The non-aggression principle – the principle that it is unjust to initiate force against other people or their property – is basic to libertarianism; which explains why so many anti-libertarians spend so much time attacking it.
Last week I wrote an article dealing with two claims that the non-aggression principle (or NAP) was useless. In return I received not one but two requests to deal with another such claim: this one on an anonymous blog called A Division by Zer0, which also argues that “the Non-Aggression principle is useless as a moral guideline.”
The blog author (dbzer0 for short) defines NAP as the principle 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.” NAP is “basically saying that people shouldn’t attack or threaten to attack others.” This is fine, as long as “aggress over another human” is interpeted as “initiate force against other people or their property” (which does not say anything about what property is, or if there is any, much less who owns what property, so no question is begged).
Using this principle, a libertarian can derive moral axioms (like “Rape is wrong, because rape is aggression” or “It is not wrong to forcibly prevent a rape, because forcibly preventing aggression is not aggression”) and make moral judgments (like “I shouldn’t rape Mary” or “I should stop John from raping Mary”). That looks pretty useful to me; so why does dbzer0 claim it is useless?
Is NAP unnecessary?
dbzer0’s first argument is that it is unnecessary to have NAP as a rule, because “other moral systems … already encompass such rules (with stipulation) as a natural consequence of their suggestions.” But one cannot simply follow “other moral systems” in general instead of NAP; moral systems disagree both in “rules” and “stipulations”, and where they do disagree one would have to follow one or another. That means either deciding which system to follow, or deciding on a principle that tells one which system to follow in which case. How does one decide that?
dbzer0 claims that every non-libertarian moral system (“anything else“) is distinguished “by the absence of the NAP,” but gives no reason to think that must be. Logically, a moral system can either (1) contain or “encompass” NAP; (2) partly contain NAP, or (3) not contain NAP at all. Following NAP might indeed be useless if following any one of those systems resulted in making the exact same moral judgments as following NAP. But following a type (3) system would not result in making the same judgments; while following a type (2) system would result in making them only in some cases. The only systems that would result in the same judgments would be type (1) systems; but how would following a type (1) system not be following NAP?
To make this clear, let us look at the specific alternatives dbZer0 proposes. One is Christianity, which as he points out has NAP-like rules such as “Thou shalt not kill”. But, as he also points out, “Thou shalt not kill” “can lead to worse results (such as foregoing killing in self-defence)“, precisely the result that NAP does not lead to. So that example is no evidence that NAP is useless, but the opposite: that NAP is a better rule than some alternatives.
dbzer0 also proposes the “generic principle of freedom“, on the grounds that “attacking another person would violate their freedom“. So it would; but forcibly preventing a person from attacking another person would also violate their freedom. Whether other people are prevented from attacking each other or not, then, freedom would be limited. In which case: either one rejects the principle of freedom as an unworkable ideal; or one redefines “freedom” to either exclude the freedom to attack others, or exclude the freedoms one would lose if attacked. Redefining “freedom” to exclude the freedom to attack others would allow for the same judgments as following NAP; but then how would following that particular “principle of freedom” not be following NAP or its equivalent?
Finally, let us look at dbzer0’s preferred alternative, “the utilitarian variants” of morality. In a different article (“On First Principles”), dbzer0 defined those as starting “from a (meta?) ethical question: ‘What bring the best results for the maximum amount of people?’” – which could be used to make moral judgments only if one also has a first principle, “Do what brings the best results for the maximum amount of people.” Applying that principle would result in a different rule of force: “People should attack others if and only if doing so would result in the best results for the maximum amount of people.” But using that rule instead of NAP could result in some very non-intuitive judgments. (What if 10 guys wanted to rape Mary?) The only way to rule out attacks on innocent people would be to add a proviso such as, “Attacking innocent people never brings the best results for the best number of people”; and again, how would following a system with that proviso not be following NAP or its equivalent?
So dbzer0’s first argument does not succeed. In every case we have examined, one cannot replace NAP simply by following a different “moral system”; either because doing so leads to odd and (sometimes admittedly) worse results; or because the “moral system” itself includes a non-aggression principle – either explicitly stated or smuggled in as something else – which looks no different from NAP.
Does NAP lead to initiating force?
dbzer0’s second argument is that “propertarians … sneakily expand” NAP “by linking it with private property rights.” In which case “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 in turn is used as a cause to use actual violence or threat of violence on the violator of property rights.” NAP is useless in this case, not because it is unneeded to reach correct moral judgments, but because it can be used to make incorrect judgments: “It thus becomes that the NAP … conveniently becomes an excuse for someone to initiate real, literal violence against someone else.”
dbzer0’s premises seem true enough: If a society has property ownership and property rights, it would have to interpret NAP (“It is unjust to attack other people or their property”) as applying to that society’s system of property; with the corollaries that it would not be unjust for people to use force to defend their property within that social system, and would be unjust to forcibly prevent them from defending it.
But how would that differ from dbzer0’s own preferred society? For that society would not ban all property; in it people could justly acquire some property (called, in his system, “possessions”). Would people have ownership rights over their possessions? If they did not, they would not have any right to use or control their possessions; so they must have such rights. If so, why would they not have a right to stop others from taking or using their possessions?
Logically, a right to use or control something must imply some right to exclude others from doing the same thing with it, at least for the time one is using or controlling it. Eating something excludes the rest of humanity from using it, forever; so having the right to eat anything must entail having a permanent right to exclude everyone else from using some things.
But if people did have a right to exclude others from taking or using their possessions: how would that sneaky expansion of dbzer0’s own principle of non-aggression (whatever he calls it) to include possessions be any different from the “propertarians'” sneaky expansion of NAP to include property?
That dbzer0 does cheerfully and intuitively accept an implicit non-aggression principle, which includes both people and their possessions, is clear enough: as his very next paragraph begins with the declaration that “it’s easy enough to understand that someone ‘aggresses’ when they steal from another person (which is why most other moral systems do not require a NAP to label theft as wrong).” That statement is, on the face of it, absurd. There is no way to conclude that “theft is wrong” from “theft is aggression” without another premise that “aggression is wrong”. Any moral system, to reach dbzer0’s conclusion from his premise, would have to include, as another premise, a principle no different from the NAP (whatever one calls it).
Even more: in order to conclude that theft is aggression, that principle would also have to include the corollary that “aggression” includes, not just attacking people, but also taking their possessions: the very same “sneaky expansion” of the principle to include ownership rights of which dbzer0 is complaining, which is not made one jot less sneaky by labelling the things people own their “possessions” rather than their “property”.
If using force to defend one’s own property is “initiating force”, how is using force to defend one’s possessions any less “initiating force”?
Is NAP ambiguous?
dbzer0 next argues that there can be ambiguity in applying NAP: “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?“.
However, for this to be an argument against NAP, it must be the case that somehow not using NAP eliminates that ambiguity. But replacing the reference to NAP in the above questions, with either of dbzer0’s preferred alternatives, does not do that.
Do I violate someone’s “right to freedom” by using his unused car without permission? Do I violate “utilitarian moral rules” by doing so? Do I violate his “right to freedom” by growing vegetables on his unused front lawn? Do I violate “utilitarian moral rules” by doing so? Do the answers to those questions become any more obvious if one calls unused cars or lawns “possessions” rather than “property”? The only one of those questions that has an obvious answer is the last one, and the obvious answer is, “No!”
Is defending property unjust?
dbzer0 next complains that the NAP 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.”
That claim is correct: NAP implies that any retaliatory force must be proportional to the aggressor’s actual or threatened force, because an excessive use of force would in turn be aggressive. If a “trespasser” is an armed man breaking into my home, whom I reasonably think intends to shoot me, then it is a proportional use of force for me to shoot first. However, if the “trespasser” is a child picking flowers on my lawn, it is way out of proportion for me to open fire. But how is that an argument against NAP? If either of dbzer0’s suggested alternatives do imply a general “right of shooting trespassers,” that is not obviously an argument in favour of them.
Then again, dbzer0 claims that his suggested alternatives do imply a proportionality rule: “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.”
We have already seen, when discussing dbzer0’s first argument, that neither the “right to freedom” nor “utilitarian moral rules” recognize any right to defend against aggression, unless they are augmented by “encompassing” or smuggling in NAP (or its equivalent). The same applies to his new proportionality rule: If he smuggles somthing like NAP into his rules, then he could argue for proportionality; but how can he argue for it without such smuggling? In fact, he doesn’t even try, his only argument for his rule of proportionality being: “This is pretty self-evident.”
However, that does not end the argument; for dbzer0 goes on to argue that, with respect to property, it is impossible for a response to be proportional and therefore just, period: “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…. There is no solution to this issue.”
But, again, this is an argument not against NAP, but against any system that includes ownership rights (whether they are labelled “property” or “possession” rights). Even if we grant for the sake of argument that, by some miracle, either the “principle of freedom” or “utilitarian moral systems” could be used to generate both a right to defend one’s property and a requirement that defense be proportional, without relying either explicitly or implicitly on NAP or an equivalent – even if they could be so used, there would still be cases like the trespasser one. And if “there is no [just] solution” to such cases to be found by applying NAP, there certainly is no just solution to be found by rejecting it.
Is NAP subjective?
dbzer0’s penultimate argument is that enforcing NAP necessarily involves “subjectivity”:
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.
The first sentence of that paragraph is simply incorrect; NAP is not “vacuous”. I have shown that by deriving two corollaries from NAP alone: that one may defend against aggression, and that such defence must be proportional to real or threatened aggression. However, it is undeniable that enforcing NAP would require a legal system. How could it be otherwise? The only alternative is to let each person be the judge in his own case. But we are talking about resolving disputes. If two people have a dispute, why shouldn’t each of them judge that his side is in the right?
dbzer0 then argues that all of this gets “even more complicated if [a] 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.” Strictly speaking, that is a non-sequitur: if “someone does not accept the NAP”, why should he object to anyone else’s “initiation of force,” or claim a right to “defend in kind”? To be charitable, though, we can grant the point, while noting that the same complications would apply whether one uses the NAP or not.
Suppose dbzer0 thinks someone is violating his “principle of freedom,” so he uses force to stop that perceived violation; while that other person thinks that dbzer0’s use of force violates the “principle of freedom,” and uses force in reply. Or again: Suppose dbzer0 thinks someone is violating “utilitarian moral rules,” and uses force to stop him; while that other person thinks that dbzer0’s use of force makes him the one violating “utilitarian moral rules,” and uses force to stop him. Or suppose that other person does not accept either dbzer0’s “principle of freedom” or his “utilitarian moral rules”? Just how does eliminating any reliance on NAP help to uncomplicate matters in either case?
Admittedly, any use of law to resolve these disputes could involve an element of “subjectivity”. But how does not using law, and instead letting each disputant judge the case for himself, eliminate that subjectivity? Not only does the latter approach ensure subjectivity; it ensures that there will be no resolution, short of one party killing or crippling the other.
Is NAP ideological?
dbzer0’s final argument is that NAP, when coupled with the idea of deriving property rights from “self-ownership,” is “ideological”:
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.
But, once again, this is not an argument against NAP. For NAP, remember, is only the principle that it is unjust to initiate force against other people or what they own. One can assert that murder, maiming, or raping other people is wrong without asserting that the victims are “self-owners” – all that is necessary (and all that NAP supplies) is a claim that it is unjust to murder, maim, or rape them. All that “self-ownership” adds is a proviso that it is not unjust to kill, injure, or have sex with other people with their consent; if people are not “self-owners,” then whether or nor they consent is irrelevant.
Again, the principle that it is unjust to take, use, or destroy what other people own (without the owners’ consent) is compatible with any theory of ownership. If people can own unused land, then NAP can be invoked to forbid other people from taking or using that land without the owner’s permission. If people can own only the land they occupy, then NAP cannot be invoked to stop people walking or building on unused land; but it can be invoked to stop them from walking on or occupying the land someone else is already occupying. If people cannot own land, but only their homes on the land, then NAP cannot be invoked to stop them from walking on or occupying other people’s lawns; but it can be invoked to stop them from walking through or occupying other people’s homes. Even if no one owned anything but their toothbrushes, that would not invalidate NAP – it would simply mean that NAP would only forbid forcibly taking or using someone else’s toothbrush.
In any society, NAP “protects a particular set of ownership rights”, only in the formal sense that any actual society must have a particular set of ownership rights (which could be anything from ownership of everything by everyone to no ownership of anything by anyone). It makes no difference whether we name what people own “property,” “possessions,” or whatnot, or don’t name it anything because there is nothing to name. NAP is not “ideological”, as it is compatible with an any “ideological” set of ownership rules whatever – even with no ownership rules.
Whether or not that leads to “subjectivity” or not has nothing to do with NAP, but is purely a matter of ownership. In dbzer0’s world, no less than in ours, one person can object to people taking his car or toothbrush without asking, while another may not. One set of factory owners (in his world, the employees) may object to other people entering their factory and using the equipment, while another may not. The only way to eliminate that sort of “subjectivity” would be to eliminate ownership entirely (as we did in the above example of “self-ownership”), and with it the very notion that consent matters.
In conclusion, let us examine dbzer0’s conclusions, and my own rebuttals:
1) The NAP is shown to be pretty much a shallow principle.
dbzer0 has not shown that. On the contrary, as I have tried to show, NAP can be used to derive moral maxims, and even to reach moral judgments, at least some of which dbzer0 himself accepts.
2) When limited to actual physical force, it’s superseded and made obsolete by moral systems which can explain when force is justified or not.
dbzer0 has not shown that, either. He has said, repeatedly, that his preferred moral systems – both his “principle of freedom” and his “utilitarian moral rules” can be used to “explain” moral maxims and judgments; but he has not provided even one such explanation. When it comes to justifying any moral judgment, all he has done is resort to handwaving about “obviousness,” “intuition,” and “self-evidence.”
3) 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.
Similarly, dbzer0 has not shown that either of his preferred moral systems will not “quickly devolve into shouting matches which can only be settled by a homogeneous system of courts and enforcement agencies.” Since he has not actually shown that his preferred moral systems lead to anything at all, he has not even shown that they are less likely to so devolve.
4) 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.”
Similarly, when a person says that this or that is right or wrong, while at the same time rejecting NAP but providing no other explanation, their words sound to me like “This or that is wrong, because I do not like it; while this or that is right, because I do like it” – coupled with the suspicion that using force to hurt other people or take their stuff is something that person does like.
 dbzer0 (2010), “Why the Non-Aggression Principle is Useless as a Moral Guideline,” A Division by Zer0, April 27, 2010. http://dbzer0.com/blog/why-the-non-aggression-principle-is-useless-as-a-moral-guideline/
 All quotations in italics are from dbZero (2010).
 dbzer0 (2009a), “On First Principles,” A Division by Zer0, March 11, 2009. http://dbzer0.com/blog/on-first-principles/
 dbzer0 (2009b), “Private Property vs. Possessions,” A Division by Zer0, May 14, 2009. http://dbzer0.com/blog/private-property-vs-possession/Tweet
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