Human Shields

Letter 1.

From: J
Sent: Friday, September 13, 2019 8:51 PM
Subject: human shields

Dear Walter,

I have another question for you, this time about the ethics of killing human shields in self-defense. In your article “Libertarian Punishment Theory: Working for, and Donating to, the State”

Block, Walter E. 2009. “Libertarian punishment theory: working for, and donating to, the state” Libertarian Papers, Vol. 1;

you say this:

“Second, there is a “moral system… that (can) require people to be martyrs.” It is libertarianism. Consider the following case. A sticks a gun in B’s back, and tells B that unless he murders innocent person C, right in front of B, he, A, will murder B. B, for some reason, we stipulate, cannot turn around and shoot his attacker, A. His is a stark choice: murder C, or become a “martyr.” It is my contention that the libertarian axiom against murder of innocents requires B to refuse to shoot C; B’s only option, then, is to stand fast in his refusal, that is, act the part of the martyr.”

You seem to say quite clearly here that killing an innocent person is never justified, even in self-defense.

In a later article, “The Human Body Shield,”

Block, Walter E. 2011. “The Human Body Shield,” Journal of Libertarian Studies; Vol. 22, pp. 625-630;

you adopt the theory of “negative homesteading”. According to this, the one whose rights are first violated has “homesteaded” the rights violation and cannot impose it on another. It seems that this would still mean B cannot murder C, since B’s rights were violated first and he cannot pass on his “misery” to C in order to save his life. However, if A first made B into a human shield and then threatened C, C would be justified in killing B to defend himself against C, since B’s rights were violated first and had therefore homesteaded the rights violation, so he can’t ask C to sacrifice himself. Have I got that right?

And would it matter in which order A threatened B and C? I.e. if A first pulled a gun on C and only then made B a human shield, presumably C had homesteaded the misery and could not then kill B in self-defense.

I have to say I still find the “classical libertarian” position more consistent, i.e. you cannot aggress against an innocent person in self-defense regardless of who else has been victimized before. The “negative homesteading” theory seems to open the door to justifications for “collateral damage” in war, while my understanding was that this was not a valid justification for murder even in wartime. What do you think?

Best regards, J

Letter 2

On September 14, 2019 at 1:15 PM Walter Block <> wrote:

Dear J:

Yes, your understanding is correct.

But why do you say that “negative homesteading” theory seems to open the door to justifications for “collateral damage”?

Best regards,


Letter 3

From: J
Sent: Saturday, September 14, 2019 8:40 PM
To: Walter Block <>
Subject: RE: human shields

OK I’m glad I understand how negative homesteading is applied. My concern is that justifying killing of human shields can lead to justifying killing of innocent third parties in war, e.g. bombing a hospital that contains a weapons depot. I was under the impression that libertarians oppose war because of this indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people in the name of military necessity, i.e. we oppose the idea that innocent people can become human shields and can be legitimately killed in war. See e.g. this passage by Murray Rothbard from Ethics of Liberty:

“War, then, even a just defensive war, is only proper when the exercise of violence is rigorously limited to the individual criminals themselves. We may judge for ourselves how many wars or conflicts in history have met this criterion. ” (1998, NYU Press, p. 190)

I know you are as against war as much as any libertarian so I’m interested to know how you reconcile that with the idea that it is permissible to kill human shields if the human shield had already been victimized. J

Letter 4

On September 15, 2019 at 1:26 PM Walter Block <> wrote:

From a pragmatic point of view, which seems to worry you, if we the good guys were not allowed to kill (not murder, just kill) innocent Shields, then this would constitute an open invitation for the bad guys to grab innocent Shields, to protect themselves from us the good guys, visiting justice on them

Lookit, SOME innocent person has got to die in these lifeboat situations. So, it does no good to bewail the fact that my theory allows for this. every theory must do so

Letter 5

From: J
Sent: Monday, September 16, 2019 7:55 AM
To: Walter Block <>
Subject: RE: human shields

I see the concern about the bad guys having an incentive to use human shields. I think I just had an easier time wrapping my head around a simple ban on aggression against non-aggressors; the negative homesteading makes it a bit more complicated. I suppose you’d say that in a war there might be times where killing innocents was justified if it met your criteria i.e. there is an aggressor A (like a Hamas fighter, for example), a human shield B (like a Palestinian child) and another victim C (an Israeli settler, who we can assume is innocent of aggression for sake of argument), where C has a right to kill B if B is being used as a shield by aggressor A. Would you still maintain that most deaths in war are not justifiable even assuming the negative homesteading theory? Or do you find that your evaluation of wartime deaths might differ from other libertarians because of your position?

Letter 6.

To J

From W

My guess is that 99%+ of deaths in war are unjustified. Thus, I am, along with all good libertarians, an anti-war libertarian


11:26 am on October 8, 2019