A Quickie on Rights in General Starting From the American Right to Bear Arms

I did want to take up the second part of that post by Richard Carrier that I talked about a couple of weeks ago, but things have been really busy lately so I wanted something that wouldn’t take quite so much time, so I want to take up this post by Jonathan M.S. Pearce where he expresses his frustration with some of his posters who insist on challenging his views despite the fact that he constantly outlines his philosophical views that should show that they’re wrong.  Now, his philosophical views are a bit controversial and I would like to have the time to engage them in detail, but suffice it to say that I don’t think that he’s really managed to establish his underlying ontology sufficiently to be able to simply dismiss challenges to his view using it.  Trying to do that is one of the things that annoyed me about the books of his I read — and have yet to comment on — where he would quite often do things like dismiss the free will argument because he doesn’t think free will exists, and then demand that those who wanted to use it had to establish that free will really exists first, which is an unreasonable demand since it amounts to demanding that they settle one of the longest running philosophical debates before he’ll even consider their argument.  That’s a tough task for philosophers, let alone those who might be replying to his posts or reading his books.

So this expression of his frustration really bugs me:

It’s really frustrating, because I have debunked their position until they can show me I haven’t.

I have to say that philosophy doesn’t work that way, and Pearce should know that.  If he outlines what he considers to be a “debunking” of their position, that doesn’t mean that he can then dismiss them entirely unless they can refute that debunking, presumably to his satisfaction.  If they never accepted his position in the first place, then from their perspective there’s nothing to debunk.  While the best philosophers will want to refute any reasonable challenges to their position, the people he’s dealing with aren’t even philosophers, and so likely won’t be able to and won’t see the need to refute what they consider to be odd and unreasonable positions.  And even philosophers will ignore purported debunkings that they don’t consider worth addressing.  So while I can understand his frustration at seeing the same points raised over and over again, I and others who don’t find his foundation as solid as he thinks it is will also be frustrated at how much he relies on that foundation to dismiss counter-arguments to even his more controversial opinions.

Like the right to bear arms, which is the topic of the post in question.  A commenter who constantly defends that right posted with what is indeed a fairly standard defense with a few twists — relating it to what society can do — and Pearce responds with this:

Yawn. What is a right? Where is it located? How it is causally efficacious? How does it interact with the material world?

Okay, so I won’t rerun my arguments. He should have read them by now. About twenty times given the frequency of me banging on about them and the fact that his comments are directly below the articles in question.

The problem is that both philosophically and specifically people have challenged his insistence that if we don’t accept his view of conceptual nominalism then we have to be taking a strong realist stance.  I in fact challenged this in a comment on one of his own posts.  I haven’t been able to engage him as directly as I’d like, but I’ve challenged that view of his a few times, and he even has another commenter — Luke — who has taken him on directly on that.  Since Pearce is pulling this comment out of the morass that is his comment section to deal with it directly, he is setting his own priorities, and that he didn’t pull mine out and hasn’t addressed Luke’s recently, that prioritization says something about the sort of arguments that he’s interesting.  In short, that he doesn’t seem to be that interested in dealing with actual objections to his foundation while insisting that his opponents need to do just that.

Anyway, let’s look at parts of his reply:

The first point is this: if I have a right to guns, then I have a right to a nuclear missile. This reductio shows how absurd or how arbitrary the claim is. “Oh, that’s ridiculous!” – Is it? Well, where do you draw the line? Because my line doesn’t accept people walking around with guns, but your line is where? RPGs? Machine gun outposts? Nuclear warheads?

What I am saying here is that his “right” has to somehow include a very prescriptive cut-off point within it to show that the right doesn’t include a Death Star but does include an AR-15.

The problem is that the original commenter and pretty much all of those who advocate for the right to bear arms on the basis of self defense have a clear way to settle that:  what is necessary for self defense.  It is pretty easy to argue that a nuclear warhead cannot be used for self-defense for an individual because activating in any situation where it would matter would kill the person using it for self-defense.  It’s also reasonable to argue that RPGs and machine gun outposts would cause way too much collateral damage to be justified by self-defense of the individual.  Moreover, the original commenter said this:

The answer is always asked the wrong way. The question isn’t what gives us the right to do things or have things. The question is what gives the people in government the right to tell us we cannot do that which isn’t harming anyone.

All of the options that Pearce talks about would almost certainly involve harming innocent people if they were actually used for their purported purpose.  We might not have to worry about the attacker, but we probably have to worry about bystanders and would need to show that the use of those weapons would not run an unacceptable risk to bystanders.  So the questions Pearce is asking sound good rhetorically, but aren’t all that strong of a refutation to the position.

But the worst part is that those questions don’t actually have a meaning if we start from Pearce’s foundation, so he’s actually starting from arguments that appeal to their foundation and not his.  The arguments here only work to show that the position can’t be clarified properly to actually be practiced, which is not actually a problem for Pearce’s view because for him the line can be drawn anywhere most people agree.  He could be trying to argue that any kind of objective line can’t be drawn, but since they think they could indeed do that he’s either underestimating their intelligence or arguing based on his view and importing it to them.  Either way, it’s not really supporting his position to start out that way.  He’d need to insist that his view is right but then they could indeed adopt his view and point out that the line doesn’t need to be objectively determined by his own view.  Thus, the starting argument only works if they are more interested in attacking his foundation than in justifying their view that they should be able to bear arms in the United States.  But then he demands that they must refute his foundation to make their specific claims, which a good philosopher will, of course, refuse to accept if they can contort his own foundations to provide for the specific thing that Pearce doesn’t want to see.

To say “I have a right to healthcare/water/education” or whatever you want to plug in there is very contextual. In the absence of the context, these are just another way of saying, “In the world I want to live in, everyone should have equal access to…”. When you start entertaining the context, such claims might be, “Given the legal framework set up in my nation-state, I am legally entitled to…”

The problem with this is the one that I also bring up to those who deny that objective morality exists: that’s not how we think of rights.  If a legal jurisdiction said that, say, no one had the right to be free from the threat of murder or the threat of being sold into slavery, we would never say — and I doubt that Pearce would say — that then in that jurisdiction people had no such rights.  We might say that they effectively didn’t have such rights because no one would protect it, but we wouldn’t conclude from that that they ought not have that right in that society.  No, we would instead insist that they ought to have that right, and that society has an invalid set of legal rights because they don’t enforce what we consider to be the objective human rights that we are owed for simply being human.  In short, we don’t need any notion of legal rights if they aren’t trying to map something beyond the laws of that jurisdiction since we could just have laws that describe all of that.  We might want “rights” as basic principles to interpret laws, but that would be a far cry from how we generally talk about rights.

I submit that Pearce can get away with his position here only because when he uses the “rights just reflect things we want to see” argument, he does so for rights that he doesn’t really care about or wants to dismiss, such as the right to bear arms, but when he does care about rights — like the right to choose for women — then he appeals to ones that he either thinks that people do all agree with or that he thinks that everyone should agree with.  This becomes problematic when someone challenges his views, as he has to scramble to come up with an argument that allows him to side-step the issue.  As he does for abortion in this very post:

I think that the reproductive “rights” of the mother are more important than those of a cluster of non-sentient cells.

But under his own view there can be no such objective arguments for that, and he arguably wouldn’t need any.  So coming up with that definition to even talk about rights works against his own view.  But to his credit, at least in this post, he realizes that:

People like Person223 disagree. So we argue in the marketplace of ideas and hope that our argument wins out in public discourse so that it is reflected in democratic elections and ensuing law changes (or lack thereof).

However, if all of that worked out against his position so that women could not get abortions, I don’t think he’d be that sanguine about it (and he hasn’t been in the past).  And there are a number of cases where pretty much no one would accept a definition of rights that came entirely from public discourse.  If society declared that black people were not deserving of any legal rights, I don’t think Pearce would accept that that was just the way that society worked.  If a society literally became “forced birth” and forced women to get pregnant and carry those children to term, I don’t think he’d just accept that either.  The whole point of using rights arguments is to show that the legal structure is wrong and invalid to allow those things because they aren’t reflecting what the real inherent human rights are, and those things are not supposed to be decided by vote.  So I don’t think that even Pearce will accept the consequences of his positions, even if they were adequately supported.

The other arguments there talk about the harms to society and so on and so forth, which are independent of his foundation, which makes this demand a bit awkward:

Here’s my request, though, please stop, stop, stop splurging the same old conclusions without first doing some legwork to establish a rational foundation upon which to build them. By all means, whinge about my own foundations, but do that on your own away from here unless you can show them to be in some way faulty; until then, kindly desist from endlessly conclusion-asserting.

If Pearce is going to ultimately use things that the commenter roughly agrees with like “harm to society” and the Social Contract to argue against their position, then he can’t make this request.  Someone who disagrees with his foundations could try to turn the discussion to something that they both roughly would or should agree with to try to have some sort of productive discussion on the issue even though they have radically different foundations for their views.  Because tackling foundations is a lot harder than finding some common ground, and the commenter does seem to have found some with the idea that the government cannot — or at least ought not — legislate against people taking actions that don’t harm anyone.  Pearce seems to roughly agree with that, but insists that allowing unrestricted gun ownership does cause harm.  If he sees and acknowledges that, then he should focus on that common ground instead of dismissing any such responses on the grounds that his somewhat shaky foundation must be assailed first.

19 Responses to “A Quickie on Rights in General Starting From the American Right to Bear Arms”

  1. Jonathan MS Pearce Says:

    Gah, I’ve just lost a post.

    So, I’ll quickly contest something in the first part. My first book was on free will, and I have written two further chapters on it, with my latest commissioned chapter in Loftus’s Christianity in the Light of Science being the most recent and up to date, so I think I have gone some way to establish a good case for the incoherence of libertarian free will.

    Add to that that no philosopher has given a coherent account of libertarian free will.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, I don’t think your free will book was available when I was buying your other ones, but I DID just review a whole bunch of positions on free will, and I think my stance that the free will debate is still an active one in philosophy and so not something that you can demand most people disprove your own position or else they have to abandon a standard theological argument. While you are certainly convinced of your position, you are quite likely to find lots of people who are not convinced of that, and not only libertarians, as compatiblists may well argue that their view of free will preserves enough of free will that the theological defense using free will is still valid.

      (Also, I’ve read some of your posts on free will, I think, and remain convinced that libertarian free will is not only valid but is still the best explanation of what we experience. Then again, I’m an interactionist dualist which gets me around all sorts of incoherency problems if dualism itself can be maintained).

      As for my comments, let me drop the tag to my free will posts here: https://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/tag/free-will/

      While the entire tag covers my view of free will, the latest posts cover my latest readings.

      • Jonathan MS Pearce Says:

        So it was my first book and has been unchanged since 2010 or 11 or something. As such, it is also in desperate need of an overhaul (I write better now…). My chapter in Loftus is better. I can send it to you if you want.

        I think the denial of LFW is sound – according to philpapers, the only philosophers who ascribe to LFW are theists (Robert Kane aside), and none of them has provided coherent accounts of LFW.

        I really think contra-causal free will is one of the most problematic claims in philosophy.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        It might be nice if you did. While I did pick up your book on the Resurrection — although I didn’t find the one on the Nativity that convincing — I didn’t get your free will book, and it would be nice to see what your latest view is.

        On contra-causal free will, my view is that while the view is problematic, it’s better than the alternatives which at a minimum risk making our decision-making processes epiphenomenal, and no alternate accounts have been able to avoid that risk or demonstrate that it’s not really a concern anymore. But I see the incoherence as following from a false dichotomy, where it is insisted that either things are totally caused/determined, or else we can only have random/probabilistic causation. I suggest that we need to add to those two a kind of intentional causation, which is caused based on understanding the meaning of things and being able to act on intentions and the understanding of intentions by the agent. While it may be difficult to conceive of such a thing, it also seems that in order to consider humans at all intelligent and rational we are going to need SOMETHING like that, and the strict determinist/naturalist lines don’t seem to be able to provide it.

      • Jonathan MS Pearce Says:

        I’m surprised (not surprised) at your lack of convincing with the nativity. It’s on incredibly thin ice, rationally speaking. Indeed, I think it’s the weakest of all Christian claims and obviously mythological.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        I do still plan to talk more about it later, but in general your account focuses on points that I have no problem thinking might be more legendary/mythological and that aren’t crucial to the story, which is always my big problem with such attempts. Also, I think you follow Carrier too much in claiming that the things were “made up” when we know from history that stories can be expanded as they get passed from person to person, and so you can’t eliminate them as at least events spawned by history with those sorts of comments, and so they come across as ways to discredit the whole by asserting that the authors were just making it up when that they — especially Luke — could easily be instead reporting existing accounts that themselves were corrupted along the way.

  2. Jonathan MS Pearce Says:

    Also, this:

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I learned to type as a typist, not a typesetter. So I follow the rules for typists. Although I did note this as an argument for the single space that’s really one for the double space:

      “A space signals a pause,” says David Jury, the author of About Face: Reviving The Rules of Typography. “If you get a really big pause—a big hole—in the middle of a line, the reader pauses. And you don’t want people to pause all the time. You want the text to flow.”

      Grammatically, a period is indeed supposed to signal a pause, with a semi-colon signaling a slightly smaller one. The two spaces, then, would be doing their job if he’s right [grin].

      • Jonathan MS Pearce Says:

        Of course, this could be the single biggest argument we ever have… To me, and I used to be like you then changed on publishing advice (I used to be an atheist like you but…), when I see any book or digital source with double spacing it jumps out straight away – standing out like a sore thumb – because it is visually incongruous. The computer can’t space things evenly a consistently.

        It’s always a case of people post hoc rationalising a behaviour they want to keep because they’ve always done it…


      • verbosestoic Says:

        How could we have an argument here? You’re thinking like a publisher, I’m thinking like a typist, as I said. It’s just a matter of perspective [grin].

        If I ever do publishing, maybe I’ll convert too [grin].

      • Jonathan MS Pearce Says:

        But you can only reasonably make that argument if you are tying on a typewriter. Which you aren’t.


        (Before I start, I should mention that I am over 40.)

        I learned to type in 1987 on an IBM Selectric typewriter. A typewriter, not a computer. We had those, but they had big, actually floppy disks and honest to God, no one had any idea what to do with them. My semester of typing remains one of the most valuable classes I ever took in high school — I can still dazzle small children with my ability to make words appear on a screen by just hysterically wiggling my fingers on the keyboard.

        But one rule from typing class has definitely expired, and if you’re over 40, it’s possible that no one has given you the message. Here it is:

        Unless you are typing on an actual typewriter, you no longer have to put two spaces after a period.

        Or a question mark. Or an exclamation point. The rule applies to all end punctuation. Just one space. Really.

        Yes, really.

        Here’s why: Back when we used typewriters, every character was given the exact same amount of space on the page. That meant the letter i was given the same amount of space as the letter m, even though it clearly didn’t need it. This is called monospaced typesetting and it’s, well, spacey. We needed that extra space between sentences to make it easier to see the beginning of new sentences.

        Word processors and computers and everything that is not a very old typewriter use mostly proportionally spaced fonts, which adjust spacing to the size of the letter. That’s why a proportional font can squeeze 12 letters into the same space where a monospace font can only fit nine:

        If you do even a little bit of research on this topic, you’ll find plenty of articles practically begging you to stop using two spaces. Slate‘s Farhad Manjoo went so far as to say that it is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.

        But these articles are not reaching everyone, probably because for many of us who learned to type before computers, it was hammered into our heads over and over and OVER again to use two spaces. We got our papers marked wrong if we didn’t. It takes a long time to unlearn that. And until you unlearn it, you’ll probably force this funky old rule on your own students. I know I did: I remember sitting in a computer lab in 1998, going through my students’ papers, marking all the places where they needed to add an extra space after the period. It wasn’t until 1999, when I got a copyediting job with the New England Journal of Medicine, that I learned the “new” rule.

        When you know better, you do better. I love you, fellow middle-aged folks, but it’s time we all join the modern age and spend just a little less time leaning on the space bar.

        That is all. ♦

      • verbosestoic Says:

        Well, that’s the same debate: typists — or at least classic typists from the old days — vs publishers and typesetters.

        But speaking as a computer scientist, for anything that isn’t printed the REAL answer is to let people use whatever rule they want, and then in the programs that display those words give the user the option to see it whichever way they want.

      • Jonathan MS Pearce Says:

        lkoihsdd ochi [soa-jlaz,poo osxpozwc k


      • Jonathan MS Pearce Says:

        Heh. Which is oddly germane to the larger topic:

        Rules are useful for practical reasons, but have no otherwise ontic reality.

  3. Jonathan MS Pearce Says:

    What’s your email address?

  4. Cargosquid Says:

    My reply to HIS reply to your post above. He rejects the ideas of inalienable rights altogether. So….

    “Well, here’s the problem.
    Your willful rejection of the fact of inalienable rights.
    Weird how you are all so fearful of the idea that humans are limited in their actions with each other.

    No inalienable right to arms?
    So…who gave you the privilege to pick up a rock to defend yourself? Who gave you the privilege of living? Who is your superior?

    Let’s go with the right to nukes.

    Since the author brought up the absurd argument, let’s go with it.

    You are an autonomous person.
    No other human is your moral superior, thus, no one can disarm you unless you threaten them.
    You have the human rights to self defense and to keep and bear arms. See the ability to use tools.
    You do NOT have the right to harm innocents in that self defense. Self defense includes defense of your freedom.

    Therefore, the tools you use for that defense are subject to the liability of harming innocents.
    You have the right to keep and bear ANY tools for that defense, but not the right to harm others in their use. Technically, in principle, if you can use a nuke in self defense, without harming innocents in any way, you can do so. There is no human that has the moral authority to stop you from defending YOURSELF. They do have the moral authority to stop the harm to innocents.

    Therefore, as the effect of a weapon becomes more indiscriminate, the use of such becomes less legitimate. THAT, however, does NOT rule out ownership or use in the above described conditions.

    Outside of war, the above applies to civilized people.
    And if you are threatened by another person/government with a weapon, it is perfectly moral for YOU to own and respond in kind.

    Our government is authorized to do violence on our behalf, including the use of WMD. If it is moral for them, it is moral for us…because they only have the authority and power DELEGATED to them from the people.

    Nowhere is the privilege to use weapons granted to anyone. Society? Show me where. Who has the authority to decide how and why or even if you can defend yourself?

    Rights are recognized as existing, not granted.
    If inalienable human rights do not exist, then no human has ANY rights. Therefore, all concerns about slavery and abuse by other governments such as North Korea and Communist China are nonsense. Whatever someone with power wants to do to you, is right and proper. If rights do not exist, you literally have no cause for complaint. Might makes right.
    Resistance against abuse could be seen as wrong, since those in power have legitimate authority to do anything they wish.
    If you have no rights, all you have is privileges granted by those in power. And privileges can be withdrawn at any time.”

    He NEVER answers those questions as to where these privileges are authorized. Or why any treatment is objectionable if rights don’t exist.

    I like your blog.
    Good essay.

  5. Jonathan MS Pearce on Free Will | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] A while ago, I commented on a post of Jonathan MS Pearce’s over at “A Tippling Philosopher”, and had an aside about how some things he does there and in his books — I’ve read a couple of them but haven’t commented on them yet — annoy me, and specifically that he will do things like dismiss the free will counter on some positions and then demand that those who want to use that argument demonstrate that free will exists before they can do so.  Not only is that going to be very difficult for people who are not philosophers to do, it also takes an open and long-standing debate in philosophy and asserts that the solution has been found and that it’s hard determinism that has won.  This is actually really, really bad for free will because in general most philosophers are compatibilists, not hard determinists, but almost all of them will agree that the question has not yet been settled.  Pearce himself commented on my post talking about how there is no coherent idea of libertarian free will, which eventually led to him sending me an article in an upcoming book that talks about free will, which is now going to lead to me talking about it, because obviously I disagree that hard determinism is the correct way to look at free will, and over whether we have free will at all. […]

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