January 25, 2005

Absolutism 201: Principle v. Pragmatism

To refresh, please see Absolutisim 101: Prior Restraint (if you haven't seen it before).

A lot of people have problems with Absolutists because of the conclusions Absolutism can lead to.

For example not many people want a 10 year old to walk into a grocery store & walk out with an Uzi. While I can vividly picture myself doing that at age ten & feeling rather damn good about life (much better than a bicycle) I can understand those concerns.

A lot of people won't accept a principle unless its application seems reasonable to them. If the conclusion of a principle seems too burdensome or absurd they discount the principle. For example if it was proven that buying petroleum products supported an evil organization & there was a principle that said you had to refrain from financially supporting evil organizations the obvious conclusion would be to stop buying petroleum products. Sounds great in theory but who the hell is gonna start walking everyplace & let a perfectly good car rust in the driveway? So that principle would be rejected because the practical implications are too burdensome.

This is where Absolutists really differ from other people - they'd stop driving if principle demanded it. They're more of a principle first type whereas others are a pragmatism first type.

Here's the thing though - Absolutists don't see it as a choice between principle and pragmatism. Both are intertwined & inseparable. The straw man listed above (or straw kid rather) is not something that marks a choice between principle & pragmatism.

Of course we wouldn't want most 10 year olds walking out of stores with brand new Uzis (after all they could drop it & damage the finish). We don't want serial killers grabbing shotguns fresh from the factory either. But in both instances crafting a law forbidding sale or possession isn't the pragmatic choice - it's the band aid most often used because the principled & pragmatic choice seems too simple.

For the kid the parents should determine what he/she may or may not buy. Failing that you have the store owner deciding who to sell to. & as a last resort there's the free market - know many 10 year olds who can pony up a few grand for an Uzi? With those three factors in place a law against sale isn't as necessary as you'd think.

& yes, there could be irresponsible parents coupled with an irresponsible store owner & a kid with a few grand - but those things could happen now despite the law.

The serial killer - that's too easy. If convicted of a heinous crime such as unjustifiable murder or rape - kill him. A lesser but still horrible offense? Keep him in jail until we're sure he's not too dangerous to have access to a car. If we let him out the problem wouldn't be lax gun laws (as you can get any firearm you want with the right connections & cash) but a lax criminal justice system.

In a lot of ways it's simply a difference of focus: the non-Absolutist pro gunner thinks some gun control laws are worth the intrusion on principle to achieve certain laudable ends (keeping people with harmful or negligent intent from possessing arms) but the Absolutist simply sees other more effective means of achieving those same goals without compromising on principles.

Desegregation is a good example. We all know that a result of the Civil Rights movement of the 50's & 60's was anti-discrimination laws & desegregation right? Now tell me what would be ideal - desegregation because of law or desegregation because of an educated & unprejudiced populace? We can all agree that the latter would be the best means of going about things. Some would argue though that the law provides a quicker means of achieving the same end. But the law only affects things on the surface & at the expense of a very important principle - free association.

Whether I feel it's right or wrong a person should be able to choose who he is around when he's on his own property. So if the owner of a diner wants to exclude black people then no law should force him to go against his inclinations. What should happen is people should stop eating there until he sees the light or goes out of business. It's a slower means of achieving the same end, but one without the hazards of stepping on a principle to ensure a desirable outcome.

It's similar to gun laws, with the exception that in most cases gun laws are not effective at the desired end. Registration? It doesn't deter those with harmful intent but it does help those who seek confiscation. Licensing? Again it doesn't stop murderers but it does soften the people up to accepting increased control over their Right to Arms with the perils of registration thrown in for good measure. Bans on certain types of firearms? It does nothing to curb crime but it does make criminals out of otherwise decent people simply for possessing a verboten object.

Want to stop crime? Want to stop negligent behavior? Education, not legislation is the best chance. But when we try to legislate who may or may not own firearms &/or of what type &/or in what circumstance we step on a very big principle (the Right to Arms) for no measurable gain.

It comes back to punishing people for having the potential to cause harm. Some see this as the only viable option; that a principle which would eliminate this as a possibility fails to address reality. But the Absolutist sees it differently: that there is not enough real or imagined benefit to justify neglecting principle.

Some things are a balance. Security & freedom cannot occupy the same space at the same time. If you have 60% security then you can have at most 40% freedom. Increase one & the other must decrease. This is not the case with principles. Principles are not lofty ethereal creations never meant to intersect with the material world. If they mean anything at all they must be acted upon & at times even in the face of dire consequences.

But often acting on principles does not result in the dire consequences we fear. Remember when you were a kid? Did you ever break something accidentally? Now the inclination would be to not say a damn word about it as that might forestall your parents figuring out you broke it. But depending on the circumstances if you confessed to them the punishment was not as harsh as you feared if there was punishment at all.

So it is with following the Absolutist path towards the Right to Arms. In theory some potentially bad situations could result but in actuality those would be as rare if not rarer than occur right now. 10 year old kids get hold of guns & act irresponsibly. Not that often but enough that it’s noticeable (even if statistically speaking it’s insignificant). Repealing the laws concerning gun sales & possession would not make the number of 10 year olds involved in negligent shootings jump. Responsible parents, responsible firearms sellers & the free market all combine to keep irresponsible 10 year olds from handling guns. I don’t see how that’d change because we repeal a law that punishes actions after the fact.

As far as prior restraint based gun control is concerned there isn't a choice between principle and pragmatism to be made. You can have both or neither. The Absolutist sees this where others possibly don't.

I can understand how people who view things as a choice between principles & pragmatism would dismiss the Absolutist view as untenable. & if it were such a choice they may have been correct. But it's not. You can have both. That's one the of the main hurdles Absolutists have in explaining themselves to others - trying to convince them that it's either both principle & pragmatism or neither, instead of following a principle or following a pragmatic approach.

Posted by Publicola at January 25, 2005 04:59 AM

Just found your blog (via Alphecca). Nice posts.

My "favorite" prior restraint laws are the "no skateboarding" laws. The law should be against HITTING someone while skateboarding, not skateboarding itself.

Bring back public flogging: The victim gets to flog the skateboarder. The new Skyline park would make a nice venue.

Posted by: mrsizer at January 25, 2005 03:40 PM

Good read. Thanks, I needed that.

Posted by: fishorman at January 25, 2005 07:45 PM

Hey! Looking GREAT! And as eloquent as always. You're doing a terrific job here. :-)


Posted by: Nicki Fellenzer at January 28, 2005 05:52 PM

wonderful piece

Posted by: El Cid at February 20, 2005 03:09 PM
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