The concept self-defense has a long moral history. It far out dates the invention of gunpowder, let alone guns. It has long standing historical roots deeply ingrained in our Judeo-Christian society.
Let’s start with a broader question; what is morality?
Morals are what guide us into what is right or good, as opposed to what is wrong or bad. Ethics is the branch of philosophy, that seeks to ask and answer moral questions, recommending and describing concepts of right and wrong behavior. Over the millennia, humanity as a whole has continually asked if defense of one’s self and family is right, just, moral, and good. As you will see, philosophers, teachers, influencers, and great thinkers alike have all rather consistently answered this question.
Let’s start way back. In the moral and legal code of the Hebrews, The Talmud, Moses wrote about the right to self-defense around 1273 BC. He describes what we would now refer to as “The Castle Doctrine” in the Book of Exodus “When a burglar is caught breaking in, and is fatally beaten, there shall be no charge of manslaughter.”
The right to armed self-defense comes from Graeco-Roman Natural Rights theory, clearly enunciated by the Roman statesman Cicero (106–43 B.C.) and other stoic philosophers, influenced by Aristotle. “But if there be any occasion on which it is proper to slay a man,—and there are many such,—surely that occasion is not only a just one, but even a necessary one, when violence is offered, and can only be repelled by violence.” Cicero also quotes Moses in this speech as well.
The right of free men to bear arms in defense of their person and household (family) has strong roots in Roman Law principle of dominium where any attack on the members of the family was a personal attack on the pater familias – the male head of the household, who is endowed by law with dominion and protection over their family. in the 534AD Emperor Justinian Augustus refers to the right to self-defense as the principle of vim vi repellere licet “it is permitted to repel force by force”.
The concept is further discussed in the Catholic Catechism derived from inception based on the theological work of St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). It currently reads: “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but also a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm.” Furthermore, as “it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life.”
In the Two Treatises (1689), John Locke frequently states that the fundamental law of nature is that as much as possible mankind is to be preserved. Locke presents (1) a duty to preserve one’s self, (2) a duty to preserve others when self-preservation does not conflict, (3) a duty not to take away the life of another unjustly. Locke went on to argue that we have a right to preserve our “life, liberty, and estate”.
This thought process on the morality of self-defense flows through biblical times all the way up to modern America, which generally shares the Judeo-Christian views that people have a right to self-defense, as well as a moral duty to defend their families and neighbors, and the community has a right to collective self-defense to curb or prevent tyrannical government.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who disagreed on many issues, both recognized that laws against armed self-defense only protect criminals. Jefferson, gathering from the concepts from John Locke, gave the examples of unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” in our Declaration of Independence in June of 1776.
In 1789, James Madison, and the founding fathers decided to draft a Bill of Rights which list prohibitions on governmental power. In remembering their hard won victory, defending themselves against tyranny, and seeking the means to stay free men and protect themselves and their families, they ensured the “the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
In summary, we have the moral right and duty to protect ourselves and our families from harm. Nobody else has that duty, it lays solely on our shoulders as free men (and women). We also have the moral responsibility to ensure harm doesn’t befall innocent persons. That we are not reckless or intentional in causing harm or death to someone who is not threatening the life of ourselves or families. Lethal force is morally justified, only in response to unjustified lethal force.
The Moral Right to Self Defense > The Scales of Justice
*This is provided as a Legal Information Resource and should not be treated as legal advice.
1 . Long, A. A.; Sedley, D. N. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers: Translations of the Principal Sources with Philosophical Commentary. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2 . Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy “Ethics”
3 . (Exodus 22:2, MLB)
4 . Marcus Tullius Cicero, The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero, trans. C.D. Yonge (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1913-21). Vol. 3.
5 . Emperor Justinian Augustus (November 16, 534AD) Code of Justitian
6 . “Catechism of the Catholic Church, PART THREE, LIFE IN CHRIST, SECTION TWO THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, ARTICLE 5, THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT”. Vatican Archives.
7 . Locke, John (1988) . Laslett, Peter (ed.). Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.
8 . Faria, Miguel A. “The moral philosophy of self-defense and resistance to tyranny in the Judeo-Christian Tradition”. Surgical Neurology International (SNI).
9 . Dave Kopel (2009) The Sword and the Tome; America’s First Freedom
10 . “The Declaration of Independence: Rough Draft”. USHistory.org. Archived from the original on March 30, 2014.
11 . Engrossed Bill of Rights, September 25, 1789; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives.