The original article can be read at The Nolan Chart here.
J.H. Bennett argues that the Non-Aggression Principle, used as a basis for law, is self-refuting, and believers in it must therefore be pacifists. How sound is his argument?
The Non-Aggression Principle, or NAP — the principle that it is morally wrong, and should be legally prohibited, for any person or group to initiate force against any other person or group — has long been central to libertarian political thought. As the Libertarian Party was founded as a political vehicle for libertarian ideas, it is not surprising that NAP also plays a central role in the party’s basic documents.
For example, the U.S. Libertarian Party’s Statement of Principles declares that “all individuals … have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose,” and that “we support the prohibition of the initiation of physical force against others”.(1)
Its platform states “that force and fraud must be banished from human relationships” [Preamble]; that “No individual, group, or government may initiate force against any other individual, group, or government” [1.0]; that “Criminal laws should [deal with] violation of the rights of others through force or fraud” [1.6]; and that “The only legitimate use of force is in defense of individual rights — life, liberty, and justly acquired property — against aggression.”[1.7].(1)
Finally, the Party’s Bylaws specify that all members must have “certified in writing that they oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals.” (2)
As libertarianism and the Libertarian Party have grown over the years, so has the opposition to both. It is not surprising, then, to find more non-libertarians and anti-libertarians challenging NAP. What is surprising is to find libertarians, and Libertarian Party members, challenging NAP. At least I was surprised to recently read an interview in which Austin Petersen — not just a Libertarian Party member, but one running for the Party’s presidential nomination — did just that in answer to the following question:
What does the Non-Aggression Principle mean to you? …
The non-aggression principle is the defining philosophy of pacifist anarchism. Pacifist anarchists are libertarians, but not all libertarians are pacifist anarchists. Of course, many would disagree with that statement, but that’s because in recent years our movement has become more hostile to minarchists due to the cult of personality that has emerged around Murray Rothbard. The NAP is not fundamental to libertarianism, unless you believe that only pacifist anarchists are libertarians.(3)
Actually, “Pacifist anarchists are libertarian, but not all libertarians are pacifist anarchists” is the only statement in that whole paragraph with which I did not disagree. I have always considered NAP “fundamental to libertarianism”. I do not see the libertarian movement as hostile to “minarchists” (or believers in proper government, of which I am one). Above all, I could not see how NAP implies “pacifist anarchism”. Rothbard was an anarchist, but no pacifist; while the various statements of NAP in the party literature imply neither pacifism nor anarchism.
Where did Petersen get such a strange (to my mind) idea of NAP? Fortunately he has a website, The Libertarian Republic; going there, I was able to find an article by him with the promising title, “The Non Aggression Principle (NAP) Is Pacifist Anarchism, and Should be Scrapped”. However, I found myself less than convinced by the article, which I will quote in full:
The following research paper is an academic explanation for why the anarcho-libertarian non-aggression principle is incoherent, and unworthy of consideration as a rule for anyone dedicated to protecting individual rights.
Rethinking Nonaggression (4)
Clicking the underlined link brought me to a 25-page scholarly article, by J.H. Bennett of Canada’s Simon Fraser University, that indeed argues that “that for adherents of the non-aggression principle, the only consistent position is strict pacifism” (p. 2)(5)
Given Petersen’s unqualified endorsement, we must assume that this is his argument as well. So, while the following are Bennett’s arguments rather than Petersen’s, one has to treat them as the same. If Bennett’s argument succeeds, Petersen’s succeeds; and if Bennett’s argument fails, Petersen’s fails.
The NAP and the NAR
So what is Bennett’s (and, by extension, Petersen’s) argument? First, he distinguishes, more or less, between NAP as a moral principle, and what he calls the “Non-Aggression Rule” (NAR), meaning NAP as a primary or basic “legal rule,” meant “to bridge the gap between moral principles and legal rules — to act as a filter or bridge, if you will, in pronouncing which moral principles can transcend the gap between morals and law.”(p. 3) Second, he argues that NAR is not only self-referential, but self-refuting: “according to its own terms, the NAR forbids its own implementation, since the NAR itself initiates aggression.”(p. 12)
I say ‘more or less’ because while at some points Bennett clearly distinguishes between the moral principle and the legal rule — for instance, he comments at one point that “Taken strictly as a moral principle, the NAR is not self-referential” — in others he talks as if there is no principle, only the rule — for instance, he immediately follows the above sentence with: ” However, the NAR is a legal rule, separate from its moral foundations.”(p. 21)
Again, Bennett attempts to rebut a comment by Walter Block (“So which is more basic: non-aggression or private property? They are opposite sides of the same coin: neither is possible without the other”[p. 6]) by noting that the example of pacifist libertarian anarchist Robert Lefevre “shows that one can easily forgo [sic] the anarcho-libertarian NAR and yet still be morally convinced of self-ownership.”(p. 7) Yet the very quotation that Bennett provides from Lefevre to show that he rejected non-aggression as a legal rule (“if one individual inflicts a wrong upon another, the response is scarcely in keeping with logic if the victim of attack turns about and victimizes his attacker…. Aggression is is always wrong. There can be no justification for it under any circumstances”[p. 7]) shows, not that Lefevre was “convinced” of ”self-ownership,” but that he was “morally convinced” of NAP.
If anything, the example of Lefevre shows that NAP (the moral principle) and NAR (the legal rule) are two distinct concepts, since it illustrates that one can accept the first while foregoing the second. Even if Bennett’s argument against NAR as a basic legal rule goes through, it does nothing to invalidate or refute NAP as a moral principle. Even Bennett admits as much, at times, as in his already-citedclaim that “as a moral principle, the [NAP] is not self-referential.”
It should be noted in passing that Bennett does not seem to understand the point he is arguing against here, since he concludes from the example of Lefevre that: “If it is in principle possible there is some possible state of affairs in which self-ownership / homesteading and the NAR are not — to use Block‘s expression — two sides of the same coin, then it is not the case that they are identical as Block claims.”(p. 7) But identity does not appear to be what Block meant by “two sides of the same coin” at all. Rather, Block seems to be saying that, just as a coin needs two sides in order be a coin, libertarian theory needs both the “self-ownership” and non-aggression principles in order to be a complete theory. In other words, it is true, as Bennet notes,(p. 6) that NAR by itself is not sufficient to derive a libertarian theory of law: one also needs rules about who who owns what. But it seems no less true that even the most comprehensive framework of property rules is not sufficient by itself, either; one also needs some rule(s) whereby it is wrong and should be illegal to invade, take, or violate the persons and property of others.
To see how that works in practice, take that first quotation from the Libertarian Statement of Principles, that “all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.” The first part (everything up to “choose”) states the principle of “self-ownership”; the second (everything after “so long”) expresses NAP. The two statements are not identical, yet it is easy to see how each supports the other: how they are indeed “two sides of the same coin.”
Does NAR refute itself?
The Libertarian Party, though, does not simply state NAP as a principle. As noted, it contains several other statements of non-aggression throughout its Platform, all of which are meant to result in laws. Each of those statements is an example of NAR; and if NAR is indeed self-refuting, all of these other statements are self-refuting, too.
Which brings us to Bennett’s “central thesis”,(p. 11) which is precisely that NAR is self-refuting: “the non-aggression principle can ultimately be reduced to contradiction by an argument from self-reference (ASR1)”.(p. 2)
So let us turn to that argument. Here is Bennett’s argument ASR1 in a nutshell:
Let‘s take an undisputed definition of the NAR and specifically apply self-reference. Recall Block‘s definition: “The non-aggression axiom … states, simply, that it shall be legal for anyone to do anything he wants, provided only that he not initiate (or threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property of another.” We‘ll call Block‘s definition proposition P. By self-referential [sic], it should be clear that since P is itself an act of ex ante aggression, P refers to itself. So if P is true, then P is false. If P is false, then P is false.”(p. 12)
It is not clear, at first glance, that P is an act of “aggression.” The first part of P (or P1) — “The non-aggression axiom … states, simply, that it shall be legal for anyone to do anything he wants…” — clearly does not involve aggression, as it does not say anything about the use of force at all. So the putative aggression must lie in its second part — “provided only that he not initiate (or threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property of another”, with its clear implication (P2):
P2: It shall be illegal to use (or threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property of another.
Is stating or acting on P2 an act of aggression? As a legal rule, it certainly would embody the threat to use force. For a law to pronounce something illegal is just to say that force will be used against those who break it. Any law that expressed P2 would be, by definition, a threat to use force: “A sphere of acceptable actions is being predefined, and if one steps outside these narrow bounds, entities will emerge from the walls and rain down force upon transgressors. I submit that this is precisely what the initiation of aggression is.”(p. 12)
To which a defender of NAP and NAR might reply well reply: Hold on; it is true that, as Bennett says, “Ex ante imposition is properly thought of as the threat of physical coercion if certain conditions obtain.”(p. 13) But coercion — the use or threat of force to get someone to do something or to refrain from doing something — is not the same thing as aggression. Libertarians claim that force can be either aggressive or retaliatory (used in response to aggression). Bennett understands that perfectly well: “libertarians do not object to force, per se, which is the definition of coercion. What they object to is the initiation of aggression, signifying strictly negative connotations, and not just the use of force.”(p. 3) So, even though P2 implies coercion, that does not mean that it implies aggression.
However, that objection does not reckon with the term, “ex ante”, meaning “before the fact”. To threaten a person ex ante is to threaten that person before he or she has done anything. To threaten a person ex ante with force if he or she commits aggression, is to threaten someone who has not yet committed aggression: “The NAR is in effect ex ante, that is, before any aggression even takes place.”(p. 11) For Bennett, to threaten someone with force who has not used force first is to initiate force: to commit aggression. Therefore, he concludes, to adopt P2 (which is the same as NAR), and make laws based on it, is to commit aggression.
For the sake of clarity, let us summarize Bennett’s argument ASR1 as follows:
1. NAR states that using or threatening force against other people or their property ex ante is wrong and should be prohibited.
2. Therefore, NAR makes it illegal to use or threaten force against other people or their property ex ante.
3. To make an action illegal is to threaten force against other people or their property ex ante.
4. Therefore, NAR threatens force against other people or their property ex ante.
5. By self-reference, NAR states that NAR is wrong and should be prohibited.
“Therefore”, Bennett concludes, “it follows necessarily and inescapably that according to its own terms, the NAR forbids its own implementation, since the NAR itself initiates aggression.” (p. 12)
Objections to Bennett’s argument
ASR1 is a powerful argument. If it is sound, then NAR fails and has to be abandoned; the only alternative for the believer in NAR is to reject law altogether. But that is not all that ASR1 implies. A couple of odd implications would also follow.
If ASR1 were true, it would mean that all laws are by definition aggressive — a conclusion which Bennett cheerfully accepts: “legal rules that move beyond their moral rules inevitably involve aggression.”(pp. 13-14) For Bennett, that poses a problem only for libertarians, as only libertarians “proudly proclaim that theirs is the only philosophy of law that avoids the initiation of aggression”(p. 15)
But it is not that simple. ASR1, as an argument, can be applied not just to philosophies of law, but to specific laws. Possibly every law code in the world contains prohibitions of some kind against threatening force against other people or their property. Substitute any such law (call it Law X) for NAR, in ASR1, and the conclusion is exactly the same. If ASR1 is sound, then all of those laws (being ex ante threats against other people or their property) would also forbid their own implementation. No laws forbidding threats of force could ever be justified, under any system.
ASR1 also has implications outside the area of law, in the case of people defending their own lives and property. As an example: I have a field full of valuable crops; a person comes into my field and begins stealing them; so I rush outside, brandishing a gun or a baseball bat, and chase him away. That may be considered justified retaliation, not aggression. However, suppose I decide to warn people beforehand, by posting a sign saying that trespassers and thieves will be treated that way? Such a sign would be a clear ex ante threat, by Bennett’s reasoning, and therefore an act of aggression. In other words, even if my doing Y is not aggression, my posting a warning that I will do Y turns out to be. And while I can logically chase away a thief, I am logically forbidden to post a sign warning any would-be thief that I would do just that!
There seems only one way to avoid these odd implications: to somehow state NAR in a way in which ASR1 does not follow. To see if that is possible, let us revisit the formulation of the non-aggression principle (NAP) given at the beginning:
NAP1: It is wrong, and therefore should be illegal, to initiate force against others.
This formulation of NAP specifies three conditions that are sufficient to make an action wrong:
(A) it must be a use of force
(B) it must be directed against other people (or their property)
(C) it must be initiated: the others whom against whom the force is used must not themselves have first used force. (To use Bennet’s term, it must be force used ex ante.)
The corresponding legal rule (NAR) (using Bennett’s term, and spelling out those three conditions) would be:
NAR1: It should be illegal to use (A) force (B) against other people (or their property) (C) ex ante.
But that is not good enough for our purpose, as it does not mention the threat of force. Somehow we have to plug that in. There are two possible ways to do so:
NAR2: It should be illegal to use or threaten (A) force (B) against other people or their property (C) ex ante.
NAR3: It should be illegal to use, or threaten to use, (A) force (B) against other people or their property (C) ex ante.
While NAR2 and NAR3 look almost the same, the difference is significant. NAR2 says that a threat is aggression (and therefore should be illegal) if it is (A) a threat to use force, (B) is directed against another person or their property, and (C) is ex ante; while NAR3 states that a threat is aggression (and therefore should be illegal) if it is a threat (A) to use force that (B) is directed against another person or their property and (C) is ex ante. NAR2 and NAR3 have vastly different implications, as a couple of examples will show.
Suppose I threaten someone: “Give me all your money, or I will hit myself.”(S1) My statement S1 is a threat (A) to use force, (B) is directed against another person, and (C) is ex ante. Under NAR2, then, my stating S1 would make me an aggressor. However, while S1 is a threat (A) to use force, and (C) the force would be ex ante, (B) the force would not be directed against another person or their property. Under NAR3, then, stating S1 would not make me an aggressor, because S1 fails to satisfy condition (B).
Now suppose I threaten someone: “If you hit me, I will hit you back”.(S2) Once again, my statement is a threat (A) to use force, (B) is directed against another person, and (C) is ex ante; so, under NAR2, stating S2 would also make me an aggressor. However, while my statement is a threat (A) to use force, and (B) the force would be directed against other another person, (C) the force would not be ex ante. Under NAR3, then, stating S2 would not make me an aggressor, because S2 fails to satisfy condition (C).
Which reformulation — NAR2 or NAR3 — is correct? That depends entirely on which one matches NAR1 most correctly.
In NAR1, conditions A, B, and C apply to a hypothetical action: the action should be illegal if it is (A) a use of force, (B) is directed against other people, and (C) is ex ante. In NAR3, again, all the conditions apply to an action: a threatened action should be illegal if it is (A) a use of force, (B) directed against other people, and (C) ex ante. However, in NAR2, while condition (A) applies to an action — it must be a use of force — conditions (B) and (C) apply sometimes to the action, and sometimes to the threat: under NAR2, a threatened action should be illegal if (A) the threatened action is a use of force (B) the threat is directed against other people and (C) the threat is ex ante. Therefore, NAR3 matches NAR1, and is a correct reformulation of it; while NAR2 does not, and is an incorrect reformulation.
If one understands NAR as NAR3, the above odd implications no longer follow. However, neither does Bennett’s argument ASR1; because plugging NAR3 into ASR1 results in an unsound argument:
1. NAR states that using, or threatening to use, force against other people or their property ex ante is wrong and should be prohibited.
2. NAR makes it illegal to use, or threaten to use, force against other people or their property ex ante.
3. To make an action illegal is to threaten to use force against other people or their property ex ante.
4. Therefore, NAR threatens to use force against other people or their property ex ante.
5. By self-reference, NAR states that NAR is wrong and should be prohibited.
This revised version of ASR1 is unsound because premise 3 is false: while a law is a threat made ex ante, it is not a threat to use force ex ante. Rather, the threat is that force will be used only after the fact: only after a prohibition is broken, and only against those who have broken it.
Since premise 3 is false, then 4 (as a conclusion from 2 and 3) is false as well. NAR is not a threat to use force ex ante, but only after the fact: only after (ex ante) force is used (or threatened), and only against those who have used or threatened it.
Bennett’s argument fails. ASR1 does not prove that NAR3 is self-refuting; and since NAR3 is the correct formulation of NAR, ASR1 does not prove that NAR is self-refuting.
Since Bennett’s argument relies on a false premise, his conclusion (that the NAP implies pacifism) is false. And since Petersen’s conclusion relies entirely on Bennett’s argument, it is false as well.
Libertarians can continue, without fear of self-refutation, to use the Non-Aggression Principle to derive legal systems and laws.
(1) Libertarian Party Platform, June 2014. http://www.lp.org/platform
(2) Libertarian Party Bylaws and Convention Rules, June 2014.
(3) Will Hammer, “Enter the Gulch: An interview with LP Presidential Candidate Austin Petersen,” Freedom Gulch, January 6, 2016. http://www.freedomgulch.com/enter-the-gulch-an-interview-with-lp-presidential-candidate-austin-petersen/
(4) Austin Petersen, “”The Non Aggression Principle (NAP) Is Pacifist Anarchism, and Should be Scrapped”, The Libertarian Republic, December 4, 2015. http://thelibertarianrepublic.com/the-non-aggression-principle-nap-is-pacifist-anarchism-and-should-be-scrapped/
(5) All page numbers refer to: J.H. Bennett, “Rethinking the Non-Aggression Principle.” Austrian Student Scholars Conference, February 24-25, 2012. http://www2.gcc.edu/dept/econ/ASSC/Papers%202012/bennett_rethinkingnonagression.pdf