Is there an Obligation of Self-Defense?
It is generally accepted that people have a moral right to self-defense. That is, if someone is unjustly attacked or threatened, then it is morally acceptable for her to act in her own self-protection. While there are moral limits on the actions a person may take, violence is generally considered morally acceptable in the right condition.
This right to self-defense does seem to provide a philosophical foundation for the right to the means of self-defense. After all, as Hobbes argued, a right without the means to exercise that right is effectively no right at all. Not surprisingly, I consider the right to own weapons to be grounded on the right of self-defense. However, my concern here is not with the right of self-defense. Rather, I will focus on the question of whether or not there is an obligation of self-defense.
The right to self-defense (if there is such a right) gives a person the liberty to protect herself. If it is only a liberty, then the person has the right to not act in self-defense and thus be a perfect victim. A person might, of course, elect to do so for practical reasons (perhaps to avoid a worse harm) or for moral reasons (perhaps from a commitment to pacifism). However, if there is an obligation of self-defense, then failing to act on this obligation would seem to be a moral failing. The obvious challenge is to show that there is such an obligation.
On the face of it, it would seem that self-defense is merely a liberty. However, some consideration of the matter will suggest that this is not so obvious. In the Leviathan, Hobbes presents what he takes to be the Law of Nature (lex naturalis): “a precept or general rule, found by reason, that forbids a man to do what is destructive of his life or takes away the means of preserving it and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved.” Hobbes goes on to note that “right consists in liberty to do or to forbear” and “law determines and binds.” If Hobbes is correct, then people would seem to have both a right and an obligation to self-defense.
John Locke and Thomas Aquinas also contend that life is to be preserved and if they are right, then this would seem to impose an obligation of self-defense. Of course, this notion could be countered by contending that all it requires is for a person to seek protection from possible threats and doing so could involve relying on the protection of others (typically the state) rather than one’s self. However, there are at least three arguments against this.
The first is a practical argument. While the modern Western state projects its coercive force and spying eyes into society, the state’s agents cannot (yet) observe all that occurs nor can they always be close at hand in times of danger. As such, relying solely on the state would seem to put a person at risk—after all, he would be helpless in the face of danger. If a person relies on other individuals, then unless she is guarded at all times, then she also faces the real risk of being a helpless victim. This would, at the very least, seem imprudent.
This argument can be used as the basis for a moral argument. If a person is morally obligated to preserve life (including his own) and the arms of others cannot be reliably depended on, then it would seem that she would have an obligation of self-defense.
The third argument is also a moral argument. One favorite joke of some folks who carry concealed weapons is to respond, when asked why they carry a gun, with the witty remark “because cops are too heavy.” While this is humor, it does point towards an important moral concern regarding relying on others.
A person who relies on the protection of others is expecting those people to risk being hurt or killed to protect her. In the case of those who are incapable of acting in effective self-defense, this can be a morally acceptable situation. After all, it is reasonable for infants and the badly injured to rely on the protection of others since they cannot act in their own defense. However, a person who could be competent in self-defense but declines to do so in favor of expecting others to die for her would seem to be a morally selfish person. As such, it would seem that people have an obligation of self-defense—at least if they wish to avoid being parasites.
An obvious counter is that people do rely on others for self-defense. After all, civilians wisely allow the police and military to handle armed threats whenever possible. Since the police and military are armed and trained for such tasks, it makes sense practically and morally to rely on them.
However, as noted in the first argument, a person will not always be under the watchful protection of others. Even if others are available to risk themselves, there is still the moral concern regarding of expecting others to take risks to protect one when one is not willing to do the same for himself. That seems to be cowardice and selfishness and thus morally reprehensible. This is not, of course, to say that accepting the protection of the police and military is always a moral failing—however, a person must be willing to accept the obligation of self-defense and not rely entirely on others.
This raises the matter of the extent to which a person is obligated to be competent at self-defense and when it would be acceptable to rely on others in this matter. It would, of course, be an unreasonable expectation to morally require that people train for hours each day in self-defense. However, it does seem reasonable to expect that people become at least competent at protecting themselves, thus being able to at least act on the obligation of self-preservation with some chance of success. This obligation of self-preservation would also seem to obligate people to maintain a degree of physical fitness and health, but that is a matter for another time.