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  • On Disproportionate Force and Fighting in Vain
  • Gerhard Øverland (bio)

Two conditions guiding permissible use of force in self-defence are proportionality and success. According to the proportionality condition the means used to prevent an attack can be permissible only if they are proportional to the interest at stake.1 According to the success condition, otherwise impermissible acts can be justified under the right to self-defence only if they are likely to succeed in preventing the perceived threat.2 These requirements should not always be interpreted narrowly. Sometimes people are permitted to kill culpable aggressors in order to avoid a non-lethal harm. Sometimes people are permitted to take up arms to defend themselves against culpable aggressors they have little or no hope of defeating.

Recent attempts to explain why such actions against culpable aggressors may be permissible have appealed to the victim’s interest in defending [End Page 235] herself against disrespectful treatment and her interest in protecting her honour. I call these strategies ‘victim-centred,’ since they attempt to explain why the victim’s action against culpable aggressors does not violate the requirements of proportionality and success, or whether she violates them justifiably, by appealing primarily to the interests of the victim. These strategies are called on to avoid an aggressor-centred view, which is supposed to have unacceptable consequences. According to one aggressor-centred view, disproportionate force and fighting in vain may be permissible primarily because the aggressors who are harmed are morally culpable and therefore have a reduced claim to protection against threats of harm. In this paper I make a case for this aggressor-centred view.

I Preliminaries

In both the victim-centred and the aggressor-centred view, the aggressor’s moral culpability plays a role in explaining why increased use of force may be permitted. However, they do so in very different ways. According to a victim-centred view, the greater latitude in permissible use of defensive force is mainly explained by something about the victim, such as her interest in defending herself against disrespectful treatment or in protecting her honour. The moral culpability of the aggressor doesn’t significantly alter the aggressor’s claim to protection; it simply gives the victim a particularly strong reason to defend herself because she now has more to lose. The victim’s increased interest in protecting herself therefore trumps the aggressor’s claim on protection.

According to the aggressor-centred view, by contrast, a morally culpable aggressor has a much weaker claim to protection. It is this weaker claim that essentially explains the broader range of means that can be used against the culpable aggressor, and not the victim’s interest in avoiding disrespectful harm. By engaging in morally wrong actions the aggressor forfeited part of her claim on protection and she has therefore a weaker claim against being harmed.

These two positions are not mutually exclusive. It is nevertheless important to understand the difference in emphasis between the victim-centred and aggressor-centred views. A victim-centred position stresses the victim’s interest when explaining why we can use greater force against culpable aggressors. The aggressor-centred view I am proposing here emphasises the aggressor’s reduced claim on protection. Accordingly, it is the aggressor’s culpability that allows us to exercise disproportionate force and pursue a vain struggle against overwhelming odds, and not so much the victim’s interest in protecting herself against disrespectful treatment or in protecting her honour, if at all. In [End Page 236] fact, the victim’s interest only seems to play a role when it comes to third party intervention.

The paper proceeds as follows. In the first two sections, ‘Disrespect’ and ‘Honour,’ I present the victim-centred proposals along with various examples to demonstrate their implausibility. I contend that not having any concern for the interest of protecting oneself against disrespectful treatment or in protecting one’s honour doesn’t seem to make it impermissible to proceed against culpable aggressors, and that such interests would not make it permissible to proceed against innocent aggressors. The important factor, I suggest, is that the aggressor’s moral culpability reduces her claim on protection. In the last section, ‘Culpability,’ I briefly...


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pp. 235-261
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