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.