The problems with the Non-Aggression Principle.

The NAP (Non-Aggression Principle) is generally considered to be a fundamental principle of Libertarianism, anarcho-capitalists, and other voluntaryist types. Readers of this blog will know what I think about that ideological group, so it will come as little surprise that I do not support the NAP. I also think that it reflects the flaws of Libertarianism and other such ideologies.

But first, how is the NAP formulated? Mises Institute has this to say on the subject:

The non-aggression principle (also called the non-aggression axiom, or the anti-coercion or zero aggression principle or non-initiation of force) is an ethical stance which asserts that “aggression” is inherently illegitimate. “Aggression” is defined as the “initiation” of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property.

Most formulations are content with stating that aggression is invalid, without making any statement about any other form of action. Walter Block (professional whackjob) seems to disagree with this, and proposes something quite different:

The non-aggression axiom is the lynchpin of the philosophy of libertarianism. It states, simply, that it shall be legal for anyone to do anything he wants, provided only that he not initiate (or threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property of another.

These two definitions may seem very similar, but the second adds a great deal more: that any action which does not fall afoul of the NAP should be legal. On the first, and more common, definition, there is no evaluation of actions which do not fall afoul of the NAP. But one necessarily follows from the other: if any non-aggressive action was illegal, then it would have to be dealt with using government force, which would go against the NAP. So the position that the initiation of aggression is illegitimate can only lead to the position that any other action must be legal. Libertarians do not just support outrageous positions because they’re whackos: they support outrageous positions because they have no other choice. Any condemnation of an action which is not based on the initiation of force would lead to the unraveling of their position.

For instance, there are Libertarians who oppose abortion, but they do so based on the argument that abortion is an initiation of force. This argument happens to be complete nonsense, but it is the only way they can argue on the subject: any other form of argumentation would mean abandoning the NAP.

As such, the NAP shares the main problem of voluntaryism, the position that anything voluntary is ethical. Often, I am told that this definition is incorrect, because their position is merely that non-voluntary arrangements are wrong. But one leads logically into the other: if any voluntary arrangement was wrong, then it would have to be broken up by some other arrangement which would have to be non-voluntary (in order to do the breaking up). The two scenarios are clearly very similar.

Based on this, one could reasonably argue that the NAP is wrong because there are plenty of wrong actions which do not represent an initiation of aggression. For one thing, most violent acts are not initiations of aggression but continuations of chains of aggression. A war has one act of initiation and then innumerable follow-ups: does that mean that only the initiation was wrong? If the NAP is correct, then that must be the case. But there is no substantive difference between the first act of war and the one millionth, apart from a place in a causal order. Why should that have moral relevance at all?

A related problem is the impossibility of finding the specific act that initiated aggression in any large-scale real-life case. The Mises Institute Wiki addresses, and completely fails to answer, this point:

A version of this second criticism is often upheld by libertarian socialists and others, who claim that almost every patch of land on Earth was stolen (i.e. obtained through initiation of force) at some point in its history. The stolen land was later inherited or sold until it reached its present owners. Thus, property over land and natural resources is based on the initiation of force. Among those who make this argument, some (such as followers of Henry George) claim that private property over natural resources is unique in being based on the initiation of force, while others hold that, by extension, private property over all goods derives from violence, because natural resources are required in the production of all goods.

Libertarians often reply to the “who started it?” problem by contending that the difficulty in determining who is the transgressor should not dissuade us from engaging in that process.

But if every form of aggression today exists only because of aggression performed in the past, then what use is the NAP at all? Modern capitalism, which caused the general form of our current societies, could only have existed thanks to the massive, worldwide acts of aggression we call the enclosure of the commons. And those were done by kingdoms, massive centers of power, which were themselves established on the basis of aggression. If the NAP does not recognize these as forms of aggression, then nothing could possibly be aggression. And if the NAP does recognize these as aggression, then ultimately no action performed in the present can be said to initiate anything. You might as well just say that the initial transgressor was one of the first humans, and declare everything we do non-aggression.

Note that the wiki doesn’t have an answer to the objection. The objection is not that finding the initiator is difficult, but that it is impossible, precisely because of the fact that every action has causes that go back in time. There is no “process” that can arrive at some kind of truth here because the concept of “initiation of aggression” is too vague of a concept to be used as a standard in the first place. Generally speaking, acts of aggression are not random events. There are any numbers of large-scale acts of aggression which define who we are as a society and why we do the things we do. There is not one “initiator,” or if we pick one, it’s because we stop at an arbitrary point along the way.

Take, for example, the case of the Zapatista. I argued in a blog exchange that they were justified in using violence to reclaim the lands that were stolen from them. Voluntaryists declare that those people are wrong in initiating violence, but by that standard the Mexicans of European descent are also wrong for initiating violence against them. In practice, “initiation of force” means “the people whose actions I disagree with.”

I don’t want to belabor the point, since, while I do think it is a problem, I don’t see this as being the main problem with the NAP. There are two fatal problems with the NAP, and they are the circularity of “aggression” as a standard and the invalidity of property rights.

When Libertarians use the word “aggression,” they actually mean aggression1: physical violence, or the threat of physical violence (since they believe in property rights, they include property within the scope of violence). But physical violence, condign power, is only one of the means governments and private individuals have to aggress, and probably the least important one nowadays insofar as internal control is concerned. One can argue for aggression1,2 or aggression1,2,3 as more complete, more useful definitions of “aggression.”

Arguing for one definition over another is beyond the scope of this entry, but my point here is that we have no particular reason to choose one over the other. Therefore the use of aggression1 in the NAP is purely arbitrary. There is no justification for the NAP that proves the superiority of aggression1 over any other definition:

Performative contradiction: This is basically the idea that “you can’t be for aggression because being free from aggression is necessary for rational discussion.” I’ve already argued against this concept here. But besides that, the concept of performative contradiction applies equally to aggression1,2 and aggression1,2,3. We could hardly say that two parties are engaged in rational discussion if one of them has been brainwashed or is paid to argue for one side (for example), any more than we’d say a rational discussion is taking place if it’s under the threat of violence.

Consequentialist: The consequentialist argument hinges around the position that banning aggression1 leads to more desirable results than not doing so. But this is exactly what other people will argue about banning aggression1,2 or aggression1,2,3. There’s no reason to favor the NAP advocate over the others a priori, and to argue for one side against the others would require more evidence than a circular argument.

Self-ownership: I’ve already shown how self-ownership is a nonsense concept. But even if we accept as valid the belief that one owns oneself, whatever that means, it does not prove anything about aggression, because the only forms of ownership we know are that of animate beings (or organizations controlled by animate beings) owning inanimate objects.

Estoppel: This is a concept made up by Stephan Kinsella drawn from his legal experience. He argues that someone who initiates aggression is thereby making aggression against themselves permissible as well. His argument is unclear, because it fails to distinguish between initiation of aggression with self-defense, a distinction which the NAP most definitely makes, therefore the estoppel argument fails to prove the NAP. But most importantly, it fails to prove that the only relevant form of aggression is aggression1. One could make the exact same point he makes, but by replacing aggression1 with aggression1,2 or aggression1,2,3.

Ethical intuitionism: This one’s easy because I’ve already written about how evolutionary intuitionism implies a wider conception of aggression than aggression1. Granted, this is only one form of ethical intuitionism, but there’s no particular reason to choose any other one over mine. Again, a separate argument is needed, and the NAP does not provide it.

The upshot is that the validity of the NAP is circular because it assumes that its specific conception of aggression is valid, and that all other conceptions are invalid, without any evidence to support it. Because of that, it is an invalid principle.

Another fatal problem is that the NAP is based on property rights, which, as I’ve discussed before, are contradictory nonsense. And if property rights are nonsensical, then the NAP, which includes property rights, must also be nonsensical. And again, if there’s no reason to choose that specific ownership scheme over any other, then the NAP is circular as well.

We see the nonsensical nature of property reflected in the ways in which the NAP returns absurd results. For instance, NAP advocates come out in favor of bigotry:

If a church doesn’t agree with gay marriage, they do have the moral right to deny weddings on their property, but no right outside of that. Similarly, a devout Christian bakery owner has the right to deny service to a gay couple if they wish (again, the current anti-discrimination laws not withstanding)…

If someone refuses service on their property, any attempt to force them to provide it constitutes aggression and is wrong.

But there cannot be a “right” not to provide a service based on personal prejudice, since it would infringe on the real right of the customers to procure food (for example). The fact that one does so on one’s private property is of no ethical relevance, and it’s silly to claim otherwise.

Other examples that shows where the NAP breaks down are the flagpole scenario and the abandoned cabin scenario. The first is a scenario where a person A falls to their certain death but manages to hang onto a flagpole owned by a person B. The second is a scenario where a person A is lost in the woods, starving, and finds a cabin with a “no trespassing” at the front, owned by a person B. The question is, who is in the right? Any reasonable person would say that person A is in the right. But according to the NAP, person B is justified in using force against person A in both cases. This conclusion is so insane that many Libertarians do everything they can to distance themselves from it. But Walter Block disagrees:

Suppose the owner of the apartment on the 15th floor has recently been victimized by a rape, perpetrated upon her by a member of the same ethnic or racial group as the person now hand walking his way down her flag pole, soon to uninvitedly enter her apartment. May she not shoot him in self-defense before he enters her premises? Or, suppose that the owner of the cabin in the woods has been victimized by several break-ins in the past few months, and has finally decided to do something in defense of his property. Or, suppose that the owner, himself, views his cabin as his own life preserver. Then, may he not take steps to safeguard his property? To ask these questions is to answer them, at least for the consistent libertarian.

The funny thing is that, on this blog, I’ve invited voluntaryists to debunk Block’s arguments from their own perspective, and they have always failed to do so (some examples: the boulder scenario, child prostitution, sexual harassment). If you accept the NAP as your standard, then his argument is solid. The correct conclusion to draw is that the NAP breaks down in emergency situations and returns absurd results because it is an absurd principle. It is absolutely insane for anyone to suggest that a person should be shot for trying to save their own lives.

Another fatal flaw is that the NAP implies such severe childism that it would make a Quiverfull fundamentalist blush. Because the NAP implies that there is no such thing as a positive right, and children are dependent on adults for the fulfillment of most of their rights, children are formulated by Libertarian theory as being worthless pieces of flesh whose only value lies in child labor. This is the absurd end result of an absurd principle.

This is not a problem specific to the NAP, or to Libertarianism: it is shared by all abstract, individualist ideologies which do not take society into account or outright reject its existence. It is an irreducible (from a political standpoint), biological fact that we are social animals. To ignore it is to escape reality into fantasy land.

6 thoughts on “The problems with the Non-Aggression Principle.

  1. John Doe February 22, 2017 at 21:41

    Have I ever told you how much I hate the ACLU?

    • Francois Tremblay February 22, 2017 at 22:20

      Uh, no. I fail to see the relevance.

      • John Doe February 23, 2017 at 10:51

        The ACLU and the NAP have no relevance to you?

        Well, consider this.

        The ACLU is definitely one of the most aggressive organizations out there. I learned this after a certain homophobic incident. They basically think they’re Bruce Wayne by taking justice into their own hands to assert their own definition of right and wrong.

        I know that this is probably the most cliche saying you can think of, but they are suppose to be the watchers that watch the watchers. Their job, at least by my interpretation is to intervene should the government ever step out of line. I learned this during high school.

  2. Anthony January 29, 2018 at 15:15

    Great content on the absurdity of NAP, but I think it would benefit from not using ableist language like “insane”

  3. John J June 10, 2018 at 08:41

    Self Defense is justified under the NAP. Just FYI, you are attacking a strawman.

    • Francois Tremblay June 10, 2018 at 14:33

      Actually, the only time I mention personal self-defense in this entry is to say that the NAP supports it, so you’re full of shit.

      (and in the off-case that you’re talking about social self-defense, Libertarians don’t even believe in that anyway and the NAP most definitely does not support it)

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