Skip to Main Content

Self-Defense: Justified or a Sham?

Philosophy Prof Considers Recent Events

Whitley Kaufman
Prof. Whitley Kaufman, author of “Justified Killing: The Paradox of Self-Defense,” says philosophy affects everything we do.

By Sandra Seitz

Matters of self-defense are in all the headlines. Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman: was it a case of self-defense or vigilante justice? The Norwegian who admitted to killing 77 people, most of them youths, claims he acted in defense of his nation. Can that be true? What about the battered wife who kills her husband in his sleep – and calls it self-defense?

“In our legal system, self-defense is the one case in which violence by an individual is allowed,” says Whitley Kaufman, professor and chair of the Philosophy Department. His recent book, “Justified Killing: The Paradox of Self-Defense,” published by Lexington Books, deals with the moral permissibility of killing in self-defense and the thorny questions surrounding it.

Kaufman, who was previously a corporate litigator, thinks philosophy “affects everything we do” and that we should be critically aware of the reasoning applied to all moral decisions. In judging instances of self-defense, he argues for using the Doctrine of Double Effect, which governs actions having both good and bad effects.

By this principle, an action – such as killing an attacker – is permissible even though it causes foreseeable harm to another, if the intent of the action is morally good and can’t be achieved in any other way.

“By this principle, the action is not intentionally to cause harm, but harm can be foreseen,” says Kaufrman. “The action must be necessary and proportionate, with no alternative available.”

For example, one drives to work and this causes foreseeable harm – an increase in global warming – but the driving is necessary and not undertaken intentionally to cause harm.

Case by Case, With Philosophy 

Going back to the “ripped-from-the-headlines” examples, Kaufman considers questions about the moral reasoning and how the Double Effect doctrine might apply. 

In the Martin-Zimmerman case, can the “self” extend to include the neighborhood? Could a person be defending the community from intrusion?

“An individual does not have the right to protect society,” says Kaufman. “That’s the government’s job, otherwise it becomes a vigilante action. Community watch groups are supposed to monitor the situation and then call in the government authorities, the police.”

What about self-protection – harming someone else to prevent that person from harming me in the future?

“Self-defense is immediate: you must use force or risk serious harm,” Kaufman says. “Assassination is not self-defense.”  

The special case of battered women who kill when not under immediate attack is controversial and a subject that Kaufman has written about in an article published in the New Criminal Law Review.

“The defense claim [made by such women] is that there is no alternative, there is no mechanism to keep oneself and one’s children safe, and that the government has failed,” he says. “There’s a good reason for the social policy of requiring the threat to be imminent, because it otherwise would be subject to abuse. But on a case-by-case basis, a woman can assert a moral right to take action because we, as society, have failed to protect her.” 

And the Norwegian “defending” his nation, or the terrorist acting on behalf of an oppressed people?

“We recognize terrorism as clearly intentional harm against innocent people for an instrumental goal. This is not self-defense against an imminent threat,” says Kaufman. 

“Even in war, targeting of civilians is considered morally wrong,” he adds. “Ever since World War II, which many think degenerated by its end into an immoral war, our military has maintained a careful policy of targeting only military targets.”

Similarly, targeted killings by drones (similar to the snipers of bygone days), can be justified under the principle of self-defense if the target is military.

“So, the killing of Osama bin Laden is clearly justified because al Qaeda is a threat,” says Kaufman. “Take a step removed – say, the killing of a Taliban official – and the justification is not so clear.”