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.