Sunday, January 6, 2013
Action vs Inaction
After Sandy Hook, do you think something should happen?
Nevermind what the something is. In order to figure that out, we first have to agree that something must be done. It could be fixing the mental health system, whatever that would entail. It could be banning the sale of assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips and closing the gun show loophole. It could be putting an armed guard in every school, shopping mall, and movie theater. It could be toughening the rating system on violent video games and movies. It could be all or some of the above or something else entirely. But it can’t be none of the above.
Let’s start from “moral first principles”:
(1) Among humans, killing is bad.
Maybe sometimes killing is necessary or justified - it’s still a bad thing when it happens. If you don’t agree with me here, then we aren’t going to get anywhere, so let’s hope this isn’t controversial. [I threw in the “among humans” in case any praying mantises/black widows out there wanted to correct me on the necessity (or at least occurrence) of same-species killing elsewhere in the tree of life.]
(2) Killing happens.
People intentionally and accidentally kill each other and themselves. They can accomplish this with their own bodies or by using tools like guns.
Given (1) and (2), it follows that
(3) Reducing killing is good.
However, achieving this good might come at a cost. In the debate spawned by Sandy Hook, it could be a financial cost, i.e. that required to tighten the cracks in the mental health system. It could be a cost to freedom in liberty, i.e. that required to disallow the purchase and/or ownership of certain types of firearms. I’m not a moral purist I don’t think everyone else is either. Moral relativism, particularly that of freedom vs. reducing killing, will be the central tension in this debate.
(4) Any action that can be taken to reduce killing should be taken, unless it can be demonstrated that doing so would exact too high a cost (whether that cost is measured in the expense of freedoms or in dollars).
Put another way,
(5) If you want to argue against taking a particular course of action that reduces killing, you need to demonstrate
(A) that the action in question would not reduce killing at all (presumably in contrast to those proposing the action - I don’t mean to sound like I’m shoving the burden-of-proof on proponents of inaction/limited action, after all)
(B) if it does reduce killing, whether marginally or greatly, why that reduction is not worth the cost entailed
I hope you read this and thought “no shit”. Of course reducing killing is a good thing. But I wrote all this out because in my mind this provides the groundwork for how the debate should happen. The whole thing will probably come down to this: President and leftier Democrats: Do More; NRA and rightier Republicans: Do Less. I hope they take the time to justify their positions in a moral framework like the one I’ve detailed here - but I’m also well-aware that they probably won’t bother to take that time.
So wherever YOU are in that spectrum, I hope to you do take the time to see if you can justify your belief, weighing on the one hand the potential lives saved and on the other the potential costs incurred. I have to remind myself, so I’ll remind you too: don’t be lazy. If you think more should be done, as I tend to, don’t ignore the costs. If you think less should be done, don’t pretend like the actions proposed would do no good at all. As always, try to be as skeptical of yourself as you are of others.