An Unexamined Life

It is been a long time since I have written on this blog, as I have been attempting to organize my thoughts on “an examined life” offline in the Scrivener writing app.  I am likely waiting in vain for the right time to actually write.  However, the recent San Bernardino mass shooting (Dec. 4, 2015) has generated much buzz on the web and social networks clamoring for “gun control.”  The NYTimes even had a hysterical front page editorial claiming to be morally outraged.  All just seems hysterical to me because: (1) I have thought long and hard on the topic; and (2) all the material I see are offensive to my academic training in the Socratic method.

I just started an enlightening book that covers Socrates and his method.  “People must interrogate their most fundamental prejudices or they would live superficial, expedient lives. As he explained to the court that condemned him to death: ‘It is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living.'” Armstrong, Karen (2009-09-11). The Case for God (p. 62). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. (citing Plato, Apology 38a)(emphasis added).   The Socratic method is essentially a civilized discourse (many times with myself) on all the different sides of a topic.  Not merely parroting common arguments but deconstructing every argument until a few compelling conclusions are left.  That, I submit, is the beginning of wisdom.

I have thought about human nature and politics since my childhood.  I am sure my immigrant experience raised issues of power and its abuse in my young mind.  My parents moved our family in 1979 to the United States from the Philippines under the Marcos dictatorship.  American history, Political Science, and later Jurisprudence and Constitutional law were compelling subjects that helped motivate me through the rigors of college, law school, the bar exam, and law practice.  I was also fortunate to experience some of these disciplines in “laboratory” settings in internships with the U.S. Senate, federal trial courts, and federal agencies.  My points are nothing original. They are just my internal dialog from my lifetime experiences, academic training, and consideration of compelling compelling insights of others.

I think we can all agree that constructive political discourse ought to be based on honestly defined presuppositions, reasoning, and logic instead of unchecked biases and emotions.  Ignorance is not an acceptable basis of important matters.  Are you aware of and have you challenged your presuppositions of humanity, law, and politics?  Have you examined your logic?

In the quote “power tends to corrupt, power corrupts absolutely”, I found a short statement that described my observations about society in general and political power specifically.  Here is the statement in a wider context: “If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means.”   Letter of Lord Acton (1877), http://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/165acton.html

My deductive reasoning from this presupposition is as follows:

1. Power Tends to Corrupt, and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.  Lord Acton’s view appears to be an obvious product of Renaissance, Enlightenment, and modern political/jurisprudential discourse such as Hobbes, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Kant, Mill, Paine, Hume, Rousseau, Bentham, Rawls, Hart, and Dworkin.  

2. If corruption is undesirable, then absolute power is undesirable

3. A legal system (as defined by the U.S. Constitution) that checks and balances power between federal branches, federal versus state, and state versus individuals are desirable because they minimize absolute power and therefore corruption.  These are based on John Locke’s theories that influenced early American political thinking.

4. The U.S. Constitution must be interpreted to accomplish its general purpose, namely to minimize power from being concentrated into one group over another and a person over another.  Thus, the Constitution cannot be changed expressly with a mere democratic majority.

5. Firearms are the basic projection of power (see Hobbes and Machiavelli’s observations); therefore, arms must not be concentrated in or monopolized any party or institution.  Otherwise, abuse of power ,and therefore corruption, becomes more endemic in a society.  I agree with Locke’s prescription of a divided government over Hobbes’ argument for a monarchy.  Some small, homogenous societies may be more ethically advanced where this does not apply, but I am yet to see a large, diverse society that can be trusted with concentrated power.

Supporters of gun control generally do not address these deeper political theories.  Rather, they rely on the inductive reasoning – more restrictions of firearms probably reduces gun-related deaths.  All this is based on statistics that are inherently subject to confirmation bias with disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities (e.g.: societal problems particular to a country).  And such arguments generally presume that government and people will meet their assigned responsibilities under the social contract.  This seems to be a very naive view of human nature and institutions.  I also take issue with judges, politicians, and journalists who have never fired, used, or trained with the weapons they want to ban.  Have you tried to actually defend yourself in a certified training course using live ammunition?

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