The Justified Punch in the Nose: A Libertarian Conundrum?

A principal tenet of libertarianism—perhaps even the first principle of libertarianism—is an injunction against initiating violence. Whatever else you do, you may not harm unwilling others. John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Robert Nozick, and many others—I as wellhave all subscribed to some version of this principle as a starting point. 

Yet Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments raises an interesting case that might suggest limited exceptions to the principle. Smith argues that resentment is the sentiment that underlies the proper condemnation of injustice: An injustice arouses resentment, and can properly lead one to take action against the injustice. At one point during his discussion of justified resentment, Smith writes:

Upon some occasions we are sensible that this passion [i.e., resentment], which is generally too strong, may likewise be too weak. We sometimes complain that a particular person shows too little spirit, and has too little sense of the injuries that have been done to him; and we are as ready to despise him for the defect, as to hate him for the excess of this passion. (TMS II.i.5.8)

Smith’s claim that people sometimes show “too little spirit” seems right to me. There are many occasions on which we might reasonably think that a person should have faced a challenge, should have confronted a bully, or should have risen to someone’s defense, and we judged the person negatively when he did not. Indeed, numerous sitcoms and movies have been built on this premise. One of my favorite classic movies, My Bodyguard, takes this lesson as its central theme, and we all cheer when the bullies are finally confronted. (Here is the climactic scene. I bet your heart swells too when Linderman finally takes on Mike and Clifford gives Moody what’s been long coming to him.)

This indicates the possible libertarian conundrum I have in mind: Sometimes people should confront bullies, and sometimes that requires, well, a punch in the nose. Proper resentment, in other words, can justify taking action against others. And this sometimes holds even when the “injustice” against which one is acting has not included physical violence. Sometimes just threats can justify a punch in the nose, and sometimes—under just the right circumstances—even mere words can.

President Andrew Jackson, for example, fought many duels to defend his wife’s honor. He had married Rachel before her prior marriage to an abusive man was finally complete, which meant that for a time their marriage was bigamous. Although the president and Rachel re-married after her divorce was completed, the fact that she was for a time technically married to two men was raised and used against President Jackson again and again. He would not stand for it when it was. If someone suggested that his wife was less than noble, he would ask the person to take it back—or meet him outside to settle the issue in the time-honored, gentlemanly way. President Jackson almost lost his life more than once defending his wife’s honor.

In these cases, President Jackson was acting in response only to words, not phyiscal violence or even the threat of physical violence. But wasn’t he right to do so? Wouldn’t we have judged him harshly had he not acted to defend his wife’s honor? This is a special case, but I think there might be a more general principle at work: Sometimes one should rise to defend another’s honor.

The news program “20/20” has been airing a series of “What Would You Do?” segments in which they stage scenarios with actors in front of unsuspecting random people to see what they would do. In one segment, they have a man publicly and loudly berating a woman (both are actors). The man does not assault her, but he gets in her face and shouts derogatory and demeaning things. What do passersby do? What should they do? Some act and some do not, but everyone seems to believe that one should do something. Exactly what one should do depends on a lot of factors, but I suggest that there are easily-imagined scenarios in which what a passerby should do is punch the man in the nose.

One more thought, this one even more speculative. In most places in America today, physical violence of any kind is frowned upon as indicative of an earlier, unenlightened, more barbaric age. Yet I wonder whether the fact that people know with a high degree of certainty that they will get no punch in the nose no matter what they say has not contributed to the general coarsening of manners. People today may say the vilest things with relative impunity, and so increasingly more of them do. If, by contrast, they knew they ran a real risk of the punch in the nose if they used coarse language or manners publicly, might that not act as a disincentive to do so—and a greater disincentive than the mere risk of having another use vile language aimed at oneself?

I am not suggesting, then, we should all begin punching one another in the nose. But I am suggesting that showing “too little spirit” can indeed be a vice, and moreover that there are times when a punch in the nose might be just what a situation calls for.


7 thoughts on “The Justified Punch in the Nose: A Libertarian Conundrum?

  1. An interesting question & I share your sympathies, Jim. Sometimes aggressively hostile behaviors that do not constitute a legally actionable threat or use of force can nevertheless seem threatening enough in the moment that limited, pre-emptive force is justified.

    Now, I will say that I don’t think dueling is an initiation of force, and in my view it should be legal, assuming both participants consent to the ground rules, which are then followed.

  2. What a great post, Jim. This is really an interesting point. One thing I think it shows is that the standard libertarian formula, while on to something important, isn’t subtle enough to address the various ways human beings can attack each other. Two elements beyond force seem at work in your discussion. One is imposition of risk, which any sane view will allow that we counter forcibly under some circumstances. The other is injury to reputation. If we take community seriously, then reputation must be taken very seriously, and gratuitous damage to reputation must count as a harm for the purposes of thinking about our right to defend ourselves. These are obviously not easy lines to draw, and they will promote hard case after hard case, but that seems to me the reality of the situation.

    1. These two things you mention-are both indirect effects, in that the risk might result in bad outcomes or untruths might damage a reputation.

      I think the implication of what Jim is saying is that a verbal attack might be sufficiently severe to be morally equivalent to a physical attack, thereby meriting an equivalent response.

      This makes some sense as a theoretical principle, but would seem to be a bear to apply in real cases.

      1. Sven, I agree. The beauty of the libertarian formula is that it parses real cases into tidy categories. The problem is that the tidiness is an artifact of oversimplifying a complex moral reality, as Jim’s discussion shows. Risk and reputation are two areas where the gray areas probably overwhelm the clear black and white, but that’s the reality of the situation.

  3. Perhaps a point made by Waldron in the context of discussing the ideal of the rule of law may be relevant here: there are certain things that individuals may do that we would not allow government officials to do: there are certain “special restrictions” on their conduct “that are different from, and additonal to, the ones that apply to the rest of us.” Waldron, The Law at 40.

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