Berry on Freedom
Highlights from General Synod

Injustice in Florida

I always thought this was a pretty open and shut case.  Though the public discourse about it followed all sorts of tangents, some very worthy, many not, the basics were straightforward: George Zimmerman was guilty of a criminal act in the death of Trayvon Martin.

I came to this because of something I learned in high school.  I was a debater and in preparing our cases, I had to occasionally read political theory, in particular aspects of social contract theory, which undergirds the Anglo-American political tradition.  One thing I had to read about was self-defense as understood in the social contract.

According to John Locke, whose thought influenced the formation of this country's constitutional tradition, the first thing we surrender in joining a society is the right to use deadly force.  People using deadly force against one another is a feature of the state of nature.  Humanity decides that something better exists if we agree to enter into a social contract.  So, we set aside deadly force (and some other things) in order to enter into this agreement with one another.  This social contract is the pre-condition for all the advantages of civilization.  Because you don't have to worry if your neighbor is suddenly going to kill you for your land, your property, etc., you can go about the business of being productive, creative, flourshing, etc.

The only exception to this surrender is that deadly force can still be used when deadly force is threatened against you, and only then.  If you use deadly force in a situation when anything less than deadly force is used against you, then you are unjustified in your use of it.  You have violated the basic social contract which binds civilization together.  

As the initiator of the conflict, George Zimmerman could not, rationally, claim self-defense, regardless of what happened subsequently.  

But now a jury has acquited him.  They have set the precedent that in Florida you can provoke a fight with someone and then use that as an excuse to kill them.

Is that the sort of precedent upon which society can be based?  

Let's use a Kantian thought experiment here.  Kant says one way to determine what is the right and wrong thing to do is to ponder whether it can become a universal law, applied in all situations.  The universal law we draw from this verdict seems to be that you can follow someone, frighten them, provoke a fight, and then kill them.  As a universal law, that now becomes something that every person is entitled to do.  No one could be guilty of a criminal act if they followed this new universal law.

Presumably even those folk not prone to rational thought realize that this is unsustainable.  And if unsustainable, then clearly false.  What George Zimmerman was wrong and the jury's verdict was wrong.

For if this were the precedent for how we live with one another, if this were the universal law, then we would actually be abandoning the social contract and returning to the state of nature.

In effect, the Zimmerman verdict undermines our entire political tradition.  It violates rule one of civilization and threatens society.


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Bud Cassiday

I agree, but fortunately, the verdict is not necessarily precedential and there will be another jury deciding another case in the months ahead when the next young kid is killed.......Armed and incompetent neighborhood vigilantes are a frightening aspect of life these days. Thanks for your thoughts.

Nancy Northcutt

Florida legislators passed a mindless law that arms frightened little men like George Zimmerman with the power to take a human life without atonement. How could they not see what they were setting in motion? What happens now? How many more nervous citizens have a trembling finger on the trigger of the gun in their pocket? How many more kids will die because of how they look, or how they dress, or where they are walking? SYG is a bad law.

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