This is the fourth and final instalment looking at the Kyle Rittenhouse case as a case study for self-defence in general. (Part 1 Introduction, Part 2 Practical Self-Defence, Part 3 Legal Self-Defence).
Morality can be a confusing topic as, at least as I believe, morality is very relative. While there can certainly be “better” moral codes than others, some that result in more productive societies, the truth is what is moral depends heavily on the beliefs of a society. When morality and the standards associated with it are far too varied from person to person then it can be argued that this is when you start to have a break down in a given society.
But I’m not really a philosopher, even if I sometimes think of myself as one, so I’ll put a definition down as per the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1):
- Descriptively to refer to certain codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group (such as a religion), or accepted by an individual for her own behavior, or
- Normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational people.(2)
If you want more you can read the entire article that I pulled from, which goes into quite a bit of detail. Or if you wanted a far more entertaining exploration of life and morality I always like to recommend the TV show “The Good Place”, on the topic of morality there is no better than Chidi Anagonye, at least according to the show.
Anyway, even if morality is relative there seems to be some fairly consistent cross-cultural moral rules that often become, not just moral guides, but also legal requirements.
The best example and most applicable to this case study is the “6th Commandment” (of the 10 Commandments.)
The 6th Commandment is “Thou shalt not kill” or, more accurately translated, “Thou shalt not murder”(4).
Read that again.
There is a significant difference as the first means “killing is NEVER ok,” whereas the proper translation means to “uncalled for killings (or MURDER) are not morally ok.” This makes a lot of sense given human history, as when it was a matter of survival and empire-building you could make an argument that without killing there would not have been any progress in our species but who’s to say really.
The thing is there very much is a difference between the two and killing in self-defence is almost always allowed, even if you feel you couldn’t do it from a moral perspective most societies agree there is room for killing in the “right” circumstances, and self-defence is almost always that, at least from a moral perspective.
Even the peaceful Buddhist Dali Lama implied you could kill in self-defence (5), though he actually said:
“But if someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, he said, it would
be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun. Not at the head, where a
fatal wound might result. But at some other body part, such as a leg.”(6)
This essentially means you can use lethal tools or force but should always attempt to avoid it if possible. Here’s the thing, when it seems like someone is either trying to seriously hurt or kill you there are so many factors going through your head, as well as the situation itself unfolding, that this ideology is not always possible or warranted. Sometimes you must kill in self-defence even if you did not intent to, this is just a reality of our existence.
The basic morality says that no one should purposely go out of their way to kill someone or even hurt someone just because you are mad or just want to. Which means, morally, it can be reasonably assumed that someone who is violently attacking you with weapons, even if they don’t “mean” to kill you, could actually kill you. Life is very fragile and trying not to kill someone just because you are not sure they are trying to kill you or not may actually end up with you dead. Because that person shouldn’t have attacked you violently in the first place the results, even if lethal, may very well be their own fault.
I know this is hard to hear but the reality is lots of people are accidently killed by people who got swept up in the moment or a state of rage. Furthermore the person who was killed likely felt like they were going to be killed, and then were. See how complicated it is?
To act or not to act with lethal force is a very, very difficult decision to make. Act too fast and aggressively you may actually be committing manslaughter (or legal comparison) and act too late and you’ll be dead.
If you take the moral stance that killing is ALWAYS bad then it really doesn’t matter what I say and you will find what Kyle did immoral. But if you accept that killing in self-defence is sometimes warranted so long as you try not to, then it is morally acceptable and, as most people agree, what Kyle did was in fact self-defence and justifiable (even if it could have been avoided by him not being there).
However many take the moral stance that it is immoral to carry a gun at all, let alone for self-defence, and this group will almost always think this is immoral. This group often also takes the stance that the State (government) has exclusive right to the use of force and that anyone who thinks or acts differently is acting against society. Thus it follows that such actions would be immoral, because they lead to the destabilization of order which is immoral.
One of the issues with this argument, however, with regards to the Kyle Rittenhouse case is that many of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests ended up violent, and many of the states where violence occurred prevented their police forces from stopping or slowing the riots. The reasons for this were largely political, but these policies resulted in some billions of dollars in damage and left many feeling like the state was not actually there to protect them. This then sets up the moral argument for the next group.
Another group of people will say, “if you are going into an area that is dangerous and potentially life threatening then it is reasonable to take tools to protect yourself” (including guns where legal) with the intent that you will have them if you need them but not to initiate conflict. This is probably where Kyle’s head was at when he decided to go help in a community he spent a lot of time in. To him, he just wanted to help, as indicated by him offering medical aid on the scene, which is very moral given it seems state medical aid was not as available as it should have been. He probably recognized, based on the night before, that the potential for violence was there and that he just wanted to protect himself, which seems to be the case given that the evidence suggests he was not waving his gun around at people prior to him needing to use it.
Now comes the question about him being there at all. If you take the stance that he shouldn’t have been there at all, which was an easy decision, then nothing Kyle did after the fact was moral. To not be there is always the easier choice, but when no one is there to help protect private property or life, than this actually brings in the moral question of “when do you act to help others even if it puts yourself at risk?” Though his age bears consideration given the laws around gun ownership. Remember, this is very much a legal argument, as mentally there is little difference between a 17 and 18 year old, barring specific experience.
While other countries frown upon armed citizens protecting their property, often with laws making it illegal, this doesn’t actually make it immoral. In the USA there is a history of people arming themselves to protect property. For example during the 1992 riots resulting from the Rodney King assault verdict, many L.A. neighborhoods were burned down or destroyed; with the exception of “Koreatown” which had armed Koreans on many of the rooftops, ready to protect their properties (7). In their case they largely did not need to shoot, but they were safely on the rooftops and their presence was enough to deter most looters. However had they been down on the streets with their guns protecting their property it is possible more people would have gotten shot, because when someone is in arm’s reach with a gun there is always the though that they are bluffing, at least in modern times. Go back pre 1900s and aggressively approach someone with a gun and the expectation was most likely that you WOULD get shot, making it a more dangerous decision.
Either way, your view on guns, use of force, and proper behavior in society will skew your morality one way or the other, and you may still believe what Kyle did was immoral, or you may believe it was reasonable and moral.
What I can say is, so long as you are not purposely looking to pick a fight, or instigating to get someone to make the first move so you can justify what you are going to do, then the truth is, extreme force, including lethal force, in self-defence will most likely be moral, even if not legal.
The morality of violence in self-defence is one that self-defence instructors all over the world struggle to make people understand, particularly in wealthier more peaceful countries. But the reality is humans are humans, and so long as humans have anger, fear, greed, and emotions in general, the need to defend yourself using force, including lethal options, will always be on the table. Because no matter how much you want it to, avoidance is simply not always an option. Someone’s a bad choice leads to a situation that requires force, or a good choice leads to a situation that requires force. It all depends on circumstances and what you believe to be moral or not.
One thing though you really need to ask, is if it was you in Kyle’s place would you have shot? If the answer is “yes”, then you may actually think it is moral, even if in Kyle’s case you think it wasn’t.
Morals must be applied reasonably and equally to you and others, or they are not really morals now are they?
I hope this series has helped you better understand the Kyle Rittenhouse case as well as how to think about violent conflict. The more you understand the better prepared you will be if you ever need to defend yourself. But always remember, Krav Maga is so that you may learn to walk in peace no matter what path life takes you, even if this means you must use violence to defend yourself from harm or death.
Written by Jonathan Fader