Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Non-Aggression Principle: A Philosophical Barnhum Statement.

Honestly, when I started this blog I knew it would inevitably include political philosophy but I never anticipated such a quick descent into the bickering over fringe political movements. It seems I have an uncanny ability to both surprise and disappoint myself and so with my trusty machete of bitter resignation I shall cut to the chase.

The Non-Aggression Principle or "NAP", is an ethical claim that runs a little something to the tune of:

"Moral agents should not engage in the initiation of aggressive force against other sovereign beings."  
Notably, it is a moral claim that has almost absolutely no traction in academia. Even more puzzling is that this moral code exists almost exclusively in Anarcho-capitalist* circles; this leads me to wonder, why?

A somewhat cynical response might be that it is just not a very good moral principle and so it's only fitting that it belongs to a rather un-convincing ideology. However I like to think more highly of my readers and so I will presume that this answer does not quite quench your thirst.

My own particular theory is that the reason NAP has only been adopted by anarcho-capitalists is to do with both its language and original political intent. 

The aim of NAP is to present the moral outlook of the anarcho-capitalist as one that is perfectly sane and commonsensical; and like any commonsensical maxim the language that articulates it is incredibly vague. 

Specifically the non-aggression principle makes use of a number of terms that, functionally speaking, are quite empty until the speaker/listener provides them with a particular meaning.

The prime offender here is "the initiation of aggressive force".

To illustrate further, consider someone  pocketing an apple from a supermarket and walking out without paying. The security guards catch the apple thief and they in turn wrestle him to the ground to prevent him from leaving and take the apple of him. 

The questions raised here is, who in the above scenario initiated the use of aggressive force? The security guard protecting his employers property or the person who picked up an apple and walked out?

Generally the teleological function of NAP is to prove capitalism to be an inherently just system based around free-association and so the instincts of the NAP advocate tell them to defend the security guard. 

As a result of this move, "the initiation of aggressive force" comes to mean "physical aggression against a person and also against things that they "own"". Of course this spawns a whole new set of problems to do with differing accounts of property.

If we accept the initiation of aggressive force to include the taking of someone else's property we are faced with both the abstract and concrete questions of what do people, as a genus and as individuals, legitimately own. Without an explanation as to what can be considered "property" the non-aggression principles fails to provide us with any reliable method of distinguishing between bad acts of aggressive force and good/neutral acts of "defensive force".

It is entirely possible, for instance, for a follower of Murray Rothbard to wake up one day and find that an acolyte of Peter Vallentyne has sequester an unused portion of what was previously the Rothbardian's farm.

The two moral agents, as a result of their different political leanings, have different ideas of what constitutes a legitimate property claim and so no matter which side you take one of them will always feel as though they have been cheated. The Vallentyne follower will feel that they have been unjustly thrown off land which was legitimately theirs and the Rothbardian will claim that the Vallentyne agent has stolen their land.

In this sense NAP is a philosophical Barnhum statement. While it's wording makes it sound carefully refined and officious the non-aggression principle is actually remarkably devoid of content.
Whether or not you include, for instance, "systemic violence" in your interpretation of  "the initiation of aggressive force", or make exceptions for defence of property will have huge impacts on what the non-aggression principle calls for. In short, until you import a whole host of other political norms NAP can mean almost anything to anyone provided they can provide some alternative account of property or individual sovereignty. 

When you think about the non-aggression principle in these terms it makes sense that it's primarily championed by anarcho-capitalists. It's actually quite a sophisticated method of employing rhetoric to cover for potentially less acceptable ideological commitments.

Rather than say "I believe that property claims are absolute to the point that almost nothing can over-ride them and that society can only conceived of as individuals holding said property claims" one can rely on the philosophical vagueness that lies latent in the notion of "initiation of force" to sneak this bold claim into common discourse.

The non-aggression principle should not be ridiculed and rejected because it is wrong; rather it should be scorned for being nothing short of empty political sophistry.

* I hope, dear reader, that you were observant enough to note my restraint in not calling anarcho-capitalists "Ayn-Craps" or indeed disparaging them for being "not anarchists". In saying that I also hope you are smart enough to recognize that I have used this annotation here to do exactly that.


  1. i would like to see those who think that theft is not a form of aggression to practice what they preach. post your street address below and tell everybody that you don't believe that theft is a form of aggression. until i see street address i just can't take you guys seriously.

    1. Hey Mullhausen,

      It seems you need to read the post again; this very topic was discussed above (see the example of the Rothbardian and the Vallentyne follower, and the paragraph above it).

      What your challenge presupposes is that if I do not agree to a singular account of propety, say for instance neo-lockeanism, then I must abandon all conceptions of property/theft.

      Indeed your argument simply does not follow. It is entirely possible for me to reject one form of property/definition of theft and accept another. In fact the kind of argument you have presented demonstrates the very kind of philosophical "three card monte" that this piece was intended to critique.

      Almost everyone would agree that taking from someone things which rightfully belongs to them is immoral, the question on which people differ regards "What things rightfully belong to whom?".

      Cut-Throat and Clueless

    2. people never post their street addresses. i have tried this many times.

    3. Hey Mullhausen,

      I think I have made it relatively clear that to reject one definition of violence/theft is not to reject them all and that no one argues that "theft", defined in the pejorative sense, isn't an act of aggression.

      Did you re-read the post like I suggested? Because it looks like you have formed an opinion without properly reading what was presented to you.

      Cut-Throat and Clueless