The Ethicist: I Detest the N.R.A. What Should I Do With My Gun?

March 31, 2019 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 “The Ethicist: I Detest the N.R.A. What Should I Do With My Gun?”.

As a gun owner who abhors the ‘‘slippery slope’’ philosophy of the N.R.A., every new mass shooting sickens me. I would like to sell one of my three weapons and give the proceeds to March for Our Lives or Everytown for Gun Safety. Is it better to: 1) Sell it knowing the $750-$1,000 would do some good; 2) Keep the gun knowing it won’t be used; or 3) Destroy it/surrender it to the police for disposal? Name Withheld

My response: “Better” is a measure of goodness and badness. 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.

Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

In any case, would give it to the organizations and let them figure out how to get value out of it.

I’ll also note the insidious, nefarious skills of this column’s headline writers. They consistently pack the headline with the intellectual and mental equivalent of junk food—“should I . . .” “Is it okay to . . .” “Is it right/wrong to . . .” I don’t know what to call it. It’s not click-bait. It’s addictive mental junk food.

The New York Times response: By the ‘‘slippery slope’’ philosophy of the N.R.A., I assume you mean its tendency to argue that any proposed gun regulation is a step toward canceling the Second Amendment: to equate restriction with abolition. I assume too that you think that some of these mass shootings could have been stopped by laws that the N.R.A. opposes and that are nevertheless consistent with the Constitution. The gun-control organizations you mention share those beliefs; sending them a check would express your support and enable you to join the community of people trying to do something about gun violence.

But the case against (1) is that your check, which isn’t going to make the difference between success and failure for either of these gun-control groups, scarcely changes the likelihood of future gun deaths, while selling the gun marginally increases the likelihood that it will end up being used in a crime. As for (2), you can’t be absolutely sure that a gun won’t cause harm just because it’s in your house. For one thing, someone might break in and steal it; for another, you might use it against yourself. Suicide, remember, accounts for a majority of gun-related deaths. If you went for (3), you could render the gun harmless by having it destroyed, but doing so wouldn’t much change the likelihood of future gun deaths, either.

One reason that I have misgivings about what’s been called ‘‘quandary ethics’’ — ethics conceived of as solving puzzles like these — is that, as in this case, it can be close to impossible to calculate the costs and benefits of the various outcomes you consider. A deeper problem is that there are typically options you haven’t considered. In this case, you could wait for a gun-buyback program — they’ve had these recently in many cities — and send the money (which would be less than the market value of your weapon) to one of these organizations, thus both supporting gun control and making sure that the weapon won’t be used for malign purposes.

For that matter, you could throw yourself into the work of one of these organizations, which are going to succeed only if more of their supporters aren’t content with just sending them money. The influence of the N.R.A. can’t be reduced to the power of the purse; though its political expenditures far exceed those of gun-control groups, its finances are surprisingly precarious. And note that the labor sector, say, hugely outspends it, while its political power has seemed to diminish. Many political experts would say that the N.R.A.’s ability to mobilize its millions of members has a lot to do with its efficacy. If gun control matters to you, your support shouldn’t be limited to your checkbook.

I agreed to sponsor a cousin’s immigration application, which involved affirming I can and will provide the applicant with a financial safety net for seven years. I’d met the cousin only once, but I count his aunts among my favorite relatives and was told by his father that he is financially independent, hardworking and eager to contribute to his new homeland.

With the process underway, my cousin’s father came to visit, and the two insisted on conveying their gratitude by hosting my family at a brunch. Somehow the subject of Trump came up. Though my husband and I did not vote for the president, we maintain relationships with friends and family who did. Yet hearing the young man that we put on the road to citizenship express his admiration for Trump and his anti-immigration policies struck us as odd.

I prodded ever so gently: At what point should the president close the gate — before or after your papers are finalized? Without a hint of irony, he clarified that, of course, he was referring to the wrong kind of immigrants.

Hours later, I couldn’t shake the notion that we’d made a terrible mistake. Yes, my husband and I refuse to allow politics to define our social circle, but could we remain neutral, knowing that we’d inadvertently recruited a new supporter of Trump’s views on immigration, which we regard as racist — or worse? And if we decide that we cannot, should we break with our extended family by revoking our support of my cousin’s application? Or could we let the cousin know that we find his views on immigration hypocritical and make our ongoing support of his application contingent on his joining the 50 percent of Americans who choose not to exercise their right to vote? Name Withheld

My response: My first thought: don’t do the crime (sign the document blindly) if you can’t do the time (live up to your word).

More practically, I see your issue as one of leadership. You want either to influence the cousin or to influence your deal.

If so, 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: I’m not sure you’ve found a great way to model social tolerance. Your cousin sounds pretty blinkered in his views, I’ll grant. But adding one more bigot to the American population isn’t going to make a difference in our politics. And if he ends up, as is most likely, living in one of our great, culturally plural metropolises, his views on immigration may well evolve. Either way, it would be wrong to try to blackmail him into not exercising the right to vote — and ineffectual, because such an agreement would be unenforceable.

Nor is it fair, at this point, to pull out from your affidavit of support, unless you think that something you were told and that you therefore attested to was substantially untrue. You do have every right to tell him — like anyone else who expresses political views you consider odious — why you think he’s wrong. Given what you have done for him, he owes it to you to pay attention to what you say. But if your sponsoring your cousin was right, it didn’t become wrong when you learned about his opinions.

The point can be broadened. Policies you support in principle aren’t invalidated when their beneficiaries turn out to have vexing or perverse views. We don’t withdraw Social Security Disability Insurance from those who think that its other beneficiaries are largely wastrels. We don’t deny Medicare coverage to those who are skeptical of the program. We can’t give up on public-health measures to reduce suicide simply because suicide rates are highest in ‘‘red state’’ regions that aren’t inclined to back such measures. And a partisan who favors only the expanded immigration of people inclined to support her party isn’t interested in immigration reform; she’s interested in allies. Your cousin’s views, as I say, may evolve; perhaps yours will, too.

My stepdaughter-in-law confided in me that she is planning on leaving my stepson. They have a young child. She also informed me that she’s gay. She asked me to be discreet with this information, but I feel compelled to do something; I don’t feel that it’s fair for my stepson to be hit out of the blue. Is there a way for me to encourage her to talk to her husband, or should I say something directly to him? I’m fine with keeping the information about her sexuality secret. It’s more her plan to dump him that is weighing on me. I’m concerned not only for his well-being but also for how this secret could affect my relationship with him if he finds out I knew and didn’t say anything. Name Withheld

My response: The answer to your question is yes, there are ways to encourage her. I recommend learning leadership skills and point you to my answer to the last letter.

The New York Times response: Let me invoke a rule I’ve posited before: In normal circumstances, when someone tells you something with the implicit expectation that you won’t pass it on, you shouldn’t break that confidence without first telling her. The confidence sharer has the right to try to dissuade you and the right to pre-empt you by passing on the information and managing the consequences herself. So tell your stepdaughter-in-law what you’re thinking. And what you’re thinking is correct: Your stepson has a right to know that she’s planning to leave him. She should come clean. And if she won’t, you should. (A discussion of her reasons should indeed remain between the couple.) You’re also correct to fear that your relationship with your stepson could be damaged by your reticence: He would be within his rights to consider it a betrayal.

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