Sunday, July 08, 2018

Generosity: Why Is It Much More Important to Some Philosophers that to Others?

This is an article I wrote for the International Encyclopedia of Ethics. I think its interest goes beyond the purely academic, so I'm putting a copy here.
With few exceptions, the moral philosophers of the last several centuries have written little about generosity. Those of the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance periods, however, often treated it as an important subject. Though Plato ignores it, Aristotle devotes a substantial chapter to it, as does Aquina. Indeed, in Book IV of the Nicomachean Ethics (1119b–1122a) Aristotle recognizes two different virtues that could be regarded as subspecies of generosity: eleutheria (“freedom”) and megaloprepeia (“magnanimity”). Descartes calls generosity “the key of all the virtues, and a general remedy for all the disorders of the passions” in his treatise The Passions of the Soul (Art. 161). Spinoza discusses it at some length in Part IV of his Ethics and treats it as intimately connected with freedom (Propositions 37 and 50–73). After that, philosophers seem to have lost interest in the idea of generosity, until Nietzsche, a philosophical atavist on so many matters, sings the praises of something he calls a “gift-giving virtue” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Part I, Ch. 22). Most likely, Nietzsche’s gift-giving virtue and Spinoza’s generositas are best understood as a super-virtue, a sort of generosity of spirit, of which the trait that we ordinarily call generosity is a natural consequence.

One of the reasons for the decline of interest in generosity is fairly obvious. In premodern Western ethics it was typically assumed that the sort of value ethics is concerned with is something that inheres in the individual person, namely virtue. Virtue was typically supposed to consist of particular traits, such as courage, temperance, or generosity. The typically modern ethical theories – utilitarianism and Kantian deontology – are, essentially, rules for selecting right actions. Determining what is the right thing to do is quite a different matter from seeking to understand what sort of person is a good person. Recent decades have seen a great resurgence of interest in “virtue ethics,” but this has typically been treated as an alternative way of doing what Kantianism and utilitarianism do and has not led to a comparable resurgence of interest in analyzing particular traits, such as generosity.

Another possible reason why generosity was much more highly regarded before modernity set in is political. Moral codes and ethical ideals that place a high value on generosity seem to be most comfortably at home in aristocratic societies. The very adjective generosus, like Aristotle’s eleutherios (whence the derivative noun eleutheriotes, “freedom”), meant “noble”; and the kind of “nobility” originally meant here was one of birth or “generation” (generosus, generare, and genus are words from the same family) – hence it was political in nature. Part of the reason for the aristocrats’ high valuation of generosity must have been their disdain for productive activities. Giving wealth away was thought to be more appropriate for an aristocrat than productively investing it in agricultural land or capital goods. Further, the fact that one has wealth to give away rather than consume is proof of one’s lofty status.

Generosity differs in potentially important ways from other virtues that necessarily involve conferring benefits or detriments upon others (what is sometimes called the “other-regarding virtues”), and some of the differences might shed light on the question of which cultural and ethical systems tend to make generosity an important virtue and which tend to make it less so. Take for instance justice and charity. Justice is sharply different from generosity. Acts that are just – for instance being fair to an opponent, keeping a promise, or giving students the grades they deserve – tend to be required by considerations of justice. On the other hand, one thing that seems to be a necessary condition of generosity is that the act is not required. One gives, not from duty, but from the goodness of one’s heart. Of course, the promptings of the heart are also what typically lies behind charitable contributions. Typically, if the benefit conferred was charitable, it was not given because the giver already owed it to the recipient. To this extent, it resembles generosity. There is, however, a large difference between generosity and charity. “Charity,” at least as the word is used in modern English, refers to attempts to remedy deficiencies, such as poverty and disease. Generosity, on the other hand, is an attempt to confer a positive benefit. Generosity typically takes the form of giving, not alms, but gifts. Charity is a response to evils, while generosity is a response to opportunities to do good.

The notion that justice is the cardinal other-regarding virtue would make more sense in some worldviews than in others. The sorts of Weltanschauungen more congenial to it would have to be ones that see the most meritorious life as one that conforms to the relevant requirements – for instance one that gives a privileged position to quasi-juridical concepts like “duty” and “obligation,” as well as to other concepts that involve an agent’s being bound to do a particular act, such as “debt” and “owing.” Such a view becomes even more congenial to a lofty valuation of justice if we add a strong element of egalitarianism. Egalitarian ideas enable us to see as either unjust many facts – for instance, the fact that one person has a larger income than another – that might otherwise not seem to be so. An egalitarian worldview might well be held by someone who is quite comfortable with being a citizen in a modern, regulated, and bureaucratized welfare state based on some sort of egalitarian ideology – such as those that are characteristic of contemporary Western Europe and of the English-speaking world. On the other hand, placing a high value on charity is obviously congenial to orthodox Christianity, with its emphasis on human sinfulness and frailty and on the inability of humans ultimately to do well without powerful help (such as divine grace).

By the very same reasoning, though, generosity might be of great interest to someone who rebels against the worldviews of modern welfare-state liberalism and Christianity. This attitude is one of the factors that motivate the work of Hunt and Machan on generosity. The other-regarding traits of character connect us with our fellow human beings and thus color the quality and the very meaning of our lives. A highly valued virtue of charity connects us with others through their suffering and inability to help themselves. This might well seem like the wrong sort of focus for such an important part of one’s life. Generosity connects us with our fellow human beings though opportunities for advancing their positive well-being. Thus generosity, as a cardinal virtue, can be a fundamental functioning component in a view of life in which human beings are regarded as agents who create value and build their lives, and not primarily as frail and sinful beings in need of help from above. Justice, if sufficiently inflated, creates a social world in which the good we do for others is entirely prescribed, in which everything that is not required is prohibited: a sort of highly regulated economy of the soul. A generous act, on the other hand, is not required but chosen freely. To the extent that one treats generosity as an important other-regarding virtue, one’s ethical relations with others become a realm of moral freedom.


Aquinas, Thomas 1948 [ca. 1273]. Summa theologica, trans. Fathers of the Dominican Province. New York: Benziger Bros. (Esp. 1a 2ae: Question 117.)

Aristotle 1985. The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett. (Esp. Book IV, Ch. 1 = 1119b–1122a.)

Descartes, René 1989 [1649]. The Passions of the Soul, trans. Stephen H. Voss. Indianapolis: Hackett. (Esp. Articles 156, 159, 161.)

Nietzsche, Friedrich 2006 [1883–5]. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ed. Robert Pippin, trans. Adrian del Caro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Esp. Part I, Ch. 22: “On the Gift-Giving Virtue.”)

Spinoza, Baruch/Benedictus de 2005 [1677]. Ethics, trans. Edwin Curley. London: Penguin Books. (Esp. Part IV, Propositions 37 and 50–73.)
Further Readings

Hunt, Lester H. 1975. “Generosity,” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 12, pp. 235–44.

Hunt, Lester H. 1997. “The Unity and Diversity of the Virtues: Generosity and Related Matters,” in Lester H. Hunt, Character and Culture. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 55–87.

Kupfer, Joseph 1998. “Generosity of Spirit,” The Journal of Value Inquiry, pp. 357-367.

Machan, Tibor R. 1998. Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society. Washington, DC: The Cato Institute.

Schrift, Alan, ed. 1997. The Logic of the Gift. New York: Routledge.

Wallace, James 1978. Virtues and Vices. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (Esp. Ch. 5: “Benevolence.”)

White, Richard 2016. “Nietzsche on Generosity and the Gift-Giving Virtue,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy, pp. 348-364.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Jordan Peterson's Lawsuits

Since my original post about Jordan Peterson discrediting himself as a champion of the right to free speech I have gotten a response from more than one person that I would paraphrase like this: Peterson is suing the two professors at Wilfred Laurier University and threatening to sue the one at Bloomsburg University for libel because the former said he is “analogous to Adolf Hitler” and the latter said that he is a “white nationalist” and a “misogynist.” If libel law is not incompatible with free speech then what he is doing is not inconsistent with it.

This is like saying: if a 12-gauge shotgun is not incompatible with free speech, then my pointing one at you and threatening to shoot if you say one more word in defense of Donald Trump is not inconsistent with it.

A lawsuit is an attempt to use government coercion against someone. A threat of one is a threat to coerce. What feature of libel law makes it possible to think this is consistent with free speech? I would put it like this: Libel law does not prohibit points of view or ideas, however bad they might be. The tort of libel consists, roughly, in maliciously harming someone by damaging their reputation by making false statements about them. Moreover, the harm has to be something that is in some way measurable in money, since the whole point of a libel suit is to get compensation for the harm that the plaintiff has suffered.

In all the public pronouncements Peterson has made defending his lawsuit threats and explaining their motives, I have not seen him say one single thing about how these professors have harmed him. What he has said is things like this: “So I think this is a warning, let’s say, to other careless administrators and professors who allow their ideological presuppositions to get the best of them to be a bit more careful with what they say and do.” In other words, he wants to intimidate people with bad ideologies to avoid being led by them into saying objectionable things. This is not the point of libel law. It is, however, the point of typical censorship regulations.

There is an obvious reason why he does not talk about the harms he has suffered. Notice that the professors he is threatening or attempting to coerce teach at Wilfred Laurier University and Bloomsburg University. I was employed as university faculty continuously from 1974 until I retired in 2016, and I never heard of either of these institutions until this case. On the other hand, Peterson is a tenured professor at The University of Toronto – one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Beyond that, he is probably the most prominent professor in the English speaking world right now, at least as far as the mass media are concerned. Every week, hundreds of people (for reasons that I do not pretend to understand) give him thousands of dollars by contributing to his web site.

The idea that comments that one group of these professors made about him in a closed meeting and the other in an obviously intemperate twitter message can damage his professional reputation and cause him damage is patently absurd. However, unsophisticated people who do not understand the law very well can easily be intimidated into silence by threats of a lawsuit from someone who, like Peterson, has vast financial resources, even if the lawsuit is in fact frivolous and groundless and would violate their rights if successful. To deliberately intimidate people into silence by threatening coercion that would violate their rights is itself a violation of their rights: their rights to speak freely.

Jordan Peterson is the biggest kid in the schoolyard, and he is picking on little kids who have no way to harm him, but who do seem to be able to make him very very angry. He is simply a bully, and like any bully he is violating the rights of others: in this case, rights to freedom of speech.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Jordan Peterson Is No Friend of Free Speech

The worst enemies of a controversial opinion are not those who use facts and logic against it. If the opinion has any value, such opposition will only make the opinion stronger and better by provoking better arguments in its favor, or by leading its proponents to to revise it so that it becomes a more nuanced and fully-rounded picture of reality. John Stuart Mill pointed this out long ago, in On Liberty.

No, a much more damaging opponent is the proponent whose behavior is so venal and hypocritical that it gives the impression that people who defend the view have ulterior motives or do not mean what they say. This can bring on a phenomenon that I call “turning off the microphone”: proponents can talk and talk but people will not hear their words. The words will be perceived as a cover for something else, which what is really going on. Turning off the microphone can be a much more effective way to silence an opinion than threatening proponents with legal punishments.

Jordan Peterson is the most conspicuous proponent of free speech in the mass media right now -- unfortunately. He recently discredited himself as a proponent by launching one law suit and threatening another – for things professors have said about him! He even tells one interviewer that his motive it to get professors “to be a bit more careful with what they say.” This of course has been the motive of censors throughout history. Watch what you say, buddy!

Thus he strengthens the case for the old Stanley Fish line that nobody really cares about how much freedom of speech there is, they only care about how it is distributed.  It tends to justify the attitude that was pilloried in the title of Nat Hentoff's classic book, Free Speech for Me, but Not for Thee.

His justifications for this behavior reveal his cluelessness as to what freedom of speech is. In one interview he gives two explanations for why his law suits are not inconsistent with his status as a champion and standard-bearer for free speech. First, he claims that the professors who compared his views to those of Hitler “were breaking the law” in doing so. This is an almost incredibly lame argument. As any bright freshman would notice right away, it begs the question – obviously! – of whether the law in question, and his use of it, are themselves violations of the right of free speech. He seems oblivious to this obvious point. His second explanation is marginally less lame:

But there’s always risk in every decision, there’s the risk of doing something, and there’s the risk of not doing something. Both of those risks are usually catastrophic in every decision that you make in life. So I weighed up the risks and I thought, no, the risk here of not doing something is greater than the risk of doing something.

Once again, this is the point of view of the opponents of free speech. Any time you hear someone say that they are going to have to “weigh” or “balance” your freedom of speech against some other value, you can bet that they are going to favor violating your right of free speech. A freedom as fundamental as speech is not about weighing or balancing or compromising anything.

The most familiar argument for the contrary idea fails completely to support it: this is the idea that you can't yell fire in a crowded theater – because it is just too risky. As Alan Dershowitz pointed out once in a lecture, this case is actually not about speech at all. I would be committing exactly the same offense if I simply hit the fire alarm switch, saying absolutely nothing. If someone randomly murders several people by deliberately causing a panic, we will not prosecute them for expressing bad ideas or harmful attitudes. The charge will be some sort of homicide.  Some acts that violate rights involve the use of words and some do not.  What is legitimately a crime is not a viewpoint expressed by the words but the act of which they are a part.

To judge by his behavior, Peterson's advocacy of free speech seems to be an attempt to get something he wants -- for himself and people who agree with him.  That he views it as a right possessed by everyone, even those who say things that he finds abhorrent, is very doubtful at this point.

Advocates of freedom of speech who think that Peterson is their ally should turn their backs on him.  You are known by your associations, and association with him can only contaminate you.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

L’Affaire Ansari, or: Why Etiquette is Important

 Well, the internet slime machine went to work on Caitlyn Flanagan’s piece on L’Affaire Ansari right away.

She’s defending Ansari!  She’s blaming the victim!  I don’t see her as doing either of these things.  I think she is suggesting that we should have a conversation about important matters that seem to have somehow dropped off the map.  She points out that, when she was the age of the pseudonymous “Grace,” young women read articles, even books, that in effect were guides to how to avoid being victimized by men.  Women her age discussed and thought about ideas that could be express as rough rules of thumb, like  these: “A date should not begin with your meeting him alone in his apartment/hotel room/house.”  “Never drink alcohol alone with an older man you hardly know.”  “Be willing to slap his face if necessary.”  “Always have cabfare.  If things go wrong, trusting him to take you home may be a bad idea.”  For the most part, such ideas, and the issues raised by them, seem to be far, far from Grace’s mind.  Should they be?

The attitude behind much of the response to the Flanagan piece and the backlash against the #MeToo movement (a movement that I applaud) seems to be something like this: There is a problem in the land, and the problem is that men are like Ansari.  What is the solution?  Men have to change.  It’s their responsibility, not ours!  I agree.  Change into what?  They have to respect women!  Agree again, but what does that mean in terms of concrete behavior?  Every step in a sexual encounter has to be consented to.  Fine.  What does consent consist of, in terms of actual behavior?  Consent is not mere acquiescence.  It’s more subtle than that.  It can consist of non-verbal cues.  The same is true of refusal of consent.  Men have to learn to noice and respond to these things.

It’s not that I disagree with any of the italicised statements above.  It’s just this: You are asking for a moral revolution.  Well, good!  You might say I’m in the moral revolution business myself.  Always have been.  But if your revolution rests on cues that have to be given and noticed when you are both half-undressed and his tongue is in your yoohoo, then entirely too much work is being done by this abstract notion of “consent.”  Your revolution is going nowhere, because it asks people to do something that they cannot do.  You are asking them to regulate their conduct by abstractions with little obvious concrete meaning.

At the beginning of this republic, Thomas Jefferson realized that the old notions of etiquette and courtesy, which were aristocratic and based on respect for hierarchy, would have to be demolished and replaced by a new democratic etiquette based on respect for everybody.  Obviously, the demolition did happen, but Jefferson’s dream of a new etiquette of respect for persons never took place.  Courtesy was replaced with – nothing.  “Respect” and “consent” are not replacements, because they are high-level abstractions.  They need low-level rules of thumb in order to be applied to actual conduct.  Does a guy who suggests that a first date begin with a woman coming into his apartment, alone, and drink with him, thereby show a lack of respect for her?  I think it is arguable that he does, but my point really is that, whether he does or not, thinking about whether the question gives your idea more body and heft than a mere gaseous abstraction.  Etiquette and casuistry are where the rubber of moral principle hits the road of conduct.  We need to talk about things like this.  And trying to shame those who bring it up into silence by accusing them of “blaming the victim” is really not helpful at all.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Saul Alinsky's Rules

In the right-wing blogosphere there has long been a theme that says that Obama is a disciple of the old lefty, Saul Alinsky, and that he and Hillary Clinton are (literally) playing from his rulebook, an actual book called Rules for Radicals. Hillary's senior thesis at Wellesley was on Alisnky, so they say. I'm not interested in that issue. BHO's behavior won't look any worse (or better) to me depending on where he learned it. But some quotes from that book interested me.

I don't really know anything about this guy, except that leftists often mention him as as a sort of wise, lovable old coot, a sort of leftie Yoda.

I found an electronic copy of the book and read (most, I think) of a chapter titled "Tactics." My jaw dropped. The core of the chapter is thirteen tactical rules for changing the world (in good ways, supposedly). Most of them belong with the sort of tactical advice you can read in The Prince or Mein Kampf.

Yoda he is not. Look at this. (And as you read, try to imagine Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Gandhi, or Thoreau saying any of this.)

RULE 1: "Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have."

One thing this seems to mean, if we read it in connection with some of the rules that follow, is that his goal is to intimidate those who disagree with him, controlling them through fear, and not to convince them of something by appealing to their mind or conscience. Note also that this power seems to be based on deception of some sort.

RULE 2: "Never go outside the expertise of your people." It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone.

RULE 3: "Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy." Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.Rule 2 is actually good advice. Base your arguments on your own experience and that of your audience. Knowing that your case is based on solid evidence increases confidence and dispels fear.  But notice that he applies this valid principle in reverse against others. Spreading this disabling fear far and wide is just what Rule 3 advises.

RULE 4: "Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules." If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.

This rule might have been defensible if it meant that you should expose hypocrisy or take advantage of the impracticality of your opponent's moral code. But that is not what he has in mind. He says that everyone is vulnerable to this tactic, not just hypocrites. And the example he gives, of answering every letter, is actually a decent and sensible rule. He is advising you to take advantage, not of your opponents' hypocrisy and foolishness, but of their decency and their ideals.  And to take advantage of the fact that they can't do something that, according to him, nobody could do anyway.

RULE 5: "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon." There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force [note his word choice here] the enemy into concessions.

I take it the idea here is something like this. Instead of engaging in a debate with Dick Cheney about the ethics of torture -- where you'll end up dealing with a mass of theories and supposed facts -- make fun of him for shooting his friend in the face on a hunting expedition.. If you do it right, people will just start to snicker when he shows up on TV. They won't hear a word he says. It will be just as though you have turned off his microphone. If you are really lucky, he will lose his temper and look even worse.

As with Rule 13, below, the basic strategy here is the respond to speech by delegitimizing the speaker. I can't think of a single practice (short of the use of threats and violence) that is more deeply inimical to the basic principles of civilized discourse.

RULE 8: "Keep the pressure on. Never let up." Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new.

In other words, disable his opponent's capacity to reason.

RULE 9: "The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself." Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist.

Need I say more?

RULE 10: The major premise of tactics is the development of operations that will maintain constant pressure on the opposition. It is this unceasing pressure that results in the reactions from the opposition that are essential for the success of the campaign.

Translation:  Provoke your opponents to doing irrational things that are not in their interest, but are in yours.

RULE 11: "If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive." Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.

Get them to abandon reason altogether and resort to violence. Now you are a martyr. Yay! you win!

RULE 13: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it." Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.

I think this rule is the most evil one of the lot, partly for the reason I gave under Rule 5. But there is more.

I have long been convinced that the problems in the world are due to bad institutions and not ultimately to bad people. Bad institutions reward bad behavior, punish good behavior and distort people's ideas. When bad people are at the center of things, it is generally because we have created an institution in which the only people who can flourish are ones with certain moral vices.

This truth, that "it's not the people, it's the system," was one of Marx's most distinctive ideas, and it is responsible for what is true in his doctrine.

It makes it hard to reform the world, however, because people don't get energized about "institutions," and even find them difficult to think about. The issue has to be personalized somehow.

What Alinsky is recommending is that you personalize the issue in the cheapest, most duplicitous, and cruelest way: pick out hate figures and demonize them.

If old Saul's disciples are indeed in the saddle, we are headed straight for Nastyville. I'm not going to enjoy the ride one bit.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ban Big Ammunition Magazines?

The other day I posted about something I call the weapons line drawing problem:  Some weapons or weapon features or accessories should be banned, and some should not. This means the real question is, where to draw the line? What is the principle that separates the permissible from the ban-able?

The principle I offered was "the ultra-hazardous weapon principle":  A weapon, weapon feature, or accessory may be banned if it cannot be used safely.  The idea is that if you are using such a device, it is too likely that you will eventually be subjecting those around you to an unreasonable level of risk from which they gain no benefit.  Since you have no right to do that, banning it would not violate your rights.

I argued that civilian "assault weapons" pass this test and my not be banned without violating individual rights.  What about large ammunition magazines and clips -- ones with more that 10, 20, or 30 (different limits exist in different states) round capacities?  Obama is pushing hard for Congress to act quickly, I would even say precipitately, and it's likely they will place some nation-wide limit on magazine and clip size.(From now on I'll say "magazine" to refer to both, though that's technically not correct.)

Clearly, such a ban is not supported by the ultra-hazardous weapon principle.  It is easy to use a large magazine safely.  Millions of responsible citzens use them on shooting range and (where legal, I hope) for hunting with no one getting hurt.

But notice that my principle only rules things in as candidates for banning -- it "may be banned" -- and doesn't rule anything out.  Maybe large magazines may be nominated as candidates for banning on the basis of some supplementary principle.  One reason I have seen given by talking heads lately as a reason for banning these things is that they "serve no legitimate purpose."

 I would flesh this out like this:  a weapon, weapon feature, or accessory may be banned if it has criminal uses and serves no legitimate purpose for which there is no perfectly good substitute,  

I have some sympathy for this a s a general principle.  The intuitive idea, I guess, is that such a ban would interfere with criminal acts and, though it would coercively deny the object to innocent people, the coercion involved does them no harm.  I'm not generally keen on coercing (ie., threatening) the innocent at all (it violates the libertarian side constraint), but it if does them no harm, I'm at least willing to consider it.

There is another problem with this principle, though.  It's not so easy to think of an object currently in use in the civilian population that has no legitimate use for which it lacks perfect substitute.  Some years ago, I was working on a paper on gun owners' rights (this one) and I tried to propose an example of a weapon that would fail this test and could well be banned:  in fact, it already is more or less illegal throughout the US.  The example was sawed-off shotguns.  This weapon, I said, emits a spray of projectiles, any one of which can cause a nasty injury, and cannot be controlled very well by the shooter (I could have argued just as plausibly, or implausibly, using the ultra-hazardous weapon principle, but I had not thought of it yet).

Anyway, my editor for that paper, Samuel C. Wheeler, pointed something out to me.  This weapon could be very appropriate as an answering-the-door gun for an elderly gentleman who, say, lives in a dangerous neighborhood (it's the best he can afford) and has had his Social Security check stolen and been mugged, and so has legitimate concerns about his safety.  At close quarters, like ansering the door in and apartment building, the projectiles can be controlled quite well enough.  Plus, the pellets will not pass through the opposite wall of the hallway, injuring the innocent.

I deleted that part of the manuscript.

Another problem with the "no legitimate purpose" principle:  grading or ranking purposes.  After all, there is one legitimate purpose that is served by a big magazine, and there is no conceivable substitute:  reloading avoidance.  Not having to reload so often.  Nothing illegitimate about that.

Obviously, the principle has to include a qualification about how the purpose has to be "important" enough to qualify.  Maybe the fact that it serves mere convenience is not enough.

I don't know about you, but I'm still enough of a liberal to get queasy about deciding whether a purpose -- someone else's purpose -- is "important" enough to exempt them from heavy fines or a jail sentence. It is something the law has to do from time to time, but I would like to keep it to a minimum.

Finally, to get back the the big magazine issue itself:  I believe these things do pass the "no legitimate purpose"test."  To see why, take a look at this compelling essay by history professor Clayton Cramer.  You'll see that not having to reload can make a life or death difference in situations that civilians do find themselves in from time to time.  Indeed, this feature might be more valuabe to the law-abiding than it is to mass shooters.  Further, not only can they save innocent lives, but they can even enable you to safely spare the life of your assailants.  If that sounds impossible, just read the essay.  Please.

On a somewhat related not, here is a very interesting post by my old friend, philosophy prof and sci fi aficionado Kevin Hill.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Ban "Assault Rifles"?

Okay, so most of us can agree on two important things: Some weapons or weapon features or accessories should be banned, and some should not. This means the real question is, where to draw the line? What is the principle?  This is a very important question, and I've thought about it a lot.  The answer I've come up with was heavily influenced by American tort law.  Case law has evolved organically under the guidance of some very smart, well-meaning people who have guided it while in full-frontal contact with reality.  They are dealing with cases, not their own fantasies.  So it deserves to be taken seriously. 

There is a concept in the law that is useful here:  that of "ultra-hazardous" activities, also know as "abnormally dangerous activities."  Both terms are a little misleading, because what makes an activity ulltra-hazardous is not so much the degree of danger as the lack of control you have it.  Classic examples are:  crop-dusting, drilling for oil, transporting gasoline by truck, blasting.  I think of these as activities that can't be done safely.  What the law does with these activities is this:  if it produces some economic good that goes into the marketplace and people find it worthwhile to pay for, you may do it, though if things go wrong we will hold you strictly liable for the results (look it up - it's different from the rule that applies to normally dangerous activities)  If it does not produce such results, you may not do it.  So, even if playing involuntary Russian roulette on your neighbor's head is less risky than drilling for oil, you may not do it.

There is an important distinction to be made between the abnormally hazardous and that which is normally so.  I think a related idea applies to weapons, and with similar reasoning.  Some weapons cannot be used safely.  And since your neighbors are not being compensated by, means of some economic good being made availiable to them, for the risk they are subjected to, there is no reason they should put up with it.  That means you can't have nuclear weapons, bazookas, hand grenades, incendiary grenades, or a machine gun.

Notice, and this is very important, that a modern gun, as such, is not (to coin a phrase paralelling the above legal one) an ultra-hazardous weapon.  In fact, it is in one way the opposite of that.  If used at the range at which it was intended to shoot, a modern firearm, in contrast to the old muskets and flintlock pistols, is a precision instrument.  I like to tell my students that if I had a good pistol I could dot the "i" in that exit sign at the other end of the lecture hall.  (Some of them look startled.)

An AR-15 is a precision instrument and not an ultra-hazardous weapon, in my sense.  It is not a machine gun.

This brings me to the reason I put "assault weapons" in scare quotes, above.  True assault rifles were invented for the military during WWII (in Germany and Russia).  The military definition is: (a) a medium range rifle that (b) has a selector that switches the weapon between fully automatic and semi-automatic.  Select "fully" and it becomes a machine gun.

The latter clause is why the AR-15 (pictured above) such as the one the Sandy Hook murderer used, does not fit the military definition of an assault rifle.  It lacks this switch and only has the semi-automatic mode of functioning.

What "semi-automatic" means is this.  When you fire a bullet, the mechanism uses some of the energy expended to do three things:  expel the spent cartridge, move a new bullet into the chamber, and cock the firing pin (this is called cycling).  To fire, all you need to do is pull the trigge (this is called single action trigger).

In a semiauto weapon, only the cycling is automatic.  The firing is not:  ie., the gun does not keep cycling and firing, both, if you just hold the trigger down.  

A typical revolver, like the S & W .38 I inherited from my Dad, accomplishes somewhat the same effect of a semiauto by means of a double action trigger:  as I pull the trigger, it rotates the cylinder, moving the spent cartridge out of the way, presenting a fresh round to the firing pin, and cocking it.  (I just timed myself and got up to four shots per second.  The gun was unloaded, of course.)  Doing all that work with your trigger finger makes the less accurate, unless you have a really fine, smooth-shooting revolver like the Colt Python, but that would run you around $1,500.

Hm.  Maybe you'd rather have a semi-automatic pistol, like the classic Colt 1911 (named for the year it became standard issue in the US Army).  This highly esteemed weapon is just as automatic as the AR-15, except for one thing:  before the first shot you fire, you must cock it manually by pulling back the slide.  Thereafter it cycles automatically.

Or, if you want to avoid that one little hitch, you might try one of the many kinds of semiauto pistols where the trigger is double action on the first shot, single action thereafter, and auto cylcing throughout.  These weapons are exactly as automatic as the AR-15.

Now you can probably guess what my point is:  These "automatic" weapons have been extremely common for a long time.  They have been standard military issue for a century.  They are carried by virtually all armed police officers.  There are millions and millions of them in the possession of civilians who use them for entirely legitimate purposes.

As a matter of fact, they are the weapon of choice of mass murders, overwhelmingly preferred by mass murders to weapons like the AR-15.

It's easy to see why.  These weapons, as I have said, are made for medium range shooting:  shooting at enemy coming over the next hill.  Not for long range sniping, and not for shooting somebody in the same room with you.  Hell, it has a 20-inch barrel, for medium range accuracy.  What do you need that for, when your victim is in the same room with you?  You've accepted the weapon's bulkiness, clumsiness (at close quarters), and conspicuousness, and gotten nothing in return.  You are better off with a 1911 and a bag of loaded magazines over your shoulder.

[I don't mean this in a crass way.  Innocent lives are at stake and to figure out what we should do about it we have to think in a no-BS way about what these demented dirtbags are actually going to do.]

The "automaticness" of these "automatic" weapons does not make them "ultrahazardous," in the sense in which that could justify banning them, and they give the mass murderer no advantage they couldn't get from weapons that are extremely common and obviously legitimate.  It is no reason to ban them as a response to mass shootings.  None.

There actually is another issue here that I have not touched on.  There is one difference between AR-type weapons and pistols like the 1911:  magazine size.  The magazine in Mrs. Lanza'a AR may have held as many rounds as 30 (the max allowed in the state of CT).  Magazine size of a 1911:  6.  Is that a reason to limit the size of magazines (in effect, banning all larger than the limit)?

I'll try to post about that later.