Current Events

The Fall-Out Objection: Self-Defense vs. War

(Please excuse typos. I’ve got to write this quickly.)

We don’t know all the facts yet. But it appears that during the Dallas protests, some attackers killed a number of police officers who were keeping order at the protest. I’m on record, in print, arguing that killing cops in self-defense or defense of others is permissible.  What should I say about this case?

This doesn’t appear to be an act of self-defense or defense of others in the narrow sense. As far as we know, these particular cops were not about to commit a severe harm or injustice. It looks like the attackers attacked these police officers not for any particular crimes or harms those particular officers had committed or were about to commit, but instead because they are members of a government institution that frequently commits severe injustices.*

This brings us to the question of fall-0ut. I’d expect that police across the country will react badly to this event, by becoming more brutal. How does that bear on what the attackers did? How does that bear on self-defense?

Some background: In my paper “When May Kill Government Agents? In Defense of Moral Parity,” I argue for a simple thesis: The conditions under which you  may, in self-defense or defense of others, kill a private civilian and kill a government agent (such as a police officer) are the same. I attack the popular view that the conditions for killing government agents are more stringent. (This paper was a response to excessive police violence. What I had in mind was that if you walk upon a scene like this, you are morally permitted to shoot the cops.) From the paper:

By default, killing is presumed wrong. However, a person can become liable to be killed by performing certain wrongful or unjust actions. A person is liable to be killed when he is doing something deeply wrong, unjust, or harmful to others, and when killing him would serve a defensive purpose, such as self-defense, the defense of others, or to prevent him from causing greater injustice. Killing is also restricted by a doctrine of necessity: at minimum, when a non-lethal alternative is equally effective at stopping someone from committing injustice, it is not permissible to kill him. Most people accept this broad outline, though they dispute the details of the theory.

My view has some radical implications. If the cops try to arrest you for something that should not be a crime, you may (depending on the exact circumstances) be free to resist with lethal force. You could assassinate congresspeople or presidents to prevent them from declaring or waging an unjust war. You can destroy NSA property to prevent them from spying on you. Etc.

One of the objections I consider to my thesis is the “Dangerous Fall-Out Objection:

If citizens believed they were at liberty to kill democratic officials (under the principles described above), then this would cause dangerous instability and fallout. If civilians kill a bad cop, the other cops are likely to retaliate by harming other innocent people or curbing their rights. If civilians kill an evil president, future presidents or congress are likely to retaliate by harming other people or further violating their rights.  Therefore, it is wrong to assassinate democratic officials.

Here is my response:

The idea here is that morality is a strategic game. What I am permitted to do might depend on how others will respond to what I do. Perhaps what would otherwise have been a permissible action might be rendered impermissible if others will perform wrongful actions in response to it. That is, perhaps the threat of extortion might change my moral duties.

Presumably, there’s no moral duty to choose a red over a blue toothbrush. However, suppose a terrorist threatens to nuke DC unless I choose blue. Must I then choose blue?

Consider a variation on minivan shooter. Suppose Ann is about to kill the cop who is shooting at the children. However, just as she does so, another cop yells to her, “We cops stick together. If you shoot him, I’ll kill two minivans full of innocent kids. That’s not a threat; that’s a promise.” Is it still permissible for Ann to save the kids in the first van, or must she submit to the cops’ threat?

These are hard questions. How we are required to respond to extortion is bound to be controversial. Fortunately, though, I don’t need to answer these questions here. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that A) extortion or retaliation do indeed render impermissible what would otherwise would have been permissible acts, and B) that democratic governments are likely to use extortion and retaliation to prevent civilians from killing wrongdoing government agents, this still doesn’t justify the Special Immunity Thesis. Instead, it is compatible with the Moral Parity Thesis.

For the sake of argument, suppose it is impermissible for you to kill a wrongdoer if there is a real threat that others will respond by committing even greater harm or injustice. This provides us with no in-principle reason to treat democratic government officials differently from civilians. After all, civilians can and often do respond to what otherwise would have been justifiable violent self-defense or defense of others by threatening to cause even more harm. A bully on the playground might threaten to beat up two other kids if you stick up for your friend. The Mafia can and does tell people that they’ll kill even more people if their victims start to defend themselves. The Joker might threaten to bomb Gotham City if Batman tries to rescue Commissioner Gordon.

It may turn out, empirically, that democratic governments are unusually willing and able to use extortion to prevent us from defending ourselves against their wrongdoing agents. If so, it may thus turn out, empirically, that the conditions under which it is permissible to kill a wrongdoer are less likely to obtain when the wrongdoer is a government agent than when he’s a private civilian. But this remains compatible with the Moral Parity Thesis, because it allows that the conditions under which it is permissible to kill wrongdoers are the same. In both cases, we’re allowed to kill wrongdoers in certain conditions, one of those conditions being that killing the wrongdoers won’t incite other wrongdoers to commit even greater harm or injustice.

So far, I have assumed for the sake of argument that we are required to surrender to credible threats of extortion. But that’s not obviously true. It is not obvious that what would have been a permissible action becomes wrong just because someone else threatens to react badly to it. Suppose I kill the would-be Tuvalu-nuking president, even though I know my fellow citizens will react by rioting. During the riots, they kill 10,000 innocent Americans (more than the population of Tuvalu.) It’s at least not obvious that this makes the assassination wrong when it otherwise would have been right. After all, when I kill the president, my fellow citizens are obligated not to riot in response. They should instead apologize for their despicable support of war and praise my heroism.

As I noted in the introduction, many believe it is justifiable to assassinate totalitarian dictators, such as Stalin or Hitler. However, killing a totalitarian dictator or a criminal mastermind seems more likely to endanger innocent third parties than killing a democratic official. Fanni Kaplan tried but failed to assassinate Lenin in 1918. Lenin and his government responded with the Red Terror. Even if Kaplan had killed Lenin, there was a good chance Lenin would have been succeeded by someone worse or at least equally bad. Totalitarian communist regimes do not value individual human life. After a successful assassination, newly installed dictators are likely to terrorize citizens into submission.

Compare this to the United States and other democracies. Four US presidents have been assassinated, and many more have been targets. Thirteen congresspersons have been assassinated, and a few others have been targets. None of these events resulted in humanitarian disasters or terror purges. The US has committed a great many atrocities, but not in response to assassination. Assassinating Lincoln got us Andrew Johnson. The attempt to assassinate Reagan just got us stronger gun control laws. The attempted assassination of Gabriel Giffords resulted in public figures pledging (insincerely, it turned out) to use less aggressive political rhetoric. When the IRA assassinated MP Ian Gow in 1990, the British did not respond by killing innocent Irish citizens. When Swedish Prime Minister Palme was assassinated in 1986, the government convicted a suspect of the murder, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. And so on. Compared to other forms of government, democracies tend to be more concerned with their citizens’ welfare. For this very reason, assassination in democracies will tend to be quite safe—democracies do not respond by crushing their citizens. Political scientists who study this issue empirically tend to find that democracies handle assassinations well, and the fallout from assassination is minor.[i]

[i] For further empirical confirmation of this point, see Zaryab Iqbal and Christopher Zorn, “The Political Consequences of Assassination,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 52 (2008): 385-400; Benjamin Jones and Benjamin Olken, “Hit or Miss: The Effect of Assassination on Institutions and War,” American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics 1:2 (2009): 55-87; William Spragens, “Political Impact of Presidential Assassinations and Attempted Assassination,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 10 (1980): 336-347;

I’m slowly turning this into a book-length project called When All Else Fails. In the book version, I note that we have some reason to think that using defensive violence against cops is more likely to result in fall-out than using defensive violence against high-level democratic officials.

The ethics of war and the ethics of self-defense/defense of others are, I think, closely related. Still, the fall-out objection seems more powerful in the case of war than in the cases of self-defense or defense of others against immediate threats. (Officially, as far as my thesis in that paper goes, I don’t need to take a stance either way.)

Suppose the Dallas shooters are trying to wage war against American police, which they see as illegitimate, abusive aggressors. Suppose for the sake of argument their complaints are right, and that American police are legitimate targets of a defensive war. Even if so, it’s plausible that those waging the war have a duty to act strategically. They should only engage in violence that is likely to make things better, not worse. If killing a few officers (who at the time are not deadly threats) would just incite greater police brutality, then that act of war isn’t justified.

In contrast, I find it plausible that you an defend yourself from a violent threat even in the face of moral extortion. If, say, a cop tries to rape you, you can kill him in self-defense, even if you know that other corrupt cops will respond by becoming more brutal, and even if you know that your choice to defend yourself will result undermine some peaceful reform movements. The difference here is that choosing not to defend yourself from a cop exposes you to severe injustice and harm. It’s surely not obvious you have any duty to allow yourself to be raped just because defending yourself will (thanks to others’ bad behavior) lead to worse overall consequences. But in the case above, the Dallas shooters were not themselves in immediate danger, nor were they protecting anyone who was in immediate danger.


What do you think?

*P.S. Yes, I expect that the killed officers would, if we know all the facts, be guilty of tolerating abuses from other officers.

Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan

    This, My view has some radical implications. If the cops try to arrest you for something that should not be a crime, you may (depending on the exact circumstances) be free to resist with lethal force. You could assassinate congresspeople or presidents to prevent them from declaring or waging an unjust war. You can destroy NSA property to prevent them from spying on you. Etc. seems to side-step the main problem with your argument.

    Often, we don’t know which laws and wars are unjust, we only have strong opinions. Politicians and police make and enforce many controversial laws. So, the real question is: “may we kill in opposition to laws and policies we sincerely believe are manifestly unjust and harmful,” knowing that there will be sincerely, well-informed persons on both sides. This problem seems to be less pressing at the individual level, i.e. killing a police officer who is raping, assaulting, or killing an innocent party.

    • Jason Brennan

      FWIW one of the other objections I respond to in the paper is the one you make above, which I dub the “Dangerous misapplication objection”. In the book manuscript I divide it up into different epistemic objections.


        Thanks. Could you please provide a brief summary of the argument.

    • Jerome Bigge

      Under the principles of libertarianism only those laws that meet the standard of protection against aggression, fraud, or endangerment would be considered “valid” laws. The great majority of laws that exist now do not meet these standards. Unlike a private security force, the police are legally agents of the State and exist as their primary purpose the enforcement of the laws and regulations of the State. As does the judicial and legal system for the most part. If every law and regulation required the full vote of the people, many of these laws likely would not exist. A fair percent of the laws and regulations that do exist were created with the purpose of benefiting one group over another. Or providing for the financing of the State as do tax laws. Which are also enforced by the police. Who are increasingly a paramilitary force armed and equipped more and more like military forces. As polarization of our society increases, we are now starting to see activities more and more similar to those carried out by guerrillas in the past such as the IRA, who were also viewed as “terrorists” by the British.

  • Nicholas Weininger

    First, while I applaud you for following through consistently on your principles, posting this when emotions are still raw, and jumping right to the philosophical discussion with no preamble acknowledging the terrible tragedy here, seems like bad persuasion strategy. Expressions of sorrow over killings like this, and condolences to familes, are not just pro forma rituals: they serve to signal that one’s moral philosophy is coming from a place of compassion and humane consideration. Even if we believe killings of this sort can sometimes be justified as defensive war measures, they are still horrible tragedies from the standpoint of any peace-loving moral system.

    Second, I would not so easily assume that “the killed officers would, if we know all the facts, be guilty of tolerating abuses from other officers.” That might be true, but it seems that Dallas has actually done much better on this score than most American police departments, according to Radley Balko, who is usually a reliable source:

    • Jason Brennan

      I don’t do “thoughts and prayers”.

      • Irfan Khawaja

        That covers the first objection. How about the second objection?

        • Jason Brennan

          What’s to say?

          • Irfan Khawaja

            Just to clarify–is your view that you don’t do “thoughts AND prayers,” or is thought itself the problem?

          • Jason Brennan

            I am alluding to a popular Anthony Jeselnik comedy show/routine.

          • RJL

            oh my god, thanks for putting me on to that routine..

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  • j_m_h

    We cops stick together. If you shoot him, I’ll kill two minivans full of innocent kids. That’s not a threat; that’s a promise.”
    So we solve the two-wrongs problem by allowing one wrong to go unchallenged? I agree it’s a problem but I don’t think the prorblem is in the reaction but deeper in the larger relationship and context.
    Perhasp the repsonse by Ann needs to be “I’m willing not to shoot but you, to prove you *are* a good cop, must shoot or otherwise apprehend this bad actors who should not be considered “one of your own” any longer.”

  • j_m_h

    “For this very reason, assassination in democracies will tend to be quite safe—democracies do not respond by crushing their citizens.”
    This seems to be something of a static position rather than one that would be some Nash Equalibrium in a dynamic setting.