Killing in Defense of the Innocent: Definition & Arguments

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  • 0:00 Killing in Defense of…
  • 0:57 Moral Foundation Theory
  • 1:57 Arguments Against…
  • 2:47 Domino Effect
  • 3:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

Using a current example, this lesson explores arguments for and against killing in the defense of the innocent. In doing so, it also highlights the Moral Foundations Theory's views on care vs. harm.

Killing in Defense of the Innocent

In 2012, a Texas father killed a man who he caught in the actual act of raping his very young daughter. After reviewing evidence, Texas courts chose not to press charges. Their reasoning, as reported by The New York Times, centered on the belief that the father was authorized to use deadly force to protect his daughter.

Making national news, this case begs the hotly debated question: Is killing in order to protect the innocent justifiable? In today's lesson, we'll tackle some of the most commonly argued answers to this question. As we do so, please keep in mind that a discussion on killing in defense of the innocent, or taking the life of someone who threatens the life of an innocent who cannot protect themselves, places us in the world of opinion, not fact.

We'll start this rather heavy conversation with arguments supporting the validity of killing to protect the innocent.

Moral Foundations Theory

Those who believe killing in defense of the innocent is justifiable argue that we have a moral responsibility to defend the innocent from harm. According to the Moral Foundations Theory, which outlines six universally accepted foundations of morality, a basic principle of morality is nurture and protection of the innocent. Known as the care versus harm foundation, those in favor of allowing killing in defense of the innocent use it to lend credence to their stance. Using this rationale, the Texas dad's actions were justified to say the very least.

Adding support for killing in defense of the innocent, some take a rather pragmatic view. They argue that the positives of protecting the innocent outweigh the negatives of killing the offender. Oversimplifying a very deep opinion, they do the math and decide the life of the innocent is worth the death of those who would threaten it. This does not mean that they take killing lightly; it simply means they think it is justifiable when protecting the helpless innocent.

Arguments Against Interpretation

Although many hold to this opinion, there are others who disagree. They support the belief that taking human life is always wrong. No matter the motivation, it's always immoral.

First, they argue that killing in the defense of the innocent allows one person to arbitrarily decide the guilt or innocence of another. It also allows for interpretation of the word 'defense.' For instance, suppose a father of four kills an unarmed intruder. Was the father acting in defense of the innocent? Was his family really in danger? Taking it a step further, they might argue, 'Is an unarmed intruder even guilty of endangering the innocent?' Taking all these questions into account, those against killing in defense of the innocent would argue that one person has no right to decide the answer.

Domino Effect

Adding to this, those who oppose killing in defense of the innocent cite the popular mantra violence only breeds violence. Many sociologists call this the domino effect. Again reducing the complex, this is the idea that if taking a life is permitted in one instance, it will create a slippery slope for it to be accepted in another.

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