Friday, December 27, 2019

Reframing the Non-Aggression Principle

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?


  1. Very interesting read!

    I agree with you that from a moral perspective, a Christian one anyway, killing one innocent to save the rest is wrong.

    But I think this is an instance where the NAP can easily handle whether or not Joe's killer (the murderer) should be punished. The NAP basically says that you forfeit your rights to the extent you deprive another of his. If you kill an innocent, you've deprived them of their rights completely, and thus forfeited completely your own. It doesn't say anything about it being okay when it might save the lives of other adjacent people. In fact, Rothbard refutes this position explicitly in one of his essays on war when he explains why you can't kill innocent third parties in the attempt to bring a guilty party to justice.

    In Block's wacky scenario, the man who killed Joe would be guilty of murder and should be punished according to whatever legal codes/associations protected Joe.

    In short, yes the murderer should be punished even though he saved many people. The ends don't justify the means. He aggressed against another, therefore he is punished. This is as rudimentary as it gets in the libertarian playbook. That Walter would get this wrong is unbelievable.

    What's more, by Block's logic, unless I'm mistaken, we should celebrate Judas, Caiaphas, and Pilate for their roles in murdering the innocent Jesus, and thereby saving the rest of mankind (should we be wise enough to accept him as our Lord and Savior)

    The correct solution to Walter's problem from a strict adherence to the NAP (if the Martian's word could be trusted and their military superiority was absolute) is that someone would sacrifice himself by killing Joe and then accepting the just punishment for the aggression.

    Of course, I'm of the mind to just say "F___ off Martians! Come and get Joe!"

    Merry Christmas!

    1. I do believe Walter recognized that Joe's killer would have to face the consequences of his action. Maybe I mis-read some of his comments on this.

    2. Okay that makes sense.

      I wonder if he's going to take us up on writing the "Undefending the Defendable" book, wherein he would show (with logic based solely on the NAP) how free trade, *open immigration, religious freedom, freedom of speech, sound money, recreational drugs, prostitution, and other conditions or behaviors generally considered part of a libertarian society could be effectively curtailed or outlawed.

      * I don't believe open immigration is the libertarian position, but many do, including Block, so I think it would be a worthwhile chapter in the book.

    3. I believe Walter could write on all of these strictly from a private property angle. However I am not sure that this is enough: everyone who has entered into a complicated contract knows that not every eventuality can be covered and that the goodwill of all parties is necessary when it comes to future interpretation of unexpected events, etc. Goodwill meaning, in this context, common cultural and traditional grounding.

      This is where I have been struggling through, and now where it appears Engel also is - per my comments here:

    4. True. More is needed, specifically something contained within the culture, custom and traditional faith of Western Christianity I would say.

      There is a vacancy, as far as I'm aware, for a book which 1) details how this 'more' can be reconciled within a libertarian political framework (providing a few theoretical examples based on historical approximations) addressing both 2) why this political theory of governance is best for enjoying and preserving a society with 'more' and 3) why this 'more' is so necessary to achieving and maintaining this sort of political order. So regardless of whether this 'more' is your means or your end it is vitally important and intertwined with the pursuit of liberty and should be upheld and defended with great courage and conviction.

      But Walter wouldn't be the one to write that book. It's not what he knows. That's up to someone like you! Well I think your first book does a good job of handling #3. Perhaps your continuing discussions with C.J. Engel will stimulate a book on #1 and #2?

      Or maybe it will lead you to abandoning libertarianism altogether. Either way, I'll still respect your opinion and the great discussions you inspire here at the blog.

    5. ATL, what I meant to suggest by Walter writing the book is that he would say as long as everything is captured beforehand in a voluntarily agreed contract, then these various restrictions / stipulations will fit in a libertarian framework. My response is that not all eventualities can be captured beforehand, to which he would reply that there would be some sort of final arbitration clause to clean up the mess.

      But it seems so much simpler to me if "how things are done around here" (the culture and traditions) are generally respected and well-known.

      In any case, C. Jay is on the right track, and he has far more depth institutionally than I have. To the extent my dialogue with him and other writing that I do helps to move things along, that would be great.

  2. "Shall we do evil so that good may come?"--Paul, an apostle

    This "situational ethic" puts a whole different light on the idea that one man should die in order to save the whole world. Kudos to ATL for recognizing that. Let's hear it for Joe, the newest reincarnation of Jesus the Christ!!

    What would have transformed this hypothesis into a world-changing dynamic is that Joe, knowing that he must die, would simply volunteer to sacrifice his life in order that the rest of humanity could live. He could give his life instead of having it taken from him. Joe could forgive his killer(s) as he was dying, knowing that his sacrifice was not in vain and that redemption for the murderer(s) was possible.

    This raises the question. What was Joe doing with his life that would concern the Martians so greatly? There is only one possible answer--he was an existential threat to the established system of power and control, again a direct resemblance to Jesus. What astounds me is that Walter Block, perhaps unknowingly, would promote such an obvious comparison to Christianity. Wonders never cease!

    On a more mundane level, this smacks of the "greater good" belief so common among men. We have to weigh the benefits against the costs and determine the best course of action in order to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Inevitably, under such a system, someone has to pay the price whether he wants to or not. Individual rights do not matter, only societal obligations. This concentrates power into the hands of those who can convince the most people that their determination of the greatest good is the correct one. This determination is always in flux and it always causes loss, pain, and hardship on the part of those who are not asked, but told that they must sacrifice. For the good of everyone else, of course.

    I much prefer Jesus.

    1. "I much prefer Jesus"

      Yeah sorry Joe, I'm going to have to agree with Roger here. Jesus' story (and reality) is, and this may be an understatement, a bit more compelling.