The literature on the ethics of defensive harming frequently addresses imminent threats and threats of future harm; but it rarely addresses threats of continuing harm. Real-world cases of kidnapping, slavery, and domestic abuse can include threats of continuing harm. In cases such as these, the harm the victim suffers—and therefore proportionate defensive harm—depends upon both the magnitude and the duration of the harm threatened. Because continuing harms are, by definition, less than lethal, there is a prima facie sense in which using lethal force to defend against threats of continuing harm is disproportionate. In this paper, I develop a conception of threats of continuing harm and apply that conception to individual cases of self-defense and to just war theory. Ultimately, I argue that violations of a victim’s right to freedom or autonomy can justify lethal defensive harm, but only if the harm threatened is of a sufficient duration.
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