Imagine that you are walking home from the pub at night when two strangers suddenly pull out their guns clearly with the intention to kill you. Unbeknownst to you, there’s a vicious killer out in the area, and as it happens you fit the description of the mass murderer perfectly right down to every last detail.  These police officers have been given shoot to kill orders as several officers have already been killed. But, you don’t know that they are police officers – you just think that they are killers coming to get you. All you can think of is saving your own life. In a desperate attempt to do so, you hurl your heavy bag at one of the officer which hits him in the head and kills him. At the same time, the other officer fires and you die. Your only other options would have been to hurl the bag at the officer who ended up shooting you (in which he would have died but the officer you really killed would then have shot you), or to do nothing and take the bullet from both of the officers.

Have you done anything wrong? My intuition is that you haven’t. I think that the right to defend oneself also applies to cases where one is attacked by a far superior force. So, in this case too, you were perfectly entitled to defend yourself. In fact, most attacks where people have to defend themselves seem to be ones where the odds are heavily against the defender (the Stephen Lawrence murder here in the UK is a good example of this) given that the attackers are rarely stupid enough to attack targets who can defend themselves successfully. Yet, Peter Vallentyne’s recent theory of enforcement rights against non-culpable non-just intrusions has just the opposite consequence. He thinks that in these cases your only morally permissible option is to do nothing. This is why I think we should reject his theory and all other similar views that are based on harm reduction.

Here’s the principle which Vallentyne defends in his recent Ratio article “Enforcement Rights against Non-Culpable Non-Just Intrusion”:

“Enforcement: In a given choice situation, Agent has a moral liberty, against Target, to perform a specific act of intrusion upon Target if each of the following conditions holds:

(1) Harm Reduction: Agent’s intrusion against Target lowers the (expected value of net uncompensated direct) non-just intrusion-harm to Agent by all others compared with that value if Agent does not intrude upon Target in that choice situation;

(2) Necessity: Agent has no alternative action that (a) achieves or exceeds the above reduction in intrusion-harm to Agent, (b) involves no infringements of rights of individuals other than Target, (c) is no worse for Agent, and (d) is better for Target (i.e., leaves him better off); and

(3) Proportionality: The intrusion-harm imposed is proportionate… to the reductions achieved in intrusion-harm to Agent.”

Now, in the case I started with, the attack on you is causally over-determined. Therefore, even if you defend yourself successfully against the other officer, the other one will kill you. For this reason, your action of self-defence does not lower the amount of non-just intrusion-harm to you when compared to you not doing anything. The same non-just intrusion harm is inflicted on you in any case – you die. [Note how we are talking about here non-just intrusions. This is why I tried to come up with an example in which the attackers (i.e., the officers) were entitled to attack you to kill.] And, therefore given that first condition not satisfied, according to Vallentyne’s Enforcement principle, you don’t have the moral liberty to defend yourself against the superior force in my case.

Most people I’ve talked to seem to share my intuition about this case but I would be interested in hearing from those who don’t (and I am sure there are many of you). I would like to hear why you might think that the required act in the case is to do nothing. It’s worthwhile pointing out that even the international laws governing war recognise that small countries have the right to defend themselves even against overwhelming forces. No one, for example, has complained that Finland did not have a right to defend itself against Soviet Union in 1939. So, adopting Vallentyne’s principle would have fairly radical consequences.

Now, I did ask Peter Vallentyne about this case when he presented the paper in the Ratio conference two years ago. His answer was that he does not share the unnecessary punishment or retaliation intuition on which my case is based on. But, I find it hard to see why my intuition would be based on any considerations like that.

36 Replies to “Enforcement Rights and Harm-Reduction

  1. Jussi
    This is a terrifically interesting problem. Clearly there is a powerful intuition that a person need not succumb to a wrongful attack simply because she is incapable of successfully averting the threat posed to her. Here are a few thoughts.
    The case that you open with is not as strong as it might be given that the police officers in your case act permissibly in the evidence relative sense. I find it difficult to believe that it is permissible to kill in your case.
    The war case is also difficult. In the war case, if the small country defends itself, innocent lives will certainly be sacrificed on both sides. If the small country is certain to lose, it seems difficult to justify defending itself. Of course, in reality it is very difficult to know whether the small country will be successful in defending itself, as the Vietnam war demonstrates.
    A simpler case is stronger:
    D1 and D2 culpably attack V in order to kill V simply because they dislike him. V can kill D1, but even if he does so D2 will certainly be successful in killing V.
    Many share the intuition that V may kill D1. This intuition would be even stronger if D1’s contribution could be negated by imposing some harm less than death on him.
    Here are some considerations that some might think militate in favour of a permission for V to harm D1
    1) Desert. Some might believe that D1 deserves to die, or at least to be harmed in some way. On this view, not only is D1 liable to be harmed (everyone will agree that he is), but there is a non-instrumental reason to harm him. With Vallentyne, I doubt this.
    2) Self-respect. Some might think that requiring V to allow himself to be killed requires V to die in an undignified way, as though his life isn’t important (It’s been a while since I read this, but Daniel Statman had a piece in Ethics arguing for something like this I think).
    3) Deterrence. It might be permissible for V to kill D1 because a permission to defend oneself, even where doing so is futile, will deter others from mounting attacks. D1 is liable to be harmed for deterrent purposes given his wrongful attack on V.
    3) seems by far the most important of these considerations to me. I doubt that 1) or 2) make a significant contribution to a permission to kill. Does Arneson consider 3)? It might even justify a country in defending itself against a vastly superior force (there is a range of difficult proportionality questions in that context). Some doubt 3) on the grounds that D1 will be harmed to avert a threat that he is not responsible for creating (given that the threat that he jointly poses with D2 cannot be averted). I doubt that this consideration is decisive.
    Or do you think that there are other considerations that militate in favour of a permission to kill beyond 1-3?

  2. Sorry Jussi, the bottom of my post is missing. It reads:
    If 1-3 are the only relevant considerations in the simpler case, they seem not to apply to non-culpable cases (although perhaps there are arguments that might be mounted about 2 and 3). Also, perhaps Vallentyne can accommodate 3.

  3. Hi Jussi,
    I think that my act of hurling the heavy bag was objectively impermissible (that is, impermissible in the fact-relative sense) but subjectively permissible (that is, permissible in the evidence-relative sense). From your post, it’s unclear whether this is contrary to your own intuitions. It’s also unclear which type of permissibility Vallentyne’s principle is supposed to track.

  4. Hi Victor,
    thanks! I agree that the case needs tweaking. What we need is a case in which the many Targets act wrongly but are non-culpable because of ignorance. The de Mendez killing in London for example seems to fit the case. Also, I don’t need even killing. We could consider an alternative in which you hurl the bag to knock off the weapon from one of the officer’s hand. This hurts him a bit. Under Vallentyne’s principle, even doing this would be not permissible. For what it’s worth, I do think small countries do have a right to defend themselves even against overwhelming powers.
    I’m starting to think that the source of my strong intuitions about these cases is to do with demandingness. I don’t think morality can be so demanding as to require sacrificing ourselves without a fight. So, I guess this is to add to your list of 1-3, even if I am symphatetic to 3 which I think can apply in the non-culpable cases if it is widespread knowledge that people will defend themselves against over-whelming threats.
    Hi Doug,
    I believe that Vallentyne’s principle is supposed to be about objective impermissibility even if he makes sense of objective impermissibility in terms of expected harms and benefits.
    I’m interested in the pre-theoretical sense of rightness and wrongness. This is the sense of rightness and wrongness (and I do believe there’s only one such sense outside philosophy seminar rooms) that is most closely associated with blame and praise. So, I guess my question is, if you hurl your bag either merely to hurt one of the officers or even to kill him would you deserve to be blamed for that action? My intuition is that you would not be. In this sense, the action is permissible. If there’s some other sense of permissibility then that seems like a technical definition of which I probably don’t have many intuitions.
    Your case unfortunately won’t do because Vallentyne’s principle is supposed to be given for non-culpable non-just rights-intrusions (eg. wrongful bodily attack by someone who falsely, but with full epistemic justification, believes that he is acting permissibly). He might say something different about culpable cases (even if, funnily enough, the formulation of the principle itself does not provide this constraint on the domain of the principle).

  5. Victor,
    I think I should add another motivation for the intuition I have. It seems to me that your right to self defend should supervene on the qualities of the you, the attacker, and the relationship between the two. So, in any world in which you the attacker and the relationship between you two are the same, you have the same right to self defend. Now, if we assume Vallentyne’s harm reduction principle, this basic thought about supervenience will not hold. Rather, external features such as whether another attacker happens to be attacking you at the same time can change whether you have the right to defend yourself against the given attack. So, on Vallentyne’s view, you can either have a right or lack it to defend yourself against the very same attack depending on whether there are others attacking you. I think it’s this too that I find implausible.

  6. Jussi
    thanks for that
    Your last thought seems much too strong. It seems to imply that collateral damage can never vitiate a permission to defend oneself against a wrongful attacker. In collateral damage, the existence of a third party who will be harmed by the attack might render defending oneself wrong.
    On demandingness – the demand doesn’t seem particularly stringent here. Suppose that I have two options
    1) passively succumb to the attack by D and be killed at t
    2) defend myself, harming D and be killed at t.
    In both cases I am killed at t. All that I have gained in 2) over 1) is the pleasure or self-respect that I have in harming D. But if D is non-culpable it is not clear that any pleasure or self-respect that I feel is morally significant. So it isn’t clear to me exactly what morally significant cost I must bear if I am required to choose 1). In contrast, if I am permitted to choose 2), D must bear a significant cost. We need a reason to impose any cost on D. If we can’t find one, we should require 1). Can you spell out what the cost is on me if I am required to choose 2)?

  7. Hi Victor,
    good point. I need to formulate the supervenience thesis more carefully. I guess the thought would be, if in one situation I am able to do certain act to defend myself, then I have the right to do the same action with the very same consequences in other circumstances which are exactly similar except that there happens to be additional attackers. That is, the mere fact that some else happens to be also attacking me cannot take away the right I had to self defend without them. So, the amount of collateral damage can affect whether I have the right to self-defend in the first place. But, if add additional attackers and keep the collateral damage the same, my right must remain the same. So, right to self-defend supervenes on my qualities the attackers qualities, our relationship, and the amount of collateral damage.
    I don’t want to argue that one is required to choose 2), I want to argue for a weaker claim that both 1) and 2) should be permissible options. That is, morality cannot require 1). What the consideration that makes this requirement demanding is. I can think of several that would need to be developed further. One is almost all human beings seem to have a strong powerful inclination towards survival. People do desparate things to try to stay alive even against all the odds. If morality required suppressing such powerful drives, this would seem to be demanding.
    Secondly, there is something to the Kantian thought that we must consider our humanity also in ourselves as an end in itself. The moral requirement of 1) would be a requirement to give up this end. In Korsgaardian such demand would be a demand to self-destruct as a person – to no longer constitute oneself as an agent.

  8. Sorry again – I meant 1) rather than 2) at the end of my last post (there seems to be a general decline in my blogging skills…)
    The reasons that you offer don’t seem all that powerful to me.
    The fact that humans are powerfully inclined to v is surely at most a very weak reason in favour of a permission to v. Think about the inclination towards racial or sexual discrimination. We would not think that evidence that we are powerfully inclined to do these things grounds a permission to do them. The frustration that people will inevitably feel if they refrain from discriminating is a cost they can be expected to bear. Why can’t people be expected to bear the frustration of refraining from harming non-culpable attackers?
    Perhaps there is some version of the Kantian thought that is important, but in the case that you are considering, destruction itself is inevitable. It is simply a question of what the person is permitted to do prior to being destroyed. On what grounds would Kantians prefer resisted destruction to unresisted destruction?

  9. Hi Victor,
    well, I’m at the moment just preparing to teach Peter Strawson’s wonderful ‘Freedom and Resentment’ paper. Strawson of course is talking about our natural reactive attitudes towards the good and ill will of others that are constitutive of our interpersonal relationships. The question is, whether the belief in the truth of determinism could require us to suspend these attitudes. Strawson’s response is ‘it is useless to ask whether it would not be rational for us to do what it is not in our nature to (be able to) do.’ To me the desire to survive and experiencing reactive attitudes like resentment are on a par in this respect. Given that we cannot give them up, it is not clear whether morality can demand us to do so. The case of the desire to survive seems to be even more basic given that we do share it with the whole of the animal kingdom. You might think that it is a part of the volitional necessities that make us the very things we are.
    I don’t think racial or sexual discrimination are deeply entranched in this way. They seem more like cultural dispositions in some people, and ones that are fairly easily changeable.
    With the Kantian view, I think the question comes down to whether an agent can ever permissibly destroy herself. In resisting destructions, the agent continues to exhibit agency all the way to the end. In this sense, her humanity continues to be an end for her. In permitting herself to be destroyed by others, the agent ceases to see her humanity as an end and in this way ceases to be an agent.

  10. Thanks to Jussi for posting this. I’ll just confirm that:
    1) I am addressing factual permissibility (which conceptually could be based on the agent’s beliefs about the consequences or alternatively on the facts about the consequences).
    2) I hold that factual permissibiliyt is, as a substantive matter, based on the objective consequences (not subjectively believed ones, or epistemically supported beliefs). My appeal to the expected consequences is an appeal to the objectively expected (or expectable) consequences, based on objective probabilities.
    3) My view does indeed have the implication that harmful self-defense (or defense of others) is not permitted when it does nothing to reduce the relevant harm. I agree that this is counterintuitive, but I believe that the weak pacificist principle that rejects the harmful use of force unless it reduces non-just harmful use of force is more plausible. (Of course, I realize that many do not share this intuition.)

  11. Hi Jussi,
    You write: “I believe that Vallentyne’s principle is supposed to be about objective impermissibility even if he makes sense of objective impermissibility in terms of expected harms and benefits. [However?] I’m interested in the pre-theoretical sense of rightness and wrongness…that is most closely associated with blame and praise.”
    On the assumption that the objective sense of impermissibility is not the one most closely associated with blame and praise, it sounds like you’re saying that Vallentyne’s principle is talking about objective impermissibility but your putatitive counterexample involves non-objective permissibility. But how can it be a counterexample if you’re talking about a different sense of permissibility? That it is in some non-objective sense permissible to do X would not conflict with the claim that it is in an objective sense impermissible to do X.
    Also, as quoted, Vallentyne’s principle only gives a sufficient condition for the permissibility of an intrusion upon Target. As such, it could never imply that some intrusion is impermissible in any sense. And in that case how could the principle conflict with your intuition that some intrusion is permissible?
    Lastly, you write: “Your case unfortunately won’t do.” My case? I never presented a case. I was just talking about your case.

  12. Hi Peter,
    thanks for this response. So, it does seem that you too share some of my intuitions.
    I feel torn here too. I often find pacifism intuition in many contexts. However, usually, I tend to trust intutions about cases more than intuitions about the plausibility of abstract principles. I guess this is the influence from Dancy. But, I do accept that in addition to providing intuitions about the cases it would help if I could find more general argumentative support for some alternative principle or more theoretical problems with your principle.
    And, thanks again for taking part!

  13. Doug,
    huge apologies. The last case was meant to refer to Victor’s case but I got very confused when trying to respond to two people at the same time. I’m very sorry about this!
    Good point also about the need to use permissibility in the very same sense as Peter. He of course clarified in which sense he is using permissibility, namely in the factual sense. So, my example needs to address the same sense of permissibility. In order to do so, we can stipulate the there is no factual information that you lack when the two police officers attack you. You know who they are and that they have superior force. My intution is that you are still permitted to defend yourself for example by knocking the other officer’s gun even if this hurts him a bit.
    Finally, a very good point about the principle being a sufficient but not a necessary condition for the liberty to self defend. Peter’s own comment makes me think that he thought that the conditions of the principle would also be necessary conditions individually (given that he admits that the principle has the consequences I took it to be). But, true, he could say that none of the conditions are necessary conditions. The problem then would be that his account would be a bit imcomplete. We would also like to hear about the necessary conditions and other sufficient conditions.

  14. Hi Jussi,
    If we assume that I know all the relevant facts, including the fact that the attackers are just police officers trying to do their jobs under very difficult circumstances and that hurling my handbag at them will kill one of them without increasing my chances of survival, then my intuition is that it would be wrong for me to hurl my handbag at them. Why kill the police officer? What justification is their for doing so? I don’t think that I can claim self-defense if I know that this act won’t have any chance of saving myself.
    Of course, you asked: why do I think that doing nothing is the required act? Of course, I don’t think that I’m required to do nothing. I may permissible run, duck for cover, raise my hands in surrender, or shout ‘don’t shoot’ at them (even though I imagine that you’ll stipulate that none of these acts will do any good). However, I don’t think that I need to justify such acts. Running, for instance, is not prima facie wrong. Killing, however, is prima facie wrong. So I think that you need to explain why you think that it is permissible for me to kill the police officer when I know that killing him or her will do no good whatsoever and will do a fair bit of harm (to him and her and his or her family).

  15. Of course, one complication regarding your example is that there is little time to react and that in the heat of the moment all that I can think of is trying to save my life. Of course, depending on how we are to cash out “all that I can think of,” we may want to deny that not hurling the bag is an option.

  16. Hi Doug,
    thanks. I am starting to think that that example does not work exactly for the reason that there is something special about (i) killing and (ii) police officers doing their role in the described circumstances. I think the intuition is clearer if we reduce the harm in any way. Would it be wrong for you to do anything that would give even a minutes harm to one of the officers (such that it would only prevent that person from killing you)? Could you cause minor bruise in his hand? A mild headache? Here my intuition is more strongly yes.
    I think it would be possible to come up with cases where the superior attack on you is more strongly wrong even if still non-culpable because of ignorance where the attackers are not so much protected by their role. I need to think of a cleaner case.

  17. Thanks to Doug for some general support (although I’m sure that we disagree on many specifics.
    In the paper, I limit myself to a sufficient condition to defense against a non-culpable intruder. I indicate there, however, that this is part of a larger project giving necessary and sufficient conditions. I would defend a version of the harm-reduction condition (generalized, however, from the one given in the paper to include defense of others). Thus, I take my general view to be vulnerable to Jussi’s objection.
    I do think that part of the disagreement is traceable, as Jussi suggests, to disagreement about how seriously to take the plausibility of abstract principles vs. concrete judgments. I take both seriously, but I take the abstract desiderata more seriously than many. Hence, I’m more willing to endorse intuitively implausible concrete judgments when they conflict with plausible (to me!) abstract principles.

  18. Thanks Peter!
    I too want to take both intuitions about cases seriously. I probably am less intuitively drawn to the harm reduction principle and more drawn towards a principle that says that a rights intruder cannot take away the victim’s right to self defend merely by adding brute force.
    I’m also thinking that there is a version of the harm reduction I’d be happy with. I think the problem is created by the counterfactualist understanding of harm. With a better view of harms, there would be a way in which harm is reduced even in the overdetermination cases. And there are contrxts such as the non-identity problem that tell against counterfactualist view of harms anyway.

  19. Jussi
    Here’s another thought.
    The case that you open with is a case of pre-emption (or perhaps simultaneous overdetermination). The reasons that you give for permitting a person to cause harm don’t seem related to this feature of the case. Consider a simple case:
    Mistaken Attacker: D wrongly but reasonably believes V to be a culpable attacker. According to D’s reasonable belief, killing V is the only way to avert the threat that V apparently poses. D will certainly kill V, but V could harm D to some degree if he defends himself.
    The reasons that you offer – the natural desire to defend oneself and the Kantian reason, if they have force, apply equally in this case. But in this case, D’s attack doesn’t pre-empt another attack.
    Focusing on pre-emption might provide another way of challenging Peter’s view – it is ‘attacker focused’ rather than ‘victim focused’.
    Pre-emptive attacker: D wrongly but reasonably believes V to be a culpable attacker. According to D’s reasonable belief, killing V is the only way to avert the threat that V apparently poses. V can avert the threat that D poses by harming him. If he does so, D2 will certainly kill V.
    There are two variations on this case to consider. In one variation, D2 is also a mistaken attacker (which is a bit like your case), and hence non-culpable. In the other variation D2 is culpable. The second variation is the more interesting.
    If D2 is culpable, some might think it permissible for V to harm D for the following reason. D would have a decisive reason not to intervene were she to know of D2’s imminent attack. If she intervenes she, and not D2, will be responsible for V’s death. If V prevents D from killing her, V prevents D from being responsible for V’s death. Given that D2 is culpable in posing an imminent threat to V, it is preferable that D2 is responsible for V’s death than D. In harming D, V provides D with something that she has reason to want – to avoid responsibility for V’s death. Providing D with this renders D2 responsible for V’s death, but as D2 could have avoided this fate by doing what she had decisive reason to do, there is less reason for V to be concerned about this. Therefore, V may harm D to some degree to avert the threat that she poses. V may do this out of concern for D.
    One way to vindicate this view is to appeal to desert: D2 rather than D deserves to be responsible for V’s death, and also to be punished (Kamm defends something like this as a ground for restraint in variations on Jim and the Indians in Intricate Ethics). But this is not the only possibility. We might also prefer that D2 rather than D is responsible for the reason pointed to above: because D2 could have avoided responsibility simply by refraining from his wrongful attack. That is not true of D, who was not acting wrongly (in the evidence relative sense).
    I’m not sure whether this particular argument is sound, though it seems to have some plausibility. The more general idea is that it seems important to explore not only victim focused reasons but also attacker focused reasons to reject Peter’s principles.

  20. I don’t have ethical intuitions but I do have opinions and it seems to me that you give the wrong verdict in your case.
    A less complicated example will help . Take Nozick’s falling man. You are at the bottom of well , through no fault of his own, an fat man has fallen into the well. He is plummeting towards you and will certainly crush and kill you when he lands, though with you cushioning his fall he will survive. You happen to have a ray gun with you that you could use to vaporize the fat man and save yourself.
    Is it permissible for you to vaporize the fat man to save yourself. Nozick thought so and I agree. The fat man is innocent but so are you and you are entitled to self defense.
    But now suppose that the ray gun wouldn’t vaporize the fat man but just, say, vaporize one of his legs. You will still die, he will still survive but now as an amputee. Knowing all this (suppose) are you *still* entitled to use the ray gun?
    It seems to me that you are not. You are not defending yourself, since you know your action won’t save your life. You are just being spiteful.
    Now change the case so that your ray gun *will* obliterate the fat man but there are *two* fat men. Again, it seems to me to be just spiteful to blow one of them away when you know the other will squash you anyway. And isn’t this just your case in essence?
    For more on these matters see:

  21. Hi Victor,
    thanks. There’s a lot in your comment so I need to think about that for a bit. I’m not immediately seeing the relevance to the discussion but this is probably my fault.
    Hi Tomkow,
    I agree that raying the leg isn’t a case of self-defence. The last case you give is more interesting. Vallentyne’s principle is supposed to apply to cases in which the threat is wrong-doing. So, in your case, we must consider a situation in which the two fat man deliberately jump in the well to kill you (even if they might be non-culpable for epistemic reasons). In this case, I still have the intuition that you are permitted to ray one of them.
    Consider this from the fat man’s perspective. He can think that, if he jumps on his own, I’ll self-defend. Now, knowing Vallentyne’s principle and your intuition, he asks a friend to jump with him so that he can kill me without resistance as I won’t be able to kill you both. That morality would permit this is something I cannot understand. It seems that, on this view, the stronger the bullies are the less the weak can do to resist. This strikes me as bizarre.

  22. Jussi
    your last comment to Tomkow suggests that we should be concerned about the opportunity that Vallentyne’s principles create for people to render themselves immune to attack. Other standard principles of self-defence also create such opportunities. For example, most people think that it is wrong, because disproportionate, for you to kill me to prevent me stealing your watch. Now suppose that I construct and wear an exploding hat such that if you attempt to prevent me from stealing your watch I will be killed. If we endorse proportionality, it seems that I can render it impossible for you legitimately to defend your property. I doubt that this fact gives us a reason to reject a proportionality constraint on self-defence. It does give us a reason to think seriously about what is permissible in the exploding hat case. We might think similarly about your example of the person who asks a friend to jump with him to avoid permissible resistance.

  23. Thanks to Victor and Tomkow for the helpful discussion.
    It may be worth explicitly distinguishing the following cases with respect to the permissibility of harmful self-defense:
    1. The threat does not stem from autonomous agency (e.g., a person is windblown): I find it highly plausible that it is impermissible to harm the threat when it does nothing to reduce the harm to me.
    2. The threat stems from autonomous agency but the aggressor is not agent-responsible for any harm to me (e.g., because she could not have know that her choice would harm me): Again, I find it highly plausible that it is impermissible to harm the threat when it does nothing to reduce the harm to me.
    3. The threat stems from autonomous agency and the aggressor is agent-responsible for harm to me but she is not culpable (not responsible for acting wrongly; e.g., because all the evidence pointed to the fact that I was about to commit a moral atrocity): Ditto (although perhaps a bit more cautiously)
    4. The aggressor is culpable: Here I also claim (although not in the paper) that harmful but pointless self-defense is impermissible, but I fully agree that there is something counterintuitive about the claim. It seems to me that Victor is right that the best defense of the permissibility of self-defense in such cases will appeal to attacker-focused reasons (e.g., desert), but I am skeptical of such reasons.

  24. Peter,
    thanks for these clarifications. That’s helpful
    You mention only harm to the person threatened. Do you think that it might be permissible to harm the aggressor to avert threats to others (either by this aggressor or by others) – in other words deterrence? I think that is permissible in 4, but perhaps also in 2 and 3 with more stringent proportionality constraints. I’m not sure about 1.

  25. Jussi,
    It seems to me in the case where the threatening agent is deliberately harming the defender, the defender may be entitled to strike back– not in self defense– but as preemptive compensation for the harm about to be done to him. “If he is going to murder me, I’ll have his leg before I go!”
    Perhaps you think so too and that is the source of your intuition about such cases.
    Of course, if this is the source of your intuition then you must confess that, deep down, you harbor the barbarous and unchristian belief that the victim of a wrong may be compensated by the suffering simplicter of the wrongdoer and that it is morally permissible for the victim to forcibly secure that compensation.
    Me too. Welcome to Retributive Ethics!

  26. In response to Victor’s helpful comments:
    1. My full view indeed recognizes harm reduction to others (defense of others) and harm reductions by others (deterrence). So, it’s important that Victor pointed out these possibilities.
    2. I fully agree that the proportionality constraint become less stringent as one moves down my list of cases.
    Related to Tomkow’s interesting comments: I include psychology harm and benefits in the relevant harms. Thus, even if I can’t prevent my death (or being beaten up), if I get psychological benefits from fighting back, doing so will reduce the relevant harm (and satisfy the Harm Reduction condition). It’s only in the case where there is no reduction in any relevant harm that I say it’s impermissible.

  27. Peter,
    Good! We are agreed that the victim is morally permitted the “psychological benefits” — as you so politely put it — of inflicting preemptive revenge on the wrongdoer .
    In that case we can surely also agree that a victim would be likewise entitled to set in motion a process that would harm the wrong doer even after the victim’s death. The victim could in that case at least enjoy the present psychological benefits of knowing that his killer would suffer in the future.
    Indeed we can imagine a prospective victim (and aren’t we all) contracting with a third party to stand by to do harm– indeed, why not, kill– anyone who wrongfully kills him. That would give the prospective victim the salving psychological benefit of know that anyone who murders him would themselves be executed.
    Of course, we might not want to leave the task of wrecking all this revenge to just anyone.
    Perhaps we ought only to empower the State to provide these sorts of psychological benefits to its citizens.
    We could call the whole mechanism , say, “Retributive Justice”.

  28. Peter,
    I agree with an awful lot of your view as I understand it. I’m a bit surprised at your concession to the barbarians (like tomkow) though, given that you share with me a rejection of desert.
    Consider this general idea. Suppose that all moral consideration excluding my psychological reactions to harming require me not to harm you. However, I find harming you pleasurable, or that it relieves frustration on my part. Surely this doesn’t generally permit me to harm you. Why think differently in the cases we are considering here?
    Perhaps there are answers. One is: the victim of these attacks are very badly off. We have a kind of prioritarian reason to give them the small benefits that we can still give them at a cost to the wrongdoer. This reason might be more powerful in the case of culpable attackers. Culpable attackers can be expected to bear significant costs to provide even modest benefits to their victims.
    I doubt that this answer is very powerful, though. As the pleasure of the victim seems to depend on her endorsing the wrong moral view – the view that gratuitous harm to wrongdoers is good – we lack a strong reason to provide it to her.
    Are there more powerful reasons to take seriously the psychological benefits of resistance?

  29. Victor,
    I’m assuming that you agree that reduction of some kind of harm is relevant to the justification of defensive action. The question is what kind of harm. I see no reason to limit it to harm in a purely physical sense. Indeed, I would argue that it is unjustified for me to defend myself against you stabbing my arm, if I really don’t care about it one way of the other. (Perhaps I want to die, and this promotes that goal. Perhaps the wound will be minor and heal on its own, and I simply view it indifferently.)
    So, I definitely want to appeal to net harms where there are understood as setbacks to wellbeing, or something like that. This doesn’t entail that the satisfactions of resistance (even when pointless) count. Perhaps the correct account of wellbeing is not sensitive to such satisfactions. Or perhaps it is, but the relevant kind of wellbeing for defensive action is a restricted account of wellbeing that doesnt’ include such satisfactions.
    I fully agree that there is an important issue here. My inclination, however, is to think that the satisfaction of resistance is relevant to a correct account of wellbeing and to the justification of defensive action.

  30. Tomkow,
    Thanks for pushing this.
    In fact, I am open to punishment being justified as a way of compensating the victim. The easier case is where the victim is still alive, and the only way of fully (or maximally) compensating him is, for contingent reasons, by punishing the aggressor. Things are tricker when the victim is dead, and I won’t attempt that case here.
    Unless I’m confused, however, this is not retributive punishment. There is no appeal to desert. The punishment is contingent on its being the most effective way of compensating the victim. The measure of how much punish is warranted is based entirely on its effectiveness in compensating the relevant victims.

  31. Peter,
    i agree that we should understand harm as a set-back to well-being. And I agree that there are both psychological and physical harms that are relevant to the permission to defend oneself.
    The question that I had in mind is whether we should give the same weight to the harm that a person suffers if the harm is caused by the person’s own mistaken moral judgement. If the psychological harm that a person suffers is caused by her own mistaken moral judgement, we should significantly discount that harm in our calculations about permissibility.
    Compare racists who object to interracial marriage. Seeing mixed race couples might harm that person – she may suffer distress at seeing them and that sets back her well-being. But that does not provide a reason, or if it does it is only a very weak reason, to restrict interracial marriage. One reason for this view is that the racists are responsible for their own suffering. Another is that if we treat these harms as relevant, we allow mistaken moral judgements of some people to determine other people’s rights. That gives the unjust the wrong kind of control over the lives of others.
    Perhaps we should think a similar thing about the desire gratuitously to harm attackers.

  32. Peter,
    You say, “…this is not retributive punishment. There is no appeal to desert…” .
    I take it that we both agree that you are entitled to compensation from someone only if they have wrongfully harmed you. You are not entitled to the pleasure — sorry, “psychological benefit”– of harming someone who has harmed you accidentally or involuntary. Nor are you entitled to compensation if the person who harmed you had a right to do so: If say, they harmed you in the course of defending themselves against your wrongful attack. As we might put it, a bully doesn’t deserve to be compensated by his victim.
    We both agree that the amount and kind of compensation a victim may inflict on the wrongdoer may vary. But I do not think it can be right, as you say, that

    “… the punishment is contingent on its being the most effective way of compensating the victim. The measure of how much punishments is warranted is based entirely on its effectiveness in compensating the relevant victims.”

    The Red Queen demands “Off with her head” in compensation for Alice’s impertinence. Nothing less will satisfy the Queen; only a beheading will give her a psychological benefit. But we may nevertheless feel that the Queen is not entitled to be so compensated. Alice doesn’t deserve to be beheaded just for offending the Queen.
    Of course, calculating how much and what kind of compensation a wrongdoer owes a victim is no simple matter. But typically paying that compensation will be a cost to the wrongdoer. How small or great that cost may morally be seems to me to precisely measure what the plain man would say the wrongdoer morally deserves.
    Face it, Peter, you have wandered into the camp of us barbarians. Welcome!
    You say we barbarians are guilty of “…endorsing the wrong moral view– the view that gratuitous harm to wrongdoers is good”.
    That ‘gratuitous’ rather begs the question doesn’t it? Harming people who have done us wrong is famously gratifying: “revenge is sweet”, as they say.
    I think you owe us barbarians an explanation of why it is morally wrong to afford this pleasure to victims as compensation for harms done them: particularly in those cases where no compensation can restore the status quo .

  33. Tomkow:
    Let me see if I can clarify
    Suppose I am gratified at something, p. Gratification can be justified or unjustified depending on p. That is because gratification at p implies the belief that p is valuable. The belief that p is valuable is justified only if there are reasons to believe that p is valuable. The value of gratification depends on p being valuable. For want of circularity, the reason that p is valuable cannot be that p is gratifying. Hence, independent reasons must be given why p is valuable in order to render gratification justified.
    Barbarians are gratified at harming those who have caused them harm. To justify feeling gratified they must offer independent reasons why harming those who have caused them harm is valuable. Otherwise gratification is unjustified, and there is no reason to provide a person with unjustified gratification.
    For this reason, barbarians should endorse the claim that it is good that harm-causers (or wrongdoers) suffer, i.e. that they deserve to suffer, independently of the gratification that it provides. Only a claim like this could render gratification valuable. If gratification is valuable it is probably a fifth wheel to justifying harm. If this is right, those like Peter who reject gratification-independent desert should think that gratification at the otherwise pointless suffering of wrongdoers lacks moral significance.

  34. Victor:
    I’m afraid this does not clarify anything for me.
    As a matter of brute empirical fact, more or less everyone is cheered by the thought that those who have wronged them will suffer.
    The question is not whether or not these feelings can be “justified”, whatever (the hell) that might mean, but whether or not victims are allowed to cheer themselves up by afflicting those who have wronged them, especially in the case in which no other form of compensation is available to them.
    Note that a right to compensation always involves a right to harm.   X’s right to compensation against Y always at least entrains a right — more precisely a Hohfeldian privilege — for X to harm Y, viz.  the privilege of  forcing  Y to perform some compensating act that Y would rather not perform.
    Now a compensating act must be one which improves upon X’s diminished state (if only in X’s opinion).  But not everything that might cheer X up will fit the bill.  There must be some measure of proportionality.  If you have administered a slow acting poison that will inevitably kill my prize petunias it is not permissible for me to shoot you dead however much I might enjoy doing so.
    On the other hand, if you have administered such a poison to me I do not think it is impermissible for me to take my revenge by killing you now or insuring that you will not long survive me.  Of course, killing you won’t prolong my life and it is but a fleeting pleasure, but, thanks to you, fleeting pleasures are all that I have time for.

  35. Victor and Tomkow,
    Thanks for the helpful thoughts.
    Victor: I fully agree that the admissibility of wellbeing from suspect sources (e.g., racisim) is an important issue. My gut would like to find a way of excluding such wellbeing, but my reflective inclination is to think that this is not plausible, at least not for the application to defensive action. Obviously, it’s an important and big issue.
    Tomkow: You say that the Red Queen may kill Alice for her impertince. Of course, that’s not true, since the queeen is not wronged (I say) by the impertinence. Your key point, however, is that the queen may not kill Alice for (e.g.,) slapping her. Clearly, this intuitively seems right, and appeal to desert will definitely generate this implication. Nonetheless, I reject the appeal to desert (long story, of course). What the queen is permitted to do depends, I think, on whether Alice was culpable in slapping (and all I mean by this is that she is agent-responsible for acting wrongly (e.g., did it knowingly and freely); no appeal to desert), or at least agent-responsible for the slapping (e.g., as opposed to inadvertently). If Alice is culpable, then I bite a large bullet, and say that even great harms to Alice can be permissible to reduce even slightly the harm to the innocent queen (why should the innocent suffer any cost?). If Alice is not culpable, then I think that there is a balancing of harms, but it is based on degree of agent-responsibility for harms (which in fact are wrongful). Obviously, this is a big issue, and there are lots of problems with my view. I’m afraid, however, that, because of time constraints, I probably won’t pursue this issue further here. Thanks for highlight some keys points about which I’ll need to think further.

  36. “Related to Tomkow’s interesting comments: I include psychology harm and benefits in the relevant harms. Thus, even if I can’t prevent my death (or being beaten up), if I get psychological benefits from fighting back, doing so will reduce the relevant harm (and satisfy the Harm Reduction condition). It’s only in the case where there is no reduction in any relevant harm that I say it’s impermissible.”
    (1) We might add that many other people besides the victim would get satisfaction from hearing about his valiant attempt. I enjoy reading about Russia’s discomfiture over how long it took to beat Finland, and about the Spartan 400.
    (2) More important: this concession vitiates the whole Harm Reduction idea. Why would the victim defend himself uselessly unless (a) he thought he’d save himself, or (b)he thought he’d at least take one of the attackers down with him, and he liked that idea. Otherwise, the defense is just extra effort.

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