In two previous posts, I considered what I take to be the most controversial elements of the Stand Your Ground law, now infamous for its role in the Trayvon Martin shooting, and then offered a couple of arguments in favor of that law. Before focusing more directly on ethical issues in the Trayvon Martin case itself, I want to briefly offer an argument against the Stand Your Ground Law. This argument is compelling for its simplicity and for its grounding in a highly intuitive principle.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the old statute that Stand Your Ground replaced required individuals who believed they were in imminent danger to attempt to avoid confrontation. You might describe this as a duty to flee, if you can. Stand Your Ground retracted this duty, and replaced it with a right to stand and defend yourself, even when it would be much smarter for you to avoid a confrontation.
I also mentioned, in a previous post, that a right to autonomy might be invoked in support of Stand Your Ground. After all, many laws currently on the books allow people to make choices about their own lives, even when the actual choices they make turn out to be incredibly bad for them. The qualification on this right, however, is that a person’s autonomous choices must not harm others. I want to now return to considerations of harm, in order to formulate what I take to be the best argument against Stand Your Ground laws.
The Harm Principle is a cornerstone of liberal democracies. It states, roughly, that the prevention of harm to others is sufficient reason to prohibit a person’s autonomous actions. In other words, you can do what you want, but not if it seriously harms other people. This is where the Stand Your Ground law runs into trouble. It seems that by granting individuals an expansive self-defense right, invokable whenever a person believes they are in imminent danger, we subject others to serious risk of harm that could be avoided.
Let’s take the Trayvon Martin case as an example. Suppose George Zimmerman really believed, however incorrectly, that Travyon Martin was a threat to him. Would George Zimmerman have shot Trayvon Martin in the absence of a law that granted him benefit of the doubt on a self-defense plea? It seems plausible to say that the deterrent effects of the old law, requiring George Zimmerman to try to avoid the perceived danger posed by Trayvon Martin’s presence, might have given Zimmerman some motivation to refrain from shooting.
Under Stand Your Ground, however, Trayvon Martin was subjected to undue harm at the hands of George Zimmerman and his arsenal of false beliefs. Lacking any legal deterrent against acting, Zimmerman was free to shoot Martin, and then claim self-defense, without fear of prosecution.
This, in my view, is the best argument against Stand Your Ground–it subjects persons to substantial risk of harm, at the hands of individuals who have false beliefs regarding imminent danger to themselves. (I will ignore whether individuals who really are in imminent danger ought to be allowed to “stand their ground.”)
Typically, we permit individuals to have false beliefs, so long as the having of those beliefs does not lead to substantial harm to others. Because Stand Your Ground eliminates the counterbalance provided by the threat of criminal prosecution for acting on one’s false beliefs, it subjects individuals to unjustified harm.
This is not the only argument that one could make against Stand Your Ground. I am sure there are substantive legal challenges that could be raised, and there is no doubt compelling empirical data that tells against laws of this kind. But my argument has two positive features that these other approaches lack.
First, it is exceedingly simple. Harm to others is bad, Stand Your Ground facilitates serious harm to others, so we ought not endorse Stand Your Ground. It also benefits from being grounded in a principle that almost anyone would accept: We ought to avoid harming others, when we can. If this principle is one that we should adopt, then clearly we ought not adopt legal statutes like the Stand Your Ground law.
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.