Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Gun Control and Ancient Philosophy

One of the big arguments in the gun control debate is about cause--if you eliminate the guns you still have the root causes of murder in place, so people will still use them. It is the same argument used by abortionists to justify abortion--eliminate abortion and you still have rape, incest, etc., so it's not going to eliminate abortions.

The ancient philosophy world did a better job of clarifying, defining "cause" as four subsets:

  • Material Cause:  the material construction which leads to the effects
  • Formal Cause:  the arrangement or shape or appearance which leads to the effects
  • Efficient Cause: the Agency external to the thing
  • Final Cause: the end to which the thing aspires, its purpose

For example, take the table I am writing on. What is its cause? Well, its material cause is the wood that it was made from. The formal cause is that it has two legs and a flat surface and thus is in the shape of a table. The efficient cause is the carpenter who made it. The final cause is that I need a surface to work on.

I often have pointed out the problem with naturalism--that is wants to pretend that material and formal are all that there is, and efficient and final causes simply don't exist.

Take Lennox's example of the kettle of tea boiling. Is it there because of the heating elements (material cause), or because of the construction of the stove to produce thermodynamic energy (formal cause), or because of the person who turned it on (efficient cause), or because Lennox was thirsty (final cause)? It is of course all of those.

I think we need a similar amount of intelligence applied to the gun control debate.

So let's take one specific question: Why do mass shootings happen?

It isn't just one cause, but at least four:

  • The material cause is the existence of gunpowder, brass, steel, copper, lead, primary explosives, and the other raw materials which are in the ammunition and gun. 
  • The formal cause is the design and manufacture of guns and ammunition.
  • The efficient cause is the armed murderer.
  • The final cause is the desire in the murderer's heart to kill children (that desire may take a variety of forms: mental illness, desire for fame, depression, etc.)

Now, root cause analysis is a critical part of my job, it's what I do. And looking at it this way, I would say that we have six choices if we wish to reduce or eliminate mass shootings:

  1. Do Nothing.  It is always a choice to do nothing, to maintain the status quo. However, we must be honest to ourselves that if we choose this, we are choosing to allow the effect to continue. In engineering we call this "accepting the risk"--we make a conscious decision to change nothing and will not be surprised when it continues. If we do nothing, we will continue to have our children killed at our schools. Period.
  2. Reduce/remove the material cause.  We could outlaw or limit the use of gunpowder, brass, copper, etc. However this would also affect the entire economy as these materials are used in a variety of other was. This one I think anyone would agree is impractical.
  3. Reduce/remove the formal cause.  We could limit or change the design of guns. It could require biometrics to ensure only a legal owner has it, for example. Or we could outlaw the making of linked ammunition. Or we could make gun manufacturers responsible legally for misuse of their product. 
  4. Reduce/remove the efficient cause. We can attempt to ensure that those who are probable to commit mass shootings do not have access to guns. This would involve things like closing loopholes so that background checks are required for all gun sales, licensing guns, or (like Israel and Switzerland, who have lots of guns but few murders) doing psychological tests and requiring training for all gun owners.
  5. Reduce/remove the final cause.  We could do something (not sure what) to eliminate mental illness and depression, stop giving fame to the shooters, fixing racial and poverty problems, etc.
  6. Combination of the above.  Almost always in my career in engineering, I have found that you need a layered approach, wherein you do some changes in each area.

Those are the choices, really.

If we keep doing what we've always done, we'll keep getting what we've always gotten--to expect otherwise, as Einstein famously said, is the definition of insanity. If it continues to be harder to buy antihistimines at Kroger than an assault rifle at a gun show, we will continue to have a major problem.

It seems to me impossible to argue that we should do nothing and yet expect a different result; likewise it seems absurd to me to take the radically impractical approaches of the liberals (who would try to eliminate all guns or gun making) or of the conservatives (wishfully think that maybe one day people will wake up and stop wanting to hurt each other).

Me? I would do something like this:
  • Ignore the material causes as we could not practically change anything there, or the final causes because they will do nothing to stop the sinful heart of man.
  • Ignore the formal causes for now. I prefer to follow the Pareto Principle, which is to focus on the 20% of causes which can move the needle 80%. The formal causes to me seem to be very difficult in order to affect meaningful change.
  • Focus heavily on efficient causes. Eliminate the gun show loophole and Cumberland loophole, so that we know everyone who buys a gun is able to pass a background check. That helps stop the bleeding of felons getting them. Require gun owners to get a license in a system similar to cars; nothing too difficult, but they have to pass a basic written exam about safety, demonstrate the ability to use it properly in front of a police officer, and register with the government so we know if guns are stolen, etc. Require a basic psychological exam for mental illness for conceal-carry permits. 
  • That alone would do a great job of reducing the number of guns in the wrong hands. We know it will work, because Israel and Switzerland have had great success.

The point is--if we want to be serious about reducing mass shootings, we need to stop the trivial, thoughtless, meme-focused Facebook sharing of a single idea and admit that there are a variety of causes and focus on the few we can change which are likely to have the biggest impact.


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  4. Three comments removed? Spam, or...?

    But I fully agree that something must be done, and that it must start with a deep look at ourselves as a people and as a nation. Sadly, we are not the lily-white nation our history textbooks so often portray...

  5. Yeah they were removed by the author. He had misread the original post and once he realized that he removed it since his comments didn't really work any more. I was fine with leaving them but guess he changed his mind

  6. Yeah, I deleted them because the first included links and then I saw that was against the rules. The last message apologized for the former, so it didn't make sense after I deleted the first.