Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Self-Defence Lotteries

Another interesting story on the BBC website, about the legal implications of intervening in a fight. It seems that while the legal category of 'self-defence' includes protecting your family and property*, if you try to help a stranger, you could be considered guilty of assault.

*I thought this was slightly amusing, but surely abuse of the term in any ordinary sense: "You can act in self-defence of another in Scots law"

Intuitively, I think you should be morally permitted to intervene, however of course it may not be prudentially wise and also there's the cost that such a moral rule may lead to more violence than necessary, if people took it upon themselves to intervene whenever they felt like it or were unsure which of two people engaged in a fight was actually guilty of initiating it. It raises interesting moral issues about whether our aims should be to minimize wrongs, in a consequentialist sense, or whether we should regard aggressors as having waived their rights to that practically 'anything goes' (by which I mean they become a legitimate target for anyone; I'm not waiving requirements to only use proportionate force, etc).

Returning to a regular theme of this blog, there's a caution at the end: "And even if you don't get hurt as a result, the police are going to get involved, as are lawyers who are smart enough to make the whole thing a lottery." I think this refers to the idea that you could be morally right to intervene, but whether or not you get prosecuted (successfully?) seems arbitrary or random. This seems like a failure of the principle of generic consistency (treat like cases alike), but then one way of achieving deterrence without inflicting too much punishment might be to have high penalties inflicted on a random sample of convicted wrong-doers. This does treat like cases alike at one level, in that all are (alike) entered into the lottery.

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