L. Neil Smith's
Some Limitations of the Non-Aggression Doctrine
by Patrick K Martin
Exclusive to TLE
Part III - conclusions and answers (maybe)
When I wrote the first two parts of this series of articles, I expected to generate some controversy, but I have been amazed at the level of hostility that my comments have engendered. Now, most of the responses were reasonable attempts to display what the writers believed to be my failure to understand libertarian philosophy or their disagreement with my conclusions. A few of them however, were frothing personal attacks on me. One writer accused me of attempting to destroy the Libertarian party. Another referred to me as a 'Lying propagandist for the statist collective'. Hell, one guy even called me a 'Pacifist', Pacifist?!? My friends would be rolling on the floor laughing themselves sick. Pacifist is one label which has never been applied to me before. There is a reason people have been calling me War-hawk for twenty years (I spell it Warhawke, simply because I think it looks cooler). Well, my purpose in writing these articles has been to show what I think is a problem with the non-aggression doctrine AS WRITTEN, not to destroy the idea behind it, not to damage the libertarian party, and not to ridicule those who uphold it. In this article I will attempt the answer some of my detractors, while showing, again, why I think a problem exists.
Most of the people who answered my argument did not really dispute them, they merely attempted to justify violating the principle on the grounds that it would provide a positive social, or individual benefit. Let me state clearly, if YOU are not threatened directly, or by direct extension, (i.e., your property and loved ones), you are INITIATING force. Initiate means to start or begin, if you act without first being threatened or attacked, then YOU are starting or beginning the action, it's just that simple. The fact that you, or society at large, derives a benefit from your action makes no difference, you are still acting first. If, as one person suggested, another person's cry for help implies a contract, then the person crying for it is advocating and attempting to delegate the initiation of force, which is itself a violation. Now, don't assume that I believe that you should be deaf to another person's cry for help. If your wife or daughter were screaming rape, I would be the first person to rush to her aid, and I will be happy to paint the streets with the blood of her attackers. I merely acknowledge that doing so is a violation of the doctrine, AS WRITTEN, and the benefit that I and/or society derive does not alter that fact.
Let us examine the idea of social benefit for a moment. Does society not benefit when the state executes a criminal? Does society not benefit from the denial of intoxicating or mind-altering substances? Does not society benefit by restricting access to information which might be harmful in the wrong hands? Need I go on? How many of our rights are violated every day, by those who invoke 'Social Benefit', 'Social Justice', or simple 'NEED', to justify their actions? If we accept the idea that 'need' justifies any actions we might take to provide for it, the question becomes, who decides? By what standard will this decision be made? What code of justice or morality will guide us?
Stalin decided that starving millions of Ukrainians to death would provide a social benefit, and within the context of his philosophy he was right! His action prevented an incipient counterrevolution. Ukrainian resistance to collective farming would have emboldened others to resist Soviet authority if left unchecked. Pol Pot sought to eliminate all those who possessed the intelligence and education to resist his actions, thus preventing the deaths which would have resulted from a counterrevolution, as well as providing a greater share of resources for those who survived. The U.S. government burned 80 plus Branch Davidians to death in Waco, Texas, these people were accused of serious crimes, does society not benefit from eliminating those who commit child abuse, gunrunning, drug crimes, the killing of law-enforcement agents? Was the government not simply acting on the behalf of parents who were yelling for help to remove their children from an abusive cult? Were they not attempting to remove dangerous weapons from the hands of malcontents who might act to endanger those around them?
Whether you believe the charges were, in fact, true or not is immaterial, the accusation was made and those accused resisted (if you believe the government). I have said before, if you empower a government to act on the behalf of its citizens, you must provide the authority to carry out the job. When we give the government to power to arrest people like the Branch Davidians, we give them the power to kill those people for resisting. Law enforcement cannot say, "Come with us or we will go away", if they do they enforce nothing, and the job we want done, cannot be done. That is the problem with government, the law of unintended consequences refuses to be ignored, and the power you want to give is always accompanied by power you don't. If you empower somebody else to defend you, you empower them also to act against you later.
Therein lies the problem. I agree that other human beings are worthy of defending, I agree that those who initiate force, unprovoked, against others represent a threat to myself and others. I WILL act to defend those who require assistance in defending themselves. I believe that to do so is right and just. The whole point of the non-aggression doctrine is to allow us to do so, while at the same time, preventing the mad-dog killers who would justify genocide by claiming to be working for our benefit. Sadly, I do not believe that the non- aggression doctrine, AS WRITTEN, does this. While it is a noble attempt to provide us with moral guidance, the text puts us in the position of violating its letter, in order to support its spirit, and that makes it untenable.
For myself, I adhere to a personal doctrine: "The only justification for the taking of life, is the preservation of life."
This is how I express it to others, but, as you can see, it requires an understanding of issues far beyond the actual text. The reason I do not offer it in replacement of the non-aggression doctrine is because in order to properly understand and adhere to it, you must understand three things. First, that the ultimate end of ALL violence is death, if you are not prepared to kill, you have no business using violence. Combat has two elements, attack and resistance. The attacker strives to overcome resistance. The resister strives to end the attack. Each party increases the level of violence to achieve their particular end, until one or the other ceases, or until one party dies. Secondly, one must understand that there is a hierarchy of life. Human beings are the only PROVEN sapient beings on Earth. Thus, a human life is more important than any other creature and one is justified in killing lesser animals to ensure the survival of a human being. Lastly, there is a hierarchy within the human community as well. Those who wantonly endanger their fellow humans justify any action to prevent them from doing so, even violence and death. Those who endanger others without intention, someone with a lethal disease or the person who acts without a proper understanding of the effect of their actions, should be stopped, by rational explanation if possible, but by violence if necessary. Without understanding these points, you cannot adhere to the spirit of my declaration. Therefore, while it works for me, I cannot suggest it as part of a moral code for others without also providing the context, because to do so reduces it to an sound-bite, devoid of utility for the average person.
Morality is simply right or wrong. A moral code is an attempt to define right or wrong in terms of human action. If you provide a moral law or code, it must be concise and understandable on its own because expecting others to understand unstated, undefined sub-text is to destroy its value. The King James Version of the Holy Bible says, 'Thou shalt not Kill', well what does that mean? Kill what? We kill animals and plants to eat, our bodies kill bacteria and viruses to keep us alive, does the commandment mean we should not do these things? Is our simple existence a violation of it? If so, how do we stop? Suicide is killing, so we cannot end our own lives to prevent these things. The problem is that the original text was, 'Thou shalt not kill, WITH EVIL INTENT!' (emphasis added), but if you don't know that, you are placed in a catch 22. The same problem exists with the non-aggression doctrine, as indeed it exists with my own declaration, the words do not express the full intent, therefore new words need to be found.
Some Catholics claim that the writ of Papal infallibility is silly and wrong, I tell them that Catholics who believe that are called Protestants. The means by which we define things determine what they are. If we hold the non-aggression doctrine, as written, to be the measure of libertarianism, then we must adhere to it, AS WRITTEN. We must understand exactly what the words mean and follow or disregard them, exactly. If instead we wish to follow the spirit, the intent, of the principle rather than the letter, we must find a way to express it more exactly. Until then, we must recognize the limits we are imposing on ourselves, and the damage that inconsistency with our stated doctrine does, both to ourselves and our goals.
On last thing, for all those who informed me that "The perfect is the enemy of the good." I say, "Perfection is a road, not a destination."