Moral philosophy shows us that the right to bear arms is highly problematicby Edward Docx / October 9, 2015 / Leave a comment
When President Obama stood behind his familiar podium at the White House following the recent mass shooting at a college in Oregon, he made one of the most telling, angry and moving speeches he has ever given. The speech is worth watching for all kinds of reasons—not least because it is both oddly restorative in that it demonstrates that politics can still produce enlightened, humane and decent leaders and yet utterly disheartening in that it demonstrates that such leaders on this issue in America seem powerless.
It was the 15th time Obama had made such an address after a mass shooting. According to Shootingtracker.com, this was the 994th mass gun attack since he began his second term in November 2012. Meanwhile, the US Centre for Disease Control has robust figures to show that firearms caused the death of around 33,000 people in the USA in 2013 as opposed to 21 American deaths from terrorism worldwide (including Afghanistan). This was the contrast to which Obama himself drew attention.
The part of the speech that I want to highlight here, though, is a less obviously persuasive passage containing what might best be called moral philosophy. Obama often gets labelled professorial—as if this were an insult—but the question of what rights we have, what duties we owe one another and from where these rights and duties are derived is the central enquiry and pre-occupation of all the greatest thinkers from Socrates to Foucault via Kant.
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The issue of gun ownership, Obama says, “…is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic … This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.” Hold those thoughts for a second—especially that final sentence. There is a deep (liberal) democratic principle at work here and one that bears unpacking since it resonates beyond this particular tragedy and seems to me to categorically defeat any of the arguments run by the pro-gun lobby—lead by the National Rifle Association and traditionally supported by the Republicans.
In passing, it’s worth noting the responses of some of the…