What Is Self-Defense?

Public Affairs Quarterly 29 (4):385-402 (2015)
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In this paper, I will provide a conceptual analysis of the term self-defense and argue that in contrast to the widespread “instrumentalist” account of self-defense, self-defense need not be aimed at averting or mitigating an attack, let alone the harm threatened by it. Instead, on the definition offered here, an act token is self-defense if and only if a) it is directed against an ongoing or imminent attack, and b) the actor correctly believes that the act token is an effective form of resistance or the act token belongs to an act type that usually functions as a means to resist an attack. While resistance is effective in making the attack more difficult, it can often be overcome and therefore does not necessarily stop or mitigate the attack. This concept of self-defense, I shall argue, not only matches ordinary language use and plausible accounts of self-defense in the legal literature but also has important practical implications in helping to avoid confusions about necessity and proportionality. In particular, it avoids the notorious problem of the “knowingly helpless rape victim” whose futile struggle against the rapist (futile in terms of averting or mitigating harm) counter-intuitively could not count as justified self-defense on an instrumentalist account.
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First archival date: 2015-11-21
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