Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Gun Control - Merits and Drawbacks

Catallaxy's Jason Soon shows how issues ought to be examined by those interested in the truth, as opposed to ideological reinforcement of their previous opinions. Whatever one may feel about gun control, it is a simple fact that liberalization of gun laws will lead to negative results as well as positive ones, and it does no good to pretend otherwise. Matthew Yglesias really ought to take a leaf from Soon's book if he wants to be regarded as a serious thinker.

John Humphreys acknowledges that: "... gun ownership results in fewer, more more deadly, criminal incidents ...but because there is currently no convincing evidence to show gun control increases utility - gun ownership should be allowed."
Essentially he admits that more widespread gun ownership will likely result in more deadly criminal incidents where such incidents occur - this is the other side of the coin to the alleged decrease in crime that wider gun ownership may promote (note that I am making this concession solely for the sake of argument to make the opposite side's case stronger notwithstanding the discrediting of John Lott's research given his predilection for 'accidents' with data sets, etc). In other words he acknowledges that wider gun ownership at best involves trading off less crime in return for higher 'average deadliness' of criminal incident. Now, if one wants to adopt a rigorous utilitarian economic framework, one can model values of 'deadliness' in terms of loss of life, wealth, property, etc.

The more crimes there are the lower the utility, but the magnitude of loss per actual crime manifested also reduces utility, The total loss in utility is the number of crimes multiplied by the loss of utility per crime - all we have concluded from a law and economics framework is that an increase in gun ownership reduces one but increases the other. Thus analyses such as Lott's which only emphasise reductions in crime without attempting to evaluate effects on increases in the 'average deadliness' per crime are necessarily incomplete - thus leaving aside their empirical validity they are theoretically inadequate and therefore fallacious in drawing conclusions in favour of wider gun ownership solely by looking at one part of the equation.
Soon touches on a broader philosophical issue in his post, and one which has long been a bugbear of mine, which is that despite what the most ardent Kantians and deontologists might wish to the contrary, there are times when pretty much everyone is forced to resort to utilitarian arguments to bolster their position; in the other direction, it is easy to make utilitarian arguments for policies which even absolutist utilitarians will find themselves unable to swallow (even if they're named Peter Singer).

Now, as a logical matter it seems clear to me that the deontological and utilitarian viewpoints cannot both be simultaneously correct, and that at best one may say that each has its domain of applicability in which the other is completely to be excluded, but if one grants this much, the question then arises - how do we demarcate just what these zones are?

Questions like these lead me to the suspicion that most of what we call moral philosophy is nothing more than an attempt to dress up more instinctively rooted sensibilities in highfalutin' garb. It's well known that even some species of monkeys have a sense of "fairness" and react with rage when they feel they've been cheated, and I suspect that most of our own moral beliefs have their roots in much the sources, explaining the inconsistencies in our moral reasoning.