Friday, October 4, 2013

Part II: The Aggressor-Owner Duality and Restraints On Property


In the duality model, some aggression (broadly defined) is necessary, and therefore proper.  A boundary between proper and improper aggression may be defined based on the difference between offense and defense.  This is self-evidently a key principle for objectively distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable use of force or fraud.  Condemning offensive aggression is at the heart of the non-aggression principle.  Without such condemnation, any defense of oneself or others could be deemed morally improper; or conversely, any sort of violence or fraud could be deemed morally acceptable.  It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between offense and defense, but that is a different question.

Another important limiting principle is necessity.  Under the principle of necessity, force is improper to the extent that it exceeds what is necessary for defense, under the circumstances.  Again, precise line-drawing may be difficult particularly when the defender is enduring an attack, but necessity is nonetheless a useful moral principal.   Without it, unnecessary violence and fraud is morally permissible.  Necessity does not require that the defender always retreat, because, among other things retreat may entail immediately placing the defender at greater risk of harm.  It should, however, prevent a defender from killing or unnecessarily injuring a clearly retreating or neutralized attacker, under almost all circumstances.

 Proportionality can be seen as an aspect of necessity.  Under proportionality, the degree of force employed should be proportional to the reasonably perceived attack or imminent threat.  If, for example, a persistent person keeps tugging at my sleeve despite my warning to stop, escalating immediately to deadly force is not justified if no deadly threat can reasonably be perceived.  Pushing the bothersome person away or slapping his hand might be a proportionate use of force, under these circumstance, even if a more peaceful approach would be more diplomatic.  That which is disproportionate is unnecessary, and vice-versa.

Thus, two essential principles limiting principles are evident, summed up in the saying that aggression, to be proper, must be necessary for defense

Under the defensive principle, improper aggression categorically excludes the use of offensive force.  How can defense be distinguished from offense?  By whether the action is directed towards preservation, or expansion.  Defense cannot expand the defender or anyone whom the defender intends to benefit: not the defender's influence or access to resources, not the defender's control over territory or people, not the defender's money, not anything tending to increase the defender or somebody whom the defender intends to benefit.  The best that defense can do is expend resources and take risks to defend against aggression, or restore what was wrongfully taken by aggression.  If the application of force increases the defender or any of his intended beneficiaries beyond a reasonable point of restoration, it is not defense.  It is offense.  It is something that justifies an aggressive defense by the person on whom the force is perpetrated.

When libertarians express the non-aggression principle as forbidding initiation of force "for political or social goals," they are providing a more tangible but limited expression of the underlying principle.  Political and social goals are merely limited examples of non-defensive purposes in the context of state action.  They are important examples, nonetheless, because state-sponsored aggression is so often justified for some supposedly "greater good" of a particular social outcome, such as more even distribution of wealth or health care.  Such supposed greater goods inevitably involve directing property, political power, or both to some favored person or class of persons, and away from the victims of the state-sponsored aggression.  Because such aggression increases some to the detriment of others without any legitimate justification for being merely restorative, it is inherently offensive and therefore condemned by the non-aggression principle.

All defense requires an aggressor against whom the defense is made.  By the same principle, aggression against innocent parties is always offensive.  This principle limits the use of aggression to recover wrongfully taken property. When aggression is justified for restoration of stolen property, such justification does not extend beyond those who actually stole the property or knowingly received it as such. And the rule of necessity still applies to acts of recovery.  The moral right to aggress to recover stolen property does not extend, for example, to the thief's descendants who unknowingly receive stolen property after the thief's estate is dissolved, or to bona-fide innocent acquirers of stolen property.  To provide a more concrete example, suppose a car thief steals a car, sells it to a "fence" who after professionally changing the registration numbers and providing a clean title, in turn sells it to an innocent purchaser.  The victim's right of restoration is preserved against the thief and the fence, but the victim has no moral right to steal the car back from the innocent purchaser or even to sue the innocent purchaser for restoration, assuming that the innocent purchaser is truly innocent.  Such limits are necessary to prevent aggression against innocent people and perpetuation of endless cycles of violence based on claims of ancient wrongdoing.  The children cannot be judged for the sins of their parents.  That is not to say the children should not sometimes be expected to voluntarily redress the sins of their parents, or that all present claims to property must be respected.  It is merely to say that restoration cannot justify aggression against innocent parties.

The one who strikes first should not automatically be considered the offender.  It is sometimes claimed that "the best defense is a good offense." Whatever is commonly meant by this saying, if the use of force is necessary for defense, it is by definition not offense, but defense.  For example, if a person who has made known his aggressive intention is preparing a weapon for an imminent attack, it may be merely defensive to aggressively neutralize the threat prior to the weapon being used, depending on whether or not it is reasonable for the defender to conclude she is under an imminent threat of attack.  A proactive attack may be defensive or offensive, depending on the circumstances.  If facing a pointed gun, the defender is not morally required to wait until the bullet is fired.

Great evils can and do come from an inability or unwillingness to draw reasonable distinctions between offense and defense.  Such evils often deliberately arise through politically-motivated propaganda directed at a credulous populace.  Persons who cannot or will not make reasonable distinctions between offense and defense are likely to commit an offense against their neighbors, without understanding their own moral depravity.  And when their neighbors counter attack in justifiable defense, the original attackers are outraged, and defend passionately.  And so they and their neighbors are at angry war with one another.  This is evil, and unnecessary.

A person's erroneous belief that political constructs such as "defending freedom," or "preserving law and order" justify acts of violence beyond what is necessary for the person's own defense or the defense of the persons on whose behalf he acts, is no less culpable for the error.  The soldiers or policemen who violate the non-aggression principle, or the politicians who direct their minions to do so, are not excused by virtue of their agency for the state.  On the contrary, any person who claims the moral or legal authority to act as an agent of the exclusive powers claimed by the state should be held to a higher standard, by virtue of their claim to exclusive powers.  In reality, due to the morally corrupting nature of power, the likelihood that aggression will be exercised morally is inversely related to the amount of power held by the aggressor.  The more power, the less morality.  Monopoly claims of state power inherently violate the non-aggression principle, at least by forbidding otherwise justifiable aggression by any agency that is not licensed by the state. The growth of state power inevitably results in massive disregard for any restraining moral precepts such as the non-aggression principle by state actors.  Immense and incalculable suffering results.

Sometimes it is difficult for reasonable persons to discern between defense and offense or the limits of necessity, which may lead to mistaken acts of aggression.  For example, unjustified force may be used by someone who is understandably mistaken about the underlying facts.  Rational people should be capable of recognizing mistaken aggression, at some point, and break the cycle of violence by forgiving errors.  Forgiveness should be possible when the original error is understandable under the circumstances.  Whether or not the aggression is forgivable, once the aggression is finished, the persons harmed should receive just compensation, but not a right to retaliation.  Vengeance and retaliation are simply aggression motivated by anger.

Much aggression is, of course, deliberate and offensive.  Sometimes the aggressor aims to increase her interests beyond mere restoration.  Such aggression is simply improper offense under the non-aggression principle, and should be condemned in all circumstances.  Whatever the intent of the aggressor, the use of violence as a tool for grabbing a greater share of wealth is inherently counter-productive.  Where violence is employed, the opportunities for wealth-building cooperation between the parties are forfeited.     

Not all deliberate aggression is intended to increase the aggressor.  Purely defensive violence, by definition, does not increase the aggressor.  If intentional violence harms the person on whom it is inflicted without increasing the aggressor and without being clearly necessary for defense, it may be considered wanton.  Wanton aggression is a purer form of evil, because it more efficiently destroys social order.  Not only does it cause unnecessary harm without any intended benefit, but also provokes more intense outrage that is more likely to cause blow-back and perpetuate a cycle of violence.  Carefully distinguishing between what is truly necessary for defense, and what is not, is an important moral duty.  Mistakes are likely to provoke justifiable outrage, leading to a cycle of violence. 

Under the duality model, unnecessary suffering is avoided by balancing the polarities of a duality.  In Part I of this essay, aggression and property rights are conceived as opposite poles of a duality.  Part II argues that under the non-aggression principle, certain limits on aggression are necessary to preserve social order.  For example, to avoid perpetuating cycles of aggression and suffering, it is necessary to forbear from all aggression except what is necessary for defense, avoid mistaken acts of aggression by carefully distinguishing between defense and offense, forbear from restorative aggression against innocent parties, and forgive mistakes once just compensation is paid.  These are essential aspects of the non-aggression principle.

Observance of the non-aggression principle, although necessary for lasting social order, is not sufficient.  Part III will argue that  limits on property rights are of complementary importance to the non-aggression principle for reducing suffering, and suggest some principles for discerning such limits.