Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Thieves and crocodiles

Alice has tools in a shed and sees a clearly unarmed thief approaching the shed. She knows she is in no danger of her life or limb—she can easily move away from the thief—but points a gun at the thief and shouts: “Stop or I’ll shoot to kill.” The thief doesn’t stop. Alice fulfills the threat and kills the thief.

Bob has a farm of man-eating crocodiles and some tools he wants to store safely. He places the tools in a shed in the middle of the crocodile farm, in order to dissuade thieves. The farm is correctly marked all-around “Man-eating crocodiles”, and the crocodiles are quite visible to all and sundry. An unarmed thief breaks into Bob’s property attempting to get to his tool shed, but a crocodile eats him on the way.

Regardless of what local laws may say, Alice is a murderer. In fulfilling the threat, by definition she intended to kill the thief who posed no danger to life or limb. (The case might be different if the tools were needed for Alice to survive, but even then I think she shouldn’t intend death.) What about Bob? Well, there we don’t know what the intentions are. Here are two possible intentions:
    1. Prospective thieves are dissuaded by the presence of the man-eating crocodiles, but as a backup any that not dissuaded are eaten.
    2. Prospective thieves are dissuaded by the presence of the man-eating crocodiles.
If Bob’s intention is (1), then I think he’s no different from Alice.

I disagree with Pruss that Bob is guilty of murder under that scenario. I don't know if Pruss draws that conclusion based on Catholic moral theology or his own moral intuition. If intuitive, I don't share his intuition.

Indeed, I think this might illustrate how God can be the remote cause of something without being culpable. 

The thief attempts to steal the tools at his own risk. Surely there's no obligation to make thievery safe. Surely Bob is under no obligation to protect the thief from harm. The set-up by itself doesn't put the thief in mortal danger. Rather, the thief puts himself in mortal danger by assuming a risk. In that respect it's different from a mantrap, which the unwary don't detect until it's too late. They never knew what hit them. But in this case, the hazard is in plain sight, and they defy the hazard, at their own cost. 


  1. YOur antagonists know that the thief poses no mortal threat to Alice, but how can Alice be expected to know that? Suppose it were true, though: maybe the thief meant only grievous bodily harm rather than lethality, and someone continuing to advance despite a verbal warning and brandishing of a firearm is either looney or is acting with intent. Either way, the threat is quite real for Alice.

  2. I agree with Kirk; but it's more a weak analogy than the principle.