A general maxim that most people live their lives by is the notion that coercion is only cool when someone coerced you first. That is, violence is never justified unless it’s used in self-defense. Most people don’t go around using violence to get what they want. Rather, they reserve their capacity for force for situations that call for it. And the only situations that usually call for force are ones where someone initiated force in the first place.
It’s just a basic sense common intuition that other people are not things to be used. Other people are moral agents that deserve respect and engagement, not force and fraud. Libertarians call this view, this presumption against coercion, the non-aggression principle. Most people live by it in their daily lives but when it comes to large scale institutions and complex situations, it’s often difficult to trace out the implication of our everyday moral norms and how they actually apply.
For example, it’s not as if non-anarchists explicitly support literal violence against their neighbor in virtue of not being an anarchist. Rather, they are likely well intentioned, but misguided in their application of those more basic moral rules they find appealing and so they think the state is a perfectly just institution. Think about how you became a libertarian. It’s not that pre-libertarian you was just a big fan of violence and coercion. The shift to libertarianism involved some kind of “wake-up” call about what your more fundamental conviction that force is generally only just in self-defense entails in the context of political philosophy. Strictly speaking, there was no moral shift, but rather a greater understanding of how to apply one’s moral views. Libertarians don’t think they were bad people before becoming libertarians. They were just wrong in their political conclusion and upon examining their principles using reason and new arguments, they adjusted the application of their more fundamental view on the appropriate use of force and they changed their political views by bringing them into consistency with that basic moral conviction.
So what do our common sense views about the proper use of force say about the extent to which defensive force can be used? While most people agree that force is only to be used in self defense, the question of the kind and amount of force appropriate remains unsettled. But I think the answer to this question can be found by looking back at the language of our original commitment against aggression. If force is only to be used in self defense, then the kind and amount of force appropriate depends on just what action is consistent with true self defense. The moral license to use defensive force is only legitimate insofar as that force is actually required to defend yourself. That is, justified force is only that force which can be said to stop aggression. The nature of defensive force is constrained by the nature of the specific instance of aggression that it’s being used to stop.
The content of any instance of defensive force, then, stands in reciprocal determination to the content of the aggression its in response to. The kind and amount of force appropriate is always relative to the kind and amount of aggression that gave rise to the defensive force in the first place. If you step on my toe, I can push you away but I can’t shoot you. Why? Because shooting you is disproportionate to the instance of aggression. It doesn’t match the kind and amount of the initial force. Therefore, it goes beyond the amount of force that justice licenses and is an act of unjust aggression itself. Pushing you away is all that’s needed to end the aggression. Anything more would go beyond mere defensive force and not match the kind and amount of aggression. Anything more than pushing you away is itself aggression.
What instances of aggression, if any, call for a response that involves killing? There seems to be many. I can come up with plenty of cases where a person aggresses against me in a way that is threatening to my life and the only way to defend myself is to kill that person. Since the killing is required for self defense, it seems that it is within the bounds of an appropriate response. If the only way to end your aggression that threatens my life is to end your life, there doesn’t seem to be any tension between my act of killing you and my act of defending myself. My purely defensive act, even though it involves killing you, is in no way disproportionate to your aggression.
But suppose that I could, instead of killing you, merely tie you up and restrain you from continuing your aggression or carrying out acts of new aggression? Ongoing forcible restraint can be defensive as long as I have sufficiently good reason to think you will immediately aggress when set loose. After all, while someone pointing a gun at my face has yet to physically aggress against me, I have every reason in the world to think that I am about to be aggressed against. So this isn’t an example of preventative force. It’s an extension of my right to self defense. Self defense need not always come after the act of literal aggression because threats of aggression are reasonable signs of forthcoming aggression. Therefore, I can use force against someone insofar as I have good reason to think they are threatening aggression and insofar as that force is needed to end their forthcoming aggression. While “good reason” will vary from case to case, it nonetheless serves as a useful benchmark to determine when a threat is present and when defensive force is justified.
Consider a person that is an ongoing threats to society. Serial killers are a good example. Forcibly restraining them can be justified insofar as the kind of restraint is proportional and the act of restraint doesn’t continue beyond the existence of a real threat (say, if someone is an ongoing threat at time A but not at time B, to forcibly constrain them at time B would go beyond the requirements for self-defense). If the option of forcibly constraining someone is feasible (or if they are already constrained and their status as a threat is under control), then killing an ongoing threat is not an act of self defense. It necessarily goes beyond what is required for self defense, which is nothing more than proportionate, forcible restraint in this case. If I go beyond that, I am committing aggression.
The option for ongoing, forcible, and proportionate restraint is almost always available for the very few cases that call for it (and they are available in all cases where governments enact capital punishment). Killing a person despite the fact that ending their aggression doesn’t require it is not an act of self defense. It’s murder. The death penalty, then, is nothing but institutionalized murder.