Overview of Seth Lazar Views on Self-Defence and Responsibility

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In Responsibility, Risk, and Killing in Self-Defence, Seth Lazar argues that the defender is liable to defensive force if the risk of harm imposed by the attacker follows his conditions of proportionality, agent-responsibility, and necessity. In this paper, the first section will discuss Lazar’s argument as to how agent-responsibility allows one to be liable to self-defence. In the second section I will discuss proportionality and its relation to one being liable to self-defence, and in the third section I will argue how Lazar uses necessity to explain when one’s liable to self-defence. As for the fourth section, I will present an augment against Lazar’s risk argument, by putting emphasis on the level of risk imposed determining who’s liability to self-defence. Having said that, Lazar uses proportionality, agent-responsibility, and necessity to argue when one is liable to defensive force, and I argue against his risk argument.

One condition that Lazar mentions in his paper that allows others to be liable to defensive force is through the use of agent-responsibility. More specifically, Lazar believes that when one voluntarily chooses to do x action to cause or respond to a risk of harm, we can use defensive force by justifying our actions through agent-responsibility. Lazar believes that there are principles to self-defence that justifies one’s actions in which one can harm the attacker. One of these principles follows that being liable to self-defence will always infringe on either the attacker or defender’s rights, and for this matter there will always be a lingering effect of violating ones right to life. Due to this, Lazar believes that being liable to self-defence is due to a lack of accepting pacifism and rather voluntarily choosing to do otherwise. Lazar also mentions a condition when a defender can choose between inflicting pain or harm, and suffering harm, such that the defender can inflict harm on a bystander, attacker or causal agent, but the defensive killing has to be justified through some sort of moral asymmetry (Lazar 704). Given this, Lazar believes there are some lingering barriers to unavoidable harm that involves agent-responsibility, in which there are three dimensions to agent-responsibility.

This includes causation, agency and blame, in which causation involves causal responsibility, agency involves an act or omission rather than a state of affair, and blame involves an agent of praise who is responsible for their actions (Lazar 706). Having said that, Lazar believes that to be liable to self-defence, what makes you agent-responsible is if they possess minimal rationality, physical self-control, and non-manipulation. For example, Lazar gives a case involving a pedestrian and a driver, in which the driver slips on an oil spill and creates a risk of harm to the pedestrian as he loses control of the vehicle and heads towards the pedestrian. In this case, Lazar believes the driver is liable for any harm that may come about, because they’ve voluntarily decided to engage in a risk adverse/imposed activity and should therefore be held responsible for whatever harm caused due to their voluntary actions (Lazar 711). More specifically, Lazar argues that once our involuntary actions become voluntary, then we have taken on the role of agent-responsibility. What Lazar means by this is that the driver may not have done anything intentionally to harm the pedestrian if it was completely out of his control, such as driving over an oil spill, but once the driver has the option of doing otherwise to stop the incident and neglect doing so, they therefore have the intention to harm (Lazar 715).

Likewise, if the pedestrian voluntarily allows the driver to hit him, he’ll suffer an unintentional harm, but if the pedestrian does otherwise to prevent the harm, such as causing harm to the driver, say by using a grenade, then the pedestrian has an intention to kill. Although, Lazar mentions that the pedestrian also has the option of choosing to do otherwise, such that the pedestrian could voluntarily choose not to kill the driver to prevent harm to self, by using a gun to shoot the tires instead of the driver. Given this, Lazar then creates an asymmetry between risk and responsibility, such that by walking on the sidewalk the pedestrian equally exposes them self to the risk of harm. Essentially, Lazar argues that if you could prevent risk, you’re responsible for your actions or rather lack of actions, and if you cannot prevent risk from occurring that results in harm, you’re not responsible for your actions or lack of actions.

Another condition that Lazar mentions in his paper that allows others to use defensive force is through the use of proportionality. More specifically, when the harm used by the defender is proportionate to the risk of harm imposed by the attacker, then this justifies the use of self-defence. Likewise, it is justified to use defensive force if the risk of harm imposed is an unjustified harm. Moreover, Lazar argues that both defender and attacker can inflict a harm through defensive force if both parties reasonably believes that their actions can be justified (Lazar 726). Similarly, Lazar gives an example between a guest and a dignitary, in which the attacker pulls out a fake gun, and the defender acts in self-defence, because they reasonably believe their action to create harm would be a justifiable response. Likewise, the attacker has the option to also pull out a real gun and act in self defence against the victim, because they too are justified to act in self-defence due to their culpable voluntary actions used on the defender. In these scenarios the unforeseen actions that led to both parties posing an unjustifiable threat of harm to each other, is what Lazar claims as being liable to defensive force.

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Having said that, Lazar believes that the culpable party must pay the costs of their actions of harm conducted on the defendant (Lazar 707), and the pedestrian is equally liable for causing harm to driver as driver is for creating a risk of harm to pedestrian (Lazar 719). In cases of forced-choice, Lazar believes that proportionality exists, but if pedestrian could choose to do otherwise that deters from killing the driver, then pedestrian must choose to do so. Lazar also believes that when the pedestrian is proportionately reactive to the driver’s-imposed risk of harm, the pedestrian’s reaction overtrumps the driver’s risk of harm imposed. Further, if the pedestrian were to react and use defensive force, such as throwing a bomb, or grenade at the driver, then the driver’s action is no longer an unjustified harm to the pedestrian due to a lack of proportionality. Essentially, Lazar determines whether the risk of harm is justified or unjustified based on the proportionality of the risk itself imposed on both pedestrian and driver.

One last condition that Lazar mentions in his paper that allows others to use defensive force is through the use of necessity. More specifically, when the attacker poses a risk to a defender’s right to life, this then creates a forced choice, such that it now becomes a necessity to use defensive force on the attacker. Going back to Lazar’s example of the pedestrian and driver, Lazar argues that if the pedestrian could choose to act otherwise that doesn’t put the driver’s life at risk, it is then no longer necessary to harm the driver, and the pedestrian must choose to do otherwise in cases of using self-defence. Lazar also mentions conditions when using defensive force is only necessary, which includes when the risk of harm imposed is either unjustifiable, unavoidable, or an indivisible threat (Lazar 722). Likewise, Lazar mentions that one is liable and necessary to use defensive force if the attacker creates a risk that is an unjustified harm, thereby making themselves culpable, or rather using actions that stem from a manipulated or unsound mind (Lazar 725).

Having said that, Lazar mentions that everyone has a right to life (Lazar 699) but killing must be justified and necessary if and only if there’s no breach of duty, or if there’s a greater moral duty that needs to be fulfilled. This then brings us to what Lazar calls the theory of self-defence, in which defensive force should only be necessary when one’s right to life is in danger, and when agent-responsibility, or rather liability on the attacker can be justified (Lazar 703). Likewise, self-defence must only be necessary and used as a last resort when creating further harm to the attacker, such as bloodshed.

Having said that, Lazar believes that agent-responsibility is symmetrical for both pedestrian and driver, and he even provides cases as to how both defender and attacker can both create a harm to each other, but I do not agree with this argument. Specifically, I do not agree that the pedestrian should be equally as responsible as the driver. Lazar believes that the pedestrian could prevent harm from occurring by possessing a grenade or gun and choosing to do otherwise, even when faced with a forced-choice situation (Lazar 719). In response to this, I believe the pedestrian, a single individual, cannot generate the same amount of risk or harm that a moving vehicle could generate. We should not have to debate which harm is justified or unjustified, rather we should look at the possibilities each individual has to producing a risk of suffering.

Giving this, the one whose actions or lack of action generates the greater risk of suffering should be liable, and therefore have every right to experience the effects of self-defence. This way we can dismantle Lazar’s circular reasoning for his risk argument based on unjustified and justified harm. This would also dismantle Lazar’s belief that self-defence is based on a matter of luck and can be either justified or unjustified based on how lucky one is. Essentially, Lazar is implying that the value of liability and responsibility are directly dependent on one’s luck. Rather, if we solely focus on whose action or lack of action generates the greater risk of harm, then we can rule out Lazar’s luck condition of who’s liable to defensive force, instead of holding value to something that lacks a proper causal relation to the risk of harm imposed.

In conclusion, Lazar provides arguments for agent-responsibility, proportionality, and necessity all in favour for one being liable to defensive force. However, towards the end of his paper, Lazar mentions that agent-responsibility is not a sufficient factor when determining liability to defensive force, and argues that self-defence should require the notion of violating some sort of rights, such as the right to life, in which I argue against this and provide instances where liability to defensive force should be reliant solely on the greater amount of risk to harm that can be imposed.

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