Bioethics Blogs

McMahan’s Hazardous (and Irrelevant) Thought Experiment

Written by Professor Allen Buchanan and Professor Lance K. Stell  


This is a response to an earlier post, by Jeff McMahan, about the right to carry guns,

Before we criticize McMahan’s argument, it is important to ascertain its implications: Assuming that, as McMahan thinks, there is no moral right to gun ownership, what follows, practically speaking? One might think that, given the number of gun deaths, it follows that there should be a legal ban on gun ownership. As we shall show, however, that conclusion does not follow.  Whether or not gun ownership should be banned is independent of whether there is a moral right to gun ownership. We will show that McMahan has not established that there is no moral right to gun ownership, but that even if he had, he would not have thereby shown that there should be a ban on gun ownership.

He claims that the case for gun ownership rests on two claims, one empirical, the other moral. The empirical claim is that we are safer the more guns there are in private hands.  The moral claim is that if someone suffers from an unjust attack under conditions in which the state has denied her access to guns, then the government has violated her right of self-defense.   But neither claim is needed to make the case in favor of gun ownership, as will become clear.  To make a sound case for gun ownership one needs only (1) a presumption that people should not be deprived of the means for exercising the right of self-defense, (2) a rebuttal of the claim that the presumption is defeated.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.