The protests taking place across the United States have attracted armed people who are not engaged in the protest. Some say they are present to protect property and life from the protestors, some are counter protestors and some are perhaps merely armed observers. Kyle Rittenhouse seems to have travelled to Kenosha to protect property from the protestors and he allegedly shot protestors. He has been charged with five felonies. While the authorities now seem to be taking the matter seriously, he is claiming self-defense.
My adopted city of Tallahassee also saw an armed response to protestors. Fortunately, the incident ended quickly without injury or death. The episode seems to have begun with a confrontation between the protestors and the armed person which escalated into shoving. The armed person then drew his weapon to deter the protestors and quickly surrendered to the police. While Florida is not an open carry state, a person can carry a concealed weapon if they have a permit to do so—so the person, who has a permit, was within his rights to be armed. He also had every right to be in the public space where the protest took place. He also had every right to argue with the protestors—there is the legal right to free expression as well as the analogous moral right. One point of concern is that he is alleged to have taken pictures of protestors’ license plates—which could be seen as threatening. In any case, he seems to have intentionally engaged the protestors while armed.
Probably because no one was hurt, as this is being written no one has been charged with any crime—though there have been some calls for charges to be pressed. The official view, as of now, is that the man acted in legitimate self-defense: he felt threatened with violence and drew his weapon to deter the alleged attackers. He might even be credited with showing restraint—Florida has a controversial stand your ground law that might have allowed the man to legally shoot the protestors.
These two examples raise a general moral issue as to whether you can morally claim self defense if you go armed to a protest with the intention of confronting protestors. Since my expertise is not law, I will leave it to the lawyers, legislators, and judges to sort out the legal aspects of this matter and will focus on the moral issue.
To pre-empty likely straw person attacks, I will begin by stating the obvious: if protestors are engaged in a threatening activity and move to engage a person who has done nothing to provoke a morally acceptable engagement, then that person would have the right to self-defense. For example, if Sally is peacefully standing in front of her store and a group of protestors start throwing bricks at her and her store, she has the right of self-defense. She has done nothing to warrant their attack and they are acting wrongly to harm her and her property.
As another example, if Bill is peacefully standing on the corner watching a protest and engages the protestors in a debate about what Kant would think of their actions and the protestors start punching him, then he would have the moral right of self-defense. He has the moral right to be in public spaces and to express his views. As such, he would have done nothing that would warrant the attack and can rightfully defend himself.
At the other extreme would be cases in which it would be absurd to claim a right self-defense. For example, if a person is afraid of protestors because he watched the RNC and opens fire on a group of peaceful protestors walking past his property, then he cannot claim the moral right of self-defense. Merely being afraid does not suffice to warrant self-defense; there must be a level of threat that a reasonable person would recognize as meaningfully endangering the person. As another example, if a protestor was spray-painting protest slogans on the wall of a business, this alone would not morally warrant the owner shooting them—the offense does not merit the punishment of death. As with most moral issues, it is the land between the extremes were the meaningful debate usually takes place.
While many would see the Rittenhouse case as open and shut, it does raise a general point worth considering. Rather than focus on the specific case, this incident does raise the moral question of whether a person has the moral right to intentionally travel to a place to defend the property or lives of others knowing that confrontation is likely. This is, of course a case of an intentional, traveling vigilante. Since I have written extensively on various types of vigilantism before, I will make use of my usual approach of using John Locke’s theory of self-defense. Locke argues that when we are in the state of civil society, we still retain the right of self-defense and the right to protect others. But it must be “activated” before it can justly be used. What must occur is that a person must be temporarily removed from the state of civil society by an action that wrongly threatens life, liberty, or property. For this to occur, there must be no viable civil authority able or willing to intervene on the person’s behalf. If there is a viable and willingly civil authority that can act effectively, the person remains in the state of civil society and does not have the right to use violence. To use an obvious example, if I am in a confrontation with someone and they suddenly swing on me (or someone beside me) and a police officer immediately pins them to the ground, I do not have the right to attack them—the civil authority was present and acted effectively. But if the officer is fifty feet away while the person wrongfully starts swinging at me or someone else, I have the moral right to engage them. But if the officer subdues them, I do not have the right to keep hitting them—civil society has been restored locally.
On the face of it, a travelling vigilante would be hard-pressed to invoke the right of self-defense: they must travel to a place to intentionally put themselves in danger when they could easily remain safe. To use an analogy, this would be on par with sprinting across a room to get in front of a punch aimed at someone else just so one can claim self-defense. That would be absurd. So, a travelling vigilante cannot justly claim self-defense: they could have defended themselves by staying away from the danger.
But Locke also allows, in the state of nature, for people to rightfully defend others. So, if civil society has failed in a location, then people would have a moral right to go to that place to defend lives and property that are being wrongfully threatened. Specific cases would require sorting out whether the alleged threats were real and morally wrong. But if civil society has not failed in that location, then such an action would not be warranted: protecting life, liberty and property is the obligation of the state and vigilantes would not be warranted in using violence. As such, a travelling vigilante could be justified in such cases.
The other general sort of case involves a person going to a protest while armed, knowing that their planned actions or presence is likely to provoke a response. There are two main types of situations here. One is that the person is aware that their presence and actions might provoke a response, but they do not intend to instigate violence. If the person has a morally acceptable reason to go, even if it is just to exercise their right to be in a public space, then their going would seem to be acceptable. That said, a person should still consider the consequences of their actions: while they do have the right to be there, if they go knowing that they will trigger a conflict, then they bear some responsibility for going. After all, they could avoid the conflict by not going. To use an analogy, if Sam’s ex is going to be at a party and Sam knows there will be an incident if he goes, while he still has the right to attend the party, he does have some responsibility for deciding to attend. But, of course, if he does not want an incident and his ex is the instigator, then the ex bears most of the responsibility.
The second is that the person intends to provoke a response so that they can engage in violence while claiming they were acting in self-defense. This is morally complicated. On the one hand, claiming self-defense after intentionally provoking the response would be morally problematic. To use an ex analogy, if Sam knows that his ex will create an incident and ruin the party if he shows up and provokes her, but he shows up with the intention of provoking her and ruining the party, then he bears some of the blame. On the other hand, it can be argued that even if the person intends to provoke an incident, they can still claim self-defense if those provoked are acting wrongly. Using the ex-example, if Sam knows what his ex will do and goes with the intent of provoking her, as long as his provocation does not morally justify her response, he can still rightfully claim that she bears the majority of the responsibility. He can, rightfully, claim that she has no right to respond in that manner—even though he knows what will happen when he goes and provokes her. So, if Joe attends an anti-lockdown protest by Trump supporters and shouts “black lives matter” and “you’re killing people” repeatedly knowing he will and intending to provoke a violent response, then he would bear some responsibility for the ensuing violence (but for his presence and actions, it would not have occurred) but he can also claim self-defense: the violent response was not warranted by his provocation. This does, of course, raise complicated moral questions about what sort of provocation warrants a violent response—which would require its own essay.