When someone punches you unprovoked, what moral rule should you follow?

September 12, 2010 | By | 40 Replies More

While riding my bicycle past a housing project in the city of St. Louis yesterday, six teenaged boys ran up to me.   I suspected trouble.  One of the teenagers ran alongside me.  I was concerned that he was going to push me off my bicycle, so I hopped off.  He looked nervous, and we all froze for a couple seconds, with the other five teenagers standing about 20 feet away.  The teenager closest to me suddenly reached back and took a swing at me, punching me on my right shoulder.  I wasn’t hurt much, even though this kid was trying to hurt me.

Though I had previously been in only one other fight in my entire life (a minor scuffle when I was about 10), I assumed that I could handle two or three of these teenagers (assuming that they didn’t have weapons), but not six of them.  Instead of lunging for the attacker, I yelled, “Cut it out!”  He immediately backed off, then all six young men scampered about 150 feet away, taunting me as they went.  I crossed the road toward a restaurant and they stayed away.  This all happened along a well-traveled road.

My response to the punch was largely guided by pragmatic reasons.  I didn’t want to escalate the fight, given that there were six boys, and I didn’t know if they had weapons.  But what was the “proper” response?  What do the moral rules tell us to do in this situation?

One option would be to chase down the aggressor and pound the crap out of him.  I can assure you that this was my deep instinct, whether or not it would have been possible for me to do this.  But there are certainly other moral rules that could pertain to this situation.

For instance, Jesus purportedly said, “Love your enemy.”  Luke 6:27-36.  To me, this New Testament rule means that we should never strike back, certainly not when the attacker has retreated.  That is my personal interpretation of that rule.  American Christian politicians claim that the “turn your cheek” rule of Jesus” allows them to drop large bombs on the people of those other countries we consider to be our “enemy,” even when it means that millions of civilians are killed, wounded and permanently displaced.   Many others, including Dr. Martin Luther King, have implored that we act with non-violence whenever we are attacked.

What were my other options?   A friend of mine (I’ll call him James) once told me that when he was in grade school a kid walked up to him and punched him, but didn’t really hurt him.  James was puzzled at the unprovoked attack.  That night he told his father that a kid punched him, but that James didn’t punch him back.  His father became angry.  He said, “James, our family never starts a fight but we always finish them.”  James was instructed by his father that he should never stand there and take a punch, even if he isn’t hurt.

Nietzsche had another approach for this situation.  In Thus Spoke Zarathustra (“On the Adder’s Bite”), Nietzsche criticizes the Christian ethic of “turn the other cheek.”  He urged that if you have been wronged, you should release your anger through a little revenge, rather than letting the frustration build up inside.  People shouldn’t burn off great amounts of energy getting revenge, but neither should they do nothing.

I used the Nietzschean approach yesterday.  I went into the restaurant and called the police.  When the police arrived, I explained that I didn’t need to file a formal report, but that I would like the police to go into the projects to find the teenager who punched me (I gave them a fairly detailed description).  I requested that they give him a lecture and a warning.  I assume they did this.   To the right is a photo of the police car driving into the area where the teenagers approached me.

What I find interesting is that none of these approaches (turn the other cheek, finish the fight or get a little bit of revenge) actually told me what to do.  Each of these simple-looking rules is vague because none of them is accompanied meta-rules describing exactly when and how to apply the rule.  Aristotle levied this devastating criticism toward alleged rule-based morality more than 2,000 years ago.

It’s worse than a problem of vagueness.  Almost every bit of moral guidance is balanced by an opposite rule.  You can almost always find a rule to justify whatever you’d like to do.  You can almost always find some rule to criticize someone else’s behavior.  I’m not the first to notice this problem with pairs of opposing rules:

All maxims have their antagonist maxims; proverbs should be sold in pairs, a single one being but a half truth.
William Mathews

Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.
– George Santayana

Platitude:  an idea (a) that is admitted to be true by everyone, and (b) that is not true.  H.L. Mencken

An aphorism is never exactly true. It is either a half-truth or a truth and a half.
Karl Kraus, Sprüche und Widersprüche, 1909

Somewhere in the world there is an epigram for every dilemma.
Hendrik Willem van Loon

A good teacher must know the rules; a good pupil, the exceptions.
Martin H. Fischer

Would you like some examples of antipodal guidance?  Consider the following:

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Are we in charge of our actions?  We are doing the steering, but most people like to believe that the rules are steering us.  Or that God is in charge, and we are simply following His Will.  Or that fairness compels us.  When we are deciding what to do, we are all like lawyers who twist and spin the rules, always acting as if we had no choice in the matter.  Each of us is often a chattering fool riding on the elephant described by Jonathan Haidt. It’s not as if the rules mean nothing at all–they are guides and posts that capture and direct our attention–but we decide to privilege some of them and quite often we do so consciously; they don’t actually control us, certainly not as often as we claim. 

The bottom line?  There’s a rule for every occasion. We chose the rules, they don’t really compel us. It’s just a matter of deciding what to do, then choosing a rule to justify your decision.   If no rule is reasonably available, then create on, stretch one, distinguish one, or ignore one.  Why would we do that?  Because it’s much easier to justify our decisions by claiming that we are following “objective” criteria than by arguing that we chose to do something because we personally decided to do it (without any objective criteria).  In Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind, Preface, p. xiv, (1987), George Lakoff commented on this need to find “objective” criteria for our decision-making:

There is a major folk theory in our society according to which being objective is being fair, and human judgment is subject to error or likely to be biased.   Consequently decisions concerning people should be made on ‘objective’ grounds as often as possible.  It is the major way that people who make decisions avoid blame.   If there are ‘objective’ criteria on which to base a decision, then one cannot be blamed for being biased, and consequently one cannot be criticized, demoted, fired, or sued.

Hence, we work hard to justify our behavior according to “moral rules.”   We claim that we did X because we were morally compelled to do X.   Or course, if we had conducted ourselves some other way, we would have found a rule to justify that too.  Welcome to the hyper-technical world of moral ratiocination, a world that parallels the equally bizarre world of legal reasoning.


Category: Good and Evil, Law

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (40)

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  1. Tim Hogan says:

    Nicklaus, I prefer Gen. Samuel B. Griffith's translation (out of print). The general did it for his Ph.D. and the annotations are wonderful, and references earlier and later works and how they may have worked themselves into the text.

  2. Karl says:


    Sounds like you were part of a hazing incident to one degree or another.

    Others will often poke at you just to see what kind of a response it will bring. Will you run, stand and fight or stand your ground and take more assaults?

    I find the intellectual poking and proding done around here on DI and in many college environments to be part of one great grand hazing initiation scheme.

  3. Ben says:

    Tony Coyle and/or Brynn Jacobs,

    What is the proper (your) stance on Gun Control?

    briefly discussed here:


  4. Karl,

    One major difference between what goes on here and a hazing—in a hazing the victim almost never has a choice or say in the matter. The situation is forced on them without their having sought it. Don't see how that compares with what goes on here at DI.

  5. Tony Coyle says:


    Regarding gun control. My personal position is that in a responsible society of adults gun control should be unnecessary, since adults would be self policing. I have the same stance on most external 'controls'.

    However (and it is one hugely gargantuan however) we do not live in a society of adults. We are most certainly NOT living or governing ourselves rationally.

    Therefore controls are necessary – just as we control EVERYTHING in the environment for children and juveniles. We give them limited freedom, to foster the growth of responsible adult behaviors, while maintaining safe and effective boundaries on those behaviors.

    Regarding gun controls, in specific.

    1) Why do you want a gun? (use case analysis)?

    2) Under which conditions will you use the weapon?

    3) How will the weapon be secured when not in use? (preventing illicit or unauthorized use)

    4) What class of gun do you need to satisfy that use-case? (minimal/maximal acceptable risk exposure)

    Most of the rants about gun control in the US stems from the "Right to bear arms" in the second amendment- and the blanket demand that the right need must never be abridged or curtailed, despite the right being aligned (and predicated) by the desire for a free militia.

    The rant rarely gets past this absolutist bullshit, and into matters of appropriate restrictions of the right. My 'questions' would be easy to answer for any responsible user (hunters, or target shooters, for instance). It becomes harder for irresponsible users.

    An example from elsewhere in the world.

    Switzerland requires all young men to participate in the army. As part of their service, they are then required to become part of the militia (national guard) after their national service period ends. As National Guardsmen, every swiss male will have in their home an army issue automatic weapon, a service revolver, and ongoing training in their use. So pretty much every adult swiss male has direct and unsullied access to high powered automatic weaponry AND the ammunition for that weaponry.

    Now, to compare gun-related homicides per 10,000 population

    United States: 7.07

    Switzerland: 0.58

    Scotland: 0.19

    Switzerland has guns in every household, but more behavioral 'control' resulting in lower homicide by gun rates.

    Scotland has significantly fewer weapons, and much greater controls over what classes of weapons may be used, resulting in even lower deaths by firearm.

    The US has no controls (in any real meaning of the word) and it shows.

    One interesting statistic – Mexico, touted by some as a hotbed of violence, is only marginally worse per capita than the US for homicide (at 9.88), but significantly better in overall terms (12.07 vs 15.22)

    Scotland is presented as a control. I did not use UK to eliminate any 'London bias' or 'IRA/UDF bias' potential in the numbers (all numbers based on (Krug 1998) EG Krug, KE Powell and LL Dahlberg. "Firearm-related deaths in the United States and 35 other high- and upper-middle-income countries.", International Journal of Epidemiology 1998.

    Statistics among 36 countries between 1990 and 1995.

  6. Rabel Fibel says:

    Thanks Mr. Mark for the time and thought…in time, I will read the book recommended.

    It seems Wilson was also 'pursuaded' into the signing of the Federal Reserve System during the Christmas holiday of 1913(pre-war). I tend to look at the puzzle pieces of history and try to see why wars are started and it usually comes down to economy. The monopoly on the creation of paper notes, chartered by congress, is neither Federal and doubtful reserves, if any. ~no real correlation here, but it would seem our farming techniques and grain productions beat the Europeans to the market at cheaper costs, therefore causing our dollar strength and not by our policies, but that is another discussion somewhere else…that signing was so significant for the US, even today!

    ~Thanks for your kindness and patience, even if I don't deserve it(mercy me),


  7. Karl says:

    You are exactly right about the DI situation. People are not chosen at random for the "intellectual brow beatings" they get here.

    However, you failed to connect the other higher educational analogy, although I'm sure you recognize that as justifiable because if one doesn't want to become a member in good standing of the "no creator allowed in science worldview" one can always find solace and comfort among the outcasts along with the rest of those who refuse to haze its initiates.

  8. Artemis says:

    Wow, Erich! That incident incurred a lot of responses. I believe it hits a deep chord in all of us.

    I had a similar one. I was in my community garden, which is in a 'transitional' area, and a teenager walked in (the area is fenced with a high chain link fence, and locked. I had chosen to leave the gate unlocked as it was about 3:30 in the afternoon and I suspected no danger).

    Anyway, said young man walked in, and I immediately tried to engage him in conversation. He was monosyllabic at best. Finally I became aware that he was following closely behind me and as I bent over to pull a weed, he looked up my shorts!

    Now, I had a hose in my hand, so I first said Get the Hell out of here, then sprayed him with the hose! It was one of those extremely hot days, so he merely sauntered off, smirking.

    I did call the police, and I did file a report, and I did hear from the juvenile officer.

    Bottom line: it's ABSOLUTELY biologically imperative that we fight or flee. Adult reason and the frontal lobe of our brains can train us to respond otherwise.

    There is no one right response other than it is a RESPONSE, not a reaction from the medulla! Saying "cut it out" or "get away from me" is simply speaking truth, and calling the police is a solution to hopefully prevent this from happening again. Wrong action is wrong action, harm is harm, and to answer it with harm is to perpetuate it.

    I'd say you handled it perfectly, Erich.. you did not strike back which could have escalated things into a very ugly situation with some very evil consequences, but you did not react like a victim.

    Good for you, and if you find a one-size-fits-all moral imperative, DON'T TELL ME! It takes all the fun and challenge out of life!

  9. Barbed Oracle says:

    Some marital arts do teach situational thinking:

    Use your creativity as your first means of prevention. When you cannot prevent avoid, when you can't avoid, confuse, when you can't confuse disuade. It goes on with: hurt, injure, maim, then kill.

  10. Scarlet Letter says:

    I do not think you should be riding bikes near the projects. I think you should review Maslow's Hierarchy of needs and consider the possibility that you stumbled upon an up and coming robbery crew that was looking for $20 or so to buy food, liquor or drugs to get them through the remainder of the day. I think the only reason why they left you be was because cyclists aren't known for carrying cash or because they hadn't actually emboldened each other to the point of armed robbery yet. If you had been on foot, you might well have been stuck up or pistol whipped if you had been assessed as likely in possession of a wallet. You've devoted far more thought to this scenario than your would-be attackers, who, given their environment, are not thinking beyond their immediate needs or desires. We live in a society where a significant portion of the population is raised with no moral code whatsoever. Wallowing in deep thoughts might cause you to get your ass shot off.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Scarlet Letter: I suppose those of us who can should live in gated communities? We should write off entire groups of people as "bad" and avoid them? Escape from cities by moving ever further out into the suburbs? Is that really the kind of world you prefer?

      This was a smallish group of subsidized housing. I'd been through there many times without ever having a problem.

  11. Scarlet Letter says:

    The gated community concept is associated with safety and social order. Contrary to popular perception, the gated community concept knows no economic boundaries. There are plenty of subsidized housing projects that are gated communities. That concept of urban planning is called "creating defensible space" and part of the idea is that residents have a sense of pride in their homes and the safety and security of their neighborhoods, regardless of whether they own their homes or rent with taxpayer assistance. The physical barrier not only keeps the criminal element out, but communicates to the outside world that the people living within care about their quality of life. They have a space, within the gate, that is theirs, and an interest in keeping it safe. Intrusion into the space meets with consequences.

    If we called it a tribe or a kibbutz it would be cool, very hip, morally acceptable, and, most of all, politically correct. Apparently though, iron gates kill the mood. No real community of decent folks can exist behind wrought iron. They are all miserable, silver-spoon sucking, capitalist bastards.

    I would not be inclined to take my children bike riding in or near the projects, absent some visible signs of intolerance for social disorder. Most projects are not at all associated with intolerance to social disorder. Rather, they are breeding grounds for crime because residents have no incentive, inclination, or power to ensure otherwise. Such areas often show signs of tolerance to crime–broken windows, open prostitution, graffiti, open air drug dealing, etc.

    Making logical assumptions about the safety of an area by virtue of its appearance is called survival. It is about bad places where bad people are known to take advantage of social disorder.

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