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Guns and liberal autonomy

Paul Craig Roberts has a useful column summarizing recent studies on the relationship between guns and violence. Not surprisingly, the studies show that widespread gun ownership reduces violent crime by enabling law-abiding citizens to respond appropriately—that is, immediately and forcibly—to violence and the threat of violence.

So why the widespread vehement opposition to private gun ownership? The basic reason is that liberals do not believe that people can or should be expected to govern themselves. Autonomy is the supreme liberal value, but liberal autonomy means freedom from moral judgment and is poles apart from self-government. In sexual matters, for example, it means the right to be licentious rather than the obligation to draw distinctions and exercise restraint.

Hence liberal opposition to the institutions through which people govern themselves in daily life. Such institutions subject freedom to a web of informal standards and restraints. To liberals, they are therefore oppressive. Marriage means wife-beating. Parental authority means child abuse. Patriotism means xenophobia. Local social cohesion is discriminatory. And ordinary moral standards are bigoted and hateful. Autonomy means you can use your freedom any way you wish, and no one has the right to criticize you for it. With that as background, isn’t it natural to assume that private gun ownership means that every argument over a parking place will turn into a shootout? If people have the right to have guns at all, how can they be expected to use them one way rather than another?



I can’t resist one further clarification. Part of Mr Kalb’s comment was:

“But if they share a common nature then whatever follows simply from sharing in that nature—for example, subjection to ordinary moral standards—applies to both equally.”

Notice that the qualifier “equally” is entirely empty. We could say “applies to both” and leave it at that without in any way changing the meaning. The word “equally” denotes emptiness but makes that emptiness appear as if it has form and substance. It is the incarnation of the Lie.

At least that is how it appears to me. Nobody has ever specifically accounted for what the word “equally” is supposed to add as a qualifier, to my knowledge.

Error can come from all directions. One common source of practical moral error is favoritism—for example, failure to realize that others are just as real and just as human as oneself, family, and friends. The “equally” emphasizes an aspect of the situation that counters that error. Natually, other errors are also possible, but it seems odd to me to say there’s something intrinsically wrong with the word “equally” when it does have legitimate functions.

In “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” the “as” seems to call for sameness of treatment. I don’t understand why “as” is so much better than “equally to” that one is the Truth and the other is the Lie.

“Equally” asserts that, for the purposes under consideration, the *only thing of importance* is the abstraction that the two persons have in common. This reduces the two persons to empty abstractions for whatever purposes are being asserted. What is being attempted in Mr. Kalb’s comment is to reduce “equally” to a mere emphasis, but I don’t think it makes sense to say that two things are equal in some respect without meaning categorical equality in that respect.

Of course no one can logically object to any word that is taken as a mere “emphasis”. But taking words as a mere “emphasis” in general would be a radical form of nominalism. I don’t think you can use the word “equal” at all without asserting categorical equality in some respect, so attempting to reduce it to an “emphasis” fails.

The word “as”, it seems to me, can be taken as a likeness that doesn’t rob individual instances of their differentiated actuality. It simultaneously embraces the distinct particularity and the abstraction, recognizing category, substance, and accident all at the same time. One would never use the word “as” in a mathematical statement like “X is as to 10” instead of “X is equal to 10”. An “as” comparison does not preclude everything but the abstraction under consideration, while an “equal” comparison does.

Now certainly someone could say “Well, I use the word ‘equal’ in the same way as Matt uses the word ‘as’ ”. That strikes me as a particular instance of nominalism, and shows how nominalism can quickly reduce discussion to a mindless word game. Either the words denote things that are independent of us or we all might as well sit home and watch MTV. If someone wants to use the word ‘equal’ as a label he can apply to anything he wants—not that anyone has done so in this discussion, mind you—then there is no point in any further conversation of any sort because the possibility of communicating any actual meaning has been renounced.

Someone might argue that I am just wrong, and that the word “as” and the word “equality” denote exactly the same thing, and thus and so is what that thing is. To the extent I can convince myself that I have made a mistake somewhere, and I am quite open to the possibility, it seems that it would have to be along those lines.

There is a practical consequence to all of this, as abstract as the discussion has been. I think that conservatives tend to think they can fight liberalism without destroying what is good in society by taking liberalism’s categorical claims and accepting them in the form of moderate emphasis. Often the claim is made that previous generations of liberals, like the American founders, intended exactly this emphasis-rather-than-categoricity. Liberalism is said to be not radical in its approach, so for example classical liberalism is OK and has been perverted by leftist radicalism.

It is not possible for this to work, because by robbing steam from liberalism power is transferred to nominalism; and because they feed off each other it just goes back to where it came from. The only way for conservatives to actually fight liberalism is to reject it categorically. Shake the dust off your boots.