What can philosophy of technology tell us about the gun debate?

An industry retailer examines various SIG SAUER sport rifles at the National Shooting Sports Foundation's Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade show, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011 in Las Vegas. (AP/Julie Jacobson)
An industry retailer examines various SIG SAUER sport rifles at the National Shooting Sports Foundation's Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade show, Tuesday,...

Looking at the range of conservative reactions to calls for stricter gun control laws, you can see a common theme: A whole-hearted rejection of the claim that the availability of firearms would make potential offenders any more likely to want to use them. A typical rebuttal, in this case from Breitbart.com's Matt Boyle, goes like this: "Let's regulate knives too. You can't have steak knives in your kitchen anymore because a crazy person may stab someone with it."

Boyle is operating off the premise that this is how violence works: Someone—often a "crazy person"—develops the impulse to commit an act of violence. This person then finds a weapon with which to inflict that violence. This weapon in no way causes the person to want to inflict violence; it's just a neutral object. Another way of phrasing that argument might be, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people."

That argument, says philosopher Evan Selinger, is based off of "the instrumentalist conception of technology." That view, he told msnbc, holds that "technology is itself a sort of value-neutral instrument. It's sort of inert matter. So people are the kinds of beings we would morally evaluate—we would call someone good or someone bad, but we would only call an instrument bad in the metaphorical sense, or say that it's working or not working."

Selinger believes that the instrumentalist view of thinking about technology—including guns—is wrong. After the massacre in Aurora, Colo. over the summer, he penned an essay for The Atlantic Monthly in which he argued that the tools engage with can have a profound effect on our psychology.

"In certain situations, the way that it's like to be a human being is that certain types of technology, and using certain types of technology, can profoundly influence the kinds of things we're inclined to do," he told msnbc. As an example, he cited the invention of email.

"Prior to the instantaneousness of emails, which reduces transaction costs to such an extent, if you were bothered by somebody and thinking of firing off a hot-headed missive, it was a labor intensive process," he said. Now that the transaction cost of sending written messages across long distances has been drastically reduced, "you can find all kinds of people now who are finding themselves having types of remorse because they're able to express themselves without the kind of self-control that you'd find with people express themselves in a kind of system that has a high transaction cost."

The problem is so widespread that Google even invented a widget to deal with it: Email Goggles, which raise the transaction cost of sending an email so that it becomes difficult to do when drunk.

The ability to send messages across long distances without virtually any transaction cost is what the psychologist James Gibson would call an "affordance." Gibson introduced the concept in a 1977 essay, arguing, "The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill." [Emphasis in the original.] All tools, said Selinger, offer particular affordances, and those affordances can influence our behavior.

How they influence our behavior is a supremely difficult question. "If you look at a gun and ask about its affordances, there's no kind of easy answer," said Selinger. Different individuals with varying conditioned responses or levels of training could have wildly divergent responses. However, Selinger added, "If you look at what guns are designed to do, they weren't designed to be multi-functional objects. They have a particular end, a particular teleology in mind, and they were designed to be life-ending objects."

In his Atlantic Monthly essay, this is how Selinger described "the perceptual affordances offered by gun possession":

To someone with a gun, the world readily takes on a distinct shape. It not only offers people, animals, and things to interact with, but also potential targets. Furthermore, gun possession makes it easy to be bold, even hotheaded. Physically weak, emotionally passive, and psychologically introverted people will all be inclined to experience shifts in demeanor.

Because of the powerful psychological effects of gun ownership, Selinger told msnbc, it makes sense to think about the interaction between humans and guns in a system-based (rather than individual agent-centered) way.  A person holding a gun, he said, becomes part of a human-gun system.

"When you change the fundamental component here—a person walking down a street instead of a person-gun system—you can get a very different outcome," he said. When the National Rifle Association and its allies reply that "people kill people," they're taking a radically individualistic position that ignores the human's place within the system.

"At issue is a fundamental metaphysical issue about who we are, how autonomous we are," said Selinger. "The instrumentalist, to use a phrase from Seinfeld, sees us as masters of our own domain. The non-instrumentalist sees the human system in a much more porous way."

Selinger argues that it is the instrumentalists—those who insist "Guns don't kill people; people don't kill people"—who have taken an overly abstract view of the relationship between humans and technology. Instrumentalism "is a very partial account of how human beings think, of how we behave, of how react, and the ways in which material culture which we interact with can have on a profound effect on what we think," he said.