Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- May, 1999

Round Up the Usual Suspects

By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
www.igc.org/gadfly // gadfly@igc.org

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Second Amendment
United States Constitution

Now, none of us wants to move toward regulation!

Sen. Joseph Lieberman
Senate Commerce Committee
Hearing on Youth and Violence
May 4, 1999

Who is to blame for the Columbine High School massacre?

There is no shortage of suspects: The NRA and the gun industry, video games, the internet, the media, absentee parents - and of course, the young gunmen themselves.

As I have listened with grim fascination to the public debate, old ideas and slogans (recycled from the aftermaths of the Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas school shootings) have reappeared in the media, followed by much, much, more of the same.

So if we have heard this all before, why the fascination? My interest derives from my decades of toil in undergraduate philosophy classes. The horrible incident in Littleton, Colorado has let loose in the public media a flow of fallacies sufficient to launch a thousand books devoted thereto. Even a brief treatment of the identifiable fallacies appearing in the public debate over the "causes" of this horror would easily fill a book. And I have other books to write. So I will examine only five. Remarkably, except for the first ("the slippery slope"), I do not recall encountering any of these fallacies in the numerous texts that I have used in over thirty years of teaching logic and critical thinking. Thus I have assigned new names to each.

Common to most of these fallacies is scapegoating and rationalization - the "not us, it's them" response. The first two on my list, "the slippery slope" and "the fallacy of the sacred text" are so commonplace among the NRA and other Second Amendment absolutists that they demand our attention. The other three all rest upon weird theories of causation and proof - theories so outlandish that a simple explication thereof, separated from the political rhetoric, should suffice as refutation.

The Slippery Slope - (alternatively called "the domino effect" and "the camel's nose"). We've all heard the argument: "once they (meaning , of course, the government) take away our assault weapons, what's to keep them from confiscating all handguns, and then our sporting and target rifles? "Where do you draw the line?" An interesting but often overlooked feature of "slippery slope arguments" is that the slope slips in both directions. Hence, the arguments of the gun-control advocates: "once you allow citizens to own assault weapons, why not artillery, or even atomic weapons?
"Where do you draw the line?"

"Where do we draw the line?" Quite simply, we "draw the line" where, in our collective and considered wisdom, we choose to "draw the line." Simple as that. And the drawing of legal "lines" is both commonplace and generally uncontroversial. There is no remarkable difference between the political judgment of a seventeen and an eighteen year old. But clearly six year-olds should not vote, and thirty year-olds should not be denied the franchise. So we "draw the line" at eighteen, simply because we have to "draw" it at some age. We have collectively agreed that eighteen "seems about right." Likewise in the cases of the legal ages of consent to marry, to purchase and drink alcoholic beverages, to operate a motor vehicle, and so on.

Both nature and artifice are chock-full of continua - gradations from "too little" to "too much," with no identifiable "line" between the extremes. The list is endless: vehicle speeds, truck load limits, blood alcohol content, ambient noise, water and air pollution levels, and so on.

Civil comity and personal safety both require some "drawing of lines" across such continua. The "line" along the continuum in the right to bear arms should reasonably be drawn beyond registered ownership by non-felons, and before the ownership of assault or nuclear weapons by felons. The NRA complaint against "line-drawing" is specious.

The Fallacy of the Sacred Text. (This is a variant of A. N. Whitehead's "Fallacy of the Perfect Dictionary"). To the NRA and other gun-advocates, the Second Amendment simply means what it says. (More precisely, they hold that the second clause regarding "the right to keep and bear arms" means what it says. They conveniently overlook the first clause which justifies the second through the "free state's" need of a "well-regulated militia." And the less said about that word "regulated" the better). Like scripture, say the absolutists, the Constitution is exempt from the ordinary weaknesses of human language such as ambiguity, vagueness and historical contexts. The founding fathers speak, say the absolutists, like the voice of God, unequivocally, clearly, and with ultimate authority.

Accordingly, the Second Amendment "means what it says - 'shall not be infringed.'" Period!

But why should this "right to keep and bear arms" be absolute when none of the other constitutional rights are absolute? As Justice Holmes famously remarked, the right to free speech does not allow one to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Nor does the freedom of religion allow human sacrifice or even permit parents to deny on religious grounds, appropriate medical attention for their children. . The right of the free press is limited by the laws of libel, and the right of free assembly does not sanction lynch-mobs or the obstruction of traffic. None of these "constitutional rights" are absolute. Why then should the "right to bear arms" be an exception?

Religious conservatives, in their defense of "absolute morality," commonly condemn "situation ethics." And yet, whenever one is obedient to two or more moral rules, "situation ethics" becomes unavoidable. (The religious conservative claims obedience to at least ten). As the late philosopher Charles Frankel once observed, exclusive obedience to a single moral rule is not "morality," it is fanaticism. The ten commandments forbid "bearing false witness," murder, and stealing. But what if one must lie or steal to save an innocent life? Two or more moral rules raises the logical possibility of, and often actual encounter with, moral surds - the plain impossibility of avoiding the violation of one rule through obedience to another. Enter "situation ethics."  

If "the right to bear arms" is to be absolute, what other social, political and moral desiderata are to be sacrificed to this one absolute? Let's start with "the right to safety in one's home, property and person." To their profound grief, the students and parents in Littleton faced the implications of this sacrifice. Must we all?

There is an alternative to Second Amendment absolutism which has been adopted by all civilized societies (including our own, though to a minimal degree): admit that "the right to bear arms" must, along with all other rights, submit to limits, defined by the values we accord to our other rights.  (For more about "situation ethics," see my "Defense of Moral Relativism").

The Fallacy of the Single Cause. "It wasn't the availability of guns that caused the Littleton tragedy, it was video games." "No it wasn't, it was the mass media." "No it wasn't, it was poor parenting." "No it wasn't, it was the availability of guns." And so on,
ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

Common to all this buck-passing is the assumption that "if someone else is to blame, then we are not - if some other enterprise is the cause, then ours is not." And so the search is on for the cause of the tragedy.

"The cause?" Why just one cause? What is logically wrong with suggesting that "the gun culture," and video games, and youth media, and alienation, and absentee parents all may have, to some degree, contributed to this atrocity? Why must there be only one cause, the discovery of which fully exculpates all other suspect causes?

Answer: there is nothing whatever wrong with searching for, and addressing, multiple causes. If we are well-educated and logically savvy, we don't ask, "what is the cause of cancer?" Or "What was the cause of the Russian Revolution?" Or "what was the cause of Bill Clinton's re-election?" Why then should we tolerate, without rebuttal, the attempts of the gun lobby, the video game entrepreneurs, Hollywood film makers, or whoever else, to evade responsibility by locating "the cause" of Harris and Klebold's shooting spree "somewhere else"?

Why not say, instead, "yes, the video game 'Doom' played a part. But that's not the whole story. Now let's take a close look at video games, slasher movies, the gun culture and the easy availability of guns. And so on."

But the "multiple causes" approach can itself be an oversimplification, for it evokes a mind-picture of multiple legs, holding up a table. This view suggests that each of the "multiple causes" is independent and discrete. But surely that is not the case. These several "causes" (in the social science jargon, "contributing factors") constitute a web of intricately interacting "causes," aptly described as "the culture of violence." Thus media depiction of violence fosters a fascination with and a collection of firearms, and thence an absorption with violent video games (or vice versa - these "causes" are, after all, reciprocating). Attempts to solve "the youth violence problem" by attacking just one "cause" (such as gun ownership) is as useless as an attempt to kill a tree by cutting off one branch.

All-or-Nothing Causation. This fallacy is heard in the remark, "millions of kids play Doom and other video games, but they don't all go on shooting rampages." In this we hear echoes from the tobacco industry: "millions of people smoke, but most of them don't get lung cancer. Ergo, smoking does not cause lung cancer." But smoking was never claimed to be the sole and certain cause of lung cancer. It is claimed (now with conclusive scientific evidence) to be a contributing and aggravating factor in carcinogenesis. Epidemiological statistics tell the story, as we compare mortality figures for smokers and non-smokers. Similarly, while the vast majority of young people who play Doom or watch "slasher movies" admittedly do not commit homicides, this fact in no way discounts the possibility that some murders may be "triggered" by immersion in violent media. At the very least, that possibility deserves careful study, and I understand that such studies are very disquieting.

Proof-Positive or None. This sophistical device has been also been prominent in the apologetics of the tobacco industry. About the time of the first Surgeon General's report on Smoking and Health (in 1963), we read such dismissals as "nobody has ever shown anything conclusive about cigarettes and health - lung cancer and all that. It just hasn't been proved." And "there is no proof - no established proof - of cigarettes being harmful." (Thomas Whiteside's "A Cloud of Smoke" in The New Yorker, November 30, 1960). Closer examination shows that such dismissals rest upon an alleged failure to discover a "definitive causal connection between tobacco smoke and cancer." However, as David Hume argued in the eighteenth century, and as philosophers of science have since then generally concurred, "definitive causal connections" are not "observed" as such, they are inferred from the "constant conjunction" of events. Scientific "proof" is not only probabilistic (i.e., "a matter of degree"), valid scientific hypotheses must be "falsifiable in principle" - i.e., the proponent of the hypothesis must be prepared to describe "what it would be like" (contrary to fact) for the hypothesis to be false. It is unlikely that "hired gun" debunkers in either the tobacco or the firearms or the video game industries are prepared to tell us what sort of "proof" might convince them that their products are, in fact, public menaces.

A lack of "established," "conclusive" or "positive" proof does not amount to no proof at all. In both scientific practice and in practical life, we are best guided by probabilities. We buckle our seat belts, exercise regularly, avoid drug abuse, in the reasonable but less-than-certain belief that such precautions are warranted. And if the purveyors of the instruments and depictions of violence correctly point out that there is no certain evidence that their products promote mayhem, strong, albeit less than perfect, evidence should suffice to justify a curtailing of their activities.  (See also my "Cigarettes, Sophistry, and David Hume" ).

Fallacy and the Subversion of Public Debate. As the above (very partial) list of sophistries indicates, the rhetorical armament of commercial apologists is vast, subtle, and often ingenious. There are few public issues that can not be argued with apparently plausible arguments on both sides. Even with seemingly scientific issues such as global warming, biodiversity, pesticide use, and now the "causes" of youth violence, the targeted industries are routinely capable of producing "expert scientific" rebuttal witnesses. Thus the public comes to believe, as one wit put it, that in the arena of public debate, "for every PhD there is an equal and opposite PhD." It doesn't take much logical acumen to understand that if all sides to an issue can be equally well supported, then no side can be supported. The coin of "expertise" and "evidence" is thus debased. Public debate becomes, as G. W. F. Hegel put it, "a night in which all cows are black."

Eventually the public comes to believe that there are no facts, only "beliefs;" no evidence or proof, only "persuasion." Politics is replaced by "public relations." According to some trendy scholars, science itself is demoted to merely another (white-western-male) "social construct." Enter the "post-modernists." (Cf. "No Mo Po Mo," this site).

If there is to be no place in the "post-modern" world for critical scholarship and science, then in that world there will be many more Littletons and much worse, as shared community concerns fade into insignificance in the arena of competing private and commercial interests. Not a happy prospect.

Unless, Unless -- we come to our communal senses and appreciate that not all arguments are created equal; that there are objectively better (cogent) and worse (fallacious) modes of argumentation, and that a recognition of these modes can be taught to all ages. In particular, science teaching should include an understanding, not only of the content but also of the methodology and logic of science - so that a student, and eventually a public, can understand why there is "good reason" to believe in astronomy, and no justification for believing in astrology, and why the warnings of government atmospheric scientists should carry more weight than the reassurances of the hired guns of the energy conglomerates. "Current events" discussions in high schools should cease to be mere sequences of "I believe thats," each regarded as "equally precious" and "true-for" the student. Instead, student utterances of "belief" should be followed immediately by the challenge, "why should we believe you? What is your evidence and your argument?" Class discussions should become disciplined exercises in critical expression, defense and rebuttal - all with an aim, not to persuade, but to discover confirmable truths. Alas, there are precious few teachers trained to lead such discussions, and fewer still being taught such skills in the Schools of Education.  (See also my "Is Science Just Another Dogma?" )

However, with a renewed commitment to public intelligence and reasonableness, we may learn and appreciate that there are discoverable causes of and effective remedies for our social problems.

We hear a great deal these days about "teaching morality in the public schools."  (See Religion, Education, and Morality: A Dialogue).  Perhaps so. But even before that, perhaps we should start with a investment in the teaching of "critical thinking."

What is to be done? Those of us who were alive and alert during the sixties, who lived through the Kennedy and King assassinations and the urban riots of that decade, have repeatedly experienced the same dreary sequence which follows each prominent assassination or mass murder: public outrage and grief, demand for action, apologetics from the media and the NRA, "outrage fatigue," and finally a return to status quo ante - until the next atrocity. There is little reason to hope that the aftermath of Littleton will be at all different.

However, as some wise person once commented, hopeless causes are by far the most interesting - such "hopeless causes" as the non-violent overthrow of the British Raj in India, of Apartheid in South Africa, and of legal segregation in the American south.

We begin by acknowledging the brutal facts. As the Sixties civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael remarked, "violence is as American as apple pie." He was right. The culture of violence is woven into the fabric of our society, continually nourished by the profit motive, and defended by the virtuoso skills of corporate public relations. And as we noted above, the "usual suspects" trotted out after each new horror - the NRA, the arms industry, computers (games and internet), the media (cinema and television), absentee parents - are not independent "causes" of youthful violence, they are dynamically interacting and reinforcing factors in that "culture of violence."

And the consequences of that "culture of violence" are palpable. Numerous statistics, of variable significance, have been bandied about these past two weeks. But one in particular commands our attention. As "Handgun Control" in Washington reports, "in 1996, handguns were used to murder 2 people in New Zealand, 15 in Japan, 30 in Great Britain, 106 in Canada, 213 in Germany and 9,390 in the United States." Think of it! An American's chance of being murdered by a hand gun is about sixty-four times as much as that of a Briton. 

The official response to Littleton has been profoundly discouraging. Comments such as "this is a terrible tragedy" is utterly uninstructive: we already know that, and need not be told again. Any proposals, from the President on down, that follow "let us all resolve to ...." are likely to be useless and unproductive hand-waving. We hunger for the bread of decisive and practical leadership, and are given stones of empty rhetoric.

Case-in-point: following the Littleton shootings, we tuned to C-SPAN and heard a couple of hours of hearings on "Youth Violence," conducted by the Senate Commerce Committee. Representatives of the computer, firearms and entertainment industry were invited to participate. All declined, except Mr. Jack Valenti of motion-picture industry, who, failing to find much fault in the product of his employers, saw our communal salvation in the "trinity" of church, family and school. "Let us all resolve to..." and all that. Far worse were the Senators in attendance: all agreed that youth violence is a terrible problem, and (to the best of our recollection) all agreed that "it is not the business of government" to address that problem. No legislative proposals were before that Committee, or were likely to issue from it. This is the condition to which a generation of relentless attacks on "big government" has led us: our elected representatives first to wring their hands, and then to wash them of moral responsibility.

"The culture of violence" will have to be attacked on many fronts, and at the roots. Firearms registration and control is not the answer - but it is an essential ingredient of the answer. Neither are restrictions and regulations of the internet, computer games or the media, enacted separately, the answer -- by themselves. But they are ingredients of the answer. On the other hand, voluntary restraints by the commercial media are unlikely to count for much, as recent history has amply proven. We've heard it all before: "If we don't portray violence, someone else will, and if that's what the public wants, our reward for moral restraint will only lead to our bankruptcy." As William Vanderbilt said, "the public be damned, I work for my stockholders!" "The invisible hand" of the free market, it seems, is without conscience. Proof? Again, look to recent history.

History also indicates solutions. Let the law (i.e. government) enforce upon all, what the conscientious businessman would enact for his firm "if it weren't for what my competitors would do to me." Garrett Hardin calls this "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon." "Government interference?" Of course! But such "interference" took opium out of our drugs and pollutants out of our air, lakes and rivers. "Government interference" also requires that no medicines be prescribed unless proven safe and effective, protects us from tainted food, and protects our life savings from bank failures. Few citizens would now suggest that we abolish the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (though I know of a few hard-shelled libertarians who would do just that). Why then the opposition to regulation that would protect the minds and morals of our youth?

Mr. Valenti's proposals, though partial and overly convenient to his industry, are not without merit. Yes, morality must be taught in the churches, the schools and the home. The churches are quite properly "out of bounds" of the government. But the government can, through the tax structure and through parental-leave statutes, ease the burden of raising worthy children amidst the morally compromised popular culture. Most of all, government has a role in supporting and, if necessary, regulating, public education. But this will require public investment - in research, in teacher education, in improved student/teacher ratios, in non-commercial media, and much more.

Talk is cheap. It remains to be seen if we are sufficiently outraged by "the culture of violence" to be actually willing to pay for long-term remedies.

As we have argued above, "the culture of violence" does not have a single cause, and thus does not have a single remedy. But if asked to identify, in descending order of significance, the root causes, I would begin with this: depersonalization. We live in a society that reduces persons to "personnel" in corporate structures, to "consumers" and "utility maximizers" in our economy, and to targets in our media. To Harris and Klebold, their fellow students at Columbine High School were no more "persons" than the video images in "Doom" or the cinema images in "The Basketball Diaries."

The core of morality in the great world religions, and in the secular "contractarian" ethics that I espouse and defend, is empathy  --  the recognition in the other of the humanity and personhood that one cherishes in oneself. In modern society, thoughtless commercial "happenstance" ("the invisible hand") erodes the humanity of others until one finds oneself surrounded by humanoid "objects." This tendency must be thoughtfully resisted and reversed - in our personal lives ("let us resolve to...") but also through rigorous research, through communal effort, and through public investment.

It all comes down to this: a deranged kid is capable of shooting at human-flesh-as-object. However, except in such desperate circumstances as warfare or self-defense, no one can shoot to kill someone recognized as a fellow personal human being.

Copyright 1999 by Ernest Partridge


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .