The Myth of the Morally Neutral Tool

The Myth of the Morally Neutral Tool August 25, 2014

One of the favorite myths of gun culture is the myth of the Morally Neutral Tool.  As the legend goes, “A gun is just a tool, it’s what you choose to do with it that matters”.

But as the police in Ferguson, MO recently demonstrated, the notion that our tools do not exert enormous pressure on us to *use* them is false.

The truth is, our technology deeply affects us and presents us with both opportunities and temptations.  Give a teenager a 2014 hot sports car and the car will whisper, beg, wheedle and demand that he drive fast and take chances. They will also put pressure on thieves to steal more of them, which is why insurance companies, who do not feel the need to pretend that all technology is “neutral” charge more to insure them.

Give a police force military tanks and weaponry and assault gear and they will become acclimated to the idea that their job is warfare on a subject population, not “protect and serve”. That is exactly what we saw in Ferguson and with other cops whose shiny new jackboots, tanks and massive weaponry has encouraged them to behave like a jackbooted occupying army and not like protectors of the peace.

Conversely, give a crowd of paranoids an arsenal, fill their heads with propaganda about Black Helicopters and FEMA concentrations camps and our patriotic duty to make war on the New World Order and the technology of mass slaughter will make his hands itch with the strong temptation to view themselves as called by God to fight off the imaginary Nazi Regime that is just about to take their land and arrest their family. That is exactly what we saw at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada. Put the two together and you have a formula for disaster. Only the grace of God has averted even worse disasters.

Technology, like those other works of our hands called “idols”, is not neutral.  It shapes the way we think and act every bit as much as our choices shape what is done with it.

When we aren’t talking about the technology called a “gun” and turn our attention to the technology called “The Pill”, this becomes obvious. The Pill put *enormous* pressure on our civilization to use it and we have easily succumbed to that pressure. When you design technology that is almost impossible to find a just use for (like a hydrogen bomb) or spy equipment *designed* to do things to citizens that the state should not be doing, you are designing something that is a powerful form of temptation, not something that is morally neutral.  Give a nation an atomic bomb and you gravely tempt that nation to commit mass murder.

All of which is to say that, once again, I believe that one of the pernicious effects of gun culture has been to promulgate and repeat various mantras and fallacies that are simply false to the facts of human experience. I reject the thesis that the works of our hands are morally neutral.  Very often they are idols. And very often those idols are both physically and spiritually deadly.

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  • ivan_the_mad

    This is powerful preaching! It is a vanishingly small set of things, natural or artificial, that is morally neutral in the hands of fallen man.

    • Linebyline

      It’s a vanishingly small set of the things those hands do that is entirely morally neutral. Even things designed to enable morally evil acts, like the Pill, can be (and often are) used for good. This does not mean that it’s necessarily OK to make or own or use those things: You could use a copy of Playboy to put out a grease fire, which doesn’t make it okay to subscribe to Playboy. It does, however, underscore the point that it’s what you do with a tool, not the tool itself, that has a moral character.

      • ivan_the_mad

        No. A Playboy is in principle a morally bad thing; it is incidental to the moral nature of the Playboy if you use it to smother a grease fire.

        • Linebyline

          I’m not saying that the Playboy becomes good just because you can use it for a good end. It should not exist. My point is that it’s acts of the will, not inanimate objects, that can be morally evil.

          If an inanimate object can be inherently evil, what determines whether it is evil?

          We already agree that it’s not the mere possibility of being used for good or for evil, as we already agree that Playboy should not exist (and if I agreed that an inanimate object could have a moral character, I’d definitely agree that it would be evil). Similarly, it’s possible to strangle someone with a rosary, but that doesn’t make rosaries evil.

          I don’t think that the originally intended use can make a thing inherently evil, either. Many technological innovations started out being designed for the military, and in some cases the wars for which they were designed to be used were not just wars.

          Neither is a thing immoral just because it is commonly used for evil: The growth of many media was driven by pornography. It’s commonly said that “the Internet is for porn” and the sheer amount of smut online bears that out, but I don’t think you and I are sinning by using the Internet to have this discussion.

          Objects don’t become inherently immoral even if they are overwhelmingly used for evil and only occasionally for good. The Church is on record as having no objection to the use of the Pill, provided it isn’t being used for contraception but rather to treat disease. This has been stated many times over the course of the HHS mandate debate.

          If the Church is right about this, and if you’re right that an issue of Playboy is inherently morally evil (and if I’m correct that that’s what you’re saying), then it would seem that the threshold is somewhere between the Pill and the magazine.

          Both are made for morally illicit purposes and only rarely used for licit ones, and neither is really necessary for the licit purposes (you can smother grease fires with all kinds of things but the recommended tool is a damp dishrag, and it would be better to tailor hormone therapies to the specific diseases rather than using the Pill as a cure-all). So where would that threshold be?

          The only difference I can see is that it is necessarily a sin to make Playboy, yet so far as I know the same is not true of the Pill. To create an issue of Playboy, you have to take sex out of its proper context and attempt to photograph it, which is a sin all by itself even if the camera ends up malfunctioning and the porn itself never gets produced.

          Which is basically my point: Sin is an act of the will, not a material thing.

  • Raoul Duke

    Say, if we blame All the Things. Like the Guns and the Pills, nobody is really to blame. ‘Course, we end up treating others like Things. The Cops. Those horriblible Gun Nuts and Walmart Shoppers.

    • chezami

      Noting that our technology puts pressure (sometimes enormous pressure) on us is not saying that we cease to be moral agents. It’s saying that (once again) gun culture deploys crappy arguments.

      • Pete the Greek

        I see you’ve already met Mr. Kettle.

      • Raoul Duke

        Actually, it is saying that inanimate objects are inherently immoral. Sorry, but the One Ring doesn’t exist as a physical reality. Even if gun-shaped. Still since you include yourself in the set of those influenced by Evil Objects… are you saying you would become violent if given a gun? Or have a hard struggle to avoid becoming violent?

  • David Naas

    Disaster will probably, in the absence of common-sense changes, happen. We will then wring our hands and ask, “How could it come to this?” The result of the national angst will be more stupidity.

    OK, I am pessimistic about things when the rabble rousers make oodles of money off the rabble. (To be perfectly clear, the rabble is Left and Right indiscriminately; one is a mirror image of the other.)

  • Anna

    The thing is, in many parts of this country, guns are in fact just a tool. And people who have grown up around them and use them to protect livestock and hunt food don’t care for the assumption from non-rural areas that guns are primarily for killing humans. These same rural people certainly see the problems guns cause in urban areas, but politics does make strange bedfellows and anti-gun legislation tends, as does all law written as an emotional response to an incident, to threaten rural populations with the loss of their guns rather than get guns away from those who don’t grasp how to use them in a non-paranoid way.

    Until I married someone who has been shooting since the age of 6, I pretty much had the same “guns *could* be okay, but really pretty much never are” sensibility as in this post. Unless you’re around the normal gun owners, all you get are crazy news stories.

  • Pete the Greek

    “One of the favorite myths of gun culture is the myth of the Morally Neutral Tool. As the legend goes, “A gun is just a tool, it’s what you choose to do with it that matters”.”
    – Then, if it is a myth, then those who have the biggest gun collections should engage in far more numerous acts of violence than those who do not. Do we have any proof of this? You repeat violent offender, does he usually have a massive cache of weapons? Does your average law-abiding gun owner only have a little pistol and one or two rounds in his pocket?

    I’ve known quite a few like this, with houses filled, and the number/style of weapons owned pretty much results in the same results: None really.

    Back when I owned several Kalashnikov style rifles, mags, and body armor, I felt the need to go lay the the butt of said rifle upside a minoritiy’s head, or just shoot them, was about the same as now, when I don’t own one: zero.

    Also, since over the last 30 years, gun laws have on average become MUCH more lax, types of weapons available have become amazingly numerous, etc… If these things automatically exert such almost irresistible force on us, bending our will toward violence and evil like a Constitutionally protected One Ring… Shouldn’t the violent crime rate be at an amazing record high? Hey Mark, how much has the violent crime rate risen over the past 20-25-30 years?

    Equating average gun owners with cops, to put it lightly, overlooks a few little factors.

    • Like Lewis, I am not tempted by gambling. But my effortless temperance w/r/t gambling doesn’t mean casinos aren’t near occasions of sin for other souls. Similarly, not all of us are as naturally chaste with violence and its tools as you are. Doesn’t necessarily mean the law should change, but it is something to ponder, and Mark wasn’t wrong to mention it. St. Paul cautioned us against drawing our weaker brothers into sin with behaviors that aren’t occasions of sin for us personally. Such charitable Christian caution is warranted here, I think.

      • Pete the Greek

        “Similarly, not all of us are as naturally chaste with violence and its tools as you are.”
        – That was not Mark’s point, that I can see. If that was it, then it doesn’t even need to be said, as everyone knows that anything can become an idol, from guns to food to even our most Holy Mother.

        No, his point was that increase in availability will lead to increase of evil use. Statistically, with regard to firearms, this is false. I will not deny that for many things it IS true (porn is a good example). But with firearms and violence use, we have facts that show this isn’t the case for lawful civilian ownership. This was my point, and note that it is a narrow one.

        For cops, this is another matter, but is FAR more complex. This was also my point.

        • “Statistically, with regard to firearms, this is false.”

          Indeed. Considering that it’s somewhat counter-intuitive, I’m curious as to why; I accept the brute fact of it, but I can’t yet puzzle out the causes of the fact.

          My best guess draws from the old cliche that French kids don’t binge drink at university because they’ve grown up around wine at dinner and can moderate their drinking better: intuitively, you’d think wider wine availability would lead to more drunkenness, but not so, if the cliche is true.

          Maybe enculturation into the sober norms of legal gun ownership (e.g., solemn admonitions of “Never point this at something you don’t intend to shoot”) helps to civilize young men who might otherwise get their guns illegally, and without mentoring? Dunno.

          Or maybe it’s like nukes’ apparent lessening of open great power war (despite nukes’ being really a One Ring, as Anscombe observed against Truman): something like Mutually Assured Destruction keeps behavior more restrained in concealed carry states, or states with more armed homeowners? Again, I’m not sure.

          • Pete the Greek

            I have no idea. I don’t think there is one single factor, probably many that tie into it. I’m not one of those people who chant the mantra “MORE GUNS LESS CRIME!!” as if it was an automatic, casual relationship. I think the idea would probably better be thought about not at a national level, but at individual, local levels, as I’d guess the reasons are also more local.

          • SHOTGUN285

            Have you never heard the adage that “an armed society is a polite society”? people are less inclined towards violence and stupidity when they fear the playing field might actually be level.

  • I support responsible gun ownership. But I do notice that my sinful self is a lot more prone to shamefully absurd daydreams about saving admiring onlookers from muggers after I’ve whiled away a pleasant hour on handgun practice at the shooting range, and likewise that I’m more likely to evaluate innocent strangers as potential assailants in that frame of mind. Norse tales of intelligent swords that yearned to draw blood were on to something: the beauty of a tool can be seductive. Like the Silmarils and the One Ring in Tolkien, quality handguns are some of the most elegant artifacts man has ever crafted. Modern mechanical marvels, just like the ancient technology of fire, are good servants, but bad masters.

    I don’t think it’s any danger to gun rights (which I support) to acknowledge that “But can’t our side use the One Ring for good?” is a dangerous approach to any tool, be it a gun, a car, a television, or the Internet, since it naively ignores that our souls are not purely rational, but embodied in concupiscent Flesh. Not all technologies are inherently sinful (like the One Ring or abortifacients), but all are near occasions of Devilish Faustianism in the hands of fallen man. As Lewis reminds us, the first Baconian scientists and engineers were essentially alchemists and sorcerers. Thus, a gun or a tv remote can be as dangerous to the soul as any wizard’s wand, and can beckon us to murderous machismo (the gun, sometimes) or lascivious sloth (the tv, sometimes). The modern World is always still Tolkien’s enchanted forest, and Dante’s dark wood.

    • Pete the Greek

      ” to shamefully absurd daydreams about myself saving admiring onlookers from muggers after I’ve whiled away a pleasant hour on handgun practice at the shooting range”
      – LOL! I know what you mean. It’s not just a temptation of gun owners. Ask anyone who has played a first person shooter game. The idea has a generic term: ‘your own gunfight’, ie, how you think it would turn out. The best cure for it, and I can personally agree, is to run just a single force on force simulation. Your mind changes quickly.

      “I don’t think it’s any danger to gun rights (which I support) to acknowledge that “But can’t our side use the One Ring for good?” is a dangerous approach to any tool, be it a gun, a car, a television, or the Internet.”
      – Here is where your fallacy is, it’s what Mark is assuming, and what my original post was attacking: That guns qualify as ‘the One Ring’ at all. Are they dangerous? yes. Should we have certain, specified limitations on them, even considering that they are a Constitutional Right? I would agree. But that’s different.

      Mark’s comparison of firearms to the Pill in this regard is disingenuous at best. The Pill, while, yes, it CAN be used morally for certain very limited medical problems, it was NOT legalized for that reason, nor was it intended for it. It’s main reason is directed specifically toward an immoral goal: contraception. The same thing for his atom bomb example.

      This is not the case with the 2nd Amendment or guns in general, unless you believe that any form of violence, including legitimate self defense, is immoral.

      Mark seemed to be making the point that the more weapons available, the more tempted to evil we become, and therefor were will suffer more evil. My retort was simply to point out what he HIMSELF stated some weeks back, that violence of all types, especially firearm violence, is at a near 30 year low, this in spite of HUGE weapon availability. If his claim is correct, we should have continually climbing levels of gun violence. We don’t.

      Do some people get tempted to violence more than others? Certainly. I have a good friend back home who, even though he is totally within legal right to do so, isn’t going to buy a firearm. This is because he considers himself too prone to anger and doesn’t think he should have one.

      His other point that, give a police force heavier guns and armor and suddenly they will magically change from Barney Fife into The Terminator is also fairly idiotic and tells me he hasn’t spent much mental effort thinking about it.

      This is not to say that police forces have NOT become militarized and much more prone to use raids (they have). But the reasons for this are FAR more complex and have more to do with politics, money, federal giveaways and drug crusaders than with just having the option to buy either a van or an armored truck, or a cast off surplus M-16 series instead of making due with a Mini-14.

      But then, exploring issues in depth don’t make good blog posts to generate click bait. It would also necessitate admitting that maybe, just maybe, one isn’t automatically an expert on every topic just because one wrote a blog post about it.

      • Great comment again, Pete.

        I should clarify: I don’t think guns are like the One Ring. Defense of self and family is licit, and so are the tools of such defense!

        I took Mark as making a point against those who thoughtlessly ignore considerations like those that prompted your friend who eschewed gun ownership because he has an irascible temperament. I think you read him differently. Only Mark can speak to which of us (if either) is right. Gun owners I’ve known have been universally sober about their responsibilities. But somewhere out there are the gun owners who bought those paper targets drawn to look like Trayvon Martin: to the extent those few people exist in our gun culture, we gun owners do ourselves a service in attempting to school them in the virtues their weapons require, and to caution them against the vices they can elicit in the careless and uncaring.

        BTW: I think first-person shooters are a GREAT example. Video games aren’t the One Ring, but the rewards of video-gaming demand a certain amount of careful resistance to near occasions of vice (like sloth and jadedness) for many of us.

        • Pete the Greek

          “But somewhere out there are the gun owners who bought those paper targets drawn to look like Trayvon Martin:”
          – Very true. But as you know, gun people like that find themselves ostracized very quickly, as not only are they looked upon as distasteful people in this regard, but they are usually odious in most other aspects of their lives as well.

          Mark in general (and here I’m talking about most all of his gun posts, not just this one) doesn’t see it this way. Mark looks at someone like that and considers them to be your average gun owner. This is not only unfair but also factually false, just as Mark would declare if unfair and factually untrue if someone would point to a sedevacantist or the Westboro Baptist “God hates fags” group as examples of normal, average Christians. This is probably less due to malice on his part and more in that he only seems to know of or see web posts from crazy people, just like one would have a bad view of Christians if your only exposure to them was through Sugenis’ organization.

  • AquinasMan

    Can we please add Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to this list of ‘Tools’?

  • Eli

    Out of curiosity what is your stance on gun ownership and the second amendment?

    • chezami

      Thank you for asking. Most people *tell* me what I think. I regard the second amendment as a human tradition, useful to a degree, but not holy writ and not more important than the fifth commandment. I have no particular problem with gun ownership per se, but think that gun culture in the US has gone mad. It promotes fallacious thinking at every turn and opposes even the most sensible changes to the status quo (such as when the NRA battles to make sure convicted stalkers get guns). My own suggestions for change are pretty modest: stop making crappy arguments and encourage the development of smart guns. Even this is met with implacable hostility from insane gun culture: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/2014/05/the-single-most-important-fact-about-our-gun-culture.html

  • The Deuce

    Translation: Mark has been destroyed one too many times by the statistical facts to get away with his “I just care about reducing the murder rate” ruse, and so now has to switch to “Forget the numbers. Guns are the debble!”

    • chezami

      I do care about reducing the murder rate. It’s not a ruse. It’s the only reason I write about this. But gun culture needs villains, so you have to call me a liar. Goodbye.

  • Linebyline

    Help me understand this: You argue that technology (including firearms technology) puts pressure on people, and I agree, but I’m not sure where you’re going with that argument. I don’t remember seeing those who disagree with you about guns ever try to claim otherwise (at least in the comments here; I don’t know what conversations you’ve gotten into on Facebook or elsewhere). They said only that it is what you do with the tool, not the tool itself, that has a moral character. The reason this is important to them (as far as I can tell, at least; it’s why it’s important to me anyway) is that some people depend on being able to own and use guns for perfectly legitimate purposes, and it’s those people rather than the paranoid gun nuts or overzealous cops who are likely to be negatively impacted by overreaching gun control measures.

    I guess what I’m asking is, how are you getting from the one argument (guns can be used for good, and some people need them, so we should be careful about controlling them) to the other (it’s not possible for guns to have a negative impact just by being there)? I don’t see anyone here directly making that argument, so that’s where I’m getting lost.

  • ImTim

    Conscientious gun owner here: keep up the posts Mark.

    I’m not convinced of your position, but your writing, and the responses of gentlemen like Pete have gone a long way toward refining a “common sense” position.

  • Petey
  • James Baresel

    The problem with American gun culture is that much of it is based on a strong self-defense mentality and involves the use of guns which are far more than needed for such basic civilian purposes as hunting. Many of the arguments used (its just a tool) would work entirely well if the guns in question were basic double barrel hunting shotguns owned by people who do not have an aggressive self-defense mentality. Ironically enough a hunting shotgun is more effective for home defense than the large magazine handguns often seen in magazines, posters, etc. which focus on guns as a means of self-defense while at the same time the hunting shotgun is also far less of a threat to public safety-the reason being the shotgun is much harder to hide and to reload, but its spray of pellets requires less accuracy when aimed at an intruder.

  • Jonk

    So, because well-armed police go nuts, we should authorize them forcibly disarm less-well-armed citizens. Brilliant!

    • chezami

      The voices in your head are telling you lies again, Jonk.

      • Jonk

        Ah, yes. When in doubt, accuse one’s opponent of mental illness. Always the classiest, most fallacy-free method of debate.

        Police militarization is a direct result of the expansion of police power to confiscate private property. Gun control necessarily expands that power further.

        Now, you may be in the “the police can have whatever weapons to violate whatever property, because they’re doing God’s work” camp, but the comic sort of suggests the opposite.

        • chezami

          The voices in your head are telling you that I want to disarm everybody. Since I’ve never said anything of the sort, I conclude that it’s voices in your head telling you that. If you don’t want your false witness made fun of, don’t attribute to me things I do not say.

          • Jonk

            You just want to disarm certain people, and remove from everyone’s possession certain armaments, of which you happen to disapprove.

            The end result is the same: continued expansion of the state’s power to confiscate property.

            • chezami

              Well, yes, I *do* think convicted stalkers should not be armed. And I don’t really see why you need field artillery. Call me Hitler.

              • Jonk

                As long as the confiscation is the result of due process and a conviction of, in this case, stalking by a jury of his peers, I don’t have a problem with that. But it’s those due process details that don’t often seem to matter to people looking for excuses to confiscate property.

                Artillery pieces are cool. They’re also not that scary. The park in my hometown had one; we crawled all over that thing, and no one ended up blown up.

          • Linebyline

            Jonk said “less well-armed,” not “disarmed.” You have been known to point out examples of people (e.g. the geniuses who walk around with guns longer than their arms strapped to their backs, just to show off the fact that they can) who you think should be less well-armed (and in that case I agree, lest anyone think I meant “geniuses” literally), so I don’t think that’s false witness.

            I can’t speak for Jonk, but what I took away from the comment was that if there’s going to be gun control, someone has to be the one to do the controlling, and it’s probably going to be the police, whom you already accuse of being too well-armed. This could have some major side effects. Maybe you aren’t calling for confiscation, but something tells me that the kind of jerk cops who frequently grace your blog wouldn’t stop at merely enforcing legitimate limits on the Second Amendment.

            When one has power, one tends to want more power, as you frequently point out. Similarly, when one has power, one tends to want everyone else to have less power, which is why some of us (Jonk apparently included, if I infer correctly) chafe at the idea of these cops being given any more authority over other people’s ability to keep and bear arms.