This article was last modified on July 9, 2005.

Can a Prisoner Morally Kill His Captors?

A prisoner sits in a cell, trapped with nowhere to go. His life from now on is worthless. How far can he carry his right to self-preservation? Can he morally kill his captors if he needs to in order to escape? We will examine what political philosopher John Locke had to say on the matter, as interpreted by the conservative Leo Strauss and more progressive Jack Donnelly. We will also put the issue in a wider perspective, bringing in Socrates and the view of when we should obey the laws even if we disagree with them.

When possible, we will bring in real world and current examples of people imprisoned in history and in the world today. We will take the theory and apply it practically to real issues. This is not merely a thought exercise, but people’s very lives that are at stake. Keep this in mind at all times.

A Straussian Interpretation of Hobbes and Locke

Leo Strauss, considered by some to be the father of neoconservativism (the movement that includes George W. Bush), was my first encounter with the issue raised by my headline. In his celebrated book, Natural Right and History, he makes a very offhand remark. He refers to Hobbes and the view that a man being legally condemned to death does not give up the right to defend himself against “those that assault him.” [1] This seems reasonable enough. Then Strauss interprets this phrase to mean that “a justly condemned murderer retains – nay, he acquires – the right to kill his guards and everyone else who stands in his way to escape, in order to save dear life.” [Strauss: 197, Hobbes: 268-269] While the ultimate goal of this logic is to condemn capital punishment, the immediate issue is whether or not this logic is correct. A man with no chance of freedom “acquires” a right to kill his captors? How does his right to live overrule their right to live?

Strauss follows this line of thinking by introducing Locke. Turning away from the prisoner example, he still continues to employ the right of self-preservation as a chief right. Strauss says that in Locke, “the individual, the ego, has become the center and origin of the modern world.” This leads him to conclude that, “the most fundamental of all rights is therefore the right to self-preservation.” [Strauss: 224, 227]

Locke does make statements that would support Strauss’ interpretation. Locke argues that “men, being once born, have a right to their Preservation” and further states that there is a “Fundamental, Sacred and unalterable Law of Self-Preservation, for which they enter’d into Society.” [Locke: 17, 92] How far we wish to carry this right is a matter of conjecture.

Jack Donnelly’s Interpretation of Locke

Political scientist Jack Donnelly interprets Locke in an entirely different and more benevolent light. While conceding that Locke made the statements that Strauss cites, Donnelly feels when put into a wider context the quotations by no means support the violence Strauss draws from Hobbes and authorizes with Locke. The mentions of self-preservation, though important by themselves, seem to be more appropriate alongside or in conjunction with Locke’s preservation of the society.

The most blatant endorsement by Locke of society’s rights over the rights of the individual appears in section 134. Says Locke, “The first and fundamental natural Law, which is to govern even the Legislature it self, is the preservation of Society, and (as far as will consist with the publick good) of every person in it.” [Locke: 81] This cannot be misinterpreted even by Strauss.

Ultimately, we must conclude with Donnelly that Locke’s intentions are not to state that individuals have more rights than the government or society. Individuals have rights, and to preserve the rights of the individual we must have a system of rights to protect the society people are in. Locke stressed people being subservient to the state, but he also emphasized the state being subservient to the people insofar as the state is there to serve the society as a whole and no individual should be singled out for oppression [2]. A Lockean society seems to be just and incites no need for a prisoner to rebel on the grounds of a violated right.

Socrates, Uncivil Disobedience and the Law

Centuries before Locke or Hobbes, a real-life man was condemned to death. And fortunately for history, he not only was a philosopher but someone also interested in the issue of what a condemned man has the right to do. This man was Socrates, and as outlined in Plato’s Crito we see an argument that the laws of the state must be followed at all times even when we are sentenced to death or do not agree with the rules before us. This is of course a bold statement coming from a man many throughout history believe to have been wrongly executed. So why follow laws we feel are wrong, why not be uncivilly disobedient?

Socrates takes pretty much the same approach as some modern conservatives – the view that if you disagree with the policies of the administration, you have the ability to leave the country. Socrates paints a picture of the state as something of a parent, an entity to be obeyed and respected even when we are not in full agreement.

Speaking as if he were the laws of the state itself, Socrates explains himself thus: “First, didn’t we [the laws] produce you, and through us didn’t your father take your mother in marriage and give birth to you? And tell us, what complaint do you have against those of our laws that govern marriage? And what about those laws concerning the raising of offspring and the education which you received?” [Brickhouse: 73] The argument is that if we were raised by the laws and did not attempt to change them, we must accept the consequences of the laws.

In a converse argument to the “if you do not like it, leave” approach, Socrates also says that by not leaving a country, we are accepting the laws of the country we live in since we are free people to go to a place of our choosing. While Greece and America are hardly the same place, the idea is applicable even today. There is very little stopping anyone from leaving for Canada or Europe or anywhere else if the laws of this country are too unsettling for them.

With this perspective, we can understand why Socrates did not escape prison or attempt to harm his captors. While the laws that imprisoned him were of questionable fiber, he never made any attempt to have those laws changed and has been resigned to live and die by them. Self-preservation does not come as a basic right in this line of thinking, we forfeit this right to the state by not asserting ourselves earlier on to prevent our self-destruction.

Unlawful Imprisonment

In the case of Socrates, and of Hobbes and Locke who speak of imprisonment under a “Sovereign”, these are all in theory lawful imprisonments. With a Socratic or Lockean view of the law, any lawful imprisonment can only be seen as justified and not subject to rebellion. But what of unlawful imprisonment? What about prisoners who are held against their will without breaking a law, such as in Guantanamo Bay? What about the Holocaust in Nazi Germany where any law that justified ethnic cleansing was easily overruled by the very fundamental idea of human rights? These are not the typical idea of “lawful imprisonments” – do they provide prisoners with a right to rebel against their captors and “everyone else who stands in his way to escape”?

Some people would argue that these men have no right to rebel or that rebellion is morally impermissible. People in internment camps are there as a result of a war and with all likelihood (excluding Nazi Germany) will be freed at a later time in accordance with war rules. By being involved in a war (even one not of our own choosing) we become fair game for the opposition. A moral ground could be argued, as well, that once off the battlefield our captors become human again and that the taking of a guard’s life is murder (compared with a “casualty of war”, despite the fact there is no objective difference).

I would assert, on the contrary, that imprisonment in this manner warrants an equal level of force. If we are prisoners of war and are taken care of, there is no need to rebel as this will only make matters worse for us. Rebellion in an internment camp has the strong possibility of creating unwanted death. However, to think all internment camps are peaceful collections of foreigners is completely fantastical, to say the least.

Any prisoner who is harmed by a guard without provocation should have the right to protect himself to the fullest extent. Any prisoner who knowingly faces execution without a fair trial (such as the Jews) retains the full right of self-preservation and may do whatever is necessary to escape. His captors are not “human” in this case, as they are acting on immoral grounds; just as a young woman has every right to shoot a rapist who breaks into her bedroom. Rebellions are often the ignition needed to start a wave of freedom. Had the Jews rebelled en masse, they possibly could have escaped their captors and made a stronger impact on the world. Instead, they sat peaceably and nothing was done to help them until much too late.

The most difficult situation to decide morally is the case of Guantanamo Bay. Under my pretense that equal force is morally protected, the prisoners in the internment camp may have no options. While some stories of abuse have become public, the overall impression is that the prisoners are treated humanely and are well-fed. So using violence against violence is not an option.

However, the men locked up in this camp are not standard prisoners of war. Traditionally, a prisoner of war is someone who invaded another country and is held in that country until further notice (such as Americans held in Vietnam). In this case, America entered another country (Afghanistan) where people were minding their own business, and we brought them back to our land (which rightfully belongs to Cuba) and held them without charges. What crime did they commit other than protecting their homes? Unlike the young woman who traps a rapist in the closet until police arrive, it is as if the rapist enters the woman’s home and brings her back to his house locked in his closet. As long as he continues to feed her and not injure her, we turn our heads. Something seems dreadfully wrong with this picture.

But this is the dilemma: if we cannot morally use violence against our unlawful captors and the authorities are willingly aiding the captors, where do we have to turn? Does violence become an option at this point, or does it only make matters worse? What would Socrates say? Hobbes? Locke?


With the situation of Guantanamo Bay excepted, the answer is clear: a prisoner simply cannot kill his captor. The state and the individual are conjoined and act in accordance with each other. Whether we accept the Socratic view or the Lockean approach, we must accept that the state is an extension of individuals and individuals are held in line by the state. This is a system we willingly accept and embrace, and as such must be one we live by. We can mold the law, change it to our liking (this is the power of open elections), but in a free society we must also realize that sometimes we are not in the majority of opinions and if these views conflict, there are some concessions to be made.

The underlying message? Become involved with the government: vote, campaign for what you believe in, or even run for office yourself. Everyone has a voice and if we want our voice to be heard by others and our opinion to matter, we must open our mouths and shout it from the mountains. Take the rhetoric out of the taverns and into the pulpits. Turn conventional pub wisdom into constitutional law. We must live by the laws we were raised with, so why not remodel our surroundings to our liking?


[1] Strauss only quotes the phrase “those that assault him.” The phrase in context is as follows: “If the Soveraign command a man (though justly condemned,) to kill, wound, or mayme himselfe; or not to resist those that assault him; to to abstain from the use of food, ayre, medicine, or any other thing, without which he cannot live; yet hath that man the Liberty to disobey.” In my assessment, this quote implies retaliation is only justified in harsh treatment, not in any situation involving imprisonment.

[2] Interestingly enough, Locke addressed the idea of eminent domain. While only a week ago the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed that the government can confiscate private land if the confiscation serves the greater good of the community, Locke had argued against this very abuse of the government over the individual. In section 138, he states that “The Supream Power cannot take from any Man any part of his Property without his own consent.” [Locke: 85] Clearly, we in the United States are no longer living under a Lockean-Jeffersonian society (if we ever were).


Brickhouse, Thomas C. and Nicholas D. Smith. The Trial and Execution of Socrates. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Donnelly, Jack. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. Cornell University Press, 1989.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Penguin Books, 1985 (originally 1651).

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Harlan Davison, Inc., 1982 (originally 1689).

Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. University of Chicago Press, 1953.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

2 Responses to “Can a Prisoner Morally Kill His Captors?”

  1. kdogg36` Says:

    “This is a system we willingly accept and embrace, and as such must be one we live by. ”

    Well, I explicitly reject it. Not just the details of the current system, but the whole mechanism. I reject it and fight it to the greatest extent possible. I explicitly refuse consent to any concessions to “the majority” if those things violate my legitimate freedom in any way. (I am a propertarian anarchist, incidentally.)

    Considering that, the reasoning of your conclusion fails in its application to me. How, then, would you apply your logic if I were imprisoned for something that was not truly a crime?

    (And don’t try to say that by paying taxes, or using the roads, or accepting police protection, that I have consented to all of this nonsnese. Those things are a product of the coercive monopoly the government aggressively enforces in those areas of life, and I have no choice in the matter, so “consent” is out the window.)

  2. gavin Says:

    Kdogg, thanks for the comment. It has been a while since I wrote the essay you’ve responded to, so I don’t recall the exact arguments made.

    I am not unsympathetic to your position. I have been reading much anarchist material lately, generally people in the “libertarian anarchist” tradition… and it’s something I take to heart. I myself am not an anarchist, but I am a socialist, so we’re not too far removed.

    I agree with your belief that we should not concede to the majority if the majority is against our freedoms. I do not favor the majority and have written on multiple occasions of my dislike for (pure) democracy. I do believe majority rule is the same as oppressing minority groups.

    I’m not sure how you can be imprisoned for something that is “not truly a crime”. You can be imprisoned for a crime you didn’t commit, or imprisoned for a crime that is not morally wrong (as law and morals are not the same), but you couldn’t be charged with a crime that wasn’t a crime. However, I am of the opinion that if your crime was something you consider morally acceptable, there areways to approach that: push for clemency and push to get the law changed on rational
    grounds. Yes, it’s no comfort to ask for clemency when you’re rotting in jail. However, if your end goal is freedom (and I assume it is), your short-term goal should be awareness and martyrdom. Fighting back would probably not help your cause (though I’m open to ideas on this).

    I would not argue that by paying taxes or using roads or any number of other things that you accept the system. There are a great many things I reject about the system. Using your example, it is not fair to say I pay taxes, therefore I support military attacks funded by those taxes. I know where the taxes go, I willingly pay them, and I reject the usage. So I wouldn’t say using aspects of the system means you accept the whole thing.

    I will review your comments at a later time when I (eventually) make my revision… thank you! Any and all further comments would be appreciated.

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