Discovering Libertarianism - Non-Aggression Principle Introduction

Matthew Gold
Apr 1, 2012 at 11:57 AM

The fundamental monolith of libertarian morality is the non-aggression principle (NAP), also known as the non-aggression axiom. The NAP is the idea that it is wrong to initiate physical force, threats of force, or lies against others. As such, self-defense and peaceful coexistence and interaction is moral, and attacking others or manipulating people is immoral. This has also been referred to as “Kindergarden Morality,” as it rings home with what we are all taught when we are young -- don’t hit others, don’t threaten others, don’t lie to others. In as much that people have a right to self-ownership, the NAP follows with necessity, as it is the basic moral framework that enables interaction with others while not infringing upon their rights, which are equal to the rights that you yourself have.

Most people would, at the most basic level, accept that the Non-aggression principle is generally correct, not because it is true a priori, but because it appeals to basic moral intuitions with which we were born. The thing about natural law moral axioms such as the NAP, though, is that they are always true:  Whether or not we agree with it, the irreducible logical consistency of the NAP dictates that it is in fact true. The NAP is  deontological, in that morality is determined based upon an objective duty (being the NAP itself).

There are schools of morality that many believe and agree with, that if true would risk undermining the validity of the NAP. These fail basic intellectual standards of rigor, though, upon close inspection. Opposed to deontological ethics are the schools of Consequentialism which consider actions to be right if they produce the best actual or expected results.   Act Utilitarianism states that an action is right if maximizes overall well-being.  This can be disproven at its core quite simply; actions that we would all deem to be morally reprehensibly, such as 51% ruling that 49% should be killed, may be considered moral under the utilitarian framework, assuming that the 51% gain more pleasure from killing than the 49% lose by dying.

The most important criticism though, is that these ends-focused philosophical frameworks create an impossible position of trying to calculate the goodness of the end result.  We cannot gain “1 unit of utility,” which makes these ideas ultimately dependent on personal opinion.  Act Utilitarianism presupposes that freedom of action is bad because it can result in less than optimal outcomes: Don’t watch television because you could be doing charity work, but don't do charity because you could donate and do charity work, but don't donate and do charity because you could give a kidney, too, and this continues ad infinitum. Because we cannot know all possible outcomes, act utilitarianism is self contradictory because nothing can be truly moral.

The other major subset of utilitarianism is Rule Utilitarianism, which argues that actions are moral if they follow a greater rule which leads to the most good -- it would be possible for libertarianism to adhere to rule utilitarianism, but we take one step further and eliminate the unnecessary calculation of utility. In addition to problem of calculating utility, there is another major flaw with Rule Utilitarianism:  It becomes the same as Act Utilitarianism, which we have already refuted. David Lyons explains that this is because:

For any given rule, in the exceptional case where breaking the rule produces more utility, the rule can always be sophisticated by the addition of a sub-rule that handles cases like the exception. But the validity of this process on the utilitarian framework holds for all cases of exceptions, and so the ‘rules’ will have as many ‘sub-rules’ as there are exceptional cases, which, in the end, is to abandon the rule and be guided by the principle of utility, to seek out whatever outcome produces the maximum utility.

Because we have already established that the only logical result of self-ownership is indeed the non-aggression principle, you may perhaps see where this is going:   The State undermines self-ownership, property rights, and the foundations of natural law -- and therein lies one of our biggest qualms with the state.