Guns and Morality

Sam Harris has just posted an article on his blog supporting gun ownership.  While he does so with certain caveats (he supports “sensible” gun control, and is “outraged” over the political influence of the National Rifle Association) his position puts him squarely at odds with liberals in general and liberal atheists like himself in particular.  This is interesting in view of the fact that Harris claims the ability to “scientifically” discern the difference between Good and Evil.  After all, opposition to gun ownership is fundamentally a moral issue as far as most liberals are concerned.

Consider, for example, the position of Jerry Coyne, proprietor of the “Why Evolution is True” blog, and, like Harris, a liberal atheist.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, unlike Harris, Coyne claims that he does not agree that there are “scientifically establishable truths about ethics,” and asserts that moral judgments are subjective matters of opinion.  In practice, however, that matters not a bit.  He almost invariably writes as if there were.  His position on gun control is a case in point.  For example, a couple of posts later he states that theologian William Lane Craig should “rot in hell” for differing with him on the Newtown massacre.  He does not elaborate on whether, like Christian and Moslem fundamentalists, he believes that Mr. Craig should rot in hell for billions and trillions of years just for starters, or, as befits a more enlightened, liberal point of view, his term should only last for a few millennia, or even centuries.  Regardless, it would seem that Coyne’s “mere opinion” has somehow jumped out of his skull, thrown off its subjective strings, and become a normative object, complete with plenary power to judge whether opinions are good or evil, and consign the bearers of the latter to the eternal fire.  As anyone who consults his blog can see, he reacts with similarly furious virtuous indignation to anyone else who disagrees with him concerning gun control.  I suspect that most liberal atheists, who are just as cocksure as Coyne that they are the bearers of moral truth, come down squarely in his corner on the matter.

In a word, gun control is a profoundly moral issue as far as Harris’ fellow liberals are concerned.  However, in spite of his assurances in The Moral Landscape that “science” can decide which side is good and which evil, he hardly mentions morality in his post.  There is good reason for that.  Good and evil are judgments based on subjective moral emotions, not scientific facts.  Those moral emotions exist in the first place for reasons that are completely unrelated to the regulation of firearms.  In other words, morality is irrelevant to the issue, other than to the extent that human behavioral traits must be taken into account in deciding matters of state policy.  At some level, Harris is aware of the fact.  He knows that Coyne and like-minded liberals, and not he, are standing on the “moral high ground” on the issue of gun control.  In other words, it is far easier for them than for him to arouse moral emotions to support their point of view.  That is why he has chosen to couch the issue in almost purely rationalistic terms.

For example, most people would prefer that their family members not be murdered or become victims of violent attack.  Harris presents reasoned arguments in support of his contention that the right to keep and bear arms is likely to minimize the probability of these contingencies.  Most people would prefer that they and their family members not become victims of a massacre perpetrated by a psychopath with a firearm.  Harris presents reasoned arguments in support of his contention that a blanket ban on firearms would be an ineffective way to minimize this contingency.  And so on.  I applaud him for this approach.  It has always been my opinion that it is best to decide matters of public policy in this way, and, to the extent possible, minimize the pernicious influence of moral emotions on those decisions.  There is no reason to believe that moral emotions are likely to be helpful in deciding matters that have nothing to do with the ultimate reason for their existence.  There is no better way to illustrate this point than to compare Harris’ reasoned arguments with the morally loaded ones of Coyne and his other liberal opponents.  As Harris rightly observes, they are marked by an astounding level of ignorance, both of the arguments of their opponents, which are generally presented in a crudely bowdlerized form that demonstrates a lack of any serious attempt to study them in depth, and of firearms in general.  As Harris puts it:

I have read articles in which literally everything said about firearms and ballistics has been wrong. I have heard major newscasters mispronounce the names of every weapon and weapons manufacturer more challenging than “Colt.” I can only imagine the mirth it has brought gun-rights zealots to see “automatic” and “semi-automatic” routinely confused, or to hear a major news anchor ominously declare that the shooter had been armed with a “Sig Sauzer” pistol. This has been more than embarrassing. It has offered a thousand points of proof that “liberal elites” don’t know anything about what matters when bullets start flying.

Detailed knowledge of a subject is superfluous to those whose goal is not to decide matters of fact, but to arouse moral emotions.

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