Is Killing in Self-Defense a Sin?
Is killing in self-defense a sin?
As a follower of Jesus Christ, you are supposed to do everything in your power to self-defend doing the least possible damage. Killing should be “prioritized last” on our list of options, and the manner of self-defense we employ should not recklessly catalyze a “killing” conclusion.
This makes us and our families more vulnerable — when in immediate danger — than someone who is willing and eager to kill any assailant.
The previous sentence bothers some folks enough to rationalize violence in their minds. This anxiety can affect even us Christians, who are called to radical love and peace, even at the expense of our property, welfare, and lives.
The debate within Christianity is mostly tension between deontological morality and consequential morality.
Deontological morality is where “rules rule.”
About what rules are we talking here? Jesus told us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, and showed by example what that can mean: martyrdom.
Many believers thereafter, and I’m sure plenty of their family members, too, followed that example to their graves.
Consequential morality is where “results rule.”
We can vividly imagine situations in which an otherwise ill action is the right action in terms of consequence.
For example, James praised Rahab for saving lives through deception, and we praise those who used deception to save Jews from Nazi investigators.
The clearest statement of New Covenant consequentialism comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:23 — “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable; all things are lawful, but not all things are constructive” — after he relaxed a moral rule (forbidding the eating of idol-sacrificed food) held sacrosanct by the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.
Some of us — for better or for worse — extend this “justified means” to allow killing in certain circumstances.
Now, consequentialism is how morality “works,” if “morality” is defined as “right decisionmaking on lofty or grave issues.” Or, at least, that’s the assertion driving this post!
But there are two big problems with pure consequentialism:
- First, it has a subjective appeal to make. A particular person’s interest set might be wildly out of sync with the interest set of society in aggregate.
There is no “objectively right” interest set under consequentialism, because the question of “rightness” in turn makes an appeal to an interest set. Is Madeline consequentially right to defend herself and her family if her actions unintentionally spark a war? Well, depends whose interest set we’re using, right?
Madeline may say, “I don’t care! My family’s all that matters.” Under consequentialism, it is not foregone that humanity “ought be valued” at all, let alone society vs. me (some New Atheists propose otherwise, and are flatly mistaken).
- Second, we’re notoriously terrible at understanding the full consequences of our actions.
A more plausible version of the above “sparking war” example would have Madeline not at all fathoming that defending her family would spark a war!
To solve these two problems in practice, a two-fold solution is employed:
- An agent can force his interest set upon another agent. The more powerful he is, the more he is able to do this.
This power can be in numbers — i.e., a town against a serial killer — or can be in raw ability — i.e., God against the wicked.
So, an interest set is forced. It helps if these forced interests are not popularly thought to have subjective roots (even though they do).
- Once we have an interest set, we can simplify moral action using rules.
Instead of permitting a person to think for himself when contemplating whether stealing bread is justified (Surprise! He very often thinks it’s justified!) we tell him “You are forbidden to steal.”
Occasionally, this will cause something bad to happen, but a good (as defined by the interest set) rule will be generally profitable (as defined by the interest set) when followed by everyone all the time.
So, morality is simplified into rules. Assuming these rules are good (that is, generally consequentially profitable), it helps if morality is popularly thought to be “primarily about rules” (even though it isn’t) so that folks don’t think their rule-breaking is ever justified (even though it can be).
Now, we don’t simplify everything into rules; consequentialism is still how morality “works,” and we can make most decisions day-to-day by applying observation, reason, and prediction.
But for very impactful actions whose consequences are numerous and incalculable, we say to ourselves, “Only an expert should feel entitled to violate this rule” (trivially true) and “No human is an expert” (trivially true). The “free truth” that pops out of these trivial truths is, “No human should feel entitled to violate this rule.”
Further, we’re more inclined to “rule-ify” something if we notice that individuals are weirdly quick to take certain actions at the expense of everyone else. That is, for highly-tempting actions.
We can see Jesus employ this practical solution in his radical advocacy of nonviolent response:
- An interest set is forced. Our own interest set, including the safety of our families, is made subordinate to the will of God and the good of his Kingdom, and his good purposes for the whole world.
- Knowing that violent response is high-impact and highly-tempting, the morality thereof is simplified into rules.
It remains false that “the ends never justify the means” — under consequentialism, means are justified (or not) by their many ends — but extrapolating the impact of killing people to defend ourselves and our families is astronomically above our “non-expert” paygrade.
As such, we’re “no longer allowed” to think completely for ourselves about killing people.
Put simply, God’s interests reign supreme and we are non-experts. And so we’re called to be hyper, hyper reluctant, exhausting every other option, even if it means our families are at greater risk because we try warnings before punching and punching before shooting (so to speak).
We recognize that “results rule,” but we reject pure consequentialism and find rule obligations very useful. This is what compels us, in humility and obedience, to resist violence under the banner of Jesus Christ.
The following talks about the intersection of deontology and consequentialism through the figure of the “Angelic Ladder,” introduced by pivotal 20th-century Christian philosopher of language R. M. Hare:
- The Angelic Ladder (with video)
The following talks about why “the ends can’t justify the means” is false in theory, but why it’s super-useful and, for most of us, practically true when it comes to very-ill means:
- Thorny Moral Chestnuts, Pt. 1 (with diagrams)
What are your thoughts on Virtue Ethics as a Christian ethical framework? I find that more and more that describes how I make ethical decisions rather than consequentialism or deontological ethical ideas.
Virtue ethics is really, really great. It’s one of the best practical avenues for “near-Proles on the Angelic Ladder” (see the links at the bottom of this article).
The only snag is that virtue ethics is not a meta-ethic. It doesn’t describe how morality “works underneath.” It’s important to recognize that morality is built atop consequentialism ultimately.
Here are two benign assertions that help show why this is the case:
“When there are multiple virtues in circumstantial tension, we appeal to consequence to ‘break the tie.'”
“Many virtues are ‘Goldilocks virtues,’ where a dearth is vicious, and excess is vicious. Consequential outcomes are what determine ‘dearth/excess.'”