Are You Morally Obligated to Give a Mad Man His Gun?
Imagine that a friend is going away and asks you to take care of their gun. Regardless of how you feel about guns yourself, you agree. Your friend returns, but it’s clear that your friend is erratic and dangerous. We might suppose that he is on drugs, radicalized against a group of people, or suffering under any other condition or evil that makes him a clear threat to himself or others. He has become, what we will call in this post, a “mad man.”
By both legal and apparent moral rights, the friend is entitled to his gun. Ownership rights entitle him to his gun, and as a general rule it is morally required to return property to its rightful owner. But those legal and moral rights alone do not seem to justify returning the gun to the owner in this particular case.
The answer lies a little bit deeper in the reason for “rights.” Rights are not the end in themselves, they exist because they help to ensure things that are good for human existence. Laws and justice work for the common good of all people.
You might be inclined to think that self defense is itself a common good, but even that is not the end in itself. If it were, you would be obligated to return the gun to the mad man.
The more basic common good is the safety of persons from undue harm. Self defense is just a means to safety. While it is good for people to be able to defend themselves from other people wrongly seeking to harm them, allowing a mad man to have the means to defend himself in this case works against the more basic goal of common safety. It is also clear that common safety outweighs the good of personal property since property does not mean much at the expense of innocent lives wrongly taken as a direct result of prioritization of that property.
Therefore we can rightly say that you are actually morally obligated not to give the gun to a mad man. Yes, the mad man loses his right to self defense (guns being the most effective means of self defense given current technology) and he loses the right to his property. But for the sake of the common good, he must suffer a disadvantage for the common advantage.
The point of prudence here is making sure that the disadvantage of the individual is less than the advantage for everyone on the whole. It is clear that in this case, it is good for common safety for mad men to not have guns. It is even good for the sake of mad men so that they will be safe from other mad men. Their private disadvantage is outweighed by the common good which is ultimately good for them as well.
We can apply this principle more broadly to the gun control debate. Public safety is the basic common good at play. The ability to defend oneself is an expedient common good for attaining the more basic good of safety (in one’s ability to repel assault), but it isn’t the ultimate point.
Putting clearly-dangerous individuals at a disadvantage by withholding a means of self defense both lowers the likelihood that other people will need to defend themselves in the first place, and also serves to advance the more basic good of the general safety of all people including the mad men themselves from themself and other mad men.
Also, surprise! You basically just read a scenario posed by Plato and an answer crafted by Francisco Suarez condensed into a blog post. Modern people should really stop dodging ancient thinkers. They solved a lot of our problems a long time ago.
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K. William Huitt
K. William Huitt is currently an M.A. student in Western Michigan University’s philosophy program. He graduated from Hillsdale College in 2019 with a B.A. in philosophy and a minor in history. He has spoken at various Christian apologetics events and writes regularly about religious and political issues.