The Ethicist: Can I Make My Company Take a Stand on Guns?

May 20, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Can I Make My Company Take a Stand on Guns?”.

I live in Europe and work for a company based in the United States. I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the rate of gun violence and mass shootings in the United States, and I would like my company to take a public position.

I travel to the United States a few times a year for trainings and meetings. I also travel extensively in Europe. Because of gun violence, the United States is by far the most dangerous country I travel to.

The company sponsors charity events but has never taken a position on guns. Most managers are American, and tweets from the human-resources manager indicate he’s not in favor of gun control.

How can I raise this topic within my company? I don’t want to sound like the European telling Americans how to deal with their own country. Name Withheld

My response: “I would like my company to take a public position,” says Name Withheld.

Maybe you could practice leading yourself to do what you want others to do. All the reasons forming in your mind why others should act on your values while you don’t are the resistance you will face.

Overcoming them internally will teach you how to overcome them in others. Giving up internally would suggest to me that you lack the leadership skills to lead others.

You’re asking how to lead people, meaning you want to improve your leadership. If you’ll allow me a quick analogy, if you want to learn to create art, taking academic classes in art appreciation may help you appreciate art others made but not to create it. You have to practice, starting with the basics.

Nearly every resource I’ve seen on leadership is leadership appreciation—that is, books on principles and such that help you appreciate others’ leadership but not to lead. To learn to lead you have to practice, starting with basics.

To answer your question on how to lead people, I recommend my book, Leadership Step by Step, which gives you exercises to practice the skills of leadership, not just to appreciate others’ practice. You have to do the work of the exercises, not just passively read it, but what expressive or performance-based practice can you learn without work?

I’m not just plugging my book. I wrote it because nothing existed to give you experience and skills, not just appreciation.

Unit 4 covers what you want, though I’d start at the beginning and do the exercises in order.

The New York Times response:

Europeans sometimes struggle to grasp the scope of the challenge here. Estimates put the number of guns in circulation in the United States at 300 million, but there’s no official government count. Although high-profile mass shootings like the one in Parkland, Fla., in February typically involve “assault weapons,” those account for just over 2 percent of gun homicides. (Most homicides are committed with handguns.)

Despite the magnitude of the problem, better policies would help. A recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that if all states had waiting periods, gun homicides would be reduced by 910 a year. (That’s from a baseline of about 11,000.) There’s some evidence that restricting large-capacity magazines can reduce mass shootings. Yet there are formidable political and judicial obstacles to the more aggressive measures that might have the biggest effects.

Like Europeans, Americans are tribal. Positions on issues like gun control are shibboleths of some of our tribes. As a result, it’s hard to get rational discussion on the issues that divide those tribes. Outsiders are, in these circumstances, indeed likely to be regarded as meddlesome. Some people will think you simply want your company to take sides with your tribe. (The sensible Europeans?)

It sounds as if you want your company to take a stand that isn’t where the company stands. (It isn’t a good sign that not even the human-resources manager is on board.) You’d have to persuade the bosses about the merits of alienating some employees and customers and risking a boycott by the gun-rights crowd. But I don’t know what your company does. So I don’t know why you think they should take a stand at all.

Bear in mind, however, that not all efforts to reduce gun violence are polarizing. Over any two-week period in Baltimore or St. Louis, you can expect to see something close to the Parkland death toll. Yet such slow-motion massacres — concentrated in poor, minority neighborhoods — receive little national attention. If we’re serious about addressing gun violence, we should support neighborhood programs that have been shown to reduce gun assaults substantially. Those programs are chronically underfunded because they excite neither tribe in the gun debates. Study up on group-violence intervention and the G.V.I. programs that have had real success. Supporting them could be the most effective contribution to reducing gun violence that your company could make.


In my high school, we were recently taught new procedures on school shootings. We were told to assess the situation (where the shooter is in the building) and choose one of the following: run, hide or fight. If the shooter is on the opposite side of the school, we were told to run and go to specific places in the community. If the shooter is near, we were told to hide. And if it’s life-threatening, we were told we should fight — throw anything we can. But some students are glorifying the idea of fighting the shooter and saving the day. My teacher told us she would protect us, and a student stood up and said, melodramatically: “No. I will disarm him in five seconds. I can’t wait to fight.” Some even say they won’t run or hide; they’ll go where the shooter is. Is this a normal reaction? And is it ethical for the school to tell them not to? Sydney McGaha

My response: You ask what’s ethical and normal. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get labels that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.

If by normal, you mean statistically normal, that’s a professional question I would pose to a statistician or person with relevant data, if any exists, not a philosopher.

The New York Times response:

The response from your contemporaries displays two features of high school bravado. One is a belief (which tends to fade with age) in your invulnerability. Another is a tendency (which often persists into adulthood) to boast about the great things you’d do in difficult circumstances.

The real question is what you ought to do. The advice your school provided is based on advice from people in law enforcement. Unless you have an authoritative argument that these experts are wrong, it’s foolish to ignore this guidance. It’s also unhelpful. Your impetuous classmates could complicate the task of first responders. When you put yourself in harm’s way, you make it someone else’s job to try to rescue you.


My 14-year-old son has achieved precocious success in his profession of choice. He’s been offered a summer job — a dream job — in another city. Family friends already planned a visit for the time he’d be gone. The family friends have a son about the same age as my son, and they chose their travel dates based largely on my son’s availability. In my son’s absence, the other boy will probably be lonely. I assume, however, that their tickets have already been purchased. Does my son have an obligation to stay home for the planned visit with the family friends? Susan Manning

My response: There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

Labeling something an obligation or not doesn’t change your situation. You probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than a New York Times columnist labeling something for you, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the excuse to say, “But the New York Times told me to” but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.

What should you do? I recommend:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

The New York Times response:

Suppose you spent years training for a prestigious, career-making piano competition and also arranged to have drinks with a friend after your turn at the keyboard. But the competition is running late, and you’d agreed to meet your friend at 6 p.m. It’s wrong to break promises, you know, so you give up your chance to win the competition and keep the date instead. Are you being hyperethical? I don’t think so. I’m afraid, in fact, your seeming scrupulousness misses the point of what ethics, properly understood, requires.

Too many people have a cod-liver-oil idea of ethics: It has to taste bad to be good. They think it’s always about what you’ll sacrifice to help others. But you are one of the people whose interests you should, as an ethical matter, bear in mind. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel has observed, one genuine source of value is “commitment to one’s own projects or undertakings.”

Now to your son, with his dream job related to his profession of choice. All things being equal, it would be better not to change things up with the visiting family friends (even though it involves only an expectation, not a promise). But all things aren’t equal. You and your son owe serious consideration to his well-established hopes and dreams.

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