Our Dignity-Right To Guns

Armed Self-Defense & Gun Control In The United States

By Professor Daniel Demetriou (University of Minnesota)

July 14, 2016             Picture: Carlo Allegri/REUTERS

This article is part of The Critique’s July/August 2016 Issue “No Silver Bullet: Contending With The Complexity Of The Gun Violence Debate In The United States”

Philosophers on both sides of the gun control debate typically assume that a moral right to guns is contingent on whether guns really do make us safer.[1] I disagree: what matters isn’t just whether guns make us safer, or even whether armed resistance generally is the safest or most efficient way of protecting ourselves against criminal assault, foreign invasion, or state oppression [See Spitzer on the constitutional interpretation grounding notions of self-defense against state terror].

What matters at least as much is whether and when armed resistance is our only dignified option. Victims of assault, invasion, or oppression have a moral right to resist with dignity, and dignity sometimes demands armed violence even when nonviolence would achieve victims’ ends more easily or safely.[2]

As we shall see, the dignity-driven[3] position advocated for here asks nothing more on behalf of gun rights than what is widely accepted in other domains, including disability rights or women’s rights. If we have an overarching right to live with dignity, then we have a moral right to buy or even carry guns if dignified resistance is likely enough to require them. Precisely how likely is “likely enough,” and whether or where, in the real world, that threshold has been exceeded, are the critical questions in a gun debate that takes dignity seriously.


Why Think Dignity Ever Requires Violent Resistance?

In 2013, during a statewide debate on whether guns should be allowed on campuses, the Department of Public Safety at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS) published a memo advising students to vomit or urinate on themselves if sexually assaulted. Although the memo also endorsed “hitting or biting,” it cautioned that “some actions [presumably, the violent ones] on your part may lead to more harm” and that “if your life is in danger, passive resistance may be your best defense.”[4]

“If we have an overarching right to live with dignity, then we have a moral right to buy or even carry guns if dignified resistance is likely enough to require them”.

As could be expected, right-leaning pundits promptly criticized the memo’s recommendations as ineffective, infantilizing, and condescending. [5] But even feminist and progressive commentators found the advice distasteful. [6] UCCS, friendless on the issue and hoping to avoid more bad press, pulled the offending webpage within days. Their infamous advice has nonetheless become a fixture of the gun rights memeplex.

Ironically, UCCS’s recommendations were not idiosyncratic in the self-defense community. The book See Sally Kick Ass: A Woman’s Guide to Personal Safety, for instance, counsels that attacked women, among other things, rub vomit or feces all over their bodies—


Sally Kick Ass

[Source: See Sally Kick Ass: A Woman’s Guide to Personal Safety, (Outskirts Press, 2006) p. 108.]


—as does Fight Back! Safety and Self-Defense Tips, which also advises acting crazy and barking like a dog.


[Source: Fight Back! Safety and Self-Defense Tips, (Lulu Enterprises Incorporated, 2012) p. 3-4]


The contrast between the titles of these books and their advice is noteworthy: why weren’t they titled Bark Like a Dog! or worse, See Sally Rub Shit on Herself, if such tactics are sound? The simple answer is that these unsavory methods of self-defense were downplayed because they are undignified.

I begin with these examples of degrading resistance because our response to them has nothing to do with primitive honor culture or macho frontier individualism—psychological impulses which, although real enough, are often used in progressive and academic forums to discount arguments of gun rights advocates.

The intuition that covering ourselves with egesta would be an undignified self-defense measure appears to be shared across the political spectrum, so we can say with confidence that defense with dignity matters to a wide and diverse swath of readers.

Unfortunately, the most reliable and least costly (in terms of effort, expense, and risk) ways of protecting ourselves will sometimes be undignified. Smearing ourselves with vomit may indeed be the prudent move in some cases. Cowering in a closet, changing our routine to walk in groups, or begging for mercy will often be the safest response to the threats posed by assault. Fighting for our freedoms may well be less effective than sustained but peaceful protesting, and passively resisting conquest will (in some cases at least) exhaust invading forces more quickly and with fewer deaths than would desperate charges across the battlefield.

So we must concede that armed resistance will sometimes be counterproductive to our aims, either individually or collectively or both. Even so, the obvious question is whether we have a moral right—not a moral duty, but a moral right—to defend ourselves in less effective and riskier but more dignified ways. The answer must be that we do.

This rationale should apply in other domains, and it does. As has been noted by some SCOTUS justices and legal commentators on both the political right and left, dignity cannot inform disability rights, women’s rights, and gay rights but not self-defense rights.

To see why, let us draw upon our intuitions about disability with dignity for a moment. Suppose your local magistrate decided to assist wheelchair-bound individuals by hiring powerful bailiffs to carry them up the courthouse steps. There is little doubt that being cradled in a court officer’s beefy embrace would require less effort than wheeling oneself up a ramp. It would probably be more comfortable and make the ascent quicker. Some disabled people might prefer it. But disabled people have a right to use ramps if they prefer to, and it would be outrageous to replace the more onerous but more dignified ramp option with bailiffs.

Generally, disabled people have a right to dignified accessible technologies even when undignified measures would be more efficient, practicable, or convenient. Likewise, those who are likely enough to require weapons to resist with dignity have a moral right to them, even if weapons are less effective or safe than their alternatives.


Is Violent Resistance More Dignified Than Nonviolent Resistance?

As the UCCS example shows, nonviolent resistance is sometimes undignified. But can we say anything more general about the relationship between violent resistance and dignity? I think so: in this section I motivate the view that (given a few provisos) violent resistance is generally more dignified than nonviolent resistance. So although violent resistance isn’t always our only dignified option, we shouldn’t be surprised that it often is.

Rubbing excrement over oneself to discourage a rapist exemplifies what I call a “repellence” strategy. Repellence strategies are abundant in nature: poison dart frogs, for example, secrete toxins that sicken their would-be predators. Although nonviolent, repellence is distinct from passive resistance.

Passive resistance campaigns, such as those led by Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., are usually designed to spotlight injustice, to elicit solidarity from dominant groups, and to disrupt the smooth operation of oppressive regimes. Politically, passive resistance strives to make the victimized groups attractive or sympathetic, not repellent.

Practically, repellence differs from passive resistance by being potentially excruciating or even deadly for assailants who fail to desist. A poison dart frog’s toxic ooze can unexpectedly harm a predator in ways that an armadillo’s armored shell cannot. Nonetheless repellence isn’t what we’d normally call “violent”: without committing to a theory of what violence is, repellence doesn’t involve fighting back.

Both repellence and passive resistance can be dignified. Activating a blaring alarm or releasing a cloud of tear gas would be repellent and yet reasonably dignified methods of resisting attack in some cases. Also by way of concession, violent resistance can certainly be undignified.

Disproportionate, inapt, and awkward responses strike me as always undignified. For instance, in resisting a bratty child who occasionally kicks you in the shins, dignity would rule out blasting him with a shotgun (disproportionate) or holding a hunger strike (inapt). Awkward performances can also render violent resistance undignified: even if he is morally in the right, a drunken man’s efforts to fight off an assailant in the pub parking lot is more likely to be cringeworthy than dignified.

That said, when proportionate, apt, and adroit, violent resistance appears to be a more dignified form of resistance than its (proportionate, apt, and adroit) nonviolent alternatives. Just as we say horses are big only if we ignore elephants, the dignity of nonviolence is dwarfed by the dignity of proportionate, apt, and adroit violent resistance.

For instance, the most dignified example of passive resistance I know of occurred in 1930 when, in protest of the British salt tax, over 2000 Indian men lined up in rows to symbolically “raid” the Dharasana Saltworks, an event memorably dramatized in this scene from the film Gandhi:

Like most people, I am astonished by the self-possession and courage of the Dharasana Saltworks “raiders.” And yet, although the raid was supremely dignified given its actual historical context, it seems equally clear that its dignity was contingent upon the protestors’ inability to violently expel their British overlords.

For suppose those hundreds of millions of Indians suddenly and magically received the guns and training necessary to forcefully liberate themselves. What would we say of the Dharasana “raid” then? Wouldn’t we consider it a perplexingly demeaning tactic, however stoical?

Far more dignified in this hypothetically armed India would be an ultimatum to the British giving them one month to remove themselves before being forcibly expelled: a proportionate, apt, adroit—but hardly heroic—violent threat.

In the minds of many, Martin Luther King Jr.’s,campaign for racial justice would have been less, not more, dignified if it embraced the violent methods called for by black nationalists such as Malcolm X. This is correct, but not a counterexample to my view. Black nationalists weren’t seeking integration into a white America so much as independence from it. So quite plausibly, violence would have been inapt and thus undignified for King’s movement, but not necessarily Malcolm X’s. (That said, the violence black nationalists called for might have been undignified for other reasons, such as disproportionateness. And even if an act of violent resistance is dignified, it may be immoral for other reasons. Just as an action may be caring but immoral, an action may be dignified but wrong. Dignity is not the only moral good, and as discussed below, other considerations sometimes render impermissible our only dignified option.)


What Makes Violent Resistance More Dignified?

What is it about proportionate, apt, and adroit violence that ennobles resistance? One possibility is that violent resistance claims a type of equality that is highly relevant to dignity: namely, that unlike passive and repellent resistance, violent resistance asserts the victim’s personhood by refusing to grant the victimizer full discretion over the terms of engagement.

If Jill passively resists the attempted rapist Jack (say, like an armadillo, she tucks into the world’s most effective fetal position), Jack gets to determine when the episode is over. Even if Jill makes herself repellent (say, by evacuating her bowls), Jack nonetheless gets to decide when to break off the disagreeable attack and go about his business.

But if Jill responds violently, then Jack no longer calls the shots on whether the engagement will continue or what consequences he will suffer. Upon putting up a fight, Jill makes Jack’s challenge game theoretic, not decision theoretic: Jill as it were transforms herself from an inert feature of Jack’s landscape into an agent who helps shape Jack’s world, just as Jack has helped shaped hers. This explanation is reminiscent of classical republican thoughts about why voting and legal rights are especially important to dignity.[7]

“Violent resistance asserts the victim’s personality by refusing to grant the victimizer full discretion over the terms of engagement”.

Although we wish Jill success, in reality, as the self-defense experts cited above point out, violent resistance is often ineffective and results in even more harm for the victim. The ubiquity of passive and repellent resistance in nature, along with strong freeze and flight instincts even in creatures who sometimes do fight back, proves that violent resistance is often a losing strategy. But we are talking about a moral relation between aggressor and victim, not a descriptive one. Only by fighting back do victims claim their moral equality in the engagements their aggressors summon into existence.

But one needn’t accept my speculations on the superior dignity of violent resistance to recognize that we have a right to defend ourselves in dignified ways. Clearly we have right to live with dignity, and any number of everyday instances of assault, invasion, or oppression can be provided demonstrating (for anyone capable of intuitions about dignity) that sometimes our only dignified options will be violent.


From Dignified Resistance To Guns

How might our right to dignified resistance inform the gun rights debate? Even if in the above scenario Jill has a dignity right to violently resist Jack, she has a wide range of morally permissible violent options. She may scratch, punch, or bite him, as the UCCS memo notes. Jill’s mere right to defend herself violently doesn’t entail a moral right to own, carry, or use a gun.

So dignity-based gun rights advocacy must show that our right to defense with dignity extends to effective violent resistance, and that effective dignified violent resistance most likely requires arms.

The simplest argument for effective dignified violent resistance is based on the principle that, if one has a right to x, one has a right to an effective x. If a prisoner has a right to water, he has a right to healthy water; if a child has a right to an education, she has a right to decent teachers.

Likewise, if we have a right to dignified self-defense, and if dignity in certain cases requires violence, then we have a right to effective violent resistance in those circumstances, too.

Disability again provides us with an instructive analogy. Consider the circumstance of a disabled man—let’s call him Raj—recently photographed struggling to ascend the stairs of a non-handicapped-accessible subway terminal in New Delhi.

Raj’s determination in the face of hardship, his strength of spirit, and refusal to give up make his climb very dignified indeed. And yet, the fact that Raj’s ascent is dignified without access to a wheelchair and ramp in no way undermines his right to procure these assistive technologies.

Similarly, the fact that we can resist assault, invasion, and oppression with dignity even if deprived of the guns which would make our resistance effective doesn’t entail that we don’t have a right to guns.

Furthermore, since assistive technologies give the disabled more independence and thus (all things being equal) a more dignified life, a legal prohibition of wheelchairs and ramps would itself be an indignity. The same might be said of gun control laws aimed at separating weapons from people who require guns to resist effectively and with dignity.


Does Dignity Justify Putting Innocent Third Parties At Risk?

Glossed over in my discussion so far is the fact that our right to effective dignified resistance is a “prima facie” right, or a right that can be outweighed (or “defeated”) by other important considerations or rights. In this discussion, the biggest countervailing consideration will be safety: for even if we have a dignity-right to guns whether or not they make us less safe, there is some limit to how unsafe they may be for innocent others and yet morally permissible for us to own or carry.

For instance, most of us live in circumstances such that it would be wrong for us to possess or carry hand grenades—even if it were legal to do so—given their dangerousness to innocent bystanders and the absurdly small probability of their being necessary for effective dignified resistance. So to put it pointedly: Can our right to effective dignified resistance outweigh the added risk guns pose for, say, our children?

Before answering this question, I will note but set aside a few important points a longer discussion would allow. First, it isn’t clear whether, given the evils of state oppression, we (or our children) are all-told better off, or even safer, in an unarmed society.

Second, I think we should be disinclined to cede our right to some item (be it liquor, cars, or guns) because of the malicious or irresponsible use of it. Third, we should be skeptical that gun control laws would be effective for any reasonably free population that feels they need guns, and 3-D printers make this skepticism increasingly justified.

Finally, smart gun technology will render stolen guns inoperable, and dramatically reduce accidental shootings caused by children playing with guns they discover lying around the house.

As important as these points are, they do not specifically concern dignity’s intersection with the ethics of resistance. I suggest that the dignity-based reply to concern for innocent third parties should, once again, be premised on simple consistency across domains.

For the fact is that most gun control advocates tolerate risks to innocent third parties for reasons less weighty than dignity. For instance, it has been pointed out that backyard pools are 20-100 times more deadly for children than guns are.

But let’s compare apples to apples and focus solely upon the risks we impose on children for the sake of our dignity in other matters. Suppose Simone, a stay-at-home mother of three, finds herself faced with the prospect of indignity. Maybe her husband has joined a religious sect that requires her to be covered, and she finds being covered to be undignified. Maybe her husband demands a sexual favor she finds demeaning. Maybe her husband insults her regularly. You fill in the details.

Most of us will say Simone has a moral right to leave her husband for the sake of her dignity. We would say this even if Simone would have to remove her family to a poorer and more dangerous side of town, one in which her children will suffer from an increased probability of being seriously injured or killed.

Or to take an even more common scenario, suppose Simone, a single mother earning low wages as a waitress, is already raising her children in an impoverished and dangerous neighborhood. Suppose further that her looks would allow her to earn more money as a sex worker: a great deal more if she took up prostitution, but still considerably more if she simply became a “cam girl,” which, given that she’d be working at home and for herself, would also afford her more safety and autonomy than waitressing. Simone realizes all this on an intellectual level, but she never considers sex work because (correctly or not) she sees sex work as demeaning.

So Simone’s refusal to become a sex worker places her children in peril for the sake of her dignity. It is implausible that Simone may put her children at risk for the sake of her (perceived, and quite possibly misplaced) sexual dignity but not for the sake of her dignity in matters of self-defense or resistance.

Estimate for yourself how much danger Simone may put her children in for the sake of her sexual dignity: even after multiplying by relevant probabilities (after all, Simone’s “indignity” would be certain if she took up sex work, but there is only a chance that she may need a gun for dignified resistance), the result may well be that the maximum risk she may impose on her children for the sake of her sexual dignity on your calculus is higher than the risk imposed on many children when their parents own or carry guns.


Conclusion: Determining And Exercising Our Dignity-Right To Guns

Since we have a prima facie right to dignity in self-defense and resistance just as in other matters, if guns are required often enough to resist with dignity, we have a prima facie moral right to them even if it is discovered that armed resistance is less effective or more dangerous than passive or repellent alternatives such as alarm systems, small but alert guard dogs, walking in groups, protest marches, strikes, etc.

Nonetheless, given the risks guns pose for innocent third parties, the prospect of needing arms to resist with dignity must be “likely-enough” to justify owning or carrying them. No legal freedoms could make it morally permissible to endanger innocent people with our arms if the chances are miniscule that our dignity will require them.

Since dignity considerations alone cannot justify our right to own or carry certain things (such as teddy bears), a uniquely dignity-based defense of gun rights would need to make plausible the idea that guns are reasonably necessary for a dignified life.

In this way the dignity-based rationale sets a higher bar for gun rights than a libertarian one that sees simple freedom as grounding a prima facie right to possess or carry guns (or teddy bears, for that matter). That said, a dignity-based defense of gun rights can be compatible with a libertarian one.

Determining how often dignity requires armed resistance is a research agenda with social-scientific and ethical dimensions. As far as crime is concerned, we would need to consider cases—more practically, types of cases in which police cannot intervene in time, such as home invasions, carjackings, sexual assaults, street robberies, etc.—and rely on our sense of dignity to determine whether victims in these (types of) situations require guns to defend themselves effectively and with dignity. We would then need to multiply our findings by the probability of these situations actually occurring. The results may well show that some of us have no right, or at least no right we may morally exercise, to carry or even own a gun.

As a father of two young children, my current home is in such a safe (and highly-armed, I might add) town that I cannot purchase a gun in good conscience, let alone carry one around. But many people, especially those who live in violent neighborhoods or who are likely targets of attack, may indeed have an undefeated dignity-right to guns.

Footnotes & References

[1] See Hugh LaFollette, “Gun Control,” Ethics 110 (2000): 278; Samuel Wheeler, “Gun Violence and Fundamental Rights,” Criminal Justice Ethics 20.1 (2001): 21-22; Jeff McMahan, “A Challenge to Gun Rights,” Oxford University’s Practical Ethics blog (April 17, 2015), available: http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2015/04/a-challenge-to-gun rights; David DeGrazia, “Handguns, Moral Rights, and Physical Security,” Journal of Moral Philosophy 11.1 (2016): 1-21; Timothy Hsiao, “Against Gun Bans and Restrictive Licensing,” Essays in Philosophy 16.2 (2015): 188.

[2] This thesis has obvious implications for just war theory’s “reasonable success” condition, but I cannot broach that consequence here. See Frances Harbour, “Reasonable Probability of Success as a Moral Criterion in the Western Just War Tradition,” Journal of Military Ethics 10.3 (2011): 230-241.

[3] My position should be termed a “dignitarian” one, but “dignitarian” is loaded with theoretical baggage and substantive positions that are at best irrelevant to the points of this essay. A better term might be “honor-theoretic.” See Jeremy Waldron, Dignity, Rank, and Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[4] Alyssa Newcomb, “Colorado College Advises Students to Urinate, Vomit to Stop Rapists,” ABC News (Feb 20, 2013).

[5] Michelle Malkin, “The Anti-Choice Left’s Disarming of the American Woman,” MichelleMalkin.com (Feb 20, 2013).

[6] Katie Baker, “College Tells Women to Avoid Rape By Peeing, Vomiting, and Menstruating on Command,” Jezabel.com, Feb 21, 2013.

[7] The dignity of being non-dominated on the individual level—of being such that someone cannot offend against you with impunity—the classical republican conception of political freedom writ small. See e.g. Philip Pettit, “Freedom with Honor: A Republican Ideal,” Social Research 64.1 (1997): 52-76.

Dan Demetriou
Dan Demetriou
Dan Demetriou is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, Morris. He has published a number of articles on honor as a moral value and psychological motive, and co-edited (with Laurie Johnson, Kansas State) the forthcoming Honor in the Modern World: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Lexington Books).
  • Cyril Schmedlap

    Interesting essay. I’m not clear on one point, perhaps because I haven’t read it a second time. You state: “Since dignity considerations alone cannot justify our right to own or carry certain things (such as teddy bears).” If dignity is an overarching right, why is this not justification?

    • Dan Demetriou

      Hi Cyril: In this essay I argue for a prima facie right to guns based solely upon dignity-related reasons. So I need to explain why guns are relevant to maintaining our dignity. A dignity-based defense of a right to own or carry teddy bears would be difficult, since carrying a teddy bear doesn’t help us maintain our dignity. But as guns are indeed relevant to maintaining our dignity (I argue), this burden can be met. In contrast, some people (such as Mike Huemer—see his essay in this series) argue for gun rights based mostly off of libertarian (freedom) considerations. Since freedom gives one a prima facie right to do whatever one wants (make snow angels, smoke, carry guns), it’s much easier to defend a prima facie right to guns based on freedom than dignity. That said, a dignity-based defense such as mine is compatible with a freedom-based/libertarian one. In fact, I believe we have both a freedom-based right to guns and a dignity-based right to guns.

  • Laurie Johnson

    Very well reasoned and enjoyable piece that looks at the issue from the fresh angle of dignity. Many people have chosen to risk their lives for the sake of dignity–as you point out, this is a uniquely human concern that makes the advice to defecate or pee like an animal in an assault seem absurd. Good food for thought.

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

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