What is self-defense? – a call for your answers

lf-defense is one topic I have never been quite clear on. Granted, the basics are clear: one should be allowed to defend oneself against aggressors (I wouldn’t necessarily say that one should necessarily do so: after all, pacifists would disagree, so I’ll set that issue aside). The fuzziness starts when we examine exactly what we mean by aggressors. It is clear that a direct and immediate threat of force, or use of force, is aggression, but the line is not clearly defined.

I would like you to tell me what you think about the following hypotheticals. if I get enough answers, I will post the results on a future entry.

Is it self-defense to use force again someone who:

(1) has a gun trained on you and has hostile intentions.

(2) threatens to kill you (via a death threat, for instance), with the capacity to back it up.

(3) threatens to possibly kill you at a later date, with the capacity to back it up.

(4) threatens to possibly force you to kill someone else at a later date, with the capacity to back it up.

(5) is part of a social institution or system that implicitly threatens your life and that of others.

(6) is part of a social institution or system that implicitly and indirectly (or distally) threatens your life and that of others.

I started grappling with these issues with the Timothy McVeigh bombing. At the time I was not an Anarchist was despairing of ever finding a solution to politics. I thought violence was probably the only solution we had, and as such I could not get myself to argue against the bombing. Now it is obvious to me that violence is not the answer, but the issue of self-defense against the State is still an important one in my mind. We should not use violence, but we can be sure that some people will. Furthermore, in order to have a clear idea of the rights and freedoms of the individual, we should at least have a summary theory of self-defense. Here is another issue:

(7) When is vigilantism legitimate and when is it not?

Now this is a very vast issue, so I don’t expect precise replies. But I’d like to hear what you think.

14 thoughts on “What is self-defense? – a call for your answers

  1. David Z April 29, 2008 at 22:00

    Someone else once said something like, “Vigilantism is legitimate when the vigilantes are correct,” that is, when the person is actually guilty of the crime. Even though I don’t explicitly condone vigilantism, that notion has always stuck with me. The problem, I suppose, is that at the moment of action, they haven’t the requisite knowledge to determine guilt; they are correct only by accident.

    I settle upon something like, “Vigilantism is legit when it’s self-defense.” Of course, this just takes us full-circle…

  2. olly April 29, 2008 at 22:02

    Franc.. I’d like to preface all of these answers with the idea that the force that you use back has a limit in and of itself.. So for example if someone threatens me with a knife, I can’t bomb there house and claim I was using self-defense.. There needs to be some sort of idea about reciprocity, though I’m not sure how you’d word that in some sort of maxim form.

    (1) Yes, self-defense is justified.

    (2) Not unless that threat is ‘imminent’, so if someone sends a death threat to my house, can I justifiably go and beat them up? I don’t think so.

    (3) Same answer as #2

    (4) I think this almost falls in the ‘defense of others’ category, since you directly are not being threatened with violence. That being said, you do have the right to resist coercion, though again the ‘level’ of recipricol force becomes a question in my mind.

    (5) Yes, self-defense is a right in this case, but ‘collateral damage’ is not acceptable. So in my resistance of the State, I don’t have the right to bomb a plaza full of people who themselves aren’t pressing the State’s agenda.

    (6) I think the same as #5 applies here.

    (7) I don’t think that vigilantism, if by that you mean retaliatory justice such as a father going after the guy who killed his kid, is justified. In the end, isn’t what the State puts its citizens (captives) through exactly that? Vigilante Justice, as its known, implies a person skirting the legal process because they think it is somehow inadequate. While this sounds in principal like it is exactly what we as agorists and anarchists would encourage, there is one key ingredient missing: an agreed upon set of laws. Part of (anarchic) law is agreement upon both the laws AND the consequences. A vigilante may look like our ally, since they are skirting the State’s ineffective and illegit legal system.. But in reality, by accepting vigilante justice we are simply trading one set of coercive rules/punishments (the State) for another (individual whim). Only when laws/consequences are represented by mutually agreed upon, freely entered contracts are they legit.

  3. kentmcmanigal April 29, 2008 at 22:32

    #1 is justified self defense. The rest of them probably are not until they reach the point of #1 (which they will, if they are a real threat). I would not condemn anyone for acting on any of those threats if I were the “judge”.
    #7… I don’t accept “revenge”, nor do I accept “proactive punishment” (I am not GWB) as legitimate behaviors. But I also recognize that my idea of “justice” (self defense up to and including killing the attacker at the scene and time of the attack) would probably be incorrectly called “vigilantism” by the state. Especially since I feel that once an attack has occurred, there is no moral obligation to weigh the severity of the attack before deciding how much violence to meet it with.

  4. olly April 29, 2008 at 23:22

    kent.. Surely you think that there is in some way a moral imperative for reciprocity based on the situation?

    If I’m in a bar and attacked by someone who is unarmed, i.e. A common bar fight, do I have the right to pull out a pistol and kill him?

  5. carrotbosco April 30, 2008 at 08:25

    I believe the idea some of you may be searching for is Rothbard’s “proportionality” concept. In fact all of Chapter 12 of “The Ethics of Liberty” may answer your questions (http://mises.org/rothbard/ethics/twelve.asp).

    Personally I think it is ultimately impossible to determine what constitutes aggression so I do not support the idea of violence in self defense.

  6. kdewolf2 April 30, 2008 at 10:37

    There are no absolute “rights” or “wrongs.” Everybody has the freedom to make their own choices. If you choose to commit acts of aggression against me, I have the freedom to choose whether or not to defend myself, and whether or not to employ violence. If I choose to commits acts of aggression against others, they also have the freedom to choose whether or how to defend themselves against me. Applying moral standards like “reciprocity” places restrictions on individual liberty. If you are threatened, you have the right to do or to attempt whatever actions you deem necessary to eliminate the threat, whether they be proportionate or not. Here’s a thought: A weak man with little experience in fighting may feel extremely threatened by the prospect of a bar fight; people have been beaten to death in bar fights; therefore, he may feel he ought to pull a gun to defend himself. It may not *seem* proportionate to others, but to him it may be the only reasonable way to defend himself.

  7. jmafc April 30, 2008 at 11:34

    You have not defined what “self-defense” is. In scenario 2, wouldn’t hiring an armed bodyguard be self-defense? In scenario 1, is taking cover (assuming it’s available) not be self-defense? Still in 1, if you have a gun, is preemptive shooting at the leg of the aggressor justified?

  8. Francois Tremblay April 30, 2008 at 21:19

    “You have not defined what “self-defense” is.”

    Well, that’s the whole point of my questions. I want you guys to tell me what you think self-defense is.

  9. kentmcmanigal April 30, 2008 at 22:01

    “If I’m in a bar and attacked by someone who is unarmed, i.e. A common bar fight, do I have the right to pull out a pistol and kill him?”
    Yes. If you feel that shooting him is the only way for you to keep him from hurting or possibly killing you. He is the one who chose to cross the line. He should be prepared for your response. Don’t like that; don’t start fights.

  10. jmafc May 1, 2008 at 08:29

    “I want you guys to tell me what you think self-defense is.”

    In most scenarios, self-defense would entail actions to prevent the aggressor from fulfilling his threat (such as hiring a bodyguard, installing an alarm system), but without actually injuring or aggressing against him.

    In scenarios where the aggressor actually attacks you without using a gun, self-defense would entail actions to prevent the attack from being successful, e.g., stopping his punches, avoiding knife thrusts. To what extent you reciprocate (counter-attack) will depend on how determined the aggressor is and your shall-we-call -them “martial arts” abilities. If he tries to strangle you, you would be justified in trying to immobilize him or render him unconscious. If you don’t know how to fight, but are a fast runner, self-defense could entail a swift escape.

    If guns enter the picture, it gets murkier. If someone holds a gun to your chest, says “I’m going to kill you” and you have little doubt about his intentions, your self-defense choices are much more limited than if someone at a distance starts shooting at you but you’re able to duck for cover and have a weapon handy to fire back.

  11. kentmcmanigal May 2, 2008 at 23:52

    jmafc- as noble as your evaluations of the true nature of the threat sound, I am not going to risk my life and the lives of others while I analyze all those factors and weigh how much self-defense is “appropriate”. I will use whatever means are at my disposal to stop the threat. Period.

  12. stever0berts May 3, 2008 at 06:09

    olly ..”If I’m in a bar and attacked by someone who is unarmed, i.e. A common bar fight, do I have the right to pull out a pistol and kill him?”

    How do you know he is unarmed ? Did you search him ? Do you know he’s not going to pick up a bottle and use it to break your skull, or maybe break the bottle and cut your throat with it ? And even if he doesn’t use a weapon, has he no chance of knocking you down and kicking you to death ? Or getting a choke or stranglehold on you ? Will you bet your life on it ?

    Pulling a gun doesn’t seem so disproportionate now, does it ? and there’s a very good chance that showing the weapon will make the assailant back off without you having to fire a shot.

  13. nostate May 3, 2008 at 18:34

    Echoing Robert Anton Wilson, perhaps, and certainly agreeing with Kent,

    self-defense is what you can get away with.

  14. […] July, 2008 Last April, I asked all of you to answer some questions about what is and is not self-defense. More specifically, I brought up six general scenarios, and […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: