Does the old rallying cry "Guns don't kill people. People kill people" hold up to philosophical scrutiny?
flickr/United States Air Force
The tragic Colorado Batman shooting has prompted a wave of soul-searching. How do things like this happen? Over at Wired,David Dobbs gave a provocative answer in "Batman Movies Don't Kill. But They're Friendly to the Concept." I suspect Dobbs's nuanced analysis about causality and responsibility won't sit well with everyone.
Dobbs questions the role of gun culture in steering "certain unhinged or deeply a-moral people toward the sort of violence that has now become so routine that the entire thing seems scripted." But what about "normal" people? Yes, plenty of people carry guns without incident. Yes, proper gun training can go a long way. And, yes, there are significant cultural differences about how guns are used. But, perhaps overly simplistic assumptions about what technology is and who we are when we use it get in the way of us seeing how, to use Dobbs's theatrical metaphor, guns can give "stage directions."
Instrumentalist Conception of Technology
The commonsense view of technology is one that some philosophers call the instrumentalist conception. According to the instrumentalist conception, while the ends that technology can be applied to can be cognitively and morally significant, technology itself is value-neutral. Technology, in other words, is subservient to our beliefs and desires; it does not significantly constrain much less determine them. This view is famously touted in the National Rifle Association's maxim: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people."
The NRA maxim "Guns don't kill people. People kill people," captures the widely believed idea that the appropriate source to blame for a murder is the person who pulled the gun's trigger.
To be sure, this statement is more of a slogan than well-formulated argument. But even as a shorthand expression, it captures the widely believed idea that murder is wrong and the appropriate source to blame for committing murder is the person who pulled a gun's trigger. Indeed, the NRA's proposition is not unusual; it aptly expresses the folk psychology that underlies moral and legal norms.