Self-Defence & Its Legitimacy

What is “Legitimate Defence” and in which cases does it apply? Isn’t it a duty to fight off aggressors and preserve our life? Can someone go too far in the use of violence to defend himself? Here below is the answer from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2263 to 2267. I will write a brief comment below if something is notable.

2263 The legitimate defence 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-defence 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.”

Murder (killing an innocent) is always wrong, while killing an aggressor may be legitimate if it was not intended. So yes, we may kill accidentally someone to preserve our life, but it has to be a side effect of preserving our life. Notice here we talk about preserving our life, or the life of someone entrusted to us. It would not be legitimate that in order to safeguard the life of a dog, the possession of a bike or car, or the beauty of a flower garden, we use of that kind of violence. The action has to be proportionate to the threat. The life of a man, even a guilty one, is worth more than earthly possessions. The “redneck” mentality of shooting anything (or anyone) who simply “trespassed on my property” is pure insanity and is not even legitimate.

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

As in above, the recipe is very simple : all things with moderation. Killing someone in self-defence can only come from as an accident, it cannot be the cause. It is the same principle when one is at war to defend against a true evil. Yet we cannot be cruel, and if after grievously wounding an enemy we find him in his last moment, we have to do everything in our power so that he may die with dignity. This includes giving comfort and such.

2265 Legitimate defence can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defence 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.

Yes, cops and military are allowed to shoot those who pose a threat to the life or well-being of others. The primary purpose is to protect the innocents, and if, by the course of things, one has to kill the enemy to protect those entrusted to him, it is laudable. However, with the development and use of taser guns, the need to actually have to kill someone should diminish.

2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behaviour 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.

We can see that for the guilty, the possibility of loosing one’s life acts as a safeguard sometimes. We also see that in spiritual life, some might not sin because they don’t want to offend God, but because they are afraid of hell. This is not a good disposition, but it is a start. And sadly, our society is not much better than that. This shows the benefit of possessing a punishment which stops individuals from committing crime. With this, another question arises. Can we dispose of individuals who pose great threats to society, notably through the death penalty.

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.”

Our modern society has now means which mankind did not possess even fifty years ago. A well-guarded federal prison is extremely hard to escape, compared to those a century before. Some third-world countries might have to use such means because of poor infrastructure, but countries such as Canada, United States, and Germany, have no valid reason. With the technology we have, it should not be legitimate to kill someone we already caught. If we do not kill those who should have been condemned, we show mercy, and we also give time. Maybe those fifty years spent in prison will convert the criminal. As Catholics, we have to pray for our ennemies, and give them second chances. Not all men are saved, but we can hope for the conversion of even the most hardened sinner.

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