UPDATED and moved to the top (4/23), again on (4/27)
Last Monday, I published an essay on Libertarianism.org laying out a brief case against the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). It kicked off a bit of debate, so here is a (selective) summary of what’s gone on in the last week.
David Gordon responded by saying that the NAP is just fine. What counts as aggression isn’t just a matter of logic; it’s partly settled by convention. So the more extreme absolutist implications I attributed to the NAP don’t follow. And even NAPpers can hold that starving babies is murder, and a violation of their rights. I wasn’t convinced. But David has had the last word, for now.
Jason Kuznicki thinks that the NAP is silly if it is taken as a complete and literal model of reality. But, then again, so is Newtonian physics. Still, that doesn’t mean we should reject Newtonian physics. And we shouldn’t reject the NAP either, once we recognize its limits as a model.
Julian Sanchez thinks things are worse for the NAP than Jason realizes. At best, the NAP is a rough-and-ready principle that is ultimately dependent for its meaning and justification on an underlying theory of property rights. But really, the NAP isn’t a principle at all. Since what libertarians really mean by “aggression” is just “rights-violations,” the NAP amounts to little more than the claim that it individuals have a right not to have their rights violated. True enough, but hardly illuminating. David Gordon was not convinced.
Finally, this morning at Libertarianism.org, George H. Smith (whose new book you should really, really buy) begins what he describes as “at least” a two part series responding to my piece. He starts by wondering what I propose to replace the NAP with. If my goal is simply to replace an absolutist version of the NAP with a less-absulte presumption of liberty, then how is that different from the (ultimately failed) classical liberal approach of Madison et al.? He then argues that some of my more general claims about the NAP are false. The NAP is about force, not violence. It is about justice, not morality. And it is not a purely deductive theory, but one that relies heavily on convention. Finally, he distinguishes between two ways of dealing with purported counterexamples to the NAP – the first involves admitting that the principle does really have exceptions (i.e. that not all aggression is unjust); while the second involves arguing that apparent exceptions are not really exceptions at all, once we understand how the NAP applies to particular cases in the light of various intermediary principles such as that of tacit consent. George’s first response doesn’t get around to addressing any of the counterexamples I put forth in my original piece, but one can assume, I think, that it’s going to be some variant of this second strategy that he employs when he does.
And that’s the state of the debate! More to come, soon.
My response to George Smith’s first essay is now up at Libertarianism.org, in which I take up the comparison George (rather inexplicably, IMO) invited me to draw between the immorality of the minimum wage and the immorality of rape.
And George’s second essay is also up. In it, he takes on the second of the 6 points I raised in my initial essay – that the Non-Aggression Principle prohibits even trivial instances of aggression that produce very large benefits.
George and also have an extended discussion in the comments thread here, in which some of the areas of overlap and disagreement between our views seem (to me) to become somewhat clearer.
My last posts failed to mention Brian Kogelman‘s post on Epicycles and Non-Aggression. And, of course, I should also mention Jason Brennan‘s and Kevin Vallier‘s contributions right here at BHL. The former takes on the seemingly absolutist implications of the NAP with respect to property rights, and challenges Smith’s skeptical take on thought experiments. The latter challenges the suitability of the NAP to serve as a foundational principle of libertarian justice, on the grounds that it is neither comprehensive nor ultimate.
Jan Lester defends the NAP along with a corollary that tells us to try to maximize freedom in cases of conflict.