Bryan Caplan  

What Will You Do If Someone Tries to Kill You?

Engage Pacifism... Unemployment: Why Don't Emplo...
I largely agree with David Henderson's remarks on foreign policy (here, here, and here), but his initial post makes a rather improbable claim.  Here's David:
As I once said, after someone in a roundtable discussion had called me a pacifist, "If you come at me and try to kill me, you'll see how much of a pacifist I am. I'll defend myself, with force if necessary."
My prediction: If someone suddenly tried to kill David, he wouldn't "defend" himself.  He would run away.  So would I.  So would almost everyone.  As this scene from Fight Club beautifully illustrates, it is very hard to pick a fight with a stranger.  Flight, not fight, is humans' standard response to violence.  And for the most part, our cowardly reaction is entirely functional.

I agree with David that self-defense is morally appropriate under certain circumstances.  Indeed, I think that pure revenge is morally appropriate under certain circumstances.  But even when you have a right to fight, you probably won't exercise your right - and you're probably wise not to.

P.S. If you read David's full account of "Peacemaking at a Raiders' Game," you'll see that he has an above-average helping of physical courage.  But I still think he'd run if someone suddenly tried to kill him.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Brandon Reinhart writes:

The Australian show "The Chaser's War on Everything" did a segment where a guy dressed as a bank robber (he had hose over his head) tried to shop peacefully in various stores. People screamed and ran away -- even running out of their own shops -- in response to him.

All you need is the appearance of violence to get people to fly.

Here is the clip:

OneEyedMan writes:

The difficulty in picking a fight with a stranger depends seriously on the culture, sobriety, and the balance of forces. There are plenty of neighborhoods and countries where I doubt this claim.

rapscallion writes:

The ease of picking a fight depends a lot on context. I think it's easiest for men to pick fights when available women are around (e.g. mostly at bars and parties). In these instances the stakes are rarely life and death. The participants are usually subconsciously just playing a very physical status game.

Various writes:

Ah, Gee Bryan, I'm not exactly what sort of folks you hang out with, but I think your response might be colored by your own experiences. I would say half the people I know would fight. It depends on the circumstances of course. I mean, what if the assailant catches you....what are you gonna do then? You'd better start throwing some punches.

Liam writes:


You bring up a very interesting premise. I have actually done both in my time. It really depended on who was with me.

I once scraped with a homeless guy who ran at me demanding money while screaming obscenities. My wife and two small children were standing beside me and I had no choice but to immediately engage this fellow.

Yet another time I took flight when some guy once cornered me and stared yelling at me and demanding sex. (I wish I was making that up)

In the second circumstance I still could have fought as I studied Taekwondo for years and I enjoy fighting but flight is prudent in most cases and it never even occurred to me at the time that fighting was an option. I just reacted.

Doc Merlin writes:

Actually, from personal experience, I'd fight. Running is ineffective and leaves people I care about open to danger. I'd fight and yell for them to run... but then again, I believe pacifism is immoral, and that the moral stance is non-aggression.

As OneEyedMan said, this is highly dependent on culture. Attacking someone in a bad neighborhood in Israel is a /very/ different experience from attacking someone on a college campus on the East Coast.

Hyena writes:

As a person who tried this after Fight Club came out, I have to testify to the veracity of the scene.

volatility bounded writes:

Caplan's analysis re fight or flight is laughably simplistic. Reactions depend on sub-culture of the participants and context. The Fight Club video shows a bunch of white people who've never been to jail.

In most high schools, it's extremely easy to start a fight. There's plenty of teenage boys whose main interests are chicks and fighting.

fundamentalist writes:

Dr. Henderson's point was that he would use violence to defend himself or his family. Why does Caplan ignore that? Yes, running away is always the best policy, if you can. Henderson's point was that he is not such a pacifist that he wouldn't fight if necessary.

Isegoria writes:

It doesn't take a sophisticated understanding of game theory to realize that announcing "I won't fight back" is a losing strategy.

Finch writes:

I'm guessing inexperience is behind this post.

It totally depends on the circumstances, and you'd be surprised how rational you can be in an emergency.

Fighting has happened twice in my life, once when a friend who couldn't defend himself was attacked, and once when fleeing would have been physically difficult and resistance seemed preferable to surrender. I've successfully fled minor street crime in one other circumstance, where fleeing was much more viable. My advice is to avoid poor people, sporting events, and European cities. :)

Bringing it back to pacifism, countries generally don't have the option of fleeing. And the idea that abject surrender is preferable to resistance only works with unusually civil opponents.

Hume writes:

How many of these examples are based the experience of a fight to the death or where the attacking person believed to be in a fight to the death? I have been in many fights unfortunately, but luckily I have never been in a death battle. I assume that the type of high school fights mentioned above ("boys whose main interests are chicks and fighting") are not of this kind. So it appears we need to think a little harder about how we would react if, say, we came across someone completely insane with the physical ability to kill you and the immediate intent to carry this out.

Becon writes:

Isn't that just like a wop? Brings a knife to a gun fight. - Malone "The Untouchables"

Your generalization isn't fair to the intricacies of fighting. If someone threatens David, of course circumstances will dictate his response. But if he has the means to fight back and win, he certainly will. (e.g. someone attacks him with a knife and he's carrying a handgun)

As for fighting in general, I agree with Various. How many fights have you been in, Bryan?

Daublin writes:

Bryan, you are picking a narrow definition of "fight". Just consider the criminal justice system, and you will see tons of victims fighting to put their assailants in jail.

As well, I believe you are picturing a typical mugging scenario, where someone walks up to you on the street and tries to take your things. In that scenario, they aren't going to mug you unless they are substantially bigger and tougher than you.

Consider another scenario, though: children lashing out against their parents. Bryan, use your introspection. If one of your children threw a tantrum and started flailing at you, would you run away?

Faré writes:

To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it. — G.K. Chesterton

John Fast writes:

Well, your post reminds me that I ought to get a concealed carry permit for Virginia. And if I'm heeled and someone tries to attack me, I assume it's safer for me to defend myself than to run.

The exception is the police; if they attack me I'll surrender as quickly, loudly and clearly as possible, because they have *lots* more guns than I do. And then I'll call a lawyer ASAP.

I think lawyers-guns-money works like rocks-scissors-paper.

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