By N.S. Palmer
Two basic forces shape the universe: Law and Love, or if you prefer, Rules and Results.
Those forces also generate the two basic viewpoints about human and Constitutional rights. Both are currently on display in a dispute over gun control laws.
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, part of the “Bill of Rights,” states:
A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Opponents of gun control laws latch onto the part that says “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Supporters of gun control laws argue that “the people” refers to Americans collectively rather than as individuals, so the right to keep and bear arms applies only to people in government-organized military organizations.
Frankly, I think that opponents of gun control laws have the better Constitutional argument. The text says what it says. And via the Fourteenth Amendment and later court decisions, the Constitution applies to states as well as to the federal government. Therefore, one can make a good case for an individual right to own guns.
But that’s not the only question involved. The larger question is whether rights are an end in themselves, or are justified because they produce good results.
Consider Timothy Egan’s recent column about the January 2011 shootings in Tucson. After avowing that he grew up around gun owners and supports private gun ownership, he starts talking about results. He cites statistics showing that more gun ownership leads to more gun deaths, more often of the innocent than the guilty.
Conservatives and libertarians argue that gun ownership makes everyone safer, but they really see that point as irrelevant. Their main response to Egan’s argument is to say that results don’t matter. Only rules matter. And according to what they say are the rules of the U.S. Constitution and “Natural Law,” the government has no business restricting or discouraging gun ownership of any kind. You can probably even find a conservative or two who thinks it’s in the Ten Commandments.
As usual, the dispute between rules and results leads to further questions:
- If rights are an end in themselves, how do we know that? How do we know what rights we have? And if respecting rights in a particular case would lead to terrible consequences, should we still respect them in that case?
- If rights are justified because they produce good results, then results for whom? “The greatest good for the greatest number?” Or just for the Wall Street sharks and corporate billionaires who bankroll libertarian think tanks and publications? How much good does a right have to produce, and with what degree of reliability, in order to qualify as a right?
Because the choice between emphasizing rules and results is so fundamental, there’s no way to prove that one choice is right and the other is wrong. Different people make the choice based on their personal history, psychology, and the dominant viewpoint of their society. And the choice itself is a false dilemma: you need both law and love, rules and results. Having only one of them would be like trying to do mathematics with only odd numbers.
It’s peculiar that many evangelical Christians, as conservatives, think that rules are more important than results, because Jesus taught that rules should be guided by love.
Copyright 2011 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.