11 December 2003

Guns and Deontology

Careful readers of my blogs (personal and communal) may think they've spotted an inconsistency. On the one hand, I defend gun-ownership. I said the other day (on AnalPhilosopher) that one of the things I like about Texas is its gun-friendliness. Much earlier I had written that guns, like David Lee Roth and Jif peanut butter, are underrated. On the other hand, I say disparaging things about hunting and hunters. What gives?

There is no inconsistency. I defend gun-ownership for lots of reasons, the main one being that it is protected by the United States Constitution. Read your Second Amendment. I also believe that private gun ownership deters, and therefore prevents, crime. (Deterrence is one kind of prevention. I'll discuss the distinction in another entry.) If there were more guns in the hands of private citizens and this fact were well known, criminals might think twice about aggressing on them. If you're thinking of burglarizing a house, will you think twice if you know or suspect that the owner has a gun? I thought so. It's common sense. If guns are outlawed, then only outlaws will have guns—and they will terrorize the rest of us.

But defending the legal or moral right of individuals to own guns is not the same as defending whatever uses they make of them. Nobody thinks that the right to own guns confers a right to kill other human beings (except in self-defense or defense of others). Nobody thinks that the right to own guns confers a right to destroy other people's property. Your liberty stops at the tip of my nose.

But animals have noses, too. (Okay, noses, beaks, trunks, and snouts.) The right to own a gun doesn't confer a right to kill sentient beings. Someone asked me recently whether libertarianism takes a position on the moral status of animals. As a former card-carrying member of the Libertarian party, I don't think it does. Libertarianism is a political philosophy. It is about the relation of citizens to the state. It is not a moral theory about which entities have moral status. This is why some libertarians are animal-liberationists and some are not. Nothing in the ideology commits one either way.

Morally speaking, I'm a deontologist, not a consequentialist. I believe that there are constraints on the pursuit of the overall good. The main constraint is against the doing of harm. I'm not an absolutist deontologist, so I'm willing to allow the doing of harm in order to prevent significantly greater harm (emphasis on "significantly"). But hunting does not fall into this category. Hunting inflicts gratuitous harm on animals. It is done for sport or recreation or entertainment, none of which comes close to justifying harm-doing.

"But animals can't be harmed!" you say. Why can't they? To harm another is to set back his or her interests. Animals, whether wild or domestic, have many of the same interests as humans, including life, liberty, security, and bodily integrity. You don't really believe that animals can't be harmed. But if they can, then harming them requires a powerful justification, not just a desire for the activity that does the harm. Nothing hunters come up with comes close to justifying it.

"But what's the point of having a right to own guns if we can't hunt with them?" you ask. There are other uses of guns: competition, self-defense, target practice. No right is absolute. Your right to drive a motor vehicle does not confer a right to run people over. Imagine someone saying, "But what's the point of having a right to drive if we can't run over people?" Sounds silly, doesn't it? So yes, I'm a strong defender of private gun ownership, for legal and moral reasons. But the right is constrained by other moral considerations, such as the moral status of animals. You may disagree with me about whether animals have moral status, and if so what that amounts to, but please don't accuse me of being inconsistent. I'm a gun owner's best friend. I'm a hunter's worst enemy.

Addendum: I'm posting this on both blogs, since it raises general philosophical issues as well as issues related specifically to animal ethics.