I got my grade for A-NCCI 3330: Introduction to Critical Inquiry. An A! And now I have 100 hours of college credit under my belt.
Here’s my final paper:
A-NCCI 3330; Position Paper
August 7, 2006
Should the United States Legalize Lethal Self-Defense?
Henry was on a camping vacation with his family when a boy near his son’s age bullied his son, snatching his five dollar deposit card and running off with it. After Henry asked for the card back from the other kid and redeemed it at the office, the boy’s father started yelling at Henry, storming towards him. As the other father approached, he drew a knife and started to close the distance between himself and Henry. Henry had a split second to react. He was in fear for his life. What should he have done?
A student of ethics who looks at Henry’s case might say that Henry would be fully justified in using a lethal method of self-defense, and it would, in fact, be unfair to keep Henry from being able to defend himself since the aggressor was the one who took moral responsibility for the situation by having drawn a knife. On the other hand, a pacifist would argue that in no circumstance is it morally correct to kill another person. The opposing viewpoints present an interesting question: Should the United States legalize lethal self-defense?
Current Status of Self-Defense Legality
The current situation regarding self-defense laws in the United States is confusing. Different states have different laws, which seemingly change daily. Most states agree that self-defense is justified if a person uses proportional defense, meeting force with equivalent force, in a case where a reasonable person would be afraid of death or great bodily injury. However, many states impose restrictions on when, where, and how lethal self-defense may be used.
Several states greatly limit the circumstances in which individuals are able to defend themselves legally. The Duty to Retreat principle, which, according to Willing, is currently the law in 29 states as of March, 2006, requires individuals to make every reasonable effort to flee their attackers rather than stand their ground. A companion law is called the Castle Doctrine, which is the law that states that peoples’ homes are their castles and that individuals attacked in their homes may stand to fight without retreating. Definitions vary among the states as to what consists a home: a boat, car, recreational vehicle, front yard, and so on. States may have both a Duty to Retreat law and a Castle Doctrine law, allowing victims to fight back, but only if they are in their “homes” as defined by their state.
Other laws which vary from state to state are concealed handgun laws. Some states, which are called “No Issue” states, completely disallow the legal carrying of concealed handguns. Other states “May Issue” permits to carry concealed guns at their own discretion; critics argue that in these states only the famous or well-connected are able to get such a permit. Many other states are “Shall Issue” states, and they will issue a license to carry a concealed handgun to anyone who legally qualifies, although qualifications vary depending on the state. Last, two states, Vermont and Alaska, are “Unrestricted” states, meaning that anyone who can legally own a gun can carry it concealed without having to go through a permit process.
Ethical Considerations of Self-Defense
Almost as varied as the laws which govern the use of self-defense are the ethical viewpoints regarding the same. Students of ethics, approaching the situation pragmatically, focus on what is fair. According to Draper, “Other things being equal, if only one individual is (morally) to blame for the fact that someone must sustain a cost, then that individual should sustain the cost” (76). Draper further argues that if one person were to provoke another into using a disproportionate amount of force, such as Person A vocally teasing Person B, who pulls out a gun in retaliation, that would be immoral (77). Killing someone over something as insignificant as words would not be taking moral obligations into account.
Ethicists also acknowledge the high cost of killing another in self-defense, even if the action is perfectly morally justified. Fortune says that although those who kill others in self-defense may be seen by others as thinking they are more worthy of living than their attackers, this is not always the case; in the end the defenders must decide whether the consequences of not defending themselves would be worse than taking another person’s life (189). The movie Abandon Ship, which shows a lifeboat captain having to cast away injured people from his crowded boat so that the majority of healthy passengers may survive, illustrates that the choice to kill another is not easy. Although the captain saved several lives, he still felt guilt over having caused others to die, and he still went to prison for his actions.
Pacifists, to varying degrees, claim that there is never justification for taking another person’s life. Perhaps the most famous example of this viewpoint was expressed by Jesus, who said, “But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Holy Bible, Matt. 5:39), meaning that people faced with violence should not fight back. Klement agrees that people shouldn’t use violence in any circumstances, arguing that those who are conditioned to do violence, such as using lethal force against another even in self-defense, are more likely to exhibit violent tendencies at inappropriate times; thus the cost of being prepared to use lethal self-defense is detrimental to society as a whole (169). Other pacifists may grant that while killing a person who is holding a gun to one’s head may be permissible, that is only because someone who would hold a gun to another’s head is psychotic and, therefore, worth less to society than a sane person (Otsuka 92). However, Otsuka goes on to say that since it is impossible to tell whether an act of aggression is precipitated by permanent psychosis or temporary illness, it is better not to kill an aggressor at all rather than risk the lives of innocents (94).
So who is right, the ethicists or the pacifists? Ultimately, there may be no blanket solution that will cover each individual’s feelings, needs, or morals. There will always be people who find themselves unable to kill another under any circumstances. However, there are also those who feel morally justified in defending their own lives, or the lives of their families. Although there might be some instances in which an innocent person could be killed by accident, the hypothetical situations contrived to illustrate these accidents are far-fetched at best. It is more likely that in everyday life, people will be faced with a simple act of aggression–“Your money or your life!”– than they would be faced with a runaway trolley car with an innocent person aboard which has to be blown up in order to save the lives of those down the track, for example. For this reason, there should be a consistent federal law allowing American citizens to be able to use lethal force to defend themselves against an aggressor.
The reasons for this are many. Not only are the current laws inconsistent and confusing, but those that do not allow lethal self-defense are detrimental to society. Draper says that someone is going to die in an “Us or Them” situation anyway; “Thus, it would be unfair for you to die instead of [the aggressor], for then you would be paying the foreseeable costs of his moral error” (75). Furthermore, it is imperative that members of a society follow their obligations to the society as a whole. The sacrifice of a moral, law-abiding citizen in favor of an amoral aggressor is bad for the community. Having people around who are able to make good ethical choices is beneficial for all involved. People who value life and who are able to make these good ethical choices do not lightly threaten others with death. This would be using others as a means to an end, and that is what criminals do, not productive, moral citizens.
So in the case of Henry, who we left about to be attacked by a man with a knife, there is a good example of how someone prepared to use self-defense is a better member of society than an aggressor. At the time of the attack, Henry was legally carrying a concealed handgun, and his good training caused him to identify the threat and draw his weapon in a split second. As Henry took out his gun, the perpetrator dropped his knife and stopped in his tracks. The perpetrator immediately backed down, and was subsequently kicked off the campground. Henry is thankful that he had the gun, but is more thankful that he didn’t have to pull the trigger, even though he was prepared to do so and deal with the consequences. In this situation, the aggressor had so little regard for human life that he appeared willing to kill another over a five dollar deposit card. Henry, on the other hand, has been through extensive training and qualification on the mechanical, legal, and moral use of his handgun. When faced with a choice between a morally bankrupt individual, who would knife someone over five dollars, and Henry, who had extensively studied, reflected on, and prepared for such a situation, society would be much better off having Henry, and many more like him. Laws which allow these responsible individuals to be able to defend themselves would result in a healthier and safer nation.
Abandon Ship! Dir. Richard Sale. Perf. Tyrone Power, Mai Zetterling. 1957. Encore-Action Library Print, 1996.
Draper, George. “Fairness and Self-Defense.” Social Theory & Practice 19.1 (1993): 73-92.
Fortune, Aaron. “Violence as Self-Sacrifice: Creative Pacifism in a Violent World.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 18.3 (2004): 184-192.
HBruns. “Oh joy – a new member of the ‘Draw Down!’ club.” Online posting. 12 July 2006. .
Holy Bible: Revised Standard Edition. Eds. Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger. Oxford University Press, 1962.
Klement, Kevin. “Is Pacifism Irrational?” Peace Review 11.1 (1999): 165-170.
Otsuka, Michael. “Killing the Innocent in Self-Defense.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 23 (1994): 74-94.
Willing, Richard. “States allow deadly self-defense.” USA Today 20 Mar 2006. 1 Aug 2006 .