Is it ethical to manufacture and sell assault weapons to civilians?

Contributed by an ethics instructor.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

One response »

  1. John Hooker says:

    A key test for this issue is the utilitarian principle. If I am a firearms manufacturer, I must decide whether net expected utility would be greater if I sold no assault weapons. If it would, I shouldn’t sell them.

    The popular argument, “Guns don’t kill, people do” doesn’t work for the utilitarian test. The correct criterion is simply how much (dis)utility results from selling the guns, regardless of who shoots them. I often use the example of a pharmaceutical company that has an opportunity to sell a miracle cancer cure. (See the discussion of McDonald’s in Video 6 [transcript] under How to analyze.) The drug can benefit people only if physicians prescribe it and patients take it, but the company must nonetheless consider the enormous positive utility that results from marketing the drug. Similarly, a gun manufacturer must consider the negative utility created by people who use its guns.

    However, the equally popular argument, “If I don’t do it, someone else will” does work for the utilitarian test. If other manufacturers would pick up the slack left by my decision not to sell assault weapons, resulting in the same total sales, then there is no apparent utilitarian argument for or against selling them.

    Unfortunately, we don’t know the effect of my refusing to sell assault weapons. There are already millions of them out there, and several manufacturers stand ready to sell them to any customers I don’t satisfy. The net effect could be nil. On the other hand, I could create nearly the same positive utility (hunting, recreation, self defense) by selling less dangerous guns that create less negative expected utility. There is a small but nonzero chance that one of my assault weapons will find its way to a homicidal maniac who would not have acquired such a weapon from another source and who would have killed fewer people as a result.

    In a case of uncertainty like this, the utilitarian test only requires me to be rational in believing that my assault weapons sales don’t reduce net expected utility.

    However, to be rational, I have to research the issue, particularly because so much is at stake. Imagine, for example, that I have decided to invest my life savings in aluminum stocks. If this is the right choice, I will earn a good return. If it is the wrong choice, I will lose everything, and my family and I will die a miserable death from starvation (a rough analog of someone shooting a classroom full of kids with one my guns). Nobody knows how stocks will behave, so I use a rationality test. It is clearly irrational to plop my money down without checking this out very carefully. If, after thorough research, I can rationally believe that the expected net utility of earnings/loss from aluminum stocks is as great as from a different kind of investment, then it is rational for me to buy the stocks.

    So it is with guns. My first step is to do a thorough study of what is known about assault weapons. Then I can decide whether it is rational to take the risk of selling them.

    Unfortunately, we human beings are not good at reasoning about risk. The government regulates pharmaceuticals, for example, partly because manufacturers (being human) would focus on the positive effect of an untested drug and give too little weight to possible harmful side effects. So I must be careful to correct for this kind of bias.

    The generalization and virtue ethics tests can also be applied to this issue, but I don’t see a clear reason why selling assault weapons would necessarily fail them. One might make a case that selling the weapons violates autonomy of shooting victims. But my response is already long, and I won’t go into these arguments now.

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