This book argues for a rather simple but possibly dangerous idea: you possess the same right of self-defense, and the same right to defend others, against government agents as you do against civilians. The moral principles governing self-defense against civilians and government agents, even agents who act by virtue of their appointed status and within the law, are the same. The main way I will argue for this position is to show that the reasons to think otherwise are unsound.
This book has straightforwardly dangerous implications. If I am right, this means that when a police of cer uses excessive violence against you or tries to arrest you for a crime that should not be a crime, you may defend yourself. It means that agents working within government may sabotage their colleagues or superiors who act unjustly. It means that you may lie to government agents who would use your information in unjust ways.
We need to be cautious here.
This is a book about self-defense and the defense of others. You engage in self-defense against the bully when you ght back as he pushes you. You defend someone else against the wouldbe mugger when you stop him as he tries to rob his victim. If, on the other hand, you beat up the bully or mugger a year later when they’re harming no one, you aren’t defending yourself or anyone else. You’re exacting revenge or in icting private punishment. That’s not what this book is about. Self-defense and vigilante justice are two different things.
Note that while I am arguing that certain forms of defensive action are permissible, the state is almost certainly not going to agree.
Many philosophers and laypeople seem to believe that when we react to political oppression and injustice, our options are limited to voice, exit, or loyalty. Some think that we have obligations to participate in politics, protest, engage in political campaigns, and push for social change through political channels. Others think that such actions are merely praiseworthy. Most think that we have the option of keeping quiet or emigrating to another country.
In general, they tend to assume or conclude that when a government issues an unjust command, behaves unjustly, or passes an unjust law, we may only comply, complain, or quit. Usually, we should obey that law, or if we break the law in protest, we should be prepared to bear the consequences of doing so, including accepting punishment. They typically tend to agree that we may not get back against government agents, especially agents of a democratic regime.
Consider the question of defensive assassination or defensive killing. Andrew Altman and Christopher Wellman say, “Surely, it would have been permissible for somebody to assassinate [Joseph] Stalin in the 1930s.”5 But if so, is it not also permissible to take similar action against a government of cial if it is the only way to stop them from harming the innocent? If you may assassinate Adolf Hitler to stop him from invading Poland, are you also permitted to do the same to a president in order to stop him from invading the Philippines, or ordering the genocidal slaughter and forced relocation of an ethnic group? If you may kill a Gestapo agent to stop him from mur- dering innocent people, may you do the same to a police of cer who uses excessive violence?
As I noted, philosophers and laypeople often assume or argue not. They assume or argue that in liberal democ- racies, only nonviolent resistance to state injustice is per- missible. They assume that we must defer to democratic government agents, even when these agents act in deeply unjust, harmful, and destructive ways. This view is puzzling.
The prevailing view is that when it comes to government agents, defensive violence, deception, destruction, and subterfuge are governed by different moral principles from those that govern defensive vioence and subterfuge in other contexts.
This presupposes that it makes a difference to the permissibility of lying to, deceiving, sabotaging, or killing an aggressor in selfdefense or the defense of others that the aggressor is wearing a uniform, holds an of ce, or was appointed by someone who was in turn elected by my neighbors. According to the prevailing view, my neighbors can elimi- nate my right of self-defense or the defense of others by granting someone an office. This is especially puzzling because almost everyone today recognizes that the law and justice are not the same thing; laws can be deeply unjust.
Instead of exit, voice, or loyalty, this book defends the fourth option: resistance. I’m using “resistance” to cover a wide range of behaviors. It includes passive behaviors such as noncompliance—that is, strategically breaking the law or ignoring the state’s commands whenever you can get away with it.
It also includes more active forms of resistance, such as blocking police cars, damaging or destroying government property, deceiving and lying to government agents, or combating government agents. My view is that such forms of resistance are often justified, even in response to injustice within modern democratic nation-states, most of which have relatively just governments overall.
The standard view, which almost everyone of every ide- ology seems to accept, is that government agents are surrounded by a kind of magic moral forcefield. They enjoy a special or privileged status when they commit unjust ac tions. The standard view holds both that government agents have a special permission to perform unjust actions—actions that we would judge evil and impermissible were a nongovernment agent to perform them—and that these agents enjoy a special right against being stopped when they commit injustice. Government agents somehow may perform unjust acts, and we’re supposed to stand by and let them.
Maybe “let them” is a bit strong. Most people believe we may complain when government agents act badly. We may demand that other government agents punish their colleagues for their colleagues’ bad behavior. Some philosophers go further: they think that when government acts badly, we are morally obligated to protest, write let- ters to newspaper editors and senators, and vote for better candidates.8 But, they think, we’re not supposed to stop injustice ourselves.
We don’t think that way about private injustice. If an attacker tries to harm you, no one would say that you have no right to ght back. You aren’t required to lie down and take it, and then hope the police will later capture the attacker and bring them to justice.
Some political philosophers and laypeople would scoff. They claim that they have a far more constrained and reasonable version of the “government agents are magic” view. They deny that all governments, government agents, or political actors enjoy special permission to perform unjust actions. They deny that we must stand back and let government actors behave unjustly. Rather, they say, “In our modest view, only democratic governments, agents, and actors are surrounded by a magic moral force eld that both removes their normal moral obligations and at the same time requires the rest of us to let them act unjustly. Of course, nondemocratic governments and their agents enjoy no such privilege.”
For various reasons, people think that when governments and their agents perform unjust actions, we’re supposed to let them do it. They allow that we may, or perhaps demand that we must, complain afterward, but they say we must not stop them ourselves.
Thus, many people subscribe to what I call the special immunity thesis. The special immunity thesis holds that there is a special burden to justify interfering with, trying to stop, or fighting back against government agents who, acting ex officio, commit injustice:
The Special Immunity Thesis
Government agents—or at least the agents of democratic governments—enjoy a special immunity against being deceived, lied to, sabotaged, attacked, or killed in self- defense or the defense of others. Government property enjoys a special immunity against being damaged, sabotaged, or destroyed. The set of conditions under which it is permissible, in self-defense or the defense of others, to deceive, lie to, sabotage, or use force against a government agent (acting ex officio), or destroy government property, is much more stringent as well as tightly constrained than the set of conditions under which it is permissible to deceive, lie to, sabotage, attack, or kill a private civilian, or destroy private property.
In contrast, I reject the special immunity thesis in favor of the moral parity thesis:
The Moral Parity Thesis
The conditions under which a person may, in self-defense or the defense of others, deceive, lie to, sabotage, attack, or kill a fellow civilian, or destroy private property, are also conditions under which a civilian may do the same to a government agent (acting ex officio) or government property.
The moral parity thesis holds that justifying self-defense or the defense of others against government agents is on par with justifying self-defense or the defense of others against civilians.
IN DEFENSE OF MORAL PARITY
The main conclusions of this book are simple:
- The special immunity thesis is false.
- The morality parity thesis is true.
I defend the view that government of cials (including the of cials of democratic governments, acting ex of – cio) do not enjoy a special moral status that immunizes them from defensive actions. When government of cials commit injustices of any sort, it is morally permissible for us, as private individuals, to treat them the same way we would treat private individuals committing those same injustices. Whatever we may do to private individ- uals, we may do to government of cials. We may respond to governmental injustice however we may respond to private injustice. Government agents are due no greater moral deference when they act unjustly than private agents are due.
The moral parity thesis holds that democratic government agents, property, and agencies are as much legitimate targets of defensive deception, sabotage, or violence as civilians are. The principles explaining how we may use defensive violence and subterfuge against civilians, and the principles explaining how we may use defensive violence and subterfuge against government agents, are one and the same. Government agents who commit injustice are on par with civilians who commit the same injustices.