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  • Reverend James Squire

Intent and Context

Let’s shine an ethical light on the trials of Kyle Rittenhouse and the people who were involved in the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. A final verdict has not been rendered in either case as I write this. Both present the same legal ethical difficulty that I haven’t see addressed much. Since both trials have racial issues, we should take a look at that as well.

Intent is one of the legal ethical issues that is important in discovering what form the verdict will take. Both perpetrators in both trials were not asked a basic question. What did you think would happen in your initial decision to take a gun to an already volatile situation in a state that is not your residence? Who called you to “protect” their property? Everything should lead from those questions in the Rittenhouse Trial. The bulk of Rittenhouse’s defense has been self-defense. You put yourself in that situation. If you didn’t come in hand with a high-powered gun, this wouldn’t have happened in the first place. Intent determines which level of manslaughter has occurred. There is a difference between accidentally killing someone as opposed to self-defense or what you intended.

The same thing is true with the Ahmaud Arbery case. What did the three men think was going to happen when they acted on their own, without calling the police, chasing a person down a road and eventually cornering him. If anyone could claim self-defense in that situation it would be Arbery himself. Three against one are not good odds for Arbery. Would they have done this if it is just one person pursuing Arbery. Research indicates that one person will not shoot a person compared to three people involved as it relates to police interventions.

For those of you who didn’t think Latin was an important course to take, there is a key legal ethical phrase that describes the above. It is a priori. It is a term given to us by Aristotle. It means what happened before. The more modern way of phrasing this is when something bad happens and we raise the question, “What were you thinking BEFORE you did what you did?”

The answer to these two situations is “not enough.” Since hindsight is twenty-twenty vision, you could actually not predict a positive reaction to their behavior? Why weren’t these questions put forward? The trial has been dominated by self-defense issues. Ironically that is the argument that should be the argument by the State.

Next comes context. Everyone on both the left and the right has concluded that these are racial incidents. Obviously, that was not front and center during either trial. If the far right is in Rittenhouse’s camp as protecting businesses from protesters, one should know that this is “racial” in a larger context even if people who were killed and injured were white. Likewise, if the person running down the road after leaving the building under construction was white, do we really believe that he would have been killed?

Now for the even larger context. Both of these cases are about the peoples’ right to act as vigilantes where the perpetrators took the law into their own hands. Let’s apply teleological suspension of the ethical to these situations. Recall that fancy ethical term means what you do at point A affects behavior at point B. Nothing is neutral in ethics. Both cases could lead to creating a precedent if these folks are not proven guilty because it would lead anyone in the future to take the law into their own hands. Precedent is the heart of the law and law is the basis of justice which is one of the two pillars of ethical thought along with love.

I wish that they had an ethicist as a consultant during these trials for the law only works for us when ethical behavior is at the heart of the issue along with the mandate “first do no harm.”

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