Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Innocent Attackers and Rights of Self-Defense

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Innocent Attackers and Rights of Self-Defense

Article excerpt

Imagine that a neighboring state drafts an army of ignorant soldiers, makes them falsely believe that your state poses an imminent threat to their survival or political independence, and then launches them across your border. As a soldier, would you have a right to kill such attackers in self-defense or in defense of your country? In this brief comment, I will focus primarily on the question of whether one may kill "innocent attackers," that is, individuals who pose a lethal threat through no moral fault of their own, but because they are acting under a combination of duress and nonculpable ignorance.

In War and Self-Defense, David Rodin argues that it is not morally permissible to kill innocent attackers because they are not at moral fault for the danger they pose, and thus do not forfeit their rights to life. (1) He argues, however, that ordinary soldiers usually should not be considered innocent attackers, because they are not excused by duress and nonculpable ignorance for choosing to fight an unjust war. Nevertheless, Rodin argues that such soldiers do not forfeit their own rights to life simply because their state forfeits its right of national defense by acting aggressively. Thus, Rodin ends up arguing that there is often no moral justification, based in individual or national rights of self-defense, for killing the invading soldiers described above.

In contrast, I will argue that ordinary soldiers should often be regarded as innocent attackers, but that there is a moral right to kill them in individual and national self-defense when they fight an unjust war. In making this argument, I am not disagreeing with Rodin about the importance of moral fault as one important reason why individuals lose their rights of self-defense. I do want to argue, however, that Rodin's moral fault justification is too narrow, and that his view of the moral responsibility of individuals for becoming soldiers is too demanding, to justify the full range of actions that are indeed morally permissible in war.


Rodin's theory of the right of individual self-defense has two parts: an interpretation of the various elements of the right, and a deeper justification of the right. He interprets the right as a liberty to use necessary and proportionate force in response to an imminent attack against life, bodily integrity, or certain basic liberties. He justifies the right on the grounds that an aggressor who is at moral fault for launching a criminal attack forfeits his own right to life, and for this reason may be killed in self-defense. Rodin insists that a justification of the right of self-defense should focus on the particular normative relationship between an attacker and his victim that is encompassed by the notion of moral fault. What defines moral fault is the criminal aggressor's attempt to create a situation of threat at the critical moment of attack. Because this relationship is a specific one, a criminal attacker forfeits his right of self-defense against one particular victim, not against everyone else, and he does so on the basis of facts about necessity, imminence, and proportionality that can change. These facts are morally relevant, according to Rodin, because a right to self-defense and its basic elements of necessity, imminence, and proportionality are derived from a universal right to life. Although a criminal attacker temporarily forfeits his right to life by posing an imminent threat, a victim may not use any more force against him than is necessary and proportionate to protecting her own life.

Against a consensus among philosophers and lawyers, Rodin's commitment to the significance of moral fault also leads him to deny that we may justifiably kill an innocent attacker in self-defense. In his book, Rodin points out a difficulty for those who believe that killing an innocent attacker is justified. It is generally agreed that it is morally impermissible to kill an innocent bystander in self-preservation; for example, by using him as a shield. …

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