Eudaimonism and Non-Aggression

There are two ways one can go wrong with regard to the non-aggression principle (NAP).

One way to go wrong is to treat the NAP as a rigid, out-of-context principle that can be applied fairly mechanically with little attention to other values or to the details of the situation.

The other way to go wrong is to reject the NAP, or to downgrade it to the status of a defeasible presumption or rule of thumb.

Have You Ever Heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons!

From the eudaimonist perspective I favour (see here and here), the content of justice stands in reciprocal determination with the content of the other virtues. That means that virtues like prudence and benevolence play a role in determining the content of justice, but also – via a process of mutual adjustment – that justice plays a role in determining the content of virtues like prudence and benevolence.


The function of virtue is to guide action; since action is unitary (i.e., one cannot act in opposite ways at the same time), virtue needs to be unitary as well. So it’s not just a matter of “good luck” that the requirements of the virtues are mutually consistent. Rather, the nature of virtue demands of us that we dialectically construct its requirements so as to be mutually consistent, starting from the raw material of prima facie virtue-judgments that may not initially be consistent at all. (As I’ve noted elsewhere, the fact that “all but the hardiest deontologists generally try to show that their favoured policies will in fact have good consequences, while all but the hardiest consequentialists generally try to show that they’re not committed to morally outrageous conclusions,” suggests that most professed deontologists and consequentialists are actually, to their credit, crypto-eudaimonists.)

Does the eudaimonist approach tell for or against the correctness of the slogan “Let justice be done though the heavens fall” (Fiat justitia ruat cælum, or Fiat justitia pereat mundus)? The answer to that question is not straightforward.

If justice were independent of beneficial/harmful consequences in the Kantian manner (setting aside some thorny issues of Kant interpretation), then the slogan would be straightforwardly correct. If instead justice were dependent on beneficial/harmful consequences but not vice versa, in the utilitarian manner, then the slogan would be straightforwardly wrong. But when the determination is reciprocal, matters are more complicated.

On the eudaimonist view, the prima facie badness of the heavens falling will need to be taken into account both in shaping the principles of justice and in determining their application to particular situations; this lessens the likelihood that justice will indeed require sacrificing the heavens. So if the slogan means that concern for the heavens falling should play no role in determining what’s just, the slogan is wrong.

But lessening the likelihood that justice will not require the heavens falling is not the same as guaranteeing the possibility’s elimination, since our assessment of the badness of the heavens falling likewise needs to be informed by the prima facie content of justice, which is heavily deontological. (In any case, a purely consequentialist approach is incoherent, since direct consequentialism has bad results (and so is self-refuting) while indirect consequentialism is conceptually unstable.) Hence it is conceivable that in some instance justice might require the heavens falling; and if it should do so, we would be obligated to let the heavens fall – and in that sense the slogan is perfectly right.

Since rights are a matter of justice, one upshot of the eudaimonist approach is that any defensible theory of rights will have to be informed by considerations of prudence and benevolence. And this means that consequence-oriented considerations will have to play a role in determining the content of rights. But inasmuch as reciprocal determination is a two-way street, rights will also play a role in determining what count as a better or worse consequence. That is why, for eudaimonists, one is better off, in self-interested terms, dying justly than living unjustly. (For why this doesn’t mean that once you’ve committed an injustice you have no more reason to live, see here.)

Here I disagree, by the way, with George Smith’s recent contention that an act can be unjust and yet not morally wrong. Justice is a proper part of virtue, not an alternative to it. As Rothbard writes, “tort or criminal law is a subset of ethics.”

Is the non-aggression principle an attractive rights thesis from a eudaimonist perspective? Well, strictly speaking, the non-aggression principle – in its standard formulations, at least – is not a rights thesis at all. But a right has two components – an obligation (on the part of others, to treat the right-holder in a certain way) and a permission (for the right-holder, or her agent, to force others to treat her that way). The non-aggression principle is simply the obligation component of the right of self-ownership, or in other words the right not to be aggressed against. And there is indeed a eudaimonist case to be made for that right. As I have argued elsewhere:

On an Aristotelian virtue-ethical account, right action is action that expresses the attitudes and dispositions appropriate to a flourishing human life, where the latter is conceived as a life that gives primacy to the exercise of distinctively human capacities. … Hence, the best life for a human being is one that navigates between the extremes of subhuman and superhuman. …

Aristotle identifies the distinctively human capacity for reason and speech as the basis of our being naturally political animals, for it enables us to pursue our goals through discussion with one another. Moreover, Aristotle famously regards logos, reason or speech, as the essential trait around which a flourishing human life must be organized. This, it seems, is why Aristotle regards it as an essential component of a truly human life to deal with others politically, i.e., through reason and discourse – i.e., as conversation partners. …

To deal with others by force is to act in a subhuman manner, like a beast of prey; we live a more human life (and therefore, in Aristotelian terms, a better life) to the extent that our relations with other people embody reason and persuasion rather than coercion. Therefore, the need to avoid the bestial type of vice gives the virtuous agent reason to accept an obligation to respect other people as ends in themselves, rather than to treat them as mere means to her own ends. If this high-level human end places a constraint on the pursuit of lower-level, animal ends, so be it. … [W]hat legitimates the [permission component] is the need to avoid the corresponding godlike type of vice, the pure pacifist position that requires the virtuous agent to cling to cooperation even when the other party abandons cooperation and resorts to aggression. The saintlike commitment to turn the other cheek accords less respect to one’s own material needs than they deserve. [The NAP] can thus be seen as striking an appropriate balance – a Golden Mean – between subhuman aggression and superhuman pacifism.

Moreover, the eudaimonist has good reason to treat the NAP as indefeasible. After all, if I aggress against you only a little, or only occasionally, I am still treating you as a legitimate object of nonconsensual use, and thus choosing, to that extent, a less over a more human life.

But given the reciprocal-determination thesis, the eudaimonist’s good reason to treat the NAP as indefeasible would not be a decisive reason to treat it as indefeasible if consequentialist considerations posed a sufficiently strong objection. Happily, the conduct favoured by consequentialist considerations is close enough to NAP that very little adjustment of our prima facie conceptions of benefit and harm needs to be done to authorise the NAP’s indefeasibility.

But the NAP is also fairly abstract, and there are different ways of rendering it more concrete. A variety of moral considerations, some consequentialist, constrain the ways in which its generality can reasonably be specified. The contours of what counts as aggression are not infinitely malleable; but absent the contribution of further values (which, as David Gordon notes, can include convention) they are not infinitely specific either. (The same applies to determining the boundaries of the person.) In some cases the principle will require not using someone else’s property without her consent; at other times (i.e., in emergency situations where the threat is great and the use temporary and minimal) it may merely requires compensating the owner after the fact for unconsented use. That the application of the principle is consequence-sensitive does not mean that consequences override the principle; nor could such emergency situations license a permanent and systematic agency of coercion such as the state.

Eudaimonism might be thought to run afoul of Bryan Caplan’s “fundamental rule of philosophical reasoning,” namely: “don’t use the obscure to argue for the obvious. It’s silly to say, ‘Murder violates man’s nature, so murder is wrong,’ when you can just say, ‘Murder is wrong.’” Perhaps eudaimionism does violate Bryan’s rule; but I disagree with Bryan’s rule. In philosophy, the goal of reasoning is (ordinarily) not just to show that something is true, but to explain why it is true; and there is nothing wrong with explaining the obvious by the obscure. It’s obvious that apples fall and that the moon doesn’t, while Newton’s laws are comparatively obscure; but that doesn’t mean that Newton’s attempt to derive the behavior of these objects from his laws was somehow wrongheaded. And as in physics, so in ethics: if we want to know not just that but why murder is wrong, we should be prepared to ground murder’s wrongness in something not quite so obvious. (This is part of why I disagree with Jason’s review of Gary’s book, but that’s another story.)

Where Matt Went Wrong; Some More of Matt’s Greatest Mistakes; and Who Is This Matt Person Anyway?

And now I come at last to Matt Zwolinski’s critique of NAP and the debate that has ensued over it.

Matt raises a number of objections to NAP; but most of them seem to be objections only to applying NAP in a simplistic and context-insensitive manner. I agree wholeheartedly that NAP should not be applied in a simplistic and context-insensitive manner; consequences and conventions play a partial (though not a total) role in determining what counts as aggression. Once this is recognised, Matt’s examples appear a lot less intractable than he seems to suppose.

Of course Matt essentially grants this, remarking that “ingenious folk“ can figure out how to “tweak, tinker, and contextualize the NAP in a way that makes some progress in dealing with the problems”; but, he insists, “there comes a point where adding another layer of epicycles to one’s theory seems no longer to be the best way to proceed,” where “what you need is not another refinement to the definition of ‘aggression’ but a radical paradigm shift.”

Maybe so; but why think this time has been reached? An old paradigm should be abandoned for a new one only if the new one does as good an explanatory job as the old one. But I can’t see that any new paradigm does as good a job as NAP at capturing the Lockean idea that people are not “made for one another’s uses.”

But if the NAP needs so much context and nuance (“epicycles,” in Matt’s phrase) to be applied correctly, why not abandon it in favour of some lower-maintenance principle? Well … like what? I seriously doubt that there’s any defensible principle that doesn’t need context and nuance in order to be applied correctly. Embracing the NAP because one mistakenly takes its application to be simple and automatic, and rejecting the NAP because its application turns out not to be simple and automatic, strike me as two forms of the same mistake. There is no principle that can do our thinking for us, so it’s a mistake to make its ability to do so a criterion for accepting a principle.

I also have to quarrel a bit with Matt’s summary of NAP as holding that “aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong, where aggression is defined narrowly in terms of the use or threat of physical violence.” As George points out, this isn’t quite accurate; libertarians generally use the term “force,” which is usually interpreted (and not only by libertarians) as being broader than “violence.” Moreover, in order to read the non-aggression principle as failing to prohibit fraud and the imposition of unreasonable risk, Matt has to interpret “physical violence” very narrowly; but in order to read the non-aggression principle as prohibiting all pollution, he has to interpret “physical violence” very broadly. I don’t think he’s entitled to have it both ways. (Incidentally, Rothbard himself deals – whether satisfactorily or not – with some of the questions that Matt raises about pollution, in “Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution”; see for example his discussion of how one homesteads pollution easements simply by being alive. I won’t deal with Matt’s starving-children example, because Matt has already declared my reconciliation of children’s positive rights with the NAP “thoughtful and intelligent.”)

One of Matt’s objections to NAP is that “[t]he libertarian armed with the NAP has little need for the close study of history, sociology, or empirical economics.” Well, maybe or maybe not. For some libertarians a close study of history, sociology, or empirical economics may have gone into the justification of NAP. Moreover, moral justification, even if not purely deontological, has a strong deontological component (and in any case, economics is not solely empirical).

The NAP is sometimes described as the “non-aggression axiom,” and this term probably encourages critics to think that the principle is intended to be non-derivative. But that’s certainly not how Rothbard intended the phrase, since he provides it with a grounding in neo-Thomistic natural law. As I explain elsewhere:

[T]he term “axiom,” … is sometimes taken to imply that the prohibition of aggression enjoys a special epistemic status analogous to that of the law of non-contradiction, e.g., that it is self-evident, or knowable a priori, or a presupposition of all knowledge, or that it cannot be denied without self-contradiction. … [But] there is a broader sense of “axiom” in which a foundational presupposition of a given system of thought counts as an axiom within that system of thought even if it rests on some deeper justification outside that system; for example, Isaac Newton described his fundamental laws of motion as “axioms” within his deductive system of mechanics, yet regarded them as grounded empirically. In this sense non-aggression might legitimately be regarded as an “axiom” of libertarian rights theory regardless of what one takes its ultimate justification to be.

Both Matt (in his original post) and Julian Sanchez (here) seem to think that if what counts as aggression is determined by normative considerations, then a normative prohibition on aggression becomes tautological. That might be true if what counts as aggression were determined solely by normative considerations; but instead what’s driven by normative considerations is the specification of a notion whose generic outline is neither solely normative nor infinitely malleable.

Despite the title of his original post, Matt says later on that what he rejects is not the NAP itself, but the NAP’s status as “the sole and absolute criterion of libertarian justice.”

But I’ve never been able to figure out what the word “absolute” means when talking about rights. Every right is absolute if you define precisely enough what it’s a right to. Likewise, no right is absolute if you describe it vaguely enough.

And “sole” is not much better, as there’s no one right way to individuate criteria of justice. Various considerations should be taken into account in applying the non-aggression principle. Should we treat these considerations as built into the principle (in which case it will be “sole”), or as external constraints on applying the principle (in which case it will not be “sole”)? Well, you can slice it either way as far as I can see; it’s like worrying about whether an hour consists of two 30-minute intervals or three 20-minute intervals.

I do think that in order to acknowledge people’s dignity and not regard them as resources for others’ uses, we do have to treat NAP (properly interpreted) as indefeasible; so if that’s what Matt means, count me as an NAP absolutist. And NAP’s indefeasibility in turn means that, ultimately, the right not to be aggressed against is the only right we have; or, to put it another way, we may speak of ourselves as having many rights, but every one of those rights is some manifestation of the right not to be aggressed against. So in that sense I’m in the “sole” camp too.

But what that means, then, is that there is a way of regarding NAP as the “sole” and “absolute” criterion of justice, while at the same time treating its application as context-sensitive and informed by broader values. The NAP can be a plumbline and a Lesbian rule at the same time!

Though I Walk Through the Vallier of the Shadow of Death, I Will Fear No Evil

Kevin Vallier argues that we should abandon the NAP because it is “not a foundational principle of justice,” that is, it does not constitute “an ultimate or non-derivative explanation of the normative force of a suitably broad range of considered normative judgments.”

But I’m not sure why we should care whether NAP is foundational so long as it’s true. The claim that lead is heavier than balsa wood isn’t foundational either, but that hardly seems like a reason to scrap it. Moreover, I’m not sure that there are any foundational normative principles in Kevin’s sense. As an ethical constructivist, I think that all-things-considered norms are constructed out of prima facie norms. The prima facie norms can’t be foundational, since many of them will be revised or abandoned in the process of reflective equilibration, and those that survive will owe most of their authority to the equilibrative process; and the all-things-considered norms can’t be foundational either, since their normative force is derived from the process as well.

Kevin argues that libertarianism really needs four principles – self-ownership, acquisition, transfer, and rectification – and that the latter three cannot be derived from the first. Well, I would say it depends what “derived” means. I’ve argued that self-ownership (or NAP) places stringent constraints on what principles of acquisition and transfer (see here, here, here, and here) and principles of rectification (see here) we can coherently defend. Surely using self-ownership to narrow the range of options counts at least as deriving from self-ownership the disjunction of the remaining options, even if further narrowing will require additional norms and/or convention. (Thus the NAP is not “parasitic ” on a theory of property rights, since it has to be used in specifying property rights.)

Incidentally, several would-be defenders of Rothbard (I’ve been reading so many contributions to the debate that I’ve forgotten who) have rushed to rescue him from the charge of deriving all of libertarianism from self-ownership, urging that for Rothbard at least a homesteading principle is needed in addition. But I’m not sure Rothbard would welcome the defense. He does say that “[f]rom these twin axioms – self-ownership and ‘homesteading’ – stem the justification for the entire system of property rights titles in a free-market society” but he immediately adds in a footnote that strictly speaking, “rather than being two independent axioms, the homesteading principle really follows from the single axiom of self-ownership.” Broadly speaking, I think he was right.

He Sank Beneath Your Wisdom Like a Stone

As a free bonus, let me close by saying something about eudaimonism and drowning children.

Matt thinks we have a duty to rescue drowning children. Bryan thinks we don’t. For Bryan, such assistance is morally praiseworthy but supererogatory.

As a eudaimonist, I reject the category of the supererogatory. The right action (or, usually, the disjunction of equally acceptable right actions) lies in the Aristotelean mean between too much and too little, both of which are wrong. The notion of supererogation gets its plausibility from ethical systems that accept the possibility of conflicts between morality and self-interest, or between one person’s self-interest and another’s; if the demands of morality can require self-sacrifice, then it makes sense to suppose there might be a level of moral demand that asks too much, that requires an unreasonable amount of self-sacrifice. But if such conflicts are impossible, then the demands of morality can never be too high, can never require any genuine sacrifice, and so there is no need to place them beyond the call of duty.

It remains true, of course, that fulfilling one’s moral obligations will be easier in some circumstances and more difficult in others; and such difficulty will often make moral failures more excusable. But that does not mean that difficult obligations are anything less than morally required.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that every instance of helping others is either obligatory or forbidden. As noted above, in most cases there are a variety of equally acceptable options that fall within the virtuous mean, and in any given case some may involve offering aid while others do not. So a person who offers aid may be virtuously doing something she was not obligated to do; but that does not mean she was doing something more praiseworthy than her other permissible options. (She may well be doing something more worthy of gratitude than her other permissible options, but that’s not quite the same thing.)

I think we do have a duty to help others. For one thing, it would be an offense against libertarian thickness if other people mattered so much that all aggression against them was forbidden, yet so little that indifference to others’ fate could be permissible. But I also think the duty to help others is an imperfect duty; that is, it’s a duty to help some others some of the time, but not everyone you could conceivably help at every opportunity. This is because the content of benevolence is partly informed by the content of other virtues, including prudence.

Now ordinarily you get to pick and choose the occasions for satisfying your imperfect duty; but if circumstances confront you with a case where helping is easy, the need is severe, and you are the person best placed to help (in other words, the drowning child case, as ordinarily presented), then helping in that particular case may become obligatory. Given the demands of the other virtues, however, such an obligation cannot generalise to Bryan’s case of “Drowning Children as far as the eye can see, 24/7.” Sorry, Peter Singer.

Needless to say, the fact that saving the drowning child is sometimes morally obligatory does not mean that it should ever be legally compulsory. “Good Samaritan” laws treat the potential rescuer as a mere means to her potential beneficiaries, thereby insulting the dignity of both of them.

  • les kyle Nearhood

    I found the first part of this very interesting and I will explore Eudiamonism. I found the last part personaly troubling. Why? The reason is that in the 1980’s I volunteered in a soup kitchen and was active in various charities for the homeless and I cam to the misanthropic conclusion that I hated poor people.

    It has troubled me ever since because most of the people I tried to help were either insane (and needed to be institutionalized, that is a big failure in our society) Or addicts. But almost without exception they were nasty, narcissistic, petty criminals. Ever since that time I have only given to charities which did other things than helping the poor. I have wrestled with this,but there you have it. I do not think we have an obligation to help everyone.

    • martinbrock

      People are poor for many reasons, but in wealthier parts of the world with liberal access to productive means and/or sufficient entitlements to necessities of life when means are scarce (artificially or otherwise), people with the characteristics you describe presumably fill soup kitchens.

      Voluntary soup kitchens seem defensible to me, but since they’re voluntary, my opinion hardly matters. If they only keep nasty, narcissistic, petty people out of other people’s way, this function seems better than the alternative.

      The parasitic rich typically consume more than the parasitic poor, and their parasitic consumption typically is less voluntary.

      • For those in economic desperation, the vaunted “access to productive means and/or sufficient entitlements” doesn’t look so liberal. It’s extremely difficult to get a job when you’re homeless, since e.g. a) it’s hard to dress/bathe/groom well for interviews, and b) employers often won’t hire someone without an address. Getting public assistance is often a time-devouring bureaucratic nightmare.

        • martinbrock

          I’m not extolling the access to productive means anywhere, but I’ve had enough experience with homeless shelters in my neck of the woods, and seen enough statistics, to know that les isn’t totally full of it. Some people are narcissistic, and their habits don’t endear them to others, particularly to employers. Most homeless people had terrible work records and few friends before they became homeless.

          Sure, getting out of this predicament is tougher than getting into it, but most people get into in the first place through drug abuse and similar choices. Exceptions to this rule are few in my experience. The situation in Mumbai may be very different, but I don’t live in Mumbai.

          I’m not suggesting that anyone is beyond redemption, but pretending that we’re all giving it our best shot and some of us just can’t find the resources we need isn’t helpful, because it isn’t true.

    • When you say the people you helped needed to be institutionalized, you mean putting them in psiquiatric hospitals?

      • Yes, people who are petty or narcissistic should all be imprisoned or enslaved.

        • martinbrock

          No one should be confined involuntarily or enslaved in my way of thinking, but people who are petty or narcissistic often don’t live enviable lives, because other people are free to disassociate from them.

        • Ah…the XIX century all over again…LLes Kyle hasn´t read his Foucault, it seems…

      • les kyle Nearhood

        People who suffer from delusions, schizophrenia, paranoia, etc can often be helped by modern pharmaceuticals. But because of their affliction they won’t trust anyone who wants to help them. Just throwing these poor people out on the street is not respecting their “rights” anymore than it would be respectful of the rights of toddlers to allow them to roam around on the interstate. It is also harmful to the rest of the populace because they often become violent.


          You are right, and libertarians need to confront this issue, and accomodate a response within whatever theoretical framework they adopt. I suspect that most of us have known someone who is not just eccentric or choosing to live some radical, alternative lifestyle, but flat our crazy. I certainly have.

          Those libertarians, myself included, who cherish individual autonomy must recognize that it is absent here. Chemicals, hormones or something is making decisions for such unfortunes; they are not themselves, and are sometimes a physical threat to others. When they get back on their meds, they are a completely different person. Which is the authentic person, capable of exercising autonomy, and which is the “bizarro” version? That’s pretty clear in my judgment.

          • Puzzled

            If the people you are speaking about lack autonomy, being controlled by neurotransmitters, then so do you and I, and for the same reason. The difference between us on the one hand, and them on the other, then, is that you approve of the decisions my neurotransmitters are making, and not of the decisions theirs are. That you are very tolerant and will tolerate a wide range of behaviors does not falsify this point.

            I don’t think, by the way, that sorting out which is which is quite so simple as you say. By any objective criteria, I’d call most of what we do insane.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I’m sorry, but if you are incapable of distinguishing between people who are in touch with reality and those who are not, who suffer from severely delusional thinking, there is really nothing more I can say to you.

        • Sean II

          I’m afraid turning people over to the scientifically and morally bankrupt psych’ industry is no solution, LKN.

          But having no solution is a very poor reason not to face the problem.

          And the problem, to put it squarely in Long’s terms, is that some portion of humanity are so deficient in the means required for Aristotle’s reasoned speech that it becomes fair to say they don’t have it.

          We can talk of human flourishing all we want, but if some humans are subhumans, and especially if it’s difficult to tell precisely when this is so…then we’ve got a serious problem.

          It isn’t a problem for progressives or neo-conservatives. It’s a problem for us.

    • Of course poor people can be nasty, narcissistic, and petty. So can rich people, especially when you have to work for them. But I’ve known many formerly-homeless or on-the-verge-of-being-homeless people who don’t remotely fit your description.

    • Sean II

      I’m reminded of that scene in Dazed and Confused where the 70s liberal wanna-be-ACLU-lawyer school newspaper nerd confesses, after a visit to the post office which puts him in contact with a few ambassadors from the bottom decile: “…I mean, it sounds nice and all but I really just have to confront the fact that…I DON’T LIKE the people I’ve been talking about helping.”

      I share your experience, and your opinion. Close contact with the poor reveals many of them to be utterly without redeeming feature.

      The thing that always gets to me is the childlike way they try to manipulate anyone foolish enough to come within speaking distance. Their stratagems are so clumsy and obvious, half the time you end up playing along just out of pity. When you don’t do that you get angry, but you realize there is nothing to say, because these are the masters of not listening, not learning.

      My wife struggles with it, too. Sometime she’ll come home from the hospital and talk about how she just saved another person who will consume or destroy 1000 times more value than he could ever have created, even in his best imaginable life.

      Make no mistake: the best cure for a bleeding heart is to spend time among such vampires.

  • Thanks for wrapping up this little schism for my reading pleasure, Mr. Long.

  • Hi Rod,

    This is a terrific post, and there’s a lot to chew on here. As I read it, your central philosophical claim in defense of the NAP is that “To deal with others by force is to act in a subhuman manner.” And I think I disagree with that claim, at least when it is stated in such unqualified form. But that’s an argument that would take a bit more time to develop than I have at my disposal right now.

    For now, I just wanted to point out that my description of the NAP as pertaining to violence comes straight from Rothbard, chapter 2 of FNL:

    The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the “nonaggression axiom.” “Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion.

    So, I might be confused about this point. But if I am, at least I’m in good (bad?) company.

    • To expand a bit. It seems to me that to support the NAP by arguing that dealing with others by force is subhuman is to beg the question. It seems clearly right that *some* ways of using force against others fits this description. To own another person as a chattel slave, for instance, is to treat him as less than human.

      But the key question, it seems to me, is whether taxation for, say, public roads, is like chattel slavery in the relevant respect. Yes, they both involve force. But how *important* is that similarity, morally speaking? If slavery and taxation are alike in that they both involve the use of force, but disagree in the degree of force used, the effect of that force on the well-being or freedom of the person against whom it is used, the importance and “publicness” of the good that the force is aimed at producing, etc., etc., then is it really so clear that we’re forced to give the *same* moral evaluation to each? I guess I don’t think so.

      • My answer, as before, is that inasmuch as protection of rights to external property may involve the use of force against the person, the only way that property rights (of any kind) can be justified under NAP is if external property is an extension of the person, and so inherits the person’s immunity to nonconsensual use. Hence the NAP requires us to construct the boundaries of the self so as to include external property.

        But that doesn’t mean we give the “same moral evaluation” to each. There’s more to moral evaluation than the categories “permitted,” “forbidden,” and “mandatory.” Some forbidden actions are worse than other forbidden actions.

        • Right. But
          (1) It doesn’t seem plausible to me that all the same kinds of moral consideration that support control over our bodies also support control over all the external resources we might happen to own. Some property is intimately connected to our “self” – to our most intimate projects, for instance. Other property doesn’t seem to be.
          (2) Control isn’t an all or nothing affair, of course. And neither are property rights. You can control a resource in a number of respects, while not controlling it in others. I own my house, for instance, but there are certain shades of color that I’m not permitted to paint it. So it’s not enough to argue that we have an interest in controlling our property, one has to argue further for something like *maximal* control.
          (3) And it’s not even obvious that we own *ourselves* in that way, let alone that such ownership rights could be extended to external resources. Again, chattel slavey is an obvious wrong, and an obvious violation of a kind of self-ownership that is clearly very important. But not all infringements of self-ownership strike me as so severe. Prohibitions on my ability to sell my heart, for instance, are a violation of self-ownership. But it’s not obviously *as* objectionable, if it’s objectionable at all, as a prohibition on selling my labor.

          I take your point about “same moral evaluation.” I thought about clarifying this, but decided against it for style, knowing full well that someone would pick up on it. What I meant and should have said was “same deontic status.”

          • With regard to (1) and (2), I’ll just point again to my argument for why, once we grant self-ownership, we cannot justify any property rights unless we construct them as extensions of self-ownership (and so fairly stringent).

            With regard to (3): of course not all violations of self-ownership are equally bad. What i claim is that they’re bad for (some of) the same reasons.

          • Re (3), I meant to express disagreement with even the more moderate claim – that they are all wrong, even if wrong to different degrees.
            Re (1) and (2), can you remind me of where you set out this argument in detail?

      • Ryan Long

        Here’s a question: Need they be given the same moral evaluation? Is it possible that taxation is more immoral than the lack of taxation but also less immoral than a society that neglects to provide institutions for its citizens?

        If the answer to my question is “Yes,” then, at least to me, this implies that society should strive for the lowest level of compulsory taxation possible, up to the point that it can no longer provide citizens with the necessary institutions for it to function. For an anarchist, that might mean transferring the provision of institutions to private organizations. For a minarchist, that might mean providing only the bear minimum institutions required and leaving the rest to private society. My understanding of eudaimonism is that it is a bit of an ongoing conversation, anyway. “Living constitution” and all that.

        • Ryan Long

          More to the point, if a society can provide an institution without compulsory taxation, then levying a tax for that institution is clearly immoral. Only if that society cannot provide a necessary institution except by means of taxation would it be considered moral to do so.

          That’s how I see it, anyway.

    • Yes, Rothbard can be sloppy with terminology. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he, and most other libertarians, usually use “force” rather than “violence.” They sense that “force” is the broader term and more easily adapted to covering theft, fraud, imposition of risk, and the like.

    • Also:

      “As I read it, your central philosophical claim in defense of the NAP is
      that ‘To deal with others by force is to act in a subhuman manner.'”

      But I also claim that that principle is reinforced (by rule-consequentialist considerations) rather than diluted once consequences are taken into account.

  • Well, I haven’t read the full article yet, but there is simply no question Rod Long wins the “Best Section Titles” award hands down…

  • George H. Smith

    Roderick, you wrote: “Here I disagree, by the way, with George Smith’s recent contention that an act can be unjust and yet not morally wrong. Justice is a proper part of virtue, not an alternative to it. As Rothbard writes, “tort or criminal law is a subset of ethics.””

    You have misunderstood Rothbard. In his discussion of lifeboat situations in “The Ethics of Liberty,” Rothbard made exactly the same distinction that I did between the justice of an action and its possible moral permissibility. Quoting:

    The error here on the part of the “contextualist” libertarians is to confuse the question of the moral course of action for the person in such a tragic situation with the totally separate question of whether or not his seizing of lifeboat or plank
    space by force constitutes an invasion of someone else’s property right. For we
    are not, in constructing a theory of liberty and property, i.e., a “political”
    ethic, concerned with all personal moral principles. We are not herewith
    concerned whether it is moral or immoral for someone to lie, to be a good
    person, to develop his faculties, or be kind or mean to his neighbors. We are
    concerned, in this sort of discussion, solely with such “political ethical”
    questions as the proper role of violence, the sphere of rights, or the
    definitions of criminality and aggression. Whether or not it is moral or
    immoral for “Smith”—the fellow excluded by the owner from the plank or the
    lifeboat—to force someone else out of the lifeboat, or whether he should die
    heroically instead, is not our concern, and not the proper concern of a theory
    of political ethics.

    • Well, Rothbard gets it right in the pollution article, and wrong in Ethics of Liberty. A right has two components — an obligation on the part of others to respect the right, and a permission for the rights-holder to enforce that obligation. Or if not, how would you define a right?

      • George H. Smith

        Roderick: To say, as Rothbard did in effect, that a theory of justice is a subset of ethics is not to say that justice should be the overriding concern in every case, such as in lifeboat scenarios. Rights entail a juridical, or enforceable, moral claim, so Rothbard goes on to say (as I did) that a victim of an injustice is owed restitution, and that an aggressor, even if he was actually acting morally to save his life, might be guilty of murder. There was no inconsistency by Rothbard. In the passage I quoted he makes it crystal clear that personal ethics “is not the proper concern of political ethics.” I had a number of personal conversations with Rothbard about this very subject, and he always adhered to that view.

        • So I repeat my question: how does one define a right if one omits the obligation component?

          • It seems Rothbard includes the obligation part. He also recognizes that in emergencies one may renege on one’s obligations. That you HAVE the obligation is why rights are juridically enforceable. That you reasonably renege on some obligations in some emergencies is why it may occasionally be morally permissible to violate rights in certain contexts. If violating a right in an emergency is interpreted as NOT HAVING the obligation (as opposed violating the obligation), then rights can’t do the work they need to do (allow clear rules as to who has say over what).

          • George H. Smith

            You don’t need to omit the obligation component. There can be different obligations, and some of these may conflict. One role of moral reasoning and decision-making is to evaluate the relevant importance of different obligations when not all can be fulfilled.

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  • Ryan Long

    This was a great article, but something struck me when I read it. When you write:

    “But if the NAP needs so much context and nuance (“epicycles,” in Matt’s phrase) to be applied correctly, why not abandon it in favour of some lower-maintenance principle? Well … like what?”

    It strikes me that this criticism is easy to deploy against “bleeding heart libertarianism.” Anyone else agree?

    • Well, my position is a version of BHL, not an alternative to it, so it would be unwise for me to agree.

  • George H. Smith

    Excellent piece, Roderick. You raise some points, especially in the first part, that I will need to think about. I also agree with most of your points about the NAP. Although I agree with Rothbard’s overall approach, he could get a bit careless at times with technical issues and terminology. This may have to do with how quickly he wrote, something I observed first hand in 1980 at an LP convention in California. Murray and I were asked to draft a fairly detailed plank on some topic or other for the LP platform. We agreed, though I have always been anti-political, and we divided the project in half. Murray and I were stuck in a hotel room with two typewriters. I started typing immediately, but Murray wouldn’t write a word until someone brought him a thesaurus — and I mean he just sat there until someone finally located one. By that time I had been typing for around 15 minutes, but when Murray started in with his two-finger, hunt-and-peck method, pausing only to consult the thesaurus fairly often, he wrote at a very fast clip. Despite my head start, Murray finished at least 15 minutes before I did.

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  • Sean II

    Caplan’s “fundamental rule of philosophical reasoning” seems like yet another rhetorical tactic masquerading as an epistemological principle.

    The only time it makes sense to confine oneself to the obvious and shun the obscure is when you’re trying to talk someone into something, more or less without their cooperation*. That’s when you find yourself starting with “Okay…so do you agree slavery is wrong?”, and then set about trying to convince the other person that more things are slavery than they previously realized.

    But if you’re actually trying to figure out why slavery is wrong, and on what grounds, and in relation to what other ideas, there is no reason to limit your search to the obvious. In fact, to do so would be intellectual malpractice.

    * Interestingly, this tactic doesn’t even work very well, it just delays the moment of refusal. If you start out arguing with a progressive and say “national service is a bad idea”, he’ll disagree with you at once. If you ask him to admit that slavery is bad, and then try to convince him that national service is a form of slavery, he’ll call your non-bluff and simply refuse to grant that inference. I remember something like this came up when Caplan commented on The Ethics of Voting. He kept saying how great it was that the book remained grounded in obvious moral truths, because it could therefore “persuade people who don’t already agree with its conclusions.”

    Meanwhile, I kept thinking: “Um…no, that is exactly not going to happen.”

  • This provides a plausible account as to why you should personally abide by the NAP (and defend yourself against breaches of it), but this “personal NAP” does not by itself imply the “political NAP” that libertarians actually believe. Specifically, it gives no guidance as to what to do if strangers are breaching the NAP against other strangers “as far as the eye can see”.

    • martin

      this “personal NAP” does not by itself imply the “political NAP” that libertarians actually believe.

      Why not? What’s the “political NAP” that libertarians believe?

      Specifically, it gives no guidance as to what to do if strangers are breaching the NAP against other strangers “as far as the eye can see”.

      That’s up to you. What’s wrong with that?

      • The political NAP is that no one may initiate force or fraud against any other person, and the defense and justice systems must enforce that principle.

        • martin

          The first part – “no one may initiate force or fraud against any other person” – just *is* the (“personal”) NAP (if not, what is?), the second part – “the defense and justice systems must enforce that principle” – indeed doesn’t follow from the (“personal”) NAP, so why do you think libertarians believe it (the second part)?

          • The first part is not the personal NAP – if it were, it would say “no one should”, not “no one may”. That is, it’s the difference between saying that abiding by the NAP is in one’s properly understood self-interest and saying that force should be used against others to make them abide by the NAP.

            As for the second part, that is the purpose of libertarian legal institutions.

          • martin

            The thing with the NAP is that if you don’t abide by it, you’re – by definition – messing with other people. Those other people are allowed by the NAP (as are you) to defend themselves against that. And they’ll probably be willing to do that (except for some absolute pacifists).

            Libertarian legal institutions and defense systems are just an extension of that self-defense. (But because self-defense isn’t mandatory, it doesn’t follow from the NAP that “defense and justice systems must enforce” it.)

            So the “political” as you call it is already contained in the “personal” NAP.

  • Roderick, isn’t your attempt to ground NAP in eudaimonist equilibration process in tension with the sort of epistemological realism that you generally subscribe to and advocate so well here

    I mean if moral categories are “out there” in their referents like other concepts then the most proper sort of ethics seems to have to start from fundamental insights like the ones about immorality of murder, theft, etc., not from eudaimonia.

    Here I’d suggest that the NAP might be look upon as a non-quantitative inductive generalization from such fundamental cases. This approach BTW would not rule out eudaimonia, but as an end point of moral inquiry.

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  • Would restating the NAP: “Only defensive force is justifiable.” be an improvement?

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