For as long as I have understood the term, I have considered myself a liberal. To be clear, there is classical liberalism, which promotes individual rights and basic human equality (hence, liberal democracy), and there is progressive liberalism, which promotes change in society (hence the distinction between liberals and conservatives). I am a liberal in both senses; but here, the concern is with progressive liberalism. As a liberal, I naturally believe that liberals generally have the stronger arguments. Conversely, I generally believe conservatives have the weaker arguments, and specifically that conservatives are particularly inclined towards fallacy. Part of this is inherent: liberals favor change, and conservatives favor keeping the status quo, but these are not symmetrical positions. Liberals favor change when change is positive; they don’t usually favor gratuitous change. Conservatives, on the other hand, genuinely do favor the gratuitous preservation of the status quo. They believe, philosophically or temperamentally, that there is a value to leaving things alone, and that value can sometimes outweigh otherwise-good reasons to change.

Thus, the honest conservative position on many issues should be: “Yes, this element of the status quo is indefensible on its own, but there is value to leaving things alone.,” followed by a stock argument on the value of leaving things alone. Conservatives are understandably reluctant to make this argument, though, reluctant to acknowledge that they are defending something that is indefensible on its own, and so they will attempt to defend the indefensible. From there it is a short journey to a kind of absolutism, insisting that the opposing position is completely wrong in every one of its details.

But liberals do not all arrive at their liberalism through the application of reason to the status quo. Many of them are socialized into liberalism, so that they believe in common liberal positions only because their family or friends do, and are consequently unable to make or recognize sound arguments in support of their liberal positions. In the end, liberals, too, are susceptible to the absolutist inclination. Liberals, too, can insist on the complete wrongness of their opponents even when their opponents have a point. They can trap themselves in absurdities through the dogmatic insistence on their own moral or rational perfection.

Such a result is common in the liberal argument for gun control, and it has reemerged with force after the school shootings in Parkland, Florida. The case for gun control is simple, and it is compelling: the United States is unique among industrialized states in both gun violence and gun rights, this is not a coincidence, and most of the mass shootings that have taken place in the US could have been prevented with specific regulations on the private ownership of guns. When the mass shooting is at a school, as in Parkland or Newtown or Santa Fe, Texas, the case is even more compelling: gun control would have saved these children.

The National Rifle Association practices its own form of absolutism, and to ward off gun control, it has promoted its own, gun-centered answer to mass shootings. As memorably stated by the NRA’s chief executive Wayne LaPierre: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” In the aftermath of school shootings, this view has led to earnest proposals to arm school personnel (shorthanded as “teachers”), and now Donald Trump has amplified this proposal. This means, according to absolutist faith, that arming teachers must be immediately denounced by liberals as wrong in every detail. Better yet, the addition of any guns to a mass shooting must be wrong in every detail, regardless of how many guns or who holds them, regardless of the specifics of the shooting itself. (For example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and especially here.*) There is no number of good guys, no matter how good, who could mitigate a mass shooting with guns. This is the position many liberals put themselves in to support their gun-control absolutism.

In reality, the mass shootings that draw the most attention and debate would almost all be ended sooner, and with less loss of life, with the presence of additional guns, and liberals pretend otherwise mostly by describing different scenarios that might, hypothetically, be aggravated. For example, a lone figure waving a gun around in public, more interested in attention than carnage, might be provoked by armed civilians to start shooting. Also in that scenario, armed civilians who cannot shoot well, or cannot keep their cool, might accidentally shoot the innocent, and thus do more harm than good. But this is, compared to a Parkland-style shooting, a strawman scenario. When a heavily-armed gunman enters a public place like a school with the intention of indiscriminate mass killing, the only thing that needs to happen is for him to be killed as soon as possible. The longer it takes for him to be killed, the more innocents who are going to die. The gun-control absolutists refuse to acknowledge this; even in this scenario, they insist that any additional gun is bad. Thus, when an unarmed principal charged a gunman to protect her students, as Dawn Hochsprung is thought to have done heroically at Newtown, the absolutists continued to argue that giving her a gun at that exact moment would have made things worse. When a Seattle Pacific University student, Jon Meis, eventually and heroically disarmed a mass shooter with pepper spray (during the shooter’s reloading), internet wits instantly circulated the obvious “good guy with pepper spray stops bad guy with gun,” and the absolutists took this line seriously. So predictable was this reaction that it was repeated immediately when the heroic and unarmed James Shaw seized a gun from a shooter in a Waffle House outside Nashville — but only when the shooter stopped to reload. It was repeated for Noblesville, Indiana, where a heroic teacher, Jason Seaman, used a basketball. It was repeated for Oklahoma City, where a bystander with a gun stopped a shooting spree that ended up producing no deaths other than the original gunman. The absolutists seem to believe that, rather than a cutesy but deceptive play on words, these twists on “good guy with a gun” are a profound illustration of what they’ve been saying all along.

But consider these scenarios carefully. If the Newtown principal is charging the gunman anyway, hitting him with a pistol is not really that impossible a shot, even for an amateur. Given that the children are all so young and small, it would not be that hard to shoot at the taller adult gunman without hitting the children as well. And most importantly, given that the gunman is deliberately shooting as many children as he can, the risk of the principal shooting one or two children accidentally is a risk clearly worth taking. In Seattle, the pepper spray only worked because, for a short time, the gunman was himself disarmed: he was reloading an empty gun. Meis had to wait for the gunman to finish shooting as many people as he could before it was safe to attack him with pepper spray. He is not to blame for this caution; what else could he do? But this is not actually an example of pepper spray serving as an effective counterweapon to a firearm. Shaw tackled the Waffle House gunman at a moment when they were both unarmed. That was, again, quite heroic. And gun control advocates can insist, quite reasonably, that the gunman’s previously-confiscated weapon should never have been back in his hands. But they cannot credibly claim that, in Shaw’s position, they’d have preferred not to have a gun themselves.

So insecure are some proponents of gun control that they will even defend the school resource officer who waited outside Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland while the shooting was taking place; survivor David Hogg himself did this at one point. This is a trained police officer, probably wearing a bulletproof vest, being paid to protect children in exactly this way. It is the very best example of how a gun might be useful in stopping a mass shooting. Making excuses for him is ostensibly a rejection of the very concept of the police; but at heart it is simply a blind adherence to the claim that more guns are never, ever the answer.

As easy as this standard liberal argument is to refute, I can think of a worse example. The standard liberal argument against torture actually refutes itself. To be sure, torture for reasons of cruelty would be wrong under any humanistic morality, if humanism means anything. And if the aim of torture, like oppressing a population, violates a particular code of morality, then the torture would be immoral under that code as well. Instrumental torture in service of a defensible or even imperative aim, like saving innocent lives, is something the absolutists will not rationally consider. So uncertain are they in their arguments, or so dogmatic in their approach, that they will not allow that there are any hypothetical scenarios in which torture is so much as morally dubious.

Instrumental torture (so, excluding cruelty) is ultimately about control and compulsion, of the person being tortured, or anyone who might be threatened with similar torture. It can be a means of general control, but two specific applications are extracting information and extracting confessions. If opponents of torture want to insist that torture for any reason is wrong, that is easy to understand. By definition, torture must be unendurable suffering. Abhorring torture fits with pacifism and vegetarianism as reactions of extreme empathy. But opponents of torture aren’t content with simply asserting that torture is wrong. The absolutists among them also insist that torture doesn’t work.

As a means of general control, the most you can reasonably say is that torture works until it doesn’t work. Unendurable suffering is surely effective at getting some people, some of the time, to comply. But it also has the potential to create a backlash. A person who is tortured but not killed and somehow winds up free may become an implacable enemy. A population may be so incensed at the torture of some of their fellows that they rise in revolt. So torture is not a reliable means of control. That is not quite to say that it doesn’t work.

Torture is also not a reliable means of extracting a confession. A confession produced by torture should definitely not be admissible in a prosecution, and not merely because admission would encourage further use of something immoral (and for that reason, often illegal). It should not be admitted because it may be false. A torture-induced confession is not reliable because a person will say anything to stop torture. That is the claim by torture opponents, and I believe it: a person will say anything to stop torture.

But that, in turn, is why it is so absurd to say that torture doesn’t work in the extraction of information. A person will say anything to stop torture — including the truth. The “ticking bomb” scenario is usually presented as a thought experiment to explore the morality of torture, but it is also useful as a hypothetical here. If a time bomb has been planted somewhere in a city, and the bomber is in custody, will torture cause him to give up the location? As with a confession in a criminal case, what the bomber says under torture is not reliable. The difference is that torture gives a criminal suspect an incentive to confess, regardless of guilt; even a false confession will stop the torture. But when the bomber gives up a location, the location will be searched. If the bomb is not found, the bomber can be tortured again. A false location, therefore, will not stop the torture. Only the truth will do that.

Those are not the only examples. The idea that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime is repeated as faith. Death penalty opponents will refer to studies (never actually cited) that supposedly prove this; but the most that could be proven is that the institution or abolition of the death penalty has no statistically-significant effect on relevant crime rates. That doesn’t mean that individuals considering capital crimes (murder is premeditated, by definition) are never deterred. The mere availability of the death penalty apparently induces suspects to plead guilty and accept life in prison. Is it really possible to believe that it never induces someone not to commit a crime in the first place? As with gun control and torture, there are valid arguments for the liberal position on the death penalty. The problem is that there are also valid arguments on the other side. Only an absolutist pretends otherwise. If an intellectual dedication to the truth is not enough to acknowledge that, then perhaps a partisan desire to win the debate would be enough. If, in the spirit of absolutism, you will not concede your opponents’ valid points, they will justifiably tire of listening to you. But if you do concede them, you may retain your opponents’ attention, and you will definitely retain the intellectual high ground.


* In this last example, the US Department of Education suggests that, as a last resort, school personnel might consider confronting an active shooter with fire extinguishers or chairs, but “the possibility of an active shooter situation is not justification for the presence of firearms on campus in the hands of any personnel other than law enforcement officers.” [Emphasis in original.] The honest way to state this would be something like: “Obviously, guns would be more effective against active shooters than fire extinguishers, but the long-term presence of guns in school presents additional risks that outweigh the guns’ value in rare, active-shooter scenarios.” But to say this would violate the absolutist requirement to deny any value in arming school personnel. Readers will note that some arguments against arming teachers insist that handguns against heavily-armed gunmen are so likely to be ineffective that it’s not worth the bother. What, then, of chairs and fire extinguishers?

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2 comments

  1. I don’t know how much value there is in discussing the absurdly absolutist takes on liberal positions, especially when they aren’t presented earnestly. Someone insisting no guns is better than any guns is including the would-be gunman in their view; if a gunman can’t get a gun, he can’t then attack a school children, thus negating the need to have another gunman to shoot the first gunman dead. To insist that we need to rely a good guy with a gun to save the day is missing the point of these straw liberals; to have a good guy with a gun requires making guns far more available, which in reality is what creates the conditions that enables people to conduct school shootings. America has in most cases failed to generate these villain stopping good guys.

    I see gun culture as like a sort of badly designed fire hydrant that occasionally explodes at random and starts fires. Rather than remove these faulty fire hydrants, people take the view that we should have yet more of them lying around, to put out the fires created by the other exploding fire hydrants. Hundreds of years of liberally distributing these fire hydrants have mysteriously failed to produce a country without these random fires.

  2. The author carries two serious oversights into his argument:

    1. He assumes anyone with a gun can and will use it effectively.
    2. He does not calculate the costs or externalities to mass arming of public servants, even to the larger issue of gun supply and control overall.

    He seems to imagine scenarios as though guns could materialize out of thin air just when “good guys” need them most.

    If one applies “reason”, one will see that the cost-benefit ratio is far from obvious, and indeed facially balanced against a program of mass-arming.

    Attacking maximalism in the abstract is a good way to miss that in practice, quasi-maximalism from correct premises may often hold the best and most coherent ideas.

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