Practical Philosophy Seminar: Lars Christie, "The role of comparative and non-comparative justice in defensive harming"

The role of comparative and non-comparative justice in defensive harming










Most people agree that there is a proportionality constraint on the amount of defensive harm one may impose to avert a threat of unjust harm. But how is the proportionality constraint justified?


Consider the following cases:


Negligent driver:


A driver who texts while driving is about to veer off the road threatening to paralyze a pedestrian. The pedestrian has a grenade and her only defensive option is to blow up the car, killing the negligent driver.


Negligent bicyclist:


A bicyclist who is listening to music is about to negligently hit a pedestrian, threatening to break pedestrian’s leg. The pedestrian has a grenade and her only defensive option is to throw it, killing up the bicyclist.


Does the pedestrian violate the proportionality constraint if she throws the grenade to avert the threat? Many believe that the answer is no in the first case and yes in the second. Yet providing a unified theoretical justification for these views is tricky. 


If defensive harming is justified on grounds of non-comparative retributive justice, then we can justify the positive verdict in the second case by pointing out that lethal harm is disproportionate to the culpability of the negligent bicyclist. However, the retributivist approach is not able to justify the negative verdict in the first case. After all, even hard-hearted retributivist would not go as far as claiming that the culpability of the negligent driver is sufficient to make him deserve to be killed.


The opposing view that defensive harming is justified by principles of comparative distributive justice is often cashed out in roughly luck egalitarian terms. According to this view, a person who voluntarily imposes a foreseeable risk of unjust harm, may permissibly be made to carry the entire cost of averting this risk if it eventuates.  This approach is able to provide conclusion that the pedestrian may throw the grenade in the first case, but cannot explain why she cannot do so in the second.


In sum, the non-comparative approach indicate proportionality constraint that is too stringent, whereas the comparative approach seems to lack a proportionality constraint altogether.


In my talk I suggest a hybrid justification of defensive harming which invokes both comparative and non-comparative justifications. I explore the implications of this view for proportionality and necessity constraints on defensive harming.


Published Feb. 1, 2019 10:04 AM - Last modified Apr. 1, 2019 9:54 AM