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Innocent Attackers and Rights of Self-Defense

  • David R. Mapel


Imagine that a neighboring state drafts an army of ignorant soldiers, makes them falsely believe that your state poses an imminent threat to their survival or political independence, and then launches them across your border. As a soldier, would you have a right to kill such attackers in self-defense or in defense of your country? In this brief comment, I will focus primarily on the question of whether one may kill “innocent attackers,” that is, individuals who pose a lethal threat through no moral fault of their own, but because they are acting under a combination of duress and nonculpable ignorance.



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1 Rodin, David, War and Self-Defense (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). All in-text citation references are to this book.

2 Anscombe holds a traditional Catholic position that the public use of force in defense of a just state is permissible, but that the private use of force in self-defense is not; see Anscombe, Elizabeth, “War and Murder,” in Stein, Walter, ed., Nuclear Weapons: A Catholic Response (New York: Merlin Press, 1961), pp. 285–97. The view that objective injustice permits private self-defense has been put forward by Jarvis Thomson, Judith in The Realm of Rights (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990) and independently by Uniacke, Suzanne in Permissible Killing: The Self-Defence Justification of Homicide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

3 Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 1977).

4 Anscombe, , “War and Murder ,” p. 288.

5 I have argued elsewhere that responsibility for becoming a soldier depends on whether one is volunteering or faced with conscription, whether this is for a standing army or a particular war, and whether reliable information about the use of the military is available. Responsibility will also depend on youth, poverty, education, fear, patriotism, and other influences. See Mapel, David R., Coerced Moral Agents? Individual Responsibility for Military Service, Journal of Political Philosophy 6, no. 2 (June 1998), pp. 171–89.. Against Judith Thomson and Suzanne Uniacke, Rodin argues that certain kinds of innocent threats cannot violate rights because they are outside of the realm of moral responsibility altogether—for example, a person who poses a lethal threat as an “innocent projectile” falling toward his victim. Although I agree with Rodin on this point, I don't think that every version of the unjust danger theory must be committed to the view that such threats violate rights. It is not necessary to pursue this issue here, however, as innocent soldiers are morally excused actors, not innocent projectiles completely outside the realm of responsibility.

6 The moral fault justification may not support pacifism, as there are difficult questions in this case about how to describe the relevant intentions, that is, difficulties with the application of the so-called doctrine of double effect. For discussion of these difficulties, see McMahan, Jeff, “Innocence, Self-Defense, and Killing in War,” Journal of Political Philosophy 2, no. 3 (September 1994). PP 213–22.

7 For a more complex theory of self-defense that shares Rodin's commitment to the idea of moral fault but includes other principles, see MacMahan, Jeff, Self-Defense and the Problem of the Innocent Attacker, Ethics 104, no. 2 (January 1994), pp. 252–91.

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Innocent Attackers and Rights of Self-Defense

  • David R. Mapel


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