Why the Non-Aggression Principle is useless as a moral guideline

Liberty in need of a light
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Right-Libertarians, “Anarcho”-Capitalists, and assorted propertarians very frequently cite the Non-Aggression principle or Zero Aggression principle (Commonly called NAP or ZAP) as a core tenet of their ideology. It is brought up as the building block of voluntaryism on which free markets can be built and proudly displayed to show how morally superior such a society would be compared to anything else which, by the absence of the NAP, is defined to have an involuntary aspect.

But what exactly is the NAP? The specific details might differ depending on the encompassing ideology, but the central point generally seems to be that no human should aggress over another human. This is meant to mean the initial use of coercive force as well as the threat of such.

Now, if left to this end, this is not a half-bad principle, basically saying that people shouldn’t attack or threaten to attack others. However at this stage, it is also pretty much unnecessary to be given an explicit existence as a “principle” as the generic principle of freedom already encompasses this (i.e. attacking another person would violate their freedom). Other moral theories, particularly the utilitarian variants already encompass such rules (with stipulation) as a natural consequence of their suggestions. In the end, this basic form of non-aggression ends up sounding like a shallow “Thou shalt not kill” which, while pretty clear, when strictly adhered to can lead to worse results (such as foregoing killing in self-defence) or requires a more advanced moral framework above it which clarifies when it is, in fact, acceptable to kill.

But propertarians do not generally leave it at just that but rather try to sneakily expand it by linking it with private property rights. You see, the NAP is frequently derived directly from the Self-Ownership “axiom” and thus the wrongly derived property rights are treated as an extension of the self. Therefore one can then treat violation of private property rights as an act of “initated force”, even though no actual violence or threat of violence has been perpetuated. This is turn is used as a cause to use actual violence or threat of violence on the violator of property rights.

It thus becomes that the NAP, when combined with Self-Ownership conveniently becomes an excuse for someone to initiate real, literal violence against someone else. The right to freedom or utilitarian moral rules reserve the right for people to defend themselves against aggression, that is, to take only as much action as needed to stop the aggression against their person. This is pretty self-evident when achieved, both to the one being attacked and to any observers (i.e. it’s obvious when two people have stopped exchanging blows and threats). When extended to private property however, things get far far more complex.

While it’s easy to understand that someone “aggresses” when they steal something from another person (which is why most other moral systems do not require a NAP to label theft as wrong), things get pretty murky when one goes beyond that. Do I “initiate force” when I use a productive machine without paying rent? How about if I pay only enough rent to cover the cost of the machine? Do I “initiate force” when I toil the unused land that is owned by someone else? How about when I trespass?

This is further complicated by the claims of the NAP proponents that the NAP does not excuse any and all acts of self-defence but is rather limited by the level of aggression. We’re informed that it does not in fact, grant the right of shooting trespassers. But this again does not really clarify the matter. Whereas in literal aggression, one is always aware of the level the initiator is using (threats, shoving, punching, lethal weapons etc) and can respond in kind, in this extended field of aggression you’re left to comparing apples with oranges. What is the correct response to someone trespassing your property? Trespassing on their property? Forcibly taking them out? Threatening to shoot them and then follow through if they don’t comply? The truth of the matter is that unlike literal aggression, you cannot discover how you can respond in kind intuitively.

Thus we see that unlike actual aggression where equal reaction can cancel the aggression (i.e. shoving can defend against shoving, punching can defend against punches etc), in “aggression” on property via the NAP, the self-defence enacted is and must always be different and stronger than the act of “aggression”. A trespasser cannot be removed by counter-trespassing. They must be forcibly removed and this is very likely to require (threats of) lethal force if they do not comply. This get even more complicated if that person does not accept the NAP and considers the literal acts of aggression against them as the initiation of force it is and defends in kind.

There is no solution to this issue. The NAP, as a moral rule is incapable of making any suggestions or providing any solutions as it does not say anything substantial other than the vacuous “Thou shalt not initiate violence”. Rather we are told that an extensive legal system will be required which will either interpret some kind of “natural law” or be somehow employ objective judges which make the perfect decisions. Something like the system of wealthy libertarian judges that Murray Rothbard proposed, which would follow some kind of “libertarian law”. In short, nothing more than a subjective legal system built around the principles that people like Rothbard prefer.

And all these issues occur before we even consider that extrapolating private property rights from the “axiom” of Self-Ownership is a non sequitur as it’s impossible to deride a particular set of ownership rights out of it (which is why you can see how much and how many libertarians disagree on what specific ownership rights to use). Due to this, a NAP that ideologically protects a particular set of ownership rights is nothing more than a subjective argument against the things a particular person does not like. That one does not like people trespassing on his property so he calls that “an initiation of force”. That other one does not consider trespassing to be such, but it’s certainly an “initiation of force” when workers don’t pay him rent for a factory’s costs he’s already recovered.

The NAP is shown to be pretty much a shallow principle. When limited to actual physical force, it’s superseded and made obsolete by moral systems which can explain when force is justified or not. When extended to concepts which are not immediately intuitive, its subjective nature quickly devolves it to shouting matches which can only be settled by a homogeneous system of courts and enforcement agencies. A de-facto state.

To me, when someone explains that according to the NAP, this or that is wrong, they mostly sound like “This or that is wrong, because I say so.”

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/tomblikebomb tomblikebomb

    Right on.

  • http://infinitelynoor.com Noor

    Couple of examples I've seen from ancaps:
    - Pushing someone out of the way of a bus is 'aggression', and therefore unjustified. (The guy then tried to argue that that wasn't what he was really saying…)
    - A boat owner can kick people out of his boat into the ocean, and that's not 'aggression.' If the people drown, 'nature' is responsible, not the owner.

    More sane ancaps usually have to twist and alter the definition of 'aggression' to fit the context, so the definition of 'aggression' is really the main issue. (Hell, even warmongering neocons don't consider war to be necessarily 'aggression', but rather some sort of collective 'self-defense' from the evil terrorist countries.)

    The left-libertarian version of the NAP is best, as a generic principle that counts in context, and also not limiting the frameworks to neo-Lockean capitalist property systems.

    • http://www.libertarianminds.com Steven Handel

      In what philosophy of liberty is the question of "aggression" not a central issue?

      And those are very extreme Ancap positions, I've never seen anyone make those claims before.

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/db0 db0

        In all of them. Aggression, while important, is not the central core around which a political philosophy is constructed upon.

        As for the extreme claims, I see them regularly.

        • KerriKnoxRN

          Yes, Aggression IS the central core around which political philosophy is constructed, but you are so immune to most forms of violence, especially those enacted by government, that you can't see the forest for the trees, so to speak. But these are the examples of governments and their core principles of aggression:

          Communism: A small group of powerful people can force everyone to do anything that they want with the idea that equality is the most desired end result
          Dictatorship: The government is one guy, and he gets to decide on what the use of force will be and who it will be used by and against.
          Democracy: A majority of the people can decide what force to be used and who it will be used against.
          Fascism: A small group of people can decide what force to be used and who it will be used against.
          Libertarianism: A small group of people can decide what force to be used and who it will be used against (with the idea that maximum freedom is desireable).

          Voluntaryism is the only governmental philosophy whereby the use of force is abhorred. All others just use and delegate the initiation of force to their own needs, as they please. It is the CORE component of every political system. You just can't see it until you get out of that paradigm where force and violence is normal.

    • Anarcho-capitalist

      "Mr. Anarcho-capitalist" Walter Block answered the question posed by neo-conservative Jonah Goldberg concerning the hypothetical case of Walter Block pushing someone out of the way of a boulder. "…No, the only proper libertarian judgment is that I am indeed guilty of a battery upon your person. My motives may have been exemplary, but my act, strictly speaking, was in violation of your property rights in yourself. I might well be let off with a light sentence, given the extenuating circumstances, but guilty I am….

      If you really think saving your friend’s life is important… then you ought to be willing to pay a relatively small penalty if this friend then turns around and sues you for battery…."
      http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig/block1.html

      As far as "kicking people out" of a boat goes, it is implied that you will not cause harm to people when you invite them on your boat, in the same way that it is implied that you will pay for the items in your grocery cart even though there is no sign in the store saying you have to. Forcing people out while at sea would be viewed by the libertarian judge as breaking that implied contract, and hence the "kicking out" is aggression.

      As far as neo-conservatives go, you answered your own objection when you said "collective." The aggression in the NAP applies to individuals, and the taxes that pay for the military and all other government schemes break the NAP:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGMQZEIXBMs

      • reACTIONary

        RE: Forcing people out while at sea would be viewed by the libertarian judge as breaking that implied contract, and hence the "kicking out" is aggression.

        That *implied* contract? You aren't referring to the *social* contract, are you?

        • Matt

          Nope. Social Contract is involuntary servitude. It’s being born into a contract which renders the fruits of your labor (or some of them) as property of the “greater good”. Social Contract is a combo of slavery and theft.

          As far as “kicking someone off a boat”… I need to hear a logical example of why the hell that would ever happen. Theoretically, if you agree to ride in my boat, you do so VOLUNTARILY (Note: We don’t choose to be born)… So it’s acceptable to assume that if you board my boat, you assume RISK by doing so.

          Again, though, why would I kick people out into the ocean?

    • KerriKnoxRN

      Bizarre Logic Noor and author,
      To say that a certain principle is 'useless' because it doesn't answer ALL questions of what to do in certain situations or that some people disagree on specific points makes EVERY principle, political system, or government useless. There is no possibility of one system answering all questions cleanly and with no controversy. That is silly.

      As for pushing someone out of the way of a bus that is going to kill them, well, most people would not even think about it before pushing their friend out of the way. That's what humans do. Having said that, we have 'good samaritan' laws for a reason. Some assholes sue others for damages in just such situations. So, even our system of justice has not solved that conundrum and none will.

      As for pushing someone out of your boat in the middle of the ocean, what are those people DOING in your boat in the middle of the ocean? If you invited them, then you have an obligation to get them back to safe harbor before kicking them off (you entered into a contract with them by inviting them onto your boat). If they were pirates who landed there in the middle of the ocean, they you have every right to kick them off and let them die. Where is the controversy here? How is this even an issue to discuss?

      And that some people ("Hell, even warmongering neocons don't consider war to be necessarily 'aggression") twist the definition of aggression to be 'not agression' isn't a failure of the principle, but the idiots who need to justify their violence.

      Where is the failure of this principle because 100% of people haven't decided beforehand how it will work exactly in every single situation imaginable? Apparently, you want an excuse to commit violence against others. And a good way to do it is to bash anyone and/or discredit anyone who advocates non-aggression on principle.

  • Groceryheist

    Good insightful piece. But it's interesting that all of the colored feeback circles at the bottom are positive responses, not criticism. Criticism is generally more useful for self improvement and correction.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/db0 db0

      Certainly but criticism needs to be creative and I hope people will utilize the comments for that. A button telling me that the article is "lame" or "boring" will not be very useful, either in improving myself or for organizing my content. More pragmatically, there's a hard limit of 5 choices in the plugin I'm using.

      • sbj1964

        db0 I was wondering if you could do a post on the Politics of Atheism . Recently I have encountered Atheist who claim to be Republicans ,and finding myself asking WHY ? When you have the top members of a political Party like former President George H Bush making claims that Atheist in his opinion should not be considered as American .Are these people so stupid that they bow to the wimps of retardation .Would like your take on this;fore it has left me wondering ?Thanks love your work ! +2 every time !

  • http://www.libertarianminds.com Steven Handel

    Even though I disagree that the NAP is useless, I do think it is incomplete, and you bring up a lot of good criticisms revealing why. One of my favorite libertarian conundrums is that most would still accept a child-parent relationship on non-voluntary grounds (as long as, of course, it didn't include violence or sex abuse). The same might go for the mentally handicapped or psychologically unstable – which again brings up the question of where "aggression" (force against someone's will) is allowed to be initiated or not (presumably, for the safety or well-being of others).

    >"Something like the system of wealthy libertarian judges that Murray Rothbard proposed, which would follow some kind of “libertarian law”. In short, nothing more than a subjective legal system built around the principles that people like Rothbard prefer."

    I think this is a slightly dishonest way to frame the kind of law Rothbard advocated. Rothbard was for private law being chosen on the market by courts that, over time, developed good or bad reputations with "the people". Rothbard advocated extreme decentralization of power, where even law itself is essentially "voted on" by consumers. While this system is hardly bulletproof against abuse, I think it is the best way to minimize the evil tendencies of others.

    For example, you might say that a rich murderer can just buy his way out of punishment. But even murders (before they become murders) don't typically want to live in a society where everyone has the "freedom to kill others." So before the murderer commits his act, he will most likely already be living in a society where private laws have been established to penalize those who kill/steal/etc (all the most commonsense violations of human beings – which no sane man would want to live under).

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/db0 db0

      I think this is a slightly dishonest way to frame the kind of law Rothbard advocated. Rothbard was for private law being chosen on the market by courts that, over time, developed good or bad reputations with "the people".

      That's not strictly true. Rothbard advocated a "libertarian law" which would be interpreted by a class of judges who shared the values of this law. The quality of those judges and their ability to interpret it correctly would then be rated by the market but the overarching "libertarian law" would not be challenged. This is practically the only way it could happen for if the possibility for different law systems existed, then you'd end up in a state of warfare since the rulings of socialist courts would not be accepted by capitalists and so on.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/db0 db0

      For example, you might say that a rich murderer can just buy his way out of punishment. But even murders (before they become murders) don't typically want to live in a society where everyone has the "freedom to kill others."

      That is true for a society that is not driven by the profit motive, but when you add the profit motive into the mix, these exmergent values get skewed. A rich murderer for example would have little problem murdering people if that would increase his wealth (while also being out of trouble) since even in a society where the rich have the freedom to kill others he wouldn't be affected as he can buy security guards. This is true in our society as well.

  • vaguelyhumanoid

    This, if anything, is more a criticism of absolute property rights then of the NAP.

  • alio

    Vaguely humanoid is right. This doesn’t really have much to do with the NAP. That’s why you constantly refer to the people you’re criticizing as “propertarians”. Property is your focus, not the NAP.

    And I’d like you to try to live without making any personal property claims. It would be pretty amusing to see people freely being allowed to take you home and food since you don’t own them. Or how about some fellow students of yours taking your paper and turning it in for their own credit since apparently you don’t believe that the work you put into it doesn’t make it in any way yours.

    Also, the NAP doesn’t HAVE to solve every little problem you’ve brought up. The principle just points out that it is wrong to initiate violence. It isn’t asserting that this doesn’t make some rather inconvenient problems. But who cares? Does ethical behavior have to be easy in order to be truly ethical?

    • http://dbzer0.com db0

      Did you actually read the article? it discusses and counters exactly the points you've brought up. Either you arbitrarily pair NAP with property rights and come to some absurd conclusions, or you don't and you get nothing more than absolute and vacuous ethics superseeded by much better moral theories.

      As for properties, you simply miss that there can be more than one type of ownership: http://dbzer0.com/blog/private-property-vs-posses

  • fjh

    I gleaned this article and site quickly, work you know, and I'm thrilled to see some good dialog going on. As for the NAP being useless as a moral guideline, I don't agree. When combined with a secular, rational framework of morals and ethics, it works fine for me. This may have been brought up here before (don't know because I'm a newbie) but it is most definitely worth your time to investigate.

    Stefan Molyneux has a very good take on this philosophy. Try freedomainradio.com or his youtube channel (stefbot). Tons of free podcasts and many audio and ebooks for free. Philosophical gold as far as I'm concerned and the price is right.

    I'll try and check back soon and thanks again to Divi0 for putting this blog/conversation out there.

    Regards

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/TheOneLaw TheOneLaw

    The One law is not a 'principle'.

    'No Being shall harm another Being' defines who is and who is not living The One Law.

    Anything less is translated as 'it is ok in certain circumstances to harm another being even when that being is not harming you'.

    I would not want you as my neighbor, that's for damn sure.

    • http://dbzer0.com db0

      >'No Being shall harm another

      >Anything less is translated as 'it is ok in certain circumstances to harm another being even when that being is not harming you'.

      This does not follow.

      If you accept this "One Law" then I can come to your house and steal your stuff and your "One Law" would prevent your from stopping me. Others don't have to respect your law, you do.

  • DaveElectric

    A "homegenous system of courts" =/= a state. That's like saying Sears, J.C. Penny, Kohls, Dillards, etc all these competing companies selling similiar clothing lines = a monopoly. That makes no sense.

    • http://dbzer0.com db0

      Weak analogy. The justice system is nothing like clothing lines.

  • Corey

    Stefan Molyneux has taken the time to respond to this critique on his youtube channel. :-)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OsvFYBZr7QE

    • http://dbzer0.com db0

      Interesting. Thanks for the heads up! I'll probably respond a bit later.

  • ladycat123

    Interesting article Dubzy, especially since at the logical conclusion of many right-libertarian arguments you would end up with a pro-anarchist society/framework. While i certainly agree that self-ownership is a flawed concept just as I think property is impossible without a state, I feel it is important to mention that I do derive some of my arguments for anarchism from classical liberal arguments. >.>

  • Francois Tremblay

    This entry really drives home the point of how fundamental ownership frameworks are.

  • Shane

    I'm always blown away that people would argue AGAINST the NAP, self-ownership, and the property-rights that naturally flow from each…

  • Shane

    No, the NAP can't say EXACTLY how each and every situation you can imagine should/would be handled…and neither can any other principle withstand the kind of ridiculous nit-picking this writer subjects the NAP to. Guess that makes EVERY social-organizing principle "useless as a moral guide"…

    Self-ownership: If I don't own my self who does? Seriously, folks, do you NOT understand what opposing S-O means? Hint: slavery…

    Property-ownership: Again, do you really want to dispute this? Hint: slavery…

    • http://dbzer0.com db0

      You seem to be new in arguing with LibSocs. I won't waste my efforts for someone so cocksure, but if you're interested, start here

  • Lyndo

    Two questions serious questions I have:

    1) How can saving be prevented? And why should it be?

    2) Further, is accumulation really a problem without the granting of monopoly privilege? Is it really realistic to think that allowing a man to work and save will result in what we now witness as the corporate monopoly capitalism?

    Thanks,

    Lyndo

    • http://dbzer0.com db0

      1) By making away with money and by giving no incentives to perform "saving" (which is monetary concept)

    • http://dbzer0.com db0
  • http://theangrylibertarian.tumblr.com Tyler

    A lot of people are giving this entry credit but I am not sure why. I read the entire thing but have yet to see a problem. Secondly, self-ownership, unlike Rothbard says, is a metaphysical truth, not a moral one. If it is true, which it certainly is, then it follows that private property is, at least, a degree of "you". It then follows you have a right to protect it. Criticizing the fact that don't know to what degree we can use force (which I do think we can come to know intuitively, as opposed to you saying we can't) is not an excuse. That's like saying utilitarianism is wrong because nobody can find out what the formula is to be used in finding which brings the most amount of happiness for the most amount of people. That's a total straw man.
    Secondly, I don't know anybody that has said you ought to only use the same amount of force as the aggressor. They say you must use an appropriate amount of force to subdue the aggressor. Once we put it like that, your trespassing argument no longer becomes a problem.

    Nothing in this article refutes the non-aggression axiom, it simply is built on multiple straw man arguments.

    • http://dbzer0.com db0

      If it is true, which it certainly is, then it follows that private property is, at least, a degree of "you". It then follows you have a right to protect it

      Do you "own yourself" because you base this ownership on a concept of property, or do you prove property exists because you own yourself. You can't prove this by circular reasoning.

    • http://dbzer0.com db0

      Criticizing the fact that don't know to what degree we can use force (which I do think we can come to know intuitively, as opposed to you saying we can't) is not an excuse.

      Actually pointing out that an ideology is unfeasible is a perfectly valid criticism for the real world, and it certainly is not intuitive.

    • http://dbzer0.com db0

      Secondly, I don't know anybody that has said you ought to only use the same amount of force as the aggressor. They say you must use an appropriate amount of force to subdue the aggressor.

      Since when? If I push you are you suddenly justified to "use sufficient force to subdue" me? Regardless of how conveniently vague "subdue" is, the idea that you are allowed to "subdue" others when you feel aggressed on is patently ridiculous from an ethical perspective.

  • http://theangrylibertarian.tumblr.com Tyler

    A lot of people are giving this entry credit but I am not sure why. I read the entire thing but have yet to see a problem. Secondly, self-ownership, unlike Rothbard says, is a metaphysical truth, not a moral one. If it is true, which it certainly is, then it follows that private property is, at least, a degree of "you". It then follows you have a right to protect it. Criticizing the fact that don't know to what degree we can use force (which I do think we can come to know intuitively, as opposed to you saying we can't) is not an excuse. That's like saying utilitarianism is wrong because nobody can find out what the formula is to be used in finding which brings the most amount of happiness for the most amount of people. That's a total straw man.
    Secondly, I don't know anybody that has said you ought to only use the same amount of force as the aggressor. They say you must use an appropriate amount of force to subdue the aggressor. Once we put it like that, your trespassing argument no longer becomes a problem.

    Nothing in this article refutes the non-aggression axiom, it simply is built on multiple straw man arguments.

  • james warren

    There is really no excuse in our global world to be unable to form the right questions and elicit the right responses from both parties (or ALL parties) before they agree with a nonaggression pact. It has to be done by mediation–not arbitration. Instead of having someone else, a judge or other "authority" to hear both sides and then made a judgement, a skilled mediator is needed instead. A good mediator teaches both (or all) sides in a conflict how top manage conflict themselves so that they can jump ahead to collaborative problem solving and negotiation.

    Around the world, more and more preschoolers are being guided through mediation, taught nonviolent language and given real information on how to talk so others will listen and how to listen when others talk.

    Jesus of Nazareth announced his "Kingdom of God" in parables that dislocated our usual default reality. In that respect, it was no surprised that he was seen as a threat an immediately executed by capital punishment on a cross. By the way, Jesus meant to expand first century Jews and others how to expand their narrow vision of who God really is. Jesus meant by "Kingdom of God" to explain what the world might be like if God sat on the throne and Caesar did not. He was NOT talking about Heaven. That's a later Christian interpretation….
    And this isn't JESUS CHRIST I am talking about. I am talking about an illiterate (though orally brilliant) Mediterranean peasant rabbi.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nskinsella Stephan Kinsella

    Beware anyone who objects to the non-aggression principle: you can be sure they are about to stick their hand in your wallet. Only those in favor of aggression would whine and nitpick on the non-aggression principle. As Ayn Rand says: “Run for your life from any man who tells you that money is evil. That sentence is the leper’s bell of an approaching looter.” —Ayn Rand, “Francisco’s Money Speech“ I have already shown elsewhere why this guy is just confused. My formulation in What Libertarianism Is, is immune from his little critique. http://archive.mises.org/18608/the-relation-between-the-non-aggression-principle-and-property-rights-a-response-to-division-by-zer0/ http://www.stephankinsella.com/publications

  • Sky

    Aggression is great I use it all the time works wonderfully

  • Sky

    Finally someone gets it! When I have a problem I just hit someone get what I want – works every time!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=52306220 Aaron Batteen

    If you don’t believe in private property or the non-aggression principle, then how would you feel if I hacked this blog, erased all this nonsense, and everyone reading it gained utility from it? You cool with that? I mean, it’s not technically yours, it’s ours. And since net utility is positive, that must be okay, right?

  • brianmacker

    “Whereas in literal aggression, one is always aware of the level the initiator is using (threats, shoving, punching, lethal weapons etc) and can respond in kind, in this extended field of aggression you’re left to comparing apples with oranges. ”
    Sorry but there can be no apples to apples comparison. Fights do not proceed in this fashion and depend on size differences and how the parties are armed and trained. It is naive to beleve this sentence is true, for in fact it is false. A child shoving is not the same as an adult shoving for instance. If “propertarians” have a problem because there is no apple to apple comparison then so do you.

    • http://dbzer0.com db0

      Of course you can tell the difference between a child shoving and an adult. This is a direct comparison of applied force.

      Fights do not proceed in this fashion and depend on size differences and how the parties are armed and trained.

      This on the other hand is wonderfully ambiguous and exactly the problem I’m describing

  • Benjamin K. Broderick

    In a non-violent society, violence would not be the first method of handling any violation of the NAP that is not an immediate threat to persons.