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Force and the Four Roles

When people are involved in the use of physical force, their involvement fits among these four fundamental roles:

  1. Offender
  2. Victim
  3. Witness
  4. Constable

Oliver robs Valarie, is seen by William, and apprehended by Carl. The latter two roles are optional: Without Carl, Oliver would get away with his crime. Without William's information, Carl's job is harder.

A single person may play several roles. William might decide to intervene to stop the robbery instead of being merely an observer, assuming the constable role. If Valarie is armed or otherwise powerful, she might assume the constable role and thwart Oliver's robbery by herself. And the victim is always a witness in the sense of possessing some relevant information, unless the victim is killed.

In the case of clear-cut self-defense, both Oliver and Valarie use force. Oliver is the initiator and Valarie is the responder. It is not the use of force per se that is morally objectionable — what matters is whether one is initiating the use of force or responding to it.

Oliver may prevail against Valarie. It is not always possible for a victim to ward off the offender, though it happens often. Let us change the example and assume Oliver's plan is to kidnap Valarie and collect a ransom. He abducts her at gunpoint and physically confines her while arranging for payment.

We do not "blame the victim", saying it was Valarie's responsibility to be prepared at all times to fend off any attacker, no matter how powerful. And we also do not fault her for being unable to escape confinement by herself. If she is able to do it, we praise her, but we recognize that there are situations where it is impossible to win. In a larger and historical context, we do not blame Tiananmen Square on the students, or the Holocaust on the Jews, or the Soviet gulags on the imprisoned laborers. There are situations where the victim is unable to protect themselves and can do little but hope an outsider will help them.

If an outsider decides to intervene — if a Witness assumes the role of a Constable — their use of force against the Offender has the same moral status as the Victim's. They are responding against the offender's initiation of force. They are, in effect, exercising the victim's right of self-defense by proxy. Force may be used against those who initiate force, but it doesn't have to be wielded by the direct victims of the original force. It is not merely common for the Victim and Constable roles to be filled by different people, it is actually desirable, because this encourages fair, uniform, and objective controls instead of vigilantism. Police officers wield force on the behalf of victims as a profession. Citizen's arrests are rare.

I will not here take a position on when a Witness ought to become a Constable. The purpose of this article is to show that it is morally permissible, not either forbidden or mandatory. The invasion of Iraq by the United States a year ago is this sort of case. Just as a criminal has no right to violate the rights of his victim, a dictator has no right to violate the rights of his citizens. Hussein's long record of grotesque acts left no doubt: Iraq was an outlaw state with no moral claim to sovereignty.


(None of the foregoing is meant to imply any form of strong equivalence between law enforcement and war. The contexts are different in important ways, and procedures that are appropriate in one may be inappropriate in the other. The moral foundations of the use of force, however, are the same.)

Tiny Island