Killing an Innocent in Self-Defense

Otsuka in his paper “Killing the Innocent in Self-defense” insists that we are not morally justified to kill innocent aggressor in self-defense. In this paper, I will argue that it is indeed morally permissible to kill an innocent aggressor in self-defense if killing them was the only choice available to prevent the fatal threats. I think that my argument appeals much more to our intuition because self-protection or self-preservation doesn’t play an insignificant role in our nature and Otsuka’s idea has put the standard of morality way too high for us.

My argument goes as follow:

Premise (1) It is morally permissible to kill the responsible but not culpable threats in self-defense if killing them was the only choice available to prevent the fatal threat.

Premise (2) There is no morally relevant difference between an innocent aggressor and a responsible but not culpable aggressor.

Conclusion Therefore, it is morally permissible to kill an innocent aggressor in self-defense if killing them as the only choice available to prevent the fatal threat.

Before I start to explain my argument, I think it would be good to clarify several philosophical terms I used in my argument.

A responsible but not culpable aggressor is someone who in a blameless way intentionally poses a fatal threat to you. In other words, a responsible but not culpable is somebody who has totally control over his course of action, and he intentionally poses a fatal threat to you, but maybe he has some excuses that make sense of his behavior not blameworthy. For example, suppose Dr. Evil projects a hologram of a gun into Mr. Smith’s head. As a result, he thought that you are about to kill him, but in fact Mr. Smith is being misled. So Mr. Smith shot you. Mr. Smith is morally responsible for his action because he has totally control over his behavior but he is not blameworthy because it is understandable from his perspective why Mr. Smith did that to you.

An innocent aggressor is somebody who is intentionally poses a threat but does not have control over her action. Otsuka gave an example of someone who have rage inducing drug slipped into their coffee. Maybe the person attacks you intentionally but they as the character is not behind the action. We do not tend to associate the evil action with them.

I now start to explain my argument. I will start with premise (1). I think premise (1) is pretty intuitively plausible and uncontroversial. There is a moral principle underlying premise (1). Otsuka explains why it is morally permissible to kill a morally responsible but not culpable aggressor in the name of self-defense as follow. All we need to be able to kill Mr. Smith is the choice that he made. Because when Mr. Smith makes a choice to defend himself against the thing that he himself considers to be a threat, in making that choice, he takes on some kinds of moral risk. If it turns out that Mr. Smith is wrong about me being a genuine risk to him by choosing out of his free will to defend himself, he accepts that we have a right that makes it morally okay for us to kill him in self-defense. I think that we all accept this moral principle that it is morally permissible to kill a morally responsible but not culpable aggressor.

Before explaining premise (2) which is also the most important premise of my argument, I shall present here Otsuka’s argument why he thinks that there is a morally relevant different between the responsible but not culpable aggressor and the innocent aggressor. The difference, Otsuka argues, is that an innocent aggressor has no lethal agency over the threat that he/she is posing to you while the responsible but not culpable aggressor has. Otsuka thinks that the innocent aggressor doesn’t have any control over her course of action, she doesn’t make any choice at all to harm us. Meanwhile, as explained above in premise (1), the morally responsible aggressor has made her choice out of her free will to defend against the threat upon herself. She takes on some sort of moral risk and she accepts that we have a right to defend ourselves against him or her.

My strategy in premise (2) is to show that there is in fact no morally relevant difference between innocent aggressor and morally responsible aggressor. I will try to show that by appealing to the change of personal identity inside the innocent aggressor. I will argue that due to this personal identity change, the innocent aggressor still has lethal agency over the threat he is posing to you, and in some sense, the innocent aggressor still makes a choice just like the morally responsible but not culpable makes his choice. Therefore, it is morally permissible to kill an innocent aggressor in self-defense if killing them was the only available option to prevent the fatal threat.

Let us imagine a thought experiment which involves an innocent aggressor who is posing a fatal threat to you. We can see from that thought experiment that it is indeed morally permissible to kill an innocent aggressor in self-defense and I will explain why shortly.

Let’s say Mr. Smith is a charming and kind guy. He has no dark secrets, no violent fantasies. He is just a normal decent guy. You and Mr. Smith has always had a good relationship with each other. One day, an evil and mad scientist called you and says that he secretly installed remote-controlled electrodes into Mr. Smith’s brain. And these electrodes allow the mad scientist to stimulate a violent desire to kill you. The mad scientist also deleted all the good memory between you and Mr. Smith and temporarily implanted in Mr. Smith’s brain false memory of you having an affair with his beloved wife. You know all of this. Suddenly, Mr. Smith comes up to your door with a butcher knife and try to stab you.

According to Otsuka’s reasoning, it is clear to you that Mr. Smith is an innocent aggressor because he has no control over his action and he has no lethal agency over the threat posing to you. You are morally required to stand still and let Mr. Smith stab you 49 times with his butcher knife. If that is the case, Otsuka has put up the standard of morality way too high for us and he has neglected the fact that our intuition for self-preservation is pretty strong. However, I would suggest that you are still morally justified to kill the person who tried to stab you if killing him was the only available option to prevent the fatal threat. I will give you a good reason to believe so.

It is undeniable that Mr. Smith as you have always been knowing him as a normal decent guy has no control whatsoever over his action. But when the mad and evil scientist altered his psychology in the way described, the mad scientist has effectively destroyed the Good Smith and replaced him with a new and dangerous person, the Evil Smith. When you defend yourself against the fatal threat, you are not defending yourself against the Good Smith, you are defending yourself against the Evil Smith. This Evil Smith in a sense still has control over his action because the Evil Smith intentionally kills you. The Evil Smith is morally responsible for the threat that he is trying to pose to you. There is no morally relevant different between the Evil Smith and the responsible but not culpable aggressor. Since you are morally permissible to kill the morally responsible but not culpable threat in self-defense, you are also morally permissible to kill the Evil Smith in self-defense when killing him is the only available option to prevent the fatal threat.

I now consider one worry that people may have when they read my argument. Suppose that we accept that the innocent aggressor, the Evil Smith is a different person than the Good Smith. That may explain why it would be permissible to kill the evil identity i.e. the Evil Smith. You may worry that by killing Evil Smith, you are also killing the other innocent identity i.e. the Good Smith. You know that the Good Smith is temporarily destroyed and when the mad and evil scientist stops manipulating with Mr. Smith psychology, the innocent Smith will return to be normal. Hence, you are still killing an innocent person.

In reply to this objection, I shall appeal to the moral principle that it is morally okay sometimes to kill an innocent person as the side effect and it is not morally permissible to kill an innocent as the course of using them. I think this moral principle is pretty intuitive as it will be illustrated in the famous Trolley Problem. There is a trolley coming toward a track that is about to kill 5 people. You can change the lever for the train to go off track and kill one person instead. Most people agree that it is a morally right thing to do to change the lever because in this case you are not using the person. Or you do not intentionally want him to die. He is just there and his death is just a side effect. In other case, you get a fat man on the bridge, the idea is that you can stop the trolley by pushing him over the bridge, he slows down the trolley and the 5 are being saved. In this case, you are using the fat man to get hit by the train and it is not the side effect of what you intend to do. I think this moral principle is intuitive because it can explain why the first scenario was okay but not the second one.

So come back to the case of Mr. Smith, when you defend yourself against the Evil Smith, you did not intend to kill the Good Smith, you intend to kill the Evil Smith and the death of the Good Smith in the inevitable process is just a side effect. As I have explained earlier, it is morally okay to kill an innocent as the side effect but not as the course of using them. Therefore, it is morally permissible for you to defend yourself against the Evil Smith even though the Good Smith dies eventually as the side effect. In addition, I think the fact that we are morally permissible to kill the Evil Smith though it results in the death of the Good Smith as a side effect and kill him was the only available option appeals much more to our intuition because we as human have self-preservation and we shouldn’t neglect the fact that self-preservation is strong when making a choice about moral dilemma.

In conclusion, I have argued why it is morally permissible to kill innocent aggressor in self-defense and I have presented an objection to my argument and given the response. I think that my argument should stand because it matched up perfectly with our ordinary intuition. Otsuka has put up the standard of morality too high for us to follow. It is intuitive stronger that we should defend ourselves against a person who has intention to kill us though we know that they are not in their right state of mind compared to the scenario that we should do nothing and let the innocent aggressor stab us 49 times with their butcher knife.

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One thought on “Killing an Innocent in Self-Defense

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  1. “innocent aggressor” is an oxymoron. An assessor by nature is not innocent, and therefore knowing is perpetrating a crime. A “victim” by definition is innocent and therefore has the right to defend themselves.

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