What evolutionary biology can teach us about gun control policy
by David Atkins
How do we know right from wrong? It should be an easy question, but it's harder than it looks. Is it doing the greatest good for the greatest number as John Stuart Mill would argue, or is it simply a question of always doing to others what we would want done to us as Immanuel Kant would suggest? Both answers are fraught with problems.
As it turns out, most people don't actually make decisions based on complicated rational calculations of utilitarian or universalist formulae. We make most moral decisions in our guts based on instinct, an instantaneous hardwired balancing act of empathy and self-preservation. Usually those instincts serve us well. If our brains aren't working properly, whether from tumor or mental illnesses like sociopathy, our moral intuition is off kilter.
That instinctive morality has some profound implications for public policy, including gun control. How so? Consider one of the most famous examples of the impact of evolutionary psychology on ethical reasoning: the Trolley Problem. Josh Clark explains:
It's a lovely day out, and you decide to go for a walk along the trolley tracks that crisscross your town. As you walk, you hear a trolley behind you, and you step away from the tracks. But as the trolley gets closer, you hear the sounds of panic -- the five people on board are shouting for help. The trolley's brakes have gone out, and it's gathering speed.As it turns out, most people say they would pull the switch; many of those who refuse to pull take a fatalist or religious view that their interference would interfere with destiny or God's will, while a few can't bring themselves to pull the switch that sentences that one man to death. But most people do.
You find that you just happen to be standing next to a side track that veers into a sand pit, potentially providing safety for the trolley's five passengers. All you have to do is pull a hand lever to switch the tracks, and you'll save the five people. Sounds easy, right? But there's a problem. Along this offshoot of track leading to the sandpit stands a man who is totally unaware of the trolley's problem and the action you're considering. There's no time to warn him. So by pulling the lever and guiding the trolley to safety, you'll save the five passengers. But you'll kill the man. What do you do?
If we assume that they use moral reasoning to make the decision, then that decision is utilitarian: saving five people through action is better than saving one through inaction. A Kantian would also claim that decision is just under their own principles, but it's a somewhat tougher sell. But what about this trolley example?
Consider another, similar dilemma. You're walking along the track again, you notice the trolley is out of control, although this time there is no auxiliary track. But there is a man within arm's reach, between you and the track. He's large enough to stop the runaway trolley. You can save the five people on the trolley by pushing him onto the tracks, stopping the out-of-control vehicle, but you'll kill the man by using him to stop the trolley. Again, what do you do?Most people in this example do not decide to push the man off the tracks. But why? The logical reasoning behind both decisions should be the same: save five people by killing one. But it isn't. Most people would pull the switch to send the trolley away to kill a man, but wouldn't push the same man off a bridge to accomplish the same goal. While some have nitpicked this particular example, there are many others out there with different scenarios that prove the basic point. It's fairly well established by now that human moral reasoning has much more to do with something innate to the human psyche than with complex moral reasoning--though reasoning does also clearly play a role in our decisions as well.
The reason for the discrepancy is simple: most people have an innate, empathetic resistance to physically pushing a man to his death no matter what beneficial consequences it might have. It feels wrong, somehow. Pulling a lever, on the other hand, doesn't have the same effect. It doesn't feel as wrong, even though both the intent and consequence of the act are the same in both circumstances. Moreover, so far as we can tell that instinctual morality isn't greatly affected by cultural differences. It appears to be intrinsic to the human condition.
What does this have to do with gun control? Everything.
Gun lovers will say that knives and hammers kill just as effectively as guns do. If someone means to kill someone else, they can and will. While this isn't actually the case, most arguments along this line tend to devolve toward the relative efficiency of guns versus other weapons.
While the efficiency and simplicity of the gun is certainly greater than for other weapons, that's not actually what makes the gun so pernicious and dangerous. What makes it dangerous is the fact that the gun gets in the way of our moral reasoning in a way that the knife does not. For most of us, if we are in a heated argument with a cheating spouse or a friend who betrayed us, there is something deep-seated in our psyches that won't let us actually hurt that person up close with kinetic force, much less strike them repeatedly as it usually requires to kill someone with the first dangerous object we can get our hands on. Our monkey brains say "no, this is bad. No matter how angry you are, this is not acceptable." Even if we want to, most of us can't push that man onto the tracks. Better to let the five on the trolley die through inaction.
But the gun is different. It's easier. The gun is that switch that we pull to intentionally doom the man on the tracks with an action. It bypasses the moral circuitry that usually prevents us from taking the actions it would have required for us to kill another human being through countless generations, giving us a significant remove from the moral consequences of our actions. Rationally it's still the same. Emotionally it isn't.
That's not to say that people don't kill one another by hand all the time. Many people are psychopaths, many become so enraged or greedy that even instinct is overwhelmed, and many people would push the man off the bridge onto the tracks in any case. But it's a numbers game. Statistically speaking, there are a great many people who, even if their chance of killing their victim were 100% with either a knife or a gun and did not fear failing in their attack, would stop short of using the knife for reasons of evolutionary psychology alone. Tens of thousands of victims are dead who should not be, and tens of thousands become murderers when they could have gone to their graves as productive members of society, simply because a gun was available when it should not have been.
In the story of human society and evolution, the gun itself is a villain that robs us of our own finely tuned instinctual morality. A society that makes guns harder to acquire is a society that not only allows more of us to continue to live, but also allows us to be more fully human in those rare moments that threaten to turn fatal.