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.