What is Self Defense?
by Uwe Steinhoff
This paper provides a conceptual analysis of the term "self-defense" and argues
that, in contrast to the widespread "instrumentalist" account of self-defense,
self-defense need not be aimed at averting or mitigating an attack, let alone the
harm threatened by it. Instead, on the definition offered here, an act token is selfdefense
if and only if (a) it is directed against an ongoing or imminent attack, and
(b) the actor correctly believes that the act token is an effective form of resistance or the act token belongs to an act type that usually functions as a means to resist
an attack. While resistance is effective in making the attack more difficult, it can
often be overcome, and therefore does not necessarily stop or mitigate the attack.
This concept of self-defense not only matches ordinary language use and plausible
accounts of self-defense in the legal literature but also has important practical
implications in helping to avoid confusions about necessity and proportionality.
In particular, it avoids the notorious problem of the "knowingly helpless rape
victim" whose futile struggle against the rapist (futile in terms of averting or
mitigating harm) counterintuitively could not count as justified self-defense on
an instrumentalist account.