Saturday, January 4, 2014

They're Really More Like Guidelines

One of the foundational tenants of modern libertarianism is the non-aggression principle, defined by the brilliant political philosopher Murray Rothbard in his book For a New Liberty as "[the] central axiom...that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else, "aggression" being understood to mean "the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence" against someone or their property.  This is the central principle of libertarianism (at least principled libertarianism in the vein of Rothbard) and the axiom on which most libertarian philosophy rests, for principled political philosophies are necessarily founded upon ethics.

So it might be a bit of a surprise that I, a Rothbardian, anti-state, anti-taxation, anarchist libertarian, cannot fully affirm the non-aggression principle.

Yes, this ethical axiom, one at first glance so flawless and irrefutable, seemingly so essential to my political philosophy, is one to which I cannot subscribe.  This puts me at odds with many of my fellow libertarians, not only with regard to an important tenant of the philosophy but to its foundation principle.  This does not mean that I do not value it, for on the whole the principle tends to promote good ethical decision making, but I cannot accept it as a universal axiom.  In short, to paraphrase Pirates of the Caribbean, the non-aggression principle is more of a guideline.

Despite its simplicity and elegance, its practicality, and its general applicability, the non-aggression axiom simply fails to take into account the complex nature of ethics in both principle and practice, unable to explain the pull of conscience and moral law as well as the way in which humans actually make ethical decisions.  To illustrate this, an example may be helpful:

Imagine that you and a buddy are hiking a remote mountain trail.  You are close to the end of your hike, which is good because you are running out of supplies.  Your food and water has run out completely, but your partner still has half of a water bottle left.  Fortunately you had a snack and a good drink shortly beforehand, so you both should be fine for the rest of the hike.  Suddenly you spot a man lying face-down beside the trail.  You run up to him, and it is obvious that he has been lost and has collapsed due to exhaustion and dehydration.  He is conscious and breathing, but barely.  This man needs help immediately, and the most urgent matter is to get him a drink of water.  Your partner, however, is a misanthropic nihilist jerk and refuses to give the man a drink. 

Is it ethical to forcibly take the water from your companion?  To do so is to aggress against his property, and also to aggress against his person if he chooses to physically resist.  But if the man in trouble cannot get water immediately, he will die.  In this situation, to apply the non-aggression principle is to let a man die needlessly, all for the sake of someone's claim over half a bottle of water.

It seems obvious that the strict application of the non-aggression axiom is not ethical in this situation.  I could give more examples.  Is it ethical to steal a car to get my dying friend to the hospital if I have no personal means of transportation or contact with anyone?  Is it ethical to violently punch and push my way through a crowd to reach a relative whose life is in danger? The problem with the non-aggression principle is that sometimes you have to harm someone in order to benefit someone else.  To put it briefly: sometimes the ends justify the means.

One might object to my examples to this effect, however, saying that they are far-fetched, unlikely to ever occur in practice, and thus, as hypotheticals, have no bearing upon ethical principles.  However, this objection proves my point exactly.  Of course ethical principles are based upon hypotheticals.  To be a true axiom, a principle must be applicable in all situations, no matter how unlikely.  Universal laws of ethics do not result from practice in various situations; rather, ethical practice derives from ethical principles.  The ideal forms a model for the real.

This also helps to explain why, although I deny the universality of the non-aggression principle, I can still affirm it as a general guideline for ethical decisions in day-to-day life and in politics.  The far-fetched nature of my examples demonstrates that situations necessitating the violation of the non-aggression principle are rare, suggesting that although the principle is not a universal axiom, it is a helpful rule that hold true in most cases, for although it is a stretch to claim that aggression is always wrong, it is common sense to say that it is usually wrong.  So the non-aggression principle, ultimately, is similar to Newton's laws of physics.  Today, we know that Newton's laws are not universally applicable and that they cannot fully explain how the world works.  However, the world as we perceive it operates, for the most part, according to Newton's laws.  Therefore, his principles, although insufficient as universal scientific laws, are still helpful as general rules about how the world works most of the time.  The non-aggression principle is the same way.  Although not universally applicable, and not foundational to ethics, it applies to most ethical decisions, making it a useful guideline. 

Thus ends my general view on the non-aggression principle.  In future posts, I will explain the ethical principles which I believe to be foundational, and how they inform my libertarianism.

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