In the wake of the Connecticut shootings and in light of the hints dropped by Obama at the vigil for the victims, it seems we should be prepared for a debate in the coming weeks and months between those who advocate greater gun control to protect innocent lives and those who make a competing moral claim that such regulations infringe on the more important right to bear arms, which is supposed to be part of a general value of freedom. But that’s bullshit. Human beings with a moral compass who live in any kind of society do not have total freedom. Never have and never will. Total freedom is incompatible with any notion of morality, whether liberal or conservative, and makes collective living impossible.
NYU’s Jonathan Haidt and his co-authors, such as USC’s own Jesse Graham, have tried to catalogue the universe of different moral foundations, different system of morality based on different values. They broadly distinguish between the ethics of autonomy and the ethics of community. The former stresses the value of individuals and society’s obligation to protect them from harm and care for them. The latter stresses the value of the community and individuals’ duties to others. It places the virtues of in-group loyalty and obedience to authority at the top. Survey research shows that liberals embrace the ethics of autonomy while conservatives try to balance the community and autonomy. All moral systems, however, are about restrictions on individual rights to allow societies to function.
What gun advocates are describing is what Ronald Dworkin calls “liberty as license,” the ability to do whatever they want regardless of the consequences. In other words, they want to have total carte blanche to do as they will. Some might call this libertarianism. If all moral foundations involve some obligation to a broader community, then this is a fight between those who are completely self-interested and those who are moral.
As Dworkin points out, free societies are not based on liberty as license but rather equal concern and respect, a belief in the inherent value of the individual. We all have obligations to others to care for them and not harm them. A significant portion of that obligation is to allow others the individual freedom to make choices as they see fit, to allow them to choose their vision of the good life. But this applies only in so far as it is consistent with equal concern and respect. If your vision of the good life is stealing social security checks from old people, the deal is off. That is why we have laws even in a free society, to guarantee equal concern and respect. We get to liberty through equal concern and respect. Freedom is not more important even in free societies. It is important to note, equal concern and respect is not communism. Communism has no respect for the value of the individual.
As you might be able to tell, liberal democracy is based first and foremost on the ethics of autonomy. But even the ethics of community would also led us to restrict the use of guns. There is a threat to society from within and that requires restrictions on our individual liberties to protect the community. Normally conservatives would stress the importance of strong law-and-order policies to keep society free from harm if they were acting morally even as they define it. I am not asking conservatives to become liberals, but rather to act like real conservatives. Because liberal and conservative morality point to the same conclusion on this one. So a significant portion of our political class are essentially sociopaths or enabling them.
I am not saying that if you own a gun and like to shoot it (at animals) that you are in any way a bad person. But I am saying that if you think that society and the government does not have, in these instances, the right to restrict the kind and number of weapons you own to try and stop episodes like this, then that is in fact a morally indefensible position. Gun rights advocates might claim that there is no clear evidence that such restrictions would prevent such tragedies. They might be right. But there is no clear evidence that they don’t, and even if there is the slightest chance that it might work, it is worth the costs it incurs to gun owners. They might also argue that having guns around in all public places deters violence. We need more guns, not less. but the very essence of living in a society is leaving the protection of citizens to the government. That is the social contract we make. We have been watching too many Bruce Willis movies.
I am sure that someone might read this as just another liberal diatribe about gun violence but it really isn’t. If I were trapped under my house following an earthquake, and I might indeed someday be (no cheering, Phil!), I would feel much better about it if my neighbors were conservatives rather than liberals. I think those values of intense community and in-group solidarity create a stronger social glue (at least within the group, maybe not so good for foreign affairs). I think in many ways they are simply better people than liberals like me. But only if they were genuine conservatives, not this fake conservatism wrapping itself in the Constitution and AK-47s.