Brains, Persons, and Society *** ABSTRACTS
Cervelli, Persone e Società ***ABSTRACTS
University of Reading
Why We can Kill Innocent Threats
what one is permitted to do in self-defence raise issues in both ethics
political sphere. This is particularly
topical in our current political climate.
Since the attacks on the World Trade Centre, there have been
innocent people in the course of anti-terrorist action.
Most people acknowledge the permissibility of
killing a person who culpably threatens one’s own life, or the lives of
others. More controversial is the claim
that one can permissibly kill a person who innocently threatens
life. In this paper I argue against
Michael Otsuka’s claim that it is impermissible to kill an innocent
self-defence. Otsuka claims that killing
an innocent threat is morally equivalent to killing an innocent
bystander. A threat and a bystander share
a lack of
control over what threatens the potential victim, and cannot be said to
the right not to be killed.
killing an innocent threat in self-defence is morally equivalent to
bystander by using her as a human shield.
By killing a threat in self-defence, Otsuka claims that one uses
threat as a means to one’s own self-preservation. I
show that there is a sleight of hand here
by Otsuka. In human shield cases, it is
the bystander herself who is used as a means.
But in the case of self-defence against an
innocent threat, it is the killing of the threat which is a
self-preservation, not the threat herself.
Drawing on recent work by Derek Parfit, I suggest that the
treating the shield as a means stems in part from the attitude that it
on the part of the agent who so employs her.
This agent profits from the presence of a bystander. He prefers the bystander’s presence to her
absence: he is glad that the bystander is there to enable him to save
life. If this were not his attitude, he
would not use her as a shield at. But it
is false that in killing someone who threatens one’s life, one profits
presence of the threat. In the absence
of the threat, it would not be necessary to defend oneself at all.
that Otsuka’s equation of innocent threats with innocent bystanders on
grounds of a shared lack of agency is unworkable. Otsuka’s
argument is illustrated by Robert
Nozick’s Ray Gun case, which innocent Threat is blown down a well, and
land on innocent Victim unless stopped.
Victim will be crushed to death, but his body will cushion
landing and thus Threat will survive.
However, Victim is in possession of a ray gun, with which he can
vaporise Threat. Otsuka claims that
Victim cannot vaporise Threat, since Threat is innocent – she lacks
over the fact that she threats Victim. I
offer a revised case in which Threat also has a ray gun, which she can
vaporise herself. Now Threat can exercise control over whether
she poses a threat. I suggest that she
would be morally required to cause her own death rather than cause the
an innocent victim.
that Threat must vaporise herself, his claim that it is the lack of
makes killing an innocent threat impermissible is undermined. If, on the other hand, Otsuka concedes that
Threat would be required to kill herself, then his claim that
impermissible for Victim to kill Threat is undermined.
In killing Threat, Victim does only that
which Threat herself would have a duty to do, were she
The fact that in an actual case a threat may not be able
herself does not affect the permissibility of killing the threat in
I argue that
rather than citing a lack of agency as the relevant factor, we should
what threatens a person as the proper criterion of
cases of self-defence. Adopting this
rationale equates innocent threats with culpable threats for the
purposes of self-defence. I can thus
account for the pervasive
intuition that one may kill even the innocent if they will otherwise