War, Self-Defense, and Defense of Others

Part of the Philosophical Studies Series book series (PSSP, volume 54)


Robert Holmes was one of my teachers, and I have long admired him for both his philosophical and his human excellences. I am thus delighted to contribute to a symposium that quite properly places his recent book at the center of attention for a discussion of the moral issues of war and peace.


Supra Note Moral Issue Interpersonal Relation Moral Justification Deadly Force 
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  1. 2.
    I do not think that Holmes really wants to endorse the use of violence even in interpersonal self-defense, but the view suggested in the quoted passage seems of sufficient interest and plausibility to merit discussion in its own right.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    This discussion of Augustine draws on Chapter Four of Holmes’s book.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    If an act of self-defense is to be viewed as an act of upholding the rules of the moral order and the rights that those rules give all people, to what degree is it a moral option not to defend oneself? It there is a natural duty to uphold schemes of rights and justice, how can an individual exempt himself from this duty in his own case? At least can it not be said that people who do not defend themselves may (depending on their reasons) exhibit a certain vice—i.e.that of servility? See Thomas Hill, Jr., “Servility and Self-Respect” (The Monist, Volume 57, January, 1973); Chapters 1 and 3 of Jeffrie G. Murphy and Jean Hampton, Forgiveness and Mercy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); and Jeffrie G. Murphy, “A Rejoinder to Herbert Morris” (Criminal Justice Ethics, Summer/Fall 1988). So too, perhaps, for the defense of others. Those who assist others in need are usually called “good Samaritans”—the idea being that such assistance is supererogatory and that omitting to render the necessary aid is not to violate an obligation. And certainly, it is usually claimed, a failure to save such a person is morally very different from killing that person—apoint noted by Holmes on p. 210. I used to think this was correct, but I am not sure that I buy it anymore. However, let me for the moment grant it. This still does not make clear what we should say about a case where it is not that the other person is simply in need but rather is having his rights violated or threatened by an aggressor. Is it obvious that defending such a person is morally optional or non-obligatory even if one thinks that rendering aid to those merely in need (through bad luck, say) is optional or non-obligatory?Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Judith Thomson, “Self-Defense and Rights,” in her collection of essays Rights, Restitution, and Risk (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Thomson, supra note 5, gives reasons for doubting the forfeiture thesis. If an act of aggression really forfeits the aggressor’s right to life, it is hard to explain the traditional requirement that self-defense requires a proportional response that must end when the threat ceases.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    See Model Penal Code and Commentaries, Comment to 3.11 at 159 (1985).Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Suppose that Jones attacks me in the reasonable (but false) belief that I illegally pose a deadly threat to him. His belief is unknown to me; I simply see him—and let us suppose reasonably see him—as an unjust and potentially lethal aggressor against me. I thus act with justification if I use deadly force against him in my self-defense. But Jones is not, like the lunatic, a non-responsible agent. Also, it seems that he can also act with justification (given his reasonable beliefs) if he uses deadly force against me. But this means his action is privileged, so even the Model Penal Code account seems not to work—even for the law.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    On p. 172, Holmes (commenting on the Catholic Bishop’s doctrine outlined on p. 164) writes as follows: “If one lays down such requirements for a just war as that one have a just cause, what this means in practice is that nations may resort to war when they believe they have a just cause.” Surely this is too quick. If by “in practice” Holmes means to make a claim about what might actually happen, he may well be correct—although I do not think this must or always will happen. But if we are discussing issues of proper principle here, then surely the beliefs of a person claiming self-defense for waging war should be subject to the same constraint that we typically impose on the justification of self-defense in domestic criminal law—namely, that the beliefs not simply be honestly held but that they also be reasonable. Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    On page 10, Holmes says he is mainly concerned to challenge violence in defense of “political ends.” In what sense is the end here a political end? Political agencies are the actors, of course, but what is at stake seems to be the rights of individuals.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Little wars are still wars, and I do not think that discussion of the moral permissibility of war should always take as its example thermonuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. This kind of nuclear exchange would, no doubt, inevitably involve killing innocent persons; but it is not at all clear to me that wars of a more limited nature would inevitably have this feature.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    See Humanitarian Intervention by my colleague Fernando R. Teson (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.:Transnational Publishers, 1988). My own thinking on these matters has been greatly influenced by Teson’s work, and thus any criticism or abuse prompted by my essay should be directed to him. I will be happy to supply his home address and telephone number to any interested party.Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    John Taurek, “Should the Numbers Count?”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Summer 1977.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    Holmes claims that his own position of “moral personalism” is based on respect for persons, but it is not clear to me that it is a rights-based theory of respect. On p. 24, for example, Holmes speaks of “lives” and “well-being” as crucial values, but there is no mention of rights.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    The idea that rights can be thought of as goods that, like happiness, can be conceived in maximizing terms is called by Robert Nozick a “utilitarianism of rights.” He contrasts this with his own view of rights as absolute side-constraints. See Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974). Some version of the latter view is my assumption in this essay.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    The point is not that the only proper arguments must appeal to my self-interest, for moral arguments often fail to do that. That a demand will block my wants, desires, or even needs is usually not a deep objection to the moral power of the demand. But if the demand is that I surrender my fundamental rights, the moral status of the demand is surely at least problematic.Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    See Holmes’s discussion on pp. see the distinction between individualism and communitarianism put to a quite different use.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of LawArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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