Imperfect Victims and The Right to Self-Defence

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis investigates the right to self-defence by examining a range of cases involving “imperfect” victims – that is, victims of wrongful threats who contributed to, or could have avoided, being wrongfully attacked. It asks when, if at all, this fact about a victim should impact or compromise their right to defensively harm the aggressor. Despite the booming literature on the ethics of defensive harming, this question has received little attention compared to questions about how the fault and responsibility of the aggressor affect the right to self-defence. It is often ignored or treated as an afterthought. But it merits more attention. There are cases in which it seems intuitive that a victim’s actions negatively affect their right to self-defence – for instance, cases involving provocation – but unless we are careful in spelling out the reasons for this, we risk ending up with overly harsh and “victim blaming” theories of self-defence. Moreover, partly because victims have received little attention, some of the ways that the principles and conditions for permissible self-defence are phrased in the literature also imply too harsh restrictions on the right to self-defence when applied to cases involving imperfect victims.

The thesis aims to help fill this gap. One of the main themes that emerge is that we should not simply focus on whether a victim could have (even easily and without much cost) avoided, or avoided contributing to, a threat situation, nor simply on whether they were culpable for not avoiding this. Instead, we should focus on whether their behaviour violated specific duties to avoid contributing to situations in which they need to impose defensive harm. As I explain, there are different possible grounds for this type of duty, which impacts the duty’s stringency. Understanding these different grounds helps us see more clearly when and to what extent an imperfect victim’s right to self-defence is compromised. From this approach, we get a unified and nuanced view according to which it is generally difficult to compromise one’s defensive rights. Taking risks, even culpable risks, has little or no compromising impact on one’s right to self-defence against culpable aggressors. However, wrongfully interfering with others’ fair opportunities to avoid defensive harm, or manipulating them into attacking, can radically alter one’s right to self-defence.
Date of Award1 Aug 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMassimo Renzo (Supervisor) & David Owens (Supervisor)

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