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The Morality of Self-Defense or: The Case of the Paladin and The Archer

June 19, 2012

Part of a continuing series I’ve dubbed, “To Be A Young Necromancer In Love,” updating Tuesdays and whenever the hell I feel like it.

In the Northern Crown game, there was for a time a fifth character. This character was played by my friend Vinny, who you might remember from some very recent installments. The character in question was a Spanish Paladin in the service of the Catholic Church. He had a long backstory involving his life as a bastard, and how this helped him turn to God and seek the life of a paladin of the Church and Knight of Spain. This backstory eventually played into the end of the game and the final villain though Vinny had long since departed the game at that point.

One of the more memorable instances within the entire campaign happened early on before Vinny had left. It is an instance that unlike John Promiter nearly killing one of the PCs is remembered with some amount of rancor by one of the players. To the rest of us it was just sort of funny, and another instance of Vinny being Vinny.

The party was traveling through a backwoods area for some reason. They often would veer off the main road and follow rivers or wooded paths for reasons that I really can not remember. Perhaps it was the lack of major roads in Northern Crown or it could have been due to poor Survival rolls. The point is, that they were traveling through an area of tall grass and trees.

The group made a series of spot checks as they always did while moving through wilderness. Vinny’s Paladin, and most of the party, succeeded enough to spot an archer who seemed to be pointing an arrow directly at them. It was only the Carolingian Scout who noticed that the archer was actually taking aim at one of several hungry cougars that were descending upon the party. Of course, Vinny’s Paladin was one of those character who’s honor could be affronted by the slightest breeze, and being of high social standing in the campaign setting, he also couldn’t stand the concept of a knave taking aim at him.

The paladin then rushed forward and began to assault what he assumed was a brigand. The party rushed forward as the Scout pointed out the cougars closing in on them to try and save the hunter as well as take up a defensive position. The Scout managed to pry the Paladin off of the hunter while the party began to do battle with the cougars. After he saved the hunter, a cougar fell upon the Scout’s back.

Feeling that his honor as a knight had been compromised by being manhandled by a peasant, and also feeling that justice had been impeded when he was stopped from beating the hunter for his perceived wrongs, Vinny stabbed the party Scout while the Scout was being mauled by a cougar.

Now, we’re not here to dissect why the party Paladin acted the way he did. This isn’t a series on discussing the backwards mindsets of the past or debating what constitutes roleplaying. The action that I really think of when I remember this event is the first action the Paladin takes.

The pre-emptive strike.

The idea that aggression against a nation, or single attacker, that poses a clear and present danger before they actually attack is not new. It has been debated since some of the earliest Greek histories regarding battles and wars. Is it right to attack someone before they are actually able to attack you, under the pretense of self-defense?

On the scale of nations, theorists like Clausewitz would suggest that one should just drop the pretense of self-defense because war is inevitably about enforcing your will upon another. Clausewitz went further to suggest that this is the nature of all conflict, a power struggle to impose your viewpoint and strength onto another. In a way, all conflicts are about power, but when we talk in these terms we lose sight of what we’re actually looking at.

This wasn’t an act between one nation and another, after all a nation wouldn’t line up an army just to attack an army another nation wasn’t aware of. This was an act between two armed men. One seemed to be posing a clear and present danger to the other, and the other acted seemingly accordingly. Only in light of later facts did his actions become wrong.

Of course, this is the issue with pre-emptive strikes in general. By their very nature such strikes must occur without consideration of all the facts. They occur in the heat of a singular moment when a decision to take one course of action or another must be made. Sometimes, the wrong choice is made.

Whether or not preemptive strikes can be justified also brings us into the concept of how our own justice system, or any justice system, would view this altercation. Do we judge the man based on his actions in the moment? Or do we judge the man in his actions when all of the facts can be considered?

Is it even possible, as a judge, jury, or prosecutor, and even defense or defendant, to separate the act from facts that are learned later?

These issues have come up several times during the wars in the Middle East, when it is common for soldiers to operate without a direct chain of command. Or even when the chain of command is clear, the commander sometimes needs to make decisions right then, regardless of whether or not they even feel they have enough information.

What happens when it turns out that one of the men wasn’t armed, or only appeared to be armed?

This is a common issue in policing situations. Someone is reaching for something very quickly, what could it be? What if it’s a gun? What should the police officer do?

These are the sticky moral gray areas that our society is being faced with at an alarming rate. It is easy to trap ourselves in the concepts of Clausewitz and the scale of nations and supranational law. These are theoretical games that we play, because Clausewitz is inevitably right, war is about imposing your will, and your will is what shall write history. They’re ultimately safe philosophical ground.

The hard part of ethics comes when we have to decide how the individual should or should not be able to act. Then in how we enforce, understand, and judge such actions.

Clearly the nature of self-defense, and what constitutes clear and present danger is an important matter to politics, at least in America. In the situation of the Paladin and the Archer, there was an apparent threat that was only nulled by unknown variables. Of course, in the reality of ethics there are always unknown variables, these are the things that make our decisions all the more difficult.

Still, these are not conversations that can be ignored. We need to start talking about them, in ways more in depth than a blog post.


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3 Comments
  1. Steve permalink

    Correction: Vinny TRIED to stab me. He missed, despite the large predatory cat weighing me down.

    Also, I seem to crop up quite often in these tales. Hmm.

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