Sam Harris and the ethical argument for guns

January 11, 2013

In a recent and lengthy blog post entitled “The Riddle of Guns” author Sam Harris takes issues with the “fanatacists and zealots” on both sides of the gun debate in America.  He claims to be searching for some rational middle ground between the two extremes of, on the one hand, the “liberals”who respond to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School with calls for much stronger gun control and, on the other, the right-wing NRA types who respond to the tragic mass shooting with calls for more guns in the form of armed guards at elementary schools and other public places. But does the path of rationality and enlightenment really lie “between these two extremes”?

Sam Harris thinks it does and he chastises his “otherwise intelligent” friends who do not, and never will, own guns. Harris claims that, as a gun owner, he understands something that his friends don’t.   

Like most gun owners, I understand the ethical importance of guns and cannot honestly wish for a world without them. I suspect that sentiment will shock many readers. Wouldn’t any decent person wish for a world without guns? In my view, only someone who doesn’t understand violence could wish for such a world. A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene.

So what Harris claims to understand, as a gun owner, is not just the power and practical utility of guns, but their ethical importance, something that the deluded advocates of gun control seem unable to grasp. This is a curious claim and one that deserves some attention. Advocates of gun control are often accused of downplaying the threats to their own security or of failing to take seriously or literally the US Constitution, but it is rare indeed to hear that such people are unable or unwilling to grasp some important moral truth.  

As indicated in the passage quoted above, Harris believes that the ethical importance of guns relates to the brute fact that some people are stronger and more aggressive than others and that “a world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. ” According to Harris, guns help to equalize the natural differences in strength and aggression between individuals and are therefore not only useful or a necessary evil but ethically important. 

There are many critical points that one could make in response to Harris’s article, some of which have already been compiled and responded to by Harris himself. One important point, however, is not included in Harris’s list of FAQs and deserves some thought. It relates specifically to this novel argument for the ethical importance of guns. The point is that exactly the same sort of argument could be given at an international level for the ethical importance of nuclear weapons.

Surely it is a fact that some nations (or even groups within nations) are larger, stronger, and more aggressive than others. Given its limited population and resources, it is not possible for a relatively small country like say, North Korea, to match the military might of a country like the US. And with its long history of aggression, with US military bases stationed within miles of North Korea’s borders, and with the recurring and provocative military exercises by the US in the Yellow Sea, North Korea certainly has good grounds for feeling threatened. On Sam Harris’s logic, it would seem to follow that it is ethically important that nuclear weapons be made available to North Korea, for nuclear weapons definitely help to equalize the imbalances in power between these two nations.

What was just said for North Korea, could be said for every other country on the Earth, including Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and all the countries that Sam Harris, perhaps more than anyone else, would not want to see acquire nuclear weapons.

Only a complete fool would dream of a world in which every country was armed with nuclear weapons to help to equalize existing imbalances in power. And yet that is what the logic of Harris’s argument seems to commit him to. Indeed, just as one can say that a world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do pretty much anything they want, one can say that a world without nuclear weapons is one in which the most aggressive nations (such as the US) can do pretty much anything they want. Indeed, is that not what countries like Iraq and North Korea teach us? Iraq, which was alleged to have WMDs but not nuclear weapons, was invaded by the global bully, while North Korea, which actually has nuclear weapons, was not. 

Relations between nation states of different size, strength, and levels of aggression presents the same fundamental problem that Harris believes is at the heart of the case for the ethical importance of guns. Therefore, the analogy between individual human beings and individual nation states is a good one in this case. And given the complete irrationality and unacceptability of a world filled with nuclear weapons, the broader  global perspective concerning nation states provides, I believe, a reductio ad absurdum of Harris’s argument for the ethical importance of guns. At the very least, the burden is on Harris to explain why the analogy is a bad one.



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