I came across this article while perusing a fun philosophy blog. I was instantly intrigued by the article of Professor Jeff McMahan.
Before I deal with the substance of his article, first I must comment on his refreshing writing style. I think the points are clear and Prof. McMahan attempts to deal with a demanding topic in a short amount of time. Despite my disagreement with his conclusions, this was an enjoyable read. Unfortunately, I will have to chop up his beautiful article for time’s sake and for that I deeply apologize. If you are to give Professor McMahan any grace, please read his article in full as he wrote it before reading my deconstruction.
The claim about principle is that each person has a right of self-defense and that this right entails a further right not to be deprived of, or prevented from having, the most effective means of self-defense.
Allow me to summarize his view. He suggests that the pro-gun argument hinges on the following argument: If it is true that all persons (as opposed to each) have a right to self-defense, then they ought to have the most effective means of self-defense. So if you are only allowed to bring a knife to a gun fight, your right to self-defense has been violated. He also suggests that we deprive prisoners of that right and therefore it is not a right at all, rather self-defense is a privilege. It is a privilege that we do not need if we have police (or guards in his analogy) to protect us.
Allow me to quickly digress and make a helpful distinction. A right is something you possess inherently while a privilege is something you are given. This line gets blurred so much and so often that the conversation gets muddied in the semantics.
So let us examine the premise: Is it true that all persons have a right to self-defense? Are there any persons who do not have that right? Furthermore where does the right originate? What principles can it be derived from and where do those principles originate?
1) Depending on your philosophy of history, rights may be considered a man-made construct and not some fundamental transcendent property of human existence. What do I mean by this? Let us consider a group of tribal warriors who determine that survival of the fittest means that a winnowing ceremony must occur where a stronger tribesman must kill a weaker. There is no moral right in this tribe for the weaker specimen to defend himself. The weaker tribesman has no right to self defense that he was born with. There is no right that “transcends” his existence. So in a modern philosophy we examine a belief such as materialism. If we are all basically atoms swirling in the cosmic ether, the concept of rights, morality, justice, etc are just lipstick on a pig. Most atheists, humanists, socialists, etc, ignore this basic tenant of their worldview and pretend that the construct is good in so far as it is good for them. I digress, if no person has the right to self-defense, as the preceding philosophy would suggest, then the issue is moot. We, meaning society, only use this construct as a form of ensuring social order. This is usually due to the simple fact that societies that have evolved to allow self-defense have been naturally selected to replace those who did not. However if a society that evolves and removes this right is naturally selected to supplant the prior, the right evaporates. I would argue that this does damage to the term right but that is a sidebar.
2) In a Christian worldview, self preservation is considered a right. This is due to the dignity and transcendent notion of the imago dei. If man is created in the image of God and derives his worth from that stamp, then man’s life has a transcendent value that cannot be co-opted. As you can probably see, if you have read the article, this presents a dilemma for escaping the teeth of the upcoming argument.
I will likely follow up with some points about the argument from statistics, but I primarily wish to deal with the Prison argument as it is the main point.
I think, however, that this is false. Contemporary moral philosophers are noted, or perhaps notorious, for their use of hypothetical examples. The example I have just sketched is hypothetical. But it describes the conditions in an actual institution: prison.
I left out some of his preceding buildup. Here is the main argument in formal logic:
p1 – All men have the right to self defense
p2 A prisoner is a man
c1 A prisoner has the right to self defense
Let’s assume that the right to self-defense automatically requires the possible ownership of a gun. I don’t intend to quibble about that point. If a prisoner has the same God-given right as I have, then I should demand he not be deprived of that right. Otherwise I would be self-contradictory.
This is a tougher argument than many would realize. Especially when you look at the argument for where the right derives from. If the right is transcendent and based upon the imago dei, then it cannot be denied of any man, including a man in prison.
There are two solutions to this quandary. I will deal with one and suggest the other briefly.
This is a little complex so I will put it in a formal proof so we can see how it obtains (It will look wierd because I will be careful to keep the terms the same.)
p3) God is the only giver of rights
p4) The only giver of rights is the only taker of rights
c2) God is the only taker of rights
If God grants man rights by virtue of the imago dei, then God can also rescind those rights. This is no different from the right to freedom or even to the right to live. God grants the state the power of the sword to wield as an agent of justice and therefore transfers some of those responsibilities to the state. God revokes the right of murderers and false witnesses, adulterers, disrespectful children, and the like to live. Therefore it is not hard to surmise that he would revoke that person’s right to defend their person.
Therefore it is reasonable to suggest that a prisoner has effectively had the right of self-defense revoked by the agent who gave it to him in the first place.
The second solution argues more from the idea of using incarceration as a punitive measure at all. Is that a biblical notion?
Finally let’s assume that you are not a Christian and you are still pro-gun, how can you defend yourself against this argument?
Well replace God in P3 with “Societal Norms” and you have opened a new can of worms and the debate about which society is superior can resume unabated. In either scheme, the giver of rights can also take away those rights. This means that it is logically possible to argue that while all men have the right to self-defense not all men are entitled to keep it. The government can revoke the right to freedom in this scheme because that is what it means to be a prisoner. Why can it not revoke the right to self-defense (which technically it does when executing criminals)?
They might, for example, argue that convicted criminals have forfeited their right to the possession of a gun. Yet no one can forfeit his right of self-defense against wrongful attack. Consider a modification of the advocates’ own example. Suppose a convicted criminal has a gun and will be wrongly killed by an aggressor unless he uses it in self-defense. Someone who then takes his gun away, thereby ensuring that he is killed, seems to violate his right of self-defense. That might not be true if the criminal would, after defending himself, use the gun to threaten innocent people. Similarly, prisoners might forfeit their right to effective means of self-defense if they could also use those means to threaten innocent people outside of prison. But it does not seem that they forfeit their right to effective means of defending themselves from wrongful attacks by other prisoners.
Now here is a problem with stretching the analogy too far. So we have prisoner A, who forfeited his right to self defense and now should have a right to expect the guards to provide his defense. He is about to be killed by prisoner B… Who also should be in the same prison with the same forfeited right. They don’t have guns. But let’s assume that Prisoner A had a gun. If I disable the gun prior to the attack by some means, it is suggested that I will be taking away his right to self-defense. However I have argued that he forfeited that right when he did whatever he was incarcerated for. Once he is in Prison, his right to self-defense, freedom, and in cases of death row his right to life was already forfeit. The guard is now responsible for preventing prisoner B from killing prisoner A and if they fail to do so then they fail.
Yet no one can forfeit his right of self-defense against wrongful attack.
If one cannot forfeit the right of self-defense, how is it they can forfeit the right of freedom in order to be in Prison in the first place? Unless one can show some categorical reason to say the right to freedom is different than the right to self-defense the example implodes upon its very first premise. Namely the premise that there can be such a thing as a prisoner in the first place.
Nobody on the pro-gun side is arguing that certain rights cannot be forfeit in cases of criminal wrongdoing because that would be nonsensical. There are clear cases where God-given rights are revoked for cause. The difference is that God given rights cannot be revoked by the State without just cause. Societal Norm given rights are not really rights at all (they are merely privileges) and can be discarded upon a whim by any tyrant strong enough to enforce his or her will. That is a different argument for a different day however.
Final thought: History alone can warn effectively that governments are not necessarily benevolent and their agents are merely a collection of fallible individuals. Just as it is falsely assumed that all of the guards are benevolent protectors. One only need watch the Shawshank Redemption to see a plausible abuse of power from the supposed benevolent protectors. If one were to succumb to Professor McMahan’s position, one might find that the example he posed will become much more real. People will be living in something much like a prison, as they do now in most communist regimes. So in that regard, it is a most apt analogy.