Self-defense as an ethical ideal

The pacifist dilemma is that non-violence leaves us, as individuals and communities, subject to oppression. One of the favoured examples against non-violence is that Ghandi’s ahimsa only worked because the British were not truly bad people. Ahimsa would never have succeeded against a more brutal regime like that of Nazi Germany. From a spiritual perspective, ahimsa is not about what ‘works’; arguing that non-violence ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’ presumes non-violence is about ‘working’, which it is not. Pacifists are generally resolved to embrace the bitter consequences of their philosophy, harbouring no illusions that their path can be both moral and utilitarian.

True pacifists deserve respect, but there is nonetheless a perfectly reasonable ethical distinction to be made between violence and self-defense. If my life and my health are good for me, then I have a right to enjoy these goods. Accordingly, no individual may have a countervailing right to harm these goods or take them away. Unjustified aggression is therefore ethically illegitimate, and the target of that aggression is right to defend against it, to protect their own life and the lives of others.

In defending against unjustified aggression, the target of our defensive actions is not the person, the aggressor, himself. Rather, our aim is the act of aggression, the violence. Hence a legitimate use of defensive force must be constrained by these ethical limits:

– it must be proportional to the threat.

A sense of threat is always somewhat subjective, but in ethics as in law, there is a ‘reasonable person test’ by which defensive actions will be judged. If someone shoves you at a party, it is not – all things being equal – proportional to hit him with a bar stool.

– any injury caused must be an unintended side-effect of self-defense.

In order to stop someone from hurting you or another innocent person, an appropriate use of defensive force may result in injuries to the aggressor. These injuries, though foreseeable, are considered ethically acceptable so long as one’s overriding intention is to defend, not to injure. In medical ethics this is known as the principle of double-effect, the recognition that good actions sometimes have foreseeable yet unintended negative effects.

Some people see self-defense as an excuse for violent retaliation, an opportunity to injure others with moral impunity. This is not true self-defense. If we do not abide by the principles of self-defense, we cannot walk away from a violent confrontation with a clear conscience.

At the same time there is something elegant about this view of self-defense: in merely defending the sphere of your own life and rights, it is the aggressor who bears moral responsibility for the harm and injuries that befall him as a result of his own violent intentions.

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10 thoughts on “Self-defense as an ethical ideal

  1. There are many similarities with Conflict Law.
    What more unintended injuries to third party non-combatants, who may have been hanging around to watch your ass get beat?
    Unlike surgery, we don’t – unless we really love our Sun Tzu – get to choose our battlefields.
    It is learning of these complicating factors through martial arts practise that we appreciate the importance of the environment, and wholly understand why it’s a bad idea to be in the city after ten pm.

    • Thanks dtcwee. I love it when law and ethics coincide.
      Good point about the complicating factors too. I’m always impressed when someone who does martial arts recognises, for example, that if someone pulls a knife on you, you’d best run for your life.

  2. “- it must be proportional to the threat.”

    As you state it, we must process not the person doing the thing (at least not up-front) but the threat. That is divided in two: Deadly Force and Non Deadly Force (or the example of the push.) Deadly Force is defined as any violent action that may cause death or grave bodily harm. If you are attacked with what you honestly believe is Deadly Force, then it is your right and moral imperative to stop such threat with Deadly Force. You are morally and legally obligated to stop the use of Deadly Force once the threat is stopped as in the attacker has suffered enough damage and no longer is attacking you or if the attacker decides it is time to leave for less threatening pastures and takes off running.
    Also, Deadly Force for self-defense is not (or shouldn’t be) tied to a tool or object or lack thereof. Just because an aggressor does not have an apparent weapon with him, does not mean he can kill you with his fists if there is a disparity of force (Bigger person, expert brawler versus an elderly man or a woman) Again, not the tool but the consequences of the action determines Deadly Force.

    • Thanks for your comment!

      I’m interested to know what your definition of Deadly Force is, and whether you are looking at this issue from any particular perspective (the law in your jurisdiction, for example).

      In ethical terms I am not familiar with a division of force into ‘deadly’ and ‘non-deadly’, unless (as you suggest at the end) you are analysing the use of force after the fact, and can assess it on the basis of outcomes. For example, there have been instances in this country where people have been punched in the head without warning and have died as a consequence of injuries sustained when they hit the ground. The force is not ‘deadly’ in and of itself, but proved deadly in the context. It may be appropriate to label it ‘deadly force’ after the fact, but in the moment there is only an unknown probability that the punch will lead to the victim’s death.

      “If you are attacked with what you honestly believe is Deadly Force, then it is your right and moral imperative to stop such threat with Deadly Force.”
      This is where the dichotomy becomes problematic, in my opinion. There will be instances in which ‘deadly force’ such as an aggressor with a knife or gun may (however unlikely) be neutralised with non-deadly force, and surely that is preferable over the use of deadly force? Furthermore, given that ‘deadly force’ is ambiguous, as in the ‘sucker punch’ example above, it may never be clear in the moment whether force is deadly or not. In practice, if people have a ‘moral imperative’ (as in an obligation?) to respond to deadly force with deadly force but are unclear on whether force is deadly or not, won’t that lead to people erring on the side of ‘caution’, and defending with deadly force by default unless proven otherwise?

      I think it is safer from an ethical perspective to match one’s defensive force proportionately to the perceived threat, and not to feel that there is any imperative to use deadly force. The ethical ideal is that one may hope the aggressor does not die from one’s use of defensive force.

      Of course, much of this depends on the person, their individual circumstances, their perception of threat, etc.

      “If you are attacked with what you honestly believe is Deadly Force, then it is your right and moral imperative to stop such threat with Deadly Force.”

  3. As I live in the State of Florida, I go with what is set in the law here (which is pretty much standard for the rest of the USA with one or two differences here and there):

    “the term “deadly force” means force that is likely to cause death or great bodily harm.”

    A slap to the face is not likely to cause great bodily harm, so is a simple push. A fist to the head by an individual of equal strength and ability may not be considered deadly force, same fist to a child however can be considered deadly force. This is what is known as “disparity of force.”

    The statute itself reads:
    “A person is justified in using or threatening to use deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony”

    “This is where the dichotomy becomes problematic, in my opinion. There will be instances in which ‘deadly force’ such as an aggressor with a knife or gun may (however unlikely) be neutralised with non-deadly force, and surely that is preferable over the use of deadly force?”

    Legally the term use of Deadly Force is ample in the US. Just the presentation of a weapon without actually pulling the trigger is considered Use of Deadly Force under the law. As it happens in the immense majority of cases, that is enough to end the confrontation as even criminals are allergic at the unnecessary loss of blood, specially theirs. So, if you are facing a criminal and you pull a knife and the criminal leaves, you have accomplished self-defense without anybody getting hurt but you still have used deadly force.

    You astutely mention that even an empty hand can produce death or great bodily harm and that will get you in trouble with the law. So there is no real advantage utilizing only empty hands techniques to defend your life and many disadvantages on doing so. Do notice I say ONLY empty hands technique and not that it has no value; empty hands techniques have a limited usage in an overall defensive strategy but being armed is king.

    “I think it is safer from an ethical perspective to match one’s defensive force proportionately to the perceived threat, and not to feel that there is any imperative to use deadly force. The ethical ideal is that one may hope the aggressor does not die from one’s use of defensive force.”

    In a situation where you perceive or face that you may be subject to death or grave bodily harm, you have no time for the higher thoughts of ethics: You either perform and survive or die. The welfare of your attacker must not come into consideration. You are given by the law a very narrow window to act and you must not add unnecessary burdens to that small chance you have. Self defense is not an sporting event. Your attacker made the decision of putting himself in harms way and it is not your responsibility to correct him or try to save him from himself. Your life and/or the lives of your loved ones is the only ethical choice to make. What happens in the dojo does not translate to real life.

    Check this video of a knife attack. The “good stuff” begins at 00:38. By the time the victim figures something is happening, he’s already stabbed at least three times. The whole business is done under 10 seconds & the victim died. If your life is in danger, you must be as brutal as your attacker and not have any self-imposed constraints on top of what the law provides.

    Philosophy is nice in a controlled environment but sucks in real life.

    Life ain’t fair. Fight unfairly.

    • Thanks for elaborating. I think we are largely in agreement, so long as we distinguish between the ethical ‘in the moment’ decision and the legal determinations after the fact. My main concern is that there are people who tend to take the presence of a threat as a blank cheque to use deadly force. Basically, if you point your gun at an aggressor and he is clearly going to back off, but you decide to shoot him anyway for daring to trespass, or to threaten you, then you are doing something wrong. We’ve had cases like that in this country (Australia) where aggressors have been shot while running away, and people try to hide behind self-defense as an excuse.

      I think the individual will know in their own conscience whether they were truly fighting for survival or acting out of malice. But in discussing it, the distinction is not always clear to some people!

      I have to take issue with you about philosophy and ethics though – like any kind of training you need to work at it and consider it when you have the luxury of time and safety, in order for you to make good decisions when you are under pressure. I think we agree that we won’t know how exactly how we will react and we won’t have time to think about it…but good philosophy and good ethics, like good martial arts, should ideally take that into account.

      The link still didn’t come through, btw. But it’s clear enough from videos and drills that if someone *really* wanted to hurt me with a knife, there’s not much I could do about it.

      • For the video, go to LiveLeak.com and search “2 CCTV Cameras Catch Violent Knife Attack ”

        ” if you point your gun at an aggressor and he is clearly going to back off, but you decide to shoot him anyway for daring to trespass, or to threaten you, then you are doing something wrong”

        Once the threat has passed, you are not legally allowed to use deadly force. HOWEVER (there is always one) just because the attacker is running away from you, does not mean he is no longer a threat. He may not be a threat to you but he may continue to be a threat to others (IE: Active shooter still firing but not at you. Or the guy suddenly stops and turns around to take another shot) It is something that is not common but it may happen and you must factor in your defensive strategy.

        And now I will abuse your hospitality and add some tips, saying and other things we say in the Gun Culture (Stolen from different sources):

        “You never rise to the occasion… you only fall on your training.”
        ——————————————————
        Your number one philosophy for personal security should be a life long commitment to avoidance, deterrence, and de-escalation.
        —————————————————–
        Avoidance: The act of avoiding or keeping away from (Three Stupid Rule.) If you can safely retreat from the encounter, by all means do so. For instance, if you are out for a walk and feel threatened or intimidated by an occupant of a car, you should retreat in the opposite direction that the car is traveling.

        Deterrence: The act of discouraging someone from taking hostile action against you by being aware of them and their possible intent.

        De-escalation: The act of decreasing in intensity. To not let your ego or emotions get the best of you, to refrain from escalating the problem into more than it already is. As a CCW (Carrying a Concealed Weapon) you may need to back down from non-life threatening, argumentative encounters in order to not allow things to spiral out of control.

        When these things do not work, then and only then may you need to show or use the gun. Just because we are carrying does not mean that we need to use the gun. You want to do whatever is reasonably possible to avoid using the gun. But when your well researched, well thought out “line in the sand” has been crossed you need to act without hesitation.
        —————————————————
        The “Three Stupid” Rule

        “Do not go to stupid places, with stupid people, and do stupid things”
        ————————————————–

        “One bleeding-heart type asked me in a recent interview if I did not agree that ‘violence begets violence.’ I told him that it is my earnest endeavor to see that it does. I would like very much to ensure — and in some cases I have — that any man who offers violence to his fellow citizen begets a whole lot more in return than he can enjoy.”
        Col. Jeff Cooper. Father of the Modern Handgun Technique.
        —————————————————

        All of the above may give you a skewed view of Gun People, but we are the most peaceful bunch you will ever meet….and that reminds me of another quote:

        “An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.” – Robert A. Heinlein

        • Thanks Miguel.
          I like the material you posted. It accords with my understanding of self-defense ethics.
          Australia is a very different environment in terms of gun-related crime, but I appreciate the situation in the US is complex.
          On a smaller scale, I think learning a good martial art likewise makes a person less willing to engage in confrontation, and much more keen to avoid, deter, and de-escalate, because the training makes one conscious of both the risks and the seriousness of violence.

          • If we knew when, where and who was going to attack us, the smart thing to do is not be there when the time comes!

            It always pays to have some training on hand to hand combat. The situation may dictate that you may not have the time to access your sidearm so the best course of action is to go hands on to get distance and or time to do so.
            In the movie Collateral, there is the famous “Yo homie, that my briefcase?” scene you will see Tom Cruise going physical long enough to create a distraction and draw his weapon. That is a perfect application.

            side note: Michael Mann is probably the only director that uses firearms the right way in a movie. His actors MUST attend firearms training before filming. Tom Cruise had to do it, same for the cast of Miami Vice (movie) and Heat. Then again he trained many years ago in Gunsite under Colonel Jeff Cooper.

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