Do Starving Children Steal?

Non Aggression Principle: Initiating aggression is always illegitimate and immoral action.

People often bring up life and death situations to expose what seems to be a flaw in the Non Aggression Principle. It usually goes something like this:

Naysayer: “Do you think it is immoral for a starving child to steal food to live?

Then advocates of NAP typically say “yes” and justify their answer with long-winded diatribes about property rights.

They convince no one because obviously it seems permissible to most folks for a starving child to steal in order to not die.

Naysayer: “Your so-called principle of non aggression permits immoral action in my opinion. You’re a terrible person for believing this garbage.”

Advocates of NAP may opt to fall back on the notion that NAP does not apply to life and death situations.

Naysayer: “Well then stealing is not universally immoral then is it? Morality is relative to the situation. If Aggression can be justified in some situations there is no universal truth or principle as Libertarians claim”.

Rothbard, himself claimed that NAP – the Libertarian cornerstone for ethics was only applicable non life or death situations. By doing so, it would seem, he has undermined the universal truth aspect of the Non Aggression Principle. In other words, NAP permits the initiation of aggression when life is on the line – aka Moral Relativism. How is this different than the naysayer’s argument?

It should be obvious that for “the Non Aggression Principle”, to have any usefulness at all as an ethical standard, it must not undermine the existence of the very ethical standard it espouses.

I believe NAP is universal and it does apply to life and death situations.

To understand why, one must concede that stealing is more than the act of taking something from someone else. Poor definitions of stealing have caused much confusion.

Consider the difference between murder and killing. The difference between the two is the unseen; the Motive. Outwardly killing and murder look the same. NAP permits killing in self defense because the motive is not to inflict harm on another, but to protect oneself from death.

The same holds true with stealing and taking. The outward action of each is the same, but the motives differ. If you take something from someone which they have no moral obligation to give and intend, by doing so, to inflict harm on that person, then I consider that to be stealing and immoral universally. But in situations like a starving child taking food, the motive is to perpetuate life which is non aggressive, and therefore permissible by the Non Aggression Principle.

NAP holds up to the most sever scrutiny regarding stealing, even in life and death situations, when we correctly define what stealing is and is not.


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