I have been asked to provide comment to a series of posts by Walter Block at the LRC blog. From part I and the issue – the topic under discussion:
If the Martians threaten to blow up our entire planet unless someone kills innocent person Joe, it is murder to do so, but it would not be wrong to murder him, paradoxically, saving all others except for him.
Normally I don’t involve myself in such discussions; I am much more focused on finding liberty and not purifying libertarian theory beyond the point that is meaningful to life. It seems to me that we have achieved the point where culture and tradition will decide such things, not application of theory.
Having said this, I am very glad that I read the posts. Buried in these was a real gem by Walter. From part IV, the reframing of the NAP:
A more sophisticated understanding of libertarianism does not say, with the NAP: “Thou shalt not murder, initiate violence against innocent persons or their legitimate possessions.” Rather, it states, that if you do, you will be punished in accordance with libertarian punishment theory.
Hans Hoppe raised a similar point a year ago (at least that’s when I first internalized the idea), when he cited a portion of the Decalogue as foundational to liberty, granting that this suggested nothing about punishment for the various transgressions:
However, the ten commandments do not say anything about the severity and suitable punishment of violations of its various commands. They proscribe all mentioned activities and desires, but they leave open the question of how severely any of them deserves to be punished.
Daniel Ajamian incorporated this idea at AERC last March, crediting Hoppe for the insight and paraphrasing Hoppe’s point:
The question for the libertarian as libertarian: does the violation rise to the point of requiring formal, physical punishment?
Now, Walter has offered and extended the same point. Perhaps others have made the point as well; I am only offering when and where I have come across it. But this point sits quite well with me, as it removes the impossibility of trying to fit the square peg of the NAP into the round hole of a complete moral code, instead limiting it to the role of strictly identifying when punishment is justified, to include – of course – when violence in defense is justified.
This, to me, is the most important point to come out of this series of posts by Walter. I do not want to let it pass lightly. This is a more sophisticated understanding of the NAP – as a guideline for when punishment is justified, not merely “don’t hit first, don’t take my stuff.”
But what of the discussion that brought this on, and, I suspect, the reason I was asked to provide comment? Walter has entitled the series “Murder Is Always A Violation of the NAP, But It Is Not Always Wrong.”
In the example given, I agree that murdering Joe is a violation of the NAP – and such a murder is deserving of physical punishment. But what of the second part of Walter’s statement – that it is not always wrong? The answer to this really depends on where and how one finds the line dividing right from wrong. If one finds that line solely in the NAP, then it is wrong.
Walter suggests that the line is elsewhere, as he does not see that a violation of the NAP is always “wrong.” For this, one must ask: on what do you base your moral code? (I have made my argument for natural law here.)
The answer to this question will not be found in the NAP, unless one limits his moral code to this (as I have often argued, this thin moral code is not sufficient for liberty). But it need not be found in the NAP if one views the NAP solely for the purpose of justifiable punishment or self-defense – as Walter has reframed the purpose of the principle.
In fact, to frame this question as an issue for the NAP to resolve (as if the NAP offered a complete moral code) only degrades and cheapens the NAP in the eyes of many. For example, take Walter’s “Defending the Undefendable” series. If one reads these as NAP-approved moral behaviors, one would rightly say “libertarianism is not for me.” But if one reads these as issues to be considered for punishment, then an entirely new world opens up – not inconsistent with the example of Jesus and the adulteress in the Gospel of John. The way Walter has reframed it opens the door for the latter, closing it on the former.
So, to answer if it is wrong fully depends on the societal moral code. Walter does not find it wrong. I, personally, find it wrong for many reasons – not the least of which: I find it inconsistent with natural law. Further, I would never trust someone who made such a demand to be ethical enough to keep his end of the bargain. But further still, this is like being asked by a thug which one of your children he should kill; for me, he will get no help in doing his dirty deed – I will not be a party to such a crime. The thug will kill the other child, leaving the parent with explaining to the one left alive why he chose her to die.
But a better argument is from Infinity Wars:
One of the Infinity Stones is in Vision’s head. But when he suggests that Scarlet Witch destroy it, and likely kill him in the process, Captain America says, “We don’t trade lives.”
Now, based on the outcome of that story, maybe Walter is right. Thanos ended up getting the stone anyway and using it to destroy half of all life in the universe – close enough to Walter’s example. Then again, by sticking to this moral code, the Avengers were able to trust each other enough and regroup, coming out victorious in Endgame.
But me? Actually, there is an even better argument, from a much better source: Jesus told the parable of the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep to save the one. Every life is precious, and I have no reason to make a deal with anyone – Martian or otherwise – holding such a price over my head.
To be clear: both Walter and I are answering this question not as libertarian theoreticians or philosophers, but ethical philosophers. So, take my comments with several grains of salt. Unfortunately, this is the field in which the question must be answered.
Back to what I found most important in this conversation: reframing the NAP as a guideline for justifiable punishment cleans up so many unnecessary arguments about the NAP, removes so many unnecessary burdens from the NAP, eliminates from the NAP a need to carry a yoke beyond its limits.
Both Walter and Hans have offered this point. They are easily two of the top five libertarian thinkers alive in the world today (and don’t ask me for my list). Such a reframing would contribute greatly toward a more sophisticated understanding of what it takes to form a society that would move toward liberty.
And, ultimately, isn’t that the objective?