Friday, 6 October 2017

The Political Philosophy of America's Guns

After every mass killing a familiar ritual plays out. Gun control and gun rights advocates flood the airwaves to present their case, fail miserably to persuade anyone who didn't already agree with them, and leave everybody on both sides even angrier than before. America's national conversation about guns is a toxic stalemate, an abject failure of the ideal of democracy as government by discussion.

The trouble is that America's decades-long national argument about guns is deeper than it looks. It is not a normal political debate about addressing policy to problems, but about what kind of politics to have. It is fundamentally about how citizens should relate to each other and the state, and that makes it a matter of political philosophy, Politics with a capital P. That in turn explains why the debate seems to go round and round in circles, and the division and frustration it inspires.

Of course it is up to Americans to decide what kind of society they should have, not philosophers, and certainly not foreign ones like me. Indeed, part of my argument is that even this most fundamental question must be decided politically, by the people, and not by appeal to the special authority of sacred constitutional principles or social science or even philosophy. Philosophers' pronouncements of truth and rightness have no special authority over politics, nor should they. What philosophical analysis can do is offer new perspective and argumentative resources by which a political debate such as this one might be improved from its toxic stalemate.

So what does my philosophical perspective come down to? First a diagnosis. Both sides of the gun control debate know they are right. But only one side recognises it as a fundamentally philosophical dispute. The other has systematically evaded the real debate about values in favour of the faux objectivity of a statistical public health argument. Second some positive advice. The advocates of gun control need to take the political philosophy of the gun rights movement seriously and show that a society without guns is a better society; not that it is a safer one.