Tuesday, January 01, 2013


Recently, on the blog Psychobabble, I made a comment regarding the school shooting in Newton, Connecticut:

We all "have a right to our opinion" and mine corresponds with yours (the author of Psychobabble). But, opinion only covers things that are not, by nature, logical. To me, if children are being killed by guns, the answer is either to get rid of the children, or, get rid of the guns.
I guess one of my many failings is speaking in hyperbole. It does often tend to dilute the emotion, in this case sadness. My good friend from the Northeast corner of the Pond, took issue with the my contention that this was a logical question. Hoping he will give permission, I'll copy his comment:
Trouble is, Doc, that logic starts from premises ... and people pick their own premises.

Your unspoken premises in the above logic (and ones with which, of course, I passionately agree) include "children should not be killed by guns" and "children matter more than guns". The NRA and its fellow travellers would agree the first one but equivocate over the second.

And we all do the same in different ways. Which of us argues for constraint on road vehicles which currently kill about two thousand people a year in the UK (of which approx 8-10% are children), thirty thousand in the USA, three hundred thousand globally? As societies we tacitly accept, as the NRA does with firearms (and governments do with foreign wars, and industrialists used to do with child factory labour), a level of child mortality as the price of our chosen norms. And those acceptances become premises in our logic.
As always, there is a lot of wisdom in what the Growlery has to offer. However, I think his comment raises several profound questions. The first, of course, is our "tacit acceptance" of certain occurrences as norms, in particular, the death of children. This is an issue that has occupied my thinking for some time and it has multiple ramifications. It bears remembering that children have only recently gained the status of real people. The reason for this is quite clear. Up until the 20th century, the mortality rate for children even in first world countries (e.g. Italy p 8-9) was very high. I have an old Pediatric textbook from the 1920's that estimates that upward of 40% of children died before the age of 5 y.o. in the 19th century. In Tudor England p 113, for which records exist, the death rate by the age 10 years was circa 42%.  One can only shudder to think what the death rate of children in the ancient and medieval must have been.

As one consequence, until very recently, children did not become real people probably until they left childhood and went into adulthood bypassing the current extended adolescence. Certainly Romeo and Juliet were considered people though it is obvious that they are adolescents. The heroine in Balzac's Les Chouans, the Republican operative (sic), is in her mid teens but I can't find the reference. Thus, if my hypothesis is correct, the death of a child while tragic at any time for a parent, probably did not have the ramifications that such a death does today.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Starting in the 1970's, many medical centers established neonatal intensive care units. Younger and younger babies were surviving. Every life became more and more important. The age at which a newborn is judged "viable" has dropped in my professional lifetime from 26-27 weeks to as low as 23 weeks! The consequences of this pushing of the frontier of viability are many. Firstly, and most importantly for the discussion here, it places more and more emphasis on survivability of children. (the ethics of the viability question is also important but not part of this discussion).

Many other developments have changed the focus of Western Society to put importance on the survival of every child. These are well known. Families are small because of less demand for ready farm workers. And families do not need have many children to replace those children who died, usually from disease. (I should put a plug in here for getting vaccinations).

As a result of this, children are extremely valued in our society. We spend millions of dollars on a NICU baby. Since the 1960's one might even say that our society is youth oriented, though an argument can be made that dollars have replaced it. The reaction to the massacre in Newton I think exhibits this concentration of attention. (One wonders if the reaction would have been the same if it had been 20 African-American children.) However, I don't think this feeling is in anyway universal across all scenarios. As the Growlery points out, the fact that we are so complacent when hundreds of thousands of children in  Iraq were slaughtered and continue to be slaughtered in Syria, Afghanistan and Gaza lends some credence to his contention that some things matter more than the actual life of a child, in the minds of some people.

Yet still, I would argue that anyone who held the possession of a assault-rifle above the life of a child (always in the abstract, of course) is in some way perverted. After all, we are evolutionarily driven to produce and nurture children. Can the momentary pleasure of causing a deer to die of lead poisoning compare? Children are, as some crazy Greek said, immortality for some of us. But, it is also true that we as a society in a certain way accept the carnage of the automobile. But, I would argue, it is certainly not in the same ethical category as guns. I would like to point out that there is at least some control of who drives a car and increasingly severe penalties for using it for slaughter, even unintentional, which can't be said for a gun.

What exact value do we then place on the life of a child? Versus the life of an adult? What about the value of the elderly? (stop looking in the mirror, Dr. C.) Our Congress at the very minute debates slashing funds for social programs that will result in untimely deaths. Who is the arbitrator?


Jazz said...

Having left a reply on that very same post, I've come over here and found a far more eloquent response, one that is highly thought provoking...

I have no thoughts of value I can add as yet, but you've given me much food for thought. I sadly suspect that it will be impossible to answer those questions in a way that feels both good and right, and also stands up to logical analysis.

Dr. C said...

Thanks Jazz. Let's hear those thoughts. I need to reanalyze what I said because it is probably too emotional and not logically consistent. Still, its hard to fathom that people can accept the death of a child as an acceptable premise. I know the Growlery is right (as always) but in a better world it would be otherwise.

Felix said...

DrC> ...but in a better world it
DrC> would be otherwise.


I freely acknowledge the differences that you and Jazz point out between cars and guns. I could argue point by point, but it would be hairsplitting ... my point was the general principle that logic is amoral; if we start with ethically repugnant premises we get ethically repugnant conclusions, so there's little percentage in trying to persuade an opponent by use of logic unless we can establish that s/he shares our initial assumptions.

I doubt that even the most rabid NRA apologist would say "a gun is worth more than a child". Rather, the difference between them and me is where we draw the boundary in a fuzzy territory of conflicting priorities and probabilities.

Perhaps a more direct equivalent of the gun/life tension the oil (or any other strategic resource) vs casualties example of a war or even (as for example with US/Israel) alliance.

As for child vs adult life ... my personal set of assumptions draws no distinction.

Dr. C said...

As always thanks for your comments, Felix. I've been thinking more about this issue. It may be that the only discipline in which true logic is allowed is mathematics (or logical positivism in philosophy, if I could ever understood Wittgenstein). Perhaps there is no such thing as logic in social or political discourse since, as you have said, one is allowed to pick whatever premises you would like. But, this is a slippery slope.
Some situations where this becomes dicey are:
1. As you say, going to War for oil (as our current candidate for Dept of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has found out)
2. Drone aircraft use where there are civilian casualties. Even there, killing supposed insurgents is dicey. Certainly Afghanistan does no qualify as a "Just War."
3. Repeated excursions by the IDF into Gaza, Lebanon and maybe now Syria.
4. Plantation owners in the Old South had many ready justifications, most of them from the Bible, for enslaving the black man.
Certainly Mao, Stalin and Hitler felt that their killing of millions was not only logical but justified, giving their premises.

I am now very confused. Are there no, basic precepts that all sane men can agree on from which we can argue forward?

Jazz said...

(Disclaimer: I'm currently sleep-deprived and shattered, so chances are that this will be poorly written and make no sense)

I don't know much abut logic, or philosophy, and I'm pretty uneducated on a lot of things. I am not very good at debating social issues, although I may have passionate opinions - I just know that I haven't the education or wits for an intellectual debate on most subjects.

But my two pennies worth is that I look for a humanistic approach when anything concerning morality, social issues and the like comes up.

The most fundamental and basic premise that we SHOULD all accept, is that we are all equal. No one more inherently valuable than another. Since that's the case, as it undoubtedly is, we should be able to live our lives as freely as possible - AS LONG AS THAT FREEDOM DOESN'T IMPINGE ON THE FREEDOM OF OTHERS. After all, by choosing a behaviour that imposes restrictions on someone else, you are deciding that your rights are more important than theirs.

How that can actually be applied to social issues like gun control, I've no idea. It's also a very simplistic idea when looking at hugely complex issues in a hugely complex and increasingly global society. The you have to ask whether the premise is actually true. IS a violent rapist murderer as inherently valuable as someone who constantly contributes positively to the world? If they rape and kill, then their freedoms then need to be restricted more, and the premise collapses because now we need to start writing in exceptions to the basic rule. Are they less fundamentally valuable because all they do is destroy? Are we judging value based on what you do? What about those who don't contribute but don't do harm either? Are they high-street value while Mother Teresa is Harvey Nicks? Do we have a rating system now?

We are also, I believe, not logical by nature. Which is just as well at times, since as you guys already said, logic can only really work when it comes to number crunching. It doesn't work as a tool for morality. The phrase "cold, hard logic" is a pretty valid one.

Then there is the cognitive dissonance that comes up as we've become globally aware. All of our actions affect someone else, and we can't process all of it and make the right choices day in day out, because even if we did EVERYTHING we could, like going vegan, giving up all commercialism, making our own clothes, etc etc, we then find out that our new, less harmful choice causes harm in a different way. Now we're caught between doing harm, and doing less harm. There's no perfect solution, so we live with the cognitive dissonance and remain focused on doing what's best for us on the whole.

Then there is the fact that many people wouldn't accept that we are all born equal, with the same inherent value as everyone else. So the premise doesn't work as something we can all agree on, even at such a basic level.

So I don't know. I've not really added much, except to say in a not very coherent or sensible fashion, that I have no idea either. All I know is that if there was an all powerful, all-knowing creator, that it didn't do a very good job of laying out some ground rules.

Dr. C said...

Actually, Jazz, you have some pretty good points. You need to stop being so dismissive about your intellect which is obviously fine. I have two further observations on the topics:
1. As for everyone being created equal, it was not so very long ago that this was tantamount to heresy. I just watched "The Kings Speech" and noted that the royalty made a big deal of being called "your majesty."
2. The second thing is that we think we are doing a good deed by donating clothing for the "poor people in Africa." No only does this reinforce our position of superiority, it is also counterproductive in the larger scheme because we just destroy and indigenous production of cloth and garment manufacture.
Life is a two edged sword.

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Montag said...

I appreciate your lengthy discussion. I find this topic very difficult because it keeps shading into logic, then emotions, then rights, and many other areas.

"Many people express objections against child labor, exploitation of the workforce or meat production involving cruelty against animals. At the same time, however, people ignore their own moral standards when acting as market participants, searching for the cheapest electronics, fashion or food. Thus, markets reduce moral concerns."

what other "rational" and "logical" activities reduce moral concerns? why do they do so?
is it merely "money trumps morals", or is there something else?

are there activities other than markets that have this type of outcome, and are guns an example of one?

Sorry. This is sketchy and vague.