In 2013, the Department of Public Safety at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS) caused a stir when it suggested female students vomit or urinate on themselves if attacked.
Unfortunately for UCCS, on-campus conceal-and-carry bills were being debated in Colorado at the time, so its post catalyzed a great deal of interest, including that of conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, who criticized these tactics as ineffective, infantilizing, and condescending.
Given that feminist and left-leaning sources were also unenthusiastic about these unsavory pointers, UCCS promptly cut its losses removed the page.
In its defense, UCCS’s recommendations were not idiosyncratic. For instance, See Sally Kick Ass: A Woman’s Guide to Personal Safety suggests that attacked women, among other things, rub their vomit or feces all over their bodies, as does Fight Back!: Safety and Self-Defense Tips, which adds “barking like a dog.”
And this got me thinking: What if these books were titled Bark Like a Dog! or worse, See Sally Rub Vomit on Herself? What would such titles communicate? Why did the authors emphasize violent resistance in their titles, but not so much in their actual advice?
This post isn’t about campus rape. It is, rather, a criticism of an assumption we tend to make in our discussions of resistance generally, namely, that advocates of violent resistance must show that it’s more effective than non-violent forms of resistance. For reasons of dignity, I don’t think that’s true.
Application: gun control
I will use gun control to approach this widespread assumption, although we might have used state-on-state aggression just as easily. There are four main reasons given to permit citizens to have guns:
–sport and sport hunting
–self-defense against individual assault
–self-defense against government oppression
Debates over gun control center on the second two reasons. A typical paper on the topic will see philosophers (whether pro or con) rolling up their sleeves and delving into the empirical literature of whether guns really are the most useful form of self-defense against criminals, whether they would be effective against state forces bent on domination, whether armed insurrection is more effective than passive resistance, and so on. For instance, in his seminal essay on gun control, Hugh LaFollette tells us that,
[g]iven the negative results of private gun ownership, gun advocates should show not only that guns deter crime, but that they are the best way of doing so.
And in his pro-gun reply, Samuel Wheeler argues
not that guns are one among several means to protecting oneself in the situation envisaged in my paper, but that guns are the only currently practicable means. That a gun is the only practicable means in some situations generates a prima facie entitlement to have a gun. (emphasis in the original)
Whether owning or bearing firearms is the most practicable or effective (two quite different things) means of deterrence or defense (also two different things) is an interesting question. But debates over gun control in particular—and armed resistance generally—don’t hang on their answers. What matters isn’t just whether armed resistance is the most effective or practicable way to protect our rights or prerogatives, but also whether or when it is the only dignified way of doing so.
I argue that would-be victims of crime and oppression have a prima facie moral right to resist with dignity, and dignity often demands violent resistance even when more effective nonviolent means would achieve the same—or even better—results for the victim and innocent bystanders. Although other considerations—such as our obligations to dependents, likelihood of success, danger to innocent parties, proportionality, etc.—may in some circumstances outweigh this right to dignified defense, it is nonetheless a serious right, and one almost completely ignored in academic and even public debate.
To argue in favor of gun rights on the basis of dignity concerns, one first has to show that we have a prima facie right to act in dignified ways, and second, that violent resistance is sometimes a more dignified or even the only dignified form of resistance. I will begin with the first question.
Do we have a right to dignified action generally?
Dignity has always been a central concern of everyday people and academic ethicists. In fact, the standard line in ethics isn’t only that we have a right to live with dignity, but that we have a duty to. For instance, dignity was basically holiness and sacredness to Kant, and for him it was the dignity of autonomy that demanded we honor humanity in ourselves and others.
In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.
My defense of dignity is far more humble: I’m merely arguing that we have a right to act in dignified ways. I am agnostic here on whether we have duty to be dignified. So this premise of my argument borders on being uncontroversial.
The only plausible way I can see to deny a right to dignified behavior is to be skeptical of dignity itself. It was suggested to me, for example, that since individuals and cultures disagree on what’s dignified, there is no such thing as dignity.
But disagreement about dignity isn’t a good reason to be skeptical of dignity itself, or its moral value. At most the argument from disagreement should make us somewhat skeptical about which actions are dignified. Debates about the shape of the earth or of what’s funny don’t do much to undermine the view that the earth has a shape or that some things are funny.
Moreover, even if dignity is “just” a matter of convention, those conventional rules would nonetheless successfully make something dignified or not. Dignity would be analogous to politeness in this case, since which actions are polite are determined by cultures. For instance, if, in your culture, it is impolite for me not to bow to you, my prima facie moral obligation to respect you may well demand that I show you respect in that way—I at least have the right to show you respect in that way. Likewise, dignity in our culture happens to require me to wear pants to work.
Obviously, there is nothing intrinsically undignified about wearing a hula skirt to work. I’d be happy to wear a hula skirt to work in the right society. But given the conventions, it really would be undignified for me to wear a hula skirt to work: so much so that, if my supervisor demanded that I wear one, I could successfully sue my university. So it seems I have the prima facie right to continue wearing pants to work because of dignity concerns, even though the dignity of pants is conventional. By parity of reason, if, in my culture, dignity requires me to violently resist my attackers (as the titles of these self-defense books suggests), I presumably would at least have a prima facie right to use violent means to defend myself.
This is not to say that I concede the point that dignity is conventional, or specifically that the (putative) dignity of violent resistance is conventional. In fact, I suggest in a moment that this is not the case. I’m pointing out only that, even if dignified behavior is conventional, our right to violent resistance might be weighty, since we have a right to dignified behavior, and violent resistance (in some cases) is the most dignified or only dignified option.
Violent, passive, and repellent resistance
Nonviolent responses might be dignified. For instance, if someone tries to carjack me, I may
-try to shoot them
-bark like a dog
-try to drive away
Suppose those are my options. In that case, it seems to me simply driving away is sufficiently dignified, even though it’s a nonviolent response. But in many scenarios—such as one in which our only options are fighting back or rubbing shit on ourselves—the only dignified form of resistance will be violent.
If the shit-smearing case is not compelling to you, consider the dignity that underwrites democracy itself. The ability to determine our leaders is often understood in terms of “dignity.” But in a democracy, leaders who lose elections must go. Our votes are not opinion polls leaders use to determine whether it’s time to step down, out of the goodness of their hearts—that would describe a weird sort of benevolent serial dictatorship. All other things being equal, it seems obvious that citizens living in a country where leaders step down purely voluntarily enjoy less civic dignity than those living in a democratic country where leaders can be legally but literally forced from office.
Perhaps forceful resistance is a broader category than violent resistance? For instance, if Jill smears herself with shit upon being attacked, she is not being violent: she’s merely making herself repellent. It seems that making oneself too repellent to attack is a middle ground between violent resistance and what we normally call “passive” or “nonviolent” resistance. Contrast repellent resistance with the famous nonviolent resistance efforts led by Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., for example. Those nonviolent campaigns were morally complicated insofar as they were meant to express feelings of injustice, to persuade the dominant groups in question to change, and to disrupt their respective unjust systems. But what those efforts didn’t do is make the protesters repellent to their oppressors. Indeed, they did quite the opposite.
Since passive resistance isn’t very effective in most cases of invasion or assault, the violence-averse critic might find repellence to be a promising third way. All other things being equal, the critic may say, repellence is better than violence because violence involves harm. The critic may further point out that not all repellence is as demeaning as smearing shit on oneself. For instance, if Jill could scream intolerably loud, or could magically make herself burning hot to the touch, these would be nonviolent and yet reasonably dignified methods of resistance.
I agree that screaming and making oneself burning hot would be sufficiently dignified. (My thesis isn’t that all dignified resistance will be violent, but rather that we have a right to violent resistance when it is the only dignified option, and maybe when it is merely the more dignified option.) But it would be beneficial to consider why violent resistance intuitively seems like a more dignified kind of response than passive resistance and even repellence.
There may be multiple reasons for why violent resistance seems more dignified than its alternatives. But the one I will float here is that violent resistance “morally equalizes” victim and aggressor insofar as violent resistance doesn’t (at least symbolically) allow the aggressor to decide, carte blanche, the terms of engagement. If Jill passively resists Jack (say, like a pangolin, she tucks into the world’s most effective fetal position), Jack gets to determine when the engagement is over.
Even if Jill makes herself repellent (say, as certain frogs do, by emitting a toxic ooze), Jack nonetheless gets to decide when to break off the unsavory attack and go about his business.
But if Jill responds violently, then Jack is not the sole decision-maker about how long their engagement lasts, or of what the consequences will be to him. Jill now has at least some control over the engagement, or at least claims her right to such control.
Since she is an innocent victim, Jill would ideally get total control. But in reality, Jack may quickly overcome Jill despite her violent resistance. And Jack may be faster than Jill, and so be able to flee her if he feels the reward isn’t worth the risk. In practical terms, violent response doesn’t rule out the possibility that the aggressor will control the engagement. But we are talking about a moral relation between aggressor and aggressed, not a descriptive one. (And mere moral relations matter: your single vote affords you practically no political power, but the right to vote morally means a lot to you.) Jill’s violent resistance would, as her nonviolent and repellent forms of resisting would not, put her on the same footing as Jack. In her violent response, Jack no longer has full discretion about whether the engagement will continue or what consequences he will suffer.
So violent resistance alone puts attacker and attacked in moral symmetry with regard to the violent engagement the attacker summoned into existence. This moral symmetry seems to explain and illuminate our sense that violent resistance is a more dignified sort of response to aggression or oppression than passive or repellent resistance. It may be, however, that very dignified methods of passive or repellent resistance are more dignified than particularly undignified methods of violent resistance. Also, it may be that the relative strength of aggressor and victim matter (if a bratty child kicks me in the shins, is violent riposte really my most dignified option?). And I stress once again that there may be other considerations that outweigh even dignity in extreme circumstances. For instance, if I know I am my children’s sole provider, I may be morally obliged to forsake my dignity for my safety.
So far I have argued that we have a significant prima facie right to act with dignity, and that violent response to aggression or oppression is, when compared to passive and repellent measures, sometimes the more or only dignified form of resistance. It follows that we have a significant right to violent response to aggression in such cases. But how does this inform the gun rights debate? After all, Jill has a wide range of violent options if Jack attacks her. She may scratch, punch, or bite him if she’s unarmed. If dignity happens to require in this case that Jill respond violently, then Jill’s mere right to defend herself with dignity still wouldn’t secure her right to use a gun. So in the final section of this post I want to briefly argue that our right to defense with dignity extends to effective violent defense if it extends to violent defense at all. Since guns may be the most effective dignified option, we may well have a right to guns based on dignity.
As conceived of here, dignified defense sometimes requires victims to try to “flip the script” on their attackers, so to speak—to make the engagement one that victim controls or at least partially controls. Only violent resistance can do this. Since victims have a prima facie right to dignified defense, they thus have a prima facie right to effective violent defense. If they have that right, they have a right to the means necessary for that, which, depending on the context, may include a gun.
One argument for this is based on the view that justice mustn’t be mocked. Suppose a policeman is standing around as Jill is attacked: we’d expect the officer to violently engage Jack and attempt to apprehend him. If the policeman was too weak to apprehend Jack, we’d expect the policeman to call for backup. If the backup was too weak, the National Guard should be brought in. If even that didn’t work, we’d consider this a sign that we must bolster our law-enforcing institutions. Why do we demand effective violence from law enforcement? Because it would make a mockery of justice to allow Jill’s attacker call the shots with impunity. The dignity of justice, just like the dignity of democracy, is underwritten by our violent capabilities offenders cannot blithely flout or step away from. Pointing out that individuals and states have a prima facie moral right to effective violence—especially in the immediate absence of a (domestic or international) police force—is just to afford them the rights to dignity we wish our just laws to enjoy.
Another argument for effective dignified defense is based on the principle that, if one has a right to x, one has a right to an effective x. If a prisoner has a right to water, he has a right to healthy water; if you have a right to education, you have a right to decent teachers. So if we have a right to dignified defense, we have a right to effective dignified defense.
Note there is no inconsistency in maintaining, on the one hand, that we have a prima facie right to efficient dignified self-defense and thus perhaps a prima facie right to own or carry guns, and denying on the other hand, as I have above, that efficiency doesn’t determine whether we have a moral right to own or carry guns. I argued we have a prima facie right to less efficient, but more dignified, forms of self-defense. Independent arguments show we have a prima face right to efficient dignified forms of self-defense. This is no more inconsistent than saying we have a prima facie right to eat kosher even if the tastiest foods aren’t kosher, and also a prima facie right to consume the tastiest kosher foods.
I will close with a comment on innocent bystanders. The strength of our prima facie right to dignified self-defense is somewhat moderated by the fact that, even if violent means are the only dignified means of resistance, violence and its tools (such as guns) often harm innocent third parties. While this must be conceded, it is worth pointing out that we put innocent third parties at some risk for the sake of our dignity all the time. Almost all attractive women choose jobs less lucrative than their possible careers in the sex industry. Large numbers of clever people eschew lucrative careers as lobbyists in favor of nobler occupations at non-profits. Any number of people divorce over matters of dignity, frequently impoverishing themselves in the process. Since wealth often negatively correlates with violence in the U.S., such individuals often end up living in worse neighborhoods than they otherwise could have. If they have children, these children—innocent third parties to their parents’ sense of dignity—are thereby put at increased risk. Nevertheless, except in the most extreme cases, few of us would condemn their parents’ choices. Thus, if we are going to be consistent, it isn’t at all clear that our right to “mere” dignity doesn’t justify a significant risk to innocent third parties.
 Hugh LaFollette, “Gun Control,” Ethics (2000) 110:263-281, p. 278.
 Samuel Wheeler, “Gun Violence and Fundamental Rights,” Criminal Justice Ethics (2001) 20.1: 19-24, pp. 21-22.
 Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, James Ellington, trans., (1981) Indianapolis: Hackett, sect. 434 (p. 40).
 For instance, the United Nations declares that “democracy, and democratic governance in particular, means that people’s human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected, promoted and fulfilled, allowing them to live with dignity.” (“Democracy and the United Nations,” UnitedNations.org. Available: http://www.un.org/en/globalissues/democracy/democracy_and_un.shtml). For a recent discussion, see Josiah Ober, “Democracy’s Dignity,” American Political Science Review (2012) 106.4: 827-846.
 The dignity of being non-dominated—of being such that someone cannot offend against you with impunity—is just the classical republican conception of political freedom writ small. See e.g. Philip Petti, “Freedom with Honor: A Republican Ideal,” Social Research (1997) 64.1: 52-76.