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A Just Defense of Self



Photo by NMR Photography; some rights reserved.

I promised this issue that I would expound a little greater upon the theory of just self-defense and what it means to the consistent life ethic, and the Life Matters Journal. While we've certainly been attacked on all sides, I was a little surprised that pacifists objected to my theory of just defense. That being said, much of this moral problem is exceedingly complex -- but I would argue that the principle is simple: do not make aggressive actions of a violent nature towards any human being.

In the Life Matters Journal slogan, it came out something like this: "Making unjust violence a thing of the past through education and discourse." I would make the firm claim that any and all aggressive violent action is unjust, and only that action used to defend against aggressive violence would be truly just. There are, of course, caveats in all of this to prevent an aggressive action from being regarded as a just defensive action, which is what makes this whole ethical conversation much more complex than simple pacifism or a laissez-faire ethics, and more involved than the question of just defense would show on the surface.

If we borrow from Catholicism's Just War Theory (expounded upon and adopted by people of many faiths, however), we can see that there are many requirements in considering whether engaging in a war would be just. These prerequisites include proper and just authority of the defending nation, proportionality of action, certainty of grave damage by the aggressor, serious prospects of success, right intention of the defender, and it must be used as a last resort. While I might be tempted to agree with many pacifists who claim that "the only reason violence is ever necessary is when a nonviolent action has not yet been discovered," I would say that in cases of personal self-defense, there may even be what would objectively be qualified as violent action necessary to repel an aggressor in cases of immediate danger.

Let us say, for example, that I am being attacked by a violent aggressor, who has jumped me and threatened to rape me or kill me -- I would propose that reacting with proper self-defense tactics (biting, hitting, struggling against the aggressor) would not only be just, but perhaps even merciful. For this attacker to act unjustly in aggression towards me would, I say, be to commit a sin against the life and liberty of my own self; and to prevent the ultimate act of sin from occurring would, I believe, be an act of mercy as long as it follows the prerequisites lined out in Just War Theory.

To follow the story further, just authority would be followed if I, as the defender, were to fight off an aggressor, or yell for "Help!" (or, for that matter, even look in need of help) and a bystander were to fend off the attacker. Proportionality would be only to fend off an aggressor, not to revert to become the aggressor and intentionally cause harm out of vengeance; this basic rule of thumb implies that if I am free to run away from my aggressor, to do so to the best of my ability. The prerequisite of certainty of grave danger would be followed if I were already being attacked -- however, it would not be followed if I assumed my neighbor would attack me and I preemptively used violence against him to prevent what I thought might be an attack in the future. The idea of a serious prospect of success I believe might be much more relative to a particular personal situation, and I would not fault a young child for fighting against a much older, much stronger aggressor despite the fact that success might not be certain or even necessarily probable. Right intention must be followed -- inasmuch as I must not seek vengeance for being attacked, but must seek peace by fleeing and trying to convert a heart to goodness and righteousness. Finally, and the last prerequisite that probably is the source of the real divide between just war theorists and pacifists, is that of last resort. Many pacifists hold that violence has likely never been used as a last resort, because there are always other nonviolent options available to defenders, whether they be individuals or nations. As an individual under personal attack, it is quite difficult to imagine trying a long list of nonviolent methods when I am certainly in mortal danger; but if we have the opportunity, when attacked, to try other methods of self-defense that do not involve violent action, I put forth that we should try these methods first so as to justly attempt peace and understanding.

Lastly, I want to say that both camps are welcome here, both pacifists and just war theorists, and I hope that through our journal we can promote a discussion between both ideals to work towards peace worldwide, through justice, diplomacy, and mercy.

Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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