Home > Anarchism and Voluntaryism > Morality and the non-aggression principle

Morality and the non-aggression principle

How does one define morality? Do we all have different morals? Is there universally-preferable behaviour, or is all moralising just opinion? These are difficult questions, and will likely be debated for centuries to come. Philosophies of liberty are based on the idea that freedom of the individual and his or her property are universal. The prevailing idea among anarchists is the non-aggression principle, or NAP.

According to the non-aggression principle, all aggression, or initiation of force, is illegitimate. It prohibits the threat or actual use of violence or force against people who have not initiated force against others, and are unwilling to be forced. It is encapsulated in the golden rule, do to others as you would have them do to you.

The NAP is a simple, universalist standard of morality. Not everyone adheres to or even agrees with it, but it is the moral basis for a stateless society. It is a law based not on the calculations of a politician but on the ideals of peace and self defense, property, justice, freedom and responsibility.

The NAP grants property rights. By property, I mean the money one has been given through legitimate (voluntary, peaceful, as opposed to forced) means, the property he has acquired by spending that money, and the products of his own labour. One’s body is also one’s own property, which means he decides what gets done to his body. If he wants to get a tattoo, he should be free to do so. If he wants to smoke marijuana, or even crack-cocaine, again, he should be free to do so. If he harms other people because he is intoxicated, the crime is not the taking of intoxicants but the initiation of violence against others.

According to the NAP, forcing someone, even one’s sister, to wear a headscarf is immoral. Forcing her to take it off is as well. Forcing someone to eat or drink something is immoral, because it is a violation of one’s ownership of one’s own body; forcing them not to take drugs likewise violates the principle.

Products of one’s own labour are one’s property. Things acquired illegitimately are not. By way of example, imagine Tom walks into the wilderness, builds his own home and starts a farm. He has transformed the land into something useful and valuable. He deserves it; it now belongs to him. Then, imagine Derek comes along and seizes an acre of his land. What claim does Derek have to that land? Tom, in fact, has the right to defend his property, as he does himself.

Derek claims that property is theft, because Tom is forcing Derek off his land. However, the land would have been useless without the labour Tom put in. Labouring in a factory brings money that can be used to buy food. Labouring on a farm brings the food. Derek is trying to force Tom to give up property previously unowned and useless to anyone, which Tom transformed into something useful. He is trying to steal that something. Tom is merely protecting the fruits of his labour.

If theft is defined as taking another’s property without that person’s consent, and one’s property includes anything one has earned (including money) or made useful through one’s own labour, Derek is stealing from Tom. Tom, on the other hand, has not stolen from anyone, because no one had any legitimate claim over the land before he came along.

Likewise, if Tom is willing to sell Matt his land and Matt is willing to pay his asking price with money he attained through voluntary transactions, Tom’s property can become Matt’s. Tom’s labour created the property and Matt’s labour brought the money to buy it legitimately. Thus, property is not theft.

If there is a child playing on the train tracks and a train is coming, is it wrong to save the child? Of course not. Non-aggression is about consent. If the child would, at some time in his or her life, thank you for initiating force, it is not immoral to have helped him. If his parents thank you, it is not immoral. (Of course, this brings up questions of whether a child is property, in what respects and until what age; it also brings up the question of the morality of preventing suicide. These are details this blog does not go into.)

It is not immoral to govern a population that gladly and willingly consents to being governed. If people want to live under the gun, they should be allowed to. However, what if even one person is both peaceful and unwilling? What if he is unwilling to give his property to support a system he disagrees with? What if one person wants to opt out of a system under which he does not want to live? Is it right to disregard this person? Is it right to let the collective decide for the individual against his will? Not if the non-aggression principle holds.

An individual, or any other minority, is equally deserving of universal rules of morality. Morality must be universal, because all humans are equally deserving of the basic rights to live according to what they see as right, provided they do not harm others. In fact, morality can scarcely be said to be moral if it applies double standards, affording some people certain rights over others. If a system privileges the majority, giving them rights to deprive the minority of its life, freedom or anything it acquired through voluntary means, it is immoral. As Gandhi (himself an anarchist) once said, “In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place.”

The myth of the social contract

For the past three hundred years, man has heard the suggestions of a wide variety of philosophers. One influential idea was that of the social contract. The social contract states that the people in a given territory submit to the will of the state; and in return, the state provides protection to the people.

But what is a contract? A contract is an agreement consciously and willingly entered into by two or more parties. No one signed a contract agreeing to submit to the laws passed by politicians. It is irrelevant whether the politicians were elected or not, or by how many votes. Democracy or dictatorship, if an individual is not willing to submit to this so-called contract, there is nothing moral about forcing him into it.

The book No Treason: the Constitution of No Authority by Lysander Spooner (available in full here) spells out with expert logic the irrelevance of the social contract as a contract. “The Constitution [of the United States] has no inherent obligation or authority” he begins. And he is right. After all, I have never even been asked if I would like to follow any law, nor have I ever seen this contract apparently signed on my behalf. For this contract to be moral according to the NAP, every single citizen of every country would have to consent to living under the country’s legal system. It is null for everyone who does not sign it.

And yet, because a small group of men wrote a document over 200 years ago, 300m people are subject to the violence of every single law passed by a small clique of decision makers. The notion of the social contract suits the state, because there is no chance to opt out of and end the contract. But it does not suit the dissenting individual or persecuted minority. And it is clearly not a contract.

Taxation is the initiation of force. If any person being taxed is unwilling to pay taxes or is unwilling to pay as much as he or she is paying, taxes are force. Thus, the manner in whichever a government acquires its funding is force. (See my post on taxation for a fuller discussion.)

To say that everyone should be forced to pay taxes, or else they should not be allowed to use the services government provides, has things backwards. The people who initiate force are the ones committing the immoral act. Thus, the onus is on those forcing others, and those supporting the forcing of others, to explain to the people why they should be willing to be forced.

Likewise, it does not follow that someone who does not like the system should just move. The analogy of paying rent does not follow, because neither the government nor the population own the country and the citizens are not tenants. If a man built or bought his house, he has already paid and has no further rent to pay. Telling someone he should move if he does not like it is akin to saying he should be charged rent at a house he already owns.

Some anarchists consider voting the initiation of force. If I vote, I attempt to force my preferred electoral candidate, along with his or her policies, on the population at large. People who follow the NAP would not want to force policies on any peaceful person. (Find more on this subject here.)

Anarchism means no rulers, no overarching force that can legitimately initiate force against entire populations. It means that people are free to engage in any actions that do not initiate force against others. Anarchists thus oppose any person or organisation that attempts to impose its will on others by force, be they a controlling husband, a gang or a government.

Self defense is legitimate. A world where at least one percent of humans are psychopaths requires vigilance to defend one’s life, liberty and property against those who would attack, steal and kill. It is also right to defend other innocent people against the same forms of aggression, provided they have not given and would not give their consent to the aggressors.

Naturally, there are difficult questions, to be answered case by case, as to when violence is aggressive and when it is defensive. The history of Israel is a tale of tens of thousands of deaths at the hands of people who thought they were only defending innocents. Is it right to steal from a thief? Is it right to kill a murderer? Revenge is understandable, and even rational (to prevent further attacks), though as a moral question, again, it depends. (I write more on the subject of Israel and the policy of revenge here.)

It has been said that libertarianism (within which anarchists can count themselves) is the radical notion that other people are not your property. What is meant by that? It means that no one can decide what is right for a peaceful person of sound mind except the individual him or herself. Not violating the life, liberty and property of innocents is a moral duty. Obedience to laws and orders is not.

The rule of law is, do whatever the political class tells you to do or risk violence. The rule of freedom is, initiating violence against unwilling and peaceful people is immoral. Some communities, such as Grafton, Keene and Yubia, are built around strict adherence to the NAP. As an anarchist, I believe society should put non-aggression at the centre of its philosophy.

  1. February 13, 2012 at 4:05 am

    “Naturally, there are difficult questions, to be answered case by case, as to when violence is aggressive and when it is defensive.” by whom, you’ve got no state? And what if the two people involved disagree on the answer to the difficult question, as they probably will. Probably you end up with each “defending” himself in a way that appears to be “aggression” to the other.

  2. February 13, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    Well, that is the subject of a future post, but a stateless society would need dispute resolution. So, like we have now, there would be arbiters and dispute resolution organisations. I haven’t thought it through as much as this guy –>http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig6/molyneux1.html.

    • James
      February 28, 2012 at 2:46 am

      I loaded up the comments to quote the same thing as Jason and ask the same question. I’ve been looking for an open minded anarchist to answer this question (Molyneux does not) and would be interested in anything written about this. Especially something that addresses how property acquisition (homesteading) and ownership can be defined without a coercive entity. The act of defining one’s own land is a coercive act as it forces others to respect that land without their consent. As soon as someone supports your claim to that land you have become a state enforcing your system of right and wrong onto other people. This fact is not negated just because your NAP says its okay, since the NAP itself is as subjective as any other system of right and wrong.

      • February 28, 2012 at 11:20 am

        Hi James,

        Yes, your concern is valid and in my opinion is very difficult to answer (so I might not give a satisfactory response). It is essentially the anarcho-communist view–the defense of property is coercive. And I have sympathy for that view, as contrary perhaps to what I write about, I consider myself an anarchist without adjectives.

        The first thing I will say is that I have no problem whatsoever with communally-owned property. The problem, however, is when people one does not know or trust want to come and take it, or invade it, or something similar. People need to be able to defend their own security. Defense of property is not necessarily defending one’s security, but it might be. After all, if you can shoot at me, I want to defend as large an area as I can from you. And if I suspect you might want to shoot me (eg. you are a cop), I will not let you on my property. This idea of defending one’s property I think is related to the idea of prison. I expect a stateless society will still have prisons, because they clearly have a function. Forcibly locking someone away is like keeping them off everyone’s property so that they cannot hurt anyone. Again, this is a case-by-case issue.

        I think ownership can be quite easily defined, in the sense that we can know what is whose. (Please tell me if you disagree.) Jason’s question is, how will we decide who is right, who is the aggressor, etc. without a state? Again, it’s tough. We would probably have some kind of system, with a database, with a record of the contracts and crimes of all people who submitted to it. I would not do business with people who did not want to be in the database, because I would not know if he or she is trustworthy (unless I had good reason to know he was, like if he was my friend). That way, when a dispute of some kind arises, we can go to arbiters and tell our stories, and the arbiters can decide something. The weakness of arbiters is that they cannot use force. However, perhaps they can. As Molyneux and Murray Rothbard explain in their discussions of the subject, these dispute resolution organisations (DROs) can be part of a network, where they agree to cooperate, along with private security firms (which may be part of the DROs), which would also be part of the arbitration. At some point, there would be a final decision, because the firms would decide, based on principles, who will get awarded the settlement. How do I know it would be based on principles? Because if it were not, people would no longer give that DRO their business anymore.

        I realise that these answers do not necessarily satisfy but there are two things to bear in mind. First, in a stateless society, there are as many ideas as there are people. My ideas are not definitive, and of course I would only be one person among the masses who would have ideas on what to do. Second, the point is to give people the freedom to try these things out for themselves. If they do, perhaps this system will fail and they will need to come up with a new one. All that is fine; as long as they are not initiating force, the system is moral. Have I answered your questions?

        I disagree that the NAP is arbitrary morality. In fact, its universality is why I like it. Let’s take a system that said rape was ok. How could rape ever be ok to both parties involved? Either it is consensual, which means it is not rape, or one party does not consent, which means it is rape and the initiation of violence. If 100% of people agree to have force initiated against them, fine. It is a consensual relationship. But if even one person does not give consent and wants to opt out, how could it be moral?

  3. James
    February 29, 2012 at 5:02 am

    Menso, thanks for the response. I’ll admit some of it is over my head, I’m not familiar with anarcho-communism and when I loaded up the wiki it said that they want to abolish the state as well as private property. I see how this could be similar to what I’m saying, which is that property itself requires a state to be defined and enforced. I would much prefer, from a utilitarian perspective, we have private property and a state that maximizes individual liberty as its highest virtue. The thesis of what I’m wondering is, how is property defined and enforced without a state? It’s the state that defines property and enforces it in our society.

    I know how the story goes, an anarchist can’t say how it would be done because there would be millions of free minds trying to solve the problem. Innovation! It seems indisputable to me that in order to defend a piece of land from people who don’t think you own it, you need to use force on those people. If a group of people do this, though, they become a state. You would be establishing a regional monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

    There is no objective land rules. There is no objective definition to the concepts of homesteading and security via proximity. Sure we can establish these norms as a culture like we have, but if you enforce them, even once, with force you’re a state.

    It seems like a really good idea to me to get together and come up with these land rules. Although, I see the disgusting side effects of owning land and resources but I also don’t think there is a real solution.

  4. March 1, 2012 at 11:11 am

    I like the idea that the state limits itself to the protection of property and liberty. I don’t think a limited state is possible, however. Look at the project known as the United States of America. It started with the ideal of limited government and has become one of the greatest threats to life and liberty on the planet.

    It is certainly a hard question, but I think like all important issues, it is resolvable. There is always a stateless solution. It just takes discussion, imagination and ingenuity. I don’t mind that there are no land rules. If there were, they would not be negotiable. In a stateless society, people would be able to decide what they agree with and what they do not. I think it would be far more consensual than where we live today.

  5. June 27, 2013 at 11:30 am

    Good read. Non aggression is rooted in the Islamic guidelines.

  1. June 18, 2012 at 1:09 pm
  2. July 9, 2012 at 3:32 pm
  3. July 11, 2012 at 6:54 pm
  4. August 6, 2012 at 2:03 pm
  5. August 13, 2012 at 10:34 pm
  6. September 5, 2012 at 11:59 am
  7. October 3, 2012 at 12:52 am
  8. October 5, 2012 at 8:06 pm
  9. May 19, 2013 at 10:31 am

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