The Nature of Aggression


When contemplating the nature of aggression, I often ponder idleness in situations which seem to morally demand one’s participation.  For instance, if a starving man begs me for food, and I have what I deem to be plenty, yet deny his request, have I aggressed against this man? If a man is drowning beside my boat and I refuse to come to his aid, despite no suspicion that doing so would jeopardize my own well being, am I not guilty of instigating aggression?

The truth of the matter is of utmost importance, for as a Libertarian I understand that all aggression is inherently illegitimate. Furthermore, as I understand it, the instigator of aggression remains not cloaked in the protection of the natural right to live free of the aggression of those against whom he has violated the same natural right. Far from being immutable, natural rights persist only for those who respect the natural rights of others, for nature affords each the right to defend against aggression.

So, for anyone to invoke the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of property as justification for the instigation of aggression, either does not understand the nature of aggression or does and would rather be insistent of ignorance on the matter than honest and open regarding his wrongs.

That there are shades of obligation in the scenarios mentioned above does not escape me. I am well aware that for liberty to prevail, the individual must be free to consider his own well being; to weigh the risk involved when rendering aid to another. There is no justice in coercing by force one to act to his own detriment. No one is morally obligated to risk his life to save another though such an act is most noble and stems from no other place but love of others.

The cases I am concerned with here are situations where one cannot truthfully assert that the perceived danger was sufficient to justify passiveness. To know with great certainty that failure to lend a hand will result in bodily harm or death to another, and yet choose to remain idle is akin to causing the harm by ones own hands.

Considering again the starving man, who I refuse to aid with food though I have enough to give 10 times the amount requested with no concern for my own ability to feed myself and family, I ask, is there a moral footing on which to stand in claiming that I may do with my property whatever I wish, even to the detriment of others? I know of no Libertarian who upon consideration of this scenario could answer yes. The evidence seems overwhelming to me that I am inclined to believe a poor starving man may be justified in any effort to procure my food by force, under the natural right of self defense. For if I have, with my idleness, instigated aggression – acted in a manor expected to contribute to the demise of another – have I not relegated my own property rights to the rubbish bin, and exposed myself to the possibility of just retaliation?

Do not construe my words here to imply a defense of moral relativism. I am not saying that theft is not immoral in all cases. I believe theft is always immoral. What I am presenting here is the idea that property rights are not violated when a man at deaths door takes by force after making every effort to prevent his end by appealing to the good nature of one who is nearby and burdened with plenty, only to have his most direct potential for rescue deny all moral obligation to render aid and act in a manor intended to ensure his demise.

I find it most regrettable that advocates of the Non Aggression Principle dismiss the notion that idleness may be a form of aggression. Many, by applying a faulty definition of aggression to the Non Aggression principle, arrive at conclusions which aught to violate the conscience of any moral man.

I realize this might not sit well with many Libertarians. I am more than willing to entertain arguments to the contrary. If I have errored in my judgement on this matter, I will be glad for it to be exposed to me.


7 thoughts on “The Nature of Aggression

  1. I’m not a “libertarian”. But I’ve walked up the street where 4 or 5 guys would hang out asking for spare change. I thought it was good to give them something. But then they were there the next day, etc, and my aid didn’t seem to have any permanent effect. Coming down a side street, several were sharing a bottle in front of someone’s house. “Why am I financing this?”, I asked myself.

    It seems to me that this public blight and public nuisance needs a coordinated and organized response. Once there is a system in place to insure that people don’t starve on the street, I can refer the guy to the system and put my conscience at rest. I mean, otherwise I’d have to be inviting everyone on the street to live at my house.

    So, I’m in favor of a system where people in actual need are given the immediate assistance they need, but which also helps them get a job and get off the street.

    Since this is a problem that everyone shares, but which few of us could tackle alone, I think it’s fair that everyone be required to pay a share of the cost for dealing with this. That’s probably the most efficient and economical ways to deal with it.

  2. Hi Marvin.
    Thanks for the reply.

    I think people do abuse the benevolence of others. It seems to me however that the likelihood of this occurring is lessened when each person determines for themselves whether to fund a beggar or not. Like you said, if you see someone day after day begging, and then drinking and doing drugs, you probably are not going to continue to give them money. With the “organized” system we have now however, the money is taken by force and often times the benevolent government has no oversight in how the money they dole out is used.

  3. To say that tax money is “taken by force” is a personal, spiritual perspective. For example, a person raised to believe that stealing is wrong, would not say he is “forced not to steal”. Only the thief is arrested and “forced” not to steal.

    Public assistance has changed a lot in my lifetime. At one time we were encouraging the poor to apply for assistance and paying them more for each child. Some decided to make a career of having babies, and even the goodhearted among us had to admit we were not helping them.

    Back when Clinton was president and Gingrich ran the House, the policy was changed, and the willingness to work was made a requirement to receive aid. The “Earned Income Tax Credit” supplements the income of the working poor rather than paying them not to work.

    Unemployment insurance is provided for people who were working but who lost their job due to conditions beyond their control. You have to prove you are actively seeking employment to continue to get the benefit.

    The two main areas where we have lost jobs is construction and manufacturing. Construction cut back due to the home finance collapse in 2008. Factories have been following low wages to Mexico, China, India, etc. since before the George W. Bush presidency. That’s why his tax cuts failed to produce growth, or rather, they produced job growth alright, but just not here.

  4. “To say that tax money is “taken by force” is a personal, spiritual perspective. For example, a person raised to believe that stealing is wrong, would not say he is “forced not to steal”. Only the thief is arrested and “forced” not to steal.”

    This is getting off topic but I feel I must reply.

    A slave who willingly works all day for no pay because he has been taught that doing so is evidence of a good moral character is no less a slave. No mental trickery or denial can overcome the obvious fact that failure to do so will result in punishment.

    Similarly, one cannot say I give away my possessions willingly to armed men therefore I am not robbed.

    The fact that taxes are collected by force is not even up for debate. The IRS will tell you. Paying taxes is not voluntary.

  5. Since everyone is usually required to either work, steal, or beg to feed himself, any disgruntled worker may spin the “facts” to say that he is being forced to work, and is therefore a “slave”. Again, that would qualify, in my opinion, as a spiritual problem. Most of us enjoy the rewards of labor. Finding joy in work is a matter of the spirit, and makes life more enjoyable for most of us.

    But back to taxes. I just finished filing mine with TurboTax. There was no man standing over my shoulder with a gun.

    I pay taxes because I know it is morally right to pay my share of the cost of roads, schools, courts, police, and the various forms of social insurance like Social Security, Medicare, etc.

    It is not just morally right, but it is also ethically right. As a citizen, I consider myself a party to the contract that constituted the state and the nation that I live in. After all, without the contract, what would I be a “citizen” of? Without the contract, neither the state nor the nation exists.

    So, I am morally and ethically obligated to pay my taxes. And I am also legally obligated. But it is not the threat of penalty that makes me pay my taxes. Just like it is not the threat of penalty that keeps me from being a thief.

  6. This is a good article and I agree with you completely. Just because we have the right to not help someone in need, does not mean that not helping them is morally sound.

    As to the question of whether or not taxation is theft. Since it is not voluntary, and it is enforced with the threat of violence, it is most definitely theft, as well as slavery. The initiation if violence is illegitimate 100% of the time. It is never OK to violate rights, even if you’re doing so under the guise of authority. Unlawful is unlawful

    But, in my view, trying to apply libertarian ethics to the State machine is foolish. If suddenly, today, the state disappeared and everyone was left to their devices, we would have chaos, rioting, starvation and mass suffering.

    The change from violence to non-violence, or statism to true anarchy (no rulers), has to come from within the individual. It is from a truly awakened and liberated mind that new ways of forming new ‘social contracts’- which prohibit all violence and coercion -can arise.

    I opt out of all social contracts that are based in violence, and that is my right and a human being. That said, I cannot impose my ethics onto those that still buy into the belief that the initiation of violence is EVER legitimate.

    Until the people, in mass, awaken and become free, empowered, self governing and truly embody libertarian ethics, I will gladly pay my taxes..for the same reason I will not refuse a hungry man food if I have enough to spare. So, in this sense, I pay taxes voluntarily. But besides food, I also give the hungry man IDEAS, because in truth it is freedom from tyranny and violence that he is really hungry for.

  7. If we start with the assumption that we are all adults in this country by our own choice, then the Constitution is ethically equivalent to a rental agreement and our taxes are our rent. Ethical people pay their rent by their own free will because they see it as a valid ethical duty. Unethical people may have to be forced to pay their rent.

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