Why Do Contemporary Philosophers Consistently Ignore The Problem of Guns and Gun Violence?
By Robert Hanna
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Why Do Contemporary Philosophers Consistently Ignore The Problem of Guns and Gun Violence?
The problem of guns and gun violence, as I am understanding it, is this:
Owning, carrying, or using guns is rationally unjustified and immoral because, first, the primary function of guns is coercion, and coercion of any kind is rationally unjustified and immoral precisely because it consists in treating people like mere means or mere things, and therefore violating our universal and strict moral obligation to treat them always with sufficient respect for their dignity, and second, because owning, carrying, or using guns inevitably leads to gun violence, which injures, maims, or kills people — including those owners, carriers, or users of guns who unintentionally or intentionally (as, for example, in suicide) injure, maim, or kill themselves; yet billions of people worldwide own, carry, or use guns, and enact gun violence, and still billions more people who don’t actually own, carry, or use guns, or enact gun violence, nevertheless also believe that it’s rationally justified and morally permissible — or perhaps even obligatory — to do so.
This problem obviously applies in the notorious case of the USA, where “Guns Я Us” (Hanna and Paans, 2022); but it’s also the case that people own, carry, or use guns, and enact gun violence, or at least believe that it’s rationally justified and morally permissible — or perhaps even obligatory — to do so, in every country in the world.
In this connection, it should especially be noticed that the problem of guns and gun violence applies not only to individual people who own, carry, or use guns, and enact gun violence, but also to members of the police and other security forces, armies, and militias of all kinds, insofar as they own, carry, or use guns, and enact gun violence.
Now, you might agree or disagree with my reasoning and my conclusions — and of course, I’d have to respond cogently to the obvious objection that it’s at least sometimes rationally justified and morally permissible or even obligatory to “take up firearms against a sea of troubles” in self-defense or in order to protect innocent others (Hanna and Paans, 2019; Hanna, 2022a: section VI) — but bracketting that task for the purposes of this little essay, I think that no one can sincerely deny that the problem of guns and gun violence is, at the very least, an extremely important, perennial, and also pressingly urgent contemporary problem that mortally affects all of humankind.
Therefore, it’s a very curious and troubling fact indeed, that contemporary philosophers, especially including those professional academic philosophers who seriously think and write about moral philosophy, social philosophy, and/or political philosophy, with only a very few exceptions, consistently ignore the problem of guns and gun violence.
By way of partially confirming that claim empirically, I did an electronic advanced search, using the search terms “gun” and “guns,” through the archives of the Philosophy in Europe list (aka PHILOS-L), which posts thousands of notifications about philosophy talks, conferences, workshops, journals, essays, books, and other items of interest to professional academic philosophers, per year, all the way back to 1989, when the list was created.
Leaving aside two recent essays by me (Hanna, 2022a, 2022b), there was exactly one other notification in all those thirty-three years, that dealt directly with the problem of guns and gun violence, namely a “CFP,” or Call For Papers, for the July 2015 issue of the journal Essays in Philosophy, on the topic of “Philosophy & Gun Control” (PHILOS-L, 2014).
An identical search through the PhilEvents list (PhilEvents, 2022) turned up exactly the same information.
These search results, in and of themselves, are truly astounding.
In the PhilPapers archive, there’s an edited bibliography entitled “Gun Control,” with 42 items on it, going back to 1997 (Hsiao, 2022).
But every item on the list is either (i) a philosophical defense of an unrestricted right to own, carry, or use guns (aka “bear arms”) or (ii) a critical argument for more-or-less restricting that right, which is precisely analogous to a set of 42 essays or books either (i*) philosophically defending an unrestricted right to own slaves and treat them as mere means or mere things, or (ii*) philosophically presenting a critical argument for more-or-less restricting that right — for example, banning certain kinds of whips and chains, or requiring background checks for prospective slave owners and masters.
The abolitionist question of whether owning, carrying, or using guns, per se, is rationally unjustified and immoral, or not, is never raised.
What, then, is the explanation for contemporary philosophers’ consistent, and even relentless, avoidance of an extremely important, perennial, and also pressingly urgent contemporary problem that mortally affects all of humankind?
In my opinion, the general explanation is conformist, lockstep thinking — in a word, groupthink — that effectively blinds contemporary philosophers, especially including those professional academic philosophers who seriously think and write about moral and/or sociopolitical philosophy, to the problem of guns and gun violence.
Unpacking that general explanation further, here are three specific reasons why this intellectual, moral, and sociopolitical groupthink happens.
First, virtually all contemporary philosophers are professional academic philosophers, and the problem of guns and gun violence doesn’t even merit a salient blip on the moral and sociopolitical radar scope of the contemporary orthodoxy within professional academic philosophy that consists of the conjunction of social justice theory, identitarian multiculturalism, non-human-animal ethics, and ecophilosophy.
My speculation here is that, precisely because the problem of guns and gun violence is a moral and sociopolitical scandal that mortally affects all of humankind by violating people’s dignity, but doesn’t affect any currently favored identity groups suffering oppression by virtue of having that identity — say, women, Black people, LatinX people, transgender or non-binary people, gay or lesbian people, etc. — exclusively or primarily, doesn’t affect non-human animals exclusively or primarily, and doesn’t affect the natural environment exclusively or primarily, then from a professional academic point of view, seriously thinking or writing about the problem of guns and gun violence would be nothing but “a waste of time” that should be instead spent working on acceptably orthodox or hot, trendy topics, thereby yielding publishable essays or books, and more generally advancing your professional academic career and status, as you slither up the greasy pole from graduate school to contingent or tenure-track employment, to tenure and associate professorship, to full professorship, to fellowships and grants, to a named Chair in a top-ranked philosophy department, to retirement as an emeritus or emerita professor, and finally to death — perhaps in a mass shooting at your local grocery store.
Second, virtually all contemporary people, including virtually all professional philosophers, believe the Hobbesian or neo-Hobbesian myth that rational human animals are, inherently or by human nature, egoistic and mutually antagonistic (deterministic or indeterministic) automata (Hanna, 2020), hence people’s owning, carrying, or using guns, and enacting gun violence, are simply necessary consequences of their human nature, which cannot be rationally criticized from a moral and/or sociopolitical point of view.
Third, virtually all contemporary philosophers, especially including professional academic philosophers, are liberal Statists, whether classical Hobbesian or neo-Hobbesian liberals, communitarian liberals, neoliberals, or libertarian minimal Statists (yes, professional academic moral and/or sociopolitical philosophy is so diverse: all different kinds of liberal Statism are represented there); therefore, since they’re all explicitly morally and sociopolitically supportive of coercive authoritarianism by means of guns and gun violence, when it’s carried out by the State, its government, and its police or military forces, then it follows that they’re all at least implicitly supportive of some powerful people’s owning, carrying, or using guns, and enacting gun violence, as long as they get to control, or at least get to endorse, whoever it is that’s pulling the trigger.
If I’m right about all this, then the groupthink that effectively blinds contemporary philosophers — and especially those professional academic philosophers who seriously think and write about moral and/or sociopolitical philosophy — to the problem of guns and gun violence, is in fact overdetermined by several individually sufficient reasons.
But that’s self-evidently not itself a sufficient philosophical excuse for consistently ignoring, as I’ve said three times now, an extremely important, perennial, and also pressingly urgent contemporary problem that mortally affects all of humankind.
So, contemporary philosophers not only can, but should, get their acts together on this one, think and feel self-critically, open up their manacled minds and manacled hearts, and then try to do whatever they can to raise the level of public consciousness and rationally open up other people’s minds and hearts, and perhaps — just perhaps — even defend the “crazy” radical doctrine of what I’ve called gun abolitionism (Hanna, 2022a) or propose “crazy” radical solutions that implement what I’ve called the extended Banksy effect (Hanna, 2022b), before horrific mass shootings like the recent ones in Buffalo, NY and Uvalde, TX are happening literally everywhere.[i]
[i] I’m grateful to Scott Heftler and Michelle Maiese for thought-provoking conversations and correspondence on or around the topics of this essay.
(Hanna, 2020). Hanna, R. “On Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: Optimism For Realists, Or, Neither Hobbes Nor Rousseau.” Unpublished MS. Available online HERE.
(Hanna, 2022a). Hanna, R. “Gun Crazy: A Moral Argument For Gun Abolitionism.” Unpublished MS. Available online HERE.
(Hanna, 2022b). Hanna, R. “The Weapons Effect and The Banksy Effect: The Social-Psychological Problem of Guns and Gun Violence, and A Proposed Solution.” Unpublished MS. Available online HERE.
(Hanna and Paans, 2019). Hanna, R. and Paans, O. “On the Permissible Use of Force in a Kantian Dignitarian Moral and Political Setting, Or, Seven Kantian Samurai,” Journal of Philosophical Investigations 13: 75–93. Available online at URL = <https://philosophy.tabrizu.ac.ir/article_9431.html>.
(Hanna and Paans, 2022). Hanna, R. and Paans, O. “Guns Я Us: A Thought-Shaper.” Unpublished Poster. Available online HERE.
(Hsiao, 2022). Hsiao, T. (ed.) “Gun Control.” PhilPapers. Available online at URL = <https://philpapers.org/browse/gun-control>.
(PhilEvents, 2022). “Conferences, CFPs, and Seminars in Philosophy.” PhilEvents. Available online at URL = <https://philevents.org/>.
(PHILOS-L, 2014). Riddle, C.A. “CFP: Philosophy & Gun Control.” PHILOS-L. Available online at URL = <https://listserv.liv.ac.uk/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind1407&L=PHILOS-L&P=R67098>.
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