further look back at the definition of an ethical act and see if there is anything there with which you disagree. To date the only part of the definition to which anyone we have met seems to disagree is the last part; the part that says an act that harms anyone cannot be ethical. Let’s go back to our discussion of the criteria by which we judge the validity of an ethic. Every ethic that we know of that omits this last clause produces results that are the opposite of what the ethic ostensibly seeks to create. This is in fact the reason that every government on our planet acts unethically much of the time. Without this stricture one comes to believe that ethical ends can be reached by unethical means. (See Appendix B of The BORG WARS Humanity… What Went Wrong to see three independent proofs that this supposition is false.) History shows us the fallacy of this belief. Every unethical act that is perpetrated in the belief that it somehow serves “the greater good” or “the benefit of the many” invariably produces much more harm than good. We therefore reject that false belief and include the restriction that the end does not justify the means. I hope you can see the validity of this choice.
Action vs. Inaction
Clearly we can see from the definition of an ethical act that in order to live ethically we must constantly strive to act in ways that maximize truth, love, awareness, evolution, creativity, and all other logical equivalents of objective truth. It follows logically that in dealing with persons who insist on behaving destructively it is unethical to remain passive and permit the unethical behavior to continue. As the old adage says, “For evil to triumph it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.” This is not to say that in dealing with destructive behavior we should put ourselves at risk; but rather that to the extent that we can do so while avoiding unnecessary risk we are ethically obliged to intervene. Note that our definition prescribes an ethical continuum on which the midpoint (zero) is the behavior that is neutral, neither destructive nor creative. Destructive (unethical) behavior is in varying degrees characterized by negative creativity and ethical behavior is characterized by positive creativity.
Use of Force
When faced with someone who is behaving destructively, therefore, we are ethically obliged, to the extent that considerations of our personal safety allow, to take action that will limit, reduce, or terminate the destructive behavior in question. In this regard we must of course consider the seriousness of the destructive behavior in question in deciding how far to go in using force to intervene. We wouldn’t use lethal force to stop someone from ignoring their parking tickets. But we might lock up their vehicle as a means of persuading them to attend to their legal obligations.
To intervene ethically we must use the least harmful method that is available and effective. If a disapproving look will do the job, that is as much force as we should use. If a look is not effective we may have to resort to persuasion, reason, or stern words. If words are not effective we may be able to resort to the law, which of course implies the threat of coercion by force. If the law or the threat of the law is not effective, the use of physical coercion is appropriate. If we can simply restrain the individual without hurting them, then that is the best choice. If we cannot do that effectively it is ethical to inflict pain to distract them from their chosen course of action. While we hope to be able to do this without causing them injury, that may not be possible. If not, we may have to injure or maim them to stop them. If lesser physical injury won’t suffice, and if the individual’s destructive behavior may have lethal or near-lethal consequences to someone, it may be necessary to use a level of force that may be lethal to them. In any case, the point is to use just enough force to stop the destructive behavior from occurring or continuing.
If the destructive behavior of another person is directed at one’s self there are sometimes other options available. Compliance with the other’s wishes may suffice, but not always. Running away from the aggressor may be a viable option; or sometimes just walking away. The ethical obligation to defend one’s self is no less applicable than the need to defend others.
The Ethics of Lethal Force
At this point many would balk and say, “Wait a minute. How can the use of lethal force be ethical if it results in someone’s death? Hasn’t the dead attacker’s creativity been reduced to zero? Doesn’t that violate the definition of an ethical act?”
No, it hasn’t and it doesn’t. Remember, the creativity “scale” includes both positive and negative values. Destructive behavior is on the negative end of the scale. If we have to use lethal force to prevent lethal damage from being done to someone, we have not reduced the perpetrator’s creativity to zero; we have raised it to zero. Therefore we have both preserved the positive creativity of the person whom we protected and improved the creativity level of someone who was bent on highly destructive behavior. Nothing could be more ethical under the circumstances. To act otherwise under the circumstances would be unethical.
Who Should Have Guns?
Now we are ready to address the issue of who should have guns and whether they should be banned. To do this let’s go back to the question of what resources increase people’s creativity, access to truth, etc. Certainly freedom is one of the resources that enhance creativity. And as a society, if we are to act ethically, we want to deny people access to resources that will be used destructively. So if we are to act ethically as a society we must find ways to keep guns out of the hands of felons without abrogating the freedom of those who are law abiding citizens. If, in the name of law and order, we deny the freedom to use guns to people who are not acting destructively and whom we have no reason to believe will use them in destructive acts, then we are violating the basic definition of an ethical act.
Remember, it is only ethical to infringe on people’s freedoms when we are at least reasonably sure that those same people will use their freedom destructively. To abrogate someone’s freedom when they are not acting or about to act destructively is to diminish their creativity, truth, love, etc. To claim otherwise is to insist that ethical ends can be reached by unethical means; which we know from the above discussion is contrary to the basic logic of ethics.
It is our observation that we can intuit the same conclusion by noting that banning anything (drugs, alcohol, pornography, etc.) has never been successful in curbing the harm done by people who abuse or misuse their access to the item that has been banned. Remember the Mafia was just a bunch of street gangs until we banned liquor. By doing so we created a great evil. We have so similarly today by prohibiting drugs.
The usual argument raised to contradict this conclusion is to point out that in some societies where guns have been banned there are very few shootings. In England, for instance, where guns are only available legally to the police (and yes they do use guns although not all police carry guns) the incidence of gun violence is very low. The truth of this statement, however, does not mean that because guns are banned in England that therefore gun violence is less prevalent than here. England has always been a very civilized society. For centuries British criminals saw no reason to carry guns; so the police could function adequately without them. The British culture is very different from ours. In fact there is no evidence that we know of that indicates a cause and effect relationship between the British gun ban and the lower incidence of homicides involving guns. In fact the low incidence of violent crime in England existed for centuries before the gun ban went into effect. The same reasoning appears to us to apply to the other countries where guns have been banned and shooting crimes are infrequent.
Still another factor to consider concerning the banning of guns is the tendency of government to try to bring about social change by methods that don’t work. The “war on drugs” is a case in point; whereby the harmful effects of drug addiction were to be ameliorated by banning drugs. The effect of this intervention was that the drug trade became more profitable and drugs became more available; hence more addiction. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that if banning drugs increases the problem, perhaps relaxing the prohibition would lessen the problem. It worked for alcohol; why not drugs. But instead of attempting a new experiment based on this realization, the government has simply escalated the war on drugs making them an even more valuable commodity, and the drug problem has predictably gotten still worse.
From a psychological perspective, we know from prison interviews that violent criminals such as muggers and hold-up artists always seek targets of opportunity that are as defenseless as possible. Old people, disabled folks in wheel chairs, and young innocents who don’t pay attention to their surroundings: these are the favored targets of the violent criminal. If you were a violent criminal with a preference for helpless victims, wouldn’t you rather do business in L.A. or DC where the law abiding citizen is always unarmed than in Eugene, Oregon where muggers occasionally get shot by their intended victim? Criminals are a pretty stupid lot; but not too stupid to know that banning guns makes their job easier. They can always get guns. If banning guns makes their lot easier aren’t we stupid to disarm the law-abiding citizen?
Finally, no one would deny that it would really be a blessing if we lived in a society where there was no gun violence; or for that matter no violence of any kind. If there were no violence in people’s hearts it would certainly be a better world. But to think we can somehow bring about that better world by banning guns is to misunderstand the most fundamental cause and effect relationships that make the world what it is today. Banning guns can only make the world a more dangerous place for the law-abiding citizen to live. If banning guns prevents a hundred people with poor impulse control from killing some relative or neighbor whom they hate, it will allow a thousand felons to have their way with the victims whom the gun ban makes defenseless. So, few evils are greater than the universal banning of guns from the hands of the public.
 prior to this writing Australia banned guns in the hands of private citizens; and a major effort was made to confiscate all such guns then in the public’s possession. Today the results are clear. Crime in all “personal violence” categories has increased sharply. Personal violence crimes involving the use of guns by felons have increased! If the banning of guns were viewed as an experiment in crime reduction the obvious conclusion should be that it is time to try arming the public instead of disarming it.