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Debate: Self-defense

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Should the law punish those who use force to defend themselves against criminal acts?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Christopher Ruane. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

Many legal systems allow self-defense as a partial or total defense to a charge in a criminal case. However, typically there is some sort of requirement that the purported act of self-defense bear some proportionate relationship to the act against which it is used. For this reason, it is often very hard to argue that a killing has taken place in self-defense, since in many jurisdictions this would need to demonstrate that the accused had a real, reasonable fear of immediate harm on such a scale that killing was an appropriate response. There are often public controversies on this topic in various countries – for example, in the U.K. the farmer Tony Martin’s 1999 killing of a burglar.

Argument #1


Individuals should be able to protect themselves and their property. Self-defense is about the protection of yourself and your property. People who break the law challenge the ideas of personal autonomy and private property upon which liberal democratic societies depend. It is therefore appropriate that, for example, those whom they attack are able to stand up for themselves in line with these core values. This is especially true when it comes to violent personal crime or crime committed on private property – when a criminal has attacked a victim bodily or invaded his home, why should that criminal expect to be treated well?


Too much focus on the rights of the “defender” denies the importance of other people. In some cases it can value property over a person’s life, which even when that person is a burglar does not make sense in terms of human rights. It also moves away from a basic sense of proportion – even if burglary is wrong, it cannot be right to allow a far greater wrong to be committed against the burglar on the grounds that he had asked for it by committing the crime. In addition, the idea of protecting property opens the floodgates to all sorts of unfortunate situations. For example, what if a householder shot a relative who entered his home forcibly because he has not seen him for a while and is concerned? What about a postman who comes into the home to drop mail in the porch? Or a lost stranger seeking directions?

Argument #2


Self-defence is an inevitable feature of any legal system. Arguably the whole discussion about self-defence is something of a storm in a teacup - a very minor controversy. It stands to reason that almost all legal systems will allow for some sort of self-defence in certain situations. After all, it would make a mockery of law if criminals’ victims were never supported in doing anything to avoid their own suffering. The key question to be asked therefore becomes not whether self-defence should be allowed, but what would be the reasonable limits for self-defence. Cases like those of householders who kill burglars generate a lot of publicity but are in fact a tiny proportion of all cases involving self-defence, most of which are not controversial.


The argument here is really about the use of brutal and unjustifiable force. Given that the principle of self-defence in itself is broadly uncontroversial, what people are really arguing about here is the use of extreme force. In many cases, the sorts of people who use such force are simply looking for an excuse to do so in any case (an interesting example is New York subway killer Bernhard Goetz, whose case Malcolm Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point). Additionally, it is questionable whether fear of any crime (even murder) justifies murder. Why is one life worth more than another?

Argument #3


Self-defence is appropriate as a recognition of the failure of crime prevention systems. Most people would not choose to fight potentially violent criminals and would rather that they were not victims of crime in the first place, and that the police were able to respond swiftly to a crime in progress. For many people, the only reason they would engage in an act of self-defence in any case would be to fill the gaps left by the failure of the authorities and penal system to act in this way. It is wrong to deny people adequate police protection and then refuse them the liberty of protecting themselves instead when attacked.


Allowing self-defence encourages vigilantism. No matter how well-funded or well-organised the police are, it is almost inevitable that some crimes will be committed where they are not in the right place at the right time and able to defend the victim. But to use this as a justification for self-defence dodges the question of improving policing, and simply encourages vigilantism. This may encourage certain sorts of people actively to provoke or not report crime, so that they can take the law into their own hands in response. It is also likely to see minority groups targeted unfairly and innocent people attacked on suspicion, without any sort of due process.

Argument #4


Allowing self-defence sends out a strong message discouraging crime. Allowing self-defence can be seen as siding with victims of crime over those who commit it. This is particularly achieved when courts make it clear that criminals who break into other property have forfeited their rights, that householders who feel under threat are entitled to use even lethal force to confront intruders, and that the courts will back them in such action. This is important because it clearly signals to criminals that the legal culture is powerful against what they do. This could act to deter criminals.


Self-defence sends out a bad message to society. Any affirmation of self-defence is a antisocial message: it speaks to ineffective crime prevention, the cult of the individual and the sub-human status of the original criminal. Nor is it likely to work as a deterrent to potential criminals: desperate men and women, perhaps addicted to drugs or unable to feed their children will still be drawn to breaking and entering. Instead, such criminals are likely to respond to the prospect of self-defence by arming themselves more heavily, and resorting more quickly to violence themselves. It would be better for society to address the causes, and not just the symptoms of crime.

Argument #5


Self-defence shows that law sides with those who live properly rather than criminals. It provides support for a cohesive principle of society, of a group identity which is forged around a common set of norms and values.


Allowing self-defence undermines moral equivalence. People who are violent against other people are of a class in their acts. Killing somebody on the pretext of self-defence is not necessarily any different morally from any other killing. Allowing self-defence avoids the fact that those who act in such a way are just as bad as the people against whom they act.



  • This House would shoot first and ask questions later
  • This House supports the right to protect private property
  • This House believes in a right to self-defence
  • This House believes that criminals have forfeited their rights
  • This House must be protected

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