The Cambridge Law Journal


Self-Defence and the Right to Life

A. J. Ashwortha1

a1 Lecturer in Law, Manchester University.

It is almost a matter of definition that law restricts the freedom of each individual to satisfy his wants and desires in any manner he wishes. The restrictive elements in law may be regarded as justifiable because and in so far as they are necessary to ensure the maximum freedom for each and every individual. Freedom from interference can only be preserved by restricting everyone's freedom to exercise power over others. Perhaps the most fundamental and universal restriction is that placed on the use of force by one individual against another. Widely as social and legal systems may vary in the extent to which they allow some forms of power (e.g., economic power, industrial power, the powers of persuasion) to be exercised, they unite in prohibiting the exercise of physical power by one citizen against another. Many natural inequalities may be allowed to run free, but all legal systems attempt to “equalise” human beings to the extent of preventing resort to force by those who are minded and able to use this method of satisfying their desires. A prohibition on the use of force may thus be regarded as one of the minimum conditions of social life. This, in turn, is bound up with recognition of the right to life and physical security as the most basic claim of every human being. The idea of physical security as one of the “natural rights” of mankind has a long history, and Blackstone followed this traditions when he held that the right to life and limb is an “absolute right” which “every man is entitled to enjoy whether out of society or in it.”