The uproar over a shooting in Florida brings up the concept of self-defense, and Joe Palazzolo and Rob Barry raise a number of points about this in their The Wall Street Journal op-ed. In it, they write about “so-called justifiable homicides,” “leeway to attack and even kill someone who is threatening them,” and a victim’s duty to retreat when threatened or attacked.
What is self-defense; do we have a right to it; and if so, are there any limits to self-defense or to that right?
Our Declaration of Independence acknowledges the existence of a right to self-defense as a component of our suite of inalienable rights endowed by our Creator and so inherent in the fabric of our being:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Plainly, the right to Life includes within it a right to defend, for ourselves, our own Lives and those of our families—and those of others related to us only through friendship and those not related at all. “All men are created equal:” thus the right to defend a life includes the right—now the obligation—to assist in the defense of another’s life. And this defense, and its underlying right, must come from within each of us. We can—and we do through our social compact, of which our Declaration is our principles statement—assign to government certain tasks and obligations to help execute that self-defense. However, we cannot surrender our right to do so to that government, for two reasons: first, as a part of our Creator’s endowment, the right is not ours to give away. Second, and of secular and immediate importance, were we to surrender primary responsibility for our self-defense to a government, we would lose that right altogether. By that surrender, that “right” becomes a thing that government can grant or withdraw at its whim. At best, when the bad man comes, and seconds count, the police will be only minutes away.
Having demonstrated the existence of the right, what is it, exactly to which we have a right? What is self-defense? I described one aspect of it above: “a right to defend our own Lives and those of our families—and those of others related to us only through friendship and those not related at all.” But there’s more. Self-defense includes defense of all property, not just our property in our body: we also have a property in our thoughts, our Liberties, and our physical property. Our thoughts are inherent in both our lives and our Happiness, as are our Liberties, and our physical property is part of the outgrowth of our pursuit of Happiness* (and without which, our Liberties and Lives are severely constrained, if they exist in this state at all. The components of our endowment are tightly intertwined with each other, but that’s the subject of another post). Thus, we also have an inherent right to defend our possessions (and thoughts and Liberties) from attackers.
Given all of that, there can be no possibility of a “duty to retreat.” There is no defense if we must give way to an attacker based on where we might be located at the time of the attack. Our right of self-defense is in us, it is not in any location we might momentarily occupy. There is no defense, if we must give up our property—any aspect of it—to a criminal’s demand, and hope that the property can be recovered intact by “authorities.” Indeed, any retreat, of its nature, carries within it the characteristic of allowing our attacker to strike first, or threaten to do so. Our Lives, if taken by our attacker, cannot be recovered at all, no matter how dedicated and efficient those authorities. Retreat is only a tactical decision, driven by the exigencies of particular circumstances; it is never an obligation.
What then, are the limits to our right of self-defense? The short answer is when the behavior ceases to be defensive and becomes offensive. But it’s not that simple: no man has an obligation to allow his attacker to shoot, or stab, or otherwise strike first and only then to respond. Clearly, when faced with such a threat, our right of self-defense includes a right to pre-empt our attacker’s potentially fatal assault: we can shoot first. A couple of examples will serve to illustrate legitimate limits to our right of self-defense.
Our right, for instance, does not permit us simply to arrange our defense deliberately to kill our attacker. That man also has a right to his Life, for all that he is endangering ours with his attack. (But we have no obligation to arrange our defense deliberately not to kill our attacker. We have no obligation to handicap ourselves in so potentially a fatal-to-us way.) If we kill him in the course of our defense, that’s unfortunate, but no wrong redounds to us. If we kill him deliberately and as our goal, that legitimately can amount to one of the variations of murder.
Our right to self-defense does not allow us to hunt down our attacker in order to kill him. We can chase him in an attempt to recover our property, and if in the course of that pursuit a struggle occurs and we kill our attacker in that struggle, we’re still engaged in self-defense. However, we cannot chase our attacker with the goal simply of killing him, even if we recover our property in the course of that killing. Nor, if we lose contact with our attacker in the course of our pursuit, can we then search for him in a separate act (although we certainly can aid the authorities in their search) and kill him after a successful hunt.
But if our right to Life enjoins us to help defend another’s life, how are we enabled to take another’s life, ostensibly in self-defense? We are not so enabled while the taking is a goal. But our right to our own Life is the primary interest. We must protect ourselves first: we cannot see to any of our duties, including that to assist the defense of another’s life, if we are not safe and sound. If we must kill in order to fulfill that primary interest, this is unfortunate, but it may be a necessary adjunct to our defense of our properties—whether in our selves, or our thoughts, or out Liberties, or our physical property.
As to limits on the right itself of self-defense, there is a very critical one, alluded to above: it is a part of our existence. We neither can, nor may, surrender that right or any part of it to anyone else or to any authority. Even that government which we hire, under our social compact, to help us protect all of our inalienable rights is hired to help us, not to substitute for us.
*As John Adams noted in his 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, in Article I of the First Part, “All men are born free and independent, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”