More thoughts on the Non Aggression Principle

Aggression is typically defined as the initiation of force against anothers’ person or property. the Non Aggression Principle (NAP) states that all action which violates another person’s right to property or forces them to act counter to their own will is considered unethical. This is the foundation of Libertarianism.

The assertion is that ethical action can be determined in even the most difficult dilemmas by analyzing the situation  in terms of property rights. Does it violate the property rights of others – then it’s wrong. While this is true, what I see many Libertarians do is jump to the conclusion that everything else is fair game. But is it accurate to presume that all human action which does not violate the Non Aggression Principle  is moral and ethical? Think of NAP as a filter through which we can process all human action. Only actions which do not violate the principle fall through. In the end we know that all the actions caught in the filter are are indeed immoral but there is no certainty we have indeed strained out every unethical action.

For me, the most compelling evidence that NAP allows unethical behavior to slip through the filter lies in the fact that it finds no fault in one who opts to sit idly by while preventable harm befalls another. This violates another general ethical code known as the “duty to rescue.” The “duty to rescue” states that doing nothing to aid another in harms way when it is reasonable to believe that acting could prevent harm with little or no risk, is immoral and unethical.

Imagine a man in a boat who witnesses a swimmer nearby who begins to struggle and cries out for help. The man in the boat acknowledges to himself that he could easily maneuver his boat closer and throw a life jacket to the drowning man but opts instead to remain idle and watch the man drown.

The Non Aggression Principle would find no fault in this man’s actions. In fact Rothbard states in “The Ethics of Liberty” that, “…in the free society, no man may be saddled with the legal obligation to do anything for another, since that would invade the former’s rights; the only legal obligation one man has to another is to respect the other man’s rights.”

Mises, however, in “Human Action”, speaking of purposeful human action states that “…action is not only doing but no less omitting to do what possibly could be done.” So according to Mises the man on the boat acted even though it is accurate to say he did nothing. Not only did he act but he did so in a manor which he believed would result in another person being harmed. That sounds a lot like aggression to me.  Curiously the Non Aggression Principle not only permits such behavior but justifies it.

I could go further and suggest that how we utilize our property can, in some instances, amount to instigating aggression. The man owns the boat and his person. His right to not have his property and person aggressed upon is only secure so long as he does not initiate aggression on others. But if it is aggression to act in a manor believed will result in   harm to another, than withholding aid is the act of aggression itself meaning retaliatory aggression is deemed moral by NAP.

Let’s say the drowning man makes his way over to the boat and attempts to hold onto it but the boat owner views this as a violation of his property rights and promptly defends his property by pushing the man back away from the boat. Rothbard might well say the boat owner is justified, though I recall him stating that he did not consider emergencies to be governed by the normal rules of morality. However,  if the initial aggression is the man’s idleness, then the drowning man doing anything to procure use of the boat to save his life is always ethical, as it should be.


8 thoughts on “More thoughts on the Non Aggression Principle

  1. All principles, and their application in practice, must be judged by how well they serve or fail to serve moral intent. Moral intent seeks the best good for ourselves and others.

    You are correct to point out that the boat owner’s failure to lend a hand to the drowning man would be a bad act. There is benefit to the drowning man and no harm to the boat owner. Therefore the moral calculation places helping the guy way above just watching him drown and ruminating upon how to justify the inaction with the non-aggression principle.

    A similar problem occurs with the problem of ending racial discrimination in restaurants and other places that are privately owned but open to the general public. I think both Ron and Rand Paul were in moral error by insisting upon the liberty to discriminate.

    The ownership of property does not come with the right to use it to impose one’s racial or any other prejudice upon one’s customers.

  2. I cannot agree with the non-aggression principle as stated. The definition you gave is “the Non Aggression Principle (NAP) states that all action which violates another person’s right to property or forces them to act counter to their own will is considered unethical.”

    Take the case of the thief. The thief desires to steal. That is his will. To penalize him for his theft “forces him to act counter to his own will”. It cannot be unethical to require the thief to stop stealing.

    Take the similar case of the tax evader. He does not wish to pay his share of the cost for public goods and services. This act steals from the rest of us who must now make up for his share of the costs. It cannot be unethical to require the tax evader to pay his taxes.

  3. In regards to you first example the thief is the aggressor. The victims right to property is being violated as the thief by force is denying the rightful owner the exclusive and just right to determine how his property is utilized. If it is the will of the owner to maintain control of his property the thief surely violates the will of the victim. This is how NAP determines theft to be unethical. It never justifies the initiation of aggression. It does not protect the thief as you imagine.

  4. Okay, then since the owner of the stolen property has a right to retain his property, the thief is the “aggressor”. In the same fashion, the tax evader who fails to pay his fair share of the cost of public services is an aggressor against those honest taxpayers who he forces to pay his share in addition to their own. Glad we got that straight.

  5. I didn’t address the tax argument because I know you know where I stand. But I’ll take the time again…

    I knock on your door.

    Me: Hi Marvin, here is a bill for what I’ve done. I’ve determined that it’s of value to you and so you’re going to have to pay me.

    You: But I didn’t ask you to do anything. I don’t owe you. You can’t determine what I value. Only I can determine what I value and to what ends I utilize my means to accomplish my goals.

    Me: Marvin I have this piece of paper that says you have to pay me what I tell you to. How else will I be able to do more things that will benefit you? Look here, It’s signed by another human being who claims to posses the power to use force to make you pay.

    You: Who can claim that they have the right to force me to give me their money and claim they are not robbing me.

    Me: You’ll just have to trust me sir, I’m from the government. I’m here to help. Now we expect payment by March of this year. If you do not comply, we will not hesitate to press charges, garnish your wages, or put you in a cage. If you resist our law enforcement officers when they come to arrest you for non compliance with our demands, any force necessary will be used to to ensure your cooperation. Do not resist.

  6. ME: Hi, I’m your landlord. I have this contract in my hand showing that your great, great, great, great, grandfather signed a lease upon this property on which you reside.

    Please note here the words “… and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity …” (we call this the “grandfather clause”). He has committed himself and his heirs (that would be you) to this contract.

    Note that the contract includes a provision that everyone living on this property will pay rent (for nations we call it a “tax”). It is your bill for living in the nation, just as your other landlord has a bill for you living in his house.

    Both bills are legally and ethically valid. Both bills may be collected by the means provided by law.

    Any questions?

  7. The aggressor is the thief. The one who seeks to benefit from the labor of others without paying his share of the expense. It’s like when the frat-house votes to spend it’s dues on a party, and one member refuses to pay his dues and yet refuses to leave the fraternity.

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