Culpable Aggression: The Basis for Moral Liability to Defensive Killing

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Culpable Aggression: The Basis for Moral Liability to Defensive Killing

Kimberly Kessler Ferzan*


The use of the term, “self-defense,” covers a wide array of defensive behaviors, and different actions that repel attacks may be permissible for different reasons. One important justificatory feature of some defensive behaviors is that the aggressor has rendered himself liable to defensive force by his own conduct. That is, when a culpable aggressor points a gun at a defender, and says, “I am going to kill you,” the aggressor’s behavior forfeits the aggressor’s right against the defender’s infliction of harm that is intended to repel the aggressor’s attack. Because the right is forfeited, numbers do not count (the defender may kill as many culpable aggressors as he needs to), third parties may only aid the defender, and the defender does not owe the aggressor compensation for harms inflicted.

Although liability for culpable aggression seems intuitive, there are a number of questions, including whether culpability is a necessary requirement for liability; what actions the aggressor must perform; whether there must be an actual threat or whether an apparent threat is sufficient; and whether the defender must believe that his use of force is responsive to that threat.

The first part of this paper examines two prominent alternative theories of self-defense – Judith Thomson’s rights-based account and Jeff McMahan’s moral responsibility account. It argues that both of these theories are problematic as theories of liability and that culpability is a necessary condition of liability. The second part of the paper sketches a culpability account, ultimately arguing that an aggressor is liable to defensive force when

(1a) The aggressor forms an intention to purposefully, knowingly, or recklessly kill the defender, the aggressor lacks a justification or excuse, and the defender must kill the aggressor to prevent being killed himself, or

(1b) The aggressor purposefully, knowingly, or recklessly engages in conduct that he is aware may lead the defender to believe that that (1a) is true, and the aggressor lacks a justification or excuse for so doing; AND

(2) Based on his belief that he is subject to attack, the defender acts to repel the perceived attack.

When one endeavors to give an account of “self-defense,” the initial question is what one means by “self-defense.” As a matter of ordinary language, our use of the term is quite extensive. Certainly, if a Villainous Aggressor tries to kill me and I kill him, I will justify my action by claiming “self-defense.” The term can also be applied to the killing of an Innocent Aggressor, that is, a person who lacks culpability but whose act will kill me, such as a child who mistakenly believes a real gun to be a toy. And, we can certainly say that one acts in self-defense when one kills an Innocent Threat, an individual who does not even voluntarily act but whose body nevertheless threatens me, such as the fat man who will fall on me and kill me if I do not disintegrate him immediately.1 Indeed, “self-defense” would likewise be an explanation for why I shot a rabid dog that was about to attack me or maybe even why I disintegrated your television set that was about to smash into me during a tornado. Of course, at some point, my killing or destruction does not require a moral explanation, and at that point, it seems that the use of the term “self-defense” may no longer hold. I think it is at least questionable whether one would argue that one used penicillin to kill bacteria in “self-defense.”2 As Bill Murray’s character in Caddyshack states (when he learns he is being asked to kill gophers, not golfers), “We can do that; we don’t even need a reason.”3

Given that all instances of self-defense are “defensive” in nature, it is tempting to think that there must be a unifying explanation. I think we ought to resist that temptation. Because we can meaningfully employ the term “self-defense” to justify our killing of a villainous attacker or destroying a neighbor’s television, the explanation would likely have to be so broad as to run roughshod over relevant moral nuances. For these reasons, it is more fruitful to think of self-defense as a type of defense, where some tokens may be permissible (or justified) and others will not. 4

One of the most important normative and conceptual moves in the self-defense literature in the last decade or so was the distinction drawn between permissibility and liability.5 Previously, it seemed that one must opt to either take an “aggressor-centered” approach or a “defender-centered” perspective. The assumption was that we needed to pick which approach should govern self-defense. However, this assumption is false. One may believe that both perspectives are morally relevant. A liability approach focuses on what an aggressor must do to be liable to defensive force. A permission-based view focuses on when a defender may harm a person who is, or is perceived to be, an attacker. It is coherent to say that an individual is liable to be killed but the defender lacks the permission to do so and it is also coherent to claim that an agent may permissibly kill someone who is not liable to be killed.

As one brief example of this severance, consider the well known trolley problem. It is generally assumed that one may turn a runaway trolley away from five trapped workers to one trapped worker. Many theorists maintain that the one worker’s rights will be infringed, but not violated, because the action is justified. Notably, the worker has certainly done nothing to lose his right to life. Jeff McMahan maintains that in such instances, the worker would have the right to defend himself.6 McMahan would say that though it is permissible to turn the trolley, the worker is not liable to be killed. Contrast this with a Villainous Attacker where we would say that the attacker’s rights are neither infringed nor violated. His own actions have forfeited his moral complaint against being killed defensively.

Severing permissibility from liability allows us to see the possibilities in self-defense. I believe it is certainly possible that (1) the moral basis for liability to defensive killing is a culpable attack; (2) a moral permission to kill another may be based on (a) the agent-relative permission to give one’s life greater weight and/or (b) the need for human beings to act on their own perceptions of an attack; and that (3) as a matter of the usage of the term, “self-defense,” it may be appropriate to call actions under either (1) or (2) (or both), instances of “self-defense.”

Although a thorough account of self-defense ought to explore both permissibility and liability and reconcile the two, progress can be made on one front without a focus on the other. Ultimately, liability-based views will have to subsumed under the heading of “permissions,” such that there may be some permissions that are liability-based and some that are not. Liability, that is, will be a ground of permissibility.

In this paper, I will focus on liability. That is, what conditions must obtain for someone to be liable to defensive force? Admittedly, I use the term “liability” somewhat uncomfortably. It is not altogether clear how its usage in the self-defense literature is to be equated with the usage in law or with the usage in Hohfeld’s theory of rights.7 But I do believe the term picks out a particularly important notion, and is therefore useful as a term of art, however we may choose to cash it out later. (I do some cashing out below.) Ultimately, the question we are asking is what a person must do such that it does not violate or infringe his rights for a defender to kill him.8

One further methodological point bears noting. As readers will certainly notice, I am eschewing the justification/excuse distinction in this paper, except insofar as I criticize internal inconsistencies of other theorists. In my view, there is simply no point in battling over the use of “justification” prior to making any progress on the parameters of self-defense.9 Rather, what is important here is that we are talking about cases in which the aggressor is not wronged by the defender’s use of force. As I defend below, there are both objective and subjective aspects to liability. Label it as you will.

In the first part of this paper, I will examine two prominent alternative theories of self-defense: Judith Thomson’s rights-based account and Jeff McMahan’s moral responsibility account. I will argue that both of these theories are problematic as theories of liability – that is, forfeiting one’s moral complaint against being killed defensively – and that culpability is a necessary condition of liability. In the second part of this paper, I will sketch a culpability account, including (1) what is the nature of culpability required, (2) how to understand the requirement of aggression, (3) whether there is a requirement that the defensive force be objectively necessary (that is, that the threat be “real”), and (4) whether there is a requirement that the force that repels the attack be intended (or known) to be defensive. In focusing on these features, I am aiming to address various challenges that Jeff McMahan has offered against the culpability account. Specifically, McMahan has criticized my earlier exposition of the culpability account wherein I argued that an individual is liable to defensive force when he plays Russian roulette with an unwilling victim, even if, as it turns out, the bullet was not in the chamber that would have killed the victim and thus the defense is not “objectively necessary.”10 In this paper, I will focus only on cases involving deadly force and indivisible harm thus leaving questions of proportionality for another day.

Ultimately, I will make the case for the following proposition: An aggressor is liable to defensive force by the defender when

(1a) The aggressor forms an intention to purposefully, knowingly, or recklessly kill the defender, the aggressor lacks a justification or excuse, and the defender must kill the aggressor to prevent being killed himself, or

(1b) The aggressor purposefully, knowingly, or recklessly engages in conduct that he is aware may lead the defender to believe that that (1a) is true, and the aggressor lacks a justification or excuse for so doing; AND

(2) Based on his belief that he is subject to attack, the defender acts to repel the perceived attack.

  1. Culpability as a Necessary Condition for Liability

One necessary condition for liability to defensive force is culpability. The critical question is under what conditions the defender does not violate or infringe the aggressor’s rights by defensively harming him. We might also think that it follows from liability that (1) the attacker cannot fight back and (2) that third parties cannot aid the attacker (assuming the defender is not himself liable). It should also follow that the defender would not need to compensate the aggressor for any harm done by the use of defensive force.

There are two prominent views that reject culpability as a necessary condition for liability. The first is the rights-based view proposed by Judith Thomson, and the second is the moral responsibility for an unjust risk view of Jeff McMahan. In this section, I raise objections to both of these views.

  1. Examining the Rights-Based View

Judith Thomson argues that one is liable to defensive killing because, by posing a threat to violate the rights of the defender, the aggressor/threat has forfeited his right to life.11 Thomson maintains that even innocent aggressors and threats are rights violators and therefore are liable to be killed. As many have argued, this view is problematic.12 First, Thomson distinguishes bystanders from threats but fails to do so on any principled grounds. Consider Thomson’s Alcove:

Alcove. You are in a tunnel and see a runaway trolley headed straight for you and it will kill you if [you] do not escape. You can only escape the trolley by squeezing into a small alcove in the tunnel. Unfortunately for you, there is already someone in the small alcove. You could pull them out of the alcove and onto the tracks, where they will die, so you may fit in the alcove and save yourself.13

Thomson rejects that you may pull the bystander out of the alcove.14 He is morally innocent. But consider:

Fat Man. You have fallen to the bottom of a well. A villain, who has always wanted to kill you, pushes a fat man down the well. If the fat man lands on you, he will live but you will die. You take out your ray gun and disintegrate him.15

On what basis can we distinguish Fat Man from Alcove? Fat Man is an Innocent Threat and Alcove involves a Bystander. The Innocent Threat and the Bystander are both morally innocent. Moreover, both are causally related to your peril. The Innocent Threat will kill you, and the Bystander prevents your safe use of the alcove.16 There is simply no principled basis to distinguish the two cases morally.17

A second question is why it is appropriate to say that Innocent Threats, who are being involuntarily moved, are violating the defender’s rights. Though I will present another way to see this issue below, theorists have argued that it makes little sense to say that he has a duty not to land on you, or that he will violate your right not to be killed, though, to be sure, he will kill you.18

Suzanne Uniacke and Fiona Leverick, both of whom build on Thomson’s theory in their monographs devoted to self-defense, have failed to offer any convincing response to this concern.19 Uniacke, who takes a specification view and argues that one does not have a right to life when one is an unjust threat, does little to explain why the right is so specified. Leverick, who adopts a forfeiture view, begins with the claim that we all have a fundamental right to life that we may protect with deadly force but then allows that fundamental right to be forfeited by mere bad luck.20 How can something that is sufficiently fundamental that we may kill to protect it, also be lost by mere misfortune such that another person has a right to kill us?21

Indeed, even if one thinks that it is too hard to ask you not to kill Innocent Threat, the argument is likely to be one of permissibility, not liability.22 The focus of such arguments is on what we can ask of the defender. One is hard pressed to find a reason why the Innocent Threat is liable to be harmed. This becomes even more apparent when we ask what the Innocent Threat may do in response, and whether third parties may intervene on the Innocent Threat’s behalf. There is also the question of numbers. Why should a third party intervene to assist you, as opposed to say, 100 babies who are tied together and will land on you if the third party does not disintegrate them?23 This is not the case with 100 villainous attackers. In that case, a third party would not be permitted (barring, say, some special relationship) to side with the numerous attackers over you. Moreover, as Thomson herself noted at one point, it is arguable that the defender owes compensation for killing the Innocent Threat and Innocent Aggressor, a fact that is certainly untrue when one kills a Culpable Aggressor.24

  1. The Moral Responsibility View

Jeff McMahan offers an alternative account of liability. According to McMahan, the question is whether the actor is morally responsible for an objectively unjust threat of harm. 25 If one acts in a way that imposes a foreseeable risk, then one is morally responsible for the threat if that risk materializes.26 Moral responsibility encompasses actions that are subjectively justified -- including, say, driving an ambulance and running a red light -- because from the objective point of view, the driver should not have acted.27 To be clear, this means that if an ambulance driver significantly exceeds the speed limit to get a sick person to the hospital and loses control of the vehicle because a problem with the power steering, then if the driver is about to kill a pedestrian, the driver is liable to the pedestrian’s defensive force, including, if necessary, deadly force. One is not morally responsible, however, if one does not choose to engage in a known risky activity, even if that activity will cause harm. So, in McMahan’s Cell Phone Operator case, where an actor’s cell phone has been programmed to detonate a bomb that will kill one person but the actor does not know it, McMahan claims that the actor is not liable to be killed because choosing to use a cell phone is not a choice to engage in a risk imposing activity.28 In other words, reasonable risk creation can be a basis for liability. Thus, McMahan finds liability without culpability in Conscientious Driver:

A person keeps his car well maintained and always drives cautiously and alertly. On one occasion, however, freak circumstances cause the car to go out of control. It has veered in the direction of a pedestrian whom it will kill unless she blows it up by using one of the explosive devices with which pedestrians in philosophical examples are typically equipped. 29

McMahan also sees it as a virtue of his account that The Resident is liable to be killed:

The identical twin of a notorious mass murderer is driving at night in a remote area when his car breaks down. He is nonculpably unaware that his twin brother has within the past few hours escaped from prison in this area, and that the residents have been warned of the escape. The murderer’s notoriety derives from his invariable modus operandi: he breaks into people’s homes and kills them instantly. As the twin approaches a house to request to use the telephone, the resident of the house, reasonably believing himself to be defending his family from the murderer, takes aim to shoot him preemptively. 30

There are a number of worries about this view. Let us begin with our terms. Consider the relationship between responsibility and liability. Antony Duff’s Answering for Crime offers an analytical framework for the relationship between responsibility and liability.31 Duff claims that responsibility – which is answerability – is a necessary but not sufficient condition of liability.32 In the criminal law, Duff argues that the actor must perform a culpable act to be criminally responsible, and the actor is only liable if he lacks a justification or excuse. Hence, if Jacob robs a bank, but he acted under duress, then Jacob is responsible for his act, but he is not criminally liable because he is excused. With respect to moral responsibility, Duff argues that responsibility is “strict” but the transition from responsibility to liability still requires not only that the actor lack justification or excuse but also that the actor behave culpably. If Jennifer knocks over my vase, she is responsible for so acting and must answer for it. Her claim, “I didn’t see it there,” absolves her of liability, but not responsibility.

Now, admittedly, I do not take McMahan to be using “liability” or “responsibility” in this way. He certainly thinks that responsibility is itself sufficient for liability. Duff’s framework, however, allows us to question McMahan’s assumption. That is, why is strict responsibility sufficient for liability?

Notice McMahan’s moral responsibility is strict vis-à-vis his Conscientious Driver and the Resident. McMahan’s morally responsible actors are not culpable. They are not even negligent. A conscientious driver, or ambulance driver, who behaves reasonably but nevertheless harms another is not liable in any court of law. Not for even one dollar’s worth of damage. It is true that under Duff’s framework, the conscientious driver is morally responsible. He is not, however, liable. And indeed, although McMahan suggests that if tort law were governed by solely by moral principles, it would look like his liability view, there is reason to doubt this.33 Although law is certainly not dispositive evidence of moral truths, it does seem to be telling that neither criminal law nor tort law draws the line that McMahan would have us draw.

My objection, however, is not that McMahan’s theory is novel. The deeper objection is whether McMahan offers a principled basis for holding some actors who are morally responsible for the risk are liable and not others. Why isn’t the cell phone operator also morally responsible for the threat he poses, despite his ignorance? What McMahan owes us is a principled account of moral responsibility.34

McMahan’s answer to this problem, I take it, is that the conscientious driver and the resident have taken a foreseeable risk. His argument runs as follows: Not every harm we cause results from risk-creating conduct. When it does, however, there is a moral asymmetry between the aggressor who imposes the risk and the defender who did not. Notably, this responsibility is more than causal, as both aggressor and defender are causally responsible for the risk. In other words, a fair reading of McMahan is that moral responsibility is grounded in foreseeable risk imposition.35

Grounding liability in instances of risk imposition that eventuate in threats raises questions about how to treat reciprocal and non-reciprocal riskers. Consider reciprocal riskers first. What happens if we replace the pedestrian with another driver on the road. Among drivers who impose the same risks on each other and make the same choices, there is no principle by which to distinguish them except “moral luck,” which appears to be McMahan’s answer.36 Moral luck, however, is hardly an answer. Both of them are unlucky – why not say that the defender is unlucky instead of the driver? That is, without some principle that allows the defender to defend, it appears that the defender is the one who is unlucky. And indeed, McMahan rejects that one may kill the innocent threat thrown down the well. However, the innocent threat is exactly like the driver aggressor. Why does luck play a role in some cases and not others? Although there is admittedly some opportunistic luck involved in such questions as who is located on the street when the car goes out of control, the question McMahan must answer is between individuals who must confront this bad luck, why ought morality to privilege one person over the other? Indeed, consider how a third party should react. Once all drivers have made the same choices, why should a third party prefer the life of one driver over another? If McMahan would not have a third party intervene to save the man at the bottom of the well, why should a third party intervene to privilege the driver-defender?

Another question is whether assumption of risk affects the driver’s moral liability to the pedestrian.37 It is not just that drivers choose to drive cars but pedestrians choose to walk beside them. Both of these choices are reasonable and both of these choices entail some risk. McMahan does not explain to us why assumption of risk, which does negate liability in tort law, would not negate liability here as well. Tort law’s comparative negligence principles complicate the picture further. In one writing, McMahan has suggested that contributory negligence and assumption of risk are relevant.38 This concession substantially complicates the analysis and requires further elaboration than McMahan has given.

Moreover, even in cases that initially appear to involve nonreciprocal risk imposition, there are risks being imposed in both directions. A pedestrian who has a gun and shoots the Conscientious Driver in self-defense was imposing a risk by carrying around a gun.39 There is the risk the gun will go off accidentally but also the pedestrian’s carrying a gun and being present makes it more risky for the driver to drive.40 That is, in almost any case in which self-defense will be successful (that is, that does not rely on the defender just finding a weapon when he needs it), the defender will be imposing a risk on the driver. Indeed, imagine a pedestrian plants mines along the side of the road so that they will explode if a driver veers out of control, and the next day, the conscientious driver drives and the pedestrian walks.41 If the conscientious driver’s car suddenly malfunctions, why is it that he is the one liable to defensive force and not the pedestrian? The pedestrian has made the driver’s driving riskier, and he has imposed a risk on the driver, a risk that now will result in a harm. So, the pedestrian appears equally liable to defensive force.

Even assuming the risks are not reciprocal and that we can ignore assumption of risk, there are reasons to reject McMahan’s liability conditions. Consider the requirement that the harm must be foreseeable. Foreseeability will always be a matter of (1) the selection of the description of the harm and (2) the selection of the information available to the assessor. (All harms that occur are foreseen by the omniscient, even the cell phone.) It is true that driving seems risky (people die in car accidents) but it isn’t true that we would say that safe driving with a well-maintained vehicle is risky vis-à-vis a mechanical malfunction. That is, the question, “what if my well maintained brakes fail?” is not the sort of risk the Conscientious Driver foresees when he chooses to drive his car.

Moreover, does McMahan require that the harm be foreseen by the actor? Would it matter if Fearless Fred never thinks that any harm can come from driving his car? In contrast, McMahan argues that the Innocent Threat’s threat is not one he “could conceivably foresee.”42 However, what if Nervous Nellie reads the literature on self-defense and becomes convinced that we are in the midst of an epidemic whereby evil villains throw people down wells? Will her mere appearance in public now be a risk-imposing activity because she believes it is? Are we to determine whether the risk is foreseeable from the standpoint of the agent, a fully objective standpoint, or some place in between?43 As to the third possibility, if the governing perspective is not the actor’s then how does McMahan justify importing some artificial epistemically limited perspective within his objective test? And importantly, how can morality speak through a construct that mirrors neither the actor’s perspective nor the omniscient’s?44

By employing foreseeability and risk criteria, McMahan oddly tries to straddle the objective/subjective divide. Doctrines like foreseeability and probability require that we select some epistemic stance, whereas objective justification does not. McMahan sometimes conjoins the two. In Killing in War, McMahan states, “[a]lthough the threat posed by ordinary drivers is normally so low that no defensive action against them could be proportionate, they can become liable to defensive action when the threat they pose passes a certain threshold of probability.”45 Notice, the reason McMahan thinks the Conscientious Driver and the ambulance driver are not justified is because, from an omniscient point of view, their actions will cause harm. Neither should drive. This privileges a purely objective standpoint. On the other hand, McMahan’s reliance on probabilities suggests that we are no longer looking at this question from the perspective of objective justification. If we are taking this latter approach, which is a weighing of risks and reasons for action, then could a driver who will cause harm not be liable because from an epistemic perspective, the probability is not high enough? Conversely, why is the driver who will not cause harm not liable when both he and the pedestrian predict he will? I do not see how McMahan can allow probabilities to enter into his liability conditions if he believes that justifications are objectively determined.

It is also strange that McMahan allows some epistemic errors but not others to render one liable. According to McMahan, the reason why the Conscientious Driver may be killed is that he engages in an activity which (1) he knows will impose a risk even though (2) he reasonably believes the risk is justified. The cell phone operator’s epistemic error occurs earlier – he does not know the phone will detonate a bomb. But, why should it matter? From an objective perspective, both individuals will cause harm. From a subjective perspective, both actors behave reasonably. Why if one is subjectively justified in imposing foreseeable risks does one become liable to be killed but not another person who is ignorant of the fact that his conduct also imposes a subjectively justified risk? In addition, such a choice might make more sense if we lived in a world in which we could choose not to impose risks, but we don’t. If Alice is poor and must drive a significant distance to get to work, she has every reason to drive. She just doesn’t know that one day she will kill a pedestrian when her car goes out of control. But it seems hard to say that Alice’s choice renders her liable to be killed when she does everything that we can fairly ask her to do. It is not that Alice cannot control what happens, but that it is unfair to ask her not to engage in the conduct. Similarly, a Fat Man could certainly keep from being thrown down a well by locking himself inside his home, but we cannot fairly ask that of him either.

Indeed, let me gesture at an argument against the conventional wisdom that the Innocent Threat is a nonresponsible threat. Assume that Albert is told by Victor, “I want to kill Betty, and, Albert, if I ever get the chance, I am going to shove you on top of her down a well.” I take it that we would not say that Albert imposes a risk on Betty simply by walking down the street. Now, the conventional wisdom is that Albert lacks control over the threat he poses to Betty, but that is not quite right. If you were told, “If you ever kick me, I will kill your mother, father, and every other person near and dear to you,” you would find a way to never, ever kick me. Not purposefully. Not by accident. Not by reflex. You would engage in myriad behaviors, many excessive, to prevent yourself ever from kicking me. You might, for example, simply cut off your legs. The critical point would then be not that you could not control kicking me, but that, as a matter of claims that I have against you, it is not fair for me to ask this of you.46 So, it is not that Albert cannot control being hurled on Betty, but that it is unfair to ask Albert to so control.

Once we move from nonresponsibility to unfairness, however, we see that many of McMahan’s responsible threats are being asked to shoulder unfair responsibilities. The mere foresight that harm may occur from an activity should not be sufficient to make you liable when you do all that we may fairly ask of you.47 The conscientious driver does just that. He behaves conscientiously.48

McMahan ultimately concedes that whatever asymmetry there may be between his Responsible Threats and the victim is slight.49 However, particularly in cases where harms are not divisible and the sort of defensive force that must be employed is lethal, a mere slight asymmetry between the defender and the aggressor should not be sufficient. The aggressor must perform an action that we can fairly say forfeits his moral complaint against defensive force being applied against him. It is still possible that both sides may permissibly act in their own defense, though neither is liable.50

  1. The Conditions of Culpability-Based Liability

What the previous views share with my own is that culpability appears to be sufficient, even if not necessary, criterion for liability. A culpable attacker meets both Thomson’s and McMahan’s criteria.51 However, even if it seems intuitively obvious that culpable attackers are liable to be killed defensively,52 there are a number of nuances to be worked out. In this section, I will sketch a culpability-based view. In so doing, I will respond to a number of concerns raised by Jeff McMahan.53

Where the prior views substantially depart from my own is with the requirement that there be an actual threat. To Thomson, it is the fact that the threat will kill you that allows you to kill him. To McMahan, only once the act is objectively (fact-relative) unjustified, do we look to see if the actor is liable to defensive force. I believe this is misguided because it ignores the preemptive and preventive nature of self-defense. Namely, when an aggressor is liable to self-defense, he is not wronged by the defender’s acting on the prediction that she will be harmed.

As mentioned above, I will make the case for the following conditions for liability: An aggressor is liable to defensive force by the defender when

(1a) The aggressor forms an intention to purposefully, knowingly, or recklessly kill the defender, the aggressor lacks a justification or excuse, and the defender must kill the aggressor to prevent being killed himself, or

(1b) The aggressor purposefully, knowingly, or recklessly engages in conduct that he is aware may lead the defender to believe that that (1) is true, and the aggressor lacks a justification or excuse for so doing; AND

(2) Based on his belief that (1a) is true, the defender acts to repel the perceived attack.

A. Culpability Generally

The first question is what I mean by culpability. Typically, in the case of self-defense, the defender will be acting against someone who intends to kill him. Requiring specific intent, however, is too narrow. Rather, it seems that when an aggressor acts purposefully, knowingly, or recklessly (and without justification or excuse), any of these states should suffice for altering the culpable aggressor’s status vis-à-vis the defender such that the defender does not wrong the culpable aggressor by killing him.

That is, the criminal law’s model of culpability best captures the sort of culpability inherent in culpable aggression. Intending to kill the victim as an end in itself, or as a means to this end, is clearly culpable. One needs little argument to say that attacking with such an intention should be a sufficient mental state for liability. Knowledge should also suffice. Clearly, if one is a passenger on a plane, the fact that the “attacker” plans to blow up the plane for the insurance money on the plane, as opposed to killing the passenger, makes little difference in terms of the attacker’s liability to defensive force. Notably, in instances of both purpose and knowledge an actor is not culpable if his conduct is either justified or excused.

Recklessness should also be a sufficient mental state. Recklessness requires that an attacker consciously disregard a substantial and unjustifiable risk to the defender. Recklessness includes a person who plays involuntary Russian roulette, a person who drag races along a busy street, and other persons who impose risks on the defender for insufficient reasons.

Elsewhere Larry Alexander and I have argued that there is one unified theory of culpability, with recklessness roughly expressing this form.54 Culpability consists in creating a risk for insufficient reasons. And, although purpose (intention) looks different from this, purpose is actually acting for a presumptively insufficient reason. This presumption, however, can be rebutted when the actor is justified (for instance, acting in self-defense). Knowledge is also about a risk/reason comparison where the risk appears to reach certainty. However, one is ultimately not culpable if one knowingly harms another for a justifiable reason. Even if one rejects our view that these mental states roughly collapse into recklessness, one may still agree that purpose, knowledge, and recklessness are culpable mental states that are sufficient to satisfy the mental element of culpable aggression. An actor who intends to engage in an action that demonstrates insufficient concern for the interests of other people can hardly complain if that action is stopped.

Importantly, our view likewise sees culpability broadly, as including an evaluation of whether the aggressor is excused or justified, in determining whether the aggressor is culpable. That is, an intention to kill, that is morally justified, is not a culpable attack. And, an intention to kill that is the product of duress, insanity, or mistake, is also not a culpable attack.

Thus far I have said nothing about negligence. I reject negligence as sufficient for criminal blameworthiness, and I would likewise reject it here.55 Individuals may fall below the “reasonable person test” because of moments of stupidity, clumsiness, or bad character.56 I do not believe that we should be able our right to repel a deadly attack, and our moral complaint against such an attack, based upon momentary failures. If Unconscientious Driver hears that her brakes are squeaking and thinks “oh, that is nothing” when it is a problem with her brakes, it may be the case that she has some sort of character failure. However, this failure strikes me as insufficient for forfeiting one’s right. A full defense of this view, however, requires a paper in its own right and nothing I say here turns on it. If you believe that negligence is culpable, then you can simply include it in your culpability account.

In all cases of culpability, the aggressor has clearly altered his moral standing vis-à-vis the defender. The aggressor intends to violate the defender’s rights. Because this is something he is not permitted to do, his culpability renders him liable to defensive force.

At this point, the potential objection is that the view is under inclusive.57 If culpability is a necessary element of liability to defensive force then the Conscientious Driver, the Resident, and the Innocent Threat are not liable. I believe this to be true. Liability to defensive killing should require a significant showing. Most importantly, liability is not about when the defender needs to act, but when the aggressor has forfeited his rights such that it is not wrong to use defensive force against him. We may believe that the pedestrian should be permitted to kill the Conscientious Driver because, say, he has an agent-relative permission to prefer his life to the driver’s, but this is not to say that the Conscientious Driver has engaged in the sort of behavior whereby he should be deemed to have forfeited his defensive rights.

At this point, the formulation first appears to be that:

When A will purposefully, knowingly, or recklessly kill D, and A lacks justification or excuse, A is liable to defensive force by D.

This, however, is just a first pass. We must attend to the question of what an aggressor must do in order to be liable to defensive force.

  1. Aggression’s Act Requirement

Free-floating culpability, however, will not cut it. When we think about a culpable aggressor, we think about the aggressor doing something that renders him liable to defensive force. The question of how to specify what aggression consists in turns out to be a complicated task. Indeed, in this section, I will not aim to resolve fully the “test” for aggression. I wish only to make the case that we do need such a concept, and to gesture at where we might begin to find the answers.

We should not be surprised that this is a difficult task. With respect to attempts, the criminal law has struggled quite significantly with the act requirement. Where does preparation end and attempting begin? Is an act only meant to corroborate the evil intention? Should the act requirement be placed close to completion so as to allow for renunciation? While some theorists maintain that the intention itself is sufficient for the punishment (and the act is merely evidentiary), other theorists argue that we should wait for the last act so as to ensure that we are punishing the actor for what he has done and not what he will do.

Any account of self-defense requires an account of the action that the aggressor must take to trigger the defender’s defensive right. Consider the following.

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