Guns Do Kill People


I have been away from the blog a lot lately. We have been inundated with visitors and have been enjoying a long spell of gorgeous weather that has dragged me away from the computer. I expect the same to continue until we pack up and head back for Lexington. I have been focusing on what may be another book. I continue to write in uncertain terms as I am not at all sure I will follow through. I am mildly depressed by what is going on all over the world and wonder whether I can make any difference or whether bad times are unfolding too fast. This morning I read news of a nine-year old child accidentally killing her instructor while firing an Uzi in full automatic mode. I try to put myself into the head of gun enthusiasts in order to understand what would otherwise be insanity to me, but this one and other similar events simply don’t fit in any way. Why not hand a child a battle-ax and teach them how to behead people? We condemn child soldiers being used in other places. Why? The circumstances are not the same, of course, but there are some parallels that I find terribly disturbing. Both involve teaching children how to use what is primarily a killing machine.

The argument given for this in the US that this practice is just a form of entertainment or preparing one for self-defense or something else just as lame is on the wrong side of very fundamental morality. Given the universal exposure to violent death in the news and games, and entertainment, how is a nine-year old going to make the very fine distinction between guns as weapons and guns as toys. As I write this, I am very close to tears.

Having abandoned “sustainability” as a misconstrued concept and beyond that as a sham practice, I have focused on flourishing, all by itself. Flourishing or some equivalent concept is the most fundamental measure of human life. It entails attaining whatever particular potential lies within our species’ capabilities. That potential ultimately arises from our genes and nowhere else, but in the language of genetics, the difference is not in the genotype, per se, but in the phenotype, that is, how the genes become translated into the living characteristics of the organism. Humans have been endowed with a few critical characteristics that raise our possibilities far above the genetic limitations of virtually all other species. Our brains are vastly larger and more complex. Coupled to the senses, the brain enables human consciousness, allowing us to hold images (images used here only as a metaphor for some distinct neuronal arrangement and processes) of the world in our memories, and reflect on them. That and the particulars of our vocal structure, in turn, has enabled us to create and use language, again, a trait far more powerful than that of any other species. Without language, we would not have concepts, and without concepts we would not have flourishing or potential or trees or anything at all.

In discussing the human species, I could stop here and let you complete the story of how individual and cultural human life might follow from only this bare description. But before you do, let me go a step further. In the course of the history of ideas, some philosophers and others added something to that genetic base: a human essence or nature. Man (it was always man) is selfish, seeks pleasure and avoids pain, is a rational animal, is empathetic, has a soul, has an ego, and so on. The essence became the basis both of understanding human beings and of designing cultural structure. We live today in a [modern] world in a structure wholly based on a few of these concepts, along with a similar set of concepts about how the world works.

Our well-being has been defined as how well we follow and fulfill the potential implicit in our essence. If we seek pleasure as a rule derived from our essence, then more pleasure is always better than less. If we get pleasure by owning things, more again is better than less. Thus was economic growth born. On the worldly side, advances in science were seen as a force for progress, moving forward away from the strictures of the dogmatic middle ages, but without a clear end. This idea of human potential is fuzzy. How selfish does one have to be to have become fully human? For theistic religious believers, how well are we doing God’s work, as it was set out for us and embodied in our souls, is the measure of human potential. For many, that potential is not to be realized while on Earth, but only after Earthly existence ceases. In all these cases, human potential is defined and judged by some external standard.

But what if there is no essence? [No one has ever isolated and put any such essence in a container.] What, then, would be the meaning of human potential, or of, say, flourishing? Given nothing out there to invoke as providing the meaning, all that is left is ourselves. Not such a novel idea; this belief is the core of existentialism, a philosophy or, as some say, an attitude that argues that humans create their own essence. Each of us chooses who we will be in life and, subsequently, follows a life trajectory, plan, project, or some other named coordinated, meaningful, intentional existence to become and remain the person we choose. If I choose to be a carpenter, I first learn what a carpenter does and how the work is done, acquire the requisite tools, and set out to be a carpenter as evidenced by what I do.The identity we choose is always and only manifest in the actions we take accordingly. We are not a carpenter until we become one in action. Even an apprentice is not yet a carpenter. We never have only a single identity, and our identities change over time. Early in life we may be a student, later a spouse and parent, even later a grandparent. The characteristics of any identity are socially constructed over time. I can add some variety to being a carpenter, but unless I conform to a set of norms set by historical, societal practice, I am only fooling myself and everyone else.

So, is there any sort of human potential here? There’s nothing that’s sitting somewhere out in the world to identify and measure it. It must come within and from the choices we make. Our human potential is limitless in terms of the choices available to us, with exceptions generated by our genetic, fixed traits. We are who we choose to be. Even one’s worldly circumstances, no matter how daunting a challenge they pose to a choice, are not a fundamental barrier. Flourishing is simply an indicator of two things: the authenticity (freeness) of the choice and the integrity of the follow-up way of living, that is, how well is the person sticking to the path needed to become the person chosen. Decisions made on the basis of conforming to societal norms or peer pressure or other authoritarian directions, say, a parent, are inauthentic and cannot lead to flourishing unless, at some point, the person does indeed choose who they are freely. Only the person herself, knows the answer to the question about flourishing.

Flourishing is never some end state. It is always about becoming. One is never finished becoming a carpenter until a new identity is chosen and the process starts over, or until the person dies. One can choose an identity handed to them by accident of birth and flourish, but only if, at some point, they make that choice, freely. With such a free choice, people can live dignified lives under the worst of circumstances. No choice is better or more meaningful than any other. What counts is only the authenticity and integrity of the following life experience. If we make our choices freely, we are then responsible for the lives that follow. There is no outside authority or standard we can blame for what we do.

With this as the vision of flourishing, I claim it is exceedingly difficult to flourish in our modern, hyper-consumptive, inauthentic society in the US. What to be is dominated by a media view. Celebrity is idealized. Wealth is a primary measure. Children are being educated to be technicians. The idea of a liberal education is but shadow of its intended purpose. A central aim of a liberal eduction is to afford choice by teaching critical thinking, a way to make free choices, and exposure to all kinds of possibilities.

The news about the mindless shooting I mentioned above started me along the thread of this post. We may start to make our choices early in life, but must by the time we become adults. One definition of an adult could be someone who has stopped flailing around and has chosen what identities to pursue in life. Our choices are influenced, but not determined, by our experience. Parents, who choose to be parents, have a responsibility to be mentors and examples for their children. Teaching your children how to handle lethal weapons is about as far from being a responsible parent as I can imagine. Perhaps it would be appropriate in the Middle East or some of our urban neighborhoods where violence and danger are the norm, but by no dint of imagination can I see it as proper here in the US, where it has become a form of amusement, as depicted in this part of the news item I began with.

The four-hour tours offered by one of the big gun ranges here are a popular tourist attraction: Starting at $200 a person, a bus will pick up visitors at their hotel in Las Vegas, 25 miles to the north, show them Hoover Dam and bring them to a recreational shooting range called Last Stop, where they can fire the weapons of their dreams: automatic machine guns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers. A hamburger lunch is included; a helicopter tour of the nearby Grand Canyon is optional.

Our lawmakers may have given people the right to bear arms, although I, among multitudes, do not believe that we did. But, even if individuals are free to do have arms, they are just as free not to. Arms belong to soldiers and police officers! It is part of their identity, but not of parents or virtually every other identity in our free society. If guns become a normal part of who everyone is, using them routinely is sure to follow. Not much possibility of flourishing there!