Towards a Universal Human Ethic

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The effort to establish an incontestable proof for libertarianism as a universal human ethic is an immense undertaking and one that (to avoid any possible false anticipation) will not be accomplished in this short essay. We can also suggest that even if a libertarian scholar was to arrive at such a thesis it is unlikely that he would attract the attention and rejuvenation of political philosophy that, say, John Rawls did upon publication of his A Theory of Justice, an inherently statist work that found natural admirers amongst those interested in promoting the cause of the state. In this essay we will outline some important considerations that may help towards establishing libertarianism as the universal, human ethic.

The first consideration, and one that the present author is yet to see in print, is why should the burden of proof be on libertarians to establish their case? Doubtless it is the task of those who posit a particular political or ethical theory to justify their propositions, but too often in this kind of debate, democratic government is seen to be the natural, neutral or perhaps “default” position, with libertarians striving to promote something new and exciting, like a novel invention or a method that must be proven to be right before we could possibly envisage accepting it (although it seems as though we are never allowed to have it tried and tested). However, the case is, arguably, the other way round. Liberty – the freedom of each individual as an independent moral agent free from interference – is the natural, default status of human beings, as will become clear from our analysis below. It requires only negative action on the part of every individual human – the abstinence from physical invasion of the person or property of another. Anything else, however, requires a positive, conscious choice to disturb this peaceful situation and to interfere, physically, with somebody else. Those proposing such a positive course of action should surely be required to prove their case ahead of those who argue for retention of the natural state of affairs? Indeed, the difficulty of establishing a case for libertarianism does not result in the case for government being any stronger and at the very least proponents of the latter should be prepared to justify their positions as well. Often in these debates the libertarian is presented with a smorgasbord of issues and is required to explain how each and every one of them would be dealt with in a libertarian society and produce a just outcome; for some reason, the slightest weakness, the slightest inability of the libertarian to explain how a single issue, however minor, would be handled better in a libertarian society is taken as conclusive proof that libertarianism must be discarded, regardless of the finesse of the argument before that point. This is nothing but intellectual sloth, or rather a preference to bask in the comfortable status quo rather than confront formidable questions. It may be difficult to argue for the rights to self-ownership and private property, but it is much more difficult to propose that a select few should be able to override self-ownership and private property; that a select few need not earn their living by serving others through voluntary trade but can, instead, confiscate it; that the select few can enact laws and edicts with no regard to any primary rationale whatsoever; that the select few can establish massive, compulsory monopolies over whole industries such as transport and healthcare; that this little elite can accumulate debt that exceeds the productive capacity of the planet; that it can spend this borrowed money on invading and bombing civilians in foreign countries in conflicts that are not its concern. This side of the debate cannot be ignored. Now, to be sure, not all statists agree that these are legitimate things for the government to do and would wilfully deplore them in concert with libertarians (although much of this would be a criticism of that which government does, as opposed to the libertarian view that opposes government per se). But this demonstrates that the status quo is not the default option and opponents of libertarianism must be prepared to establish their own philosophies as being superior to libertarianism rather than simply dismissing one that they do not share.

The second consideration, and one that has been raised in previous essays, is the presuppositions of those who attempt to promote ethical theories of society. The characteristic of humans that distinguishes them from animals or unconscious matter is that they make voluntary choices to devote means towards ends, rather than simply relying upon instinct or the inertia of other matter. These voluntary choices are the substance of moral enquiry – because of the fact of scarcity, humans must choose between competing ends to which means could be devoted. An ethical theory informs the human of which ends he should pursue and which he should not with the means available. Without voluntary choice arising from scarcity moral theories would be redundant – total abundance would mean that every end is already fulfilled and hence moral theories would have no information to provide, and without voluntary choice moral theories would have no effect upon an action because the individual cannot change its outcome. Thus any being that makes voluntary choices is deemed to be a moral agent – the being to whom a moral theory applies. A theory of intrapersonal morality would concern only how moral agents should make choices in relation to amoral agents – those who have no voluntary choice such as dead matter, or objects. The moral question is “what is a good thing for this person to do with this object?” and not “what is a good thing for this person and for this object?” There is no such thing as moral rights arising in the form of dead matter and any moral enquiry concerns wholly the best ends for this individual human to pursue vis-à-vis that matter. With interpersonal morality, however, the question changes as now we are concerned about what is good for one actor and what is good for another in their relations between them. An interpersonal ethical theory accounts for not only the best ends of the one actor but also those of the other; thus, there arises the language of reciprocal rights and obligations that we possess and owe, respectively, to each other. As we noted, the essence of being human is that voluntary choices are completed through actions which are physical manifestations, making physical changes to the matter that is in the world and that this is the criterion of moral agency. If one person’s voluntary action, therefore, physically restrains or interferes with the person or property of another then what is the result? What happens when one person uses force against the person or property of another? Simply that this latter person is now prevented from making voluntary choices that result in actions devoted towards ends that he desires. Rather, his action is now forcibly directed, like a mere object, to the fulfilment of the ends of another individual. He therefore loses his characteristic as a moral agent and, worse still, as a human being entirely. For the very characteristic that makes him human – voluntary choice – has now been denied to him. What follows, therefore, is that any ethical theory that relies upon the force may be a perfectly applicable ethical theory to the individual actor doing the forcing – it may be perfectly acceptable if it is presented as a theory of what this one person should, treating every other human in the world as mere objects for his use. But if it is presented as an ethical theory of society then something is surely amiss – for how can such a theory apply to a society of humans, who, by virtue of that definition, each have independent moral agency making voluntary actions motivated by voluntary choices, when the substance of that theory denies them this very characteristic? It is no answer to this charge that, as humans, we have a reciprocal obligation to submit to the force of a person who may be said to have the “right to force”. Such an obligation does not make sense because an obligation presupposes the voluntary choice to carry out the substance of that obligation. If one is forced, however, there is no obligation at all – like a tree blowing in the wind it simply happens. Furthermore, the threat of force resulting in seemingly voluntary compliance is indistinguishable from force because there is no genuine choice – the same outcome will always result regardless of the victim’s choice to either carry out the forced ends voluntarily or to submit to violence. Moreover, neither does so-called “democratic oversight” of the enforcers – through, say, popular elections of the government – make any difference. In the first place, the answer of democratic oversight to seemingly despotic and autocratic propositions is reminiscent of the response of the socialists to Mises’ theory of economic calculation under socialism – in order to try and get around a very real problem faced by their theory they have to make socialism look like a market through various contrived devices such as bureaucrats “playing” entrepreneurs with money bestowed on them by the state – which raises the question of why not just adopt the market anyway instead of an inferior version of it? In just the same way here democracy lends a veneer to tyrannous and collectivist theories in order to make them look more free so that people are really “volunteering” to government edicts – which equally raises the question of why just not adopt genuine liberty? Regardless of this, however, democracy does not convey any genuine voluntary control to the individual. Rather, it conveys it to a majority of individuals. Any ethical social theory legitimated by democracy is not, therefore, a genuine human ethic but rather an ethic of the majority. Anyone in the minority is still forcibly subjected to ends that they do not want. Furthermore, this control by the majority would only be present in direct democratic systems where you get to vote on every individual issue. However, in so-called representative democracy, the political system under which most of us are languishing in the world today, the majority merely chooses the decision makers out of a carefully screened list once every four or five years – and there is no compulsion upon these leaders to carry out their manifesto commitments or electoral promises. The majority may have chosen the leaders but there is no guarantee that they would voluntarily submit to that which these leaders would decide to do once in office. Neither also does the fact that the tyranny may be partial rather than absolute save any collectivist social theory. For example, the government may forcibly confiscate 40% of your income in taxes; 60% of it is still yours to do with what you like as a free and independent human being (subject to all the myriad of government restrictions and regulations, of course). More specifically, the government does not regulate when you make a cup of coffee, or go to the toilet, or watch the television, or do your laundry. In other words there is still a very significant part of our lives in which collectivist ethical theories still allow us to be independent moral agents. However, this is only because the government has decided to leave you alone in these activities. If I had a working horse and I let it wander to any corner of the paddock that it wanted, sleep when it wanted, drink water when it wanted, none of this would change the fact that the horse is still entirely mine to dispose of as I wish. Indeed I might only allow these unilateral actions on the part of the horse because it makes it more pliable to being forced to work at a later date. In the same vein, most collectivist theories, absent some vague or waffling commitment to “fairness”, “equality” and so on, do not posit the substantive choices that should be made under their aegis – they merely advocate the procedural, political set up for making them. There is no reason why, in principle, government could not confiscate all or a larger chunk of your income, or actually regulate how often you go to the toilet or what you decide to wear. The de facto result of democracy is that it has seemingly legitimated any action of the government whatsoever, with democratic governments having made far more inroads to personal liberty of which ancient monarchs could only have dreamed. Substantive freedom under collectivism is based more upon what the populace is willing to bear rather than anything inherent in the ethical theory that informs it.

This proposition – that any theory that does not permit complete individual freedom can never be a genuine human ethic and therefore is, by its own standards, contradictory is not, of course, a watertight theory. It would, for example, have nothing to say to a person who did not wish to present his theory as a social theory and only cares about subjecting other people to the ends that he desires – in other words, a tyrant in the extreme. And indeed, just as a horse may need to be cajoled in working for you, so too may the tyrant pay lip service to espousing an ethical theory of society that works for everyone in order to placate the population, whereas privately he has concluded that only his ends really matter1. Nevertheless, it is certainly an important realisation whenever confronting someone who proposes such a theory. For if he is proposing a genuine theory of society then his theory is contradictory. If he is not, then his tyranny is simply revealed for what it really is and his true ends, to subject everyone else to his desires, will be laid bare for all to see. It is not likely that response to such a theory would contain an overwhelming degree of enthusiasm.

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1This is arguably the shortcoming of Hans Hermann Hoppe’s argumentation ethics, which relies upon the premise that ethical propositions must be determined by argument. Does this bind the person who doesn’t argue, or playfully argues only to cajole or placate while having already unilaterally concluded ethical propositions in his own mind?

The Scope of Moral Enquiry Part Two – The Ethics of Violence

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In part one of this three-part series of essays the necessary conditions for morality to arise in the universe were outlined. In summary, morality can only arise between agents who use means to derive ends through actions; interpersonal conflict arising from the scarcity of these means is the fertile ground that may begat moral norms that determine precisely how the conflict should be resolved.

Parts two and three will divide the discussion of morals as they arise into the spheres of violence and non-violence. The reason for this treatment will be become clear but suffice it to say for the moment that the scope of the morality of violence is very important in understanding how the moral order unfolds. This scope will be the concentration of this part of the series.

Let us begin with where we left off in part one – two agents have run into a conflict as they wish to devote the same means to their own, respective ends.

The Form of Means

Means in the universe are physical means. They are tangible objects, the tools which an acting being uses to achieve his ends. Even means which immediately appear as intangible are ultimately derived from physical matter. One’s mind, for example, must reside in the brain and its limitations result from its physical capabilities. Likewise, so must its ideas; or, ideas may exist on a piece of paper if they are written down, transferred from the brain to external matter. While thoughts and ideas are therefore not tangible they ultimately derive from tangible matter.

Scarcity therefore arises because of the essential physical limitations of means. The physical properties of matter that acting beings classify as means entail that they cannot be occupied or used simultaneously by more than one being. It must be stressed that this lack of ability is not owing to the physical qualities of the matter per se. Rather it is wholly determined by the minds of the acting agents. It may, in fact, be possible for beings to fulfil their ends by “sharing” matter in different degrees. Air, for example, exists in such abundance that each individual is able to draw enough of it exclusively without ever running into conflict with anyone else. A park bench may be shared by two people. But ultimately, the fulfilment of any end requires an agent to have exclusive use over the means to fulfil that end. People drawing in a lung full of air each can do so independently, but they cannot draw in the same air particles. Two people on the park bench may be sharing the bench but they must exclusively occupy their part of it. Or, to suggest a third example, people swimming in a communal pool may be sharing the pool peacefully and without interference of each other but they cannot each occupy the same particular part of the water simultaneously. If, in the minds of acting individuals, the ends they seek can be fulfilled by dividing matter continually, as we can with air, the park bench or the communal swimming pool, no conflict of scarcity will arise. But at some point the division will progress to a stage when to take it further would no longer support the ends of one or more acting agents. For example, if a third person wants to occupy the park bench then he may not be able to do so in a way that all three of its occupants can use it to satisfy their ends. If the pool gets too crowded then no one would be able to swim anywhere. It is at these points, when ends start to become unfulfilled, that the division of matter can progress no further and scarcity now exists. As it is no longer possible to divide matter any further to achieve the ends of all interested parties, it follows that if the matter is to be used for any end at all then this must be by way of a grant of exclusivity to one set of ends to the detriment of all others. Theoretically we could get to the subatomic level before conflict starts to exist – not, perhaps too outlandish if two scientists, living without conflict hitherto, suddenly find themselves wishing to use the same subatomic particle for their different, experimental ends. But at some point however deeply we go into the physical structure of the matter of which the means consists, if there is a conflict concerning these means then it is a conflict of exclusivity – that the means can only be devoted to fulfilling one set of ends at the total exclusion of an alternative set of ends1.

It is at this point that morality is poised to arise to answer the question whose ends should be fulfilled at the expense of and at the total exclusion of all others with the scarce means under conflict. But why does it arise and, more importantly, will we know what its content is? In answering these questions it is important to stress again that the trumping of one end over another is a distinctly physical contest – if two or more agents attempt to use the same means contemporaneously for their independent ends then their collision is physical. In short, we may say that they are behave violently. If any ends are to be fulfilled at all then all competing agents have to be physically ousted from the means to the benefit of one agent. First and foremost, therefore, morality is concerned with the sphere of violent conduct by one agent against another. It might not be even too outlandish to suggest at this point that morality, if it resolves conflicts over scarcity that are manifest as physical clashes, is an alternative to violence. For violence is the very physical embodiment of the conflict over scarce means and if morality arises to resolve these clashes then we may say that all morality is inherently anti-violent. This, as we shall see below, is indeed the case and what will be proven (in part three) is that any ethic promoting violence is in fact absurd and contradictory.

Conflicts over Individual Bodies

Let us now proceed to examine systematically where conflicts over scarce means will arise and attempt to deduce moral content from these situations.

The most basic form of matter over which conflicts can emerge between agents is their respective bodies. For example, A wishes to use the means of B’s body for his (A’s) ends whereas B wants it for his own ends. They might, of course, resolve the problem by a physical clash – in short, by violence. A takes B’s body violently and puts it to his own use. B may try to struggle to repel A with the conflict ultimately being decided by who is the stronger. But this result is not the action of morality, viz. what should happen. Rather the outcome is determined by what will happen when a stronger being is pitted against a weaker one. If the stronger person gaining control of the weaker’s body is to be considered just then there must be something further than the mere fact of strength that proves this. What, then, is the moral result to this conflict and what will be the outcome? More importantly, how can A and B come to know the content of the moral norm that prescribes their conduct in relation to each other’s bodies?

For a moment we must return to the universe where an acting agent, A, is the sole conscious being. There is only his body to use as means towards his ends through action and there is no other external matter. A therefore uses solely his own body as tools in the fulfilment of his ends. But in order to do this he must assume control over his body or at least the parts of it he uses as means for the moment. However not only does he assume control but he also, in his mind, believes that he can in the sense that it is permissible. In other words, his action reveals that in his own mind he believes he is fully justified in taking complete control over his body when he decides to use it as means in the fulfilment of his ends2. In all likelihood he would never actually ponder the question as to whether he should assume such control over his body and would for his whole life merrily go along using his body for whatever purpose he saw fit. But suppose that he did ponder the question – suppose that he suddenly had an alarming thought that he should not assume full control over his own body. How would he come to know the answer? Is he stuck without any ability whatsoever to determine the resolution to this conundrum that has struck him? Fortunately not, for in merely posing the question in the first place, let alone attempting to answer it, our agent has to take control over his body. The question takes the form of the thought that it is the product of his brain. The brain, in turn, is supported by the other organs, the heart, the liver, the lungs, the nervous system and so on and cannot operate without these organs. In short, he needs to take control of at least the majority of his body in order to even ask the question whether he should take control over his body. His answer is therefore provided immediately by an impossibility-proof. For if he attempts to answer the question in the negative, that he should not take control of his own body, he is immediately caught by a contradiction – for how can he come to the conclusion that he should not control his own body without, in fact, taking control of his own body?3

What is revealed therefore is that a person can justify his control over his own body in one of two ways. First, by taking de facto control over his own body, revealing his belief that he is permitted to do so. Secondly, should he doubt this permissibility, his justification is proven by pondering the very question.

In summary, therefore, in a universe where he is alone A believes that he is justified in assuming control over his own body. If B is introduced into this universe, A suddenly finds himself having matter that is external to him which he may desire to use as means in the fulfilment of his ends. He might not so desire, of course, in which case there would be no conflict. But suppose he did, suppose that A desires to use B’s body for his own ends and B wishes to use the same body for his own ends. What happens? Whereas for the entirety of his life A has not had to ponder his control over matter that can be used for his ends (and if he does he can safely conclude that he should indeed control it), for the first time he now encounters a being which also claims control over this matter. Why does morality arise in this situation and is there a moral outcome, a norm, which can be determined from this situation that will resolve the conflict?

We will recall that A claims control over his own body either by using it or by pondering whether he should have such control. A can therefore approach the matter of B’s body in one of two ways – he can either question, in his own mind, whether he (A) or B should have control; or he can invade B and attempt to take over B’s body. In both cases A is demonstrably justifying control over his own body as he cannot entertain even have such thoughts or carry out such actions without actually controlling his body. If A therefore assumes control over his own body and believes it is justified, what does this say about his potential control of B’s body?

There are only three possible outcomes to this question. First, that A should control B’s body or B should control A’s body; secondly that A and B should control equal shares of each other’s bodies; or that A and B each should control their own bodies exclusively. If A ponders the first possibility then he may declare that he should control B’s body (he already, as we have noted, cannot conclude that B should control A’s body). But how can he know this? In order to pose and answer this question he has had to claim control over the faculties of his own body. But how can he possibly claim control over his own body yet deny it to B? What is the trump card that A possesses? B is not an unthinking, un-desiring, un-choosing piece of matter like a rock or stone or anything else that A has encountered thus far; rather B is just like him, a desiring, choosing and acting human being. What is the difference between A and B that permits A to claim control over his own body yet deny B control over the latter’s body? If A thinks that he can deny B control over B’s body then A is behaving contradictorily by even having that very thought. For if he denies B’s control of B’s own body then A has to justify the control over his own body. But he cannot do this without controlling his own body. Therefore it is not possible to determine that either of A or B should control the other’s body. The same is true if A has no thoughts whatsoever and violently invades B. To carry out this violent invasion A must take control over his body. But he cannot justify doing so without also justifying B’s control of his own body. In short, A’s claim to control his own body renders his claim over B’s body void.

What of the second possibility? Again, to answer this A has to claim control over the faculties of his own body. But if part of his body should be controlled by B then does he not have to ask permission of B before he can ponder this thought? And if B is to give permission, then does B not in turn require the permission of A, the part controller of B’s body? And so and so on in circles until nothing is resolved. It is clear that this possibility is nonsense and must be discarded.

We are left, therefore, with the third possibility, that A and B should each control their individual bodies. Each of A and B can justify this without the problems inherent in the previous two possibilities. Each can claim control without any contradiction and neither has to seek the permission of the other. And by either pondering the question or by attacking the body of the other, each is estopped from claiming control over the other’s body by the necessary control he has taken over his own body.

Morality has therefore arisen as a result of this chain of logic. That A and B each are entitled to control of their own bodies and their attempts to prove control over their bodies renders their claims to the other’s body null and void. But what has been the effect of this morality? It has been to prohibit the physical clash. It has stated that one person may use a collection of matter as means for his ends whereas the other person may not. Morality has granted a right of exclusivity over the disputed matter to one person and denied it to the other. As the physical clash has been prohibited we may say that the moral result is anti-violent. It is this anti-violent result that is at the base of what is known as the non-aggression principle (a principle that, we might say, should even be elevated to an axiom). For any attempt by either A nor B to deny the non-aggression principle is to prove it, for each would, by merely having the very thought, simply prove it.

The claim to the existence of the non-aggression principle, the truth that we have deduced from the circumstances of moral enquiry, becomes stronger if, rather than merely pondering the question of bodily control independently, A and B engage in a debate as to who should be able to control B’s body. Again, there are only three possibilities that they can entertain – that one of A or B should control the body of the other; that they should each control shares of each other’s bodies; or that they should each control their own bodies independently of the other. Let us again consider these possibilities in turn. The first scenario immediately runs into a difficulty because the object of the debate is to determine who should own whose body. But the debate itself requires, as a precondition, that each participant in the debate should have his full ability to contribute to it and he can only do so if he has control over his own body. If A should control the body of B then the latter must seek the permission of A to participate in the debate. But given that we do not know the identity of the controller or the controlled until after the debate then this permission cannot be sought, nor can it be granted. For neither A nor B knows whether he is the grantor or the grantee and neither can act accordingly; and to determine who is who they need to debate, but cannot do so until they know that they have permission to open their mouths! This possibility is therefore an absurdity as the debate could not even occur if one should control the body of the other4.

The second possibility also descends into an absurdity. For again, neither could participate in the debate without the grant of permission from the other. But to grant this permission requires the use of one’s body. So the grantor of permission would have to seek permission to grant this permission! It should be obvious that this could never be done and this possibility is therefore excluded. The third possibility – that A and B should each control their own bodies – is the only one that runs into neither contradiction nor absurdity. Both A and B, with full control of their faculties, can enter and participate in the debate. The fact of debate therefore reveals that each participant should control his own body. If either A or B argues or to attempts to debate otherwise it is immediately revealed to be contradictory because both A and B must, by the very action of debating, prove that they should control their own respective bodies5 6.

Terminology of Rights

Up until now we have talked only of “control”, “controllers” and “controlled”. It is appropriate at this juncture to insert some terminology that distinguishes the types of right and obligation that emerge in the moral order we have been discussing.

Specifically, a person who has, in this instance, the moral right to a piece of matter is said to be the owner of that matter. That matter is then said to be his property, over which he has ownership. Morality therefore grants rights of ownership over matter that exists in the universe, matter that is the subject of conflict arising from the scarcity of this matter in the minds of different moral agents.

All of political philosophy attempts to resolve the problem of scarcity of means within the universe by establishing rights to ownership within the sphere of violence. Fundamentally, therefore, political philosophy is concerned with who should own what and whether they can use violence to enforce this claim. We have established here that each person should own his own body and that violence cannot be used to enforce the claim of anyone else. Each person therefore has a right to self-ownership, and from this right of self-ownership we derive what we termed above as the non-aggression principle. Any moral right that someone has to another person’s body must take effect within the sphere of non-violence and in harmony with the non-aggression principle, which will be the subject of the third part of this series. Any philosophy that advocates anything otherwise is essentially a philosophy of slavery, that one person, a master, may violently enforce his use over another person’s body. In a direct form slavery has officially been discredited in modern political thought. Now political philosophies are concerned with the ownership of external goods, things that are not part of our bodies but part of the outside world. These things are recognised as scarce by individual humans and political philosophy arises to solve this conflict. To this, we shall now turn.

Conflicts over Unconscious Matter – The Justification of Private Property

Individual humans, then, may enter conflicts not only over their own bodies but over external matter that they wish to use as means to bring about their ends. How does morality arise in this type of situation and which rights does it grant?

In just the same way as if the only matter in the universe of a lone human being was his own body, a lone human also would happily pick and choose whatever matter he stumbled across to use towards the fulfilment of his ends without ever considering whether he should indeed do so. When a second person appears, however, what happens?

In the first place, we need to examine the status of physical, unconscious matter that simply exists in the universe. As we established in part one, it has no desire or choice that begat action towards ends. It is dead and inert, subject simply to the laws of physics to which it becomes subject and any one time. It therefore does not control and, hence, own itself, nor does it feel any utility that derives from itself. But neither, at this point, is there any human that owns it either. Ownership can only arise as the outcome when the matter is the subject of a conflict of scarcity. But when there is no conflict any talk of ownership is nonsensical. The typical example is, again, the air we breathe. Because no two humans find themselves competing for this means as an object of their individual actions, no question of ownership arises and no one ever says that they own portions of air. Rights and ownership are meaningless concepts without the condition of a conflict arising from scarcity.

The first thing that is required then is for at least one individual human to recognise a good as scarce. But a human does not recognise a good as scarce simply by sitting and pondering the matter; rather he only recognises something as scarce if he makes it an object of his action. In a state of non-action, a good may be delivering utility to one or more humans but this will be unvalued utility – essentially, that the human does not regard the utility provided by the good as preferable or less preferable to any other. The essence of valuation is the preferring of one end and the setting aside of another because the means are not sufficient to sustain both ends, i.e. the means are scarce as the human feels he has to make a choice between ends. A human acts, then, because the means available, the good, are not furnishing the highest end that he desires when having made his choice. The object of his action is to divert it away from furnishing a less valuable end towards furnishing a more highly valued end. Action in relation to the good must clearly be physical – a person has to physically divert it from one end to another. In the terminology of economics this is to produce one good from another. The resulting good, post-action, is therefore a different good from the one that preceded the action and it is this difference, the later end that has been gained vs. the previous end that has now been discarded, that proves value, the later end being preferred to the earlier end7.

Before any conflict arises from scarcity, therefore, one human must have physically occupied the object at one point in time. The conflict emerges when a second person, B, attempts to do so later in time – B wishes to divert the good from A’s ends towards his own (B’s) ends. If it was already furnishing utility for B in the state in which A had placed it there would be no conflict. B’s ends can only be achieved by a physical diversion of the good. It is, therefore, the physical occupation of objects, making them the subject of one’s action, that prove their scarcity and hence provide the genesis for conflicts with others. Any conflict, therefore, involves a prior user of the good followed by later or potential users of the good.

Knowing this, then, what are the possibilities that can be derived from an instance of a conflict arising from scarcity? There are five:

  • That no one should own the good;
  • That each person in the world owns a part share of the good.
  • That the original occupier should own the good;
  • That a later occupier should own the good;
  • That each successive occupier can demand a part share of the good;

Let us consider each of these in turn.

If no one should own the good then this doesn’t resolve the conflict; rather it pretends that it does not exist. For if no one is able to own it then no one is able to use it; we stated above that conflicts form when a good, a means, is not able to furnish any end at all except by grant of exclusivity. If no one is able to control the matter exclusively then no one can make use of. If no one can make use of it then no one can fight over it. So the effect of this prescription is to simply outlaw conflicts arising from scarcity by stating that you may not make matter the object of your action. Apart from the fact that this would result in no one person being able to make food or water the object of his action and hence is tantamount to stating that each individual human has the moral obligation to wither away and die, the only justification for this outcome is some kind of egalitarianism – that one person may not own a good because no one else can at the same time. But the concept of equality in relation to physical goods can only be measured in one of two ways, either by the quantity of the physical matter to which a person is entitled or by the value that it holds. If no one is not allowed to make physical means the object of his action then, in terms of measurement of the physical amount of matter which each person may own then equality is satisfied. But the effect might be to render a psychic inequality. Given that such a situation will, as we have indicated, necessarily result in death, one person may derive a calming sensation from this thought and enjoy his final days peacefully while another may be fraught with worry at his impending doom. Has the prescription of universal non-ownership had an equal effect upon each individual human? If you ban both a sighted man and a blind man from owning a white stick, has the loss resulting from this prescription been the same for both of them? Alternatively, what if a person feels that he is better off from not having to own any goods? Hasn’t he been privileged while the person who desires to own goods has been penalised and does this not render a situation of intolerable inequality? Or in other words why should the value of avoiding conflict be the same to all parties? Some humans might be happy to be relieved of having ever running into conflicts over scarcity with other humans whereas others may relish the prospect.

The second potential resolution is that everyone in the world owns a part share of the good. But this is nonsensical for two reasons. First, the question of ownership only arises from a situation of conflict and this conflict is only generated when two or more persons recognise the good as valuable. To talk of ownership when there is no conflict (as there clearly is not when a single person recognises an object as valuable) is redundant. Secondly, if everyone owned part shares of every good in the world then each person would be required to ask permission of everyone else in the world before he could use any good at all. Yet how is a person to do this? How is he supposed to know the existence of and communicate with every person in the world in order to extract permission? Even if this could be achieved it could only be done so with physical goods, and so he would have to take ownership of physical resources in order to determine whether he has permission to take ownership of physical goods. Such circular reason reduces this possibility to absurdity. Moreover, if you grant someone else the permission to use a good it must mean that that person may use a good, over which you have part share, exclusively. If a person is to divert a good towards an end it must be to the exclusion of all others, as we noted above. Effectively, therefore, the act of granting permission is to de facto dispose of your share of ownership. Any residual “ownership” that is retained would simply be a meaningless, hollow vessel. The granting of permission is, therefore, akin to a part owner not regarding the good as valuable. But he has already indicated that he does not regard it of value by not making it an object of his action so the whole structure of part ownership and permission granting is superfluous8.

Having disposed of the possibilities of either no one or everyone owning a good, we must turn then to the third to fifth possibilities we outlined above, which consider the claims to ownership of each successive user in time of an object.

The third possibility is that the original occupier should own the good. Looking at his making use of a good in isolation, this action produces no conflict. By being the first user in time of a good, a person necessarily demonstrates that he and he alone recognised this good as valuable. We did, however, demonstrate above that when the good has not been the object of action it is in the state of being a free good, i.e. that it may have utility that is unvalued and this utility may serve many different people. Is it not possible that one person could come along and make a free good the object of his action, depriving everybody else of the utility that has hitherto been provided? It is indeed possible; in particular sights, sounds and smells every day exude from the world around us and if parts of this world are made the objects of other people’s action then we may suddenly find ourselves deprived of something in which we previously found utility. The building of a property on neighbouring land may, for example, exclude adequate sunlight or a view of a landscape that was, until now, enjoyed for free. But the whole point is that if a person has not made something the object of his action then whatever utility it was providing was valueless – i.e. he simply does not prefer one alternative over another. If a person values a view more than not having it then he will take steps through concrete actions to ensure that it renders that service perpetually. By not doing so he indicates that he does not care one iota whether the good continues to furnish the free utility or it does not – that is precisely the nature of value, that one thing is preferred to another, but by not making the good the object of his action there is no value to speak of and he has not “lost” anything at all. There is, therefore, no conflict generated by a person being the first user in time of a good. It is only when a second person attempts to do so a conflict is generated and it is this second person, not the first, who is the “cause” of the conflict. Indeed it is this very reason that the original owner is able to justify his claim of ownership over a good. For in doing so he does not arrogate to himself that which he denies to anyone else – he values and so gains, but no one else has lost anything at all. There is, therefore, nothing contradictory when he says “I should have this but no one else should” as no one else holds any value in the good which he has appropriated. Might one counteract this by saying that, after the original occupier claims ownership over the good, everyone else has then lost the right to become the original owner? Such a view can only derive from a misunderstanding of the nature of rights. Rights only arise as a result of conflict, but between ownerless goods and humans there is no conflict. No one has a “right to become the first owner” in any meaningful sense as against whom would this right be enforced? Who has the corresponding obligation? Does the good have the obligation to become owned by you if you are the first user of it? Or is it every other human? Clearly goods, i.e. dead matter, cannot have obligations for the reasons we explained in part one. We are therefore left with the latter, each other human being. Certainly they cannot interfere with you making use and occupation of hitherto unused goods, but this is not because you have a right to appropriate goods but because they have no right to inflict violence upon your body. If another human blocks you from taking ownership of goods then either he is violating your right to self-ownership or he is the true owner of the goods in question and hence you are invading goods that he owns. There is no other possibility. No one, therefore, loses any “right” or anything at all by the first user-occupier claiming ownership over a good. For this reason, we need to move onto considering whether a later user in time should have a right to ownership that trumps that of the first.

The fourth of our possibilities, then, is that a later user should own the good. While the effect of this possibility is to grant exclusive ownership to a person who recognises the good as valuable, this only applies until someone else recognises it as valuable also. But this second person only enjoys ownership until a third person recognises it as valuable, and so on and so on. It should be clear that this possibility is simply tantamount to legalised theft, each person being able to simply take whatever he wants from another person. That alone suggests, prima facie, that this possibility cannot be defended. Indeed, an immediate practical problem is that, once deprived of a good, the first owner could then qualify as the third owner and would immediately try to take back what he previously owned. People would therefore behave as if the first owner was the true owner, attempting to defend and snatch back their property as soon as it was claimed by a second person. The outcome would therefore be based on de facto possession which can only be decided by violence, i.e. which person is physically able to wrestle the good from another. The result, therefore, is not to resolve conflicts but to actively promote plunder, pillage and war of all against all. However, the main reason why the second person cannot come along and claim ownership of a good is that now the good has been valued. Whereas the first owner was the only person to recognise the good as valuable and hence could claim ownership without inflicting any loss on anybody else, the second owner can only do so by inflicting a loss on the original owner. The act of the second owner would be to divert the good to an end which he prefers and the original owner does not. The second owner faces the problem, therefore, of having to prove why his ends should be preferred to those of the original owner. How can he prove this? Unfortunately for him, he cannot, for value is indicated solely by the act of preferring one end and setting aside another. We can say that one person prefers end X to end Y when, through action, he embraces the former and discards the latter. But we cannot measure this, we cannot say by how much end X is preferred to end Y. There is, therefore, no “measurement” of value that enables us to compare relative values between owners. All that we can conclude from a second owner demanding a good from an original owner is that the second owner prefers his ends to that of the first owner and the first owner prefers his ends to that of the second owner. But even if this was not the case, even if we could say by how much one person values a good more than another, why should this justify a second person taking away the goods from a first owner? The loss is still a loss to that first owner that isn’t offset by any gain to him. Why should, in a world of being able to measure value, the fact that his loss is “small” be outweighed by someone whose gain will be “large”? Why is the “larger” gain of greater import that the “smaller” loss?9 In any case we must reiterate that the second occupier actually doesn’t lose anything at all by the first owner’s enforcement of his right to the good. Not only does the first owner’s original appropriation cause no loss of value to anyone, as we indicated above, neither too does his continuing claim to ownership. When the second person arrives on the scene he does so without possessing the physical good or being able to enjoy its utility. When he leaves empty handed he is in exactly the same position – without possession of the physical good and without being able to enjoy its utility. The first owner’s enforcement of his right has not caused any change to the second person’s condition whereas the second person’s enforcement of his (the second person’s) right would very definitely cause a loss to the first owner. Additionally we might consider the fact that it is often the combination of the good and the original owner’s labour that has produced the good into a final good that renders it more attractive to the second person than it was when it was in its ownerless state. A completed house is likely to be more valuable than a pile of un-quarried stone; a pile of harvested wheat is likely to provide more attractive pickings than seeds and an unploughed field. Indeed plunderers throughout history have seldom taken goods upon which very little labour has been exerted by their original owners – they have always taken final, finished goods that are in a state of ready consumption (or capital goods, i.e. machines and tools that render the act of production less burdensome and laborious). Even where this wasn’t the case which country would be more likely to be suitable for conquest – one where there was rich, fertile soil or one that was mostly covered in desert? People naturally, all else being equal, gravitate towards the goods that will provide them with their ends for a minimum of their own exertions and the effect of an original owner producing goods with his labour is to reduce the necessity of a second person’s labour if the latter can successfully confiscate the good. The result then is that the second owner not only takes the good but also the original owner’s labour – his demands as a later owner in time are not only for the good but for the benefit of the original owner’s effort and toil. Indeed the only reason why anyone ever wants to steal something is because it’s less work for them to do so than going to the effort and expense of acquiring the good through exchange or through production of it oneself. For this reason, then, any claim of the second owner over the first amounts to the enslavement of the first owner that funds the parasitic existence of the second person10.

For all of these reasons, then, there is no support for the claim of a later person in time to the ownership of an already owned good11.

The fifth and final possibility to consider then is where each successive occupier of a good can demand a part share. We needn’t dwell on this for long as it fails for a combination of reasons that the second and fourth possibilities fail. In particular, it should be noted that this solution requires the sharing of the good in question. We’ve already discussed how this does not resolve the conflict but merely prolongs it as none of the prospective owners can fulfil his ends without exclusive ownership over the good

In sum, therefore, the only possibility that is just is that the first owner in time of a good, the first one to subject it to his action, is the owner of the good. All other possibilities lead to absurdity and cannot be defended.

Conclusion – Property, Violence and the Law

In order to contravene the principle that the first owner may not own his good it requires a second person to act physically in relation to the good – in short, he must act with physical aggression, i.e. violently, towards the owner and the good. If he doesn’t then all is left well alone and the first person continues to own his good and the second goes away empty handed. What we have revealed then is an extension of the ­non-aggression principle that we outlined above. That morality arises, in a state of conflict arising from the scarcity of means, to pronounce that every individual human owns not only his own body but also the previously ownerless goods that he physically appropriates and that this ownership can only be sustained by the non-violence of everyone else. Therefore any action by another that contravenes the physical integrity of (i.e. acts violently towards) another person’s body or originally appropriated goods is immoral. The effect of morality, therefore, is to pronounce that violence is inherently immoral.

We shall end this survey with a summary of the above while identifying it with specific terminology that is applied to the norms that we have outlined.

  • Every individual human owns his own body exclusively and has the right to its physical integrity, vesting in him the right to self-ownership;
  • Every individual human, after appropriating previously unowned matter, has the exclusive right to the physical integrity of that matter hence becoming its owner; the matter in question becomes his property. The institution of this method of ownership (coupled with voluntary exchange) is known as private property;
  • These two principles form what is known as the non-aggression principle; although as we have suggested above we may also term it the non-aggression axiom, but the former term is more widely used;
  • To argue to the contrary of these two principles is either contradictory, absurd, or both;
  • Social norms that derive from the non-aggression principle (you should not murder, you should not steal, etc.) are known as laws; the body of these norms together is known as The Law. Laws can be distinguished from other norms such as customs, manners, etc. in that they are concerned with violent action. This will be elaborated in part three.

In part three of this series we shall consider the morality of non-violence. We shall first explore some common objections to the non-aggression principle before providing its ultimate justification. We will also consider the crucial area of defence and enforcement before proceeding to examine the place of other moral norms and moral theories, concluding that these can only ever take effect non-violently. Finally we will speculate upon the content of non-violent norms that may emerge in a world where the non-aggression principle is adhered to.

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1These conflicts can arise from one of two sources – either the quantity of means diminishes or the number of acting agents viewing the means as a tool for their ends increases. In both cases the ratio of ends to means increases.

2By this I mean control de jure – that he should be able to take full control even if he does not physically possess it at a particular moment. We are, at this point, trying to avoid the language of rights, obligations, and specifically of ownership which are interpersonal concepts. In effect, however, what our lone agent is claiming over his own body is ownership.

3We will leave aside the question of whether this justification of control over his own body extends to areas of the a person’s body that are not necessary for sustaining the brain such as the arms or legs. Suffice it to say that these are equivalent to external matter which will be dealt with below.

4What if, as may be contested, one of the two, say A, believes himself to be the true controller of B and believes himself to be granting permission to B to engage in the debate? But this would be an absurdity also, for there are only two possible reasons for A to enter this debate – either he wants to determine the truth or he is debating B for some other reason, say mere amusement. The former reason admits the possibility that A should not control B and the circumstances of the debate are as we just outlined. If the reason is the latter, then there is no debate at all and A’s control of B is excluded for the reasons that we explained above.

5Another possibility is that A and B could agree to fight over each other’s bodies, the victor claiming ownership over the loser’s body. But this would mean that the violent outcome is then based on consent and that the prior control of A and B over each other’s bodies is recognised.

6The leading exponent and, indeed, the pioneering expert of this line of thinking is Hans Hermann Hoppe. See his On the Ultimate Justification of the Ethics of Private Property, Ch. 13 in The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, and his The Ethical Justification of Capitalism and Why Socialism Is Morally Indefensible, Ch. 7 in A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism.

7We must emphasise that strictly, the value is in the end that the good provides as compared to a competing end rather than in the good itself; it is merely imputed back to the good and hence we talk of a “valuable” good. When we say that a good is transformed or produced this doesn’t necessarily mean that, from the point of view of atoms and molecules, the good is a different “thing” from what it was before the act of production. Rather, the difference is that in the actor’s appraisal the good, before making it the object of his action, was furnishing a different end from the one after. This act could be as simple as moving an object from one place to another. It is, therefore, a mistake to believe that production involves some kind of “creation” outside of the imagination of the acting human. For no person can create matter as such, merely physically rearrange the form that it takes so that it provides one end as opposed to another. The fact that the value is in the end rather than in the good itself is demonstrated by the furnishing of services as opposed to goods. When we say that goods are traded, it means that the physical object furnishing the valuable end is itself exchanged. With “services” however, the goods that furnish the end are simply hired for a period of time and are not exchanged outright. With a taxi journey, for example, you pay for a space in time to use the labour of the taxi driver and his vehicle, but you do not end up possessing these physical goods. What you paid for was the end that was furnished and not the goods themselves. It should be clear that what economists classify as “services” as opposed to “goods” are most often rendered by labour (incapable of outright trade) and durable goods that can be parcelled out to use by different people in slices of time. But all valuation is of the ends, not of the goods that are used to produce the ends.

8A part share of ownership over every good is the theoretical justification encountered in the rhetoric of “public” ownership of goods – that “we all” own everything or that “the people” own everything. However, because of the problems we outlined this always falls subject to the “iron law of oligarchy” where a select few act as caretakers for the goods in question and devote them to uses on behalf of the populace. No person outside of this elite has any de facto, exercisable ownership over anything and it is clear that the goods can only be devoted to uses desired by some people at the expense of uses desired by others. In short, if everyone owns a good, no one does.

9It is this aspect that provides the first insight into why non-violence, private property and free exchange is the only way that all humans can live in harmony; for the contrary necessarily entails that someone must experience loss when another gains.

10As Bastiat puts it when commenting on Communism: “Community applies to those things we enjoy in common by the destination of Providence; because, exacting no effort in order to adapt them to our use, they give rise to no service, no transaction, no Property. The foundation of property is the right we possess to render services to ourselves, or to others on condition of a return. What Communism wishes to render common is, not the gratuitous gift of God, but human effort – service.” Claude Frédéric Bastiat, Property-Community, No. 8 in Harmonies of Political Economy, Book One, No. VIII in The Bastiat Collection (2nd ed, Ludwig von Mises Institute), p. 687.

11One final consideration – what if we said that a latecomer could simply declare that he owned a good that another person hitherto owned? Could this be defended? No, for this situation would effectively be the same as that in our second scenario, with everyone owning a part share of the good. For if anyone can enforce the right to deprive another person of the good by oral decree then this right is vested in him by virtue of his status as a human being and hence it is extant in all humans across the entire world (i.e. that the right exists in each person prior to any conflict). Indeed, what would happen is that anyone, at birth, would simply, from wherever he stands, declare that he owns the entire world and we would literally end up with everyone claiming ownership over everything. And hence, once again, in order to act in relation to any good at all a person would again have to ask permission of everyone to use the good, with all the absurdities that this entails.