Return To Articles

The Ethics of Self-Defense: When is Violence Justified?

By G. Mark Woodhouse // 05/18/2016

The ethics of using violence in any conflict are grounded in the culture of the people involved.

» THE ETHICS OF defending ourselves are usually only called into question when we think of physical defense. We defend ourselves in many other ways, and the ethics of those defensive measures are hardly ever questioned. For instance, we defend ourselves financially using instruments like conservative investments, insurance policies and a last will and testament. We might use a contract or keep an attorney on retainer to protect ourselves legally. Some people are very devoted to religious beliefs to protect themselves morally, and so on.

None of these other protections are deemed unreasonable or imprudent, but when it comes to defending our physical wellbeing, our actions come under much more detailed scrutiny. This is primarily because of the violence that is frequently involved in defending ourselves physically. So, the real issue is not our physical defense per se, but the use of violence in our physical defense.

Can one country use violence against another without violating the most basic principles of ethics, morality and righteousness?

The ethics of using violence in any conflict are grounded in the culture of the people involved. This is as true for a violent encounter between individuals as it is for the use of violence in war. Consequently, the justification for such use of violence is evaluated based on those same cultural ethics. Self-defense, especially where lethal force is used, is scrutinized carefully to determine its justification. In this article, we will examine these ethics and how they affect the evaluation of an encounter with violence in which one of us might be involved.

Whenever a nation is involved in an armed conflict, questions are raised as to whether or not that involvement is justified. Can one country use violence against another without violating the most basic principles of ethics, morality and righteousness? If not, doesn’t that make every war immoral? Or, if there is such a thing as a “just war,” how can we recognize it? A similar question is the basis for the legal aftermath of a self-defense incident. A prosecuting attorney will scrutinize the incident to determine whether or not a jury would consider the use of lethal force “justified.”

Ethical Violence

Any attempt to apply the philosophical principles of ethics to warfare seems, on the surface, to be oxymoronic. And yet, ethics do apply — not only to the basis on which the conflict is waged but also to the policies that dictate how it is to be fought. The reasons why one nation enters into warfare with another reflect the ethics of the aggressor nation. The means by which a war is prosecuted by each participant is also established through decisions based on the ethics of the cultures of both nations at war.

We must understand that a nation’s ethics in general, and any specific ethical position in particular, are an inescapable result of that nation’s worldview, of their epistemology (theory of knowledge) and, more specifically, of their understanding of the origin and nature of man. Just as everything else in life is affected by our worldview, our perspective on war and violence in general is likewise affected. A nation with a morality based on the perspective that man is made in the image of God would approach conflict differently than a nation with a humanist worldview.

The ‘Just War’ Theory

For more than 17 centuries, the church and society in general have argued the validity of any specific conflict on the basis of several moral criteria. This concept, known by the Latin phrase justum bellum, has been debated in secular and religious circles. For instance, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) identified four of these criteria in his writings, and they were explored further in The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Using these criteria, the conflict’s purpose is evaluated as to whether it represents a “just cause.” Wars fought for a “just cause” are considered valid and moral. Those that fail to meet the criteria are condemned as immoral.

The criteria for declaring a “just war” are many and varied. Several criteria address the treatment of innocent individuals under the regime against which violence is being used. Protecting the lives of innocents is a worthy moral objective. Regimes that commit human rights violations of the most flagrant and egregious kinds are generally recognized as being immoral regimes and, consequently, violent conflicts against such regimes — being aimed at bringing an end to these atrocities — are seen as justifiable.

Through related reasoning, wars designed to prevent the future occurrence of atrocities are also considered justified, although not all people agree on the kinds of atrocities that rise to this level of justification.

The same criteria is considered sufficient justification in evaluating a situation in which lethal force, like a firearm, is used to defend an innocent party. In order to be considered truly innocent, the defender must be seen as neither the instigator nor an escalator (“participant”) in the conflict.

Through related reasoning, wars designed to prevent the future occurrence of atrocities are also considered justified, although not all people agree on the kinds of atrocities that rise to this level of justification. Pre-emptive strikes against a nation on the verge of committing crimes against innocents fall into this area and are also considered “just cause” actions. This is, of course, as long as there is sufficient compelling evidence of such impending crimes.

Causes for war that are considered “just” also include a nation’s attempts to protect itself from invasion or warfare declared to reclaim lands and people captured by an enemy through force. The protection and reclamation of personal property is second only to humanitarian concerns. This includes the assisting of a friendly nation in its efforts to protect itself, its people or its property, especially when there is a pre existing alliance with that nation.

Similarly, a home invasion is evaluated as if it is an attempt to claim the land/property of the owner. However, the right to protect one’s home or automobile is not universally recognized as justification for the use of deadly force, and some states require potential victims to retreat if at all possible, even within their own home.

In our culture and under our legal system, punishment of a prior wrong is never considered justification for the use of lethal force.

Other states have laws based on the “Castle Doctrine” or “Stand Your Ground” philosophies and, although they do not place the value of property above human life, they do consider the use of deadly force to be justified when an individual’s home or automobile is breached by someone with demonstrable evil intent. So, as we can see, different jurisdictions view the invasion of one’s home differently. It is up to you to know the laws in any jurisdiction in which you carry.

Less obvious — and certainly less widely recognized — is the “just cause” of punishing a wrong. Declaring war against a nation after the fact as a penalty for actions taken earlier is considered “just” if its execution is proportional to the offense being punished. It must also target only those responsible for the punishable act — specific individuals, the government or the nation in general.

In our culture and under our legal system, punishment of a prior wrong is never considered justification for the use of lethal force. This falls under the principle of vengeance rather than defense and is unjustified where the existing culture provides mechanisms like “self-help” that allow for the reclamation of property and/or appropriate monetary compensation through due process of law.

As already mentioned, the “just” nature of conflict involves not only the reasons for which a war is declared (jus ad bellum) but also the means by which it is conducted (jus in bello). A war that is declared for “just” reasons but is prosecuted by “unjust” means is still considered an “unjust” war.

The “just” nature of conflict involves not only the reasons for which a war is declared but also the means by which it is conducted. Not all nations conform to the standards of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 (sometimes incorrectly referred to as the “Geneva Convention”). When a nation that does subscribe to the provisions of the protocol faces an adversary who does not, this imbalance of philosophies concerning the prosecution of the war causes warriors on the conforming side to face conflicts of conscience and morality. For instance, sometimes a conforming nation fights against terrorists who routinely target innocent civilians with “suicide bombs” and other weapons that cannot distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.

When such terrorists are captured, the soldiers of the nation conforming to the Geneva Protocol are tempted to abandon those principles. In considering the inhumane atrocities committed by these terrorists, they are tempted to mistreat enemy prisoners, viewing them as almost inhuman. Some believe we saw this at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

This same principle is the basis for the legal requirement to use proportional force in defending one’s self or loved ones. To use lethal force in the face of a non-lethal threat is legally unjustifiable if lesser force would have stopped the threat.

Is All Violence Immoral?

Of course, there have always been those who feel that all violence is immoral, regardless of its purpose. Some have tried to base this belief on one of the 10 Commandments, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13). On this basis, several groups have developed convictions leading to a “conscientious objection” to all war. Others have taken positions against such things as capital punishment on the same basis, while still others have tried to apply this commandment to personal defense, claiming that the use of deadly force is never justified.

To a large extent, these arguments are based on a misunderstanding of the commandment in question. Hebrew is the language in which the 10 Commandments were originally written. Of the several Hebrew words that communicate the concept of killing, the term used in this commandment refers specifically to the murder of innocents, as demonstrated by its use again in Numbers 35:16-21. There is no biblical prohibition against what we know as “justifiable homicide.” Capital punishment is not only allowed but specifically affirmed in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

The moral and ethical justifications for the use of lethal force in self-defense derive from those that have been used to evaluate violent conflicts for hundreds of years.

The use of lethal force, when ethically justified, is neither immoral nor illegal. There are times when we innocently find ourselves or our loved ones in mortal danger. At such times, the use of deadly force has never been considered ethically unjust. However, juries are not necessarily well-versed in ethics, and innocent defenders have been unjustly found guilty in the past. This puts a greater burden on prosecutors to consider carefully before bringing indictments against those who find themselves in situations requiring the use of lethal measures in their own defense or the defense of others.

As a just war must be conducted through justifiable means, the use of excessive force in self-defense is unjustifiable.

Proportional Defense

The moral and ethical justifications for the use of lethal force in self-defense derive from those that have been used to evaluate violent conflicts for hundreds of years. Wars are considered “just” if they meet certain ethical criteria as to why they began and how they are conducted. Of the several “just causes” for war, only the immediate protection of innocent victims is considered a valid reason to use lethal force in defense. The protection or reclamation of property is not an acceptable justification for lethal self-defense.

As a just war must be conducted through justifiable means, the use of excessive force in self-defense is unjustifiable.

Resistance to a threat must be commensurate with the potential harm the threat poses. Much effort has been spent to ensure that concepts like the Use of Force Continuum are well understood by law enforcement professionals. Similarly, those of us who carry concealed (or open) firearms must be very familiar with the meaning and limitations of “proportional defense” as it applies to self-defense.

Related: If you were forced to defend your family would you know what to do?