Non-aggression principle

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The non-aggression principle (NAP)—also called the non-aggression axiom—is a moral principle that was first developed by Ayn Rand in her book The Virtue of Selfishness. The principle has since became a cornerstone of Objectivism and many popular strains of modern libertarianism. The NAP asserts that aggression, a term defined by proponents of the NAP as any encroachment on property rights, is always illegitimate, no matter the consequences of abstaining from encroachment on property rights in a given context. According to some libertarians the NAP and property rights are closely linked, since what aggression is depends on what a person's rights are.[1] Aggression, for the purposes of NAP, is defined as the initiation or threatening of violence against a person or legitimately owned property of another.[citation needed]

Justifications[edit]

The principle has been derived by various philosophical approaches, including:

  • Argumentation ethics: Some modern libertarian thinkers ground the non-aggression principle by an appeal to the necessary praxeological presuppositions of any ethical discourse, an argument pioneered by libertarian scholar Hans Hermann Hoppe. They claim that the act of arguing for the initiation of aggression, as defined by the non-aggression principle is contradictory. Among these are Stephan Kinsella[2] and Murray Rothbard.[3]
  • Consequentialism: Some advocates base the non-aggression principle on rule utilitarianism or rule egoism. These approaches hold that though violations of the non-aggression principle cannot be claimed to be objectively immoral, adherence to it almost always leads to the best possible results, and so it should be accepted as a moral rule. These scholars include David Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek.[4][not in citation given]
  • Christian worldview: There is an emerging Biblical argument that the Natural Rights of Locke, Rothbard and others are most truly derived from the Biblical principles of Self-Stewardship and the Image of God in man. The rights to life, liberty and property derive from the fact that God has granted each person to be the steward of himself and none other, granting him the human authority to manage his own life and property, which morally requires him to do so according to God's Law, but civilly requires him to respect the dignity and property rights of his neighbor. The Biblical purpose of Civil Government is to serve on behalf of individuals who have had their life, liberty, or property violated by another.
  • Natural rights: Some derive the non-aggression principle deontologically by appealing to rights that are independent of civil or social convention. Such approaches often reference self-ownership, ethical intuitionism, or the right to life. Thinkers in the natural law tradition include John Locke, Lysander Spooner, Murray Rothbard, and Robert Nozick.
  • Objectivism: Ayn Rand rejected natural or inborn rights theories as well supernatural claims and instead proposed a philosophy based on observable reality along with a corresponding ethics based on the factual requirements of human life in a social context.[5] She stressed that the political principle of non-aggression is not a primary and that it only has validity as a consequence of a more fundamental philosophy. For this reason, many of her conclusions differ from others who hold the NAP as an axiom or arrived at it differently. She proposed that man survives by identifying and using concepts in his rational mind since "no sensations, percepts, urges or instincts can do it; only a mind can." She wrote, "since reason is man's basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it [i.e. initiatory force or fraud] is the evil."[6]

Definitional issues[edit]

Abortion[edit]

Many supporters and opponents of abortion rights justify their position on NAP grounds. The central question to determine whether or not abortion is consistent with NAP is at what stage of development a fertilized human egg cell can be considered a human being with the status and rights attributed to personhood. Some supporters of NAP argue this occurs at the moment of conception. Others argue that since the fetus lacks sentience until a certain stage of development, it does not qualify as a human being, and as such may be considered property of the mother. Opponents of abortion, on the other hand, state sentience is not a qualifying factor. They refer to the animal rights discussion and point out the Argument from marginal cases that concludes NAP also applies to non-sentient (i.e. mentally handicapped) humans.[7]

Objectivist philosopher Leonard Peikoff has argued that a fetus has no right to life inside the womb because it is a parasite.[8] Pro-choice libertarian Murray Rothbard held the same stance, maintaining that abortion is justified at any time during pregnancy if the fetus is no longer welcome inside its mother.[9] Likewise, other pro-choice supporters base their argument on criminal trespass.[10] In that case, they claim, NAP is not violated when the unborn child is forcibly removed, with deadly force if need be, from the mother’s body, just as NAP is not violated when an owner removes from the owner’s property an unwanted visitor who is not willing to leave voluntarily. Libertarian theorist Walter Block follows this line of argument but makes a distinction between evicting the fetus prematurely so that it dies and actively killing it (see Libertarian perspectives on abortion).

Pro-life libertarians, however, argue that because the parents were actively involved in giving life to another human being and the unborn child was brought inside the mother’s body without his or her consent, the child is in the womb by necessity and no parasitism or trespassing is involved (see also legal necessity). They state that as the parents are responsible for the child's position, NAP would be violated when the child is killed with abortive techniques.

Intellectual property rights[edit]

NAP is defined as applicable to any unauthorized actions towards a person’s physical property. Supporters of NAP disagree on whether it should apply to intellectual property (IP) as well.[11] Those who don't think so claim IP can be copied by others without any harm to the originator. The argument reflects an analysis of the fundamental reason behind property rights, scarcity. Some claim ideas are not scarce because if A "takes" an idea of B, he does not prevent B from retaining the idea.[12] Others state ideas are just as scarce as any other commodity since it requires time, money and labor to develop an original idea. If other people decide to use the idea they also make unauthorized use of the effort of the originator, which would violate NAP. Likewise, not opening IP could be seen as harmful to society at large. Those who think that NAP should be applied to IP in the same way as to physical property argue that all IP is somehow sublimated in physical property and that any owner has the right to determine what is done with his physical property.[13]

For example, if a software engineer writes a program on his own computer a copy of this program can only be obtained by using the engineer’s computer (either directly or remote via the internet). If the engineer then burns his program onto a DVD-ROM and sells this DVD to a third party he may sell this product unconditionally (i.e. the sale is free of any restrictions for the DVDs use) or, as would be normal in most cases, under specific conditions (i.e. the sale only transfers user rights and limited copyright). In the latter case, unauthorized copying would violate NAP as the engineer co-owns the DVD and a third party cannot make a copy without using the engineer’s property.

Interventions[edit]

Though NAP is meant to guarantee an individual’s sovereignty, libertarians greatly differ on the conditions under which NAP applies. Especially unsolicited intervention by others, either to prevent society from being harmed by the individual’s actions or to prevent an incompetent individual from being harmed by his or her own (in)actions, is an important issue.[14] The debate centers on topics like the age of consent for children,[15][16][17] intervention counseling (i.e. for addicted persons, or in case of domestic violence),[18][19] involuntary commitment and involuntary treatment with regards to mental illness,[20] medical assistance (i.e. prolonged life support vs euthanasia in general and for the senile or comatose in particular),[21][22] human organ trade,[23][24][25] state paternalism (including economic intervention)[26][27][28] and foreign intervention by states.[29][30] Other discussion topics on whether intervention is in line with NAP include nuclear weapons proliferation,[31][32][33] and human trafficking and (illegal) immigration.[34][35][36]

Non-humans[edit]

Supporters generally argue that NAP only applies to humans, because humans generally have a free will and a self-conscious and rational mind, as well as a moral understanding. Most humans can therefore understand NAP and can be held accountable for their actions. Some critics claim that although these abilities are common they are not universal characteristics of the species. Young children and mentally handicapped persons may not have them (e.g. a person in a coma). When NAP applies to them as well as to normal people, as supporters of NAP agree, critics state that logically NAP should apply to all life forms with similar characteristics (see the Argument from Marginal Cases). This stance would lead to similar rights for sufficiently intelligent animals.[37][38]

States[edit]

Some supporters justify the state on the grounds that anarchism implies that the non-aggression principle is optional because the enforcement of laws is open to competition.[39] They claim competing law enforcement would always result in war and the rule of the most powerful. Anarcho-capitalists usually respond to this argument that this presumed outcome of coercive competition (e.g. PMCs or PDAs that enforce local law) is not likely because of the very high cost, in lives and economically, of war. They claim that war drains those involved and leaves non-combatant parties as the most powerful, economically and militarily, ready to take over.[40][41][42] Therefore, anarcho-capitalists claim that in practice, and in more advanced societies with large institutions that have a responsibility to protect their vested interests, disputes are most likely to be settled peacefully (e.g. through DROs).[43][44] Anarcho-capitalists also point out that a state monopoly of law enforcement does not necessarily make NAP present throughout society as corruption and corporatism, as well as lobby group clientelism in democracies, favor only certain people or organizations. Anarcho-capitalists generally argue that the state violates the non-aggression principle by its nature because governments use force against those who have not stolen private property, vandalized private property, assaulted anyone, or committed fraud.[43][45][46]

Taxation[edit]

Proponents of the NAP see taxes as a violation of NAP, while critics of the NAP argue that because of the free-rider problem in case security is a public good, enough funds would not be obtainable by voluntary means to protect individuals from aggression of a greater severity. The latter therefore accept taxation, and consequently a breach of NAP with regard to any free-riders, as long as no more is levied than is necessary to optimise protection of individuals against aggression.[citation needed] Geolibertarians, who following the classical economists and Georgists adhere to the Lockean labor theory of property, argue that land value taxation is fully compatible with the NAP.[citation needed]

Anarcho-capitalists argue that the protection of individuals against aggression is self-sustaining like any other valuable service, and that it can be supplied without coercion by the free market much more effectively and efficiently than by a government monopoly.[47] Their approach, based on proportionality in justice and damage compensation, argues that full restitution is compatible with both retributivism and a utilitarian degree of deterrence while consistently maintaining NAP in a society.[41][48][49] They extend their argument to all public goods and services traditionally funded through taxation, like security offered by dikes.[50]

History[edit]

The principle was first formally enunciated by popular philosopher Ayn Rand. It was subsequently popularized by libertarians.[51][52]

Historical formulations of the non-aggression principle
Year Formulated by Formulation
1961 Ayn Rand In an essay called "Man's Rights" in the book The Virtue of Selfishness she formulated "The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships. ... In a civilized society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use."[53][54][55]
1963 Murray Rothbard "No one may threaten or commit violence ('aggress') against another man's person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory." Cited from "War, Peace, and the State" (1963) which appeared in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays[56]

Natural law theorist Murray Rothbard traces the non-aggression principle to natural law theorist St. Thomas Aquinas and the early Thomist scholastics of the Salamanca school.[57] This, in turn, may be seen in relation to Aquinas' view on greed, "a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things", and on envy, which be defined as "sorrow for another's good" (cf. Seven deadly sins). Proverbs 3:30 records it succinctly, "Strive not with a man without cause, if he have done thee no harm."[citation needed] Variations of it can be found in Taoism.[58]

Support and criticism of NAP[edit]

Supporters of the NAP often appeal to it in order to argue for the immorality of theft, vandalism, assault, and fraud. Compared to nonviolence, the non-aggression principle does not preclude violence used in self-defense or defense of others.[59] Many supporters argue that NAP opposes such policies as victimless crime laws, taxation, and military drafts. NAP is the foundation of libertarian philosophy.[60][unreliable source?][2]

NAP faces two kinds of criticism: the first holds that the principle is immoral, the second argues that it is impossible to apply consistently in practice; respectively, consequentialist or deontological criticisms, and inconsistency criticisms. Critics say NAP is associated with an absolutist, dogmatic strain of libertarianism and has received little support from academic philosophers and ethicists (including libertarians), who (if they address NAP at all) reject it on ethical and practical grounds. Libertarian academic philosophers have noted the implausible results consistently applying the principle yields: for example, Professor Matt Zwolinski notes that, because pollution necessarily violates the NAP by encroaching (even if slightly) on other people's property, consistently applying the NAP would prohibit driving, starting a fire, and other activities necessary to the maintenance of industrial society.[61]

Moral criticisms[edit]

Main article: Morality

Incompatibility with driving, other civilizational necessities[edit]

Critics argue that the non-aggression principle is unethical because it opposes the initiation of force even when the results of such initiation would be far better than any other course of action. In arguing against the NAP, libertarian philosophy Matt Zwolinski has proposed the following scenario: "[S]uppose that by imposing a very, very small tax on billionaires, I could provide life-saving vaccination for tens of thousands of desperately poor children. Even if we grant that taxation is aggression, and that aggression is generally wrong, is it really so obvious that the relatively minor aggression involved in these examples is wrong, given the tremendous benefit it produces"?[61] Zwolinski also notes that the NAP is incompatible with any practice that produces any pollution, because pollution encroaches on the property rights of others. Therefore, the NAP prohibits both driving and starting fires.

Inability to prevent risk-creating behavior[edit]

Citing Professor David Friedman, Professor Zwolinski notes that the NAP is unable to place a sensible limitation on risk-creating behavior. Writes Zwolinski,

Of course, almost everything we do imposes some risk of harm on innocent persons. We run this risk when we drive on the highway (what if we suffer a heart attack, or become distracted), or when we fly airplanes over populated areas. Most of us think that some of these risks are justifiable, while others are not, and that the difference between them has something to do with the size and likelihood of the risked harm, the importance of the risky activity, and the availability and cost of less risky activities. But considerations like this carry zero weight in the NAP’s absolute prohibition on aggression. That principle seems compatible with only two possible rules: either all risks are permissible (because they are not really aggression until they actually result in a harm), or none are (because they are). And neither of these seems sensible.

Innocent persons problem[edit]

Some critics use the example of the trolley problem to invalidate NAP. In case of the runaway trolley, headed for five victims tied to the track, NAP does not allow a trolley passenger to flip the switch that diverts the trolley to a different track if there is a person tied to that track. That person would have been unharmed if nothing was done, therefore by flipping the switch NAP is violated. Another example often cited by critics is human shields.

Some supporters argue that no one initiates force if their only option for self-defense is to use force against a greater number of people as long as they were not responsible for being in the position they are in. Murray Rothbard's and Walter Block's formulations of NAP avoid these objections by either specifying that the NAP applies only to a civilized context (and not 'lifeboat situations') or that it applies only to legal rights (as opposed to general morality). Thus a starving man may, in consonance with general morality, break into a hunting cabin and steal food, but nevertheless he is aggressing, i.e. violating the NAP, and (by most rectification theories) should pay compensation.[62] Critics argue that the legal rights approach might allow people who can afford to pay a sufficiently large amount of compensation to get away with murder. They point out that local law, though based on NAP, may vary from proportional compensation to capital punishment to no compensation at all.[41]

Supporters generally argue that any harm done to innocent persons or any other collateral damage in these cases is done by whoever or whatever caused this situation to occur. In this view, if the threatened party harms the innocent persons, NAP is not violated. Furthermore, some supporters argue that actions that minimize harm are consistent with NAP.

Non-physical aggression[edit]

Other critics state that NAP is unethical because it legitimizes several forms of aggression, such as sexual harassment, defamation, boycotting, and discrimination, that do not involve intrusion on property rights. If a victim thus provoked would turn to physical violence, according to NAP, he would be labeled an aggressor. Supporters of NAP, however, state that defamation constitutes freedom of speech and the boycotting or discrimination that may follow constitutes other people's freedom to believe what they like and deal with whoever they like. Supporters also state that individuals most of the time voluntarily engage in situations that may cause mental battering. Some supporters point out that mental battering, when it cannot be avoided, comes down to unauthorized physical overload of the senses (i.e. eardrum and retina) and NAP does apply.

Many supporters consider verbal threats of imminent physical violence sufficient justification for a defensive response in a physical manner. Such threats would then constitute a limit to the freedom of speech. Property owners can also pose a limitation on the freedom of speech (i.e. the owner of a movie theater may prohibit anyone inside to call ‘fire!’ without reason, to avoid a stampede; the owner of a bank, however, cannot prevent anyone from urging the general public to a bank run).

H.L. Mencken, a writer who influenced many libertarians, puts an ethical limit on the freedom of speech:

I believe there is a limit beyond which free speech cannot go, but it's a limit that's very seldom mentioned. It's the point where free speech begins to collide with the right to privacy. I do not think there are any other conditions to free speech. I've got a right to say and believe anything I please, but I have not got a right to press it on anybody else. [...] Nobody's got a right to be a nuisance to his neighbors.

Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) in 1948 interview with Donald H. Kirkley for the Library of Congress.[63]

Inconsistency criticisms[edit]

Main article: Applied ethics

Environmental pollution[edit]

Critics argue it is not possible to uphold NAP when protecting the environment as most pollution can never be traced back to the party that caused it. They therefore claim that only general broad government regulations will be able to protect the environment. Supporters cite the problem of the tragedy of the commons and argue that free-market environmentalism will be much more effective in conserving nature.[64][65] Political theorist Hillel Steiner emphasizes that all things made come from natural resources and that the validity of any rights to those made things depends on the validity of the rights to the natural resources.[66] If land was stolen then anyone buying produce from that land would not be the legitimate owner of the goods. Also, if natural resources cannot be privately owned but are, and always will be, the property of all of mankind then NAP would be violated if such a resource would be used without everybody’s consent (see the Lockean proviso and free-market anarchism).[67] Libertarian philosopher Roderick Long points out that, as natural resources are required not only for the production of goods but for the production of the human body as well, the very concept of self-ownership can only exist if the land itself is privately owned.[68]

Criticism of NAP as an absolute, rather than relative, concept[edit]

Consequentialist libertarian David Friedman, who believes that the NAP should be understood as a relative rather than absolute principle, defends his view by using a Sorites argument. Friedman begins by stating what he considers obvious: A neighbor aiming his flashlight at someone's property is not aggression, or if it is, it is only aggression in a trivial technical sense. However, aiming at the same property with a gigawatt laser is certainly aggression by any reasonable definition. Yet both flashlight and laser shines photons onto the property, so there must be some cutoff point of how many photons one is permitted to shine upon a property before it is considered aggression. But the cutoff point cannot be found by deduction alone, because of the Sorites paradox, so the non-aggression principle is necessarily ambiguous. Friedman points out the difficulty of undertaking any activity that poses a certain amount of risk to third parties (i.e. flying) if the permission of thousands of people that might be affected by the activity is required.[69]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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  66. ^ Hillel Steiner. "Left-Libertarianism and the Ownership of Natural Resources (Bleeding Heart Libertarians, April 24, 2012)". Retrieved 2012-07-07. 
  67. ^ Eric Mack. "Natural Rights and Natural Stuff (Bleeding Heart Libertarians, April 23, 2012)". Retrieved 2012-07-07. 
  68. ^ Roderick Long. "Self-Ownership and External Property (Bleeding Heart Libertarians, April 25, 2012)". Retrieved 2012-07-07. 
  69. ^ David D. Friedman. "Problems (The Machinery of Freedom, 1989, Chapter 41)". Retrieved 2013-01-03. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]