The Non-Aggression Principle marks one of the most unique things about the liberty movement. No other party contains such a dedication to decreasing violence and an ability to understand how actions typically seen as benign or necessary are aggressive in the grand scheme. It offers a simple base to judge government and personal actions based on the harm it causes to body or property.
Simplicity, however, offers its own set of issues when it comes to applying this principle and I witness too many hold the NAP on a religious pedestal. While non-aggression is a good, broad term to recognize the violence behind taxation or licensing, it also has a major weakness because of this fact.
Let’s consider a thought experiment: I have two dogs that I keep locked up in a cramped room in my basement. I’m training these dogs to fight other dogs and I reward them for biting each other through feeding them bits of fried chicken. One day, I’m feeling generous and I decide to take my dogs to the park where there is a family having a picnic. Their child opens their basket and pulls out a leg from Kentucky Fried Chicken, and my dogs sprint towards him. Fearing for my own responsibility if the child should get hurt, I renege my ownership of the dogs and claim they are no longer mine. The child is mauled and has to go to the hospital.
Am I responsible for the harm the dogs caused since they were not my property prior to the attack?
Another thought experiment: I run a grocery store and absolutely detest stealing. I notice a 7-year-old child has taken a candy bar, puts it in his pocket and heads for the front door. As he walks outside, I grab him by the shirt and throw him to the ground and proceed to kick him in the head.
Was my reaction to this theft appropriate?
Both instances fall perfectly in line with the NAP because it is such a broad principle, and it only states that force is acceptable under self-defense. There’s no explanation of whether an escalation in violence is an appropriate reaction to aggression, or how ownership is defined in regards to property that could cause harm.
I suspect most libertarians would say that the actions of myself were not acceptable and that in both cases I had done some sort of wrong. This demonstrates that the NAP has some exceptions that only provoke more questions. If someone walks across my lawn, can I shoot them for trespassing? In what situations is it acceptable to use force in defense and when should I demand restitution?
This is why I have argued multiple times that the NAP is a great foundation for a moral philosophy, but you can’t survive the elements in a home that is solely foundation. A society needs to develop a sense of what actions are just responses to make the walls on top of the foundation, then it needs to create system of evaluating if the value of the aggression qualifies compensation, community service, or prison for the rooms within those walls, and finally, it needs a system to distribute this justice to act as the roof.
What does all of this matter to libertarians? It allows an opportunity to not be called out for a simplistic moral belief, and fleshing out one’s individual belief on the optimal way to handle aggression will allow for more credibility. In addition, it is easier to move away from the impression of dribbling rhetoric in lockstep, something I suspect individualists would desire regardless. The NAP needs to be the hook and bait so that those who might be curious can be reeled in for even further discussion, not the end-all-be-all of libertarian moral and legal philosophy.
You can read more from Luke Henderson on Think Liberty here.