Volume 47, Issue 1, Spring 2009
On Cheering Charles Bronson
The Ethics of Vigilantism
Vigilantes are a staple of popular culture, from Charles Bronson’s 1974 classic Death Wish, and its parade of sequels, to the latest batch of
Batman films. Outside of the fictional sphere, society continues to wrestle with vigilantism, notably in the current debates over the prudence and ethics of the Minuteman civilian border patrol group. And though vigilantism has been the subject of speculation and debate among criminologists, historians, and legal scholars, it has unfortunately been given scant attention by philosophers. Surely a topic of such prominence in popular culture, and continued relevance in real life, is ripe for treatment by applied ethicists. In this paper I seek to formulate a definition of vigilantism and then argue that there are conditions under which vigilantism is not only permissible but, at least for some, obligatory.