If we have any rights, we surely have the right to self-defense. And yet self-defense has proven very puzzling to Rights theorists. To see why, take a simple case:
There are two agents, AGGRESSOR and VICTIM: AGGRESSOR resents VICTIM for his sauve good looks and skill on the dance floor and has made it clear that he intends to kill him. One day AGGRESSOR shows up at the dance hall, gun in hand. He takes a shot at VICTIM but misses narrowly. He prepares to fire again, taking more careful aim, but VICTIM too has a gun and his only hope of surviving is to return fire and kill or disable AGGRESSOR.
Is it morally permissible for Victim to shoot aggressor? Of course! But now here's the puzzle. Rights Theorists have wanted to say:
- It is permissible for VICTIM to shoot AGGRESSOR because VICTIM has the right to self-defense.
- VICTIM has the right to self-defense because he, like everyone, has the right not to be killed or harmed. (That is why, if you are attempting to kill or harm him, you are doing something wrong.)
- In defending himself, VICTIM will kill or harm the AGGRESSOR.
- If the AGGRESSOR, had a right not to be killed or harmed, then it would be impermissible to kill or harm him.
The puzzle is: what happened to AGGRESSOR’s right not to be harmed?
It seems we must say that, by launching his attack, the attacker somehow loses his right not to be harmed. But where does it go?
Note that wherever it goes it doesn't go very far: Suppose that AGGRESSOR takes his second shot and his defective gun explodes rendering it useless and leaving him wounded and helpless on the ground. AGGRESSOR is no longer a threat and now most people (well, anyway, most philosophers) think it would be wrong for VICTIM to draw his gun and execute the now helpless AGGRESSOR. Apparently, AGGRESSORs right against being harmed returns as soon as he is no longer a threat to VICTIM’s life.
And yet there must be more to AGGRESSOR’s losing his right against harm than his just being a threat. After all as soon as any victim decides to defend himself against any aggressor he becomes a threat to that aggressor but we don't want to say that deprives a defender of any rights.
So maybe we should say that the AGGRESSOR's right not to be harmed doesn't go away at all? Couldn't we say that while AGGRESSOR retains his right not to be killed, VICTIM’s right to self-defense is more stringent or weighty than a simple right not to be killed and so it overrides or trumps the AGGRESSOR's right?
But that doesn't seem right either. Even acting in self-defense you have to respect some people’s right not to be harmed. Thus it would not be permissible for VICTIM to defend himself by grabbing some innocent bystander and use him as a shield against AGGRESSOR's bullet. The bystander’s right not to be harmed is not trumped or overridden by VICTIM’s right to defend himself.
So it must be something specific to the AGGRESSOR that removes, diminishes or discounts his right against being harmed; something that distinguishes AGGRESSOR from the bystander. But what can that be?
Isn't the answer obvious? AGGRESSOR, unlike the bystander, is a bad guy. He is trying to do something morally impermissible and for that reason he forfeits his claims against others harming him.
Alas, this collides with the problem of "innocent threats". Two examples from the literature:
Out for a walk one day, this man was swept up by a tornado. Now he is plummeting towards earth. When he strikes he will fall directly on VICTIM. With VICTIM's body cushioning his fall the FALLING MAN may survive but VICTIM will certainly be killed. VICTIM cannot get out of the way, but is carrying a ray gun which he can use to vaporize the falling man and save himself. *
An enemy has sent an automated tank on its way to kill VICTIM. VICTIM has an anti-tank gun and can destroy the tank. To discourage this, the aggressor has strapped an innocent passerby to the front of the tank to act as a human shield. Victim can save himself only by killing this person. *
In both these cases most people would say that it is morally permissible for VICTIM to defend himself even though, regrettably, this would result in the death of an innocent person. And by "most people", I do not mean just "most philosophers" or "most undergraduates when given questionnaires". I mean that it is the nearly unanimous opinion of all mankind, in virtually every human society of which we are aware, in every legal system ever devised, that this is so. No court-- not now, not ever-- would hold VICTIM guilty of wrongful killing if he defended himself in these situations. No work of literature or drama has or would treat a victim’s refusal to defend himself in such circumstances as anything less than heroic; that is, as a sacrifice beyond the call of moral duty.
All of which seems to leave the right theorists with a choice of bullets to bite.
Judith Jarvis Thomson and Frances Kamm conclude that, given that it is permissible to kill innocent threats, we just have to say that that FALLING MAN and HUMAN SHIELD, because they are threatening VICTIM’s life, have forfeited their rights not to be harmed no less that the villainous AGGRESSOR, albeit through no fault of their own.
This seems odd and, again, opposed to common sense. No jury-- not now, not ever-- would convict these innocent threats of any crime were the Victim to be killed. The Shield and the Falling Man do not choose to cause death Yes, VICTIM’s death would be a bad thing, but it wouldn't be their fault any more than it would be a bystander’s fault. How can their actions, if they can even be called that, represent a forfeiture of their rights?
But then what is the alternative?