Wednesday, May 08, 2013

On Guns and Drugs

I have been asked,

What is the [desirism] perspective on gun control?

Which is a subject I have been thinking about recently along with . . .

What is the [desirism] perspective on marijuana legalization?

Because it strikes me that the two questions are similar. They concern what to criminalize and what to legalize.

The first thing to note is that desirism has no position on any specific issue. One person can hold that gun control is a good thing, and another that it is bad, and both appeal to desirism. This is true in the same sense that one paleontologist can argue that the T-Rex was a predator, and another that it was a scavenger, and both be scientists.

That is to say, the disputants will agree that there is only one right answer. They will agree on the types of evidence relevant to determining that answer. However, with the available evidence, they still may come to different conclusions. This will not disqualify either one from being a scientist.

Desirism has more to do with how one argues for a position than with the conclusions one comes up with. Desirism involves appealing to the malleable desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. It makes no reference to intrinsic values, divine commands, natural moral law, disinterested observers, social contracts, decisions made behind a vail of ignorance, or any other fiction.

On this measure, I would start with a love of freedom.

We have many and strong reason to promote in others an affection for freedom such as to cause people generally have a motivating reason to oppose restrictions in freedom. As soon as somebody proposes a reduction in freedom, the good person is hesitant and doubtful. He may ultimately be forced by the weight of evidence to conclude that a reduction in freedom is necessary. However, a reduction in freedom is a regrettable necessity, not something to be cheered or celebrated.

Overriding this presumption of liberty requires a presentation of evidence, much like the presentation of evidence in a court of law. In a trial, one presumes that the accused is innocent - that the accused should walk out of the courtroom unharmed, and it is the duty of the prosecutor to provide sufficient evidence to override that presumption. The desire to do no harm to an innocent person - to make those who would do harm prove that it is necessary - provides the motivational foundation for this. However, this is consistent with the possibility that the prosecutor will succeed, and the jurist with an aversion to calling for somebody to be harmed reluctantly agrees that, in this case, the evidence is enough to support that regrettable choice.

The same attitude suggests a reluctance to bring harm to the owner of a handgun or the user of marijuana -but a reluctance that can be overridden with sufficient evidence.

Do we have sufficient evidence to override a presumption of liberty on either of these two issues?

To carry this analogy further, a person charged with rendering a verdict in a criminal case has an obligation to presume innocence, but also has an obligation to listen and carefully evaluate the case that the prosecutor presents. The jurist who presumes innocence, then blindly dismisses all evidence to the contrary and insists on innocence such that nothing could every persuade her to override that presumption, is in violation of one's civic responsibility. She is behaving in a way that a good person - a person with a strong desire to reach a responsible conclusion based on the evidence - would not behave.

In a democracy, where we all have a say on public policy, we are all members of the political jury. To express an opinion on this issue is to say to the world, "I have lived up to my responsibilities as a jurist. I have presumed liberty, responsibly considered the evidence presented against this presumption, and hereby render my verdict that those who use guns/smoke marijuana, reluctantly, deserve to be harmed and to escalate the level of threat against those who resist even to the point of death."

In fact, the vast majority of people who render a verdict on these issues have failed to live up to these responsibilities. They are not "good people", at least in this regard. They render opinions and are willing to inflict or unwilling to prevent harms based on weak and superficial arguments. The most common reason for one's verdict in either of these issues is not based on a presumption of liberty and a careful evaluation of the evidence against liberty. It is grounded on what will generate cheers or jeers among fellow members of whatever tribe that person self-identifies with. Bumper-sticker arguments and facebook memes are the "evidence" of contemporary debate.

If we were to do this right, we would begin with a presumption of liberty, and invite - without hostility or malice - the person who thinks that liberty is to be restricted in these cases to present their best evidence and to judge accordingly. In some cases, where we cannot find a person to defend or to oppose a particular proposition, then we would be wise to appoint one and to charge them with making the best case possible.

That is what we should do here.

I am wondering . . . on either of these issues . . . does anybody have evidence that they care to present? Recognizing the fact that, where no evidence is presented, a presumption of liberty determines our final verdict.


Unknown said...

When it comes to guns, my basic argument relies on the "near" universal urge for humans to get along in a non-violent manner:

Let's say 1 out of 100 will act aggressively and become a criminal in the eyes of society.

In a society with equal access to firearms, the criminal can expect any victim (physically fit, elderly, or disabled) to respond with lethal force. I think the desire to live (or not get shot) can offset the desire for illegal profit through crimes involving assault or trespassing.

In a society with restricted access to firearms, the criminal can expect any victim to respond in a manner authorized by the society, but not with a firearm. By reducing the chances of lethal escalation criminals will obtain the best weapon available (not limited to firearms) and target weaker members of society (elderly and disabled) who are now unable to match force with their attackers.

In short, a society armed to a similar or better level than criminals is more desirable than criminals armed to a similar or better level than their society.

Noah Luck said...

Jurors and courts come in when, on account of their actions, we deprive certain people of a freedom that the rest of society gets to keep. Gun control and drug prohibition are a further step, where some freedom is removed from everyone whether they've done anything wrong or not. It's almost like a whole society being put on trial rather than than an individual. Presumably the charge is that, by allowing guns/drugs, society does more harm than good.

I was discussing Blackstone's Formulation with a friend this morning, and our intuitions were that we'd want roughly 95 to 99% confidence of guilt before voting to convict. I'm aware of research demonstrating social harms of guns/drugs, but to my limited knowledge there's nothing like 97% confidence that allowing guns/drugs is socially worse than prohibiting them. And presumably it's possible to have "punishment that fits the crime" with targeted restrictions of freedom, with, e.g., few restrictions in remote ranches and copious restrictions in dense cities.