Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Here is something I've sometimes wondered about. If I have a gun, and someone is attempting to steal something (either belonging to me or another), am I permitted to point the gun at her and command her, at gunpoint, to refrain from stealing. To fill out this case, suppose that I know the thief is not a physical danger to any person: I know the thief is unarmed and gentle. I am not interested in the legal question—that differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and depends on what official role one plays. But can I morally use a threat of lethal force to prevent theft, assuming the law permits me to?

I assume that generally it is wrong to use lethal force to prevent mere theft (there are exceptions, such as cases where what is being stolen is something necessary to someone's survival). Now, pulling out the gun is offering a threat of force. Is it permissible to offer a threat that it would be immoral to carry out?

If one thinks deception is always wrong, the threatener is in the wrong. If she intends to carry out the threat, she is in the wrong since it is a threat that it is wrong to carry out. If she does not intend to carry out the threat, the threat is deceitful. However, while lying is always wrong, deceit is not. (There is nothing wrong with hanging a hat on a stick behind a bush to draw enemy fire.)

If deception is not always wrong, then one might think that with good reason it is permissible to make the threat. However, there is another consideration. It is wrong to blacken a person's reputation. But by making a threat it would be immoral to carry out, one is blackening a person's reputation—one is blackening one's own reputation, by making the other person think that one is the kind of immoral person that would use lethal force to protect property.

Still, the blackening of reputation is, perhaps, not intentional. (One may not be intending that the other person believe that one would carry out the threat, but only that the other person take herself to have reason to believe it.) So by Double Effect, the threat could, perhaps, be permitted in some cases.

If so, then it could in principle be permissible for a country to point nuclear weapons at enemy civilian centers as a deterrent, as long as the country could be sure that those weapons would not in fact be used against civilians. On the other hand, how could one be sure of that? Actually, even in the theft case, a similar danger exists: by making the threat, one creates a temptation in oneself to carry it out, and one should avoid temptation to do something immoral.


Chong Choe said...

Your assumptions about self-defense seem right to me. I would say that a person has a right to use the force necessary to extinguish the danger—so the type and amount of force corresponds to the type and gravity of the danger. If the type of danger is merely danger to property, one generally cannot use deadly force. If a person uses force greater than necessary, that person acts beyond her right of self-defense and now is the aggressor—as you say, the person becomes the one doing the threatening. So, the danger gives rise to the right of self defense, but the right is proportionate to the danger.

I would like to mention that I think there is quite a bit of overlap between law and morality. It’s always interesting to read early caselaw (one- to two-page gems, compared to our 20- to100-page opinions now) because the judges usually just spoke off the top of their heads (like philosophers) without using precedent (because there was none) and simply declaring by judicial fiat what they thought was right (often based on Judeo-Christian values). Most laws begin as a matter of practice, then established by judicial decisions (common law), and then codified into legislation. Most model codes are based on common law. And, because most states have adopted parts of the model penal codes, jurisdiction is less important, at least with common subjects like murder and self-defense.

Our assumptions are pretty consistent with the law on self-defense. The law says that when a person has an actual and reasonable belief that she is in imminent danger, she has the right to exert the force necessary to meet that danger. Interestingly, the law requires both a subjective (actual) and objective (reasonable) belief of imminent danger. In your example, if you know that the person is unarmed and gentle even if others are unaware, you do not have an actual belief of imminent danger and, therefore, no right of self defense. And, even if you did have the right, the use of a gun to save property would be excessive force.

As to whether a person is permitted to offer a threat that would be immoral to carry out, I think it’s complicated. A threat is a verbal expression of an intent to do something, let’s say, A threatens B to do M. It is not necessary that A intends to do M, but only that A intends to convince B that one intends to do M. The threat is successful where B believes the threat and takes it seriously (interestingly, I had a case involving this exact distinction, where I had to distinguish between an attempt and a threat).

Let’s put down the gun for a moment (metaphorically). It would be wrong for A to threaten B to do M in order to prevent her from stealing because A cannot justify her threat as an act of self-defense. But while A would be morally culpable for intending to threaten B, she would not be morally culpable for intending to do M if she had no such intent.

The gun complicates things. We no longer have a mere speech act. The pointing of the gun is a threat and a physical act. The physical act alone, without adequate justification, does harm and may be morally wrong (depending of course on intent). More so with nuclear weapons.

Effect on one’s reputation also complicates things. Where appearances govern, it doesn’t matter whether A intended to do M or simply intended to convince B that she intended to do M, the effect on A’s reputation would be the same.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks for enlightening comments.

I think the verbal threat case is easy. It's wrong to make a false verbal threat simply because it is either a lie or a false promise. But the pointing of the gun or of the missile is different. It is an important point which I neglected, and which you made, that the pointing by itself can cause harm (I assume: fear, anxiety, etc.)

wj said...

Do you know Anscombe's short piece on more or less this problem? It's reprinted in the recent volume of her work, Faith in a Hard Ground. Though she seems more concerned about whether it is moral for Christians to have a hand in foreign policy decision making at all, given that our regime seems in principle committed to the massacre of innocents, if national security demands it.