Is it Aggression to Kill Someone who Might Get you Killed?

What if you and 50 allies face a serious outside threat? What if one of these allies, through no conscious fault of his own, is increasing your vulnerability to this outside threat? He’s not committing an easily identifiable act of aggression, but he’s putting the lives of you and your allies at serious risk.

What if you and 50 allies face a serious outside threat? What if one of these allies, through no conscious fault of his own, is increasing your vulnerability to this outside threat? He’s not committing an easily identifiable act of aggression, but he’s putting the lives of you and your allies at serious risk.

Is it aggression to kill him?

That’s what happened in the last ten minutes of Episode 6 of The Pacific, a riveting show about the Pacific theater of World War 2. [Watch it here starting at 42:50 or see below.] A group of battle-ravaged US Marines wait silently in the dark on a Pacific island they are invading. The Japanese are there and eager to defend the island. But the two sides have not made contact. The Marines need to preserve their advantage of surprise.

One soldier cried out. He lost control of himself. He went nuts. The stress got to him. Perhaps he was having a nightmare. Other soldiers attempted to quiet him. He fought them. Their efforts failed. One of them finally hit the noisy soldier in the head with a shovel. The noisy soldier died.

Was an act of aggression committed in this context?

Is it wrong, by any value system other than pacifism, to attack someone and possibly kill them, under these circumstances?

By George Donnelly

I'm building a tribe of radical libertarians to voluntarize the world by 2064. Join me.

12 replies on “Is it Aggression to Kill Someone who Might Get you Killed?”

First off, there’s a not-inconsiderable chance that his presence on the scene in the first place was an act of aggression against him – he may well have been drafted.

Leaving that aside and henceforth assuming that he was a volunteer: he agreed beforehand to place his own life in jeopardy (and even to sacrifice it entirely) in order to support the mission, and he agreed beforehand to act accordingly. It was not an act of aggression against him to hold him to those terms.

In nearly any other circumstance, however, I would say “it depends”, or perhaps rather “it’s complicated”. You have the absolute right to protect yourself from harm – deliberate or accidental – provided that in doing so you do not harm others /who have themselves/ not forfeited their right to not be harmed. If your car breaks down while driving away from the zombies, you don’t get to carjack the next guy who comes along. But if your buddy tries to knife you over the last parachute, you can throw his sorry ass out of the plane head-first.

In the “about to kill me through no conscious fault of his own” case, though, you have to defend yourself from someone who has not deliberately forfeited their right to not be harmed. There is a reciprocal set of duties here. The other guy has a duty not to harm you – even through actions which are not of his own conscious deliberation or control. And you have the same duty to him. Someone who deliberately violates that duty forfeits their corresponding right and thereby relieves you of your reciprocal duty; someone who does so /accidentally/ or /without conscious control/ does so to a lesser degree. Specifically, your duty to cause no harm is transformed into a duty to cause /as little harm as possible/ while still protecting yourself against the harm which the other person is involuntarily threatening.

If the only way you can save yourself is to kill him, then you can kill him without it being aggression. But if there is some other way to save yourself, then you are bound to do that instead.

That of course opens the door for lots of borderline cases and judgment calls. Did you do everything you could to avoid killing him? Did you do enough? Did you interpret the situation correctly? If not, what is your liability and/or culpability? Answering questions like that is what courts and case law are for. There mere fact that not every hypothetical has an obviously correct answer does not make the basic principles invalid or inapplicable: you have a right to protect yourself, you have a duty to not harm others, duties are reciprocal, aggressors forfeit their right of protection, non-aggressive but dangerous persons forfeit that right only to the extent necessary to preserve the rights of others via reciprocity.

I think that agreement is implicit in joining the armed forces. It may even be explicit – I don’t have experience here, but it’s probably covered in the UCMJ. The entire purpose of a military force is to enter potentially lethal situations and accomplish objectives using lethal force if necessary. No commander wants his men to die for their country (their job is to make the other guys die for theirs), and most objectives aren’t worth a great risk of losing lives, let alone outright sacrifice. But the function of a military requires soldiers who are willing to risk, lose, and even sacrifice their lives when necessary.

When you join the armed forces, you take an oath to obey orders and to adhere to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The UCMJ is explicit about the requirements of a serviceman to obey orders, not endanger his fellows, remain at his post, etc etc etc. It is also explicit about the consequences for not doing so, which in many cases may include the death penalty (especially during wartime). It also explicitly recognizes that servicemen may be ordered to perform hazardous duty. It lists as a specific crime “desertion with intent to avoid hazardous duty”, and as another “endangering the safety of [fellow servicemen] in the presence of the enemy”.

So our hypothetical freaking-out soldier almost certainly explicitly agreed to be subject to orders which would place his life in jeopardy and to refrain from endangering the rest of his unit.

I’m not certain whether he also explicitly agreed to be killed on the spot should he violate his agreement, rather than (as the UCMJ provides) being subject to a court-martial and due process after the fact. I haven’t yet dug into the details upon when, if ever, summary execution is permitted by the UCMJ. So perhaps he had not explicitly consented to his death in that situation even if he had explicitly consented to being placed in a lethal situation, consented to being given orders, and consented to not endanger his unit.

However, even in that case, I would argue that my previous answer still applies: if you’re endangering someone’s life, and the only way to save them is to kill you, then they get to kill you and the Gods of Justice will not hear your pleas.

Oaths and contracts are sufficiently similar for the purposes under discussion here, i.e. libertarianish theories of morality. An oath is a promise to do something, one which other parties subsequently rely upon.

I dug into the summary execution thing a little more. Interesting stuff, really.

At one time, summary execution for violations of military discipline was, if not necessarily routine, at least always on the table as an option, depending on the severity of the violation and the circumstances in which it took place. Summary execution – killing on the spot without benefit of trial – was also the standard treatment for spies, i.e. enemies not in the enemy’s uniform. Sometimes captured soldiers were killed rather than held as prisoners, and sometimes even civilian populations were put to the sword. The further back in history you go, the less reluctance there was to efficiently end one’s troubles by ending someone’s life. But the modern standards really are modern; it wasn’t until the Civil War that the germ of what became the Geneva Conventions (and related agreements) were codified, written down, printed up, and distributed to and enforced among a professional military body.

As best as I can tell, the UCMJ (circa post-WWII) and the Geneva Conventions (circa 1900) forbid summary executions. However, I think the usual context here is “… of enemy soldiers, spies, and civilians”. I’m pretty sure that the UCMJ also forbids summary execution of US servicemen, as all punishment for crimes under the UCMJ – no matter how severe – require due process, including a trial and legal representation.

What I’m still uncertain of is how this would affect the freak-out scenario. I just don’t know enough about military protocol. I /suspect/ that the mission objective and the lives of the others in the unit would take precedence and thus the poor guy would get killed to keep everyone else alive. This isn’t the same thing as being punished for dereliction of duty or failure to obey orders or misbehavior before the enemy… because while the guy was certainly guilty of those crimes, the punishment would have to be meted out by a court-martial after a trial and due process. In this case, if the guy had to be killed right then and there because he was going to get EVERYBODY killed, then that would have to fall under some other kind of military thing – something more like rules of engagement or standing orders. And I just don’t know enough to know what would apply here.

But here’s something else interesting. Recall that I said that regardless of the specifics of the UCMJ, the other soldiers had the libertarian moral right to kill him if and only if that was the only way to save themselves. But actually, they may in fact NOT have had that right, BECAUSE of the UCMJ. Maybe.

Here’s how this goes:

Because of their oath, all the soldiers are bound to follow the UCMJ as well as the orders of their commanders. It may well be that the UCMJ and their orders (including their standing orders) would have restricted them from deliberately inflicting harm upon their fellow servicemen, even in the face of danger from the enemy, even at the risk of the mission objectives. I don’t know if such orders exist or would be commonplace, but I can imagine that they might exist. In other words, it may be that by killing their comrade, even to save their own lives, they may have violated their orders and/or the UCMJ and consequently violated their oaths.

If so, then even the libertarian theory I proposed above would not excuse their actions.

In short:

a) If it’s just you and me and some of our buddies, then killing me when I endanger you is okay.

b) If it’s the army guys, and the army’s orders are to stay alive and complete the mission, then killing the one guy is okay.

c) If it’s the army guys, and the army’s orders are to not kill each other, then killing the one guy is NOT okay. Even if it means they all die anyway.

Promises are important.

That is fascinating.

Promises are definitely important but do they carry the weight of contract? I don’t think so.

I would have killed the guy if I had to. But it makes me uncomfortable and I’m not sure how to square it in a satisfactory way with the non-aggression principle.

Thanks for sharing all of this information and thought. You’re giving me a lot to think about.

Modern law draws a distinction between contracts and mere promises. A contract is a reciprocal exchange of promises for mutual benefit; both sides have to benefit, a concept known as “consideration”. A one-sided promise where I promise to give you something without requiring anything in return is not considered a contract and is not binding upon the promisor.

That said, the act of enlisting in the military or of accepting an officer’s commission is unquestionably a contract. In exchange for the things promised in the oath (allegiance and obedience, primarily) the enlistee or officer receives the privileges due enlistees and officers (a paycheck, primarily). The oath itself is not the contract, but it is one element of the contract. I believe that with enlistment and commission there is also an actual written contract, on paper, with signatures. But the signed paper is ALSO not the contract.

The oath and the paper are what is known as a memorialization of the contract. The contract itself is intangible – it is nothing more nor less than the agreement that the parties have reached. As long as there is what is known as “a meeting of the minds” whereby both parties have agreed to exchange promises of consideration and both parties have the same understanding of what those promises and consideration entail, then there exists a contract.

So regardless of whether you think an oath by itself constitutes a contract or a mere promise, there is no question but that a military enlistment or commission is a contract.

Ok, so there is a written contract. The military side is clear. They will pay you and lend you gear. They may train you. But what about your side? That part is unlimited. A valid contract has to have a specific trade, doesn’t it? Can a valid contract really be that I will pay, house and clothe you in return for your entire life and complete obedience for a term of years?

A military contract is like a slave or indentured servitude. Once you sign it, you are no longer free.

Can that be a valid contract? I’m very iffy on that, too.

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