Libertarianism, Morality and Religion

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A current recurring debate within the libertarian movement is that between so-called “thin” and “thick” libertarianism, the belief that libertarianism concerns only self-ownership and private property (or at least their derivative non-aggression) on the one hand (“thin”) or whether there are certain other moral imperatives or ends that are, at the very least, part of the libertarian spirit and serve to strengthen its message or, at most, are necessary for its cause (“thick”). In providing a contribution to this debate it is important to understand the place of libertarianism within two things; first, within the wider category of moral philosophy; and second, within the place of the personal ethics of individual libertarians.

Libertarianism and Moral Philosophy

Addressing the first question, it will be argued here that any concept of “thick” libertarianism misunderstands the fact that the purpose of libertarianism is not to espouse a positive theory of interpersonal morality; rather it is to preserve the character of individuals as moral agents to ensure that such theories are possible in the first place.

Questions of morality arise because humans face the constant and ceaseless condition of scarcity. Humans must prioritise the ends that they seek to fulfil as they lack sufficient means with which to satisfy all of them together. Moral considerations arise to inform this prioritisation and would be absent if it was not necessary. If every fulfilment could be achieved without the need of choice then morality would serve no purpose as every possible end would instantaneously be gratified. The necessity of choice, however, requires a means for informing that choice, a way to determine the best outcome that can be achieved with the means available. The result of any choice is an action that has a real physical effect upon the condition of the means, the matter which is the object of the action. A part of the universe is changed physically from serving one end to serving another.

We can think of morality as consisting of two parts or categories. The first part is unilateral or intra-personal and arises where you have a single, desiring, choosing and acting human surrounded only by dead and unconscious matter. Any choice that the human makes will result in an action that will have a physical effect upon at least part of this unconscious matter, for example an apple that is eaten or a piece of wood that is used for a fire or to build a house. Morality, in this instance, will inform the acting human how he should best serve his ends with the means available but there is no reciprocal relationship that arises between the human and the matter around him. Possessing no desire, choice, or action of their own and with their entire condition and motion subject solely to the laws of physics and chemistry, these external entities cannot be described as moral agents and are owed no moral obligation, nor do they possess any moral rights. Moral imperatives may serve to create boundaries upon that which you may do with a certain piece of unconscious matter, but this will entail no reciprocal moral burdens and benefits vis-à-vis that matter1. The second part of morality is bilateral or inter-personal and arises between two or many desiring, choosing and acting beings, all of whom may run into conflicts of scarcity as they seek to fulfil their individually valued ends with the means available, including their own bodies. Not only is someone else’s body inhabited by a conscious and end-seeking being, but the dead and unconscious matter around us may now also be claimed by someone else in order to fulfil that person’s ends and not ours. Hence we have moral rights and obligations that spring up between the acting beings in order to avoid or otherwise resolve these conflicts. There are two sub-divisions to this morality. First is the realm of physical enforcement of moral ends – what we might call violent enforcement. One human being may bring about his end by subjecting another to force or violence. The result of this is that one human’s ends are gained at the expense of another’s. This subdivision is the primary preoccupation of political philosophy – which moral norms may be enforced physically and what are the boundaries of that enforcement? The second sub-division is the realm of non-physical or non-violent enforcement of moral ends – those norms that may only be enforced by persuasion, cajoling, association or non-association, and so on. Furthermore, morality is used to serve as a benchmark or a standard of judgment of moral beings. We apply certain moral codes to other people’s behaviour in order to judge whether they have behaved morally or are, indeed, good and moral persons or evil scoundrels. This straddles both of the categories of morality we just outlined – we make judgments of people’s behaviour both in regard to unconscious matter (i.e. what they might do when alone, in their own home etc.) and of their behaviour towards other people. We may then modify our own behaviour in response to what we see in them – either embracing or befriending them if they are morally good or otherwise attempting to enforce our moral code if we believe them to be morally bad.

Libertarianism, thinly conceived, perfectly preserves these categories in order to provide a foundation for wider moral theory. The critical aspect of all moral agency is that an individual moral being retains the freedom to choose and to act upon his choice. Any physical restraint results in that person not being able to bring about his chosen ends, and any action of his that is compelled by force is not one that he has chosen. In other words the individual would cease to remain as a moral being at all. Libertarianism places only the rights to self-ownership and private property over unconscious matter that is previously unowned (or voluntarily transferred) within the realm of violently enforced inter-personal morality. Any person may repel any invasion of his body or property physically in order to preserve his character as a moral agent. Libertarianism’s sole preoccupation with this fact ensures that this bedrock is firmly established so that we can then go on to develop further theories of intrapersonal and interpersonal morality, to make prescriptions about people should behave, and to make judgments about the behaviour that they do make.

Let us consider, as an example, a proposition of interpersonal morality – that a person should give some of his earnings to the poor. A libertarian would state that this moral proposition would not be violently enforceable and the person would have to choose to donate his money. Such a moral proposition only makes sense when you apply the libertarian foundation of self-ownership and private property, preserving the individual’s character as a moral agent. The proposition concerns how the individual should freely choose to behave in relation to others, and having so behaved we can then make judgments about his moral character. If, on the other hand, it is proposed that the person should be forced to donate his earnings to the poor then this proposition ceases to concern the choice of the individual at all. By enforcing the imperative violently the individual ceases to have any input into the action and is treated simply like a piece of dead matter, such as a hammer or plank of wood – an unconscious tool for the furtherance of other people’s ends. However, the subtle intellectual change that has occurred is that the proposition is no longer a proposition of interpersonal morality. It is, rather, a proposition of intrapersonal morality directed at the enforcing agent, such as the tax collector or bureaucrat. It is not in any way instructing the taxed individual how to behave at all; rather it is instructing his enforcer to take money from him and do X, Y or Z with it. We cannot in any way judge the behaviour of the taxed individual as being “moral” or “immoral”; having no participation in the decision we cannot say that he is a better or worse being as a result. The only person we can judge is the enforcer and whether he behaved morally or immorally by taking the money. What we realise therefore is that any theory of interpersonal morality that enforces its decrees by violence is not a theory of interpersonal theory in any way at all. It simply a theory of intrapersonal morality for the rulers, concerning only how those in positions of power should act unilaterally, treating all other human beings as dead, unconscious tools to be exploited for whatever ends the theory sees fit. Such a theory can never be a theory of society; it preserves only the moral agency of the leader or the controller, degrading all other humans to the level of expendable resources.  Indeed, many moral propositions in public and political discourse today are not directed at the individuals in society but are, rather, are directed at government: “Government should do more to help the poor; government should build more houses; government should do more to curb fossil fuel use; government should provide a better education for my children, etc.” Only the rulers are required to make moral decisions and moral choices while the rest of us are reduced to the level of pets, to be worked, fed and watered but otherwise absolved from any responsibility for what we do. Moreover none of this changes simply because the rulers are democratically elected or, from time to time, the previous minority becomes the majority and the previous rulers may switch places with some of the previously ruled. It simply means that the propositions are directed at functional positions (Prime Minister, President, Congressman, etc.) rather than at specific, unchanging individuals.

It should be equally clear that nothing about such theories relying on force and the propositions that derive from them can make a more “moral” or “good” society for we can only judge a person’s behaviour when he is free to act. When he is forced to act or to not act then we can make no moral judgment of his action whatsoever, just as we cannot say whether a tree is behaving morally or immorally when it shakes in the wind. Indeed, as history has demonstrated amply, the more likely result is a moral degradation of the populace – laziness and lack of motivation caused by the bitterness and resentment at being forced to achieve someone else’s ends, and corruption and black marketing when there are any attempts to circumvent them.

It is this crucial recognition that libertarianism, thinly conceived, has to offer, and why it is becoming so attractive as the failure of government and forced rule becomes more obvious each and every day. Thin libertarianism may have nothing to say whatsoever on any positive moral and political theories. Rather, when those theories advocate violent enforcement, libertarianism, in effect, says “Stop!” Slow down, back track, and understand that for any coherent theory of interpersonal morality you need to preserve self-ownership and private property. Given that this recognition is so desperately lacking, any positive ends that are built upon libertarianism as a superstructure through any “thickening” of its concept is likely to distract from its vital core. In the short term this is likely to dilute the distinction between libertarianism and all other political theories (whether they be conservative or progressive) that has made it so successful – possibly leading to the subsuming of libertarianism as a branch of those political traditions. In the long term, there is the danger that any moral superstructure that is built on top of the foundation of non-aggression will come to jettison the crucial foundation itself. This is arguably what happened to classical liberalism, resulting in its transformation into the statist liberalism we know today2. However, our argument here does not simply concern strategy – that which is necessary for preserving libertarianism, or that which may be best in persuading people of the virtues of a free society and attracting them to the libertarian cause. Rather, the recognition of the preservation of individuals’ moral agency before any further positive, interpersonal moral theory is developed is absolutely essential for conceptual clarity and libertarianism’s place as the bedrock of interpersonal moral theory is required intellectually and not just practically.

We might also point out that there appear to be no positive ends and values that flow self-evidently from self-ownership and private property, or from their derivative, the non-aggression principle. Rather, any such ends and values that are advanced by the individual “thick” libertarian tend to concern that individual’s own personal philosophical preoccupations, such individuals including those with very strong libertarian and scholarly credentials3. It is difficult to see how such varying ends and values flow self-evidently from the same principle. More likely the individual “thickest” identifies the state as the roadblock towards the achievement of his own personal, societal ideals and so he advocates freedom. But he then makes the mistaken leap of tying those ideals – that which he wishes to accomplish through freedom – to freedom itself. We do not mean to suggest, of course, that there is no purpose or importance in debating which values and ends are likely to prevail in a free society, or over those which may assist the libertarian cause (as we shall proceed to do below). But such a debate has nothing per se to do with libertarianism’s place in the sphere of moral and political theory.

Libertarianism and Personal Morality

Addressing now the second aspect of libertarianism – that of its place within the moral outlook of the individual libertarian – it is sufficient, for a person in his capacity as a libertarian, to recognise only private property and self-ownership and to not develop any further moral superstructure upon those foundations. But in his capacity as a human being who must take his place in society we have to stress that such a limitation is woefully inadequate. Libertarianism only states that each and every person should be able to act free from physical incursion. It does not go on to say how he should choose to act, which decisions he should make in allocating the scarce means at his disposal. The consistent libertarian who claimed that self-ownership and private property are the only moral considerations would, in fact, never act at all as he would possess no ends to strive for and no values of which he would seek fulfilment. Rather we all as human beings have values, choices that we believe are right and choices that we believe are wrong, and we all seek to make the right choices and criticise those who do not. Libertarians can probably be forgiven for not having, thus far, emphasised their personal moral theories alongside their libertarian credentials. The violence and destruction wrought by the state has given us plenty to concentrate on. Nevertheless, such a development and espousal of a personal moral theory is critical from both a strategic as well as an intellectual point of view. Not only is it possible for someone who abides strictly by the non-aggression principle to be a thoroughly rotten and unpleasant individual, but the greatest danger lies in the fact that libertarians, by refusing to interfere violently in certain peaceful but morally repugnant ends, may be misinterpreted as going further and actively condoning and praising such behaviour. Simply because we collectively, in our capacity as libertarians, have nothing to say about non-violent actions and choices may result in us appearing as the “anything goes” crowd, failing to address the genuine and heartfelt moral concerns of people we hope to persuade of the virtues of a free society. It is often not sufficient for people to hear that loose abstractions such as “the market” or “private charity” will, for example, suffice to take care of the poor, even if we demonstrate their superiority in doing so. Rather, with any moral issue we are presented, we must be prepared to take a personal moral stance. Our only difference is that we would not violently enforce that stance but would, rather, seek to promote it non-violently and to persuade people to make what we think would be the right choice. It is, therefore, perfectly commendable to state, for example, that people should not be forced to give to the poor but that it would be a good thing for them to choose to do so; or to state that no one should violently stop another person from taking drugs but that to do so would be a morally bad choice and that we would not wish to associate with those people; or to state that you can’t stop a person from making racist comments but you would think that such a person is an ignorant and repugnant bigot. Or, of course, you might conclude the opposite if you can persuasively argue your case. What is important is that you engage with the issue and do not stop short at merely analysing an action or end as non-violent and then having nothing more to say. But the views that you espouse will not be made in your capacity as a libertarian – libertarianism only forming the bedrock of your moral outlook – but as a choosing, desiring, valuing and acting human being who takes his place in society. Nevertheless, the more you build your personal moral views upon a libertarian bedrock, the stronger that bedrock becomes by demonstrating conclusively that libertarians as human beings are not morally vacuous but can, indeed, hold a flourishing and well-developed positive moral theory that addresses the moral concerns of everyone else in society. Indeed, summing up what we have concluded in this section, we might say that a “thick” conception of libertarianism would serve to undermine and destroy it both intellectually and practically; whereas libertarians possessing an otherwise “thick” and engaging supra-libertarian moral outlook separate from but compatible with libertarianism, would very much promote it.

Morality and Religion in a Free Society

One of our conclusions above was that even though a debate concerning which values and ends are likely to prevail in a free society has nothing to do with libertarianism’s place in the sphere of moral and political theory, there is still some purpose and merit in venturing to speculate upon whether, in a world that was completely free from government force and compulsion and which was founded upon the institutions of self-ownership and private property, these facts in and of themselves would encourage a general supra-libertarian morality in a particular direction. For example, if left to their own devices, would that very fact cause people be more likely to create a world of inclusion, non-discrimination based upon race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., would it be secular or religious, multi-cultural or strictly divided, and so on? Would it be a world in which drugs and recreational substance use is widespread or is it more likely to encourage restraint and conservatism in such use? Would it be a world of close connections of family and friendship or would there be more “free love” and sexual experimentation? Even though as a matter of pure logic, libertarianism is compatible with any moral theory so long as the ends posited by that theory do not invade the private property of anyone else, it is submitted that, in practice, it is not likely to work out that way and that we can expect at least a certain kind of supra-libertarian moral order to exist by virtue of the fact that a society is founded upon the institution of private property. What follows is the author’s speculation upon what kind of order this will be.

The foundation of this speculation is the observation that wherever human freedom has been unshackled and free enterprise has been allowed to pursue whatever ends it chooses with relatively less molestation, individuals have chosen to engage in processes that increase their material prosperity ahead of simply sitting around day dreaming and enjoying endless leisure time. The capacity for energy and enterprise has increased, the division of labour has widened and the material standard of living has risen. This may partly be implied in the logic of action itself as increased freedom leads to greater or more successful action and is therefore, likely to result in more actions and more improvement. It is also the case that fulfilment of more ethereal needs such as spirituality, rejuvenation, relaxation, meditation, and so on can only come about once material needs have been satisfied so that even if one was to pursue the former the latter would have to be conquered first. Nevertheless, it is an empirical observation and there has never been any strict requirement for individuals to choose to engage in production rather than simply extending their leisure time4. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the creation of a free society would lead to expansion of the division of labour, the accumulation of capital, an increase in production, and of the material standard of living.

What we can note about this fact is that those who, in a free society, accumulate income and wealth and hence possess a greater ability to direct economic resources are those who serve the needs of consumers. At the level of the capitalist-entrepreneurs, therefore, this will require a number of different qualities: the patience and low time preference to accumulate capital; good judgment, foresight and prudence in directing that capital to where it is most needed; empathy and understanding of one’s customers; and the sociability and communicability required to engage and motivate contractors, colleagues, and employees. The capitalist-entrepreneurs in turn will look for employees who are hard-working, educated, reliable, trustworthy and the employees will therefore seek to spend their money on consumers’ goods that will nurture, within them, these qualities. In other words serving the needs of others and the qualities and characteristics required to do so are ends that would be encouraged by the adoption of a free society. Resources therefore will accumulate in the hands of those who display these qualities and would disappear from the hands of those who do not; qualities and characteristics that harm or otherwise interfere with one’s ability to serve others – laziness, high time preference, a lack of empathetic understanding, unreliability, and on so – will be discouraged and are likely to diminish.  While, therefore, it is possible for persons to engage in endless leisure time and spend their entire day indulging in activities such as drinking, drug-taking and having sex, the resources available for them to do so will be limited and they are likely to be excluded from all prospects of increasing those resources as the habits in which they indulge are antithetical to any method of doing so (i.e. serving others) on the free market.

Second, is a free society likely to be non-discriminatory, and inclusive of all genders, races, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, and so on, or will it be highly segregated and exclusive? We can speculate that there will be two outcomes to this question rather than one. First, in the impersonal and arm’s length dealings of the marketplace, it is likely that all factors that are not relevant to one’s ability to serve the needs of others will be excluded from consideration. If I buy a sweater from a shop it is not likely to make any difference to me whether it was made by a man or a woman, by a white or a black, by a gay or a straight, by a pious Christian or a devil-worshipper. I am so far removed from the complex chain of production that any prejudice or preference I might have in this sweater being made by someone of a particular creed or colour is likely to recede drastically. If consumers do not care about a worker’s personal qualities other than his/her ability to serve the consumer’s ends then neither may capitalist-entrepreneurs do so in the chain of production as they are forced to adhere to their customers’ wishes. If I am looking to hire an employee for my enterprise, the costs of excluding the best person for the job based on some discriminatory ground will mean that I fail to keep up with my competition and will lose money faster. It is true that certain industries will serve different types of people and that certain personal qualities are likely to make one more adept at serving the needs of people who are similar to you. Christians may be better at investing in, producing, marketing and serving specific goods that are desired by other Christians; gay men may be the best people to do the same for gay men, and so on. And people of certain genders, races or cultures may be attracted to certain types of employment ahead of others. It might also be true that a person feels more comfortable if the precise person who serves them at the front line is someone of their ilk – the familiarity of a similar person perhaps helping to grease the wheels of commerce if empathy, advice or understanding is needed to assist a person with his purchase. But all of this only produces an outcome that better serves the needs of consumers and is not based on race, gender, or sexual orientation per se. If a pious, heterosexual woman could develop, market and serve products to gay men better than other gay men could then she would receive their custom and gay male vendors would not. Furthermore, in the vast array of production of goods that are common to all or most of us and are not produced for a specific category of person, any kind of discrimination in the chain of production is likely to diminish as we will always go to the people who can provide those goods at the lowest cost. Freedom under the division of labour does not require everyone to like or love everyone else, or for everyone to be liked or loved; it only requires you to serve them and the skills that each person can offer in this regard are likely to trump any other factors when it comes to the question of inclusion or exclusion. Our second possible outcome, however, might be slightly different. In the area of personal or familiar relations – as opposed to the arm’s length and impersonal relations of the marketplace – discrimination and exclusion may become more, rather than less intense. Although it is possible for the inclusion of the marketplace to encourage and foster a blending of different people – after all, if you work in the same factory, shop or office as someone of a different race or culture, there is the possibility or even the likelihood, that you will become friends simply through the opportunity of contact – on the whole, people tend to prefer the comfort of familiarity, similarity and uniformity. Individual residential areas and communities, therefore, might be internally homogenous and will cater only to the needs of the type of person living there, even though those communities will be happy to trade with others of a different type in the marketplace. This is not to imply, of course, that each different community will actively hate any other and can only barely stand to engage in mutual trade. Rather, it is likely to be a cordial, peaceful and even friendly co-existence. All we are suggesting is that when it comes to a matter of highest preference people are likely to opt for those who are similar to them in their personal and family relationships – such a preference not requiring you to hate anyone who is not similar. In any case, this entire speculation may be wrong and perhaps people will choose to mix more in their personal relationships as well as in their professional. The beauty of the market is that as we do not force anyone to adhere to a certain set of principles then we do not know the precise outcome; all we know is that that which results is the outcome that will satisfy everybody as far as possible.

The third consideration is related to the previous two. As there is no welfare state in a free society and nobody will have the right to violently wrestle resources from anyone else in the event of unemployment or need, the cultivation of personal relationships becomes relatively more important as there may come a day when we will need to rely upon those relationships if we are in dire need. We can speculate, therefore, that the institutions of family and friendship will strengthen in a free society. Such institutions will seek to include those who are trustworthy, reliable, sociable and responsible and will exclude those who are deceitful, unreliable, unfriendly and selfish. There is also likely to be less “free love” and sexual promiscuity in favour of longer term relationships and marriage that produce children, the latter being those upon whom you can rely when you reach old age and infirmity. Furthermore, as there will be no state-supported child rearing in a free society, only those who accumulate enough wealth by serving the needs of others will be able to afford to raise children. Although some of the qualities necessary for serving the needs of others that are inherent in the parent may be passed on genetically (so that people lacking those qualities will simply cease to be born in significant numbers), even if they are not then the parents are likely to foster the qualities in their children that made them, the parents, successful. Moreover, given that the parents will one day die and wish to leave their wealth to their children they are likely to require the reassurance that the fruits of their life’s work is being left to decent, responsible hands. They are not likely to be content to leave their wealth to a lazy, ill-educated drug addict.

What we have hypothesised, therefore, is that a free society, in which everyone must possess the ability to serve the needs of consumers in order to attract income and wealth, is likely to result in a cultivation of the qualities necessary for doing so, such a cultivation producing a relatively “conservative” (with a small “c”) society. This society will discriminate less on the bases of gender, race, colour, etc. but rather upon the specifically chosen behaviour of free individuals. Those who behave in accordance with ways that serve the needs of consumer and develop the characteristics necessary for doing so will be included. Those who do not are likely to be excluded. We must emphasise, however, that nothing of what we have said requires an individual libertarian to support or promote these ends. Only if people turn down the path of increasing their material welfare and expanding the division of labour would qualities and values necessary for serving others become prominent and our speculation is based only upon the fact that this is the choice that has been made in the past. It is possible for the individual libertarian to advocate a different choice and for free individuals to make it.

One final interesting question concerns the place of religion and religious worship in a free society. Religion has always fundamentally concerned three questions – why we are here; how we got here; and what we should do now that we are here. The pondering of these questions and the result of a shared belief as to their answers among individuals is, of course, logically compatible with libertarianism so long as its practice is peaceful and voluntary. However, the inability of early thought to separate phenomena from purposeful intent resulted in the fact that these questions have not been addressed with mutual exclusivity. Why we are here has been ascribed to the purposeful desire of one or more deities; how we got here was a result of that deity’s action; and it followed, therefore, that what we should do while we are here was to bow to that deity’s commands. Therefore, given the deep-seated need in the human psyche to fill the void that is left by these problems and the resulting imperatives that may be dispensed, whoever has been able to provide the gateway to these answers has enjoyed an immense amount of power – tell people where they came from and how it was done then you can tell people what they should do. Religion has therefore always attracted to its ranks the greedy and the power hungry and it is no accident that it has, throughout much of history, been aligned with the state – limited not just to established churches, but to the extent that the king or emperor himself was elevated to the rank of a God. Although early Christianity and the Thomist emphasis on the natural law diminished this welding for a time, the Protestant Reformation and the rejection, by John Calvin and Martin Luther, of reasoned ethics served to make religion once more a tool of, rather than a controlling force over, absolute rulers. Furthermore, religious wars and crusades have often been wars of power and control rather than strictly over the question of belief. Much of the history of religion has therefore been distinctly anti-libertarian. These days, of course, the development of scientific knowledge has stepped in to answer the puzzle of how we got here, which has served, for many people, to sever any connection between the cause of the universe and any moral imperatives they may face in their daily lives. However, there are two severe limitations to this. First, a knowledge of the natural sciences itself posits no moral theory and, other than agreeing that the pursuit of truth is a good and valuable thing, scientists can offer no moral guidance. They might be able to tell you what will happen when a man has sexual intercourse with a woman, and they could describe the shock you would get if you were to put your fingers into a power socket; but they will not, as a result of their discipline alone, be able to tell you why you should or should not do these things. Rather than replacing religious imperatives, the secularity encouraged by science has, rather, left an empty vacuum. Indeed, knowledge derived from scientific research has been used for some horrendously evil ends as well as good. Secondly the purpose of science is to trace the effects of phenomena back to their ultimate cause; yet the human mind is not able, in the physical and logical dimension it inhabits, to comprehend the concept of an ultimate cause. Every cause that we discover in turn becomes another effect whose existence and characteristics must be ascribed to some further cause that must be investigated. The concept of God is an attempt to deal with this teleological problem; we ascribe to God abilities and characteristics that defy normal explanation, yet our image of him – as a distinct consciousness, a father-figure, etc. – couches these characteristics in a manner that we can understand. Indeed, one of the frequent objections to the existence of God pronounced by atheists – “why are there so many Gods and which one is the right God?” – is perhaps not as interesting as the question as to why they are all so similar. Nearly always they are paternalistic humanoids, they are responsible for all creation and all life and they are the dispensers – if not always the practitioners – of morality. Rather than there being many different Gods, different cultures and traditions have ascribed broadly similar characteristics, varying only in their own cultural idiosyncrasies, to what is roughly the same being in order to create a giant metaphor for things that we do not and perhaps cannot ever understand. Science, or anything else, has not yet provided a sufficient alternative answer to this problem. Indeed, the existence of God is not viewed by believers as a strictly scientific problem like any other. The tools of science – the laws of physics and the laws of logic – are themselves part of the very phenomenon under investigation – creation – and are subject to God’s will. As tools for explaining their creator they therefore appear hopelessly blunt, if not, completely inadequate. None of this, of course, is meant to condone belief and condemn non-belief, or vice versa. Rather it is an attempt to explain why people hold the beliefs that they do.

Having said all of this, what can we conclude about religion and libertarianism? It is difficult to say whether a free society will encourage or discourage religious practice. What we can be certain of, however, is that it will continue to be a very strong force in the world, probably for a long time. There is clearly a need somewhere in the human psyche, possessed by a great many individuals, to ponder the origins of the universe, not just the how, where and the when but the why. Given our inability to meet these needs we can be sure that a libertarian world will have to find some way to deal with religion. Whether this will be mere accommodation, opposition, or embracing will be dependent upon whether religion in turn neutrally respects, is opposed to, or actively supports libertarian principles. There are one or two arguable reasons for at least an accommodation. First, there are many libertarian imperatives, rules, parables and examples in religious texts. The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, contain some strong libertarian imperatives and the remainder is not avowedly unlibertarian. There is no reason why, in a libertarian world, religions should not emphasise a more libertarian bedrock for their further moral teachings. Secondly, religion would be expected to dissolve its historical marriage to power and the state, a dissolution that may not occur easily. Yet so too will everyone else have to do the same – bureaucrats, politicians, favoured corporations, and so on. Nobody will be able to latch onto and use the mantle of the state to pursue their ends. There is no reason why religious people should find this more difficult than anyone else. Given that a libertarian world is unlikely to appear unless a majority of the citizenry come to believe in the justice of libertarianism, congregations themselves should already have embraced the libertarian mind-set. Finally, we may consider the problem of so-called religious extremism, the sort of extremism that wishes to destroy or violently repress anything contrary to its teachings. Particularly, at this time, we might as well mention the dominant issue of Islamic fundamentalism that fuels terrorism. Whatever political system is adopted and whatever the view of the majority of people with regards to their rights and obligations towards others, there will always be fundamentalists, radicals, extremists, zealots and revolutionaries in just the same way as there will always be murderers, rapists, thieves and fraudsters. Many of these will, from any common standard, be lunatics, nutcases or simply deluded fools. Left to their own devices, as they would be in a libertarian world, these people would simply be a bare minority of loners who are unable to spread their views, with any violent attempt to accomplish their aims simply being classified as criminal behaviour like any other. The only reason that Islamic religious extremists who encourage terrorism and violence gain any traction whatsoever is because the foreign policy of the United States and its allies pours fuel onto the fire of what they are saying. The behaviour of Western governments – bombing civilians, invading sovereign countries, spreading a secular democracy – lends plausibility to religious extremism as both an explanation of and a solution for a very real and unwanted foreign incursion. With State power eliminated in a libertarian world, this problem would not exist and such religious extremism would be without a vehicle for motivation.

Conclusion

Summing up everything we have said, libertarianism, thinly conceived, is necessary to form the foundation of wider moral theory. Libertarianism is, therefore, not “thick”. Libertarians, themselves, however, must, in their capacity as human beings have a “thick” moral outlook, that outlook not being a part of libertarianism per se but built upon its firm foundations of self-ownership and private property and seeking to strengthen those foundations through non-violent enforcement. We can, though, speculate that a certain moral order may unfold in a society based upon self-ownership and private property if free individuals choose to expand their material well-being and widen the division of labour. That order is likely to emphasise roughly “conservative” values and while it is not possible to say whether religion is encouraged or discouraged by such an order we can conclude that it is likely to occupy a prominent place.

1Moral considerations may, of course, arise out of concerns for the welfare of the matter – for example, whether the act of a human being may legitimately cause an animal (a non-actor) pain and suffering. But such considerations only concern whether it is good for the human to be the initiator of the animal’s experience of pain and do not create any reciprocal moral rights in the animal.

2Llewellyn H Rockwell Jr., The Future of Libertarianism, lewrockwell.com, May 1st 2014.

3Walter Block identifies a number of prominent libertarians who draw either right wing or left wing conclusions from libertarian foundations. See Walter Block, Libertarianism is unique; it belongs neither to the right nor the left: a critique of the views of Long, Holcombe, and Baden on the left, Hoppe, Feser and Paul on the right” Journal of Libertarian Studies; Vol. 22: 127–70.

4Those who hark back to the pre-industrial era seem to assume that this is how blissful and care-free life used to be, overlooking the fact that the need to provide enough food alone necessitated back breaking amounts of work.

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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.