Unquestionably, one of the most contentious issues in American politics is gun-control. Unlike other issues, such as immigration or climate-science, gun-related issues always appear after a serious shooting which often comes coupled with high casualties. When it comes to guns, people die. This is why the issue is so hotly contested.
The high stakes of the issue can cloud a person’s judgment, and a serious discussion surrounding the issue can be difficult. This is what makes articulating the moral foundations of this argument so important. Comparing and contrasting the liberal and conservative philosophical positions can facilitate constructive dialogues on divisive issues.
In the following essay, the ideological issues that liberals and conservatives disagree on concerning guns are articulated. These issues are addressed on a philosophical level, rather than a statistical or quantitative one. There will be no graphs, charts, or statistics on guns, but instead, the article will speak of the implicit assumptions and logical progressions taken by the ideological proponents of the debate.
The most important incongruence between liberals and conservatives is the foundational premise of liberalism, as an ideology. This premise is the natural goodness of Man, corrupted by society. This foundational premise was first espoused by Jean Rousseau, a man many believe is the godfather and patron-saint of liberalism. Rousseau articulated the essence of his thought when he wrote:
“The fundamental principle of all morality, upon which I have reasoned in all my writings and which I developed with all the clarity of which I am capable is that man is a being who is naturally good, loving justice and order; that there is no original perversity in the human heart, and the first movements of nature are always good.1”
Rousseau believed human beings were born benevolent, but the natural goodness of Man was corrupted by society. Evil, problems, vice — they are not germane to Man’s natural constitution — they are introduced to us from without, via society. Rousseau believed that by tinkering with society, we can eradicate evil, vice, and problems.
The conservative counter-argument to this is that human beings were born neither purely good, nor purely evil, but with an ethical dualism. Think of the figurative angel on one shoulder, and the figurative devil on the other.
Edmund Burke, the first conservative, and a man who in many ways served as a foil to Rousseau, knew that.
“There is no safety for honest men, but by believing all possible evil of evil men, and by acting with promptitude, decision, and steadiness on that belief.”2
Man has an evil inclination. We cannot simply trust that human beings are benevolent, as there may be serious consequences to ignoring the evil lurking inside. Burke’s conviction in this position was consistent:
“We must soften into a credulity below the milkiness of infancy to think all men virtuous. We must be tainted with a malignity truly diabolical, to believe all the world to be equally wicked and corrupt. Men are in public life as in private, some good, some evil. The elevation of the one, the depression of the other, are the first objects of all true policy.3”
Burke knew that yes, we are capable of great good, but also of great evil. We must therefore remain vigilant, ever aware of the evil inclination lurking in Man.
To recapitulate, the liberal believes we are naturally good, and that our natural goodness is corrupted by society. By tinkering with society, we can eradicate evil. The conservative believes that the evils of society come from within Man’s nature, and that they are not introduced to us from without. These evils are sewn into the very fabric of the human condition, and no amount of societal tinkering can ever eradicate them.
Now let’s apply this to the gun debate. The liberal believes that by tinkering with our laws — making guns more difficult to obtain, or taking them away all together — then the problems associated with guns will vanish. The conservative believes that no amount of tinkering can ever eradicate the problems of the world because they are not introduced from without, but rather, they germinate from within. This idea can be tied to a popular conservative platitude with guns: “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
Further, when it comes to the natural goodness of Man and guns, conservatives believe laws are largely ineffective. The liberal believes that because human beings are naturally good, at heart, they will want to follow the laws. Liberals believe that by making stricter laws — a way of tinkering with society — then people will follow them, solving the problem. The conservatives counter that point by saying if someone has evil in their heart, the law will not stop the offender. Murder is illegal, and that hasn’t eradicated killing, has it?
Applying these ideals to real life situations will provide better context for the issue. Appealing to a person’s natural goodness and hoping it will make that person de-escalate a situation is called appeasement. The appeaser believes that no one wants to fight, so their side attempts to appeal to their opponents’ natural goodness while concurrently de-escalates their own aggression. The opposition will recognize this and engage in a reciprocal act of de-escalation. Conversely, if one side shows aggression, the other side will escalate in a reciprocal fashion, resulting in an arms race.
The diametric opposition of appeasement is deterrence. Deterrence is an active strategy. For example, imagine a big mean dog in your yard. The big-dog actively deters any potential wrong-doers. This is the strategy the United States employed with the Soviet Union after WWII. As President Kennedy asserted, “We dare not tempt them with weakness.”4 The U.S. wanted to let the Soviets know that they meant business.
The reason the U.S. adopted this policy was the failure of the appeasement strategy famously — or more appropriately, infamously — embraced by Neville Chamberlain with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Chamberlain spoke of peace, consistently met Hitler on his terms, and showed what he thought was kindness.5 The result? Hitler interpreted Chamberlain’s kindness as a sign of weakness. Hitler mobilized his Nazi soldiers and waged war on Europe and the Western world. We all know the rest of the story.
And this is how the conservatives feel about guns. The conservatives believe that in the world, there is evil. We cannot eradicate, nor can we appease evil. The only thing we can really do is be prepared to fight it. Liberals are inclined to appease it by appealing to the natural goodness of Man.
As I wrote earlier, the natural goodness of Man is the foundational premise of liberalism. Learning how Rousseau arrived at this conclusion is important, not just in general, but specifically as it relates to the gun debate. How Rousseau arrived at this conclusion is implicit in this sentence from the quotation above: “there is no original perversity in the human heart.” The word “original” is an allusion to the doctrine of Original-Sin. Briefly, for those unfamiliar with Original-Sin, Original-Sin comes from the biblical creation myth in the Garden of Eden from the book of Genesis. By invalidating Original-Sin, Rousseau invalidated the original biblical creation myth. Rousseau then supplanted that creation myth with his own, a creation story he outlined in great detail in, The discourse on the origins of inequality.6
In, The discourse on the origins of inequality, Rousseau postulated that Man lived in a pre-civil-society, “state of nature.” In the state of nature, among other things, Man did not have private property. Once a person acquired private property for themselves, that state of nature ended, and civil-society began.7
This change from the state of nature to civil-society caused a change in the nature of Man as well. The state of nature contained what Rousseau referred to as, “savage Man,” and that classification of Man then evolved into, “civilized Man.”8 Rousseau believed that, “the human race of one age is not the human race of another.”9 Rousseau theorized this difference is based on, “the progress of the human mind.”10
This was a specific type of progress: progress in human nature. This is not progress in science, technology, medicine, or even how we treat people. Progress in human nature means that each successive generation is superior to previous ones. We are superior to our parents, our parents superior to our grandparents, and our grandparents superior to our great-grandparents. The further back in time one moves, the greater the inferiority, and conversely, the further forward in time, the greater the superiority.
A belief in the progressive nature of the human condition tends to make the believer wonder why certain problematic issues of the human condition still exist. For example:
It’s the 90’s! How come we still have war?!?
It’s the year 2000! How come we still have racism?!?
It’s the year 2010! Why do we still have homophobia?!?
It’s the year 2020! Why do we still have misogyny?!?
How come we have not progressed beyond the faults of our ancestors?
The conservative rejoinder to this ideological position is simple: “human nature is constant.”11 Conservatives believe that human nature is not progressing. Human nature is fixed, constant, and unchanging. We are no different than our eldest of ancestors. We may be a little taller, and we may be able to see a little further, but that is only because of all those who have come before us. The constancy of human nature is why history repeats itself and moves cyclically. Think of the expression, “the names may change, but the game remains the same.”
When combining the progressivist mind-frame with the natural goodness of Man, the liberals seek to find a rational explanation for what’s causing gun violence. They believe that in modern times, something is causing this behavior, and if we identify it, we can eradicate it. This is a similar line of thinking with infectious contagions.
The conservatives, on the other hand, believe that not only is human nature constant, but that within human nature lurks a savage and beastly element. Burke believed that not-so deep-down lurked a wild beast within us all.12 That savage and beastly nature that lurked within our ancestors still dwells in the shadows of the minds and skulks in the hearts of men and women today.
The liberals will ask what’s causing outbreaks in gun-violence. The conservatives will answer by saying that this is the nature of Man. We’ve been doing this to each other for thousands of years.
Whether one believes the Bible is the revealed word of God, or it’s merely a collection of fables used as a teaching tool, one can discern an important lesson from one of the early biblical accounts. The story of Cain, and his brother, Able, is the story of a murder. One of the first stories in the Old-Testament is a murder. Let that sink in.
One sibling killed the other in a fit of jealousy and rage. Why is this lesson imparted on us so early in the Bible? Because this is the nature of Man.
We have been killing, raping, enslaving, conquering, subjugating, and humiliating each other since the beginning of time. The conservatives take this position, and believe that at best, what we can hope to accomplish, is to deter this behavior. The liberals take a completely contrarian position. They believe that human nature is progressing, and that with the appropriate manipulation of societal conditions, we can completely eradicate evil and make the world happy and peaceful.
The table below compares and contrasts these conflicting visions. Hopefully, this visual can help foster more constructive dialogues, and perhaps move us forward to a rational and comprehensive understanding of the issues.
To conclude, the most important thing I’ve learned when discussing hot-button issues is what the great Thomas Sowell once said: in the real world, there are no solutions; there are only options with trade-offs.13 In the gun debate, there is no solution. At best, what we can hope for, are options with the least harmful trade-offs. Now that we have an understanding of the opposition’s beliefs and values, we can move forward, and hopefully disagree more constructively.
|Human Nature||Benevolent||Ethical dualism; capable of great good, but also of great evil|
|Source of Evil||Society||Within Man’s nature|
|Progressively improving; each generation better than the previous||Constant, fixed, and immutable; no better, worse, or different than our ancestors|
1. Rousseau, 1762, p. 28.
2. Burke, 1791, para. 8
3. Burke, 1770.
4. Sowell, 1996, p. 117.
5. Sowell, 1996.
6. Rousseau, 1753.
9. Ibid, p. 69.
10. Ibid, 71.
11. Kirk, 1989, p. 39.
12. Kessler, 2018.
13. Sowell, 1987.
Burke, E. (1791). Letter to a member of the National Assembly.
Burke, E. (1770). Speech at the trial of Warren Hastings.
Kirk, R. (1989). Enemies of the permanent things. Peru, IL: Sherwood, Sugden, and CO.
Kessler, S. (2018). An ‘ever better’ Constitution? Progressivism as ideology and the U.S. Constitution. The VoegelinView. Retrieved from: https://voegelinview.com/an-ever-better-constitution-progressivism-as-ideology-and-the-u-s-constitution/
Rousseau, J. (1753). Discourse on the origins of inequality.
Rousseau, J. (1762). Letter to Beaumont.
Sowell, T. (1996). The quest for cosmic justice. San Fransico, CA: Free Press.
Sowell, T. (1987). A conflict of Visions. New York, NY: Harper Collins.