It’s never just self-defense

I recently had an interesting conversation with my mother in which she commented that she would intervene to defend someone else who was in danger, but wouldn’t feel comfortable using violence to defend herself. She knows I disagree (the exchange was prompted by a weapon on my Christmas wish list…), and with her usual graciousness she agreed that self-defense is morally justifiable. She said she simply felt uncomfortable with it as a personal matter, because the idea of harming another human being solely for your own benefit bothered her.

It is a reasonable argument, but the problem with such a position is that it assumes an act of self-defense only impacts the attacker and the victim, when in reality, like any social interchange, its effects ripple out far beyond those immediately affected.

With the exception of the extremely rare, truly psychotic individual, every criminal makes a cost-benefits analysis before acting, asking himself if the risks of the proposed action outweigh whatever gain he anticipates. It may be nothing more than a subconscious observation that the victim is smaller or alone, but every criminal wonders, “Is this worth the risk?”

The benefit from any one individual’s self-defense accrues to every member of society when it slightly decreases the likelihood that a future attacker answers the question, “Is it worth it?” in the affirmative.

One of the benefits of judicial punishments such as imprisonment or capital punishment is deterrence: the fact that anyone considering a similar crime is given an additional reason to decide it isn’t worth the risk. Deterrence works. It’s why murder rates went up when capital punishment was shelved in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, then declined as the death penalty was again employed. However, the criminal justice system isn’t the first line of deterrence.

Any time an intended victim fights back, they act as a deterrent to future crime. When John Stossel interviewed imprisoned criminals several years ago, they told him their greatest fear was running afoul of armed victims. Study after study has shown that criminals prey on the weak. They don’t want a fight; they want a quick and painless victory. That’s why many would-be attackers flee at the first sign of resistance, or don’t attack at all if the intended target appears alert and prepared. The more doubt a predator feels about the ease of victory, the more likely he is to decide it’s just not worth it.

The homeowner who kills an armed robber, the jogger who stabs a rapist, or the tourist who attacks a mugger have one thing in common: Each one is making it a little less likely that some future innocent will suffer a similar attack, because they’ve just altered the criminal’s cost-benefit analysis in favor of the victim. The individual who chooses to fight back defends not only himself, but also the shadowy ranks of future victims who now look just a bit more menacing to would-be attackers, and are therefore just a bit less likely to be victims afterall.