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  • Jason Brennan (a1)

This essay argues for what may be called the parity thesis: Whenever it would be morally permissible to kill a civilian in self-defense or in defense of others against that civilian's unjust acts, it would also be permissible to kill government officials, including police officers, prison officers, generals, lawmakers, and even chief executives. I argue that in realistic circumstances, violent resistance to state injustice is permissible, even and perhaps especially in reasonably just democratic regimes. When civilians see officials about to commit certain severe injustices — such as police officers engaging in excessive violence — they may sometimes act unilaterally and kill the offending officials. I consider and rebut a wide range of objections, including objections against vigilantism, objections based on state legitimacy, and objections that violence can produce bad fallout.

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1 Altman, Andrew and Wellman, Christopher Heath, “From Humanitarian Intervention to Assassination: Human Rights and Political Violence,” Ethics 118 (2008): 228–57, at 253.

2 For example, see Kant, Immanuel, Practical Philosophy, ed. [trans.] Gregor, Mary J. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 6:319–22, 6:371, 6:382; 8:381–83; Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 363–91; Kimberly Brownlee, “Civil Disobedience,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2009); King, Martin Luther Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in Bedau, Hugo, ed., Civil Disobedience in Focus (London: Routledge, 1991).

3 Here, I paraphrase McMahan, Jeff, Killing in War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), vii.

4 For some defenses of radical pacifism, see, Kellenberger, J., “A Defense of Pacifism,” Faith and Philosophy 4 (1987): 129–48; Routley, Richard, “On the Alleged Inconsistency, Moral Insensitivity, and Fanaticism of Pacifism,” Inquiry 27 (1984): 117–36; Filice, Carlo, “Pacifism: A Reply to Narveson,” Journal of Philosophical Research 17 (1992): 493–95.

6 Brennan, Jason, “Marijuana,” in Ciment, James, ed., Social Issues in America (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006), 1044–54.

7 Cf. to incident on May 5, 2011, in which Pima County SWAT team members murdered Jose Guerana in his own home.

8 See, e.g., Silvermint, Daniel, “Resistance and Well–Being,” Journal of Political Philosophy 21 (2013): 405–25.

9 However, for two recent books arguing that violent resistance was essential for overturning Jim Crow, see Cobb, Charles Jr., This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (New York: Basic Books, 2014); Umoja, Akinyele Omowale, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2013).

10 McMahan, Killing in War, 8–9.

11 Hasnas, John, “Lobbying and Self-Defense,” Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy 12, special issue (2014): 391412.

12 Wayne LaFave, Criminal Law, 4th Edition (Washington, DC.: Thomson-West, 2003), 570. Here, “unlawful” means more or less “morally wrong” rather than “illegal.”

13 This summarizes and paraphrases LaFave, Criminal Law, 569–74.

14 This distinction is that when one has an excuse, the law considers the homicide wrongful, but one’s liability may be reduced. So, for instance, suppose a gunman forces me to shoot another innocent person. Here, my act of killing might be excused, but is not justified. It is wrong, but I was acting under duress. I contrast, if you shot the gunman who had the gun to my head, your act of killing would be justified. It would not be wrong at all.

15 LaFave, Criminal Law, 550. Here “unlawful” means unjust, not illegal.

16 Estlund, Democratic Authority, 2. See also In earlier political philosophy, the terms were used in sloppy or non–uniform ways. However, in the last ten years or so, it has become the convention to use the terms exactly as I define them here. There is also a sociological concept of “legitimacy,” associated with Max Weber, according to which sociological “legitimacy” refers to a government’s perceived authority. This concept of legitimacy is irrelevant to the debate here.

17 I say “government-like entity” because I regard governments as essentially coercive institutions. Following Gregory Kavka (“Why Even Morally Perfect People Would Need Government,” Social Philosophy and Policy 12 [1995]: 1–18, at 2), I define government as the subset of a society which claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion, and which has coercive power sufficient to maintain that monopoly.

18 Note, for instance, that even the apparently absolutist Thomas Hobbes agreed with this point. He argues that subjects have no duty to allow themselves to be killed. Even if a murderer is rightfully convicted and rightfully sentenced to death, Hobbes thought the murderer was permitted to resist execution. See Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), I.xxi.17, p. 143; Schrock, Thomas S., “The Right to Punish and the Right to Resist Punishment in Hobbes’s Leviathan,” Western Political Quarterly 44 (1991): 853–90; Steinberger, Peter J., “Hobbesian Resistance,” American Journal of Political Science 46 (2002): 856–65.

19 See, e.g., John Simmons, A., “Philosophical Anarchism,” in Sanders, John T. and John Simmons, A., eds., For and Against the State: New Philosophical Readings (Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), 1930. Note that Simmons does not use the words authority and legitimacy the way I do, as the definitions I use became standard later in the literature. For a survey showing how untenable most accounts of political obligation are, see Smith, M. B. E., “The Duty to Obey the Law,” in Companion to the Philosophy of Law and Legal Theory, ed. Patterson, D. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996). See also Applbaum, Arthur Isak, “Legitimacy without the Duty to Obey,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 38 (2010): 216–39.

20 Huemer, Michael, The Problem of Political Authority (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), 19.

21 As far as I can see, Huemer, Problem of Political Authority, decisively refutes all of the more recent theories of authority that he considers.

22 Simmons makes this point in Wellman, Christopher Heath and John Simmons, A., Is There a Duty to Obey the Law: For and Against (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 95. He says that even the most diehard proponents of the duty to obey the law will believe that most legal systems that are, on balance, quite just will include some laws that no one has a duty to obey.

23 Estlund, David, “On Following Orders in an Unjust War,” Journal of Political Philosophy 15 (2007): 213–34.

24 Estlund, Democratic Authority, 28–29, 275–81.

25 Estlund, Democratic Authority, 216.

26 David Lefkowitz also interprets Estlund this way. See David Lefkowitz, “Is There Ever a Duty to Obey Orders in an Unjust War?” UNC Greensboro, unpublished manuscript, 2009, available at

27 See Gaus, Gerald, Contemporary Theories of Liberalism (Washington, DC: Sage Publishing, 2003), 208218, for a summary of these commitments.

28 Estlund, Democratic Authority, 11.

29 Ibid., 140.

30 See, e.g., Alexander, Larry, “Other People’s Errors,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 16 (2013): 1049–59.

31 McMahan, Killing in War, 162.

32 For further empirical confirmation of this point, see Iqbal, Zaryab and Zorn, Christopher, “The Political Consequences of Assassination,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 52 (2008): 385400; Jones, Benjamin and Olken, Benjamin, “Hit or Miss: The Effect of Assassination on Institutions and War,” American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics 1:2 (2009): 5587; Spragens, William, “Political Impact of Presidential Assassinations and Attempted Assassination,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 10 (1980): 336–47.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
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  • EISSN: 1471-6437
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