Garry Reed combined a professional technical writing career and a passion for all things libertarian to become The Libertarian Opinionizer.
Commentary From Your Libertarian Opinionizer
Principle: a concept or value that is a guide for behavior or evaluation.
Philosophy: the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.
– definitions from multiple online sources
From Wikipedia (everyone’s favorite go-to source until they find something that doesn’t agree with their predetermined beliefs): “The non-aggression principle (or NAP; also called the non-aggression axiom, the anti-coercion, zero aggression principle or non-initiation of force) is an ethical stance which asserts that ‘aggression’ is inherently illegitimate.”
Both the name of the principle and its definition vary amongst libertarians who claim it as their basic moral/ethical stance. Some claim it’s inherently flawed since not all “aggression” is the same as “coercion” and therefore it should be called “The Non-Coercion Principle.”
In any case, note that the P in NAP stands for Principle, not Philosophy, and for the purpose of this article the following definition will be used:
NAP is the Non-Aggression Principle against coercion, intimidation and fraud
The Humane Future of Humankind
Some Just Need a NAP
But some people, like everyone who believes in elitist ruling class entities like politicians, governments, nation-states, love the idea of using coercion, intimidation and fraud since how else are they going to impose their favorite utopian belief system on everyone else?
These authoritarians – statists, progressives, socialists, communists, fascists, government welfarists, corporatists, publically funded central planners, etc – desperately need a way to justify their coercion, intimidation and fraud against others.
They typically find a way around the NAP as Matt Zwolinski does in his article “Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle.” Since it was written in 2013 and has been repudiated, rejected, accepted, discussed, debated, picked over and otherwise deliberated upon during the intervening years there’s little sense in going down that worn footpath all over again today.
Suffice it to say that what Zwolinski does is to redefine a principle as a philosophy and then reject the principle because it isn’t a philosophy, thereby creating strawmen to attack.
Clutching at Strawmen
Here are four of his strawman concoctions (any lame attempt to "prove" an argument by overstating, exaggerating, or over-simplifying the arguments of the opposing side) followed by the straws that stir his drink:
“Many libertarians believe that the whole of their political philosophy can be summed up in a single, simple principle.” (No, because most libertarians understand that a principle is not the “whole of their political philosophy” and therefore cannot possibly be summed up in a single, simple principle. “The time value of money” is a principle too but it can’t sum up a whole economic phylosophy.)
“non-aggression is the sole, immovable center of the moral universe.” (No, because it’s incorrectly stated. Without living, breathing, sentient humans capable of conceptual-level thinking there would be no “moral universe.” So amorality is at the center of “the actual universe,” humanity is at the center of “the human universe” and then stated correctly the NAP – not “non-aggression” per se – is at the center of “the human moral universe.”)
“aggression is defined narrowly in terms of the use or threat of physical violence.” (No, because both “aggression” and “violence” are generic terms (aggressive attack, aggressive defense or violent attack, violent defense). Libertarians use aggression in the context of NAP broadly in reference to coercion (initiation of physical force), intimidation (threat of physical force) or fraud (deception as a form of “white collar” theft of property).)
“prohibition on aggression is absolute.” (No, because “aggression” is conditional on context as stated above. Only coercion is prohibited, and even it isn’t absolute when certain human life situations are considered. More on that later.)
And here are his two major reductio ad absurdum cocktails (shaken, not stirred) that has him grasping at straws:
“Even if the NAP is correct, it cannot serve as a fundamental principle of libertarian ethics.” (Yes it can because it is specifically “a fundamental principle of libertarian ethics,” not “a fundamental principle of the entire body of libertarian philosophical thought.”)
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“A stringent application of the non-aggression principle has morally unacceptable implications.” (Yes but all applications of all principles have some morally unacceptable implications because principles are principles, not stringently applied concrete diktats, and of course because they are created by imperfect humans. More on that later too.)
Surprise! The NAP Isn’t Perfect!
And that last is the crux of this whole article. If all of Zwolinski’s assertions above were true about the Non-Aggression Principle then it’s true about every other principle, rule, axiom, maxim, belief, code, value, standard and tenet ever created by human beings as well.
Why should it come as a surprise that libertarians who want a free, peaceful and prosperous society think the Non-Aggression Principle is a good general principle even if it doesn’t exactly apply in every conceivable application?
Based on his logic, if Zwolinski thinks Libertarians should reject the NAP because it isn’t perfect then he should insist that everyone else in society reject values like the Golden Rule, Live and Let Live, the Good Neighbor Policy and Honesty is the Best Policy because they aren’t perfect either.
Other Really Really Bad Ideas?
- The Golden Rule: Commonly rendered from the Christian Bible as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” most Christians think The Golden Rule is a good general principle even if it doesn’t exactly apply in every conceivable situation. Should a sadomasochist do unto others as he would have those others do unto him, especially if those others are not sadomasochists themselves? Let’s hope not!
- Live and Let Live: Peaceful non-coercive people the world over think the principle of “live and let live” is a good general idea even if it doesn’t exactly apply in every conceivable situation, especially when one is being attacked by a mugger, a rapist or a pack of viciously murderous terrorists.
- The Good Neighbor Policy: People of goodwill usually strive to be good neighbors but it seldom works out well if their bad neighbors are psychopaths intent on lying, cheating and stealing and borrow their good neighbor’s stuff and never return it.
- Honesty is the Best Policy: Unless of course someone with a gun demands all of your money and you hand over your wallet. But if honesty is the best policy does that require you to tell him about the hundred dollars hidden in your boot? And the bearer bonds in your hip pocket? And he did say all of your money so does honesty obligate you to volunteer the pin number for your savings account? And offer to sign all of the blank checks in your checkbook?
Maybe Zwolinski thinks we’d all be better off if absolutely everyone just ditched all efforts at moral and ethical conduct and became vicious combatants in a War of All Against All. Or maybe he wants everyone to just blindly accept “The Social Contract,” another equally flawed concept.
It’s the Economy of Words, Stupid
Here’s what Zwolinski does not seem to get:
The NAP is a “principle;” the NAP is a principle; the NAP is a principle; the NAP is a PRINCIPLE. Get it?
The NAP is a “PRINCIPLE.”
It isn’t the Non-Aggression Instruction Manual
It isn’t the Non-Aggression Textbook.
It isn’t the Non-Aggression Bible.
It isn’t the Non-Aggression Encyclopedia.
It isn’t the Non-Aggression Library.
It isn’t the Non-Aggression All-Encompassing Grandiose Philosophical Answer to Life, The Universe and Everything.
It is a principle, in this case a human philosophical principle. Here are some definitions that apply to the NAP in this context from Dictionary.com:
principle [prin-suh-puh l] noun
- an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct
- a fundamental, primary, or general law or truth from which others are derived
- a fundamental doctrine or tenet; a distinctive ruling opinion
- a personal or specific basis of conduct or management
- a guiding sense of the requirements and obligations of right conduct
- an adopted rule or method for application in action
Note all of the non-absolutist terms in those definitions: “accepted,” “or,” “professed,” “primary,” “general,” “opinion,” “personal,” “guiding,” “sense,” “adopted.”
The NAP is the principle of the thing. It’s a human principle based on a human philosophy based on human existence.
A Human Principle Based on Human Life
Of course the NAP is not absolute just as human life is not absolute. Human life is subject to alternatives such as being dead, or being brain dead, or being non-existent. Without human life there are no human principles, no morality, no ethics, no philosophy, no anything else of human conception.
It is precisely because human life is the basis of libertarianism that human life takes precedence over everything else, including the NAP itself.
A moral libertarian who sees a person unintentionally step in front of a speeding bus will pull that person to safety if at all possible. She just violated the NAP by committing an act of coercion because she didn’t get the person’s permission first.
A moral libertarian who sees a person about to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge will pull that person to safety if at all possible. He just violated the NAP by committing an act of coercion because he didn’t get the person’s permission first.
A person who sees another person being assaulted may come to the other person’s assistance. That person just violated the NAP by committing an act of coercion because he didn’t get the other person’s permission first.
Moral libertarians who come upon a traffic accident where a person is unconscious and bleeding out will render aid and call 911 in an attempt to save the person’s life. They just violated the NAP by committing acts of coercion because they didn’t get the person’s permission first.
The consequences of these coercive actions may be positive (“Thank you!”) or negative (“I’m suing you!)” but what decent human being would refuse to help if it was possible and appropriate? Actions have consequences and as stated the NAP isn’t perfect.
Beyond that virtually all people, including non-libertarians, coerce their children. They make them eat, make them bathe, make them go to bed. They care and love and teach their children. And guess what they teach them. The Non-Aggression Principle – don’t start fights, don’t bully others and don’t cheat anyone. Principles to live by.
If the NAP is such a bad idea that libertarians should reject it why is it that so many good, caring, loving parents, including non-libertarians, teach these simple basic principles to their children?
And as a corollary to that question, why do those same parents then violate those very principles themselves when they give their sanction to politicians – by voting for them – to hit, bully and cheat others in their name? Because people, like principles, are not perfect.
The Response Only Needs One Word
Zwolinski’s Last Straw
In his article Matt Zwolinski justifies his rejection of NAP this way: “There comes a point where what you need is not another refinement to the definition of “aggression” but a radical paradigm shift in which we put aside the idea that non-aggression is the sole, immovable center of the moral universe.”
Yet who besides virtually all anti-libertarians, a few newbie libertarians and Zwolinski himself, ever claim that the NAP is “the sole, immovable center of the moral universe?” This is Zwolinski’s ultimate strawman premise coupled with a reductio ad absurdum conclusion. It’s his first and last straw!
No one said life is perfect; no one said NAP is perfect. Calling a principle, any principle, imperfect and rejecting it because of its imperfection is no better than calling people imperfect and rejecting them because of their imperfections.
If that’s the case we should reject Matt Zwolinski as well.
But anti-NAPers already know there is no perfect principle, which is precisely why those anti-NAPers have not offered an absolutely categorically unassailably airtight foolproof hermetically sealed Perfect Moral Principle of their own.
Only non-libertarians, un-libertarians, anti-libertarians call libertarianism “utopian” or the Non-Aggression Principle “perfect” because they know it’s easier to attack a strawman than to calmly discuss an idea.
So libertarians should just stick with their NAP and do their best to live by it and encourage others to live by it because it’s better than anyone else has to offer no matter what anyone else claims to the contrary.
Even Matt Zwolinski failed to offer a better one in his own article. He says only “Libertarianism needs its own Copernican Revolution.” He doesn’t get that the NAP is that revolution.
References and Links
Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle
The full article that confuses a simple axiom with a formal, systematic, comprehensive, all-embracing academic philosophical treatise.
Origins and discussions of the Non-Aggression Principle
An introduction to the Non-Aggression Principle where it’s noted that the NAP as a principle only has validity as a consequence of a more fundamental philosophy.
The Problem with “Coercion”
The proper use of “coercion” vs “aggression” has long been debated but the intended meaning of NAP is to reject “initiated force” by one person against another.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.