Thursday, January 10, 2013

Emotional rather than logical arguments

Charles C.W. Cooke exposes the limp logic behind Joe Biden's statement that whatever his efforts on gun control come up with are worthwhile if they "result in only saving one life."
his “one life” line receives an awful lot of attention after massacres, especially among those who would jump to rush legislation through. It shouldn’t, of course, because it is a silly thing to say. No free society worth its salt operates anywhere close to the principle that a law that could save “one life” is automatically worth passing, or that “actions” that result in “only saving one life” are axiomatically “worth taking.” Holding all school classes in lead-lined, bulletproof underground panic rooms would probably save “one life” over the next few years, but that doesn’t mean we should do it; banning Ibuprofen would probably save “one life” in the next few years, but that doesn’t mean we should do it; limiting access to trousers and bananas and televisions and wardrobes and swimming pools would almost definitely save “one life” over the course of a given year, but, again, that doesn’t mean that we should do it. And so on and so forth. The question, as ever, is whether the cost is worth it. The “one life” canard is an attempt to bypass that and appeal to emotion. Depressingly enough, it’s relatively effective.

The “one life” idea is especially silly in the context of the gun debate because it can be used both ways equally productively. Almost every day, an American saves his own life — or someone else’s life — with a privately held firearm. Last week, for example, a mother in Georgia used a .38 revolver to protect herself and her children from an intruder. Taking Joe Biden’s line — which he appears to have inherited from the president — one could quite easily construct a case to issue all mothers with revolvers whether they like it or not. Wait, you object to having a gun in the house? You think that arming all of America’s mothers sounds expensive? You’re not sure that’s the best idea anyway. Civil liberties? Yes, yes, but if it saves just one life . . .
That same line of thinking would support the NRA's proposal of having armed guards at every school. Biden's remark is an appeal to emotion, logic be damned. There is this urge to do something, anything in the wake of an almost unimaginable tragedy as what happened at Newtown. And politicians are always ready to jump in to respond to people's emotions. Whether their proposals would actually do anything to decrease the possibility of a repeat is beside the point.

At my school when we were discussing what measures we should be taking to improve safety, one suggestion was that we keep our doors to classrooms locked at all times even if it might end up disturbing the class when students have to knock to come in late or when returning from the bathroom. Given the odds against a gunman entering our school, I would prefer to choose what reduces disruptions to my classes, but you know, if it saves just one life...