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How should the law respond when one person (D) kills another person (V), who is black, because D believes that V is about to kill him, but D would not have so believed if V had been white? Should D be exonerated on grounds of self-defense? The canonical case raising this question is People v. Goetz. Some commentators argue that norms of equal treatment and anti-discrimination require that D’s claim of self-defense be rejected. I argue that denying D’s claim of self-defense would be at odds with the principle that criminal liability should only be imposed on an actor if he culpably chooses to cause or unjustifiably risk causing harm, not for possessing or choosing to possess racist or otherwise illiberal beliefs or desires. Moreover, insofar as this harm principle can fairly be characterized as one to which a liberal state must adhere, then a liberal state should acknowledge D’s claim of self-defense, norms of equal treatment and anti-discrimination to the contrary notwithstanding.

Date of Authorship for this Version

February 2007


Bernhard Goetz, Racism

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