Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Guns and virtue ethics

After every mass shooting, we get another replay of the gun-control debate.  One side says, "This would have been prevented if only we didn't have legal guns."  The other says, "This would have been prevented if only everyone there had had a legal gun."

I'm not going to address that, because honestly I don't know.  I think that guns should be kept out of the hands of criminals if at all possible, but at the same time it seems unreasonable to keep guns out of the hands of hunters, people living in remote areas, and so forth.  And really I have no idea what the statistics really show, whether it is possible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals or whether armed civilians prevent crime.

What I want to talk about is my own personal choice not to use a gun.  It's something I've struggled to explain to others for years, and lacked the vocabulary to explain until I read about virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics, in the words of my friend Seeking Omniscience, means that "virtue is fractal," or in the words of Jesus, "the one who is faithful in small matters will be faithful also in large ones."  That is, you don't make ethical decisions based on a one-time, logical consideration, but based on your habits.  If you have the habit of treating others with respect, you will become a respectful person.  It will be against your nature, after awhile, to be disrespectful.  Aristotle tells us that the most virtuous man isn't the one who does good things with immense effort, but the one who does them easily, because they are habitual.

I've understood this for a long time, though I couldn't explain it.  I know that every action I take is a choice to shape myself in a certain direction.  Even the thoughts you think, the things you let yourself imagine, shape your future actions.  You can't make a decision in isolation that doesn't affect the sort of person you are.  So when utilitarian ethicists or Catholic death-penalty promoters try to explain the sort of scenario when taking one life is morally acceptable, all I can think is, "But what is the effect on the person who has to take that life?"

There are different virtues, and different ways you could shape yourself which could all be morally good.  A soldier might be habitually a violent man without being a bad man.  We ask him to make the sacrifice of forming violent habits because we need that in some cases.  But when he comes home, he is going to have to struggle to form new habits which work better in civilian life.

As a mother, I desperately need to be gentle and non-aggressive.  I have a nasty temper, but through constant practice I have trained myself (for the most part) not to lash out defensively.  Instead I hesitate before acting and try to think before I speak.  I train myself to think of hurting people, by word or action, as completely beyond the pale.  It's a daily struggle, but I think I'm doing okay at it.

But last year, John suggested we should get a gun for home defense.  I told him that I didn't have a problem with it, provided I would not be expected to use it.  He was confused -- don't I believe in self-defense?

I do, in the abstract.  I think that if a violent person breaks down my door and threatens to hurt my kids, I would be well within my rights to shoot him.  It would be a morally good action.  However, I also don't think I would be capable of doing it.  I would hesitate, and the invader would easily overpower me, take the weapon, and train it on me.  I know that's how I am -- being naturally a timid person plus having trained myself to be nonaggressive at all times.

"Okay," said John, "so why don't you go to a shooting range and practice with the gun until you felt you'd overcome your hesitation to firing at an invader?"

I couldn't give a good answer to that, so we ended up abandoning the conversation, but let me try to explain it now.  I think that if I practiced shooting a gun, visualizing scenarios where I would need to kill someone, I would be changing the sort of person I am.  I would be making myself more suited to be a home defender but less suited to be a nurturing parent.

Now, that's not a bad thing in every scenario.  If I lived in a wartorn nation plagued by roving gangs, I would get the gun, practice with it, and if it made me worse at keeping my temper, that would just be the price my kids would have to pay for safety.  But in reality, home invasions are extremely rare.  If I spent a single hour of my life preparing for it, I would be spending a disproportionate amount of time, compared to the risk.  If I want to save my kids' lives, I should instead take a first-aid course, learn CPR, learn defensive driving, buy top-rated carseats, cut sugar out of their diets, teach them how to cross the street carefully ... there is no end to better uses of my time, when it comes to reducing risk to their lives, than learning to shoot a gun.

But besides all that, I think that it is impossible to train for combat without changing the way you see the world.  Some gun owners I know have told me that they constantly survey their environment for dangers and make contingency plans.  Is this a good use of their mental energy?  Are they more likely to need to shoot someone in a crisis or to develop a stress-related illness from their constant vigilance?

It seems to me that if you carry a hammer everywhere you go, more and more problems start to look like nails.  Certainly we've seen that with the police. When they make a mistake and shoot an unarmed person, their defenders remind us that they are trained to react quickly and have no way of being sure the person is not armed.  Perhaps it would help if they spent fewer hours shooting human-shaped targets and more hours walking through scenarios with harmless civilians, especially children and the mentally ill.

Doctor Who is another example.  The Doctor would be a lot more efficient at taking care of alien threats if he would carry a weapon; but on the other hand, with a quick fix like that available, would he realize the many situations when weapons aren't called for?  Considering that he is a time-traveling supergenius of incredible power, there is nothing more important than for him to practice virtue.  No matter how tempting it might be to commit one little atrocity here or there for a really good reason, it would send him on a course which he might not be able to correct.  And then the whole universe would be threatened, as a Time Lord without a conscience goes marauding around.

A negative example is found in the show 24.  In season one, Jack Bauer only tortures really bad people, when it's really necessary.  By season three, he's torturing everybody, all the time, even people who seem quite obviously not guilty of anything.  It's become a habit with him, so that he isn't capable of seeing what the viewers are, that the prisoner is not a threat and doesn't know anything.

So I've made the choice that the sort of person I am is the sort of person who does not use a gun.  Others might make a different choice, based on the sort of person their state in life requires them to be.  My point is just that it's not as simple as saying "Self-defense is morally legitimate, therefore I should own a gun."  I do believe self-defense and the defense of the innocent are morally good, but I don't believe that a situation that requires it is likely enough to merit changing the sort of person I am.


SeekingOmniscience said...

I read this yesterday, and thought "Huh, not sure if I buy that." The more I've thought about this, though, the more this makes sense.

One of the self-defense books I've read had a section on visualization--which, it was absolutely adamant, was as important as being physically fit. And part of the visualization was to picture anyone attacking you as an orc--I think they used the word orc, but otherwise described the individual as scum, a kind of disgrace to the human race, a shambling sub-human enemy. Which is dehumanizing, which is precisely the point. (They also said to visualize yourself being beaten by such a person, such a person making you helpless, and so on and so forth.)

Both police and military do the same thing with training to fire instinctively at human-shaped targets. That's a trifle dehumanizing, but it's really nothing compared to the kind of dehumanization that (so I understand) armed forces have seemed to instinctively apply to their enemies--the towelheads, the goat-****ers, etc. The "fire at human shaped targets" seems like almost the least dehumanization you could possibly have, historically speaking; and it doesn't seem like it's sufficient, judging from the culture which apparently exists in the military. (Which isn't something that is *necessarily* bad, as you say. It's just something with a cost. And something that should make you consider police training carefully.)

There's a parallel here with being willing to admit that you might not be right, and that the other person might not be arguing because they are evil, when discussing things. Not sure how far that parallel should go, but it could go at least a little way.

I dunno. I'll have to think about it some more.

Sheila said...

Apparently the military had a problem, up through WWII, where a large percentage of soldiers would never shoot at anybody at all. In a combat situation, there might a thousand men with guns but only a hundred actually firing them at each other. (Can't remember what the actual numbers were.) By Vietnam, they'd changed up their training with human-shaped targets, visualization, etc., and managed to increase that percentage to nearly 100%. However, rates of PTSD also skyrocketed. You've got to ask yourself, were they overcoming a natural protection that people had and thus doing harm to them?

And yes, I would agree with you that habitually dehumanizing people, increasing your aggression levels, etc., almost certainly will make you less rational at truth-finding discussion. When you train for combat situations, that training will come through in situations that weren't supposed to be a fight.

I didn't get into this, but there's a lot of studies out there about testosterone and its effects on our brains. (I don't mean just in men, women have some too.) You can increase testosterone just by changing your posture -- standing up straight, head back, legs spread apart. You can decrease it by bowing. You increase it when you see yourself as the leader in a group of people, or responsible for other people, and reduce it when you're following someone else. A reasonable level of it will make you more confident and energetic, while too much makes you combative and it will dampen down some areas of your brain.

So on a biochemical level, training yourself to be more/less aggressive is not just a mental habit, but a hormonal one, and might not be possible to reverse in a moment. Your body is going to do what you've trained it to do.

SeekingOmniscience said...

If there were some good studies on training vs. PTSD levels, that would be interesting. Can't think of any way you could possibly account for all the other variables, though, unless someone has had the presence of mind to use both methods of training on otherwise identical groups and keep good records. I.e., it might be that other circumstances in Vietnam (or even just better reporting) was responsible for the increase in rates.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila, are you familiar with the work of Amy Cuddy? She recommends "power posing" before important interactions with others, like job interviews, in order to feel more confident going in. I buy it, but very rarely remember to apply it. (Story of my life?) But now I wonder whether regular power posing (which she admits can change not just attitudes, but also body chemistry) will not, as I imagine, simply bring out the best version of myself, but actually change me into someone else.

Cuddy's most accessible resource is probably her TED Talk, in which she touches on something else that overlaps with what you've written here. She speaks of feeling like a fraud in uni and wanting to quit; only a mentor's virtually ordering her "to fake it" until she made it kept her there . . . until one day she found herself in her mentor's place, advising another girl who felt the same way. Cuddy actually cried when she said, "I realised I wasn't that person any more." She had changed the sort of person she was, with the sort of retraining of the mind that you're describing here.

Which isn't to say that you should do it, too, of course. If we're going to change so drastically, we should want to be the people we change into. On the other hand, there are also some who just extend their sufferings and those of others because they don't want to make similar changes. I'm thinking of a cousin's mother, who took drugs for years (including when she was pregnant with my cousin!), because she thought most non-users were pathetic sheeple and she didn't want to be one . . . and of a certain Catholic blogger who clearly has mental issues, but prefers being homeless and using free Internet in libraries to getting psychiatric help, because he believes he thinks more clearly in his "normal" state. Having read his ramblings, I do beg to differ. =( But for good or ill, the choice remains with the individual.

In related news, I've had to admit that my two years of German lessons haven't made the dent I'd hoped they would--not because I don't have many opportunities to use German, but because I don't force myself to take advantage of opportunities that are within reach. For instance, I should have changed the language settings on my computer long ago! Not to mention listened only to German music, read and commented on only German blogs (except A Gift Universe, of course!), etc. Learning another language really requires thinking in a different way . . . and maybe even becoming a different person. And I've resisted that because I kind of like my dilettante personality. =P But I've also come to realise that it's my biggest obstacle to the level of competence I desire. So now it's time to make a choice.

Sheila said...

SO - Yes, very true. Pretty sloppy of me to imply that the two are connected when I don't know that. I will say, though, that the government had no way of knowing whether or not it would be safe to do this.

E, I haven't heard of her. Sometimes I do need to make a point to exude confidence -- I do it in debates, deliberately adopting a "male" posture. I find that when I do this, I quite naturally feel less fear and more confidence in my opinion. I also find myself interrupting others and being ruder. So it's not a wholesale improvement.

Every day, the choices we make are creating the person we are. I fear change -- isn't changing yourself like killing your old self? -- but sometimes it's necessary. The important thing is that we don't do this thoughtlessly, but to think long and hard about the person we want to be and consider whether our choices are actually getting us there.

SeekingOmniscience said...

One of my favorite authors has a book with characters with vastly extended lifespans, living as uploads in a computer. And they're going through yet another crisis when one character says "Hey, I can't keep doing this. I've been at this for thousands of years now, literally. I'm exhausted from trying to learn new things in this fantastic universe that we find ourselves in. There's no way I can go on." And the other one says, "Hey, look, you cannot bail on me now. I need you."

So the first character reaches into his own brain, adjusts a few settings, and becomes bright-eyed for more adventures. And the other character is happy... although, she wonders, did the person she know just die and become replaced by someone else?

One of my favorite scenes, for how stark it is, and for how I think it reflects the choices that we make.

Sheila said...

Whoa. Sounds like something I'd like to read.

This is wandering a bit from the topic, but I've been thinking lately that past-Sheila (say, when I was 12 or 18) is as foreign to me as another human being altogether. If I met her, I might not enjoy hanging out. And I couldn't transfer her into me simply by telling her all the things I've learned since her time -- there's a whole array of experiences that separate us, things I've learned the hard way, habits I've formed. In the same way, future-Sheila is not so much myself as my child or my creation -- I am creating her right now, and if she traveled back in time to meet me, I hope she'd be happy with the choices I've made for her.

I find this a useful parallel for human existence as a whole. Just as my life is a constant balancing between present desires and future opportunities -- I want neither to be miserable now to buy happiness in the future, nor enjoy myself at present at the cost of future misery, but to have some enjoyment now and save some for later -- in the same way, I want my own life to be happy without taking happiness from others' lives. It's easy to see when dealing with yourself, because you know you personally will suffer any consequences of your choices, but the decision is otherwise similar. So when thinking about how much to sacrifice (particularly for my kids) I consider the way I would act if they were actually myself.

The process of writing this out has made it seem sillier and less insightful than it was when I thought of it. Oh well.

SeekingOmniscience said...

Well, I dunno. I think the idea of future-selves as different people to whom you need to be charitable is a bit interesting. The idea of personal continuity over time grows, the longer I think about it, weirder and weirder. It certainly has caused me to reflect on what I would want to be, were some cure for aging to be discovered.

The author was Greg Egan--the book was Permutation City; it's a little grim, overall. He and Peter Watts are really the two authors who most seem to explore this kind of thing. Hume did as well, although it a bit more of a dry fashion.

Of course, there's also existential comics.

Sheila said...

Oh, cool, insightful comic.

I often wake up at night, but don't generally remember it -- it's just that when I wake up in the morning the baby is in bed with me and she wasn't when I went to sleep, so I know I must have woken up to bring her into bed. One night recently I woke up, got the baby out of her crib to feed her, and started to drift back off to sleep. But before I fell asleep, I thought, "I won't remember this moment in the morning. The self I am now is doomed; any thought I have in this moment is meaningless because I will forget it. It's not part of the temporal progression of my consciousness. Because of that, perhaps this is not the real me at all, maybe it's better to say that I am an avatar of myself, not the real self because these memories will never be added to the total of what I am."

After thinking that, I fell back asleep. In the morning I remembered it, obviously, so it turns out I was wrong. But I wonder what other thoughts I've had in the middle of the night that are lost forever. Or perhaps the reason I don't remember anything is because I'm too sleepy to think anything. I can't actually know.

And that reminds me of a creepy little medical tidbit I learned while studying natural childbirth. Before the invention of epidural anesthesia, for a short time the preferred drug for childbirth wasn't a pain-reliever at all, but an amnesia drug. Rather than remove the pain, it removed the *memory* of pain. They would tie up the women (who were somewhat delirious from the drugs) and just let them scream. After the baby was born and the drugs wore off, the doctors would tell the mother that she "slept right through it."

This is horribly unethical, of course. But I thought, would I choose something like that? Take upon my present self a certain amount of pain, knowing that my future self won't remember it -- it will be as if it never happened! I decided I wouldn't, because the present still does matter even if not remembered. After all, my whole life will someday not be remembered; that doesn't make it meaningless. Another factor was that *remembering* pain is actually not that bad anyway. It's suffering the pain that sucks. I have tried to console myself during labor with the thought that it will soon be over and once it's over, it won't matter, but it doesn't actually help. Knowing that I would forget about the pain would not help either. Given the choice, I'd rather have the memory, because a piece out of my memory -- even a tiny piece -- is like life not lived. Losing the experiences that make me who I am, the things that I had the chance to learn.

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