‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun’ is a famous quote of the President of the National Rifle Association (Wayne LaPierre) that embodies the debate on owning weapons in the U.S. Supporters claim that the right to bear arms is a Constitutional right, which even extends to students who should be able to wear a gun while going to college. Opponents claim that this right is the cause for so many school shootings, and want to restrict the free circulation of weapons.
In this blog I do not wish to repeat that discussion or comment on it. Instead, I would like to reflect on the underlying dispute, which is actually about the fundamental meaning of the word ‘freedom’. The ‘right to bear arms’-discussion says it all: should someone have the right to protect her/himself against evil, or should someone have the right to live in a society in which this is not necessary?
Two concepts of liberty
These are to different interpretations of freedom, as we may learn from the philosopher Isaiah Berlin in his ground-breaking essay ‘Two concepts of Liberty’.
When I ask my students what they consider to be the meaning of freedom, they usually give me answers that emphasize that they should be able do whatever they want, without anyone to limit them in their freedom. The answer would match Berlin’s concept of negative freedom: the freedom from interference. This is the freedom to be fully capable of saying and doing whatever you want, without interference caused by fellow human beings.
However, when I ask my student if (s)he would accept it if I would steal her/his laptop, for this is what I would desire to do, (s)he disagrees and believes someone should interfere and do not let this happen. And when I ask my students if they really want to do a course in statistics out of their own free will, they are hesitant, and point out that their lecturer probably knows better than they do why the subject will help them in their life. In other words: their lecturer makes them do statistics while the student would rather be in a bar, but the students accept that their lecturer, who has more experience in life, knows better what’s in their best interest. This would match the idea of positive freedom: the freedom to live in a world in which you can develop yourself into an enlightened human being. This requires interference from others once in a while.
The debate concerning the Obamacare is a fine example of this. On the one hand, the Republicans say they do not want a paternalizing government that forces a health care insurance down their throat. On the other hand, the Democrats claim to know what’s best for those who do not willingly take such an insurance, and force them (or help them) to have one, for they know what’s best for these people on the long term. After all, it is best for someone to be insured for health care risks, even if that someone does not (yet) see the relevance of this.
Aleppo and Kim Jong-Un
Both concepts of freedom have a downside. When radically implemented, it is a choice between pure anarchy on the one hand, and extreme suppression on the other hand. In the Syrian city Aleppo, no one seems to be in charge, leading to complete anarchy in which everyone appears to do what s(he) pleases. Needless to say, a very undesirable situation. The North Korean leader claims to know what’s best for his people, and justifies his leadership style accordingly. According to Plato, the least preferred way to rule.
Obviously, to be a healthy society, one needs a bit of both negative and positive freedom, without such extremities. The question is in what balance.
Charlie Hebdo and the Burkini
The reason why this last question is so important, is that one usually affects the other. When the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo want to publish whatever they desire, unrestrictedly, it has consequences for those who feel offended and will try to impose their way of thinking on them. This is, sadly, a true clash of negative and positive freedom: interference and non-interference.
And when French police officers make a Muslim woman remove her burkini on the beach, it has consequences for the woman’s desire to wear whatever she wants.
The lesson we can learn from the above is that people should not too quickly use the word ‘freedom’ without thinking about its meaning and consequences. As it seems, there are those who believe to have the right to bear arms against those who mock a prophet, and those who wear a burkini. Both bear those arms in the name of freedom.