Suppose that somebody took something expensive that belonged to you which you left on a bench and you saw them do it.

Within a Kantian or more broadly deontic framework, would it be acceptable to use physical force to stop them if they did not return it when you asked?

  • 1
    Usually this type of question is deemed too broad unless put in a more specific philosophical context, e.g. what type of moral theory should be applied. – Dave Oct 11 '16 at 23:17
  • as in "can I shoot them in the back?" – user20153 Oct 11 '16 at 23:23
  • 1
    The legal bit is largely off-topic for this SE. There's a law.SE but what's legal depends on your jurisdiction rather than philosophy (though what ought to be legal is a question in political philosophy and ethics). – virmaior Oct 11 '16 at 23:31
  • Mobileink, perhaps as in, use physical force to apprehend them and not necessarily do serious injury or harm. – Jerry Qu Oct 12 '16 at 1:45
  • 1
    Okay, what do you think a Kantian would say? To me, (because I am highly ignorant of ethics) It seems like to formulate the maxim "vigilante justice should not be acted" as a universal maxim that would leave my own moral intuition that in fact, it is okay to stop somebody like this without causing serious harm to them. Thus, even if we add the addendum "in less severe cases" to the statement "vigilante justice should not be acted" seems wrong. But perhaps this is evaluating consequences, and not trying to formulate a general rule. Idk. I'm highly ignorant. – Jerry Qu Oct 12 '16 at 1:51

I think you have dissolved your own dilemma ethically with the caveat "...not necessarily do serious injury or harm". I no longer see a problem with universalizing the rule here. If others were to attempt to enforce their versions of what is moral on me, but in a way that did not cause any serious injury or harm, I think that would be an imposition that I'd be prepared to live with in order to allow me the later autonomy to be able to take small actions to restore what I consider natural justice without having to appeal to the state.

If you removed the caveat about doing harm to the person, the categorical imperative would be breached as you will have harmed a person motivated by your desire for property, but without the harm (or even without the intention to harm) all you are doing is acting to retrieve property which the law says is yours to take. I don't see how he fact that it is in someone else's hand at the time, or the fact that you may incidentally harm them as a result of your actions makes any difference. From a Kantian perspective so long as you do not intend to harm them the action is moral.


The maxim behind vigilante justice that involves action rather than mere prevention seems to be 'Everyone should enforce the moral rules for themselves.' This would scare me. Many people think they know what the rules of morality are, and I would not want them to impose that misunderstanding upon me.

I am pretty sure, given his notion of nations and stable societies Kant would prefer that we choose the maxim 'We should choose who will enforce the moral codes and empower them to do so.' If that means you have to tolerate theft right under your nose, sobeit, the State monopoly on violence is more important than your pique.

  • Perhaps maybe this just elevates the issue to a higher level - that who we choose will represent our moral causes is also not exactly clear. – Jerry Qu Oct 12 '16 at 5:31
  • In terms of which maxim we should choose. – Jerry Qu Oct 12 '16 at 5:32
  • So maybe this is more of a question of political philosophy? – Jerry Qu Oct 12 '16 at 5:35
  • Kant probably won't help you much there. It only depends upon 'connection to the common will' -- meaning any form of government can choose them, as long as the decision makers can be readily deposed. You have left the domain of ethics and entered into the realm of anthropology -- meaning that such mechanisms are going to vary according to the history of a State, and Kant did not want to impugn any of them unduly. – jobermark Oct 12 '16 at 6:26
  • Hmm so it's not an ethical question at all what we should do in terms of vigilante justice? So what kind of questions can ethics exactly decide upon? – Jerry Qu Oct 12 '16 at 6:29

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.