The World View of America’s Pro-Gun Lobby

Allow me to introduce to you a thought experiment first proposed by English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, back in 1651. The name of this thought experiment is “the state of nature”, and the idea is to speculate on what human society might be like if people’s actions and behaviours were entirely based on human nature, and if their actions were not regulated or ‘reigned in’ by the laws and conventions of a politically organized civil society. What would life be like in that condition? Well, it depends on what you believe human nature is like.

Hobbes thought that human nature was generally selfish and competitive.

So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire for power after power, that ceaseth only in death. (Leviathan 11)


The idea here is that whatever else people may want, above all else they want power, that is, the ability to do more than they can presently do. Actually he listed a few other things people want, such as ‘ease’, ‘sensual delight’, and ‘praise’. But he observed that all of these things are almost always in short supply. And because no one can have it all, people naturally come into competition with each other: and this competition produces conflict.

Competition of riches, honour, command, or other power, inclineth to contention, enmity, and war: because the way of one competitor, to the attaining of his desire, is to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel the other. (Leviathan 11)

And because the natural desire for power leads people into a natural conflict against each other, people end up permanently gripped in a more-or-less constant fear of each other. And while there might be lots of people out there whom it is rational to fear, still Hobbes observes that even when there’s nothing to fear, people will feel the fear anyway:

This perpetual fear, always accompanying mankind in the ignorance of causes, as it were in the dark, must needs have for object something. And therefore when there is nothing to be seen, there is nothing to accuse, either of their good or evil fortune, but some power or agent invisible: in which perhaps it was, that some of the old poets said, that the gods were at first created by human fear… (Leviathan 12)

And so, in fearing each other, what do people do but compete all the more strenuously:

…if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only) endeavour to destroy, or subdue each other… And from this diffidence [distrustfulness] of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himself, so reasonable, as anticipation; that is, by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him… Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man… (Leviathan 13)

And as far as rights go, when people live in this hypothetical state of nature there are only two rights which we may claim, both of them referred to as ‘natural rights’ because they supposedly arise from human nature and from the natural condition of human relations (well, as Hobbes saw them in this thought-experiment). The first, and most obvious, is the right to freedom. But the second is of interest here: the right to self defence.

The first branch of which rule, containeth the first, and fundamental law of nature; which is, to seek peace, and follow it. The second, the sum of the right of nature; which is, by all means we can, to defend ourselves. (Leviathan 14)

To summarize what he said: his idea is that it’s a jungle out there because people are inevitably in competition with each other over resources that everyone wants, but which not everyone can have as much as they want. It should not be too surprising that Hobbes observed the world this way: most of the text was written while the English Civil War was being fought just outside his door. Indeed the text was published the same year that the war ended: 1651.

The conclusion Hobbes draws from this situation is that in order to preserve one’s natural freedom in a situation where people are in constant conflict with each other, we must be able to defend ourselves against others. Thus arises, according to this logic of freedom, the natural right to self defence, up to and including the exercise of deadly force in the service of self defence. The modern American pro-gun lobbyist reasons in precisely the same way: but adds only one more proposition: ‘in order to defend ourselves, we need more guns.” This was most recently represented by the argument that the recent tragedy could have been prevented if the teachers themselves were carrying guns.

And, as it happens, many of Hobbes’ successors, including Locke and Rousseau, also posited the right to self defence as a natural right emerging from the logic of freedom. Locke added that in the state of nature, “every one has the executive power of the law of nature” (Second Treatise of Gov, II.13) – meaning that every one has the right to punish those who harm them. Rousseau doubted whether the state of nature was naturally or inevitably a state of perpetual warfare: indeed he thought that “the state of nature, being that in which the care for our own preservation is the least prejudicial to that of others, was consequently the best calculated to promote peace…” (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 1) But for various historical reasons that I need not go into here, Hobbes’ and Locke’s view of the state of nature turned out to be the more prevalent. And anyway, Rousseau also saw self-defence as a natural right emerging from the natural desire for the perpetuation of one’s own existence.

Now the American pro-gun lobbyists talk as if this Wild West, Mad Max, “state of nature” situation of every man against every man, is the observably natural and normal state of things. We all know its slogans and talking points. There are home-invaders, thieves, rapists, kidnappers, terrorists, and criminals of all kinds out there. The best defence is a good offence. It’s not about what’s right, it’s about survival. Survival of the fittest. Guns don’t kill people; people do. A well regulated militia, and all that. From my cold dead hands. I don’t need to cite any examples; you can read just about any advertisement by a gun manufacturer, or almost any editorial written in a gun culture magazine. And although there are noteworthy exceptions, those exceptions tend to be few.

But Hobbes wisely saw what the likely outcome of this situation would be. In a situation in which “every man is enemy to every man”, the result would be nothing but perpetual warfare and violence and death: and a world in which there is:

…no culture of the earth, no navigation, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (Leviathan 13)

For this reason, Hobbes’ argument about the state of nature is not simply to describe it as a natural fact. It was also to describe the logical and moral desirability of adopting law and order and civil society, under a unified governing power which holds a monopoly on the use of coercive violent force, and which keep that capacity for violent force under careful control. As Hobbes presented the argument, he would not have been a supporter of America’s gun culture. He would have been a supporter of something like United Nations peacekeeping, and also of universal disarmament, so as to generally reduce the amount of fear and violence in the world. Similarly, Locke wrote that when people exercise their right to punish each other, “that self-love will make men partial to themselves and their friends: and on the other side, that ill nature, passion and revenge will carry them too far in punishing others” And therefore “God has appointed government to restrain the partiality and violence of men.” (Locke, Ibid.)

So you see: the philosophers who first described to us the basic propositions presently adopted by the pro-gun lobby regarded those propositions not as natural facts which we must accept, but as problems which we must solve. Their solutions had to do with the adopting of a civil government. They did not have to do with arming people with every more deadly weapons of war such that conflicts will be solved by a deadlock of fear, and the madness of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Now, we today might decide that our solutions are different: instead of transferring all rights of law-enforcement to the state, as Hobbes suggested, we might suggest something else. But I hope the point is clear: the state of nature is a problem, and it’s a problem with a solution. It’s not a problem we have to encode in thinking as if it were a natural and normal fact about which we can do nothing.

So here are the questions you have to ask yourself, and ask those around you.

– Is it the case that the natural and normal condition of human life is that of perpetual competition, distrustfulness, and warfare?

– Is it the case that the only rational response to that situation (if it’s true) is to arm ourselves?
– Are there any alternatives, to either case?

By the way: I wrote this in less than an hour, so some of the logic might need tightening up. And the argument might be open to some simple objections. But I hope the point is clear.

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3 Responses to The World View of America’s Pro-Gun Lobby

  1. Ms Kate says:

    Groovy, Brendan!

  2. Julia MacAdam says:

    Very well written and concise. Brendan, I think you are the only pithy philosopher I have ever read.

  3. Ms Kate says:

    That is just wonderful, Brendan!!

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