The Right to Self Defense

This semester I'm teaching an introductory course on contemporary moral problems, and this past week has been gun control week.  It's an exhausting subject, since emotions run high in the aftermath of Newtown and Aurora.  Phew!

When all is said and done, what seems interesting in the ethical debate about gun control is the right to self defense. What is it, and what does it encompass?  This seems clear enough, on a first pass.  If I am attacked, then I may do what's necessary to defend myself, with whatever means are at my disposal. The critical question is whether I'm entitled to have the most effective means at my disposal--for example, a gun.

Some people are inclined to take a "nightmare scenario" approach to that question.  They imagine a scenario in which someone is under horrendous attack.  They imagine no gun in the victim's hands, and they think that would be tragically unfair. For example, I think Sam Harris takes the "nightmare scenario" approach in this passage of a much-discussed editorial--
In my view, only someone who doesn't understand violence could wish for a world without guns. A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene. A world without guns is a world in which no man, not even a member of SEAL Team Six, can expect to prevail over more than one attacker at a time. A world without guns, therefore, is one in which the advantages of youth, size, strength, aggression, and sheer numbers are almost always decisive.
Think about that horrible scene--the woman is raped and murdered in front of a dozen witnesses, and for  lack of a gun, nobody intervenes. (Actually, I wonder why not. I should think a dozen people actually could overcome a man with a knife!) If you keep your mind trained on that one scenario, then you might agree with Harris and not "wish for a world without guns."

But wait.  A world without guns is a whole world, not a single scenario.  What we are really comparing, when we think of worlds with and without guns, are worlds very far apart and very different.  The contrast is roughly like this--

Gun World (ours) and No-Gun World (imaginary)
Gun World (ours) -- vastly more violent deaths, assaults, rapes, robberies; vastly more accidental deaths (guns often aren't stored safely); vastly more successful suicides; vastly more lethal domestic violence; vastly weakened police (I owe that last point to Jeff McMahan--my class has been discussing his recent Stone editorial).

No-Gun World -- vastly less of of all of the violence in world one. Let's suppose, just to put a number on it, the world without guns has 90% less violence than our world.  (See the statistics on this page for evidence the disparity would at least be great).

How could anyone possibly prefer Gun World?  What the "nightmare scenario" approach asks us to do is imagine that in No-Gun World, violent rape/murders would still occur.  Now, if you approach this from a utilitarian perspective  you'll certainly be unmoved.  You won't dwell on the horrors of Harris's scenario, because you'll be mindful of the vast amount of violence that doesn't occur in No-Gun world and does occur in ours. Yes, the woman got raped and murdered at knife-point in No-Gun world, and the dozen witnesses couldn't help (I'm still scratching my head about why not), but think concretely about all the horrendous scenarios that are in Gun World (our world) and not in No-Gun World--the massacre of little children in Newtown, the massacre of movie-goers in Aurora, and so on.  Harris says "only someone who doesn't understand violence" could wish for No-Gun World, but in fact it seems as if only someone utterly irrational could wish for Gun World.  Or ... someone thinking very unclearly about the right to self-defense.

I think that's the heart of the matter, really.  Harris must be thinking that for all the overall reduction in violence in No-Gun World, something really terrible goes on there--the woman can't defend herself; the onlookers can't offer her "proxy" self-defense (if that makes any sense). The right to self-defense has been violated.  And one rights violation is worse than a 90% reduction in violence?  That's got to be the idea. No-Gun World, in his estimation, is worse, for all its lower total quantity of murder, rape, suicide, accidental death, etc, because of that one black mark.   What about -- you may wonder -- the defenselessness of the people murdered, raped, etc., in Gun World?  I can only guess what Harris must be thinking.  The defenselessness of the woman in No-Gun World is singularly pernicious, because there's a systemic denial of rights there--nobody's allowed to have guns. In Gun World, there are a whole lot more murder and rape victims, more accidentally dead children, etc., but that's all at the hands of bad guys.  There isn't the same systemic denial of rights. So (I surmise) he must be thinking, in utterly non-utilitarian fashion (what happened to the utilitarian Sam Harris of The Moral Landscape?)

But this makes no sense, even if you're prepared to take rights very, very seriously. One problem is with the way Harris is playing with scenarios.  If the nightmare scenario had happened in Gun World, he's apparently thinking, the woman (or the witnesses) might have had a gun. But (duh) the bad guy might have had a gun too. And I think guns are more useful offensively than defensively: bad guys can focus all their attention on carrying out crimes, while their victims are busy ... going to school, watching a movie, shopping in a mall, or whatever.  If you imagine the scenario playing out in Gun World, and imagine guns all around, things don't really go any better for the woman.

But never mind that. Let's allow Harris his fantasy scenario.  Let's suppose the knife-wielding rapist/murderer would have still used a knife in Gun World, and the woman would have had a gun. Should we suppose the right to self defense entitles her to that gun, despite the vast difference between the two worlds?  Are we entitled to a means of self defense that comes only at the cost of there being vastly higher overall levels of violence? I think the answer is obvious: no.

We need to not confuse the right to self defense (the right to protect yourself) with the right to have the most effective means at your disposal.  When we decide what means people are permitted to have, we obviously do need to think about society as a whole, and the costs and benefits of the various means. The idea that the woman in the nightmare scenario is entitled to have a gun strikes me as being as silly as saying that everyone's entitled to drive at 90 miles per hour, just because in one conceivable scenario, this would get someone to the emergency room on time to save a passenger's life.  We choose speed limits in light of the overall impact on society, not to optimize the outcome in one rare type of scenario. The right to mobility (there's presumably such a right) doesn't entitle us to move at any speeds we like in potentially lethal vehicles.

Likewise, weaponry.  In some imaginable scenario, a potential victim has a better chance of self-defense if she has a machine gun, but we don't allow people to have machine guns.  A rocket grenade launcher would be helpful in some conceivable situation, but no--we don't get to have them. Denying people machine guns and rocket grenade launchers is not a violation of the right to self-defense, if you think about the right clearly, and neither is wholesale prohibiting guns.

I'm reminded of a point Judith Jarvis Thomson makes in her famous article "A Defense of Abortion": we too quickly (and illicitly) move from assigning someone a right to life to assigning them the right to anything they need to hold onto life.  This has to be a mistake, as we see from simple examples: I have the right to life, but not the right to have Tom Cruise (her example was Henry Fonda!) put his hand on my fevered brow, if that's what it would take for me to stay alive.  Likewise, we too quickly move from the right to self defense to the erroneous notion that people have the right to whatever means would be necessary for effective self-defense, in any particular situation, without regard to the general impact of making that means available. The right to self defense is just the right to protect yourself, not to have any and every weapon.


James602 said...

Jean, I think your claim that No-Gun World would be much less violent is almost certainly false. There used to be No-Gun World -- the world before guns were invented. I doubt it was less violent than today's world (on a per-capita basis). I think Sam's point in the paragraph you quote is that guns are necessary to enforce basic rights and civil order. As far as I'm aware, no country has given up guns completely. Every country allows at least its police, military and other professional security personnel to have guns.

Jean Kazez said...

"No gun world" is just a world with no private possession of guns--I should have made that more clear. I think moving forward to a no gun world is a lot different from moving backward. If you move all the way back to the Roman empire, when there were no guns, you find people getting slaughtered by the thousands. So--not less violent. But what we're talking about is moving forward to a world much like ours but without guns. A world much like ours without guns would have (a) fewer successful suicides, (b) fewer gun accidents, (c) less effective murderers (lower body count), (d) less domestic violence turning into murder, (e) less road rage turning into murder, etc. If you look at the way guns are actually involved in violence (paying attention to the data), you get this upshot. You can see what would be different, without gun--again, provided that much else about our world were essentially the same.

James602 said...

Ok, but I think the No-Guns World Sam was criticizing is a world without any guns, period. Not even for the military ("not even a member of SEAL Team Six").

What you're talking about, a world without private possession of guns, is a different proposition. Harris seems open to the idea that it would be better if there were no private guns, but he also thinks that, as a practical and political matter, it would be impossible to eliminate all private guns in the foreseeable future, at least in the U.S. So the question is: given that there are hundreds of millions of guns in private hands, and no serious prospect of getting rid of them, is it ethical and rational for certain people to own guns for self-defense? I think it is. In Harris's case, it's worth remembering that he's not just some average Joe. He's the target of a lot of hate for his writings, and has received death threats.

Jean Kazez said...

Hmmm...not sure what all he's said elsewhere, but in that passage it's pretty clear he's saying he wants there to be weapons in private hands. He write, of a world without guns, "It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene." He wants the witnesses to intervene. The witnesses are surely just ordinary people, not the police or military. He goes on to say something more (and different)--not even the SEAL Team Six member will intervene. But the point about the witnesses is about ordinary folk.

James602 said...


It seems clear to me that in the piece you quoted Harris was criticizing the idea of a world without any guns, period. That's why he said "not even a member of SEAL Team Six" (i.e., special military forces) would be able to help.

In his "FAQ on Violence" at his web site, Harris indicates that he is open to the idea that a world without guns in the hands of *private civilians* would be better. But he thinks it just isn't a serious possibility in the U.S.:

"If I saw a way that we could remove 300 million guns from our streets—perhaps by amending the U.S. Constitution and instituting a $150 billion buy-back program—then I would be happy to weigh the merits of doing this. But, given the legal and political realities in the U.S., I don’t consider the banning and confiscation of guns to be a serious possibility (nor does it seem to be a goal of gun-control advocates)."

Jean Kazez said...

I'm just taking Harris at his word! He does write what I already quoted,about the world without guns--"It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene." He's clearly worried about the witnesses not intervening there. It makes no difference that he goes on to express a different worry, that not even a SEAL team 6 member would intervene.

Given what he says there about the witnesses, he's got to be thinking it would be better for private citizens to be armed (as well as the police) than for a world to be gun free. This is irrational, for the reasons I've given in my post. Perhaps when he wrote his FAQ he'd changed his mind, or he realized his original scenario didn't make the point he wanted to make. That's certainly possible, but his argument, as initially stated, is quite clearly an argument that a gun free world can't be wished for, because in such a world private citizens wouldn't be able to use guns in self-defense (or proxy self-defense).

Nevertheless, thanks for the quote from the FAQ. Perhaps that does reveal Harris's more recent thinking on the matter.