We’ve heard a lot of argument about whether or not George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin was murder or self defense, and more recent controversial shootings such as that of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri have raised many of the same issues. Some of the disagreements represent a genuine clash of values, but there’s a lot of noise caused by differences in how we receive information about lethal force incidents, how we weigh different aspects of that information, and how we fill in the gaps.
It seemed like a good subject for one of my lengthy thinking-out-loud posts, and indeed I was able to pile up a great many words, some of which may even be worth reading.
When I started writing, however, I realized that in order to write about how we discuss lethal force, I was going to have to write about when it’s okay to use lethal force. That runs into the hazard that anything I write about when it’s okay to use lethal force is going to sound an awful lot like legal advice.
So before I get into this, I want you to understand one thing: This is so not legal advice. I’m not a lawyer, and if you ask me when it’s okay for you to shoot someone, I’ll tell you it is never, ever okay for you to shoot someone, because if you’re looking to me for advice on when to shoot someone, you have no business contemplating shooting people.
That said, I’m going to try to explain some basic ideas about lethal force. These ideas are roughly based on the sort of thing you might be taught in a course on self-defense with a firearm, which in turn is based on self defense law. But my discussion is neither legal advice not self-defense instruction (I’m not qualified for either). Rather , this is more like a primer on how to think about stories in the news that involve lethal force.
I’m going to begin with a discussion of the basics of self-defense and then move out from there into increasingly confusing realms of understanding. I fervently hope that nothing I write makes you stupider for having read it, but as always, there are no guarantees.
I guess I should start by asking, when is it okay to kill someone? In a sense, the correct answer is never. Aside from a few special (and very controversial) situations — war, capital punishment, assisted suicide — it is never okay for Alice to intentionally kill Bob.
However, if Bob is attempting to kill Alice — or any other innocent person — it is okay for Alice to try to stop him. She has the right to self defense, and although self defense is generally supposed to be proportional, the fact that he is trying to kill her means that she can be pretty extreme in her attempt to stop him, up to and including doing things that might kill him.
But her goal can never be just to kill him. Shooting and possibly killing Bob can only be justified when it’s necessary to save a life. The way this is commonly put is that Alice can’t shoot to kill, but she can shoot to stop a killing. Sometimes shooting to kill is the only way to stop an attacker, but that’s the only way it can be justified.
(There may or may not be other actions Alice can ethically shoot to stop, such as severe injury, rape, or kidnapping. We can make our own moral judgements about what’s worth killing for, but Alice would also be judged under the laws where she lives. On the other hand, a pacifist may feel it is never okay for Alice to kill Bob, even if Bob is trying to kill her.)
One important point alluded to above is that in order to defend yourself you have to be innocent. If Bob breaks into Alice’s house at night, Alice may be justified in using lethal force to stop him. But even though her shots endanger Bob’s life, he does not then have the right to shoot at her in self-defense. He’s not innocent, he’s a home invader.
If Bob quickly flees the house to get away from Alice, then he’s no longer a threat, so Alice no longer has the right of self-defense and cannot shoot him as he runs away. If Alice decides to follow Bob out of the house and shoot at his back as he flees the scene, then she is the aggressor, and Bob then he arguably acquires the right to defend himself against her, including the use of lethal force. If he shoots back and wounds her and she drops the gun, then Bob loses the right to self-defense and has to stop shooting. If instead he continues shooting, perhaps to finish her off, then Alice is once again the innocent victim, and she arguably has the right shoot Bob to defend her life.
In a complex confrontation between Alice and Bob, the right of self-defense could switch back and forth multiple times. The reasons that happens — Bob fleeing, Alice dropping the gun, and so on — are exactly the kind of details that often gets left out of early news reports, either because the details aren’t known to the reporters, or because the reporters or their editors don’t recognize the significance of the details.
Note that it’s possible to believe both that (a) Alice shot Bob in a righteous act of self defense, and that (b) Bob’s death is a tragedy.
For one thing, Bob did not live in this world alone. There are probably people who will miss him and mourn his loss. Bob was somebody’s son, and he may have been somebody’s brother, husband, father, or friend. Even if Bob turns out to have been a violent asshole intent on raping and murdering Alice, it’s not going to change the way that people feel about the Bob they knew. Even if Bob was killed by police while shooting children at a school, Bob’s parents are still going to cry that he’s gone. No matter how much Bob objectively deserved his fate, nobody who knew him is going to instantly incorporate that fact in their emotional response. The heart doesn’t change direction that fast.
But even if no one misses Bob, many people would argue that his death is still a tragedy. Killing Bob may have been necessary to prevent the loss of innocent life, but that doesn’t mean that Bob’s death isn’t a loss as well. Bob’s death destroys both the bad and the good in him, and we can regret the loss of the good parts, even if Bob brought it on himself. No one is as bad as the worst thing they’ve ever done.
That’s not to say that Alice was wrong to kill Bob in self defense. Alice may have killed him to save her life, and we can approve of her doing so, but it’s no criticism of Alice’s actions to say that it would have been even better if Alice had figured out a way to save her life without killing Bob.
There are of course limits to that sentiment — everyone likes to see the bad guys get what’s coming to them — and there’s a lot of subjectivity in our feelings toward criminals. It’s easier to feel the loss of a teenage gangster killed in a gunfight with police if you grew up with people just like him, or if you could have been him in another life. On the other hand, there’s no reason to expect any sympathy from the family of his victims…although that has been known to happen.
Perception and Intent
Self defense is just the first layer of the ethical puzzle, describing the conditions under which Alice is allowed to shoot Bob. There’s a difference, however, between the abstract morality of certain outcomes and the ethics of human action, because people are limited by their perceptions and understanding.
If Alice or Bob honestly misunderstands the facts of a situation in such a way that they would not be doing anything wrong if their understanding was correct, we generally do not consider them to have committed a moral error. We judge people’s ethics by their decisions based on their subjective knowledge at the time of the event, not on our own knowledge in hindsight.
This usually enters the lethal force analysis with regard to the question of whether or not someone’s life was actually endangered. When we say Alice can shoot Bob to stop him from killing her, what we really mean is that Alice can shoot Bob if she reasonably believes it is necessary to stop him from killing her. The usual way to express this is that Alice must be in fear for her life.
Perhaps Bob plays a mean joke on Alice by pointing a fake gun at her and screaming “Die! Die! Die!” just to see her frightened reaction. Since Alice isn’t in on the joke, she might reasonably come to the conclusion that Bob intends to kill her, and so she might believe it is necessary to use lethal force to stop Bob’s “attack” and end up shooting him dead.
Had Bob actually been attempting to kill Alice, we might say this was a righteous shooting in self defense. It would have been the right thing to do, and if in the future Carl attacked Alice the same way, we would want her to shoot him as well. However, since Bob wasn’t actually trying to kill Alice, her shooting him was not the right thing to do, and if Carl performs a similar fake attack on Alice, we ideally want her not to shoot him.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that Alice is a bad person who deserves punishment. We can understand why Alice shot Bob, and although with full knowledge of the situation we realize it was the wrong thing to do, we can also realize that with Alice’s limited knowledge, it probably seemed like the right thing to do. On the other hand, if Alice ignores information — limits her own knowledge, either recklessly or intentionally to avoid the duty to take it into account — we may hold that against her.
Note also that it’s not enough for Alice to be afraid. There has to be some connection to reality. Alice’s fear need not be accurate, but it must be reasonable. If, for example, Alice has an irrational fear of young black males and Bob is a young black male, that’s not a license for Alice to shoot Bob.
In general, the subjective nature of Alice’s perception makes the ethics harder to analyze. If Bob breaks into Alice’s home carrying a gun and charges at her while screaming “Die! Die! Die!”, we’d probably all agree that’s a justified shooting. If Bob was actually playing a prank and didn’t even have bullets in the gun, I think we’d all agree that Alice is not the one at fault.
But what if Bob is just a burglar who intends Alice no harm? What if he breaks into Alice’s house in the night, but he brings no gun and makes no threats, and Alice still shoots him? Shooting Bob is not necessary to save Alice’s life, but does it look that way to Alice? Is she required to see a weapon or evidence of intent to harm before she can shoot him? Or do we say that when Bob breaks into Alice’s house in the middle of the night that she can reasonably presume that he intends to harm her and has the means to do so?
The analysis based on reasonable belief also brings into play factors that might influence Alice’s reasoning. Alice might have had previous encounters with Bob that lead her to believe that he’s dangerous, or she might have previously been attacked by strangers in the same location where she encounters Bob, or police might have been warning area residents of a rapist who breaks into homes in the middle of the night, or Alice might have had self-defense training in which she was told that most intruders who break into occupied homes intend serious harm to the occupants.
It’s even possible for situations to occur in which both sides reasonably believes that they’re in a self-defense situation. Imagine that Alice comes home to find the front door ajar. Furthermore, she can hear someone moving around inside. Concerned, she draws her gun and enters. However, what Alice doesn’t realize is that because she lives in a real estate development where all the houses look the same, she has mistakenly entered Bob’s house. Upon seeing hearing Alice enter the house, Bob becomes concerned and draws his own gun to go investigate. When Alice and Bob encounter each other, each reasonably believes they’ve encountered an armed intruder, and both open fire.
Although Alice is clearly the one who made the mistake, and even though the consequences were profound and tragic, it’s not clear that Alice’s error is the moral equivalent of murder. She certainly wasn’t intending to kill an innocent person. With a little more inventiveness, perhaps involving a malicious third party, we could probably come up with scenarios where it’s not at all obvious that either Bob or Alice is to blame.
This is one of the most contentious areas in the ethics of self defense. On the one hand, we don’t want Alice shooting at anyone who makes her uneasy; on the other hand, we don’t want her to wait until she sees the muzzle flash. There’s a lot of distance between those extremes, and sincere and diligent people can nevertheless have very different ideas of what should reasonably cause someone to fear for their life, or of what mistakes are understandable and excusable.
Making things more complicated, we need to be careful not to confuse our analysis of perceptions and our analysis of reality. It’s not inconsistent to believe that (a) Alice was justified in shooting Bob because she was in fear for her life, and (b) Bob was not actually endangering Alice’s life.
To make that more concrete: Thinking that George Zimmerman and Officer Darren Wilson don’t belong in jail is not the same as thinking that Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown deserved to die, or that it’s open season on young black males. It’s true that there are people who think that Martin and/or Brown were thugs who deserved to die, or that young black males are a threat to public safety, but it would be a mistake to assume that everyone who defends Zimmerman and Wilson is in either of those camps.
By all means, if your opponents are actually violent racists, you should call them out on that. But there’s a difference between wanting to see young black kids killed for no reason and believing Zimmerman and Wilson did the right thing. And there’s a difference between believing Zimmerman and Wilson did the right thing and believing that Zimmerman and Wilson did the wrong thing for understandable reasons. Intellectual honesty demands that we recognize the distinctions and take them seriously, and that when evaluating other people’s opinions, we recognize that they may be making different distinctions than we would.
That’s enough for now. In future posts I’ll explore how we learn about lethal force incidents, and why that adds to the confusion.
Update: Part 2 is up.