What is self-defense? Part 2.

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 asked one final question. I will go through each of them in turn, looking at your answers and my own agreement or disagreement (this is my blog after all!).

But first, let’s look at some general considerations. How do we define self-defense? The law states that self-defense is “the use of reasonable force to protect oneself from an aggressor.” Of course, the law posits that the government itself cannot be an aggressor. That’s a lie, so we don’t have to consider that as valid at all. But the rest of the definition seems reasonable enough for our purposes.

From here, the main problems are to define “aggressor” and “reasonable force,” especially the former. The issue of reasonable force is somewhat treacherous, but can be reasonably discussed. The issue of what makes an aggressor is far more difficult, and a question which has been a thorn on my side in the past. This is why I wanted to explore the subject with my readers.

Let me preface this by saying that some of you answered that the issue of “reasonable force” is too vague to answer. That’s fine, but not very helpful. Because of that, I will only examine the actual answers for each question.

In (1), I asked if it was self-defense to use force against someone who has a gun trained on you and has hostile intentions. This is a pretty straightforward case (a calibration question, if you will), and all of you who answered the questions said that yes, this is a case of self-defense. Of all the people who answered, FSK identified that I was thinking about State actions in each question. In this case, he talks about a police raid on your residence, which is definitely a case where aggressors have guns trained on you and have hostile intentions. Of course, the State does not recognize your right to self-defense against itself, because it is based on the concept that “might makes right.” The State can try you for any charge it trumps up, including assault, because you dared to get hit by a policeman’s baton.

Questions (2) and (3) were relatively similar, and it seems like you treated it that way also. I asked if it’s justified to use force if someone (2) threatens to kill you or (3) threatens to possibly kill you at a later date, in both cases having the capacity to back it up. Olly said “not unless that threat is imminent,” although that is what I meant by (2), so I should have been clearer. In (2), the threat is imminent, and in (3) it is set to the future.

I don’t really see how the time lapse makes a different, however. How can we expect an individual to live in fear for a period of time until the threat is close to being put to execution? This seems like a very irrational expectation to me. If I tell you that I will kill you at a given date, would you want until that date to defend yourself against the threat? The analogy I was going for in this case was war from the point of view of the civilian victims: I have always held to the position that any politician who makes threats of war, or declares war, should be considered fair game for murder, because such a murder would be self-defense.

In (4), I asked if it’s justified to use force against someone who threatens to possibly force you to kill someone else at a later date, with the capacity to back it up. In this case I was thinking about the threat of a military draft, which FSK also identified. Most of you agreed that self-defense is warranted in this case also.

Questions (5) and (6) were again pretty similar, and you answered pretty similarly. I asked if you are justified in using force against people in a social system that implicitly threatens human lives (including yours), either directly or indirectly. This is pretty directly a reference to the State, which threatens your life and that of others both directly and indirectly. Answers in this case were mixed. Some of you, like FSK, said that the individuals who are part of the State are not all aggressors, and that attacking them is counter-productive. On the other hand, Olly said that self-defense in these cases was acceptable, but that collateral damage is not (something we can all agree on, as blowing up innocents is not self-defense).

Kent McManigal said that only (1) is justified, and that all other cases are only self-defense if they degenerate into (1). As I said in response to Olly, I find this rather unrealistic for a free person living in a supposedly free society to be expected to live with the threat of death over his head for an arbitrary period of time until he actually has a gun at his head. In that case, we’d say that the victim was extremely imprudent not to act on the threat until it got to such a point. I simply cannot see how Olly or Kent could justify such an answer, but I am willing to listen and perhaps discuss this in a future entry.

My last question was about vigilantism: when it is legitimate and when it is not. I was thinking about Anarchist justice, because most people define vigilantism as “justice existing outside of the State,” and as such any concept of Anarchist justice would be considered vigilantism by that standard. But some of you disagreed on my idea of vigilantism, which is fine: I didn’t set a specific definition of vigilantism because I also wanted to know how you approach the concept.

Kent said: “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.”

FSK said: “The only valid/practical form of vigilantism appropriate in the present is agorism. When the collapse of the State draws near and private police forces develop, then free market justice is viable.”

Olly said: “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.”

I think the use of the word “law” is very unfortunate, but I agree with the sentiment here. Justice must be based on a set of rules agreed upon by the individual, or it is not justice at all.

And finally, David Z said: “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…”

But doesn’t this argument also applies to the State itself? How do we know the State has the requisite knowledge to determine guilt? In many cases, that knowledge is actively discouraged. Is this a matter of whether anyone has the requisite knowledge? Who determines what the requisite knowledge is? It doesn’t seem to me like you can fully answer these questions without some form of a market on justice.

My own position on the whole topic is that, while self-defense against the State is entirely justified, it is not desirable. Under normal circumstances, all of the types of self-defense I hypothesized are justified and desirable, but this is not a normal circumstance. Unlike most criminals, this band of criminals we call the State outnumbers us a thousand to one and has all the guns. We need to return to a more normal state of affairs before we can deal with these criminals in a normal manner.

3 thoughts on “What is self-defense? Part 2.

  1. kentmcmanigal July 10, 2008 at 23:53

    The only reason I don’t worry about threats, even if the person has the ability to carry them out, is that many times (with real people, anyway) out of sight is out of mind. Many people bluster and threaten but will never actually carry out the threat. I don’t really feel too intimidated by the government’s threats. It is normally pretty easy to slip under the radar, or be forgotten when the next issue comes up. Now, as long as you are talking about defensive actions against government operatives, I would never turn you in for doing what you feel is necessary. With freelance thugs I would feel more sympathy for them.

  2. olly July 11, 2008 at 10:01

    Franc — In regards the quesion of “imminent threat” vs “implied threat” (i.e. future threat), what I was getting at was that the implication of threat is not a carte blanche license for violence, which I should have made clearer. I think that in all of this, my mind immediately went to VIOLENT self-defense as opposed to, say, some sort of injunction by a protection agency. So as an example, if someone calls my house and threatens to kill me without specifiying when/how/etc, this is an implied threat (as opposed to an imminent threat like a gun to my head — and I realize that it is explicit in its wording, but I argue that no action is necessarily forthcoming, so it’s still implied). In this situation, I don’t think I justifably have license to use violence and call it self-defense… whereas an imminent threat DEFINITELY gives me that license. That’s the crux of the question here in my mind: how do you ‘rate’ what an appropriate level of self-defense is? I think that question needs to be answered in some way, shape, or form to intelligently make these decisions. While it’s fairly obvious in the ‘imminent threat’ stage, it becomes more murky the less immediate that threat is. To boil it down, I can’t condone murder, even of a State aggressor, based on a threat of murder (war) at a future date. You mention “threat of war” and “declaration of war”, which are two very different things in my mind. This is a great topic for discussion, since I don’t honestly think (and this post shows) it’s as clear cut as one might think.


  3. Mike Gogulski July 11, 2008 at 17:00

    Actually I have to differ with Kent a bit here, veering off of self-defense and into revenge and vigilantism.

    Assume no states exist, that maybe we have some sort of tribal society. If A kills B’s child, is B justified in killing A? To me, definitely. If A attacks B and, say, B loses an arm to A’s aggression, is B justified in going back later and killing A? Probably. Is B justified in taking A’s arm in retribution? Definitely. Should B be able to subcontract the act of revenge against A to a third party, C, without moral stigma over the justice or injustice of the act attaching to C? Well, absolutely, but only if B’s response, by way of C, is proportionate.

    I was watching an episode of “The Outer Limits” just the other day that gave the following scenario:

    A shoots B in the chest. A friend discovers him, dead, and rushes him away. After 2 hours of clinical death, B is resurrected by a high-tech facility, returning him to life and healing his wound. B then proceeds to locate A, remind A of what he had done, and kill A with a few bullets.

    The episode ends with B getting hustled away by the police, facing a lifetime in prison.

    Did B act appropriately? In my mind, there’s no question that he did, and that no punishment or debt should be imposed upon him.

    I don’t think, however, that many of us would like the world around us to be organized on principles of revenge and vigilantism. I’d like anarchy, please, but not chaos. Would I willingly cede (revocably) my natural right to revenge to an ancap/agorist-styled dispute resolution organization? I’m not entirely sure, as none exist at present and I can’t compare their contracts, but I think I might be willing to.

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