The Application of Libertarian Compassion and the Use of Force
Libertarians are well-known as fierce defenders of property rights, and rightly so – for many libertarians, property is a foundational concept. Libertarians often take for granted that a property owner is morally justified in applying whatever force is necessary to repel aggression against one’s person and property. Among libertarians, philosophical discussions on the justification for the use of defensive force are common. Here I will grant the broadest libertarian view of the use of defensive force – that one is morally justified in applying whatever force is necessary, up to and including lethal force, to repel an attack against one’s person or property. However, I wish to make a plea for compassion and restraint when deciding the circumstances in which one applies such force.
As an example, let us imagine a typical case – a young man breaks into an occupied home in the middle of the night with the intent to steal the family’s television. The husband and father of the family wakes up, arms himself, and confronts the burglar in the living room – just as the burglar is pulling the TV from its stand. Most libertarians would argue that in this situation, the armed owner of the TV is well-justified in using deadly force against the burglar. I do not dispute this. However, given certain other libertarian concepts, I think perhaps libertarians should reconsider actually using force in this situation.
One of the prominent economic considerations of free-market libertarianism is that any given individual’s knowledge is limited. No single person or group of people has enough knowledge to effectively run society. This same knowledge problem can be applied in the imaginary scenario. The owner of the TV doesn’t have nearly enough knowledge to make an informed decision about value of the life of the burglar. Perhaps the burglar is a desperate drug addict who is driven by an addiction which he can no longer control.
Perhaps he is the teen product of a broken home, where his own family members used violence and theft against him and taught him that crime is a perfectly acceptable career. Perhaps he is mentally unstable, or suffering from any number of mental illnesses. Regardless, in any of these cases, the typical response to the hypothetical death of the burglar – “just another scumbag off the streets” – is incorrect. He may indeed be a scumbag. Or perhaps he simply made some mistakes earlier in his life that have led him, almost inescapably, to the living room in which he stands, held at gunpoint. In any of the above situations, the root cause can be treated, and the perpetrator of the crime can be healed and may one day become a valuable and productive member of society. The value of his life cannot be determined simply by his act of theft.
Most TVs are only worth between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars. Does the life of a human being have a value less than this? Are there not other options for resolving the situation? Even if he was stealing a car – can the car not easily be replaced? Do we not have property insurance available to us whereby any valuable property can be replaced at little or no cost to ourselves? Can you look inside your own soul and honestly say that you are prepared to end the life of another human being – a stranger who you have never met before – over money? Or inanimate physical objects?
Using lethal force has additional repercussions – the criminal may have had family members – children, a mother, – who cared deeply for him and for whom the criminal had great value. Are you prepared to deprive them of this?
A friend of mine was shot and killed after he broke into the home of a stranger. The local media response was that another criminal had been taken off the street and that the neighborhood was better for it. As is often the case with the media, I think they were mistaken. The investigation revealed that he was drunk at the time he was killed. The homeowner who shot him had called the police after my friend had pounded on his front door. The homeowner reported that my friend was calling someone’s name and demanding that he be let in. My friend went around to the back of the home and broke in by breaking the latch at the rear door, at which point the homeowner shot and killed him. It was concluded that he mistakenly believed he was at the home of his cousin, and had acted on that belief.
I certainly defend the right of the homeowner to use lethal force in that situation. I cannot blame him for the death. The blame must lie with my friend. It was his fault he was shot. But even so, he was a young man. He had potentially many decades of life ahead of him. He had an aging mother, extended family members, and friends. He had a very young son – a son who will now grow up without a father, and who, until that point, relied on his income. The homeowner now must live the remainder of his life knowing that he killed another person. That knowledge and the associated trauma are not easy to handle, emotionally. The death negatively affected all of them in an irreversible manner. To be clear, I do not wish to pass judgment on the homeowner, and I was not there at the time, but this can serve as an example of a situation in which one might have compassion and exercise restraint. Perhaps using deadly force was not the best response. Or perhaps in another situation like this it may not have been.
It can be tempting, when one is armed, to rely on the weapon as an effective means of resolving dangerous situations above other possible means. If one hasn’t spent time in meditative thought and decision making about the situations in which one is prepared to use lethal force, there will be no time for such decision making when the situation arrives.
Consider this my plea – please, if you are willing to use lethal force to defend yourself, your property, and others, think critically and in advance about the likely results of the use of such force. Think about the long-term effects. Evaluate your own psyche. Imagine how you might react to watching another person die at close range by your hand. Consider alternatives. Determine which of your possessions are worth a human life. Decide what level of risk you are willing to take in order to lessen the likelihood of you becoming a killer.
Finally, remember the compassion you have toward others. Connect yourself with the heartache you feel when you reflect on human suffering. Commit to a set of criteria for the use of lethal force, and stay with that commitment. Do not let emotion or fear convince you to make exceptions to the logically determined set of conditions under which you are prepared to end the life of a human being.
Personally, I would prefer to let a criminal walk out of my home with any of my possessions than to end his life. I would prefer to confront him face-to-face on the chance that he might decide not to continue his aggression than to shoot him from behind. Compassion toward others and recognition of the worth of each human life forms a pillar of the foundation of libertarianism, and can be used to guide the actions of libertarians. It gives the libertarian position a moral high ground that cannot be defeated. It is a source of power for our position, and the more it is manifested in our actions, the more powerful our message will be.