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Clearly actually harming another person is an instance of initiation of force and violates the person's rights. What about the case when I do not actually harm the person, but instead create a situation where there is a substantial risk of harm? Have I violated their rights?

For example, Russian Roulette: I load only one bullet into a revolver that can hold six bullets, spin the drum, and point the gun at you. Is pulling the trigger a violation of your rights (disregarding whether you are actually shot)?

The impetus for this question is a related (and I think dependent) question I have been mulling over, which is whether it is proper for the government to prevent risk creation. If it is a violation of rights, then I think it would be proper for the government to step in and stop it; if not, then it would not be proper.

So returning to my Russian Roulette example, would a third party be justified in using force to stop me from pulling the trigger? Keep in mind that I have not actually shot you yet, and it is not certain (or even more-likely-than-not) that I will shoot you--there is simply a risk that you will be shot (a one in six chance). Must the third party wait for actual physical harm before using force against me?

It seems to me that any rights respecting, life valuing person would not hesitate to stop me before I pulled the trigger. However, this seems at odds with other objectivist views--particularly the oft quoted injunction against "preventative law" (i.e. laws that prevent people from acting before any harm has been done). I understand the desire to get rid of many of the laws people are thinking of when they talk about preventative law (e.g. environmental regulations), but isn't the real problem here that the laws in question outlaw activities that do not really create substantial risks? In other words, it is not the preventive nature of the law that is wrong, but rather a factual error about the supposed harm that is sought to be averted.

As a budding objectivist and a law student I am trying to integrate what I have learned in philosophy and what I am learning in the law, and I would appreciate any guidance you more experienced objectivists out there might have on this issue. Thanks!

asked Sep 22 '11 at 13:28

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Oct 03 '11 at 21:39

It's spelled "Russian roulette".

(Oct 03 '11 at 11:35) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

This is a great question, which I've done some thinking about.

A "risk of harm" is one in the same with danger. So, the question is, do we each have a right not to be placed in danger by another person?

Common sense says: "yes!" But can common sense be squared with the idea that danger is not literally the same thing as physical force?

Physical force, literally speaking, is to move or impact another person's body against his consent. But what if we don't do that, but instead simply aim a gun at his head?

Note, your example above with Russian roulette isn't necessary. Simply aiming a loaded gun at a person creates a possibility of injury -- after all, even if the gun is fired, the shooter may miss. And the gun might not be fired after all.

To aim a gun at someone is to threaten him. A "threat" is a risk of harm. To threaten someone is to choose to place him in danger.

When you threaten someone, you take his well-being out of his own hands, and place it in yours. You literally take control of his life, even though you don't literally physically move or impact his body.

In this way, a threat of physical force denies another man, while the threat exists, his right to live.

The right to life is not just the right to exist without literal physical intervention. If that were true, then even incarceration wouldn't be a violation of the right to live -- after all, if the man bumps into the walls or bars of his cell, that would be his own choice, right? So where's the physical force?

Physical force, in the broader sense, is the control of another man's action by means of physical agency. The threat of literal physical force is a form of physical agency. So is a jail cell.

Any genuine threat made by one man to another man's well-being is a violation of his right to live. Such a threat is a form of physical force, because by means of the threat one physically forces a man to comply with one's own wish, even if one's wish is merely to frighten him.

answered Sep 23 '11 at 11:42

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

edited Sep 23 '11 at 11:42

Thanks John. Does your answer change at all if the person "threatened" does not know about the danger? You say:

"A 'threat' is a risk of harm. To threaten someone is to choose to place him in danger."

This definition seems to contemplate any creation of risk, regardless of the knowledge of the potential victim, which is indeed what I am interested in. However later you say:

"by means of the threat one physically forces a man to comply with one's own wish"

Here it seems like you are using threat in the common usage (including knowledge of the victim). Does it make a difference?

(Sep 23 '11 at 12:04) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

In general, I'd say no. To threaten someone is to take their life in your hands. Their knowledge of what is happening isn't essential.

The problem with a threat is not that it scares someone. It's that it risks their life.

I see though, the potential equivocation between "force" meaning "coercion" and force as a concept in Newtonian physics.

Perhaps one must just say that the threat of Newtonian force is coercive force regardless of the knowledge of the person being forced. It's coercive by means of its potential to coerce given the victim's knowledge.

(Sep 23 '11 at 13:44) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

If I were to walk around the park aiming a gun at the back of people's heads without their knowing, I'd be promptly arrested, and rightly so, for people have a right to live without being threatened. My life is not for someone else to toy with, even without my knowledge.

(Sep 23 '11 at 13:55) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Excellent answer! I asked a similar question a little while ago, but didn't get a great answer. I like how your concept of "risk of harm". This gives me a lot to think about!

(Sep 24 '11 at 21:57) Andrew Miner ♦ Andrew%20Miner's gravatar image

One more question: does it matter whether I actually intend to threaten anyone?

An example that actually happened a couple of weeks ago here in my quiet Swiss town: a guy kicks his wife out of the house, then goes on a shotgun shooting spree inside the house, demolishing all the furniture (which was his own private property.)

Disregarding what happened between him and his wife, could it be said that he "threatened" people outside? He risked hitting them with a stray bullet, after all. Yet all he ACTUALLY damaged was his own property.

(Oct 03 '11 at 06:29) FCH FCH's gravatar image

I don't think intention matters as regards the creation of a threat, and the consequent violation of another person's rights. Though, much like murder (intentional killing) versus manslaughter (unintentional killing), one is more culpable than another.

Of course, the next question is, what constitutes an actual threat (risk of harm). That is something I leave to the law courts.

(Oct 03 '11 at 11:34) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image
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Regarding Russian Roulette, pointing a loaded gun at someone is the common law crime of assault, and is therefore a violation of their rights. Credibly threatening another with the use of force is a crime. In fact, the gun may not be loaded at all, or there may not even be a gun for it to be considered assault, as long as the threat remains. Objectivism supports this view; force or the credible threat of force warrants the use of force in response, either in the form of self-defense in the moment or by government after the fact.

I think the line to be drawn here with respect to law is the difference between an actual threat and a possible threat. The former should be illegal, the latter should not be. For example, if I own a gun, but never threaten you with it, that should be legal. The problem with many current-day laws is they carry over into the "possible" arena, which means they are impeding freedom, not protecting anyone.

answered Oct 30 '11 at 05:37

Rick's gravatar image

Rick ♦

edited Oct 30 '11 at 05:39

Thanks for your answer Rick. I am chiefly interested in risk creation rather than overt threats. Thus, please suppose that the potential victim does not perceive the gun pointed at him. In such a case common law assault would not apply (it requires a subjective perception of imminent force). Roulette may not have been the best example for me to use, because it does seem so "threat"-like. But one could imagine other situations where there is no threat in the normal sense of the word, but a risk (i.e. a probability) of harm is created. What do you think about those situations?

(Oct 30 '11 at 10:33) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

I think a covert threat is still a threat. If I point a loaded gun at you from a distant rooftop, I am still posing an actual, objective threat to you. I'm not aware of a common law foundation for this, but I suspect that may be because such threats are hard to prove.

The key here for me is that the threat / risk must be objective -- so doing something that might be a threat isn't the same as doing something that is actually a threat.

(Oct 30 '11 at 18:00) Rick ♦ Rick's gravatar image

I should add that Objectivism considers "preventive law" to be immoral, because it subjects people to the initiation of force before there's any evidence of an actual threat to others.

(Nov 03 '11 at 00:06) Rick ♦ Rick's gravatar image
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Asked: Sep 22 '11 at 13:28

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Last updated: Nov 03 '11 at 00:06