I recently received an email which discussed the idea that a crime victim might not be justified in using deadly force against an attacker, if that attacker were themselves a “victim” of their situation. The idea was that shooting an uneducated and impoverished attacker in self defense might be wrong because the attacker is themselves the “victim of an unjust society.” Even if, just for the sake of argument, the attacker really were the victim of an unjust society and therefore not culpable for his violent actions, the crime victim would still be justified in using deadly force to save themselves from the attack:
Self defense is about the victim, not the attacker
First and foremost, self defense is about the victim’s right to defend themselves against physical violence. It is not about the attacker. The idea that self defense actions should be limited due to reduced culpability on the part of a criminal is without merit.
The fact that courts consider a criminal’s circumstances (e.g. childhood abuse, reduced intelligence, etc.) when sentencing that criminal doesn’t tell us anything about the propriety of self defense actions against that criminal. That is because trying to equate the two ignores the profoundly different goals of self defense and the sentencing of a criminal: As already stated, the purpose of self defense is to save the victim. Sentencing a criminal, on the other hand, has several goals including punishment and rehabilitation. When evaluating the proper punishment for the criminal, it is necessary to inquire into their level of culpability, since the worst criminals logically deserve the worst sentences. Similarly, when evaluating a sentence that will (hopefully) lead to rehabilitation, it is also necessary to inquire into the circumstances of the criminal’s life to see what went wrong.
A pair of (sad and extreme) examples to illustrate that point
Although the following examples were unpleasant to think up and reduce to writing, I think that they illustrate the above point quite well:
Imagine the hypothetical situation where a criminal named Alice goes to an innocent and peace-loving person named Bob, and tells Bob that he must go fatally stab another innocent person named Charlie. Also imagine that Alice is holding Bob’s wife and children hostage, and will kill them unless Bob goes and stabs Charlie. Bob is in a terrible situation that is not of his making, and is truly a victim in his own right. However, that doesn’t mean that Charlie can’t shoot Bob in self defense. Instead, Charlie has the legal and moral right to defend himself when Bob tries to stab him. That right arises out of Charlie’s existence as a human, and is not conditioned upon Bob being a “bad guy.” Nor would Charlie’s self defense actions convert Charlie into a wrongdoer.
As another example, consider the hypothetical situation of a severely developmentally disabled man named Dan, whose lacks the mental faculties to understand right from wrong or conform his behavior to the law. Imagine that, to the extent he is capable of it, Dan is generally a nice guy. Further imagine that Dan carries a deadly and communicable disease (e.g. HIV.) If Dan were to attempt to sexually assault an innocent person named Elane, it would be morally and legally acceptable for Elane to fatally shoot Dan in self defense. This remains true despite the lack of any criminal intent behind Dan’s actions, since it is Elane’s right to defend herself against rape and a deadly disease that are at issue. Dan is himself a victim of his situation, but his lack of culpability in no way diminishes Elane’s basic human right to protect herself.