In a previous post, I outlined what I take to be two key components of the now infamous “Stand Your Ground” law permitting individuals who believe they are in imminent danger to defend themselves without fear of criminal punishment. This law, it seems, was a contributing factor in the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old teen from Florida. In this installment of our series on this case, I want to briefly consider a couple of arguments in favor of Stand Your Ground, in the hope of getting a better sense of what proponents of this law might find appealing about it.
As I mentioned in the previous post, one feature of the Stand Your Ground law that requires support is the elimination of a duty to avoid confrontation, as the previous statute required, and the introduction of a right to defend oneself, even when it would be reasonable to flee. First, we should note that one need not support these aspects of the law in isolation, because a duty to avoid confrontation and a right to defend oneself are incompatible. You cannot have a duty to walk away if you have a right not to do so, and vice versa. In this case, arguments for a right to stand your ground will also count against a duty to try to avoid confrontation.
There are, I think, two well-established rights that one might appeal to in defending a right to stand your ground and defend yourself against imminent danger. First, we might appeal to a right to autonomy. This right, which is well-established in the law, generally allows individuals to be the arbitrators of their own life decisions. Thus, when you believe your safety is threatened, a right to autonomy allows you to stand and fight, or walk away as you see fit.
The other well-established right that might be appealed to in defense of Stand Your Ground is the right to one’s own body. The idea here is simply that your body is, roughly, your own property. You own it, and are therefore permitted to defend it against injury by others, just as you are permitted to defend your home against invasion by thieves. If we take Stand Your Ground cases to involve the exercise of a right to one’s body, again we seem to have a basis for something like a right to stand and defend yourself when you believe you are in danger of being injured.
There is, however, another aspect of the Stand Your Ground law that is more difficult to defend. The Stand Your Ground law grants individuals a right to defend themselves when they believe they are in imminent danger, even when it would be more reasonable to flee. This means, for example, that if you are being threatened by five angry gang members, you have a right to defend yourself by trying to shoot all five of them, even though what you really should do is run away.
While it’s a little troubling to legally substantiate unreasonable choices in this way, the right to autonomy again gives some support to this provision. In many cases, we allow individuals the freedom to do massively stupid things, provided they do not harm others. (I will return to the issue of harm to others in the next installment of this series). Again, it seems that there is some legitimate basis for allowing people to defend themselves, even when doing so amounts to a terrible decision on their part.
For myself, the most disconcerting thing about Stand Your Ground is the high credence it places on what people believe, rather than on what is true. For example, in the Trayvon Martin case, George Zimmerman apparently believed Trayvon Martin was an imminent threat to him. But was this a reasonable belief? That’s what is now being debated, but the initial evidence suggests that George Zimmerman was, at best, wildly mistaken about the threat Trayvon Martin represented to his person.
Belief is a tricky thing, in both ethics and the law. On the one hand, we want to allow people some semblance of freedom to believe what they take to be the truth, even when we think their beliefs are mistaken. However, we don’t want to allow people’s false beliefs to lead them to harm others, and we certainly don’t want to use the law to protect such people.
Thus, while the Stand Your Ground law is initially rather shocking to the ear, there are some well-established rights that one can appeal to in defending it. But the low epistemic standard for when a person is justified in defending themselves against perceived danger remains deeply troubling. At a minimum, Stand Your Ground needs to include some notion of reasonable belief that one is in danger, not just a belief, however unreasonable, that this is the case. Otherwise, Stand Your Ground elicits the unacceptable consequence of protecting wrongdoers who have harmed others on the basis of unsubstantiated and unreasonable beliefs.
Next time, we’ll look at arguments against the Stand Your Ground law, so keep coming back. We’re not done with this case just yet.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.