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.
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.