The Instigator
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25 Points
The Contender
Con (against)
0 Points

Vigilantism is justified when the government fails to enforce the law

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 4/9/2009 Category: Politics
Updated: 7 years ago Status: Voting Period
Viewed: 14,775 times Debate No: 7754
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (41)
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Alright, fairly simple, this is the current LD topic. I would like to do this debate LD style. The first round is simply to clarify the debate, and no arguments may be posted. I am PRO vigilantism, my opponent is NEG. I will present my opening argument in the second round, as well as my opponent. Good luck to whoever accepts!


I will be debating.
Looks like fun.
Debate Round No. 1


"A government that fails to fulfill its responsibility to its citizens is not a legitimate government, thus citizens aren't obligated to recognize its legitimacy," once said philosopher John Locke. If we recognize what this means in the current debate you must affirm the resolution resolved: Vigilantism is justified when the government has failed to enforce the law.

My value for this round will be that of justice. Justice is the quality of being just, equitable, and moral right. Conception of justice is one of the key features of society because essentially justice concerns the proper orderings of people and operations within a society. Justice can also be defined as the equilibrium between the freedoms of a citizen and the restrictions of a society.

My Value Criterion will be protection of rights through John Locke's Social Contract. The concept of protecting one's own rights must be looked at through the filter of the social contract. This is essentially an exchange between the government and its people. Locke's social contract, upon which most all governing bodies are based, states that if the government upholds the laws and protect its people, the citizens will obey the law. It also states that when the government fails to protect its citizens, it is not legitimate.

In order to give clarity to the round, I offer the following definitions:

Government – The offices of a nation/political unit being responsible for direction and supervision of public affair

Failed-a state of inability to perform a normal function

Enforce- to compel observance of or obedience

Law-government made rule of conduct to enforce authority

Vigilantes, according to the American University Law Review are:
-self appointed doers of justice
-are members of an organized committee
-are established members of a community
-proceed with definite goals, not with the intension of random violence
-act as a last resort because of a failure of the established law system
(All other definitions are taken from the American Law dictionary)

From this definition, we must see that true vigilantes only act to enforce the laws the government cannot or will not enforce. They are not revolutionaries, rather the opposite. True vigilantes strive to uphold the current legal system by preventing, deterring, or providing justice for crime.

Observation 1) The term "has failed" limits the debate
Note that the resolution cites "when the government has failed to enforce the law", not "when the government has failed to make the right laws." Thus we must look to cases of vigilantism where it is in response to lack of enforcement of laws and not the making of the wrong laws. That means SA, the KKK, and other radical groups are irrelevant under the resolution, as they do not act because the government has failed to enforce the laws. Instead they act because they believed that the laws themselves were wrong. Therefore they are irrelevant.

Contention 1) Given the resolution, justice can only be exacted through vigilantism.

The government failing to uphold the law justifies the actions of the vigilante.
Under a governmental system the government is the highest power, thus has the ability to apply and punish laws. However, in a case such as one advocated by the resolution, the government has failed to uphold the law. As the government is the basis of the law this essentially means that the government is illegitimate and without any de facto power. If the Government, the highest power that asserts its power on the citizens according to its singular ideals of structure, has failed, the vigilante is justified at working for the top, and exercising his own "will to power". This struggle against his surroundings is justified as the government has essentially relinquished power over the people. Thus, Vigilantism is justified when the government fails to uphold the law. What you must analyze in today's resolution is the section quoted "when the government fails to enforce the law." In further analysis of this section of the resolution, you realize that what it's asking is, is a law abiding citizen just in standing up for a law when no one else will? And the answer is a firm yes. How can you deem courageous actions in the face of wrong doing, bad? Here is the thing, the government failed to enforce the law. Who now upholds the law? If not vigilantes, then certainly no one will. Without law, society is unjust, and would degrade into a Hobbesian State of Nature. We cannot promote justice, unless we allow vigilantism. What is a citizen to do when the government is failing? Ride the government down like a sinking ship until you drown in its inefficiencies, or stand up for what is right in an effort to reestablish justice? The point is, there will be no law, no justice, and no legitimate society without vigilantism.

Contention 2) Vigilantism as a permissible mode of self-help is justified under social contract theory.

First, the breakdown of the social contract occurs when the state fails in its obligation to protect the individual. This breakdown justifies the individual's resort to self-help. Social contractarians, in particular, argue that the individual, in giving up the norm of private vengeance, is entitled to the state's protection. Thus, the "central claim of contract theory is that contract is the means to secure and enhance individual freedom." Under social contract theory, if the state fails in its obligation to protect citizens, the government is considered dissolved and the people are entitled to provide for their own protection. One philosopher concludes that where the state fails to protect its citizens, protecting oneself is not considered civil disobedience. One may extrapolate this premise to conclude that vigilantism is morally justified by the state's failure to uphold its end of the compact.

Contention 3) Vigilantism is necessary to maintain justice, especially in less structured societies.

Although Vigilantism is important for all nations in the situation stated by the resolution, it is especially necessary in less structured societies. In Brazil, for example, as few as one percent of all robberies are successfully investigated by the police (Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, American Academy of Arts and Sciences). Furthermore, Jose Gregori, the secretary of state for human rights stated: "[Brazil] is a chronically violent country. The police are not efficient, it does not fight crime, and it is violent. The justice system is very slow." From this we can conclude that the only hope of justice in Brazil comes from vigilantism, seeing as the government actually furthers crime, and brings the inhabitants away from attaining justice. Justice is, as I previously stated, the equilibrium between the freedoms of a citizen and the restrictions of a society. In Brazil and many other countries, these freedoms are too extreme. Again, it is the responsibility of the
citizens to exercise their right of autonomy to maintain justice.

In conclusion, vigilantism is ultimately the only way to achieve justice in said resolution. Without it, the law is left unenforced. Society itself degrades into a Hobbesian state of nature, and chaos ensues. Therefore we must simply allow people to stand up for themselves. Because of this, I can only affirm the resolution. Thank you.


Batman once said: "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain."
Because vigilantes often embody the latter, I negate the resolution. Resolved: Vigilantism is justified when the government has failed to enforce the law.
To clarify the debate, I offer the following definitions:

Vigilantism: As defined by Black's Law dictionary, "The act of a citizen who takes the law into his or her own hands by apprehending and punishing suspected criminals" This is the best definition of vigilantism and a vigilante because Black's law dictionary is a respected law dictionary used by lawyers, and since we are talking about the law, it is the best source.

Fails: To fall short of expectations.

My value for this resolution is justice, which is defined as giving each their due.
My value criterion is protection of rights. In order to achieve justice, we must maximize the protection of rights because everyone is due his or her rights.

Contention 1. Vigilantism is not justified because of the harms it does to a society.
Subpoint A: Vigilantes act based on perception.
A vigilante does not have the necessary resources to determine who is guilty, and who is innocent. All a vigilante can do is punish those they BELIEVE are guilty of a crime. In addition, vigilantism often results in a disproportionate response.

The American Chronicle states: "Vigilantism has taken root in Latin America over the past decade…angry crowds are increasingly taking the law into their own hands, meting out physical punishment for crimes real and imagined. Vigilantes often lynch common criminals who, in their view, have escaped justice."

In Responsibility and Punishment, J. Angelo Corlett explains the cause of disproportionate punishment: "What makes vigilantism morally wrong is that it violates a fundamental fairness that relies on a due process system to determine…guilt from innocence…But the vigilante cares not about such fairness…Justice and fairness dictate that due process rights ought to be upheld for the accused so that a determination of her guilt or innocence…might be determined…Even should the vigilante capture and "punish" a genuine offender…it would most likely be…out of luck, rather than as the result of careful and diligent investigative trial process…"

As John Locke states, "Men cannot be judges of themselves", indicating that bias exists in personal perceptions and would lead to injustice when trying criminals.

Subpoint B: There are no checks on a vigilante.
Within a government, there are checks prevent abuse. However, the vigilante has no such checks. Even if a vigilante group started out well, the lack of checks would eventually allow the vigilantes to abuse their power and become corrupt. In Managua, Nicaragua, in 1997, a group vigilantes formed to protect the citizens from violence that was happening. At first, everything was great. However, just a short 5 years later in 2002, fighting occurred within the members of the vigilante group and innocents died as a result of this violence. It turned out that drugs had corrupted these vigilantes and as one vigilante put it, "We couldn't care less about the people. What do they matter to us?" Clearly, the lack of checks will allow vigilantes to eventually abuse their power.

Contention 2. There are practical reasons for a government's failure to enforce the law.
Subpoint A) The government has limited resources.
The government does not have the resources to pursue every criminal and criminal case. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 94% of all felony convictions happens as a result of plea bargaining. Plea bargaining happens when government chooses to let criminals go in exchange for information that would bring a more dangerous criminal to justice. To affirm today would be saying that vigilantes are justified in pursuing those that the government has CHOSEN not to prosecute. This would undermine a legitimate government.

Subpoint B) If vigilantes responded, justice would be undermined.
Since failure is defined as to fall short of expectations, victims of the criminal who was not punished by the government, due to plea bargaining, would consider this a failure. These victims would then resort to vigilantism and go after that criminal. This would prevent future criminals from plea bargaining because the criminals would fear being attacked. Therefore, the government would therefore not be able to uphold the greater justice in society.

Opponent's case:
In my opponent's observation one, he states that we cannot use examples like the KKK because they did not act to enforce laws. This however, is not true. The KKK sought to enforce Jim Crow Laws, which, at one point and time was part of governmental laws.

Contention 1
My opponent makes the claim that only vigilantes can uphold justice, this however, is not true for 4 reasons:
1. Vigilantes could very well be enforcing unjust laws (such as the fugitive slave laws back in the 1800s). This would clearly not promote justice.
2. In plea bargaining, the government chooses to let a few criminals go in order to ensure greater justice. Since vigilantes are so focused on their own little world, they fail to see this greater justice that the government is trying to achieve. And when vigilantes go after the criminals that the government has chosen to let go, they are undermining the government and preventing future plea bargains.
3. Law abiding citizens and vigilantes are two different things. Vigilantes punish suspected criminals who may be innocent. this would clearly violate justice. A law abiding citizen, on the other hand, would simply follow the law and give information to the police about possible criminals.
4. Because of the lack of checks, vigilantes will eventually go bad. If we open the door for a vigilante response, we cannot close that door when vigilantes turn bad.

Contention 2
My opponent uses the social contract (Locke's) to justify vigilantism. This however is faulty for 4 reasons:
1. Locke supported revolution, not vigilantism. He stated that citizens have the right to overthrow a failing government, not resort to vigilantism.
2. Nowhere in the Social contract does it say a person can harm another innocent person. Since vigilantes do not use due process, there is nothing to ensure innocents are not being harmed.
3. Locke himself is against vigilantism. In his book, Two Treatises of Government, he states: "It is unreasonable for men to be judges in their own cases, that self love will make men partial to themselves and their friends...and revenge will carry them too far in punishing others..."
4. Self protection and vigilantism are two different ideas. Self protection involves a person protecting themselves from harm whereas vigilantism involves a citizen apprehending and punishing a SUSPECTED criminal.

Contention 3
My opponent states that vigilantism is necessary to maintain justice in less structured societies. This simply, is not true. If we look at any Latin American country we will not find cases of vigilantes helping the situation, we only find cases of vigilantes making the situation worse. This is true for 2 reasons:
1.The Juarez Citizens Command Vigilante group of Mexico has sworn to kill a criminal a day, and have been leaving the heads of those they killed in ditches (American Chronicle). Since justice is defined (Aristotle) as giving each their due, killing people without a proper trial does not protect rights and does not lead to justice. Since my opponent fails to meet his own value and VC, we must negate the resolution.
2. Vigilantes will only add fuel to fire, and make it harder for the police and the government to enforce laws. When vigilantes wrongly punish people of crimes, citizens will not only have to worry about the criminal, but they will also have to worry about the vigilantes.
In this case, the proper response is gov't reform, not vigilantism.
Debate Round No. 2


rougeagent21 forfeited this round.


I'm forfeiting this round because my opponent has not yet replied. We can continue in the next round.
Debate Round No. 3


Since this is an LD debate, I am unfortunately only allowed to go over values and voting issues. Good job to my opponent, and I wish him luck in his debating season.

What must be seen in today's debate is that my opponent and I both value justice, the equilibrium between the freedoms of a citizen and the restrictions of a society. Therefore, whichever side better upholds justice, wins the debate. If you affirm the resolution, you are in fact affirming justice.

My opponent values justice, but does not want vigilantism. This is a bit of an oxymoron given the resolution. Consider the following situation:

A criminal breaks the law. The government has failed to enforce the law. The law is broken. Who/what is going to uphold the law? How will equilibrium be achieved?

I offer vigilantism. My opponent offers nothing. If he does not like vigilantism, then what does he propose? If you negate, you allow for the direct violation of the law with certain knowledge that it will go unpunished. Is that what we really want for society? How is that just? Because my opponent has failed to show why, the affirmative better provides for justice, and thus wins the debate. Thank you.


Throughout my opponent's entire case and summary, he continuously makes the mistaken belief that vigilantism is the only way to achieve justice.

In his example, he states that there is no one left to catch the criminal and uphold the law. This is simply not true. As I stated with plea bargaining, a government can CHOOSE to purposely not enforce some laws in order to ensure a greater justice. The government would LET THE CRIMINAL GO if the criminal produced information that is helpful towards catching more dangerous criminals. In this case, the law has NOT been upheld (plea bargaining is not part of the law) because the government has not punished the criminal at all. Yet justice is still being achieved because the government now has the ability to catch a more dangerous criminal. If vigilantes responded to this situation, found the criminal who was not punished by the government, and beat/kill the criminal, other criminals would no longer want to plea bargain in the future. Therefore, vigilantism is clearly NOT justified in this situation and would only harm both the government, and the justice that the government is trying to achieve.

Even in a case without plea bargaining, vigilantes have NO WAY of knowing who is, and who isn't a criminal. Vigilantes can only act on belief, which may cause them to harm innocents. Now, on top of the previous criminal, citizens also have to worry about vigilantes. This only adds fuel to fire, and causes more chaos, more harm, and no justice.

My opponent states that I do not offer any other choice. That however, (according to LD rules) is not the job of the Negative. All that the negative is suppose to do, i s prove how the Affirmative offers a more chaotic world with less justice by justifying vigilantism.

My opponent has clearly dropped all my refutations to his points, making my refutations valid. He has no ground left to debate on because he clearly does not achieve justice.

Therefore, I urge a negative vote for the following reasons:
1. The Negative has shown exactly why vigilantes do not use due process and is unable to give out the rightful punishment for crimes. This would lead to harming innocents and violation of justice
2. There are no checks on vigilantes so there is nothing to prevent them from going bad. Affirming today would be opening the door for vigilantism to occur and will only lead to situations like current-day Nicaragua.
3. Vigilantes would undermine the government in cases of plea bargaining and would prevent the government from upholding the greater picture of justice.
4. The Affirmative has nothing going for him any longer because he has dropped all my refutations, and, because silence equals consent in LD, he has agreed with my refutations.

Thank you
Debate Round No. 4
41 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by 1994bookworm 7 years ago
Haha. yup. LD really teaches you how to examine an issue from both sides.
Posted by rougeagent21 7 years ago
True. Personally, I am still deciding. The problem is that you have to argue both sides and by the end you don't know which is right!
Posted by 1994bookworm 7 years ago
Actually, I personally believe that both sides has a fair point...
Vigilante's DON'T use due process and they don't have checks.
However, the government HAS failed, and vigilantism may be one of the only options left, apart from revolution.
Posted by rougeagent21 7 years ago
Well that makes more sense. Just curious, do you believe in the negative case, or are you just trying it out for LD?
Posted by 1994bookworm 7 years ago
No, what I'm saying is once you open the door for vigilantism to happen, that is what it will eventually evolve to.
And because what it evolved to is bad, even though it is no longer justified, it still HARMS society because the affirmative allowed for it to occur in the first place.
Posted by rougeagent21 7 years ago
It matters not what something was, but what something is.

"Well, US law used to allow slavery. Slavery is bad. Therefore, US law must be bad since it started out bad."

No, thats not how it works. Things change all the time! The resolution isn't saying what was, but what is.
Posted by ninjadebater 7 years ago
Hey bookworm just saying that you "Batman" quote in the second round was not said by Batman. Harvey Dent said it. It's not important, but just saying.
Posted by 1994bookworm 7 years ago
Rougeagent: well, no, they still would apply because the STARTED OUT as vigilantes. This backs up my "no checks can lead to corruption contention."
Posted by idkmybffbill 7 years ago
1994bookworm: Thanks so much, this information really helped. I'll challenge you to a debate on the resolved ASAP!
Posted by rougeagent21 7 years ago
"They only look out for themselves, for their illegal buisness"
So then they couldn't be relevant to the resolution, since we are talking about vigilantes upholding the law, not breaking it.
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