First, let me apologise for the title. To keep the title within reasonable limits it was necessary to be brief. But what I actually wanted to use is something like: “Why the non agression principle (NAP) cannot be used as the moral principle for society.”
I have been a proponent of the NAP for a long time now -still am- but I have become convinced that it would be a bad idea to use the NAP as the foundation for a society. In this article I try to articulate my reasons for doing so.
It is assumed that readers are familiar with the Non Agression Principle (NAP).
The first objection is that all codified moral rules are an attempt to gain for self at the cost of others. It does not matter how the rule has been derived.
Morality itself is the differentiation between actions deemed good and bad. The problem with a codified morality is therefore not with morality itself, but with the codification.
Morality is a complex set of heuristics that is not always consistent and depends on the circumstances. A rule can never reflect the inherent complexity of morality. To try and derive a fixed rule is a subjective process in which the person will reflect its own preferences into the rule. People are incapable of true objectivity. True objectivity can only be achieved in the mathematical realm. Practical objectivity can be achieved in the physical realm. In the mental realm, true objectivity is impossible.
And indeed proponents of the NAP will admit that the first step in deriving the NAP is an axiom. (The universality axiom)
Given that the real problem is in the codification, why would rules always benefit one group over the other?
Mathematically speaking because rules create a transition point in a linear world. The rule maker must choose a transition point where behaviour flips from acceptable to unacceptable. People are not all the same, they do not have the same capabilities nor do they have the same options in life. By choosing a transition point the rule maker can (will) advantage himself (and his group) by allowing behaviour/options that are available to him but not the average people (or the reverse).
In a figure:
In the real world the line between acceptable behaviour and unacceptable behaviour is a gradual line. The green line in the above figure.
Introducing a rule changes the situation, where previously the behavior in the area’s B and C were acceptable now the rule (in red) adds an acceptable area A and forbids previously acceptable behavior in area C. This creates an opportunity for misuse of the rule.
Of course we can try and create additional rules such that the real curve is approximated. But then we run into the problem that the real curve is not static. It changes over time. This in addition to the fact that the real world is infinitely complex and would require an infinite number of rules.
One of the great inventions in the history of laws was (English) Common Law. Common law is an attempt to create an infinite number of rules based on need. It is probably the best system currently available to deal with the above situation. However it suffers from the problem that it is static in a dynamic world. While there are solutions for this, even common law will lag reality and thus create opportunities for exploit.
How can the NAP create situations which lead to exploitation?
No doubt there are many such possibilities, but the ones below seem important to me.
You may have noticed that most libertarians are rather smart. I would assume that the average libertarian has an IQ of at least 1 standard deviation above the average (i.e. >115).
The NAP protects people from theft. Smart people are much more likely to amass wealth and need protection from theft. By offloading the cost of protection on society the libertarian gains additional wealth.
Even when the libertarian pays for his own security he depends on the NAP to justify his actions in reaction to (attempted) theft.
But you may say, are there cases where theft is morally justified?
Maybe not moral-by-rule, but that is precisely the point. There are cases where theft is necessary for a society to survive. This may not be justifiable by a static moral rule, but will be justified by the mere fact of survival. Ultimately survival is the only criteria. When we are dead, our moral rules die with us.
The first example looked at the personal level, a second example looks at the societal (cultural) level.
Lets look at a small rural community entirely self sufficient, but they do trade with the rest of the country/world with a trade balance of zero.
One day a new supermarket is opened in town. However this supermarket does not source its merchandise locally, it imports them. Through importing they achieve the advantage of scale and they can undercut the local prices. The trade balance of the town goes negative and capital starts to leave town. This sabotages the local economy eventually to the point where the town can no longer support itself and starts shedding conveniences, services, and eventually jobs, people etc. The local culture collapses and the town becomes a ghost town with only a few survivors leading subsistence lives.
At no point in time aggression has been used. Everything happend voluntary. But a culture was wiped out.
Now you may object that since no aggression was used, this is a desirable outcome, the people have moved on to other lives (better?).
But from the point of competing cultures a culture was just wiped out, killed as surely as if all participating people were killed. The people in that culture have been displaced, (economically) forced to live other lives, maybe better, maybe worse. If these people were part of a larger culture (nation) then a reasonable argument can be made that they will integrate well in the other place they now live. But that argument cannot be made if those people had an entirely different culture and are incapable to integrate properly in a different (competing) culture.
Before we use the darwinian argument to justify this, think of the consequences for libertarianism. What if this town was the only libertarian town in existence? What if the super market was in effect the attack from a foreign culture?
Every ideology is instable. The NAP -being derived from pure thought without representation in reality- is an ideology.
Reality is what is, it does not confirm to anything but itself.
An ideology is a (desired) view of reality but not reality itself.
An ideology may start out from a desire to understand and describe reality as it is. But since reality presents itself differently to different people. No two people experience reality the same way. Als, no two people have the same needs and desires. Merging an incomplete view of reality with subjective preferences to derive a set of rules to live by is bound to failure.
When an ideology is imposed on reality this is only possible through the expenditure of work. Reality must be made to conform to the ideology. And since all produce is subject to decay this work must be performed constantly.
When work must be performed to conform reality to an ideology, the maximum achievable standard of living is lower than it could have been without the ideology.
The most benign ideologies can be maintained as a small expenditure with just a small impact on the achievable standard of living. A society implementing this ideology will most likely find that their standard of living is higher because of it.
However other societies that live closer to reality will in time increase their standard of living to far above the ideological society. This because the savings will accru exponentially like compounded interest. In due time the less ideological society will overwhelm the ideological society in a darwinian crush.
Active harmfull ideologies will not only require the permanent expenditure of effort, but will at the same time reduce the productive capacity of the society. Societies that implement active harmfull ideologies will enter a death spiral by themselves, even if there are no competing societies.
Of the benign ideologies there are many examples in Europe’s histories. It can even be argued that the historical difference between western europe and the rest of the world is part of the greater adherence to reality that western culture used to have.
Of the active harmfull ideologies we can find examples in many cultures that have disappeared in the earth’s history like on the Easter Islands or the early settlements of Greenland.
The example of Greenland is interesting because their ideology was benign in the beginning, but only became active harmfull when an external factor (temperature) changed.
Trend to globalism
For the above reasons, all ideologies will either disappear or have to become global. No ideology can survive in the long term unless all competing societies are removed or assimilated. It goes without saying that even then only the benign ideologies can survive.
The further the ideology is apart from reality, the stronger the drive towards globalism will be. In part because harmfull ideologies depend on expansion to fuel their existence.
Adherents of the NAP will probably argue that the NAP cannot be enforced globally but will spread by voluntary action. If so, then NAP will probably disappear as societies that implement the NAP will be at a disadvantage as compared with societies that are closer to reality.
There is a minimal risk that NAP societies will want to use preemptive self-defence and attack non-NAP societies, see below. However unlikely, this cannot be excluded.
Personal vs group
Unlimited vs limited environment
As a person, our environment is for all practical purposes unlimited. As a person we deal with other persons, and there is a near infinite supply of them. We thus rarely -if ever- encounter restrictions that cause us to be in a darwinian conflict with other persons. NAP proponents will be aware of the lifeboat problems within NAP. These problems cannot be solved using NAP and are usually deferred as “not yet relevant”. This is perfectly acceptable on the personal level since these lifeboat scenarios are very rare.
For society the environment consist of other societies. All societies together compete with each other for survival in a finite world. Societies thus are in a permanent lifeboat situation. Making a single society (our society) subject to rule by NAP disadvantages our society.
A very clear example can be seen today where NAP proponents are in favor of open borders. This undermines the very society they live in and even undermines the capability of their society to implement rule by NAP.
Unlimited vs limited lifespan
As a person, our lifespan is limited. Our personal environment is a snapshot in time, it is temporary. The environment itself is long term chaotic in nature, it is impossible to predict the future. However in this long term chaotic system there are short term islands of stability. For the west, the time since the second WW pretty much seems like such an island of stability. Even though society has changed, it has done so relatively slowly and given the people in it time to adjust.
In a stable environment people can use a fixed moral code like the NAP to achieve optimal results (as noted before). However from this we cannot conclude that this will also be the case in the future. Since our lifetime is limited, we can close our eyes for this and assume that our environment will remain stable over our lifetime. A fair argument can be made that human psychology is ill suited to anything else but the assumption that the future will be as the past.
Again, for society the situation is different. Societies life forever (but only when successful). A society must be able to cope with anything the environment throws at it. Limiting itself to a single response will damage the changes of that society to survive. Using the NAP would prevent a society from using aggression to expand its borders. But if the adjacent societies would not be bound to the NAP, these societies could wage wars against the NAP society and in due time they would be successful. There are two reasons for this:
a) the NAP society would be limited to self defence of people only. This would allow an attacker to take a small area and then stop its attack. Since the people outside this area are not aggressed against, they could -under the NAP- not retaliate.
b) another reason is asymmetry in time and chance. If a NAP society cannot attack an outside society, but that outside society can attack the NAP society, then even if the outside society has only a 1 in 10 chance of winning such an attack, in due time the number of attacks would be high enough to guarantee a win.
(The only way to prevent the above is to define ‘preventive attacks’ as a means of self defence. Which will then run into a host of other problems and basically annihilate the NAP rule for society as a whole. Which proves the point of this article.)
The r-K cycle.
This observation is not aimed at the NAP, but serves to place liberalism and libertarianism (as the most extreme form of liberalism) in a context. From this we cannot really draw conclusions, but it does suggest that the NAP is part of a cyclical pattern that will in time give birth to another phase. If we are to break the pattern, the NAP must be stript of its properties that support the pattern. Or alternatively the NAP must be expanded with properties that break the pattern.
The r-K cycle refers to the principle behind the organisational cycle of societies. As far back as Plato people have realised that the governmental shape of societies seems to go through cycles from anarchy, dictatorship, aristocracy, democracy, and back to anarchy. Only to repeat again.
r-K refers to reproductive strategies that shape all species, including humans. The letter ‘r’ refers to one extreme in which a limitless environment leads a species to reproduce as quickly as possible (example: Rabbits) while the letter ‘K’ stands for a strategy where only the best adapted individuals in a species reproduce (example: Wolves).
Humans are mostly K-select, but in times of excess will drift towards r-strategies. This is a multi-generational drift needing several generations to come to fruition. Part of this change is the disappearing of in-group preferences, the adoption of a consumer oriented lifestyle and libertine lifestyles in general as well as extremely loose sexual morals.
NAP (and libertarianism) are a part of the societal change from K-select lifestyles to r-select lifestyles. NAP places the individual at the center of the (moral) universe rather than the group. It is therefore part of the early transition of K towards r. Once the individual has been placed at the center it becomes unavoidable that universal subjectivity becomes dominant (nihilism). Which makes libertine policies not only possible but eventually even enforces them.
By this time the libertarians wonder what has happened and where the borders of the NAP must be placed. But it is too late to stop this process from completing. As all morals become subjective, group cohesion waters down to the point where the group fractures into multiple smaller groups. When resources are depleted to the point where the conditions no longer support r-strategies, these groups begin to war on each other and fracture into yet smaller groups. Starting the transition towards anarchy. Anarchy provides the conditions for K-strategists to re-emerge and the cycle starts again.
Alternatives to NAP
OK, so far I have pounded on the NAP rather mercilessly. But, the libertarian will say, you can do the same for every existing societal rule. And they are right. This article has focused on the NAP to show that the NAP is not the ideal solution. That there are inherent problems. Society as it is today is also not perfect. And I cannot answer the question if a society ruled by NAP would be better or worse. I do know that societies are chaotic in nature. There are feedback mechanisms at work that we will probably never understand. Which makes me very hesitant to “simply” throw the current organisation overboard and try something new. Communism tried that, and it resulted in millions upon millions of deaths.
So then what? Well, we could try reality. Like science is a realm outside of humans we could approach politics the same way. Experiment, learn, adjust. Repeat ad nauseam. I guess we could call it empirical politics.
And is that not just the way nature works?
End of article.
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