Is Self Defense Moral?
This is a question I have asked myself a couple times in life – often coming to opposing conclusions depending on the scope of evidence I used, and the understanding of that evidence I was privy to at the time. Recently a manhunt for a murderer occurred in my neighborhood – putting many of my neighbors in a position of fear as the suspect was loose for over a day. As a co-captain of my neighborhood watch, I determined to set up a neighborhood outing for everyone (who desired) to go through Conceal Carry Weapons training together in order to get their carry permits from the State.
In other words – faced with an external threat to our neighborhood, I opted to arm us. The implication being, if the murderer came upon one of our neighbors, that neighbor would have the means to defend him/herself with deadly force. Simply because you can commit an action (by law, self-defense is legal justification for taking life), does not mean it is also moral to do so. In this case though, I am going to argue the moral justification for taking life in self-defense by examining nature, culture, history, legislation, philosophy, church doctrine, and scripture.
Let me start by stating reason should be used in discerning questions of good and evil. Humans have a mental capacity for discernment of morality. Whether you’re a stoic (like Marcus Aurelius) or a theist (like St. Paul), you most likely agree reason and teaching “is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”
Before I delve into various proofs for and against killing in self-defense, let me start by conceding the obvious: killing is very disagreeable. I do not believe anyone wants to have to take a life – nor faced with the option of sparing a life or taking a life would they readily choose the later if no other conditions were considered.
The pacifist (I am using the term to define a person who disagrees with taking life in defense) agrees that taking life is very disagreeable. They will go a few steps further though. Not only is it disagreeable, but it also does more harm than good. Yet, in real life it is impossible to simply ‘do good’ as it is impossible to simply ‘do bad.’ One must ‘do good to someone’ or ‘do bad to so-and-so group.’ By default, this means you’re “not doing some good to some people at some times” to borrow a line from CS Lewis.
Thus, we find the conditional nature of evil and the pacifist’s problem. In restraining to take the life of a murderer, the pacifist will be enabling the taking of the victim’s life. Or in other words: by doing good to the murderer, the pacifist will be doing evil to the victim by omission. Consequently, one’s philosophy on the subject does matter.
Let’s keep this contention in mind as we examine the evidence for the moral nature of self-defense.
One doesn’t have to study nature for long before they recognize the principle of self-defense permeates all of it. Momma bears, for example, are said to be far more dangerous if they have cubs around. In fact, roughly 70% of human deaths caused by grizzly bears are due to mother bears protecting their cubs (bear.org). The same tendency can be found in dogs with new litters of puppies.
Even vegetables engage in self defense in order to ensure their offspring survive. Chili peppers, for example, are spicy to the taste as a byproduct of their defense against fungi (https://www.livescience.com/2774-defense-chili-peppers-pack-heat.html).
Certain species of fungi, in turn, can be poisonous and marked with bright colors in order to warn predators, as their life cycles are long. Porcupines, pineapples, and blowfish are self explanatory.
It is safe to say that self preservation is one of nature’s most prevalent drivers in ensuring a species’ survival through defense. This, likewise, biologically translates to the human population. Hysterical Strength is an anecdotal phenomena exhibited in humans when in life-or-death situations. From lifting cars to fighting off polar bears, humans are designed to enter ‘beast mode’ when necessary to save themselves or a loved one (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hysterical_strength).
Culture is rife with examples of good prevailing over evil. From the hilarious Home Alone, to the dramatic Gladiator – self defense, and the defense of others, is lauded by our movie industry. The stories we enjoy most tend to apply a theme of good triumphing over evil. It’s why we like WWII films so much. We love to see Nazis fall in an effort to liberate France, Poland, and the concentration camps.
In contrast, culture seldom glorifies the offender. Yes, a macabre taste for anti-heroes has developed in the past 50 years, but in general we do not cheer for the rapists in CSI, or the murderers in Criminal Minds, or the demagorgon from Stranger Things. We like to see the villains ‘get theirs’ because it appeals to our sense of justice. This is a very important fact concerning the moral law; well-adjusted humans tend to praise justice and abhor injustice.
The past teaches us wars of defense can be waged to fight injustice. The germanic tribes against Rome, Carthage against the same enemy, Britain against Germany in WWII (“We will defend our island home”), and subjects against cruel kings are a few examples. Much life has been taken in these defensive campaigns and others like them. The question is whether more good came out of waging the wars than evil. Remember, when X and Y are opposed to one another, often doing good to X will be at the expense of Y. To take the most extreme example: had the Allies decided not to fight Germany in WWII in an effort to do good to them, it would have left all the subjugated people’s at the mercy of eugenists and a megalomaniac. The result up until that time was the loss of over 6 million innocents. The question to consider is whether the Allies should have let such an incursion on life continue or not. Would more good have been administered by sparing the Axis, or more good by wrenching the lives of the Axis from them?
What about our history as a society? When CS Lewis argued against pacifism in his essay Why I am Not a Pacifist, he referenced Aurthur and Alfred, Elizabeth and Cromwell, Walpole and Burke, as all being against him if he were to vie for pacifism. In America we could cite Washington and Lincoln, Eisenhower and Patton, Jackson and Grant – all ancestors of ours who rejected pacifism in an attempt to stave off perceived evil. We are a fighting people, to quote the ever-so-colorful Patton, “Men, all this stuff you hear about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of bullshit. Americans love to fight. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big-league ball players and the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans. Battle is the most significant competition in which a man can indulge. It brings out all that is best and it removes all that is base.”
Yet, America has historically tolerated pacifists. We accept the conscientious objector is sincere in his beliefs and will allow him to opt out of taking part in our wars, or to serve in another capacity. That is the beauty of a classical-liberal nation like ours, but it is also an enigma on the world stage. The pacifist’s goal may be that everyone within that society were like them. What he has failed to realize is that if that goal were ever achieved, pacifists would then cease to exist – as tyrannical governments will always exist and exert their will on a people unwilling to fight for their neighbors and what they believe in – and tyrants do not tolerate pacifism. Thus, this saying is true: to indulge pacifism is the straightest path to a world without pacifists, but only cruel belligerents, where one’s value is dependent upon one’s strength. This is true domestically too – criminals will always exist and without restraint they will make life intolerable.
With that in mind, a pacifist reading about our culture and history of waging war may be inclined to write off the authority of it completely. They may have their own reasons for doing so, but I’d argue they should take into account all of which that classical-liberal society has given them – a safe place to live, education, stability, toleration of their pacifist beliefs, and a willingness to wage war defending their right to possess such beliefs.
When we examine the legality of self defense, it has been condoned in most legal systems throughout history. Only very recently have specific nations given deference to the criminal over the victim in certain circumstances. This typically stems from a general belief in the goodness of people – that is, people are inherently good and it is only their environment which causes them to become evil. This is the philosophy behind laws which limit victims in the type of tools they can use in self defense, or in what lengths they are legally allowed to go to in order to protect their loved ones, self, and property. It is a legal mindset which takes pity on the criminal for committing evil because their environment must have made them do it – thus, they can’t be fully held responsible for their crimes.
Yet, in America we do not tolerate this worldview as much. For the most part, Americans tend to be decedents of Christians who believed in the inherent evil of man. That is, mankind is already evil despite their environment. It means you’ll find thieves in both the poor and wealthy populations, murderers among the civilized and uncivil. As such, when a person commits a crime, they are the only ones to blame for that crime. When it comes to a crime which endangers the lives of another, philosophically speaking, the perpetrator has abdicated their right to life. In other words, by threatening the life of another, the criminal is waging their own life in the process – and thus it can be demanded of him or her.
This is the reasoning behind our legal system when it comes to self defense. The victim who kills his assailant is not charged with murder, but is deemed innocent under the law of the land. Certain states have legislation that spells this out in black and white (e.g. Stand Your Ground laws), while other states place limitations (Duty to Retreat laws).
As I previously alluded, this is nothing knew. Even under the Mosaic law there was a distinction made between killing and murder. Murder was considered the unjust taking of life, while killing was the just taking of life. It determined that the mere taking of life was morally neutral, the real indicator only came after a motive was attributed. This allowed deference to a third form of life taking – accidental. We sometimes call that manslaughter – which we’ve traced back to the 7th century BC as being a distinction by the Athenian lawmaker Draco. Manslaughter itself has subcategories – voluntary and involuntary. Involuntary manslaughter can then be broken down into constructive and negligent manslaughter.
The point of all of this is to say motive really does matter when it comes to taking life. The purest motivation of all, as reflected in our legal system, is the just taking of life in self-defense or in defense of another. As it is just, there is no punishment for it, and sometimes the State will even award a medal if it was done in defense of others.
On the philosophical stage, the pacifist must part ways with Homer, Plato, Aurelius, and Aristotle – they must reject the wisdom of the stoics. They must reject the wisdom of King Solomon who wrote, “Like a muddied spring or a polluted well are the righteous who give way to the wicked.” The assertion Solomon makes is a righteous person stains oneself if he/she sees injustice and fails to act.
There was an appalling crime committed in 1989 in Japan where a 17 year old girl named Junko Furuta was abducted, raped over 400 times, tortured, and finally murdered a month later. Over 100 people knew about her condition, many of them contributing to her torture, but some of them simply turned a blind-eye. No one stepped in to save her. Philosophically speaking, all who failed to help her committed a sin of omission if it was in their capacity to do so. One can’t imagine any of the great stoics who preached virtue over all else, condoning such an omission.
Yet the pacifist, in order to hold to his/her worldview, would refuse to take the life of the perpetrators in order to save Furuta. This harkens back to C.S. Lewis’ philosophical point that one can’t simply ‘do good’ in general, but must ‘do good’ to ‘someone.’ Plato wrote, “The same thing clearly cannot act or be acted upon in the same part or in relation to the same thing at the same time, in contrary ways” and Aristotle in Metaphysics, “It is impossible that the same thing belong and not belong to the same thing at the same time and in the same respect.”
Thus, By doing good to someone, one may find themselves unable to do good to another. In this case, by allowing the Yakuza, who are committing this crime, to live, one would simultaneously be allowing the suffering and death of Furuta. In other words, pacifism by itself fails to discriminate what is just and unjust. It is a worldview which sees no difference between taking the life of the rapist and the victim, or the murderer and the murdered. It effectively isolates a portion of the Moral Law and removes it from the rest of the Moral Law. It rightly asserts that life is of great value, but fails to couple that assertion with the fact that justice is of great value too.
Plato once wrote, “And all knowledge, when separated from justice and virtue, is seen to be cunning and not wisdom” to illustrate what happens when people isolate a portion of the Moral Law (ex. knowledge) from the whole of the Moral Law (justice, virtue, etc.) In the same way, the pacifist will isolate a portion of the moral law (ex. the sanctity of life) from some of its other parts (ex. justice).
Justice presupposes desert. It is a tidy word to sum up the act of receiving what one deserves to receive. It requires merit of some sort, typically based on the actions of a moral agent. For example, a person may answer 10 out of 10 questions on their homework correct, and thus they merit and deserve a 100% on the assignment. It is the expected outcome of their work. If, on the other hand, they receive a 70%, barring extraneous rules in grading, then we call such an act an injustice; that is – the person did not receive what they deserved. Thus, the concept of justice allows us to discriminate good and evil outcomes. Once versed in the philosophy of justice, a person will be able to recognize the taking of a life in self defense is a just one, where as the taking of the life of an innocent is unjust. This is the same principle that guides capital punishment.
Philosophical questions are notoriously outlandish. Judith Thompson famously compared a fetus to a violinist attached to a woman for 9 months. When we dissect the difference between utilitarian and Kantian thought, we use the scenario, “would it be moral to torture an innocent toddler in order to save 1000 lives?” to force a person to see the difference in thought at its core. When it comes to self-defense, though, we have plenty of real-world historic examples (such as the Futura one above) to get to the heart of the issue. Let me give one more.
Police believe they have finally caught the Golden State Killer. Currently, 50+ rapes and 12+ murders are attributed to him. He particularly enjoyed breaking into homes of married couples. Wikipedia writes about his MO by stating, “The female victim was usually forced to tie up her male companion first before being tied up next. In many cases, these bindings were made so tightly that the victims had no feeling in their hands for hours after they were untied. He would then separate the couple, often stacking dishes on the back of the male and stating that if he heard them rattle he would kill everyone in the house. He would then relocate the female to the living room and often rape her repeatedly, sometimes over the course of several hours.”
The philosophical question I must pose is, faced with the Golden Stake Killer in your home, if you had a magic button that would guarantee his death and the sparing of your family, would you press it? Let’s take another serial killer as an additional example. The Candy Man abducted young boys, would tie them up in his torture room, and torture and rape them until he got bored where he would then strangle them and bury their bodies on his property. He had over 28 known victims. Wiki recounts some of his tortures, “All of the victims found had been sodomized and most victims found bore evidence of sexual torture: pubic hairs had been plucked out, genitals had been chewed, objects had been inserted into their rectums, and glass rods had been inserted into their urethrae and smashed. Cloth rags had also been inserted into the victims’ mouths and adhesive tape wound around their faces to muffle their screams. The mouth of the third victim unearthed on August 8 was so agape that all upper and lower teeth were visible, leading investigators to theorize the youth had died with a scream on his lips.”
The question I pose is, if you were present during one of these tortures, or if you could see all of them happening simultaneously, would you choose to kill Dean Corll, the Candy Man, in order to save these children? Keep in mind, for our philosophical question, there are no other options. You either kill the serial killer, and save the victims, or you allow the serial killer to continue. You might say it is a difficult question because you believe a third option should be available – subduing the serial killer rather than taking his life. That’s the point of a philosophical question though, there are limitations put in place in order for us to be able to see the real difference in thought. In this case, we are looking at the real difference between a pacifist and a non-pacifist worldview.
The non pacifist, once again, sees the world in terms of justice. It sees the Golden State Killer’s rapes and murders as unjust acts – ones which abdicate the assailant’s life defacto. The pacifist does not take justice into account. He or she fails to discriminate right from wrong – seeing both actions as wrong (the taking of an innocent life, and the taking of the perpetrator’s life). This is a marginal belief, not shared by the majority of philosophers, with good reason. It grates against the Moral Law we all have in common. There is a reason one might ‘sound like a monster’ if they wouldn’t push that button to save their family, or to save 28 young boys from torture and murder. Our philosophical ancestors called it the Natural Law – that is, a law everyone is acquainted with when it comes to right and wrong, naturally. We naturally abhor injustice. One might say it is a reflection of the Divine’s nature – given to those made in Its Image. That would bring us out of Philosophy, and into the realm of Theology.
When it comes to Theology, or the study of the nature of God, we have multiple sources to go to. One of our most trusted sources is Church authority. The issue comes when believers are divided over which church they should follow. I’d like to demonstrate that it is likely your Church does not condemn self-defense or taking life in the defense of others. Let’s look at various teachings on the matter:
“Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:
If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man.” – Catholic Catechism, Part 3, Section 2, Chapter 2, Article 5.
“It is lawful for Christian men at the command of the state to carry weapons and serve in wars.” – Anglican Article 37
We can then turn from church authority to patristic teachings:
“And as they (rulers) lawfully defend it with the material sword against inward disturbances by punishing male-factors, so it belongs to them also to protect the commonwealth from enemies without by the sword of war.” – Part 3, Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas
“If Christian discipleship wholly reprobated war, then to those who sought the counsel of salvation in the Gospel this answer would have been given first, that they should throw away their arms and withdraw themselves altogether from being soldiers. But what was really said to them was, ‘Do violence to no man and be content with your pay. When he bade them to be content with their due soldier’s pay, he forbade them not to be paid as soldiers” – St. Augustine
I’d like to make a caveat here. Even though the majority of Christian churches and theologians agree self defense is moral, and even more agree Just War is moral, there are dissenters such as Tolstoy. Even Augustine and Aquinas put limitations on what situations and what motives would be necessary to engage in self defense. They narrowed it down to basically if the only reason you’re killing someone else is to save your own skin, then the killing is “Just, but not righteous.” However, if you’re killing someone in order to save someone else, or your motivation for killing someone in self-defense is to save yourself because others rely on you, then it might be both Just and righteous since your motives were righteous too.
In researching opposition for this think-piece, I believe I can keep my conscience while conceding to St. Agustine and Aquinas’ thoughts outlined in the last paragraph. It is difficult for me to imagine an instance where an act might be “Just, but not righteous” as justice is righteous. Yet, Paul does give us a few examples of items that are “permissible, but not beneficial.” For example, the Christian may drink alcohol and be just in doing so, but if they are doing it in front of an alcoholic they are being uncharitable. Thus, it is permissible for them to drink, but under some circumstances it may not be beneficial – or even “unrighteous.” Once put in this light, killing in self-defense only (the before-mentioned theologians would argue such an act would entail your thoughts to be solely about killing the assailant, rather than about saving yourself, or about getting back to your family alive for their sake) could be considered “not beneficial” and I’d even go as far as to say “unrighteous.”
Believers may have to ask themselves under what circumstances they’d kill in self-defense or in the defense of another, prior to having to make that decision in a split second. If you’re a free agent with no one counting on you back home, or perhaps your children are all grown and self reliant, then you’re called to give up your life in deference to the criminal who takes it under this philosophy. You would not be faulted for engaging in self defense, as it would still be a Just act according to these specific theologians, but they’d say you didn’t make the best choice either.
With that concession made, one does not find any reference to pacifism in the epistles, which are older than the gospels, and contain all that the gospel hearers got out of the gospel message (or their interpretation of Christ’s words). Where Christians seem to get most hung up is not with their Church doctrine (which more than likely approves of self defense) or the theologian’s teachings (which likewise tend to skew against pacifism), but rather with certain words found in the gospels themselves.
For this section I am only going to focus on the New Testament in order to help the reader avoid a needless internal debate over whether they should take the Old Testament into consideration. There are a few passages of scripture that Christians sometimes get hung up on when it comes to violence, but one of the big lightning rods is Matthew 5:39.
“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
Everything I am about to write is borrowed from C.S Lewis’ speech titled Why I Am Not a Pacifist with good reason: he said it better than I ever could. His first step was to accept the fact that a Christian might take Jesus’ statement here without qualification – or without any implied exceptions. Such a Christian would have to take all of Jesus’ statements in the same regard or else own up to their biases. For example, just a few verses later Jesus tells us to give to all who ask of us, and turn no one away. Such a teaching, taken without exception, would make such a person a pauper. Lewis’ argument here is that an inconsistent man might take verse 39 without exception, keeping them out of military service, but not take verse 42 without exception, keeping them from enabling their gambling addicted sister.
There are three ways to interpret Jesus’ teaching in verse 39. The first is the Pacifist interpretations, it means non-resistance from all men under all circumstances – for example, a victim should not resist her rapist. A second is a minimizing interpretation – basically saying the command doesn’t mean what it says, it just means you should put up with a lot from other people and become a doormat. The third interpretation is the one Lewis and I both agree on. We believe the text means exactly what it says, but that it comes along with a number of exceptions that Jesus expected the audience to already know. Keep in mind, he was preaching to farmers, traders, fishers, and craftsmen in a disarmed nation. These people most likely understood what Jesus meant while considering obvious exceptions (such as war, self-defense, a guilty verdict, a child hitting his parents, etc.) CS Lewis sums it up by delineating between injuries in general (such as 1 Sam 24:10), and injuries in particular (such as 1 Sam 17:46). In other-words, Lewis writes, “In so far as the only relevant factors in the case are an injury to me by my neighbor and a desire on my part to retaliate, then I hold that Christianity demands the absolute mortification of that desire. No quarter is given to the voice within us that says ‘he’s done it to me, so I’ll do the same to him.'” This would be considered injury in general.
Yet, when you incorporate other factors, then the issue becomes more complex and can’t be whitewashed. Lewis challenges his listeners on whether any of them believe Jesus’ audience understood His words to mean that if a homicidal maniac tried to knock them out of the way to get to his victim, that they should simply step aside and allow him. Both Lewis and myself believe it is impossible they understood him that way. The same as it would be impossible they understood the best way to raise a child is to let him hit his parents whenever he is in a temper.
Thus, the meaning was perfectly clear – “in so far as you are an angry man who has been hurt, mortify your anger and do not hit back.”
This interpretation of the scripture appears to be far more logical than the pacifist interpretation that there aren’t implied exceptions. It likewise jives with the rest of scripture. Not just the Old Testament, but also the fact one of the people Jesus praised the highest was a Roman Centurion (Luke 7:9), and John the Baptist, when approached by soldiers who asked him what they should do, did not tell them to stop being soldiers, but rather to stop extorting people and to be content with their pay as soldiers (Luke 3:14). It also aligns with St. Paul (Romans 3:14) and St. Peter (1 Peter 2:14).
On the Whole
In this essay we’ve examined the topic from multiple angles – philosophy, history, scripture, nature, culture, theology, and legislation. The vast weight of these topics seems to lean toward self-defense being moral. Even the reputable exceptions found in St. Augustine and St. Aquinas only shed further light on C.S. Lewis’ interpretation of Matthew 5:39 by conceding there are certain circumstances, coupled with motivation, where self-defense might not only be Just, but also righteous. To vie for pacifism I have to go against my nature, culture, lessons from history, the law of the land, sound thinking found in philosophy, church doctrine, and religious authority. The odds of self-defense being immoral seem to be quite long. Far too long for me to take the gamble.