5 October 2015

Deontological ethics and the gun problem

First, some background on recent studies in social science:

The study by Jared Piazza of the University of Pennsylvania and Paulo Sousa of Queen’s University Belfast, which included a total of 688 participants, found religious individuals and political conservatives consistently invoked deontological ethics. In other words, they judged the morality of actions based on a universal rule such as, “You should not kill.” Political liberals, on the other hand, consistently invoked consequentialist ethics, meaning they judged the morality of actions based on their positive or negative outcomes.


If you look for this difference, you’ll see it everywhere in political debates. Perhaps the clearest is the abortion debate.

Conservatives insist that we should ban all abortions and teach children abstinence, because they believe that the law should express a moral position.

Liberals, on the other hand, believe that abortion should be legal and that kids should be taught about sex — because they want to reduce the number of abortions, save lives, and make kids less likely to have sex. (As an aside, this is why I refuse to use the term ‘pro-life’ — it dishonestly represents the other side’s position.)

Now, to me, the conservative position is madness. If you study the outcome of abstinence-only education and abortion bans, the numbers are clear — you end up with more teen pregnancies, more kids with STDs, more abortions. Comprehensive sex education makes kids less likely to have sex; providing access to contraceptives lowers the abortion rate dramatically; the countries where abortion is illegal have the highest abortion rates; the US states with the most abortion restrictions have worse outcomes for the health of women and children.

The big disconnect is that liberals generally don’t appreciate that conservatives don’t care about any that. They really don’t. Talk to a few. They are almost totally uninterested in the results of their preferred policies. What they care about is the principles.

So a deontologist is someone who cares primarily about the expressed moral intent of an action. A consequentialist is someone who cares primarily about the effects of the action. At this point, you probably have a good idea as to whether you’re a deontologist or a consequentialist.

I am a consequentialist. I don’t have any really good argument as to why one should be a consequentialist; the obvious argument is that it results in a better world, but that argument is only convincing if you’re already a consequentialist. But anyway, I’m a consequentialist.

Which brings me to guns.

Supporters insist that allowing people to legally carry concealed handguns reduces crime, but that has not been the result in at least four states that have tried it, including Texas, according to a newly published academic study led by a Texas A&M researcher.

Texas Observer

I looked casually at the stats for crime in Texas before and after concealed carry myself some years ago, and came to much the same conclusion. Crime was dropping before concealed carry, it continued to drop at more or less the same rate afterwards.

This isn’t an outlying cherry-picked study either. The fact that gun ownership doesn’t reduce crime appears to be the scientific consensus, which is why the NRA persuaded Congress to prohibit further research.

But even if you still believe handgun carry reduces crime, and even if you believe that all the murders committed with guns would have been committed anyway with some other weapon, here’s the real consequential problem with gun ownership, from politics that work:

What guns do

That tiny sliver of crime prevention is a really, really bad tradeoff against all those suicides. And it’s absolutely unquestionably the case that available firearms makes for far more effective suicide. That 85% firearm suicide fatality rate is unbeatable by any other method. Firearm access seems to be a risk factor for suicide, because it makes suicide easy and convenient, and people who attempt suicide do so via methods they find convenient, not via a process of slow and careful planning.

In short, people with mental illness are less likely than average to shoot someone else. But they’re far more likely than average to kill themselves. That’s true even for illnesses like schizophrenia. And while mass shooters often have mental problems, there are other factors which are far bigger predictors of a spree killer — and one of those is access to guns.

The deontologist edgelord will likely respond with “Well, let the suicidal people kill themselves, I want easy access to guns”, so let me spell out the moral problem with that.

Studies find that 90% or more of people who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to die by suicide. Talk to people who have attempted suicide and you hear it again and again: regret, regret, regret.

As Scott Alexander puts it:

Again, my point of disagreement is not on the ethics involved of letting some hypothetical perfect philosopher commit suicide – nor even on the fact that perhaps some cases genuinely are these perfect philosophers including Sister Y herself. I am trying to emphasize the practical point that in the real world, attempted suicides are rarely perfect philosophers and almost always people who have made sudden, impulsive, and very bad decisions.

Like Mr Alexander and like Terry Pratchett, I agree with the principle of allowing people to end their own lives, under certain specific limited circumstances.

Similarly, I agree with the principle of personal firearms ownership. Really, I do. But I’m a consequentialist, and the practical outcome of America’s widespread easy availability of guns is daily mass shootings and an epidemic of suicide, with a youth suicide rate that has tripled since the 1950s, and an adult suicide rate up 28% in 10 years. Sure, France and Japan consistently have higher numbers, and so does Russia, but I really think we ought to aspire to being better than them.

© mathew 2017