2018-12-11

Argue From First Principles, Or Help Everyone Else?


A few days back, a friend of mine posted something thoughtful on Facebook about the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP).

The Non-Aggression Principle is for many people a foundational libertarian belief. The idea (for those of you still unfamiliar with it) is that it is ethically impermissible to behave aggressively toward another person unless they have aggressed upon you first. It’s much like pacifism, except that it allows a moral agent to reciprocate if someone commits an aggressive act against them.

To many libertarians, just two principles need be excepted, and from those two principles, all of libertarianism logically follows. The NAP is one of those principles, and the concept of property rights is the other. Thus, if you respect property rights and believe in non-aggression, then you do not need any additional axioms to justify a libertarian belief system.

I guess the idea is that a belief system is more appealing if it is less complex. Two foundational axioms is better than three; one would be even better than two.

I don’t know that I subscribe to this version of libertarianism. I definitely believe in property rights, and I almost certainly believe in the NAP. I say “almost certainly” because there may be situations out there in which I might feel justified in violating the NAP, although in general I think the NAP is a good guide to principled human interaction. Suppose a car was headed straight for my daughter, and by some complex set of facts, the only way to save her was to push someone else in front of the car instead. Would I do it? Yes. I don’t want my daughter to die. Does this make me less of a libertarian? I don’t think so. I think there are additional considerations. The NAP (and also property rights) is insufficient a moral principle for every conceivable set of facts.

My friend pointed this out. He said that the NAP was a good idea, but that it wasn’t a foundational idea. That is, there are other more foundational principles that establish the NAP, and it is those principles that are important. The NAP is just an extension of those even-more-basic principles. I agree with his reasoning.

There is something about libertarianism that entices libertarians to attempt to set out an entire principled manifesto of libertarianism from its foundation. Everyone tries to do it. I may have even tried to do it myself. In the end, though, I think this is a fool’s errand. For one thing, no one will ever agree entirely with whatever reasoning you set out. You might come up with some strong ideas, but no one will ever accept the whole of your belief system, except perhaps yourself.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the best you can do is create a foundational belief system for yourself, and follow it as close as you can, until your dying day. Just doing that much is quite a feat. Most people don’t ever do that.

I myself did such a thing out of pure necessity. I was raised in a place where orthodox religion was pervasive. My choices were to either accept the dominant orthodoxy, or to find my own way. For a long time, I studied the world’s other orthodoxies. I found some value in all of them, but none of them provided me with a complete enough belief system to put my hungry heart to rest. I needed to find my own answers, and for the most part, I managed to do that.

My life is half over and I found my answers. I suppose that for the second half of my life I should help other people find theirs.