We begin with a version of Robert Nozick's "Falling Man" case.
INNOCENT FALLING MAN
Sam is standing at the bottom of a well when a large man accidentally falls in at the top and hurtles down towards Sam. Sam can't get out of his way. When he lands the falling man's bulk will certainly kill Sam instantly but, with Sam cushioning his fall, the falling man will certainly survive. Sam happens to have in his possession a ray gun which is capable of vaporizing the falling man, saving Sam's life.
Is it morally permissible for Sam to vaporize the fat man? Nozick thought so. Yes, the falling man is innocent. He does not want to kill Sam. But Sam is innocent too and he has a right to self-defense. That was Nozick's point.
Not everyone agrees. Some philosophers think you don't have the right to defend yourself against innocent threats. So let us roll back and start at what I hope is bedrock common ground.
VILLAINOUS FALLING MAN
Sam is standing at the bottom of a well as before. But this time the large man jumped in deliberately. He wants to kill Sam; believes that his falling bulk will do the job and is confident that — with Sam's body cushioning his fall— he will walk away unharmed. Sam knows all this and he still has that ray gun.
Is it morally permissible for Sam to vaporize this falling man? Surely! This is attempted murder. Sam would be acting in self-defense.
If you don't believe you have the right to self-defense—ever— you should certainly stop reading now and, well... best of luck to you in your future endeavors.
Are they gone? Good. Let us proceed.
INNOCENT FALLING MAN II
Same as the first case: Innocent man hurtling towards Sam. But now Sam doesn't have a ray gun. He has an ordinary gun. The falling man would be hard to miss so Sam can be confident of wounding him; perhaps fatally. But this won't stop the falling body or prevent Sam's death.
Knowing all this (somehow, suppose) may Sam use his gun?
Notice that if Sam does shoot in this case we cannot properly describe what he is doing as "self-defense". Shooting doesn't defend him from anything. It would be more accurate to call it retaliation — preemptive retaliation — for the harm the falling man is about to inflict on him; is this permissible?
I myself don't think so. The falling man is innocent. Hurting him is not going to save Sam's life. For him to deliberately harm this innocent person seems to me gratuitous, spiteful and morally wrong.
If you disagree with me about this— if you think it is permissible for Sam to retaliate however innocent the falling man may be— then you can stay with us but I won't be talking to you in what follows. Try not to get too far out front of the group (and stay well back from me.)
VILLAINOUS FALLING MAN II
The same as VILLAINOUS FALLING MAN except that Sam now has only the ordinary gun. If Sam shoots he will certainly injure, and perhaps kill, the falling man. The falling body will still kill Sam, but the villain won't walk away unscathed.
Given that this falling man is trying to murder him, would Sam be doing something morally wrong if he were to shoot in this case?
What do you think? Okay, settle down. I can hear some of you complaining (there are always some) about these fanciful philosophical "what ifs". How can you be expected to have robust moral intuitions in response to these unrealistic fables?
Alright. Gloves off. Remember you asked for this.
Sally, a small frail woman, wakes in the middle of the night. There is someone in her room. Instantly she realizes who it must be.
In recent months her community has been terrorized by a serial rapist-murderer. His modus operandi has been publicized by newspapers and television. He tortures, rapes and kills his victims. And it is well known that the more his victims resist, the crueler his attack. Sally has seen an interview with the only victim to have managed, barely, to survive her injuries. She credited her survival only to her extreme passivity and obedience to the rapist's commands.
Sally cannot escape. She is alone. She can seem him now: a huge, muscular brute. She could claw and kick at him, and perhaps inflict a little pain, but she cannot hope to stop him.
Realistic enough for you?
Now there is a difference between this case and last FALLING MAN story. The difference is that Sally has a positive, prudential reason not to hurt the person who is going to harm her: she will improve her chances of survival (slightly) by not fighting back. So, prudence dictates that Sally should lie back and accept her fate. But prudence is not morality. Our question here, as before, is: is it morally permissible for Sally to try to harm the rapist even though she knows that doing so will not deter him?
Before you answer, make sure you understand the question. You are not being asked here for general crime stopping tips or proscribing for every possible case of rape. The question is whether or not it would be morally wrong for Sally, this particular woman, to hurt this rapist, this particular monster, before he kills her. And be careful not to read into the story elements that aren't there. Maybe you think, or want Sally to think, that she can scar her attacker in ways that will make it easier for the police to apprehend him after her death.
Maybe you think, or want Sally to think, that by fighting the rapist she may deter him from future crimes. Sorry, no. This is my story and none of those things are true in my story.
So, what do you think?
My own view is that it is morally permissible for Sally to try to hurt the rapist. I think she may fight him tooth and nail. She may bite, kick, and scratch. She may try to claw his eyes out. I do not think it would be wrong for her to do so even if she knows to a certainty that it will not save her.
And let me be clear: I am not just saying that it would be understandable if she fought back. I am not saying that, given her extreme circumstances, violence on her part is forgivable. I think there is nothing to forgive; if Sally manages to harm the rapist, she will not have done anything wrong.
If you do not agree— If you think it would be every bit as wrong for Sally to try to hurt the rapist as it would be for her to attack some random, innocent stranger on the street— then you need read no further. Thank you for playing.