Should Someone Use Deadly Force to Protect Property?
Life and Property Are Inextricable
By Mario Daza Pérez
The use of guns against property violations is highly moral, since a person’s life and his property are intertwined.
Now, what we mean by property is of utmost importance. An anarcho-capitalist with a Rothbardian approach would say that property is the natural right of a person, by virtue of being a person. In other words, property rights are not a function of private property alone, but an extension of the life of the person. That is why Murray Rothbard stipulates that property rights are human rights, as an absolute principle.
This means that it is morally justified to use weapons when either someone’s life or assets — the property itself — are put in danger. This also fits with the axiom of non-aggression, which states that no one can go against you, so long as you have not attacked (invaded) the private sphere of others.
If someone wants to rob a store, and is putting the owner in a defenseless position, it is ethically justified to possess and use guns against the individual. (In the United States, it is also constitutionally protected by the Second Amendment.)
As Francisco Capella has said: “Property is not the cause of the crime. Everyone has the ethical right to own guns and exchange them freely. No person has the right to attack another, either using weapons or without them. The peaceful possession of weapons is not a crime, it is not a cause of aggression, and it doesn’t harm others.”
Having weapons does not violate the non-aggression principle. It does not violate others’ rights. However, if someone steals your property, it does affects a third party, and violate another person’s right.
Keep in mind, when someone has a gun, it can be misused. In the case of a criminal who wants to assault you, the gun is justified, but that is because there is proportional danger. Once the offender aims to steal from you, he is placing at risk not only your business, but the lives of others. This is why it is not necessary to wait until the thief shoots to shoot back.
From the very moment there is an actual and imminent risk, a process called temporal immediacy begins, at which point you may shoot, because otherwise, the robber will kill you.
Therefore, the problem here is not whether it is moral or not, because it is. What matters is the time it happens and if the use of guns is proportionate and justified. That is what we all should care about, as opposed to the distinction between life and property.
Property Does Not Give Carte Blanche
By Louis Groarke
This is a complicated question, because one wants to say, along with Aristotle, it depends upon the circumstance.
Let’s define some terms.
Deadly force: using a weapon that stands a good chance of killing someone. For example, shooting someone to kill or hitting him so hard with a baseball bat that he is at a high risk of being killed.
Mortal self-defense: killing someone to save your own life.
Mortal property-defense: using deadly force to preserve your property from those who attempt to steal or damage it.
The question: is the second, mortal property-defense, morally justifiable?
Except in limited cases, no.
Killing another human being is a calamity, and several overlapping conditions must be met to justify mortal self-defense:
(1) The threat must be serious and immediate. I cannot kill you now because I suppose that you are going to murder me three days from now. If, however, you are presently firing a gun at me, I can fire back in self-defense.
(2) There must be no better way to escape the circumstance. If I can run away or save myself by some other method that does not involve the lethal force, I must first try to take that lesser course of action.
(3) The primary intent of my action must be to save myself. If I kill you because that is the only way to save my life: fine and good. If, however, I lose my temper, or I get a kick out of killing, or I hate you and take advantage of the situation to “put you out of your misery,” this is not justifiable.
We can apply the same criteria to property defense. Was the threat to your property serious and immediate? Was there no better way to deal with the situation? Was your intent to save your property or were you using the situation to express criminal propensities?
One has to deal with each situation on its merits. If I take out my revolver and shoot a 10-year-old child through the head because he is stealing a candy bar, that is not acceptable.
If, however, someone enters my convenience store with a gun; if this is a regular occurrence; if the police do not afford proper protection; and if my family’s livelihood is in serious danger, one may then — so to speak — go to war to protect one’s property. Property is a serious matter.
In mortal property-defense, owners, in effect, turn themselves into police officers. Police officers have the right to use deadly force, but only in rare instances: not recklessly, irresponsibly, without sufficient motivation, nor with criminal intent.
Louis Groarke is a professor of philosophy at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. He is the author of several books, including, Moral Reasoning: Rediscovering the Ethical Tradition and The Good Rebel: Understanding Freedom and Morality. Contact him via his personal website.