The Natural Law of Self-Defense

Man’s right of self-defense did not begin with the adoption of the Second Amendment. It has nothing to do with guns or with the U.S. Constitution. In fact, it has no connection whatsoever to any man-made law or technology. Self-defense by any means is a natural human right that each person enjoys by virtue of his or her humanity. It is the right which guarantees all others.

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One of the most provocative statements ever made on how comprehensive our individual right of self-defense is was made by the famed English philosopher John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government. Locke, whose political philosophy greatly influenced our American Founding Fathers, explained how the natural law works and why the individual is justified in defending himself with lethal force when necessary:

THE state of war is a state of enmity and destruction: and therefore declaring by word or action, not a passionate and hasty, but a sedate settled design upon another man’s life, puts him in a state of war with him against whom he has declared such an intention, and so has exposed his life to the other’s power to be taken away by him, or any one that joins with him in his defence, and espouses his quarrel; it being reasonable and just, I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction: for, by the fundamental law of nature, man being to be preserved as much as possible, when all cannot be preserved, the safety of the innocent is to be preferred: and one may destroy a man who makes war upon him, or has discovered an enmity to his being, for the same reason that he may kill a wolf or a lion; because such men are not under the ties of the common law of reason, have no other rule, but that of force and violence, and so may be treated as beasts of prey, those dangerous and noxious creatures, that will be sure to destroy him whenever he falls into their power.

And hence it is, that he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power, does thereby put himself into a state of war with him; it being to be understood as a declaration of a design upon his life: for I have reason to conclude, that he who would get me into his power without my consent, would use me as he pleased when he had got me there, and destroy me too when he had a fancy to it; for no body can desire to have me in his absolute power, unless it be to compel me by force to that which is against the right of my freedom, i.e. make me a slave. To be free from such force is the only security of my preservation; and reason bids me look on him, as an enemy to my preservation, who would take away that freedom which is the fence to it; so that he who makes an attempt to enslave me, thereby puts himself into a state of war with me. He that, in the state of nature, would take away the freedom that belongs to any one in that state, must necessarily be supposed to have a design to take away every thing else, that freedom being the foundation of all the rest; as he that, in the state of society, would take away the freedom belonging to those of that society or commonwealth, must be supposed to design to take away from them every thing else, and so be looked on as in a state of war.

This makes it lawful for a man to kill a thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life, any farther than, by the use of force, so to get him in his power, as to take away his money, or what he pleases, from him; because using force, where he has no right, to get me into his power, let his pretence be what it will, I have no reason to suppose, that he, who would take away my liberty, would not, when he had me in his power, take away every thing else. And therefore it is lawful for me to treat him as one who has put himself into a state of war with me, i.e. kill him if I can; for to that hazard does he justly expose himself, whoever introduces a state of war, and is aggressor in it.

. . . force, or a declared design of force, upon the person of another, where there is no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief, is the state of war: and it is the want of such an appeal gives a man the right of war even against an aggressor, tho’ he be in society and a fellow subject. Thus a thief, whom I cannot harm, but by appeal to the law, for having stolen all that I am worth, I may kill, when he sets on me to rob me but of my horse or coat; because the law, which was made for my preservation, where it cannot interpose to secure my life from present force, which, if lost, is capable of no reparation, permits me my own defence, and the right of war, a liberty to kill the aggressor, because the aggressor allows not time to appeal to our common judge, nor the decision of the law, for remedy in a case where the mischief may be irreparable. Want of a common judge with authority, puts all men in a state of nature: force without right, upon a man’s person, makes a state of war, both where there is, and is not, a common judge” (Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 3, Sections 17-19).

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Elsewhere in his Treatise, Locke explained:

In transgressing the law of nature, the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of men, for their mutual security; and so he becomes dangerous to mankind, the tye, which is to secure them from injury and violence, being slighted and broken by him. Which being a trespass against the whole species, and the peace and safety of it, provided for by the law of nature, every man upon this score, by the right he hath to preserve mankind in general, may restrain, or where it is necessary, destroy things noxious to them, and so may bring such evil on any one, who hath transgressed that law, as may make him repent the doing of it, and thereby deter him, and by his example others, from doing the like mischief. And in the case, and upon this ground, MAN HATH A RIGHT TO PUNISH THE OFFENDER, AND BE EXECUTIONER OF THE LAW OF NATURE. . . .

From these two distinct rights, the one of punishing the crime for restraint, and preventing the like offence, which right of punishing is in every body; the other of taking reparation, which belongs only to the injured party, comes it to pass that the magistrate, who by being magistrate hath the common right of punishing put into his hands, can often, where the public good demands not the execution of the law, remit the punishment of criminal offences by his own authority, but yet cannot remit the satisfaction due to any private man for the damage he has received. That, he who has suffered the damage has a right to demand in his own name, and he alone can remit: the damnified person has this power of appropriating to himself the goods or service of the offender, by right of self preservation, as every man has a power to punish the crime, to prevent its being committed again, by the right he has of preserving all mankind, and doing all reasonable things he can in order to that end: and thus it is, that every man, in the state of nature, has a power to kill a murderer, both to deter others from doing the like injury, which no reparation can compensate, by the example of the punishment that attends it from every body, and also to secure men from the attempts of a criminal, who having renounced reason, the common rule and measure God hath given to mankind, hath, by the unjust violence and slaughter he hath committed upon one, declared war against all mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a lion or a tyger, one of those wild savage beasts, with whom men can have no society nor security: and upon this is grounded that great law of nature, Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Locke, Second Treatise, Chapter 2, Sections 8 and 11).

Finally, Locke observed:

Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrouled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men; but to judge of, and punish the breaches of that law in others, as he is persuaded the offence deserves, even with death itself, in crimes where the heinousness of the fact, in his opinion, requires it” (Locke, Treatise, Chapter 7, Section 87).

Let’s recapitulate a few of the things we’ve learned from Mr. Locke. Locke explained that there exists a “fundamental law of nature” which gives the individual a right to “destroy that which threatens” him. When someone cuts the common ties, or laws, that bind a society together and protect its members, he becomes “noxious” and dangerous to the society. In fact, he enters into a “state of war” against those whose rights – whether their life, Liberty, and property – are threatened. Inasmuch as a person behaves like a “savage beast” and endangers those around him, he may be put down like a mad dog. This is not only common sense, but a right we each enjoy in the “state of nature.”

Some may argue, however, that we do not live in a “state of nature.” We can all admit that this is accurate. We live in a well-ordered society with laws, a police force, judges, systems of justice, mechanisms to redress grievances, and so forth. However, to deny our individual right of self-defense merely because we live in a society tramples on the very idea of natural rights and the most basic conception of Freedom.

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Samuel Adams explained that we always retain our rights regardless of whether we enter into civil society. A person, if he chooses, may exist society at any time. When he does, he takes all his rights with him. We cannot, according to Mr. Adams, renounce our rights because they are endowments from Almighty God. He explained:

All men have a right to remain in a state of nature as long as they please; and in case of intolerable oppression, civil or religious, to leave the society they belong to, and enter into another.

When men enter into society, it is by voluntary consent. . . .

The natural liberty of man, by entering into society, is abridged or restrained, so far only as is necessary for the great end of society, the best good of the whole.

In the state of nature every man is, under God, judge and sole judge of his own rights and of the injuries done him. By entering into society he agrees to an arbiter or indifferent judge between him and his neighbors; but he no more renounces his original right than by taking a cause out of the ordinary course of law, and leaving the decision to referees or indifferent arbitrators. . . .

The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but only to have the law of nature for his rule. . . .

In short, it is the greatest absurdity to suppose it in the power of one, or any number of men, at the entering into society, to renounce their essential natural rights, or the means of preserving those rights; when the grand end of civil government, from the very nature of its institution, is for the support, protection, and defence of those very rights; the principal of which, as is before observed, are Life, Liberty, and Property. If men, through fear, fraud, or mistake, should in terms renounce or give up any essential natural right, the eternal law of reason and the grand end of society would absolutely vacate such renunciation. The right to freedom being the gift of God Almighty, it is not in the power of man to alienate this gift and voluntarily become a slave” (Samuel Adams, “The Rights of the Colonists,” November 20, 1772).

Please note that Adams said people do not “renounce their essential natural rights, or the means of preserving those rights” when they agree to live in society with others. These prerogatives – to enjoy one’s natural rights and to defend them – always remain with the individual. It is “the greatest absurdity” to say we do not have a right to defend and preserve our other essential rights.

We allow police and others to defend us because, on paper, this system operates more efficiently. However, law enforcement personnel have no inherent right to police our neighborhoods. They have no intrinsic power to stop criminals just as courts have no inborn authority to punish criminals. Every power and authority a police officer posses comes directly from you, the individual. And this authority is merely on loan and can be reclaimed at any time – such as when no police are present or when public servants abuse the authority you have loaned them. The same is true with any and all powers claimed by government. They belong, of right, to individuals first and foremost.

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Furthermore, there are many times in society when the individual does not have immediate access to society’s collective means of self-defense – whether law enforcement, the courts, or the nation’s armies – yet must immediately address a threat to his life, Liberty, or property. Such instances may include a woman walking down the road who needs to defend herself from sexual assault, a man defending his family from a home invader during the middle of the night, a store owner protecting his property and livelihood from arsonists or vandals, a person being carjacked by a criminal while driving to work, or a church-goer who suddenly find himself faced with a maniac attempting to shoot up his congregation. In these and myriad other scenarios, there is no possible way to reach out to society for help; there is no time to wait for the police to arrive, for the sheriff to investigate the matter, or for a jury to deliberate.

All of these instances share at least one thing in common; namely, that the victim’s rights are being violated. In the case of the woman, someone is trying to violate her body and free will or, in other words, her Liberty. In the case of the store owner, someone is trying to destroy his property. In the case of the church-goer, his and other innocent people’s right to life is threatened. In the case of the man defending his family or the person being carjacked, he doesn’t know the intention of the perpetrator is – kidnapping, murder, robbery, rape, etc., – and must act as if any of these is a distinct possibility.

Consider what John Locke said in the quote above: “He that, in the state of nature, would take away the freedom that belongs to any one . . . must necessarily be supposed to have a design to take away every thing else, that freedom being the foundation of all the rest.” We don’t know the intention of someone who is attacking, robbing, or otherwise assaulting us. All we know for certain is that a person is trampling our precious rights and clearly has no respect for us, the law, or morality.

A person who would violate any of your cherished rights automatically shows that he holds all your other rights in contempt. Such a person, theoretically, is capable of any thing – including taking your life. Since you do not know his intention, but simply know that he is willing to violate your rights, you must treat him as an existential threat to all of your Liberties. Remember, Locke explained:

This makes it lawful for a man to kill a thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life, any farther than, by the use of force, so to get him in his power, as to take away his money, or what he pleases, from him; because using force, where he has no right, to get me into his power, let his pretence be what it will, I have no reason to suppose, that he, who would take away my liberty, would not, when he had me in his power, take away every thing else. And therefore it is lawful for me to treat him as one who has put himself into a state of war with me, i.e. kill him if I can.”

It is lawful, according to the law of nature, to kill one who attempts to violate your right to life, Liberty, or property. This is the most basic and fundamental principle in the book of Liberty. “In the state of nature every man is, under God, judge and sole judge of his own rights and of the injuries done him,” as Samuel Adams said. When a state of war and hostility is commenced against you by an assailant whose intentions are unknown, you become the “judge and sole judge” of your rights and have a just right to defend yourself, your life, your Freedom, your family, your dignity as a human being, and your property. I would even argue that you have a duty to defend your rights since they are gifts from Almighty God.

Self-defense is not a new concept – wherever there is Liberty, there exists the right to defend it and those who enjoy it. Self-defense is an eternal law recognized by enlightened people in all ages.. Anciently, the Roman statesman Cicero explained:

[T]here exists a law, not written down anywhere but inborn in our hearts; a law which comes to us not by training or custom or reading but by derivation and absorption and adoption from nature itself; a law which has come to us not from theory but from practice, not by instruction but by natural intuition. I refer to the law which lays it down that, if our lives are endangered by plots or violence or armed robbers or enemies, any and every method of protecting ourselves is morally right. When weapons reduce them to silence, the laws no longer expect one to await their pronouncements. For people who decide to wait for these will have to wait for justice, too – and meanwhile they must suffer injustice first. Indeed, even the wisdom of the law itself, by a sort of tacit implication, permits self-defense, because it does not actually forbid men to kill; what it does, instead, is to forbid the bearing of a weapon with the intention to kill. When, therefore, an inquiry passes beyond the mere question of the weapon and starts to consider the motive, a man who has used arms in self-defence is not regarded as having carried them with a homicidal aim” (Stephen P. Halbrook, That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right, 13).

I repeat: Self-defense is part of the “natural law.” The natural law written in our hearts by the finger of God permits us to defend ourselves against “plots or violence or armed robbers or enemies.” Literally “every method” and means to defend ourselves when endangered is “morally right.” Not only is it morally correct to defend ourselves, our lives, and our property, but the Declaration of Independence and Constitution both support the idea and enshrine it in the regal robes of legality.

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Let’s leave behind the realm of the hypothetical and discuss a real example. Two nights ago, in Hunter, Oklahoma, a man shot a woman who entered his property at 3 A.M. and attempted to steal a flag. The flag was the National Socialist flag bearing the swastika. Whether or not you think he should have been flying the flag is not on trial here. What is being discussed, however, is the actual situation – that is, an individual trespassing on someone’s property at 3 A.M., attempting a robbery, and being shot in the process of fleeing with stolen property.

Since the incident, the local “authorities” have confiscated the man’s fourteen firearms and have charged him with “shooting with the intent to kill and assault and battery with a deadly weapon.” They are holding him without bail despite the fact that he was compliant with police and has never caused any trouble. One anonymous individual, in fact, said the man was very nice and would mow neighbors’ lawns and smile and wave. In spite of all this, he is being treated as a murderer.

The woman, by the way, survived the incident and is being treated for her wounds. Amazingly, the district attorney has not yet decided whether to charge her with a crime despite the fact that no one denies she was trying to steal property from the man’s home! I doubt whether the criminals who previously stole the man’s flag’s were charged with theft or trespassing either.

If I was on the jury that will try this case, given the information we know at this point, my conscience would not allow me to convict the man of anything. I’m quite sure John Locke would also vote “not guilty.” It was he, after all, who said, that it is “lawful for a man to kill a thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life.” How can we refute his logic?

When you examine stories like this one from Oklahoma, don’t fall into the trap of asking whether the man should have fired his weapon. That’s not the point. That’s irrelevant, in fact. That is between him and his God. What you need to decide, rather, is whether or not the man had a right to defend himself and his property with force.

I contend that each of us has a natural right of self-defense which no earthly force, no government, no majority, no law, can ever erase. I hold it as sacrosanct that the laws of nature give me, the individual, a right to protect my life, my Liberty, and my property – and those of my family and innocent people – with lethal force whenever and wherever necessary. I further affirm that the benefit of the doubt should always be given to the victim of an illicit act, not to the criminal who was fortunately thwarted in his or her attempt to violate the victim’s sacred rights.

You may not care about swastika flags, but you should care very much about property rights. You may not agree with the personal viewpoints of the shooter in this case, but you should care about whether his right to defend his home and possessions is held inviolate. You may have sympathy for the woman who was shot, but you should never let your judgment become so clouded with emotion that you can’t label her a thief and a criminal. You will rarely go astray in your judgment if you always keep in mind the importance of our natural rights and our paramount right of self-defense. Self-defense, even when it means ending the life of an offender, is part of the “perfect freedom” with which man is born.

Zack Strong,

June 30, 2020

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