In general, how much capability to harm or destroy should any given human have?

If humans were effectively barred from even minor forms of destructive capability, would it be a better or worse society?

If people are given some degree of destructive capability, is there any clear “amount” that is meaningfully “the correct amount”? Why?

I wanted to add this earlier.

Firstly, consider two polar extremes:

  1. A society where even flicking or pinching was somehow an impossibility, due to constraints on human ability in some way (or maybe even emotional harm such as insults, I’m not sure)

  2. A society where every person is equipped with a control panel. They can at will terminate the life of any specific person they want to at any time, by pressing a button.

Considering these two extremes, what principles might this teach us regarding what the nature of destructive capability is?

I think that obviously the question depends on “hidden variables”: we need to consider interactions between destructive capability and other things. Yet the goal would still be to clarify and purify those relationships as much as possible.

To give one example: it’s sometimes argued that mutually assured destruction is a form of deterrence. But clearly, deterrence depends on some things: that one of the parties is not trying to end the world but strongly wishes to act towards their own self-preservation; also, deterrence depends on knowledge: no one is deterred if you have, say, a doomsday machine in complete secret.

I think game theory can provide some really interesting insights into these questions, depending on how one chooses to model the relevant factors. For example, the minimax principle says that one should minimize the maximum loss in the worst case scenario. But there are other game behaviors to consider.

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    "even minor forms of destructive capability" can be taken to absurdity, one can't function without some forms of destruction (e.g. by eating something you destroy it, and so on). Commented Jan 26 at 5:11
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    Our immune systems are very much deadly killers, and the bacteria are being sacrificed for our very own well-being.
    – Nelson
    Commented Jan 26 at 7:28
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    Si vis pacem, para bellum.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Jan 26 at 8:37
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    @IdiosyncraticSoul I disagree. Destroying is much easier/quicker than creating. In just a few seconds I can wreck something that took hours/days/weeks to create. Commented Jan 26 at 20:35
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    A device that can terminate any life (possibly after some traveling) at the push of a button is called a gun. Examples for societies where near everybody is in the possession of such a device are the U.S. and Switzerland. While the outcomes are very different they are not catastrophic. Commented Jan 27 at 12:02

7 Answers 7


Your question for a number of reasons is nonsense.

You assume that capability to harm or destroy is quantifiable, so that it would be possible to say how much capability one person has relative to another. I know of no accepted scheme for quantifying harm or destruction, let alone cability to cause harm or destruction.

You assume that there is a universal threshold for a correct amount of capability.

You assume that there is a standard by which different states of society can be classified as better or worse.

You assume that destructive capability is something 'given', which implies a giver in addition to the requirement that 'capability' can be quantified.

Notwithstanding those pedantic criticisms, I believe the correct answer is forty two ISHCUS ( International Standard Harm Capacity Units).

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    I completely agree with the answer from your last sentence. Only, I’m still undecided whether it is the OP’s question which matches the answer.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Jan 25 at 21:51
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    Your points could be made in a less combative tone without much more effort. Maybe give it a go? Commented Jan 26 at 6:16
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    @LamarLatrell that's a very fair point, and you have pricked a guilty conscience since I thought it was a bit unfair when I wrote it! Commented Jan 26 at 6:24
  • The question also implies that everyone should have equal capabilities. However, societies do not work this way. Even in a small group there will be a leader, who is empowered and responsible. The state monopoly on violence is a crucial concept in modern developed countries.
    – enkryptor
    Commented Jan 26 at 9:47
  • It is interesting to note that among large animals (lions, wolves, bears...) there are not too many fights because they are both relatively equal in power and weaponry, so it would probably be "mutual assured destruction", as any significant injury could cause illness or starvation even if not fatal. But for people, there is no governor, no equality, because you can harm at no risk to yourself, in enormous numbers, to say nothing of people prepared to die and take a lot of their own people with them (they're all going to Heaven anyway, right?) So how can that ever be regulated?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 27 at 0:53

In general, how much capability to harm or destroy should any given human have?

Ideally, as much as he can be trusted to use responsibly. Granted, trust is an approximate and subjective view on underlying realities which may be difficult or impossible to estimate or govern in advance.

As one pundit said in the wake of an unexpected act of violence,

A background check is just that — it does not foresee the future.

Source: https://www.cnbc.com/2016/02/22/uber-no-background-check-change-after-michigan-murders.html

If humans were effectively barred from even minor forms of destructive capability, would it be a better or worse society?

Society would cease to exist and humankind would go immediately extinct. The fact that we possess the faculty of harvesting food and building shelter also means we possess sufficient means of force to cause bodily harm. There is no way to regulate the potential for harm out of existence without causing life to cease altogether.

Defense appropriations

If people are given some degree of destructive capability, is there any clear “amount” that is meaningfully “the correct amount”? Why?

Why "given"? Are we talking about a totalitarian state recruiting a fraction of the population to be special police? If so, why not laissez-faire? Or, are we talking about Constitutional Congressional appropriations for defense? For example, under a Constitutional system such as that of the United States,

Being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed (Amendment 2)

There is no power delegated by the people to the government of that country to limit the extent of such means. Should people not be allowed to use excavators or rent cranes or drive cars or ride bikes or use forks due to their potential for destructive force? Such a situation describes a high security prison, and even there, the only possible way to eliminate all potential for harm is to cause it in such a way that it preemptively and speculatively denies the right to life, which also violates due process and the principle of innocent until proven guilty.

The correct amount of power or potential for destruction may only be negatively limited by due process on the basis of actual crimes committed, as ascertained through criminal trials by jury per Article III Section 2 Clause 3 of the US Constitution. There is no Constitutional provision for example that says that one private citizen cannot hire armed security for his commercial or residential properties beyond some set amount. What matters is whether those investments constitute an actual, acted-upon threat that materially, not just speculatively, injures the freedom and safety of others.

If someone is acting unilaterally without the appropriate direction of Congress pursuant to Constitutionally enumerated powers under any appropriation or subsidy from a governmental or non-governmental entity that derives any funding from taxpayers or other non-private revenue (including the Federal reserve sapping the value of savings through inflation), that would violate the Constitutional prohibition against Congressional limitations of funding and potentially be an act of war against the citizens of the United States, and be criminal malfeasance at best. Those who engage in the amassing of arms or the raising of armies, navies or other armed forces outside of the militia, or outside of the Constitutionally enumerated powers and avenues for securing such appropriations are criminally liable to the people, and risk charges of treason against them.

For example, if Elon Musk were to build military-capable satellites for espionage against citizens or missiles for delivery of payloads using government subsidies and outside of Constitutionally enumerated Congressional oversight and appropriation limits for the purpose of sustaining the militia for common defense purposes, or outside of the oversight of the actual militia (for example hiring out as a mercenary to foreign powers), in effect raising a private army using public funds, he would be criminally liable and potentially face charges of treason for levying war by mobilizing foreign military assets within national boundaries, or for purchasing or controlling military assets contrary to the proper use of funds and oversight of the militia. If the funds were either entirely private, or approved by Constitutionally valid budgetary oversight and in the authorized capacity of the militia, a private citizen or corporation might do so.

If the government decided to arm and equip its militia by sending through appropriation to each adult male citizen $400 towards the purchase of a militia-ready firearm and munitions, so long as it adheres to the Constitutional limitations of Congressional spending and conforms to the organization and regulations of the militia, that would be a valid disbursement of power. If the government decided to purchase a squadron of tanks and a fighter jet for each city and municipal area of 10,000 people or more, and deploy a missile defense system per 10,000 citizens maintained by local members of the militia, it could do so; it is within the Constitutional purview of Congress. There is no upper limit specified in the Constitution to such appropriations so long as they are allocated and used for the enumerated and authorized purpose of common defense, and this is proper, because who can assign an upper limit to the price we should be willing to pay to survive, overcome the perils of war and betrayal and escape the power of our enemies?

Of course the above public funding examples don't have anything to do with license for curtailing private capabilities. Those are protected. The above addresses the use of governmentally derived or public funds (again, inflation and money laundering count).

The bigger question regarding human rights and polity is, who is going to delegate powers to governments to restrict the possession of means, and what is the proper extent of those powers? Universal private property rights and the Second Amendment necessarily entail no upper limit to the defensive or retaliatory power the citizens of a country may justly amass, they being the authorized militia of the country and its only lawful force for repelling invasions and insurrections. Such possession and responsible exercise of means when summoned by Congress or as needed to protect the populace is not only a right, it is the duty of the citizenry.

In general, just because a neighbor or nation state has power to harm you does not give you the right to disarm or harm him preemptively. If you don't trust them, you always have the right to invest in stronger defense, which is the just and proper use of such possessions and capabilities.

In short, no just limitation can exist outside of due process in the prosecution of actual crimes, and all such trials must be by an impartial jury of one's peers.

  • And if Congress funds a large amount of nuclear weapons because another country also did so, then that is ok too. But really, a collosal waste of money.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 27 at 0:46
  • @ScottRowe There is a tremendous need to restore defensive advantage. It is not impossible and not even beyond economy to supply defenses more than sufficient to make a nuclear attack totally ineffective.
    – pygosceles
    Commented Jan 27 at 0:50
  • Yes, we have done that. But couldn't "both sides" done better for themselves by caring for their own people? How many nuclear weapons does Japan have?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 27 at 0:59
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    @ScottRowe Caring for our own people is the purpose of national defense and ought to be the highest priority of polity. Our people and leaders have gone about many things in a wrong way. I never believed the deterrent doctrine was a sound policy.
    – pygosceles
    Commented Jan 27 at 1:04

I think this is best understood as a question of public policy, and framing it as a question of philosophy is problematic because it forces you to justify the institutions that we use to decide public policy.

Considered as a question of public policy, you could reasonably be concerned about two slippery slopes. These correspond to the two impossible (and undesirable) extremes in the original question.

Slippery slopes may or may not be a thing in philosophy, but they're a thing in politics. And the remedy is limiting principles. These limiting principles are often invented by the judicial branch, and one example is NYSRPA v. Bruen, which uses a "history and tradition" standard to evaluate limitations on 2nd Amendment rights.

That standard isn't what a philosopher would be likely to choose, but there is perhaps a philosophical argument for allowing justices, rather than philosophers, to make these decisions. And the question of institutional design may be more tractable than your original question.

If I did need to invent my own limiting principle, I might suggest that limitations on the capacity to do violence should not be more extreme for regular citizens than for law enforcement. This seems to preserve a reasonable power balance between individuals and the state while being relatively robust against obvious failure modes.

  • So like in England where generally neither the police nor citizens have guns.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 27 at 0:35

Apart from that there is no accepted measure of human destructiveness - as emphasized already in Marco's post to your question - I consider your question meaningful only as a binary question:

Is there any argument in favour of human destructiveness - yes or no?

Destructiveness defined as the will to destroy.

Hindu mythology and art created the figure of Shiva as the lord of dance, see enter image description here Shive dances the universe into destruction in a final firestorm. Doing so he triggers the construction of a new universe as the next phase in a cycle of subseqent universes.

This artwork is full of iconographic details which invite to further reflection.

Possibly this mythological figure stimulates some distinct views onto the question of constructiveness and destructiveness.

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    Tnx for the Dancing Shiva. I recently met a holy man. In conversation I said: One thing that distresses my mind are the enormity of deaths in Israel-Palestine. He said Its Shiva. Shiva is killing. Shiva is dying. All is Shiva. Somehow this homily changed something for me: My wish and propensity to ascribe blame one way or other disappeared
    – Rushi
    Commented Jan 26 at 9:44
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    @Rushi right, it might have been more the man and how he said it than the actual words, like a darshan. I often still feel the urge for blame, although I also know differently.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 27 at 0:41
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    @ScottRowe darshan — Very apt. At the time I thought it mostly a tired homily. But later I — and others who heard — found themselves subtly changed by the encounter
    – Rushi
    Commented Jan 28 at 3:10

Humans are inherently differentiated by destructive capacity. Without any technology at all, strong men have more than weak men. Men have more than women. Adults have more than children. Inequity in destructive capacity is an inherent fact of nature.

Technology can radically change the natural order by giving the weak more destructive power. In fact, technology gives the weak so much destructive power that natural differences become relatively unimportant. That's why the gun has been called the great equalizer. However, there are different levels of guns, from the pocket pistol to the howitzer, so guns create their own kind of inequality. And guns aren't the only form of destructive ability technology gives us; there have been mass murders committed with cars, for example, and anyone driving a bulldozer has the power to flatten buildings, and of course there are explosives. So technology doesn't really equalize destructive power so much as it creates an entirely new hierarchy of destructive power, and one that is a lot more destructive. This is likely to lead to an on-going arms race between criminals and citizens who just want to protect themselves from the criminals.

So what's the solution? Laws that limit the destructive technology that individuals can own? That won't do it, because criminals don't obey the law, so any laws designed to limit the destructive power of people often has the paradoxical result of making criminals more powerful than law-abiding people. It short-circuits the arms race in favor of the criminal.

If this happens, the only way to control the destructive power of the criminal is to give more destructive power to the government. But this also has an unintended side-effect: people who want more destructive power than is allowed by law still have a path to get more--join the government and rise in the government power structure. So another paradoxical effect of laws that limit the destructive power of individuals is that the government is more likely to have bad actors in it, people who are there specifically because they want more destructive power, and the government is at the same time overwhelmingly more powerful than the individual, which is a recipe for tyranny.

So the answer is, using the power of the government to bar people from owning destructive power is at best an unstable solution prone to devolve into tyranny by organized crime or by government. Allowing a free-for-all in destructive capacity will also lead to a certain amount of destruction, but the people will generally be more equal so it's less likely to lead to one overwhelmingly powerful authority and tyranny.

  • After 35,000 years we have domestic dogs that won't bite us, and will die to defend our children.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 27 at 0:57
  • Get a Borboel. It will defend your children. It won’t be the one who dies (in South Africa they fight adult leopards and come out on top).
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jan 27 at 13:34

If we are purely exercising an ethical thought experiment without the physical constraints of our current reality - one could envision the following universe: Every consciousness has absolute godlike control over the extend of their own body. No one and nothing can do anything to your body you don't want. This would negate any form of unwanted physical harm for everybody.

In this scenario I don't think anybody would need the ability to harm anybody else. I think the ability to harm others is not something you actually need. By itself the ability to harm others against their will is something no ethical being should need in a perfect world.

But in our reality it is a necessary evil. The ability to harm others is a byproduct or necessity to achieve other goals. A doctor needs to pierce your skin to help you. One might need to restrain someone in danger of harming himself or others. In our world the power to create and build comes with the power to bring great destruction - and one could not prevent the one without also hampering the other. We need tools like knives and cars.

And this is only looking at the dimension of physical harm. There are so many more forms of harm. One could destroy your reputation, or an item you love, or an idea you have. One can also inflict harm by neglect or ignorance. A world truly without any form of harm would be a world without free will, because in the broadest sense harm is doing anything which someone else does not want you to do.


In general, how much capability to harm or destroy should any given human have?

This question asks for an opinion, and my opinion is the same amount we currently have.

If humans were effectively barred from even minor forms of destructive capability, would it be a better or worse society?

Worse. In order to create something, another thing must be destroyed. (you can't build a house without cutting down a tree... you can't make an omelette without cracking eggs... you can't walk on your lawn without killing ants...) Society as we know it would come to a complete standstill.

The idea that by empowering some totalitarian regime to legislate and more thoroughly control any action, (however minor) deemed destructive we might achieve some form of societal utopia is ludicrous. Without free will and the accompanying and necessary consequences for your actions, humans would degrade into nothing but mindless automatons.

If people are given some degree of destructive capability, is there any clear “amount” that is meaningfully “the correct amount”? Why?

This is a paraphrase of question #1, so same answer. The current system of laws that control and limit access to weaponry and machines that could cause large scale destruction isn't perfect, but for the most part works well enough.

  • I don't think these things are very limited anymore. Laws are certainly not a limitation against terrorism. What if survival ends up requiring a totalitarian regime?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 24 at 23:54
  • @ScottRowe, what do you mean by "these things"? im not aure what your point is. Do you have a suggestion to improve my answer? Commented Mar 25 at 0:38
  • "to control and limit access to weapons"... I was just thinking that there don't appear to be effective limits, but I could be mistaken. Especially, laws don't seem to me to be effective for limiting, because people can disobey laws and get away with it, at least long enough to do a lot of damage. You were dismissing a totalitarian solution, but I think that ultimately, some small group of people is going to have to choose to do things to prevent disaster, because our current system doesn't appear able to act. If it is necessary, can it be unwise?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 25 at 2:37
  • @ScottRowe: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.". Benjamin Franklin Commented Mar 25 at 3:07
  • Wasn't the Revolutionary War started by a small group of people?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 25 at 10:28

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