Modern Moral Philosophy (Part Two—Is the Libertarian Non-Aggression Principle Adequate As the Foundation for a Systematic Morality)

In Part One (two weeks ago) we surveyed such questions as: are there such things as knowable moral facts, or is morality a cultural artifact? I argued that the former claim makes better sense of what we use ethical language to do, what our usages and living debates actually presuppose. That moral principles are not mere matters of opinion — individual, collective, or that of moral authorities — seems a reasonable working presupposition of any ensuing discussion.

I will assume that most libertarians are cognitivists. Their invocation of the non-aggression principle (NAP) is not intended as a mere sentiment, or opinion. To be sure we have the NAP right, I will state it as I understand it: no person may rightly act aggressively towards others, whether this means initiating force or coercion against them, defrauding them, or appealing to the state or some other surrogate power to initiate aggression on one’s behalf.

Libertarians (be they minarchists or anarcho-capitalists) as I understand them intend this as a prime candidate for basic moral truth, or fact, from which everything else they have to say logically follows. They do not want to impose the NAP on you. That would violate the NAP. There is no logical entailment from the truth of a moral principle to the idea that it should be put into place by force. Libertarians therefore rightly argue in its defense, and try to live lives consistent with its application. The question I now want to consider is: can one do the latter in all circumstances? Is the NAP either a necessary or a sufficient condition for a functional as well as moral society?

Please note: when asking the question, I am not saying that the NAP will not do for the majority of situations where human beings interact. Clearly it will. I am interested in whether there are counterexamples: circumstances where it either does not apply, or would give bad advice and should be overridden, e.g., by principles favoring the preservation of a life. The situation may be analogous to the relationship between Newton’s physics and that of Einstein. When Einsteinian relativity became the dominant paradigm in physics, we did not stop using Newtonian math to put up buildings and bridges. What we showed is that Newton’s ideas are limited to the world of middle-sized objects and situations. Likewise, the NAP may be perfect for our workaday world of business interactions, and a very good justification for keeping government as small as possible (assuming that isn’t still too big). But are there life-and-death circumstances that (dare I use the word?) force us to set it aside because the results of not doing so could be disastrous?

A few years ago I found myself in a quandary. My elderly parents had been in declining health for a number of years, and were reaching the point of near-helplessness. My mom, a stroke patient since 1999, had needed round the clock care ever since due to partial paralysis on her right side and additional internal physical problems. My father had been able to take care of her, but was himself having physical problems and showing signs of dementia, possibly Alzheimer’s disease. These began sometime during 2007. At first they were minor, such as forgetting a password or whether the cats were inside or outside. Then one day he returned from the grocery store, having forgotten what he went there for. He began to misplace things, including money. Gradually problems worsened, as on a couple of occasions he’d lost track of where he was while out driving. My mom was scared to death he’d cause an accident. Or, how long it would be before he put something on the stove or in the oven, forgot about it, the result being a fire that trapped them both inside a poorly-designed house (imho) with just one convenient exit to a carport (another to a back porch with no stairwell down and a third from a basement inaccessible to my mom). It was clear; something had to be done, and I was the one who had to do it since I was closest geographically.

I urged them to sell the house and go into assisted living. When my father did not want to go voluntarily, I basically forced the issue. He’d been injured in a fall, which made matters easier than they otherwise would have been. He’d wanted to return home following a couple of weeks of rehabilitative therapy. I wasn’t about to let him. Instead, I basically used force to get him into assisted living, along with my mom. Another fall, a few weeks later, fractured his hip and put him in nursing care. Had he fallen in or outside the house, with no one but my mom around, he might have lain in one place unattended unless he could attract a neighbor’s attention. That would have been a long shot, as their neighborhood was remote, woodsy, and with houses spread well apart. Neither of my parents had kept up with technology. Neither had obtained cell phones they could use to call me.

My use of force on my father turned out to be the right thing to do, even if unauthorized by the NAP, and I have to ponder whether many parallel circumstances are also justified by the need for certain results, such as the general need to care for elderly people who are no longer mentally able to make their own decisions or are aware of their own best interests — even when they don’t want these decisions made (and my father had fought my decision tooth and nail!).

At the time I wasn’t thinking about the NAP. It dawned on me much later that it would have allowed me to do nothing for my parents. They would have either eventually starved in their house; or my dad would have caused a fire or some other calamity. The NAP gave me no advice in the matter. I could have played hands off, done nothing, without having violated it. You’ve not aggressed against someone by leaving him or her to rot. On the other hand, a libertarian could argue that I did violate the NAP when I used coercion to get my father into a facility where he could be properly cared for, and I would have to agree. It slowly became clear to me, however long after the fact, that the NAP doesn’t help us here, but rather gives us very bad advice: if you have no obligations to others except to “leave them alone,” then you have no obligations to elderly family members in grave danger of injuring themselves or of being left to rot. Never initiate coercion against others, the NAP says. Not even to save their lives when they are unable, physically or mentally, to take responsibility for themselves?

One specific point where the libertarian argument can go wrong is in the assumption that everyone has privileged access to his/her own best interests. In the case of children, this is trivially false, of course. Even John Stuart Mill did not apply his classical liberal “harm principle” to children. Usually (not always!) we restrict our considerations to adults, for ethical deliberations. But not all adults know what is in their own best interests all the time. The Alzheimer’s sufferer clearly does not. It is likely that anyone suffering from an addiction does not. Research indicates that addictions are physical, not merely mental. They involve changes in the brain. Expressed in familiar language, the addict wants more of whatever he/she is addicted to, and will sometimes do anything, including harm others, to obtain it. Can you use force to prevent the addict from harming others? Should you use force, if doing so will have a greater likelihood than not of enabling getting the addiction under control? It seems to me you can make a case for a Yes answer.

We could multiply, it seems to me, counterexamples to the NAP: circumstances in which it allows us to do nothing, when whatever moral intuitions we have are telling us otherwise! Or circumstances in which we have to violate it to fulfill a moral obligation.

I believe I have shown that we have obligations to family members that, other things being equal, override the NAP. The need to preserve the lives of one’s own can justify the use of coercion to do it; the value of life itself defeats eschewing force if force is what is needed. Our legal system, which includes components devoted to elder law, has been built up to recognize this, along with as many checks are necessary to minimize abuse of the system. It seems right, too, that local government can penalize someone who fails to exercise commonsense judgment on such matters, whether with children or with infirm elderly people who no longer possess cognitive faculties.

Were all human beings responsible moral actors, such legal machinery would not be necessary, of course. There is an adage, of course: you cannot legislate stupidity out of existence; you can only attempt to minimize its effects on (often uninvolved) others.

Are there other circumstances, related not to family but to markets themselves, where the NAP can be overridden? This is a truly dangerous question for a libertarian. Markets would seem to be the place where the NAP is of most importance, to be upheld as the closest we are likely to come to a moral absolute.

It should be clear that unimpeded markets, to the extent they exist, simply give the masses what they want: no more, no less. Supply something the masses want in large quantities, or can be persuaded to buy in large quantities, and you will get rich. Simple as that. This is how Bill Gates did it, and it is how celebrities do it. The masses like technology, and they like entertainment. Subjective valuation and all that. Economic values, according to this argument, exist in the minds of individuals; they do not exist in things, or in acts of production (labor). Hence the rejection of the “labor theory of value.”

We do, however, live in an objective universe. That’s a controversial claim, philosophically; I understand that. But our experience in the world confirms it pragmatically. Real causes have real effects. If you touch a hot stove burner, you’ll get burned. If you drink four glasses of wine, you’ll get stinking drunk. Three more, and you’ll probably get sick. With more complex states of affairs determining the exact cluster of causes may be difficult, but it is a reasonable assumption that there are causes. In this sense, cigarette smoking has a propensity to lead to lung cancer. Why someone got lung cancer even though she never smoked a cigarette in her life might be tough to explain, but we never assume it happened for no reason at all. (Kant, a transcendental idealist, contended that we look for causes because that is how our rational faculties work. A realist responds: our rational faculties work this way successfully because that is how physical reality works.)

Now suppose the masses want something we have discovered is destructive, in large enough quantities as to do general health damage, or some other kind of damage within communities. Call this something C. Because population P wants item C, does it follow logically that despite the problems C will cause I ought to supply C knowing that if I supply C I will get rich, because P wants to buy C and give me their money?

What is the exact logical entailment here? Again, we are dealing with a range of circumstances, not all circumstances where people are buying products in markets. There are many products for which there is no reason whatever why I shouldn’t supply them if I’m able and can make money doing it. But if C causes harm…. Harm to whom is then the question. Mill argued famously in On Liberty that persons’ free choices should not be interfered with to prevent them from harming themselves. I tried to show above that there are familial obligations that can override this judgment — in circumstances Mill couldn’t have known about. But on a larger scale, how many actions can we take that risk harming only ourselves? If I smoke cigarettes in public in your vicinity, I am not merely harming myself, I am polluting the air you breathe and thus placing you in danger of harm. Cigarette smoking thus conceivably falls outside of Mill’s argument and can be legitimately discouraged. Of course, if there was a way of isolating all smokers in hermetically sealed rooms so that their actions could harm only themselves, then Mill’s argument might apply. But in the actual world, there appears to be no ideal way of isolating smokers — no sealed rooms where they could contaminate one another’s lungs exclusively.

Most of our actions affect others. That is the problem. And in a complex, advanced civilization in which strangers are constantly coming within one another’s reach (unlike the world Locke and Mill inhabited), “your rights end where my nose begins” becomes much less straightforward. Back in 2000 in South Carolina an issue arose with privately owned video poker machines in private clubs or other facilities. Free marketers defended the companies that distributed them and profited from them, the rights of bar and night club owners to have them on the premises, and finally the rights of people to make the choice to play video poker. Problems had emerged, however. There was a case of a woman who left a very young daughter in a hot car in the middle of July while she went into a bar to play video poker. The child died. Other cases emerged of children asleep on floors in bars while one or both parents played video poker. While the parents may have made a “free choice” to play video poker, their children did not.

In addition, both neighboring businesses and nearby residents could reasonably complain that the clubs and bars sporting video poker machines drew troublemakers, or simply people who irresponsibly threw trash everywhere and sullied the area. These sort of behaviors eventually drive customers away from neighboring businesses, harming them, and drive down property values of both those businesses’ landlords (or the businesses themselves if they owned the property) and residents — additional species of harm. (A partial solution to such dilemmas is zoning, which violates the NAP on a large scale but which is taken for granted in cities and suburbs.)

Moreover, and finally, scientific studies have been able to show that activities such as video poker are actually accompanied by a release of endorphins into the brain’s pleasure centers. They are, in other words, another species of addiction. Some forms of addictive behavior can be explained this way, which throws doubt on the idea that these choices are “free” (hence the scare quotes). While somewhere in here is the longstanding “free will” versus “determinism” controversy, the exploration of which would throw us off track, addictive behaviors, by definition, are not “free” in any reasonable sense of that term, and so again, fall outside the scope of Mill’s harm argument.

We may designate such products that harm not just oneself but threaten harm to all others in one’s vicinity, many of them against their will, D, and then ask, If some population P wants to buy D, and I can make money by supplying them D, then am I morally allowed to supply D? If the use of D is against the will of those of a larger population outside of P, then have I initiated force against them by allowing P to have D?

Where do the rights of those in the larger population begin?

We have arrived at the third party problem: if A transacts with B voluntarily, and their transactions negatively affect a population P against their will, sometimes without their knowledge, then should the transaction between A and B be prevented? Note that P did not sign off on whatever agreement was made between A and B. Were they coerced, or possibly defrauded (promised benefits that never materialized)? It is hard to say they were coerced, but they were clearly negatively affected. Real world example: the millions of people P who lost manufacturing jobs following NAFTA and GATT II, signed off on by corporate elites who had governments bought and paid for, and media shills who rationalized their decisions for the befuddled masses by telling them “free trade” would create jobs when foreign customers wanted to buy new American products. Those foreign customers never materialized, of course; a system built on cheap labor does not generate a population with disposable income. The promised American jobs thus never materialized. Thus if A and B are multibillionaires, their voluntary decisions may impact involuntarily on millions of people. Which militates in favor of legal restrictions on voluntary decisions in very large systems with such large-scale impact: what most economists disfavor and call protectionism.

There is, of course, a huge problem of logistics here — when the multibillionaires have the governments that sign these trade deals bought and paid for. But that’s another post. Here, we are just considering what moral reasoning tells us. Moral reasoning is not economic reasoning, which is limited to material considerations of extraction and production, supply and demand, profit and loss. Much modern economic reasoning makes an assumption I have come to believe is false: civilization consists of individuals running around making autonomous, self-interested decisions. It also places material considerations ahead of all other ones, and thus inclines us towards materialism as a worldview. Civilization consists of systems of a variety of sorts, ranging from personal habits and inclinations to familial systems to institutional arrangements and larger community practices, in which flesh-and-blood human beings are embedded, and in which they interact with a variety of motivations, some self-interested, some not. We need to choose: are we defending the interests of an abstraction, homo economicus (the individual as exclusively economic actor, always self-interested, considered apart from the systems in which he or she is embedded) or actual flesh-and-blood persons as they are found: “the world as we find it.” This includes the information available to them, and whether they have a right to information about the potential harm involved in using a particular product. (In interests of full disclosure, I have never been tempted by cigarette smoking; and I believe I have a right to know what is in the food I consume, and to refuse to eat certain foods if they contain certain ingredients, such as MSG and GMOs.)

In sum: the NAP does not give us a complete moral perspective for a complex, advanced civilization. It works under the arguably false assumption that all persons can assume full responsibility for their lives all of the time, and can (should?) suffer the consequences when they do not. It assumes that we act atomistically, and that we can disregard the effects our actions have on others. It is not rich enough to handle the third party problem: if A transacts with B voluntarily and the results of that transaction negatively impact on person or population P or perhaps cause other externalities (pollution or other damage to the environment being one obvious possibility), then we have a problem since obviously P did not sign off in full knowledge or voluntarily on the transaction between A and B. I would be happy to see a response to this that does not boil down to a question-begging, “Tough luck if you can’t or didn’t assume responsibility; or if you’re in population P. The free market should nevertheless trump these other considerations because of its efficiency.”

Now it is true that the trade agreements I criticized were hardly actual free trade agreements a libertarian could support; they were, to use the libertarian vocabulary, statist through and through. But herein lies the problem: given the realities of today’s world, how would we create actual free trade agreements that were meaningful, or that had any force?

What realities are we talking about? The realities of power. Libertarians appear not to understand (or believe it unimportant) where the locus of power really is. They believe government is the root of all evil, because it represents the power of the sword: the power to coerce and thus to systematically violate the NAP. As a non-producer, they argue, it can survive no other way. The actual locus of power, however, is, and has been for many decades now (if not centuries), global corporations. As economic actors they represent the power of the purse: the power to buy governments, control markets, and dictate terms of employment to the masses by determining what skills are wanted, etc. They have never wanted free market competition, and thus have always worked out ways of circumscribing or constraining actual markets. Their prevalence is not compatible with either a democracy or a republic. They represent plutocratic oligarchy, the system that has arguably fallen across all of Western civilization — as a recent study has shown in great detail.

I would argue that the separate disciplines of economics and political science should be abolished. We should go back to the political economy that was eliminated in the late 1800s by the Rockefeller-endowed University of Chicago to hide the political actions taken by ostensibly economic entities, often to thwart the aspirations of competitors and create protections for themselves while continuing to use the language of free markets.

How does one fight plutocratic oligarchy? One cannot do so by refusing to name it, or misgrasping where actual power lies!

We cannot create real free trade agreements, as we do not live in the kind of world where such agreements are possible.

So where do we go from here?

There probably are no systemic solutions other than to allow the plutocratic oligarchic era to run its course and eventually collapse, as empires inevitably do. In the meantime, we can arrange our lives to minimize our contact with it, while agreeing to deal with one another peacefully and voluntarily, and take the moral responsibility to ensure, as much as possible, that our dealings do not harm others. And to fulfill our perceived obligations to others, be they family or stranger. That, I submit, would be easier done in a world of smaller systems, organizations, and communities. We touched on this idea in the material a few weeks ago on Leopold Kohr, who had some of the most interesting ideas along these lines. Remembering that small is better wouldn’t solve all the problems, many of which are products of human nature itself (our default setting is neither automatic rationality nor morality), but it will make them easier to manage.

But for now, it seems that those who would try to reconcile such abstract principles as the NAP with the realities of real human beings living in a complex, advanced civilization where some cannot take full responsibility for their lives, where strangers’ interactions have the potential to harm others on a daily basis, and where massive irresponsibility and outright stupidity is sometimes (often?) the norm, have their work cut out for them.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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