The Poverty of Ethics: Dissecting the Non-aggression Principle

Zak Drabczyk Featured, The Commune 3 Comments

Introduction

Ethics is defined as:

“a system of moral principles.”

or

“the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular classof human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.”

- http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ethics?s=t

The question is, what role should ethics play in human interaction and the human experience? Ethics has an important place in directing human interaction towards mutually beneficial and cooperative engagement. However, there are clear and poignant reasons why property based ethics or ethics enshrined as absolutely objective should be rejected if not contested.

The Non-aggression Principle

Murray Rothbard

A common ethical point, the Non-aggression Principle (NAP), briefly mentioned in my previous article (see The Free State Project: The Future of White America), has become a centerpiece of the bourgeois moral framework in the ‘Liberty Movement’. The NAP has been praised by modern Voluntaryists such as Stephan Kinsella and others within groups like the Free State Project.

Murray Rothbard, a leading theoretician among ‘Anarcho’ – Capitalists and Voluntaryists writes of the NAP:

“No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.” – War, Peace, and the State

Proponents of the NAP

Proponents of the Non-aggression Principle will laud around a few benefits that might exist in a world absent of how they define ‘aggression.

First, there is the issue of victim-less crimes. Proponents would argue that in the world where everyone adheres to the NAP, illegitimate coercion could not exist and the modern corrupt ‘justice’ system would be done away with. What is important to realize is that this is only partly true. The NAP does not seek to eliminate ‘force’ but simply change the agent(s) of force and redefine what it means to ‘aggress’. Victim-less crimes like squatting could be considered heinous trespasses in the world of the NAP and the property owner would have every right to dispose of those who would trespass on his property. This also extends to the use of absentee land or resources. If an individual were to use water from a river ‘owned’ by Mr. Voluntary, that resource is an extension of himself and Mr. Voluntary would be in his right to  deal quick ‘justice’ to any of those who use ‘his’ property.

Proponents also suggest the NAP could solve (or rather, mitigate) the social constraints inflicted by the state. Many of these restraints include taxes, excessive regulation, cronyism etc. The real issue here is that the NAP focuses only on the symptoms, not the disease. The institution of the state is only a tool used to enforce class dominance. It was the bourgeois revolutions of the late 18th early 19th centuries that gave birth to the regulatory state we know today. Only by tackling the estrangement of humans through dismantling capitalist property relations can we hope to rid ourselves of the state and its mechanisms of suppression. Unfortunately, the proponents of the NAP are entirely ignorant of this and thus possess no way of actually solving for the oppression in the status quo.

As seen before in history, as long as Capitalism exists in some form, so will a way to enforce private ownership. The abject rejection of the state will only transform current state mechanisms into more socially acceptable, yet equally brutal, tools of class domination.

So in all actuality, NAP proponents do not seek to change the social structure, but rather reinterpret what it means to ‘aggress’ and shift the weight of institutionalized violence to more private and subtle agents.

Analysis

Overall, the NAP is a heavily loaded concept. Allow me to unpack the NAP in a Marxian fashion.

First and foremost, there is the issue of property. In ‘Libertarian’ philosophy, private property is considered an extension of self-ownership, which is key to rational self-interest wherein lies the locomotive of all other ‘Libertarian’ discourse. The reality of private property is much different. Private property, or the exclusive holding of productive means or instruments, is the cornerstone of Capitalism. Thus, the entirety of the NAP can be broken down into a clear and obvious reaction towards tenets of social ownership or those that preclude expropriation.

This is essential to understanding the classes that benefit from the NAP; clearly, the capitalist and bourgeois classes that already have a strangle hold on the means of production. The NAP is just a tool for them to exert their class dominance over those who lack capital and must sell their labor-power to subsist. The anti-state reductionism only distracts observers from the real genus of social antagonisms, which is the capitalist property relations. The NAP legitimizes such unconscionable exploitation (or all action that is considered ‘voluntary’) by separating socio-economic action from the context of material conditions. In doing so, the physical resistance to the hellish alienation perpetuated by Capital Hegemony, the only rational conclusion in this brutal class conflict, is made the ‘other’.

Analysis

This is the poverty of ethics.

It simply becomes a tool for class dominance. Obviously, there is a clear need for ethics, but an ethics that recognize property as equally valuable to human life, is one that will only serve to enslave humanity.  The subordination of people to ‘things’ is the absolute pinnacle of capitalist alienation and is only made moral through ethical interpretations like the NAP.

This does not mean to say there is no moral or ethical duty to non-aggression. In a dialectical sense, the point of Communism is to realize a stateless and classless society without the alienation of previous systems. This would have to preclude some sort of condemnation for unwarranted aggression. The difference lies in the nature of a Marxist or liberation ethics vs. property ethics. A Marxist ethics would presume a dialectical nature. Meaning that the goal of human liberation would be unchanging, the axiom of ‘good’ whereas interpretations of ethical action outside of that axiom would necessarily fluctuate to accommodate the change in material conditions. The context of this ethics is supremely important as well as the philosophic foundations from which it emerges.

E.g. Murray Rothbard was a chief proponent of the NAP, he also co-founded the CATO Institute with billionaire Charles Koch who continues to use both CATO and libertarian ethics to justify things like sweat-shops.

One reason why Marx spent so little ‘moralizing’ (besides the subtle denouncements of alienation and exploitation) was because it easily distracts observers from the genus of ‘wrong’.

The primary goal of a revolutionary should be not to interpret the world, but to change it. To change the material conditions and social structures that dominate the landscape. This means destroying Capitalism and with it the source of most of the ‘wrong’ and social excess that exists today.

Conclusion 

A world without aggression would certainly be a better one. A world without ‘aggression’ as interpreted by the capitalist class looking to preserve their privilege is one that cannot be much different (or better) than the status quo.

The primary message of this article should be don’t be distracted by a bourgeois attempt to detract from the moral imperative of resisting Capitalism.

The NAP more than any ethical point I have seen, expresses all the familiar nuances of class domination and legitimizing overt oppression.  It is for this reason that I wish to denounce the NAP as being no more than a tool of the capitalist social order. A social order which seeks self-preservation even if it means adopting a cloak of ‘liberty’ and ‘voluntary exchange’ which will always be alien in the universe of private property.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” – Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach

Author: Zak Drabczyk
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An "Eclectic Marxist" of sorts. I consider the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to be instrumental in realizing a better society and social system. I also believe strongly in a revolution of the proletariat. A bit non-doctrinaire, I have read Kropotkin to Mao, Bakunin to Lenin, and everywhere in between. I believe everyone has something to offer and I am always open to new ideas and methods.
Zak DrabczykThe Poverty of Ethics: Dissecting the Non-aggression Principle

Comments 3

  1. DavidZ16

    The non-aggression principle is one of the best examples of pseudo-ethics that I’ve come across. I’ve noticed that while some ‘anarcho’-capitalists claim that the NAP is only a basic ethical metric to compliment one’s personal ethical philosophy, it’s the only one I’ve seen them use to evaluate the nature of relationships between people. I don’t think you have much of an ethical philosophy if you accept Voluntaryism to begin with, though.

  2. EMn

    Like most ethical questions talk of aggression, property, and possession boil down to interpretation or subjectivity. Neither NAP nor the self-ownership theory are axiomatic as much as is/oughts that run into Hume’s Guillotine. Ultimately there needs to be some sort of legal system to surround just how to interpret ‘aggression,’ property, and possession or we are left to nihilistic disorder, no? Who’s going to lay down the rules of measure? If they attempt to measure an ought on a definition of what aggression is (and what a possession is, and what property is) I think self-ownership has more logical problems than NAP. *I* like NAP, but more as non-aggression ON principle than NA as P, as it falls apart dreadfully when tied to the concept of self- ownership. However, this still brings us back to the drawing board of what ‘principle’ is. Sometimes I think the nihilists are right. Regardless, I’m willing to give several ethical frameworks from which to measure my vote, but Voluntaryism isn’t one I’d vote for as I don’t know that the frame exists.

  3. Laszlo Zapacik

    My problem with the NAP is not the idea itself, but that proponents of it typically want to expand the definition of ‘aggression’ beyond a directly interpersonal level.

    A bag is a bag is a bag. What chain of events led the bag to be has no relevance to its current existence. There is no mystical quality called ‘property’ that makes me doing something with the bag without your permission equivalent to direct force against your person.