I Demand Satisfaction (Part IV)

Okay. You people sit tight, hold the fort and keep the home fires burning. And if we're not back by dawn... call the president.

The term “duel” derives from the Latin duellum – duo (two) and bellum (war) – such that we get “a war between two men.” In her book Gentlemen’s Blood (which I heartily recommend), Barbara Holland reports on then governor of South Carolina, John Lyde Wilson, who wrote in his The American Code; or Rules for the Government of Principals & Seconds in Dueling: “If an oppressed nation has a right to appeal to arms in defence of its liberty and the happiness of its people, there can be no argument used in support of such an appeal which will not apply with equal force to individuals…If [an individual] be subjected to a tame submission to insult and disgrace, where no power can shield him from its effects, then indeed, it would seem that the first law of nature, self-preservation, points out the only remedy for his wrongs.” By damn, he goes on to say that the duel “will be persisted in as long as a manly independence and a lofty personal pride in all that dignifies and ennobles the human character shall continue to exist.”

We might, of course, reasonably wonder what this says about “manly independence” and “personal pride” today…but no matter. Furthermore, I have briefly discussed Rational Violence by Duel as a variety of self-defense previously, and so I shall leave that to one side as well. Instead, what I would like to investigate here is the purported parallel between, on the one hand, war between nations, and on the other, war between individuals. As the tradition has it, the former can be justified, should it meet certain appropriate conditions. We shall rehearse these conditions below, and determine – to the extent that we can – whether they might appropriately be applied to “war” between individuals. As usual, we shall appeal to the situation outlined in previous posts (Part I, Part II, and Part III) concerning Jack Burton and Seedy Gang Member #1.

Just Cause – Between nations, there must be a just cause for going to war. That is, there must be an appropriate reason for the declaration of war, one backed by serious moral consideration, before hostilities may rightly commence. Should your country instigate ethnic cleansing – whereby perhaps certain citizens of my country are in danger of being “cleansed” – then likely such a situation would exemplify a just cause. Contrarily, the US legislature can’t justly declare war on your country because your Prime Minister sneezed in the US President’s face without apologizing.

  • Does Jack have a just cause for “war” with Seedy Gang Member #1? I have argued above that Jack does have a just cause to initiate hostilities with Seedy Gang Member #1. One may cite retribution, aims of deterrence, or simply outright self-defense (in the broader sense).

Right Intention – Those deciding to go to war must do so with the appropriate intentions. For instance, even if the cause for war is in fact just, the acting state must not invade for some other purpose, such as seizing the coal industry of the invaded state. The intention and the just cause must be appropriately harmonious, as it were.

  • Does Jack have the right intention? I have argued that he may. Were he to respond to Seedy Gang Member #1 in order to appear a badass in front of Gracie, or because his bloodlust is at its peak, or for some other nefarious motive, then his intention would be against rectitude. However, in the circumstances as I have depicted Jack’s reasoning, it certainly seems as though he may violently respond and do so in harmony with right reason.

Public Declaration of War By Legitimate Authority – The declaration must be publicly announced, and so can’t be made in secret. After all, if the declaration were made in secret, then such a circumstance would not, say, allow for the other state to attempt to make restitution short of being attacked. Furthermore, as a lowly philosopher, I can’t declare war on your state inasmuch as such a declaration must be made by a legitimate authority.

  • Jack’s situation? Well, first, I’m not sure who else in this situation would count as a legitimate authority. I suppose Gracie may declare on his behalf, though I dare say Jack would likely be far from comfortable with that. So it seems that Jack would be it. But the “publicity” requirement brings to light one interesting point concerning the nature of the duel. In a duel, there is a public declaration. And perhaps this is as things should be. In a typical barroom brawl, the “declaration” is normally little more than the first thrown punch. What is perhaps worse is the cowardly act of those who attack another individual while he isn’t looking – such acts should be held in severe contempt. Should Jack “officially” declare his intent to whup-ass, then it’s at least possible (though unlikely) that Seedy Gang Member #1 recognize his error and proffer restitution. What’s more, the public nature of the declaration is such that Jack secures his dignity, honor, and self-respect amongst the masses.

Proportionality – The over-all cost of the war must be proportional to the benefit that will be obtained by going to war. Here, the “cost” may include financial cost, cost in lives, security surrendered of the homefront by going to war, the overall harm involved…And, of course, these “costs” are to be calculated in accord with both parties in the conflict.

  • Jack? Again, prudence is obviously required on Jack’s part when assessing the overall circumstances of his situation. Outside the bounds of an official duel, Jack would have to consider damage to the bar, whether bystanders may be harmed, and the like. But we have already noted that rational violence is constrained in certain ways, and that, for instance, Jack may not reasonably respond to an insult by pulling out a mallet and beating in the skull of Seedy Gang Member #1. As such, it seems to me apparent that Jack may meet the Proportionality requirement. We shall discuss what we might think of as “rules of proportionality” in the final post, rules the following of which may ensure fairness and some variety of discretion in the performance of the duel.

Probability of Success – There must be a reasonable probability of success. That is, the war must have a significant chance of improving a situation rather than worsening it. The legislature of Rhode Island may declare war on the remainder of the US, though this would seem wholeheartedly unreasonable.

  • Jack?  Here, matters become tricky. Why? Well, whether an engagement is a “success” is much more difficult to establish in the context of individuals than it is in the context of states. Suppose that Seedy Gang Member #1 is 6’5’’, 250 lbs. of pure muscle and Jack is 5’6’’, 120 lbs. soaking wet. One might think that Jack should not respond violently if he’s pretty damned sure he’s going to have his bushy-haired head used as a mop to clean the floors. But I’m not so sure. As I’ve said before, sometimes one needs to take an ass-whuppin’, even if ceteris paribus one would much rather be the one givin’ it. What is at stake is one’s honor, one’s self-respect. And, as in the case of the playground bully, sometimes “success” is gauged in terms of standing up for what’s right. Even still, prudence should (as always) be exercised. For instance, I’m not sure that even Rational Violence by Duel could be reasonably utilized in such a situation wherein the entire gang voiced insults in Jack’s direction. Again, I admit that prudential demands may differ depending upon the occasion. [Though parsing out these details would be an interesting exercise nonetheless.]

Last Resort – War should be engaged only after all other options have been reasonably exhausted. Indeed, as the great Winston Churchill famously said, oftentimes “it’s better to ‘jaw jaw’ than to ‘war war’.” So, without doubt, diplomacy needs to be tested before fighting commences.

  • Jack? The very point of this series of posts recognizes that rational violence should be a last resort. I am simply trying to get on the table of conversation the idea that it is a reasonable resort in certain situations. As for diplomacy, I suppose Jack could try to reason with Seedy Gang Member #1. Practical experience indicates that in such situations as I have described, this is likely not to be successful. However, as we shall see in the final post, Rational Violence by Duel will be typically preceded by attempts to rectify the situation without bloodshed.

As is well known, the first three conditions on Just War are deontological in scope, and it seems likely to me that there can be justice between individuals that reasonably reflect the larger stage. The latter three conditions concern respect for consequences and the results to be achieved. Here too, it seems to me, Jack’s position may be on stable footing.[*]

Finally, dear reader, we may now move from the realm of justification to the realm of practice. How might Rational Violence by Duel be instituted as an official, sanctioned social practice? To that point we will turn in the final installment of this series. Stay tuned…

[*] Is it “obvious” that there exists a parallel between individual and state? No, of course not. My suggestion is that the two situations are reasonably similiar, similar enough at least to warrant discussion on the matter. Again, this is a blog post, not a multiple-volume treatise!

Jack Burton

This is Jack Burton in the Pork Chop Express, and I’m talkin’ to whoever’s listenin’ out there. When not doing historical philosophy, he’s fighting the forces of evil (i.e., Lo Pan, his minions, and leftists). To those who fear university bureaucrats, “social justice” activists, and anyone with a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker, just remember what ol’ Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”

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  1. Jack,

    Is the proper moment of a duel (in your framework) placed just before assault/battery but just after extremely heated verbal dispute? Or maybe, just before aggravated assault/battery but just after assault/battery?

    That’s where I would place it, since without the consent typically inherent in a duel the violence of the duel just ends up creating instances of assault/battery.

    That being the case, wouldn’t there be an argument to be made for not allowing the type of rational violence you advocate because:

    Over generations we end up conditioning people to find less utility in physical violence.

    I know verbal violence can be, in many ways, just as harmful as physical violence. However, unless one assumes that the cumulative amount of verbal and physical violence (along with their cousins, the latent predispositions to verbal and physical violence) within a society can never diminish over time, we can say that if we’ve diminished physical violence to a non-trivial degree then it seems likely we should be able to additionally decrease verbal violence.

    If all that is true, and we’ve seen that at least physical violence has decreased under our regime of punishing assault/battery (you could, of course, contest this), then wouldn’t one pragmatic route be just continuing on in whatever ways we have already?


    I’m throwing some rough thoughts out on paper. I’m not particularly wedded to the arguments therein.

    • Interesting thoughts here, Jordan. First, I assume (though perhaps should have made more clear) that consent is required by both parties in order for a duel to take place. Hopefully that will be discussed a bit more in the final post. While I do not (personally) find it unconscionable that an ass-whuppin’ take place absent the consent of one of the parties (I mean, if Seedy Gang Member #1 refuses outright and yet continues with the intense insults, then mayhap an ass-whuppin’ is in order), that would not (it seems to me) be Rational Violence by Duel.

      What is unclear to me about your comment, however, is the thesis that [C] “Over generations we end up conditioning people to find less utility in physical violence.” Now, is [C] supposed to be a descriptive fact? If so, then perhaps it is true…though I’m far from certain. Maybe in the West this is case…In any event, I’m just not sure.

      Or is [C] normatively-loaded, such that you mean “it is a good thing that [C]”? Here, I’d simply disagree. As a retributivist myself, I’m inclined to think that there are a whole host of human beings who deserve to have their asses kicked. And, contrary to conventional leftist “wisdom,” I’m also inclined to think that pain is one helluva’ motivator, and can (does) resolve problems that (oftentimes) don’t get resolved at all.

      Even still…this is something I should probably think about a bit more. Great comment!

  2. Bringing back dueling is an interesting idea. It may be a societal good. Kant, who himself almost fought in a duel, defends the practice in The Metaphysics of Morals.

    However, there is a practical concern that seems insurmountable: duels can only be fought between persons of honor, persons who can be trusted to abide by the code duello. How do you know you’re facing a person of honor?

    Interpersonal violence can be split into two categories: the monkey dance and combat.

    Humans have evolved to live in hierarchical social structures. They determine the pecking order with the monkey dance, to mix metaphors. There are inherent rules. Two men square off, arms down, chests out. “What are you looking at?!” “You want some of this?!” “Come at me, bro!” They exchange blows with closed fists to the skull, painful but almost never fatal.

    Contrast this with combat. There are no rules. If you are justified in defending yourself, then it is in your interest to put your opponent down quickly, with as little risk to yourself as possible. The first indication your attacker should have that you’re dangerous is when his disembodied soul is looking down at his own corpse wondering “What just happened?”

    When Jack faces Seedy Gang Member #1 in the bar, why would Jack assume the gang member is a man of honor who will abide by the rules of a duel? It seems foolish for him to do so. It would be more prudent for Jack to beg off, but, if faced with a deadly threat, dispatch the attacker with no warning nor hesitation. Play for blood or don’t play at all.

    There is a question of proportionality. If someone throws a punch at you, you may not be justified in just shooting them (depending upon the disparity in physical size, the presence of other people threatening to jump in, etc.) Note, though, that, if you are armed, it is imprudent to get into a fistfight or a wrestling match. The risk of being disarmed is too great. Intermediate degrees of force are nice to have, but, unless you’re a police officer, you’re better off not closing with the enemy and getting into such an altercation. Again, these are practical concerns that argue against getting into a duel with person whose honor is uncertain.

    • Outstanding insight here. Indeed, practical wisdom would appear to indicate that there are times when it would be foolhardy to enter into an honor-based practice with one who lacks honor entirely. Furthermore, the stakes are incredibly high (e.g., very much unlike playing a game of basketball with someone you know will cheat).

      Historically, the attempt was made to level the playing field by the use of seconds. While a return to the duel, I think, would require that seconds be utilized, I also think the addition of an impartial umpire of sorts would offset many worries. Alas, the devil’s in the details, I reckon.

      Admittedly, I got a kick out of this: “The first indication your attacker should have that you’re dangerous is when his disembodied soul is looking down at his own corpse wondering “What just happened?”” Though I’m not sure I agree, upon reflection. There are rules in combat (e.g., no shooting of those who wave the white flag in surrender), and I for one would sleep more soundly knowing that I saw the whites of my opponent’s eyes (and he mine) before I laid waste to his corporeal form. Honor, and all that…

      Though now that I think about it…that line of reasoning may suggest that the sniper is a dishonorable profession…hmmmm…must think on this more.

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