Chapter 5

Defending a right

Now then, suppose you claim a right and show your title to the right, and someone you have a right against refuses to recognize the validity of your title, and proceeds to violate the right. Can you stop him from violating it?

This isn't as simple a question to answer as it seems, because if you take some action to stop him, then in all probability you are going to be doing him some damage, and so you will be in the position of violating a right of his in order to protect a right of yours, which makes you morally the same as he is--worse, it would seem, because you are violating a right in the name of not having the other person violate a right, which certainly seems self-contradictory.

On the other hand, if you simply say, "But if you take this from me, you are violating the right I have to it, and you are being immoral," he can answer either, "I don't care," or "I simply don't recognize your claim to the right to have it," and proceed to violate your right anyway. But since people honestly differ on what rights are and what the basis of rights-claims are, and since some people are not bothered by the fact that their acts are morally wrong, in what sense would the right empower you to do anything? That is, you could never count on the fact that there wouldn't be a person who refused to recognize your claim; and so in practice, you wouldn't have a right to do the act, but could only hope that others would allow you to do it. You would be trusting in the benevolence of others, rather than making a claim on others in this case.

So it seems we have an effect: If we can't morally defend a right, then we don't really have a right at all, because a power to do something "in theory" is not a power at all; you must be able actually to do the act for it to be meaningful to say you have the "power" (even if only the moral power) to do it. But if we do defend the right, then in practice this is going to have to mean doing something to the violator that violates some right of his.

Ethicians are agreed on the fact that we may morally take action to defend ourselves against the violation of a right; but they differ widely on why it is legitimate. To be clear about it, the question is this: How is it not inconsistent with me as defending my right to choose to do something that I know violates a right of the violator?

Some have said that a person who violates a right "forfeits" his right in doing so; and therefore, since during his violation of your right he has no rights, you are not in fact violating his right in defending yourself. This is the "unjust aggressor" theory of the validity of defense of a right: we can defend ourselves against violations by an unjust aggressor, because he loses his rights by the fact of his unjust aggression.

Unfortunately, this position is not consistently sustainable either in theory nor in practice. A person has rights by the title, which is some aspect of his actual reality, not something that he "earns" by his virtuous actions. If rights depended on moral behavior, none of us would have any rights. So, for example, a person who chooses to rob me is, all during the time he is robbing me, a person, a human being who is a living body whose nature is a physical unit whose unifying energy preserves its biological equilibrium in the face of a hostile environment; and therefore, for me to give him a karate kick which would knock him out is in fact a violation of his physical integrity. He hasn't lost his nature as human by trying to rob me; and he has the right not to be kicked in the neck by his nature as human, not by his choice to let other people alone. Hence, the fact that he is performing a morally wrong act does not give any grounds for his "forfeiting" his right.

Furthermore, the person may honestly not see that another's claim to the right has any basis. To take a silly example, I mentioned earlier that my wallet was stolen from my locker in the gym. The man who presumably stole it was arrested for a further attempt to steal things from the same locker room, and said that he did so "in order to survive." If he really believed that, and if he thought that this was the only way he could survive, then morally speaking he would be in the clear--and, as we will see, I might not morally have been able to prevent the theft in that case, since he didn't steal from me what I needed to survive. I am a little inclined to doubt his claim, however, since afterwards I got a bill from the credit card company which showed eleven hundred dollars in fraudulent charges made on the stolen card--in clothing stores. He needs a grand's worth of threads to survive? (I didn't have to pay the bill, by the way, in case you're wondering.)

But if we take a slave owner back in the old South, who honestly believes Blacks aren't human, how could he "forfeit his rights" as an unjust aggressor for doing what he thought was the right thing? Since none of us could be expected to avoid what we don't even suspect might be wrong, then it follows from this view that we would be "forfeiting" our rights without any way in practice to prevent it--and then how could we make rights claims? We would never know if we had them or not, because we wouldn't know if our well-intentioned acts were violations of some right we had no idea about.

So there is on this view no way to distinguish a "just" aggressor from an "unjust" one. Those who hold the theory cite the police when pursuing a criminal as "just" aggressors; but does this mean that the police can do anything they please to a criminal, because he's "forfeited his rights"? Obviously, very few people believe this, as the charges of "police brutality" testify.

Thirdly, there is the question, if the aggressor forfeits his rights, of which rights he loses. Does he lose all of them, so that a person who insults me has no right to life, and I can kill him for it? Or does he just forfeit the corresponding right in himself, so that I can call him names or besmirch his reputation, but do nothing else? But then that means that I can steal from the robber but not kick him and knock him out--and how can I defend my right not to be robbed by robbing the robber? Obviously, this is ridiculous.

Those who hold this view don't really hold this, but that only "proportional" action may be taken to defend the right; that is, action that does no more serious damage to the aggressor than the damage done to the possessor if he allows his right to be violated. This is the "eye for an eye" principle; you can't kill someone to defend yourself against losing an eye. On the other hand, this doesn't say that you can defend yourself only by inflicting the same kind of damage on the aggressor; it simply says that you can't inflict a greater degree of damage--and that, as I said in Chapter 3 of Section 7 of the fourth part 4.7.3 and in Chapter 7 of Section 1 of the fifth part 5.1.7, can be roughly determined by the culture's attitude toward various sorts of damage.

But if you are going to hold that a person who is an unjust aggressor forfeits his right, then by what we just said, he doesn't forfeit the right in himself that he is violating in you, nor, apparently, does he forfeit all his rights, because you can't do more than proportional damage to him in defending yourself; he only forfeits some unspecified rights to the degree to which his violation of your right does you damage. But this is silly, really.

Where are we, then? There is no reason why a person would forfeit any right of his by an attempt to violate anyone else's right; there is no way to establish whether he is an unjust violator or is a violator because he thinks himself perfectly justified in his action; and there is no way to establish which rights he has forfeited, because no one believes in practice that he has lost all of them no matter what right he is violating. After all, that would mean you lost all of your rights every time you told a lie to anyone (because you violate his right to know what you think is the truth).

There are some who have said that he doesn't forfeit the right, but just the exercise of the right. But this is a sophism, because the right is the moral power to do something, and if you have forfeited the "exercise" of it, this means that morally you can't do it--which is exactly the same thing as saying that you don't have the right to do it. You can't simultaneously have a right to do something and no right to exercise the right.

So there's no way you can make sense out of that theory.

So then how do we justify violating someone else's right in the defense of our own? Because that's what it has to be, since the violator still has his rights. Obviously, by the Principle of the Double Effect, which I discussed in Chapter 7 of Section 1 of the fifth part 5.1.7. But it isn't absolutely straightforward. In spite of the fact that no less a light than St. Thomas uses this justification, there are problems with it too--which, in fact, were what gave rise to the "unjust aggressor" theory.

These people say that if you are going to hit someone or shoot him, then the damage inflicted, if not in the act itself defined narrowly (in the sense I did in Chapter 7 of Section 1 of the fifth part 5.1.7--which in the case of shooting would be pulling the trigger on the gun, and in hitting would be moving your fist), is in such an immediate effect of the act that it can't be divorced from it in practice; and therefore, the first rule is violated.

That is, these people contend that if I swing at your face and break your jaw, I can't meaningfully say, "All I was trying to do was to block your attempt to rob me," which is what I would have to say to keep the damage out of the choice. I would also have to want you to have a broken jaw, as the means toward keeping my wallet.

But that isn't really true, in fact, as. When I swing at your face, I don't perform the act of breaking your jaw, because I don't know whether you will duck or not, and then become frightened at my aggressiveness and run away, or whether my fist will break your jaw or simply cause pain without significant damage. Suppose you did duck and ran away. My wallet is safe, and no harm has been done to you. My action of swinging my fist has accomplished its good purpose without any damage at all. How then can the damage be so "immediate" or "intimately connected with the act" that it must be willed as part of the act if in fact it might not occur and the act itself might still bring about the good effect?

"Well, that might apply to swinging your arm," someone might say, "but it certainly doesn't apply to firing a gun. If you shoot someone, you can't say, 'I choose to pull the trigger,' and not say, 'I choose to kill him.' Again, you can't claim that this act merely stops his attack and that that's all you chose by pulling the trigger."

But I contend that I can. Suppose you are coming at me with a knife, so that I have reason to believe that I will be killed, and I have a gun, and am not an expert shot, and am not capable of shooting the knife out of your hand. I have reason to believe that the only way I can stop you is by shooting and aiming at your chest, the biggest target; and that, of course, will kill you.

So is it by your death that I save my life? Not at all, not even in practice. Suppose the gun misfires, makes a loud noise, and you become frightened and faint--whereupon I run away. The good effect is accomplished with no damage at all. Suppose I shoot and the gun does not misfire, and you fall, clutching your stomach--and die in the hospital six weeks later. Did your death save me? it occurred six weeks after I was out of danger. Hence, since the good effect can occur without the "immediate" bad effect's occurring, and since the bad effect can in fact occur weeks or even months after the good effect, then the bad effect is not in fact "part" of the act in practice, but an effect separable from it both in principle and in practice.

Therefore, I think that when talking about the "act" in the first rule of the Double Effect, the act should be narrowly defined to include just the act you actually perform, and not its supposed "immediate" consequences. Hence, the act involved in shooting a gun is that of pulling the trigger, and is not the act of "killing someone," because the gun might not be loaded or might be filled with blanks--or there might not be someone standing in front of it, or it might not be aimed at a vital spot. And given, as I said, that the person might die weeks later even if aimed at a vital spot, or might not even be hurt if he were wearing a bullet-proof vest, I don't see how you can call the act that of "killing someone." True, if I did it with the intention of having him die, then my choice was to kill someone; but that still doesn't make the act itself an act of killing.

With that out of the way, then, let us look at the case of defending a right, and see if we can apply the Double Effect to it. The idea here is that the choice does not contain the harm you do to the violator (you in no sense want it), but merely the protection of your own right.

In order for this to work, then the following condition must be met, which I may state as a conclusion:

Conclusion 9: A right can only be defended against some act that is directed against it, not simply against a person who has threatened to violate it.

That is, even though the securest defense of a right would involve putting out of commission those who have told you they are going to violate it, you can't justify this on the grounds that "I was only blocking their attack on my right and didn't want any harm to come to them." In this case, it is by their being disabled that they can't carry out the threat; and therefore, the harm can't be kept out of the choice. That is, suppose your act of disabling them failed. Would you still be under the threat? Yes, of course--in fact, even more so, if they realized what you had unsuccessfully intended. Hence, the harm itself is necessary for your security, and therefore would be part of your choice.

On the other hand, this shouldn't be taken to mean that you have to wait until the danger is right upon you (here comes the fist at your face) in order to act. As soon as an aggressive action is taken, you may act to stop it. That is, if your opponent takes off his coat or squares away to hit you, you don't have to wait until his fist is in motion; he is in the process of attacking your right, and processes are not series of sub-processes; they are one act, however complex, and so you may take action as soon as the process begins. To take a social example, a country cannot defend itself from belligerent rhetoric on the part of its neighbor; but as soon as a troop buildup appears on its borders, it may strike before the borders are actually crossed, because the troop buildup, while it might be saber rattling, is in fact an aggressive action, and is what would be the start of an actual attack on your country.(1)

Now, supposing this condition to be met, that some act violating a right of yours has at least been initiated. The supposition is that you now take some action to block the violation, and that there is no act capable of blocking the violation that does not in fact do some damage to the violator, and so your act will in effect violate his right.

First, the act of blocking the attack must be neutral in itself. In general, the act you perform (even shooting someone) can be totally devoid of harm if the person backs off as soon as he sees you begin to perform it. For instance, if he sees you reach for your gun and runs away, you can shoot the gun and nothing wrong will happen. Taking the act as narrowly defined will almost always result in this rule's being fulfilled. But not absolutely always. For instance, you can't defend a right by lying (which has the effect of violating the other's right to know, if he has one), because it also is a contradiction of the act of linguistic communication, as we saw in Chapter 5 of Section 2 of the fifth part 5.2.5.

Second, the act must be capable of defending the right. If I were to try to fight with my fists the heavyweight boxing champion in order to defend some right I had, then there would be no good effect to be expected from this act; he would escape injury, and I would be beaten to a pulp.

This second rule precludes doing acts that harm others "for the principle of the thing," as a demonstration that your right is being violated. For instance, to stage a revolution against a tyranny if there is no realistic hope of success is simply to make a dramatic statement that the government is tyrannical; but people will die and be maimed in order for this statement to be made, and the tyranny will not be lessened. In that case, no real good effect is achieved by the act (even if it is not already known that the government is tyrannical).(2)

Of course, you don't necessarily have to have a guarantee that your action will block the attack on your right; but it must be reasonably possible, and not simply a futile gesture.

Third, the harm done cannot be what brings about the protection of the right. This is really what I was discussing above. If your action doesn't have its damaging effect because the violator backs down before the effect occurs, then is your right protected? Yes. So the damage itself isn't what protects the right; it's the stopping of the attack on it that does.

Very often the damage and the stopping are simultaneous, as, for example, when in a fight the person gives up attacking you because he can't take any more punishment. But in that case, his choice is what actually stops the harm to him, not the injury he has received, even though his choice is motivated by the injury. As I said, his choice might have been motivated by the realization that he was going to be injured, and so the injury itself wasn't really a means to your protection. Even if you knock him out, it isn't the injury that stopped him, but his unconsciousness; if he had fallen asleep before you touched him, this still would have stopped him.

This is a tricky point, and it is where the "unjust aggressor" theory differs from what I am saying. For them, fighting would be committing "direct injury," or shooting at someone's chest would be "direct killing" because the injury or death, they think, can't be kept out of the choice because for practical purposes it is what produces the protection. And so you can't, according to them, not also intend the harm.

But that's not necessarily true, even in the case of a fight or shooting someone. In a fight, a good fighter might parry a few blows and land a punch or two and then say, "I don't want to hurt you; so give up." Here it is clear that the intention of the defender is against hurting the attacker, because he is giving him a chance to avoid injury once having established in the attacker's mind that the injury is bound to happen if he continues. Similarly, shooting at someone coming at you with a knife is ordinarily not an instantaneous thing. You would point the gun and say, "You take one more step and you're dead," and if he leaves, then no shooting actually takes place. Again it is obvious that the attacker's death is not wanted, because it doesn't occur if the attack stops. Or if you fire warning shots first, or even if the gun misfires and the attacker runs away, then when you don't shoot at the fleeing defender, you didn't choose his harm.

In any case, since there are so many contingencies which would produce the protection of the right without the injury's actually occurring, it seems to me that it is perfectly legitimate to say that, even in the cases where the injury occurs before the attack stops, the injury didn't have to be chosen, still less intended, because it wasn't necessary for the act to have stopped.

In the fourth place, there must be no willingness on the part of the defender that the attacker be harmed in any way. That is, if someone is trying to beat you up, you can't say, even if he has bloodied your nose, "He deserves this," and proceed to bloody his nose.

Conclusion 10: No harm may ever be done to another human being on the grounds that that other person "deserves" it. It is immoral to be happy about harm to any other person.

To be willing for another human being to be harmed is to will the harm to the other person, as we saw in general in discussing an unclear conscience in Chapter 6 of Section 1 of the fifth part 5.1.6. If you rejoice in someone's harm because, having done harm, he "deserves" it, then you are saying that we "earn the right" not to be harmed by not violating others' rights or by our virtue, when the basis of rights is our nature, not our actions. You would then be putting yourself into a position of having to "earn" your basic human rights, and not simply having them because of your humanity.

In that sense, no human being ever deserves harm. One who violates another's rights has already violated his own reality by contradicting his personhood, and has in fact done eternal damage to himself. Either that, or he did the damage inadvertently or even unwillingly, and then in what sense would he "deserve" any harm? In Chapter 5 of Section 1 of the Fifth Part 5.1.5, we saw that he would not then be morally responsible for it.(3)

But even if his violation of a right was deliberate, any harm done to the perpetrator in this life only adds to the injury he has done himself, and, to the extent that it is willingly inflicted by the injured party, makes the two of them "even" in that now both are facing the eternal frustration that comes with choosing what contradicts one's own nature. So the person who takes vengeance has "gotten even" by injuring himself as much as the person he has taken vengeance upon. And if course, if the original violation was unintentional, then the person who took vengeance didn't "get even," but caused himself eternal frustration, while the other faces eternal happiness.

Conclusion 11: Vengeance or "getting even" for an injury is never legitimate, because it involves choosing harm to another person.

Now this is not to say that the defender might not feel emotional satisfaction as he sees his enemy reduced to a bloody pulp; but he can't will that condition. There's a difference, as I have said before. Emotional reactions are automatic, and our defense drive gets satisfied by seeing injury to the attacker; and so it is almost inevitable that we will feel satisfied. But feelings are not choices. And the criterion for whether the feeling is willingly indulged in here is whether the defender stops the injury as soon as the protection of his right is assured. In this case, he is not trying to "get even."

Hence, the point of this fourth rule is that the injury must be regarded as an unfortunate side-effect that in the circumstances is unavoidable. You must actively not want the injury.

Finally, the injury inflicted must not exceed the injury defended against. If the damage to the attacker is likely to be greater, then you can't use the act that would inflict this damage, because your act would in effect be more harmful than it would have to be (allowing the violation would involve less "objective" harm, even though the harm would be to yourself).

Now the reason why I say that the damage must not be "likely" to be greater is that, when you choose to defend yourself, obviously you haven't done the defending yet; and in the course of a fight, things may happen which you didn't foresee when you chose to get into it. For instance, you may simply have chosen to parry the person's blows; but in the course of doing this, you may have hit him in a vital spot and actually killed him. Your action was not calculated to be the sort of thing that would kill him, and so the "proportion" in this fifth rule is maintained.

The idea here is, as I have said so often, that you can't shoot at someone to protect your wallet (because the likely effect of that is his death).

Note here that this has nothing to do with the injury as the means to the protection of the right. If you shoot someone to protect your wallet, it isn't his death that lets you keep your wallet, it's his ceasing from trying to take it. His death comes afterwards. The point here is that this effect is so much worse than the loss of your wallet that the action taken which has both effects can't be chosen simply to avoid the lesser evil, because that entails accepting the greater evil, even if it occurs afterwards. Hence, your will is not away from evil or wrongness in this case.

But does this mean you can actually kill someone in self-defense? Yes, but only in defense of your life. The reason is that anything else, while you might think its loss is a fate worse than death, is regarded by "everyone" as less serious than death, which of course deprives a person of everything in this life. Hence, the only time the fifth rule is fulfilled in the case of killing someone is in defense of someone's life.

Of course, you can kill someone in self-defense (or defense of anyone else's life) only if nothing short of this will do the job. Obviously, if you could have defended yourself by shooting at his legs and disabling him rather than shooting to kill (i.e. supposing you were that good a shot), then your shooting to kill would stop the attack, but you would now also be choosing his death, because you could have achieved the same effect by doing something calculated to cause less damage; hence, once again the unnecessarily great harm would now be in your choice.

Conclusion 12: It is immoral to choose an act which inflicts greater harm than necessary in defending a right.

Note, by the way, that if there is an alternative, like running away or locking the door or getting a court injunction that protects the right and does no damage at all to the person violating it, this course of action must be taken, however cowardly it might seem. You can only take damaging action when nothing less will work in practice. Of course, if you have reason to believe that your running away will only incite him to further attacks on you or others, you can stand your ground and fight.

But then can you shoot five or six people in order to defend your own life, if they are all attacking you? It would seem that the loss of one life (yours) would be less serious than the loss of six lives. But since the loss of life is regarded as the "ultimate" loss, then there is in that sense "nothing worse" than it, and the loss of one life is "just as serious" as the loss of twenty for moral purposes. Hence, you can defend your life even if it means killing many attackers.

There is a caveat to this, however. Suppose you are John Rambo with your automatic weapon, and a group of ten attackers is coming at you, and you want to mow them down with a spray of bullets. But behind them is someone who happens to be passing by, who might get hit. Can you shoot them?

First, pulling the trigger and spraying bullets around is not wrong in itself; if there were no one there to get hit, what would be the problem? Second, the act has a good effect: you live. Third, the others' death is not what produces the good effect, as we saw. Fourth, you're not trying to kill anyone; you love them all like a good Rambo should. Fifth, the right you are defending is the ultimate one.

So the rules seem to be verified; if someone besides the attackers happens to get killed in the act, this is accidental, and need not be included in the choice; you're not trying or intending to kill anyone. Presumably, you couldn't defend your life without spraying the bullets all around, because the attackers are on all sides; and hence, there is no way that the death of the bystander could have been avoided if you were to save your own life.

But when the number of non-attackers becomes significant, then a point is reached (different for each person) when you realize that it is no longer meaningful to say, "All I am trying to do is defend my life." For instance, if there are three people attacking you, and they're shooting at you from the audience of a crowded theater, can you throw a bomb into the crowd, knowing that it's going to kill everyone and therefore the three who are shooting at you? Ninety-nine per cent of the people you will be killing have nothing to do with the violation of your right to life; and so, even though you are defending yourself against the three who are shooting at you, any normal person would realize that he is also going to be killing a lot of people who have nothing to do with the attack (a lot of "innocent" people).

And it seems to me that in this case, it would be the rare person indeed who could keep this additional side-effect of his act out of his choice. For any normal person, the choice would be, "I am defending myself from being killed, and also killing all these other people in the process."

This is not to say that if the people in front of you were an attacking army you couldn't lob a bomb into them and justify it by saying that all you were trying to do was defend yourself. All these people are attacking you, and you are then simply blocking the attack. It's when there are enough non -attackers that will be killed or injured that the statement "I was only trying to defend myself" is a sophism.

And this, of course, is where the immorality of the use of weapons of mass destruction comes in. It isn't that there's something magic about "nuclear"; a nuclear shell that, fired at an attacking army, would kill the people within a hundred yard radius causing little destruction to the environment (the so-called "neutron bomb" that caused Jimmy Carter so much trouble when he proposed it) is in fact more humane than conventional weapons. No, whether it is nuclear weapons or poison gas or obliteration bombing of cities with TNT as in the Second World War, the problem comes when significant numbers of those not actively engaged in attacking will be killed by the action.

Some of these things, even used tactically on the enemy forces, might also be immoral on the grounds of causing unnecessary suffering, as in the case of some poison gases that would make people writhe in agony for weeks until they finally died.

By "those not actively engaged" I include those who sympathize with the enemy (all the enemy's citizens presumably do this), and also all those who are doing something to help the enemy, such as the farmers who are growing grain which will be eaten by the soldiers, as long as this activity is one which would also be going on in peacetime. A person, however, in a munitions factory is doing something which can only be accounted for in terms of war; and so he is someone actively engaged in the aggression you are defending yourself against.

Now if someone happens to be visiting the munitions factory, and you blow up the factory, or if there is a house nearby and it gets destroyed, this is like the situation of the bystander when Rambo saves his life against the ten attackers. So you can bomb the factory without having the death of the people in the nearby house on your conscience. But when you bomb the whole city to get rid of the factory, you have done the same thing as bombing the theater to get defend yourself against the three people shooting at you.(4)

I will discuss later why countries have a right to defend themselves. Supposing that they do, and supposing this right is analogous to (or "as serious" as) an individual's right to defend his life against attack, then what I said above would apply; and it is this use of the Double Effect, in fact, which forms the basis of the "just war" theory. But I will get into that later in this part when I discuss civil society and establish that the society has in fact a right to exist, and a right that would allow killing in its defense.(5)

Let me make explicit as a conclusion something I have mentioned in passing a couple of times already:

Conclusion 13: A person may take action to defend anyone's right against an attempt by anyone else to violate it.

That is, since you are not in any special position as far as rights are concerned, all of what was said about with respect to self-defense is applicable to a defense of anyone else's right also.

The assumption, however, is that you may step in to defend the other person if he is willing for you to do so, whether he explicitly says so or not; but if he positively does not want you to intervene in his behalf, then it's his life and his right, and he is to be let alone--unless, of course, his acquiescence in the violation of his right involves some third party's right also being violated.

For instance, a person who consents to be sterilized is acquiescing in a violation of his right to physical integrity and of his right to be sexually potent. This right happens to be absolutely inalienable, as we will see, because the person cannot morally give up this right; but if he is willing to have the act done to him, you cannot morally intervene to prevent the act on the grounds that his right is being violated.

In principle, a person could intervene to prevent an abortion, because, even though the mother is being deprived of her motherhood, there is another right, that of the fetus, whose ultimate right is being violated also; and while her life is hers and is not to be interfered with, the fetus's life is not hers, and she cannot do him any damage in "doing what she wants with her own body." You can see the principle here if you suppose that the baby was born and the mother had only her own milk for his sustenance, and out of a desire to "do what she wanted with her own body" she refused to feed him and let her breasts dry up and shrink back to normal, killing him by starvation while she was at it.(6)

At any rate, taking action involving what is in fact a violation of another's right in defending a right of a person is morally legitimate, with all the qualifications we made above concerning it.

Let me make some final remarks about rights in general before speaking about the different kinds of rights we have:

Conclusion 14: The possession of a right carries with it of itself no obligation to exercise the right.

Since a right is a power, not an act, then it is something that, in itself, you can either do or not do; and hence, the fact that you have a right to do something does not give you any obligation to do it.

Of course, if you have an obligation to do something, then you automatically have, as we will see, the implied right to do it; but the converse is not true. For instance, since you have the obligation not to commit suicide, you have the right to life (not to be killed); but your right to get married doesn't mean that you have to get married if you don't want to.

It follows from this that

Conclusion 15: A person need not defend himself against a violation of his right, but may forego its exercise, as long as the right is not a right implied by some moral obligation he has.

This needs some spelling out; and to begin it, let me define what I mean by coercion.

Coercion is the use of moral force which violates a right of the one forced.

Moral force is the threat of some kind of damage if some act is not done or avoided.

If I seize your arm and move it onto the table, then I have used physical force; supposing I am stronger than you, you do not have the physical power to prevent your hand from moving. The same would apply to tying you up, in which case you are physically forced not to move.

But if I point a pistol at you and tell you, "Hand over your wallet," I have not actually moved your hand into your pocket, but have "forced" you into making a choice to do so, because I have presented you with the alternatives of either doing what I say or dying. I have left you "no choice" only in the sense that the second alternative is so damaging as to be completely unreasonable to take. So in one sense you are free, but in another not, as we saw when we were discussing the different meanings of freedom in Chapter 6 of Section 3 of the third part 3.3.6. This second kind of force is the moral force which is a threat.

Note that offering a reward is not really to use moral force. It might be a temptation, but it is in the realm of values, not necessities, and therefore can be freely rejected in the sense that the threat cannot, as we saw in Chapter 3 of Section 7 of the fourth part 4.7.3. It is always possible to give up a goal for some other goal; but it is not moral to give up a necessity except for a greater necessity (i.e. to avoid greater damage). The person who is threatened with being shot unless he hands over his wallet, therefore, is morally obliged to hand it over, using the Double Effect, because the fifth rule would be violated if he chose to get shot instead.

But not every threat of damage is coercion. For instance, if you are attacking me with a knife, and I point a gun at you and say, "If you come one step farther, I'll kill you," I am not coercing you, strictly speaking, because you are morally obliged to stop your attack anyway. I am using moral force, but the threat does not violate any right you have because you have no right to continue your attack on me (no one's rights extend to the violation of any other right).

Similarly, when governments pass laws with punishments attached to the violations of them, they are exerting moral force but not coercion, because the assumption is that (a) they have the right to make demands on the citizens' freedom, and (b) the act they command violates no human right of the citizen. Or when parents threaten punishment if their children don't do something, then on the assumption that the children don't have a human right not to do the act and the punishment for violation is not so great as to be disproportionate to the harm done in disobedience, then no coercion is involved--even if what is threatened is something like a spanking.

Now what is the morality connected with the use of moral force, and with a person's conduct when being forced?

In the first place, to use moral force to induce an act which is morally wrong is always coercion and is therefore morally wrong. And as far as the person so coerced is concerned, we may draw the following conclusion:

Conclusion 16: A person always must refuse to do a morally wrong act, no matter what the threat, and must try to defend his right not to do it, if possible.

I mentioned the example of Darth Vader telling you to shoot someone or he would kill your family. You must not do it. If he were to tell you to lie, you still could not do it to save your family--or the whole world, for that matter. And the reason is that the morally wrong act, however insignificant it might be, would be the means toward avoiding the harm, however great it might be, and so it would enter into the choice and would have eternal consequences. I mentioned in discussing immortality in Chapter 3 of Section 4 of the third part 3.4.3 that if you take this life and the next into account, the amount of damage done by the lie's eternal consequences is greater than the amount of damage avoided. Hence, when the damage is within the choice, no damage is ever less than the damage avoided by it.

But of course, not every act we have a right to do is an act we have an obligation to do, as I mentioned in Conclusion 14. Suppose a person threatens you with some harm in doing some act you have a right not to do, whatever the title of the right. Of course, once again he, no matter who he is, is guilty of coercion, and his attempt to force you is by that fact immoral. What is the morality here?

Conclusion 17: A person may morally refuse to do what he is coerced into doing, and generally should refuse; but he may also yield to the coercion, using the Double Effect.

Since you have a right not to do what you are being coerced into doing, then in general your yielding to the moral force exerted on you is a kind of cooperation with the other person's violation of your right (and consequently a cooperation in his immorality). By your "letting him get away with it," you are confirming in him that it is advantageous to trample on others' rights; and this has consequences not only for yourself but for others who might also fall victim to him.

Hence, there is a kind of general obligation to resist violations of your rights.


It can also be the case that if you do refuse to yield to his coercion, you will suffer some worse harm than the harm that would be avoided by resisting. In this case, or in the case where the harm involved (to you and others) in resisting is equal to the harm avoided by resisting, the Double Effect must be used:

The act you perform in yielding to the coercion must not be morally wrong (we saw this in the preceding conclusion). There must be some good to come from doing what you are coerced into doing (removing the threat). This will always be fulfilled. The harm obviously is not the means to the good effect, which is precisely the avoidance of the harm. That is, the only harm here is the fact that your right is violated; not doing the act you have a right to do (or doing the act you have a right not to do) is not harmful, because you have a right to do or not do the act. You must not by your act deny that you actually have the right that you are refusing to exercise at the moment; and finally, the harm done by not exercising the right must be no greater than the harm that would be done by exercising or defending it.

So as long as the act itself is not morally wrong, you may or may not perform it as you see fit, and the fact that the threat involved in the coercion is great enough to make it more disadvantageous to exercise your right makes it moral to choose not to exercise it and go along with the person threatening you.

Conclusion 18: A person may not yield to coercion if the violation of another person's right is also involved.

While you may refuse to exercise your own rights, supposing the act you perform is not morally wrong, you cannot morally extend that to people you have under your care. The example I have in mind is that of pacifists who think that governments should not resist coercion on the society itself, and should yield to aggressors rather than go to war to defend themselves. An individual person may yield to an aggressor and refuse to fight, but the government's function (as we will see) is precisely to protect the rights of the citizens, and if a violation of these is threatened, the government cannot morally refuse to resist.(7)



1. Thus, "preemptive" strikes against an enemy are justifiable when the enemy has actually taken warlike actions in preparation for some aggression (such as amassing weapons of mass destruction that you have reason to believe it will use once it gets enough of them. So, President George W. Bush was not immoral in choosing to attack Iraq based on the information he had which, faulty or not, was eminently credible (everybody at the time believed it). Saddam Hussein had "hauled back for the punch," so to speak, and we didn't have to wait until the punch actually landed--which could likely have meant the obliteration of most of New York City, for instance.

2. Thus, many of the Blacks in the early twentieth century morally went along with the unjust laws in this country, because they knew that either violating them or trying to get the changed would only lead to greater harm for them. It wasn't until Rosa Parks, who as an older woman was unlikely to be lynched, refused to give up her seat in the front of the bus, and the cultural climate's change on this occasion, that Blacks could emerge from their dehumanized condition.

3. In this sense, only God knows what the actual responsibility for the action was. The perpetrator himself does not know all about it, because there may be incentives to performing it that were hidden from him.

4. So a certain amount of "collateral damage," as they say, is morally justifiable; it is that when it becomes extensive, it's not "collateral" and is in fact part of the choice. Thus, Timothy McVeigh's justification of blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma was invalid, because, though the building belonged to (what he considered) an evil, aggressive government, practically everybody in the building had nothing to do with the alleged aggression. The building in fact was blown up, it seems likely, to "send a message," and this, of course, is to use a wrong means toward a good end.

5. As a final remark about this fifth rule of the Double Effect as applied to self defense, one of my colleagues, Rev. Gerald Twaddell, told me that he would not consider that he could defend himself against an attack on his life by killing the attacker, because the attacker was probably sinning in the attack, and his killing him would be sending him to hell (whereas, presumably, if he himself were killed, he would go to heaven). Though I find this laudable, I don't think it's really a valid application of the fifth rule's injunction against avoiding the greater damage. If the attacker is a sinner, he has already brought eternal frustration upon himself, and can only avoid it if he repents; but how is it doing "greater damage" to him by giving him only seconds to repent rather than years? You could argue that if you shot your attacker, he wouldn't die instantaneously, and his mortal wound might actually be more likely to cause him to see the error of his ways, especially if you, a priest, were right there with both your own and your Master's forgiveness to offer him. Who is to say that this wouldn't be just what he needed to get into heaven, rather than letting him get away with your murder? So that particular sword cuts both ways.

6. In practice, taking violent action to prevent abortions, such as bombing clinics, can't morally be done, because this sort of action causes a social backlash which puts off the day when such charnel houses can be closed by law, and so in effect results in that many more deaths.

7. In that sense, there cannot be such a thing as a "Christian" civil society which follows the rule of "turn the other cheek." While an individual may do such a thing, one cannot make this Christian demand apply to those one has under one's care.

As far as the Christian's yielding to aggression and in general not resisting coercion is concerned, first of all, he cannot do so if what he is coerced into doing is morally wrong, as we saw. In all other cases, he can, however, if in faith he trusts in Divine Providence to see to it that by his yielding in accordance with the wishes of his Master, the Master will bring it about that the habit of so doing will not result in the greater damage involved by confirming aggressors in their habit of aggression.

That is, Christian meekness, if not based on faith in the supernatural, would be immoral, because, as I said above, habitually to yield to violations of your rights is in effect to deny that you have them when in fact you have them. Hence, this Christian virtue would be a moral vice if we did not believe God arranges things so that we don't have to worry about the untoward consequences.