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March 20, 2011


Michael Zeleny

Rights are relational properties that only make sense within a society, as your Hohfeldian approach implies. Thus contractarian constructivism yields a predicate for self-defense, that aggression against oneself that the victim did not bring about through recklessness or negligence, temporarily reverts the parties to the confrontation to the state of nature. Your puzzles then resolve as a matter of determining the scope of bringing about.


I'm not much of a philosopher, but I was wondering. In the first examples where both are innocent victims, does the fact that both the Falling Man and the Human Shield are likely to die whether or not Victim kills them make any difference? Could it then fall under the idea of "lesser of two evils," since theoretically one dead body is less evil than two?



If I understand you, the suggestion is that, once one's life is on the line, we are back in a state of nature and morality goes by the boards. Hobbes seems to have thought this. I don't. If you look at some of the other posts you'll see that I think there are rights (even property rights) in the state of nature.


I should have made it clearer. The idea in the innocent threats stories is that the innocents will not die if the Victim does not kill them (in the falling man case because Victim's body will break his fall) and that (somehow) all parties know this.

Thanks both!


Most of our moral judgements are made on a basis of ethnic, religious and chauvinist prejudices and percepts. The same HUMAN SHIELD example is condemned when used by Israeli army but accepted in western movie.
BTW HUMAN SHIELD ( and another version called NEIBOUR PROCEDURE when an Arab neighbor is used to announce the person that will arrested instead of a soldier that the suspect may shoot through the door) is a penal military offence under Israeli army code and the culprits may face degradation and years of prison...However HUMAN SHIELD and mostly NEIGHBOR PROCEDURE were used and probably will continue to be used as saving human lives.
As a young sergeant in Gaza told us once:
Those are opening fire instructions:summation; summation again; summation with gun;try to arrest; summation and shoot in air;never shoot if the suspect don't shoot at you...However if you are in a situation of (type) YOU OR HIM (to be killed), it is always HIM.
So the moral dilemma is not an equation, but a conditioned answer.


Long time reader, first time commenter.

I'm not expertly grounded in logic or philosophy, so please accept my apologies in advance if my statements sound overly simplistic.

I found this particular entry confusing when it came to stating certain points through examples. For instance:

"If we assert a general Retributive right against harm, we would be saying that it always permissible to forcefully prevent another from harming you. But any potential victim who acts in self-defense aims to harm the person who is threatening him. Does the threatening agent then have the right to self-defense? ... Baker is angry at Able. So angry he starts throwing punches. Able hits back. Baker blocks the punch hard, breaking Able’s arm. At that point others intervene to stop the fight.

Suppose that the broken arm was the only injury in the fight. If Able demanded compensation from Baker for the injury could Baker argue that the injury was inflicted by a permissible act of self-defense?"

This is confusing because, to me, the issue is not who is being defended, but what is being defended. Able is defending his right not to be harmed by defending himself. Baker, on the other hand, is defending his right to harm Able by defending himself. This confusion is further enforced by your second example on this topic:

"Suppose I am standing on your property-- or on your foot-- without your permission. You ask me nicely to step away. I refuse. In that event it may be morally permissible for you to push me off. But if it is morally permissible for me to push back, given my general right not to be pushed around, the morally permissible mayhem is likely to get out of hand."

Again, it appears to me that the object of defense (the what) is being confused and as such the issue of moral permissibility is debated on the wrong terms.

In addition, the thought experiments only seemed to make things more confusing rather than less. To that end, let me offer a parallel thought experiment (in the broader sense) to your first:

A woman goes to a bar by herself and gets wildly drunk. She meets a man in the bar and makes out with him for a while, eventually going back to his place. They make out on his couch a bit more and then she goes to his bedroom, gets undressed and gets in his bed. He excitedly gets undressed and gets in bed with her, they make out some more and just as he begins to have intercourse with her, she says "No!" When the man doesn't immediately stop and pull away, she slides her hand down to her purse, grabs her mace and sprays him in the eyes, which leaves him permanently blinded. She escapes.

Would this, too, not be so clear a case of self-defense? She did, after all, deprive herself of virtually all pre-emptive defenses leading up to the ultimate moment. The same could similarly be said of a homeowner who leaves their windows open at night in the summer and ends up having to shoot and kill an armed robber who snuck in through one of them. Were their actions morally impermissible merely because all possible precautions were not taken?

That aside, the first experiment completely ignores the moral agency of the others involved in the situation. Able is not responsible for Baker's drinking, if the bartender is concerned that Baker's drinking may get him into trouble then he is responsible for the decision to cut Baker off. Similarly, if Able's friends are concerned that Baker might try to kill him then they are responsible for calling the police; they do not need Able's permission. And that is all an aside to the fact that Baker, too, is a moral agent. Able did not force Baker into any of his actions; Baker chose to get his gun, Baker chose to go onto Able's property, Baker chose to raise his weapon to try to kill him.

There is nothing about this situation that speaks to premeditated murder, much less manslaughter with depraved indifference. Is Able a truly despicable person for attempting to coerce Baker's actions? Aboslutely, but he is no Jack Wilson.

The Falling Man thought experiments represent a completely different situation, but I feel that they have unnecessarily confused the moral significance of the original. In the original version there are two totally innocent people. In these newer thought experiments there is clearly only one. The "victim" is not a victim at all, but an aggressor. He is not defending his right not to be harmed, whether he intended to be in the path of his falling rival or not; he is defending his right to kill his rival. Morally impermissible, but not because of who, but what.

I hope even some portion of this makes sense. Anyway, compliments on an interesting attempt to tackle the right of self-defense.



I don't think you are much confused. I think you are just un-persuaded. And I think that I understand where we disagree.

I think that we agree that it is not permissible for villainous threats to defend themselves against their intended victim's acts of self defense. But I think you don't like my explanation of why this is so. I think you want to explain this by saying it has to do with the threats being villains, that is, because they are bad guys with bad intentions.

I don't say that's wrong, but I don't think it gets you very far.

Thus suppose you say, "The reason it's not okay for these guys to defend themselves is because you don't have an *unqualified* right to self defense. You only have a right to defend yourself against morally impermissible attacks."
This gives us a way of saying why the bad guy can't defend himself against the defender: it is because the defender's action is *permissible* (because he is acting in *justified* self defense). I don't say this is wrong or that you shouldn't say it.

The problem is that saying this really doesn't get take us anywhere to explaining *why* the defender's self-defense was permissible and villainous threat's wasn't.

My explanation may be surprising because it explains why villainous threats may not defend themselves without appealing to the fact that they did a bad thing when they started threating the victim. I don't *deny* they did a bad thing, but by not relying on it I avoid the circle we just went round.

I say the bad guy is a bad guy because he uses excessive force and I say the force is excessive if its more than you need to defend yourself. You want to say the force is excessive if done by bad guys, and are left with a problem of explaining why the guys are bad (apart from their using that force).

My strategy in the post was to tell you stories in which you would see that you were measuring agent's villainy by measuring how excessive the force he used was and not the other way round. But, as you say, this didn't work for you.

And maybe you found yourself resisting for good reasons. One of the complications of my stories and yours is that they involve the problem of the permissibility of put putting people at *risk* for harm. Putting people at risk for harm is a bad thing, but is it as bad as actually harming them? Then too, we might wonder if, as in your cases, if it is always permissible to put other people at risk of suffering permissible harms.

More about all this in future posts.

Thanks for your comments.

Michael Zeleny

Terry, although I believe that there are duties in the state of nature, the scope of correlative natural rights is nowhere near as extensive as that of the privileges and immunities available in human relations under a social contract. For example, it makes sense to speak of fundamental natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but the right to a speedy trial by jury makes sense only in the social context that sustains the relevant peer-to-peer relationships and judicial institutions. Even in a setting of this sort, it is well established and clearly understood at common law, that necessity abrogates due process in the case of self-defense against aggression that the victim did not bring about through recklessness or negligence. Incidentally, Kant endorses an unqualified right of self-defense (ius inculpatae tutelae) that applies in domestic and foreign relations in equal measure, to the point of approving of warfare against a menacing increase in another state’s power, e.g. by its acquisition of territory, q.v. Die Metaphysik der Sitten 235 and 346.

Kldran Achran

I strongly disagree with your final conclusions. I do not believe the events described count as a single action but as many different actions each of which should be evaluated separately.

If a person must kill another to save themselves, I see it as acceptable regardless of why they need to do so. If they arranged for that situation to happen, then they are responsible for the consequences. This responsibility is a separate issue. Convincing or forcing a person to do something that is likely to cause them harm (or kill them) is itself impermissible, so there is no need to make the final self-defense impermissible as the "difficult" situations you bring up at the end suggest.

Basically, Able's responsibility for killing Baker is not affected by whether or not Able is the one to pull the trigger. He'd be equally guilty if he'd arranged for it to be someone else that Baker tried (and failed) to kill.

Likewise, the victim in Falling Man 2 and 3 is allowed to kill to defend himself (I consider demanding suicide to be a moral taboo as it creates the idea that it is possible for a person to deserve to die). However, he is responsible for creating the circumstance in the first place, and thus already guilty of attempted or successful murder (depending on whether or not the man dies).

Quentin Crain

Is there an analysis from Care Ethics? Maybe think about the "needs" of those in your hypotheticals.

Kris Rhodes

VICTIM in the last two scenarios seems to me to be permitted to kill the falling man. I'm not sure how to argue about intuitions like this, though. Perhaps I'm in the grip of a theory and am not aware of it.


Just because I'm currently getting my head bent by Tolstoys' Law of Love and Law of Violence I feel I ought to disagree with your definition of moral duty. You say,
"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."
Do we have a moral duty that stops short of heroism? Is there really a two tiered approach to morality? Or rather, as I don't think of rights and morals as "real" in any concrete sense, what would be so insane about expecting our moral duty to turn us into heroes.

(Luke 6.29,30)
38You know that you have been taught, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." 39But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you. When someone slaps your right cheek, [a] turn and let that person slap your other cheek. 40If someone sues you for your shirt, give up your coat as well.

I don't live this (nor am I a Christian) however surely this would count as literature. Tolstoy makes a compelling case that any moral law of love becomes meaningless with the introduction of exceptions such as self-defence.

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