Sunday, July 13, 2014

Ethics Part 1 - The Non-Aggression Principle

Any sane system of ethics must be based on clear, consistent, and justifiable premises which, taken together, can be applied practically to reach a defined end. It was my intention to, at some future time, do a series of articles which proposed several such premises, explained their justification, and expounded on them to some degree. But, due to recent events, and to give context to several articles I'm planning, I think it's important to go into one of these premises right now, often called the Non-Aggression Principle.

The Non-Aggression Principle (or NAP) can be summarized in the following statement: "The initiation of violence against another person is unjustifiable and unacceptable – the only legitimate and justifiable use of violence is when it is necessary for defense." Put simply, you don't go using violence against someone who isn't trying to do it to you first. The NAP divides all violence into one of two categories: aggression and defense. Only the latter of which is permissible and only when it is justified and necessary.

Let me define a few terms before we go on.
• Violence is the application of any force, whether actively or passively, directly or indirectly, against a person in such a way as to interfere with, preclude, or otherwise infringe upon the exercise of their natural rights (another premise deserving its own article). Violence includes, but is not limited to, direct physical force, threat of force, intimidation, coercion, fraud, slander, false accusations, invasion of privacy, putting someone at risk against their will, or exercise of undue leverage (such as taking advantage of a state of duress to get someone to do something).
• Aggression is any act of violence which is initiated by one person against another who is not acting violently, and is therefore not defensive in nature.
• Defense is an action taken, directly or indirectly, against an aggressor to 1) preclude an imminent act of violence, 2) bring an end to an act of violence in progress, 3) obtain reasonable restitution for an act of violence to fully compensate the injured party for loss, or 4) to secure reasonable assurance that the aggressor will not further injure the wronged party or any other person with legitimate cause for concern. Acts of violence born from revenge, resentment, outrage, offense, or intimidating potential aggressors are, in and of themselves, not legitimately defensive.
• Necessary here means that there is no apparent and viable alternative that has not already been exhausted, or that the severity or imminence of the aggression warrants immediate response of defensive violence to deal with it. Also, it does not exceed the severity of the act being committed. For example: Gunning down a teenager who stole a pack of gum and is running from the scene is not a legitimate act of defense. Neither is shooting a cop on their lunch break just because you "know" they are involved in enforcing arbitrary laws.

The validity and importance of the NAP should be self-apparent – but since most people tend to thoughtlessly accept things around them which violate it, it seems that it's necessary to spell it out. Unless you live in a war zone, under an extremely repressive dictatorship, or some other situation where violence is commonplace, the NAP is in effect to one degree or another all around you every day, whether you know it or not. If you can walk down the street, pass by someone, and reasonably expect that they won't attack you – and they can expect that you won't attack them – then you have just witnessed the NAP in action. Most people who aren't sociopaths know that it's unacceptable to arbitrarily attack another person – whether it's to take something that belongs to them, to force them to do something you want, or any other reason short of self-defense or defense of another. This general understanding is why, in most civilized places, you don't see people going around killing and beating each other in the streets. Because we all know such violence is unacceptable.

However, in nearly all societies throughout history people have tried to shroud, disguise, or justify away aggressive violence in one form or another for some 'greater good' or 'worthy purpose', such as honor and glory, maintaining social order, upholding some arbitrary social standard, economic gain, or any number of other shaky reasons. On the other hand, you also have the rare total pacifist that denounces violence even in defense. (Although, there are certainly times when, for strategic reasons, it is arguably better to forgo defense to achieve a larger purpose. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. both understood this well, and it is illustrated well in Gene Sharp's "From Dictatorship to Democracy".)

Of these philosophies the NAP is the only one that, when followed, trends in a direction that approaches a limit (in the mathematical sense) of zero violence. Non-violence is the equilibrium state of an NAP based society. Pacifism has no mechanism to stop aggressive violence that does not require the aggressor's cooperation, which by definition they are not giving. Therefore, in pacifism, there is no force pushing back against the trend of violence. Total pacifism's equilibrium state is, therefore, one in which there is violence. In philosophies that try to justify aggression, it is possible to 'justify' employing violence where there was no violence previously. This means that, if you hypothetically had a situation where a group of people were living in total peace and without violence, you might still find 'acceptable' reasons to commit acts of violence against them. Since this allows for spontaneous acts of violence where no violence previously existed, this philosophy's equilibrium state is also one of violence. So, if peace is to be an objective, the NAP is the only practical philosophy that approaches that objective.

It's important to understand this, because whatever the issue, in nearly every case, either some or all of the problem can be traced back to violations of the Non-Aggression Principle. Any ideology, philosophy, or socio-economic system that is both sane and legitimate will include the NAP in some form, whether explicitly or implicitly. When you compromise the NAP, you open the door to breakdown in these systems, and take a step down a path that, if pursued, eventually leads to senseless violence and overt tyranny. In absence of the NAP, rule-by-violence is guaranteed. The NAP is not the only important component of a system of practical ethics, but it is one of the easiest components to understand and agree on for most people, and it has some of the most far reaching implications. Going forward, I will likely be referring back to this article frequently.

Revised 11-24-2014

Read Ethics Part 2 - Rights and Responsibilities.

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