Is it sinful to kill someone in self defense?


#1

If someone is trying to kill you, and you kill them in self-defense, than was your act sinful?


#2

It depends. In your example, was your intent to kill them, or only to defend yourself against their aggression?


#3

It depends

If you used the necessary force to defend yourself and it resulted in the death of the aggressor, then no, it is not a sin.
If you used more than enough force to defend yourself that as a result leads to the death of the aggressor, then yes it is a sin because you killed someone even though it could have been avoided if less but still sufficient force could have been used as self-defense.

Now if this is a question delving in the theology of how this is allowable and not a sin even though objectively it is wrong to kill (especially because we can never use evil to bring about good), I believe this falls under the Principle of Double Effect. Self-defense is not inherently sinful (you have a right to protect yourself), and the death of the aggressor was never your intention so by the principle of the double effect what resulted was the unintended consequence of a morally neutral act (self-defense).
However, my understanding of moral theology is that of an infant so take the explanation with a grain of salt.

Hope this helps.


#4

From the catechism:

2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. "The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not."65

2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:

If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.66

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but 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. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.67

2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”


#5

In a real life situation where you’re defending your life, you’d have to be Bruce Wayne to have the mental clarity to accurately gauge between sufficient or unnecessarily lethal force. Top this off with the fact that it probably all happens in less than 20 seconds. Most people either scream or flee or fight like a cornered animal and then their mind catches up with what happens after the fact.

But, taking the above reality into account, if you make a conscious, deliberate decision to kill somebody that is attacking you when it was clearly entirely preventable, but you just choose to kill them anyway, the fact that they were attacking you doesn’t mean it wasn’t murder.


#6

You always want to remember that the criteria for “self defense” is in the judgement of the community, not the individual.

Thus, it is a good idea to know what your community (local laws etc.) say about what is and what is not “self defense”.

In general, it is prudent to do everything possible to avoid trouble rather than relying on the community to agree with your perception of a threat.

I recently watched a video by a martial arts instructor who has taught special forces. The number of actual fights he has been in is zero. He has been 100% successful in defusing /avoiding situations that could have been fights.

That is the best way do defend yourself.

I pray that I remember his lesson.


#7

Note that you’re talking about ‘self-defense’ from a civil, legal perspective, whereas the OP was asking about the sinfulness (i.e., morality) of self-defense that leads to death. :wink:

From that perspective, then, it is never the case that the morality of a situation depends on “the judgment of the community”…


#8

Yes, but the moral and legal views are interwoven.

If we don’t take the opportunity to avoid a situation that can escalate to the use of deadly force, that would effect both the morality and legal perspective on the events.

Many people forget this, and don’t actively look for the chance to withdraw.

Thus, I felt it was a point worth making.


#9

Hmm… do you have a citation from the Church’s magisterial teaching that asserts that we must “actively look for the chance to withdraw” such that, if we do not, it “[a]ffects the morality” of self-defense? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in Church teaching. In secular self-defense courses, perhaps, but not in a Church teaching of the morality of self-defense…


#10

I would say to just ask a priest if it is a sin to kill someone in self defense when we could have avoided the situation.

For some reason, some people develop a self righteous “tunnel vision” in this area.

There have been some cases in the news media where people were specifically told by the 911 operator to withdraw. The person did not withdraw and killed someone. The case in Florida is an example. The guy was prosecuted, but found not guilty.

That is one reason I don’t carry a weapon – I don’t want to be in a situation that escalates.

If I ever do carry, I would probably also carry a non-lethal weapon (taser etc.), so I would have an alternative other than drawing a gun.

Still the best course is to walk away / apologize to avoid a physical confrontation that may or may not go your way.


#11

Yet, that’s not the situation that provides us with the opportunity to make a distinction in the morality of self-defense. Let’s suppose that you are walking down the street and you see someone walking toward you who looks a bit sketchy. You have the opportunity to “avoid the situation”, but you decide to keep walking. After you pass each other, he turns and assaults you. You find yourself in a situation in which your life is at risk. Now, I ask you: having not “actively looked for the chance to withdraw”, are you now not able to defend your life in a morally acceptable way? That’s just ludicrous… :rolleyes:

(That is, of course, a different situation than one in which a person goes looking for trouble. In that case, naturally, I would assert that it’s not ‘self defense’, but an attempt to provoke aggression, which is a whole 'nother thing.)

And, by the way, I would expect that the priest we ask would make this distinction and then answer that no, it’s not sinful to act in self-defense. :wink:

There have been some cases in the news media where people were specifically told by the 911 operator to withdraw. The person did not withdraw and killed someone. The case in Florida is an example. The guy was prosecuted, but found not guilty.

Again, you’re conflating civil justice with the notion of morality. The two are not always hand-in-glove…

Still the best course is to walk away / apologize to avoid a physical confrontation that may or may not go your way.

“The best course” of action isn’t, strictly speaking, the subject here; rather, it’s the morality of the situation in which lethal force has been applied in self-defense. Yes, it’s safer to avoid conflict; that’s not what’s being asked, however.


#12

The main area of disagreement is that you believe you can separate the social, legal, and moral aspects of real life situations.

I don’t believe that these aspects can be easily separated, and it is more prudent to consider all aspects together.

It is a simple matter to describe situations that are clearly a sin, and likely not a sin. Still that is not a good way to think about these sorts of situations.

Also, I have no problem crossing the street to avoid passing by someone who looks like a criminal.


#13

Hind-sight is a wonderful thing, but prior errors of judgement do not necessarily cause one to forfeit the moral right of self-defence, or the legal right.

If the prior error was wanton or reckless or ill-motivated, then you may indeed have a problem, as you willfully and unreasonably committed yourself to a more violent path than the situation required.


#14

I am not sure how this question comes up. Is it perhaps from an aversion to the death penalty?

Since it can well be justified to kill someone in self-defense, it is wrong to simply say as a blanket rule that this is wrong. As far as I am aware the law in every country provides for justifiably killing someone in self-defense, and according to Catholic teaching killing someone in self-defense can be justified.

According to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” “Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow.”
“If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful.” (no. 2264 in the Catechism).


#15

No one is suggesting that you should let someone kill you if attacked.

My only point is to consciously be aware of the need to look for ways to avoid bad situations.
It is infinitely better to defuse a situation, or not enter into it, than to rely on force to get you out of it.

People do this naturally to some degree. I am saying to be conscious about it.

There are studies about the difference between normal behavior and criminal behavior. Normal people are much more likely to avoid violent conflict. Criminals will proceed into dangerous situations because in the criminal’s mind he has the “right” to behave a certain way or to walk down a certain street.

Thus, don’t think like a criminal.

Look for ways to avoid trouble.


closed #16

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.