Imagine a person A who confronts a complete stranger, B, and shoots B out of pure malice. A now encounters C and gets ready to shoot her from the same motivation, but is prevented by D, a police officer, who shoots A before A can shoot C.
Who has initiated force in this scenario, and who has engaged in retaliatory force? It’s an interesting question. Walking through a neighborhood park, I overheard a discussion on the subject, carried on by two interlocutors, Simpleton and Overthinker.
Simpleton opened by saying that on any plausible account of “coercion,” the answer to the preceding question was patently obvious: A initiated force; D retaliated. End of story. QED.
Overthinker demurred. Admitting the plausibility in saying that A initiated and D retaliated, he nonetheless pointed out that D was a police officer, and the existence of a police force, within the context of a state monopolizer of the use of force, was itself a force-initiation. Indeed, he continued, where A initiated force just once, the State initiated force at least twice over: first by claiming a monopoly on the use of force in a given territory; then by extracting revenue by taxation from those living in the territory. So while in one sense, A initiated force by shooting B, in another sense, D initiated force just by being (and hence functioning as) a police officer.
This struck Simpleton as rather odd, but Overthinker, having thought it all through, saw no oddity. Behold the following propositions, said Overthinker:
- There is no contradiction involved in saying that both A and D initiated force.
- Nor is there a contradiction involved in saying that while both A and D initiated force, D engaged in retaliatory force as well.
- Nor is there a contradiction in saying that A initiated force against B (by shooting B) and against C (by threatening C), as did D (against A, B, and C, by being the agent of a coercive state that coerces everyone in its jurisdiction).
- Indeed, paradoxical as it may sound, there is no contradiction involved in saying that D initiated force against C, B, and A–despite the fact that D‘s retaliatory force saved C, while doing A no injustice. The force that D initiated against A, after all, is different from the retaliatory and admittedly defensive force he wielded against A.
Simpleton reflected. He couldn’t deny the cogency of each discrete line of Overthinker’s argument. And yet the argument somehow seemed to miss some larger point. Surely, Simpleton mused to himself, Overthinker had missed the battle for the bullets?
“You are correct,” Simpleton declared. “And yet your argument is irrelevant.”
“How?” asked Overthinker.
“Well,” said Simpleman, pushing his simple mind into overdrive. “It’s quite simple. Your argument is irrelevant because it fails to observe a principle of relevance.”
“What priniciple is that?” Overthinker asked.
“I call it The Principle of Relevance,” said Simpleton.
“That makes sense,” said Overthinker, furrowing his brow. “And yet, I must confess that your declaration leaves me quite unsatisfied.”
“It would,” Simpleton agreed, continuing with the following thought:
(Simpleton): What I mean, simply, is that a non-initiation of force principle must be supplemented by a principle of relevance, lest we be led into the absurdity that an injustice takes place when a police officer stops a crime from taking place. It is true that there are many force-initiations embedded in the scenario above. But not all of them are relevant to an evaluation of the justification of D‘s action, at least for immediate moral and legal purposes. They’re relevant to an overall philosophical assessment of the situation, to be sure, but not relevant to relative judgments of moral desert, or to the legal question of what’s to happen next, e.g., if A was merely wounded rather than killed by D. Given the facts of the situation, A‘s action is evil, D‘s is not; A‘s is unjust, D‘s is not; A should be prosecuted, D should not. The rest, though true in some abstract, utopian sense, is practically irrelevant. It doesn’t affect what must be done in the near or even foreseeable future.
Overthinker was impressed. “That’s a remarkably complex thought for so ostensibly simple a man.”
“Thank you,” said Simpleton.
“There is, in context, a certain defeasible plausibility and undeniable measure of approximate truth in your claims,” said Overthinker. “But alas, you have oversimplified things. I forgive you, for that is your nature. But my devotion to truth obliges me to object.”
“Whatever,” said Simpleton, wishing that Overthinker would get to the point already.
“What you have done,” Overthinker continued with unruffled gravity,
(Overthinker) …is tacitly to draw a sharp distinction between the aims of philosophy and those of practical life. You’ve then treated the first as ‘irrelevant,’ and proceeded as though ‘relevance’ applied only to the latter. This is a questionable enough move on its own. But it is telling that your principle of relevance governs the application of the ban on force-initiations. In doing so, for all practical purposes, you exempt the State from the application of the principle. You take the practical legitimacy of the State, and its police forces, for granted. You then re-apply the ban on force-initiations within this context, not to the context itself. In narrowing the context, you narrow the scope of the principle’s applicability. This yields the practical result you desire: the would-be victim is saved; the criminal is prosecuted; the police officer is valorized for both saving the victim and apprehending the malefactor (so that the police and the State get credit more generally). The State’s injustice is minimized and moved off-stage. You admit it in theory, but deny it in practice. So your so-called Principle of Relevance is better seen as a Principle of Opportunistic State-Worship. I see the pragmatic value of your maneuver, but I’m afraid it’s an offense against a consistent policy of truth.
“Hmm,” said Simpleton, expressing in that single syllable a certain grudging acknowledgement of the defeasible plausibility and undeniable measure of more-than-just-approximate truth in Overthinker’s claims–while succumbing to a certain degree of impatience at Overthinker’s tendency to combine insouciant hand-waving with overthinking.
(Simpleton): I almost wish you hadn’t come to the point so fast. But don’t you think there’s a good rationale for drawing a distinction between the tasks of the armchair philosopher and those of the person of action? We live in a social system where the rule of law is promoted by and through the State. We can’t act as though some other utopian social order exists when it doesn’t. Maybe anarchy is preferable to the State, but if so, anarchy remains an unknown ideal. And an unknown ideal is by definition one based to a large degree of handwaving speculations dressed up to look like more than that. Unknown ideals are in some sense unknowable ideals. Given that, we can’t allow ourselves to be eaten alive by the predators of the world, waiting around for anarchy to come. We have to act in the here-and-now, and that means, as a matter of principle, applying the ban on force-initiations subject to a relevance-proviso, and in practice, treating the police as though they were a legitimate institution even if, by some idealized measure, they aren’t. I mean, if your car were being stolen or your house was being burglarized, wouldn’t you call the cops without qualms? And if the offenders were about to harm you, would you refuse the help you’d get from the police? If they did help you, would you feel no gratitude? Assuming you felt some, would you, if it were practically possible, seek to punish them for their force initiations?
“A veritable swarm of questions,” Overthinker responded with Socratic irony, continuing:
(Overthinker) But easily enough answered: Yes of course, if I were on the receiving end of crime, I would without hesitation call the police and ask for their help. And once they came, assuming they came in time, I’d ungrudgingly accept it. Assuming their assistance was successful, I’d feel some gratitude, if that’s the right word, but the gratitude* would be an emotion necessarily tempered by awareness of the moral status of the benefactor. I mean, if an all-out criminal saved me from falling onto the subway tracks, I’d feel a certain gratitude* toward him, too–but that would be gratitude* tempered by knowledge of his character, not the gushing, wholehearted gratitude I’d feel toward a wholly innocent person. So it is, mutatis mutandis, with the police.
Incidentally, I’ve tried to answer all of your question as asked, but your last question is based on a misapprehension that turns me into an unnecessarily punitive figure. You ask whether I would punish the very police department that saved me. But I never claimed to have a desire for punishment. Punishment is for simpletons. I believe in restitution. And of course I would demand that at the first opportunity for getting it, even if the first opportunity required getting it of the very police agency that saved my life. I wouldn’t forget the injustices that had preceded that. I would feel gratitude*, and a desire for restitution.
“That’s never going to happen,” Simpleton retorted, with asperity. “Honestly, a lot of what you’re saying here has a real pie-in-the-sky quality to it. You just sound like someone out to defend an ivory tower thesis deliberately detached from the demands of real-world politics.”
“So you say,” Overthinker responded with equanimity, along with a touch of weary resignation at Simpleton’s crude, but in some ways poignant pragmatism.
(Overthinker) But remember that you’re the one who wants to treat the police and the State as though they were legitimate institutions when they may not be. So I’m not the only one engaging in as-if thinking here. Unlike you, my hypothetical thinking is driven directly by the moral law: I’m the first to admit that my kingdom is not of this world. Actually, I’m no fan of kingdoms at all, territories governed by artificial hierarchies of superior and inferior. I’m a citizen of the republic of ends, and I’m guided by what I legislate alongside my moral equals as a member of that republic. You call it ‘pie in the sky.’ I call it real, the only thing that is real: ‘The starry heavens above and the moral law within’.
Simpleton’s face plainly showed his exasperation. “Dude. I really think you’re overthinking this. I’m talking about an ordinary shooting, and you’re channeling Kant.”
“It’s complicated,” Overthinker said. “Most things are.”
“You’re telling me,” said Simpleton.