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A world with persons but without guns or the death penalty

Over the last year, like many other people in the United States and the rest of the world, I was appalled by the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, by the Charleston Church shooting, by the death sentence in the Boston Marathon bomber case, and also by the opinion, expressed by the Governor of South Carolina, that the morally right response to the Charleston Church shooting is the death penalty for the killer.

In a recent OUPblog post, “A world with persons but without borders,” I argued that contemporary Kantian philosophy can provide a new, simple, step-by-step solution to the global refugee crisis.

In this post, starting again with a few highly-plausible Kantian metaphysical, moral, and political premises, I want to present two new, simple, step-by-step arguments which prove decisively that the ownership and use of firearms (aka guns) and capital punishment (aka the death penalty) are both rationally unjustified and immoral.

Then, creating a world without guns or the death penalty is up to us.

That Immanuel Kant himself was a defender of the death penalty is irrelevant to my argument: he was simply mistaken about that. But the recognition of Kant’s mistake, in turn, nicely reinforces the point that by “contemporary Kantian philosophy” I mean contemporary, analytically-rigorous philosophy that’s been significantly, although not uncritically or slavishly, inspired by Kant’s eighteenth-century philosophical writings.

All human persons, aka people, are (i) absolutely intrinsically, non-denumerably infinitely valuable, beyond all possible economics, which means they have dignity, and (ii) autonomous rational animals, which means they can act freely for good reasons, and above all they are (iii) morally obligated to respect each other and to be actively concerned for each other’s well-being and happiness, aka kindness, as well as their own well-being and happiness.

Therefore, it is rationally unjustified and immoral to undermine or violate people’s dignity, under any circumstances.

People have dignity as an innate endowment of their rational humanity. Dignity is neither a politically-created right, nor an achievement of any sort. Nor can anyone lose their dignity by thinking, choosing, or acting in a very morally or legally bad way.

The primary function of guns is for their owners or users to manipulate, threaten, or kill other people for reasons of their own, aka coercion, whether this happens arbitrarily or non-arbitrarily.

Notice that I said that the primary function of guns is coercion. Please don’t let the fact that guns can have secondary or tertiary functions, say, for hunting non-human animals, or for recreational shooting, or for holding doors closed on windy days, conceptually confuse you.

United States Constitution by Constitutional Convention. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
United States Constitution by Constitutional Convention. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Notice too, that if it turns out that owning and using guns according to their primary function is rationally unjustified and immoral, then owning and using guns according to their secondary and tertiary functions will be equally rationally unjustified and immoral. If it’s rationally unjustified and immoral for you to own or use a bomb that would blow up the Earth, then it’s equally rationally unjustified and immoral for you to own or use that bomb for hunting non-human animals, for recreational bombing, or for holding doors closed on windy days.

Now arbitrarily coercing other people is rationally unjustified and immoral because it undermines and violates their dignity.

Notice that I said arbitrarily coercing other people. That means manipulating, threatening, or killing other people either (i) for no good reason or (ii) for no reason at all, much less a good reason. Please don’t let the fact that in some circumstances non-arbitrary coercion might be rationally justified and morally permissible, conceptually confuse you.

Therefore, since it fully permits arbitrary coercion, owning or using guns is rationally unjustified and immoral, other things being equal.

Notice, again, that I said other things being equal. Please don’t let the fact that under some special “crisis” conditions, when other things are not equal, when all else has failed, and when the only way to stop someone doing something horrendously immoral (e.g. rape, torture, murder, mass murder, genocide) to you, to someone else, or to many other people, is to use a gun to manipulate, threaten, or kill that evil person, might be rationally justified, conceptually confuse you.

One very important moral and political consequence of the preceding argument is its direct bearing on the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which says this:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

In other words, focusing on the material in italics, the Second Amendment says that “the people,” i.e. all Americans, have the moral and political right “to keep and bear arms,” i.e. the moral and political right to own and use guns, unconditionally. The further question of whether the original intention of the Second Amendment was to establish a political right to own and use guns for militias only, or for all Americans, is irrelevant.

Therefore the Second Amendment is rationally unjustified and immoral. More generally, no one, which includes all Americans, and which especially includes all members of the police and the army, i.e. the militia, has the moral right to own and use guns, other things being equal.

All people have dignity, no matter what they have done, that is, they have dignity no matter what moral sins or legal crimes they have committed, because dignity is an innate endowment.

In order to have dignity, you have to be alive, hence no one can have dignity if they are dead.

Therefore it is rationally unjustified and immoral to kill people intentionally, other things being equal.

The only exceptions here are last-resort cases, in which someone is trying to prevent someone else from doing something horrendously evil—say, rape, torture, murder, mass murder, genocide, etc.—to oneself or someone else, or someone is trying to prevent something (like a runaway trolley) from killing many people, and the only way to stop them or it is to kill some people. And even here, only minimal preventive lethal force is morally permitted, because only this is consistent with people’s dignity.

If it’s rationally unjustified and immoral for ordinary people to do X, then it’s rationally unjustified and immoral for the state to do X.

Now the death penalty is when the state legally kills someone in order to punish them, and no case of the death penalty is ever a last-resort case.

Therefore the death penalty is always rationally unjustified and immoral.

Now, let us imagine a world without guns or the death penalty, change our lives accordingly, and then change the world too.

Featured image credit: ‘World May 3D’, by kcp4911. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Joe

    So, guns are used in various ways, as you note. What grants you the right to select one of those uses and label it the “primary” function? That’s a key premise in the argument, yet there are countries where guns are used for hunting far more often than they are used to coerce human beings.

    Put another way, what stops me from noting that cars are *sometimes* used to run people down, labeling this the “primary” function of cars, and arguing that car ownership is immoral?

  2. jack burton

    Let us be very clear on a key concept. When a social deviant targets you or your family for harm then it is 100 percent guaranteed that Robert Hanna will not be there to throw his body between you and the very dangerous person.

  3. Rich

    The hard-left Marxists who infect our federal government plus the MSM media prostitutes who protect them will gleefully lie, falsify, fabricate, slander, libel, deceive, delude, bribe, and treasonably betray the free citizens of the United States..

    Second Amendment foes lying about gun control – The Second Amendment has nothing to do with hunting. The Second Amendment has nothing to do with personal self-defense.Firearms are our constitutionally mandated safeguard against tyranny by a powerful federal government. Only dictators, tyrants, despots, totalitarians, and those who want to control and ultimately to enslave you support gun control.

    No matter what any president, senator, congressman, or hard-left mainstream media prostitutes tell you concerning the statist utopian fantasy of safety and security through further gun control: They are lying. If their lips are moving, they are lying about gun control. These despots truly hate America..

    These tyrants hate freedom, liberty, personal responsibility, and private property. But the reality is that our citizens’ ownership of firearms serves as a concrete deterrent against despotism. They are demanding to hold the absolute power of life and death over you and your family. Ask the six million Jewws, and the other five million murdered martyrs who perished in the Nazzi death camps, how being disarmed by a powerful tyranny ended any chances of fighting back. Ask the murdered martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto about gun control.

    Their single agenda is to control you after you are disarmed. When the people who want to control you hold the absolute power of life and death over your family, you have been enslaved. The hard-left Marxist and Islamists who infect our federal government plus the MSM media prostitutes who protect them will gleefully lie, falsify, fabricate, slander, libel, deceive, delude, bribe, and treasonably betray the free citizens of the United States into becoming an unarmed population. Unarmed populations have been treated as slaves and chattel since the dawn of history.

    Will we stand our ground, maintaining our constitutionally guaranteed Second Amendment rights, fighting those who would enslave us?

    American Thinker

  4. JimInHouston

    Why I Carry a Gun

    I don’t carry a gun to kill people.
    I carry a gun to keep from being killed.

    I don’t carry a gun to scare people.
    I carry a gun because sometimes this world can be a scary place.

    I don’t carry a gun because I’m paranoid.
    I carry a gun because there are real threats in the world.

    I don’t carry a gun because I’m evil.
    I carry a gun because I have lived long enough to see the evil in the world.

    I don’t carry a gun because I hate the government.
    I carry a gun because I understand the limitations of government.

    I don’t carry a gun because I’m angry.
    I carry a gun so that I don’t have to spend the rest of my life hating myself for failing to be prepared.

    I don’t carry a gun because I want to shoot someone.
    I carry a gun because I want to die at a ripe old age in my bed, and not on a sidewalk somewhere tomorrow afternoon.

    I don’t carry a gun because I’m a cowboy.
    I carry a gun because, when I die and go to heaven, I want to be a
    cowboy.

    I don’t carry a gun to make me feel like a man.
    I carry a gun because men know how to take care of themselves and the ones they love.

    I don’t carry a gun because I feel inadequate.
    I carry a gun because unarmed and facing three armed thugs, I am inadequate.

    I don’t carry a gun because I love it.
    I carry a gun because I love life and the people who make it meaningful to me.

    Police Protection is an oxymoron. Free citizens must protect themselves.
    Police do not protect you from crime, they usually just investigate the crime after it happens and then call someone in to clean up the mess.

    Personally, I carry a gun because I’m too young to die and too old to take an *** whoopin’.

    ..author unknown (but obviously brilliant)

  5. Odysseus M Tanner

    This is not a serious “intellectual” argument but sophomoric sophistry. You could just as well prove the opposite: having a gun and knowing how to use it means you resist being coerced.

  6. @northofdoom

    I will never agree to that philosophy and i will always be armed.

    And yet, i will never harm another person unless absolutely necessary to stop or prevent great bodily injury or death

    My arms are justified because I, not the state, am responsible for my safety.

    My arms are moral because there is nothing more moral than rightfully defending yourself, your family and your community. You cant have morality without survival.

    So, I keep my arms and you, by your philosophy, cant do anything about it.

    Now, let’s see where you really stand:

    Would you advocate using Govt violence to forcibly take my guns or my ability to manufacture them?

  7. Maluka

    Adding a thought. Who are you to decide if you can take away my constitutional rights? The constitution does not allow you or any other dictator to violate my rights.

  8. Michael

    Hanna’s article ignores two facts of life:

    1. The Supreme Court decisions in 2008 and 2010 upholding the right of the individual to own guns. We are a nation of laws, like Roe vs. Wade, and the recent decision on gay marriage.
    You cannot selectively ignore the decisions you dislike because they meet with your disdain. Laws are laws.
    2. People are not consistently rationale. Nor are all cultures, and even nations. Claiming otherwise ignores 6000 years of human history.

  9. Michael

    I don’t think coercion is such a bad thing. I like to keep it as an option – especially In a situation in which someone Is trying to “coerce” me.

  10. David

    What moral right do you have to deprive someone of the means to defend him/herself?

    What moral right do you have to deprive a citizenry of the means to defend against tyranny?

    This may be a fascinating philosophical argument, but it makes no sense whatsoever in reality. Gun control never, ever works– witness “gun free zones” in which nearly all multiple victim shootings take place– and the total lack of correlation between countries with strict controls and those with relative freedom.

    But if this is how you earn a PhD, I guess I’ll set aside my dreams.

  11. J

    what makes you think you are in a position to make a declaration on what the primary function of a firearm is?
    and another thing, when people like the boston marathon bomber and the charleston church shooter murder innocents in cold blood, they effectively strip these people of their dignity (autonomy) which directly conflicts with your reiteration of Kant’s idea of a moral human. Given this contradiction, these killers cannot possibly fit the Kantian definition of a human and are, themselves, unjustified and immoral.

  12. alanstorm

    We don’t have to imagine it – we have lots of history to look at.

    The Romans, mongols, Assyrians, Persians, etc.

    Gee, they sure were peaceful, weren’t they?

    Typical liberal pseudo-thought. Mr. Hanna builds a house out of flawed boards, without a secure foundation, and declares it a monument.

  13. Jeff

    This is a darn good argument FOR guns and FOR the death penalty.

  14. gryfdaddy

    I notice the recurring phrase. “all things being equal”. Nice for philosophy, but in the real world all things are never equal.

  15. Andrew

    Interesting. Let’s see the governments of the world give theirs up first along with their ability to coerce.

    More to the point, an object that cannot reason on its own cannot be moral or immoral in and of itself.

    Shall we ban cars as immoral? People don’t strictly need them, they kill or injure upwards of five times the number of people per year (CDC injury/mortality reports. Available on Health Data Interactive on cdc.gov) I can already hear you bleat: “But the primary purpose of automobiles isn’t to kill others!” Begging the questioning response: So whatever their primary purpose is, they must be horrible at it. Same as how you claim the primary purpose of *my* firearms is to kill humans. (As a civilian, I have never killed a human with my firearms. I cannot be certain that I haven’t as a member of the military with their weapons: the range was quite far, I was busy and their friends were dropping mortar rounds that the guy I fired at was spotting for. That and the followup shots were made by the 25mm chaingun of an M3A2 Cavalry Fighting Vehicle.) Obviously, they must be horrible at their primary purpose. (Sarcasm.) Or perhaps their primary purposes, for me, and if they aren’t my hunting rifle, are for deterrence: My firearms have not killed, and God, Allah, Jehova, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Bob the Salesman… they won’t ever have to in my lifetime. But that ability is there if needed.

    Now, what about knives? Wrenches? Rocks? If I were so inclined, I could kill you with any of the four. And people have been so killed. (Not by me.) The “primary use” is completely irrelevant: People are violent by nature. As Hobbes observes in “Leviathan”, a government without the ability to coerce means anarchy. (State of Nature) And people will compete, to include preemptive attacks on potential competition: living in constant fear of violence means life is “…nasty, brutish and short.” (Ibid.)

    The government will not give up its power to coerce through the threat of violence to comply with your “wouldn’t it be nice if…” verbal masturbation exercise, thus obviating the point. (A little tautological and staring the obvious, but there you go.)

    Further, there are other worms in this can, along with an elephant in the room:

    The worms: If you get your way and somehow a unicorn defecates on a piece of paper to ban firearms for us peons and capital punishment for the government, what makes you so sure a violent person won’t grab a machete and cut others (Say, you, the guy who accidentally cut him off in traffic, his girlfriend, wife, child…) down to size? By what logic will that be ethical? How would you even enforce such a turn-in without firearms of your own? How could you trust that the governments will disarm as well?

    And the elephant: What makes you think that a government (itself composed of people, and generally those persons you wouldn’t trust with babysitting your children) *should* have the unilateral ability to coerce others, and why is that somehow moral over allowing those who would be powerless otherwise, the right and ability to stand up and say “Get bent.” right before “Try as much as you please, I’ve a bag of bullets and a flask of gunpowder” if said government becomes too meddlesome and/or tyrannical?

  16. Pik

    You pretend that the world without firearms that the void would go unfilled, what was used before the advent of the gun? Have you forgotten thousands of years of human history? Even now in the absence of firearms, people still harm each other, and your fixation on the inanimate as the immoral evil-doer and ill of society is narrow minded or severely misguided.
    If its not by gunpoint, then it would be at crossbow point, barring that, the sword, barring that, the club, barring that, the fist, that another is coerced, de-dignified, or otherwise harmed.
    It is not the implements that cause man to do evil unto other men, it is man himself that is to blame.
    This piece is little more than a topical and politically fueled jab.

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