Jessuz, I thought we could do better than that.
Yes, that was the libertarian equivalent of a rick-roll. But did you read that book, or just dismiss it out of hand? I know you read books you disagree with, if only so you can post diatribes about them on amazon. So, if you haven't read it, please do, and post your review in the "book club" thread. I'd love to hear it.
Is this the sample you'd like me to read, or is it this entire book/essay that S.M. posted on his blog?
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The Non-Aggression Principle (NAP)
A moral rule is often proposed called the non-aggression principle, or NAP. It is also called being a “porcupine pacifist,” insofar as a porcupine only uses “force” in self-defense. The NAP is basically the proposition that “the initiation of the use of force is morally wrong.” Or, to put it more in the terms of our conversation: “The non-initiation of force is universally preferable.”
When we analyze a principle such as the NAP, there are really only seven possibilities: three in the negative, three in the positive, and one neutral:
The initiation of the use of force is always morally wrong.
The initiation of the use of force is sometimes morally wrong.
The initiation of the use of force is never morally wrong.
The initiation of the use of force has no moral content.
The initiation of the use of force is never morally right.
The initiation of the use of force is sometimes morally right.
The initiation of the use of force is always morally right.
As we have seen above, however, UPB is an “all or nothing” framework. If an action is universally preferable, then it cannot be limited by individual, geography, time etc. If it is wrong to murder in Algiers, then it is also wrong to murder in Belgium, the United States, at the North Pole and on the moon. If it is wrong to murder yesterday, then it cannot be right to murder tomorrow. If it is wrong for Bob to murder, then it must also be wrong for Doug to murder.
Uniting the NAP with UPB, thus allows us to whittle these seven statements down to three:
It is universally preferable to initiate the use of force.
It is universally preferable to not initiate the use of force.
The initiation of the use of force is not subject to universal preferences.
This is the natural result of applying the requirement of rational consistency to ethical propositions. A rational theory cannot validly propose that opposite results can occur from the same circumstances. A scientific theory cannot argue that one rock must fall down, but another rock must fall up. Einstein did not argue that E=MC2 on a Thursday, but that E=MC3 on a Friday, or on Mars, or during a blue moon. The law of conservation – that matter can be neither created nor destroyed – does not hold true only when you really, really want it to, or if you pay a guy to make it so, or when a black cat crosses your path. The laws of physics are not subject to time, geography, opinion or acts of Congress.
This consistency must also be required for systems of ethics, or UPB, and we will subject generally accepted moral theories to this rigour in Part 2, in a few pages.
However, since we are dealing with the question of consistency, it is well worth taking the time to deal with our capacity for inconsistency.
The fact that UPB only validates logically consistent moral theories does not mean that there can be no conceivable circumstances under which we may choose to act against the tenets of such a theory.
For instance, if we accept the universal validity of property rights, smashing a window and jumping into someone’s apartment without permission would be a violation of his property rights. However, if we were hanging off a flagpole outside an apartment window, and about to fall to our deaths, few of us would decline to kick in the window and jump to safety for the sake of obeying an abstract principle.
In the real world, it would take a staggeringly callous person to press charges against a man who destroyed a window in order to save his life – just as it would take a staggeringly irresponsible man to refuse to pay restitution for said window. The principle of “avoidability” is central here – a man hanging off a flagpole has little choice about kicking in a window. A man breaking into your house to steal things clearly has the capacity to avoid invading your property – he is not cornered, but is rather the initiator of the aggression. This is similar to the difference between the woman whose man cheats on her, versus the woman whose man locks her in the basement.
This is not to say that breaking the window to save your life is not wrong. It is, but it is a wrong that almost all of us would choose to commit rather than die. If I were on the verge of starving to death, I would steal an apple. This does not mean that it is right for me to steal the apple – it just means that I would do it – and must justly accept the consequences of my theft. (Of course, if I were such an incompetent or confused human being that I ended up on the verge of starvation, incarceration might be an improvement to my situation.)
The fact that certain “gray areas” exist in the realm of ethics has often been used as a justification for rank relativism. Since on occasion some things remain unclear (e.g. who initiated the use of violence), and since it is impossible to define objective and exact rules for every conceivable situation, the conclusion is often drawn that nothing can ever be known for certain, and that no objective rules exist for any situation.
This is false.
All reasonable people recognize that biology is a valid science, despite the fact that some animals are born with “one-off” mutations. The fact that a dog can be born with five legs does not mean that “canine” becomes a completely subjective category. The fact that certain species of insects are challenging to differentiate does not mean that there is no difference between a beetle and a whale.
For some perverse reason, intellectuals in particular take great joy in the wanton destruction of ethical, normative and rational standards. This could be because intellectuals have so often been paid by corrupt classes of individuals such as politicians, priests and kings – or it could be that a man often becomes an intellectual in order to create justifications for his own immoral behaviour. Whatever the reason, most modern thinkers have become a species of “anti-thinker,” which is very odd. It would be equivalent to there being an enormous class of “biologists” who spent their entire lives arguing that the science of biology was impossible. If the science of biology is impossible, it scarcely makes sense to become a biologist, any more than an atheist should fight tooth and nail to become a priest.
Shades of Gray
In the realm of “gray areas,” there are really only three possibilities.
There are no such things as gray areas.
Certain gray areas do exist.
All knowledge is a gray area.
Clearly, option one can be easily discarded. Option three is also fairly easy to discard. The statement “all knowledge is a gray area” is a self-detonating proposition, as we have seen above, in the same way that “all statements are lies” also self-detonates.
Thus we must go with option two, which is that certain gray areas do exist, and we know that they are gray relative to the areas that are not gray. Oxygen exists in space, and also underwater, but not in a form or quantity that human beings can consume. The degree of oxygenation is a gray area, i.e. “less versus more”; the question of whether or not human beings can breathe water is surely black and white.
A scientist captured by cannibals may pretend to be a witch-doctor in order to escape – this does not mean that we must dismiss the scientific method as entirely invalid.
Similarly, there can be extreme situations wherein we may choose to commit immoral actions, but such situations do not invalidate the science of morality, any more than occasional mutations invalidate the science of biology. In fact, the science of biology is greatly advanced through the acceptance and examination of mutations – and similarly, the science of ethics is only strengthened through an examination of “lifeboat scenarios,” as long as such an examination is not pursued obsessively.
Universality and Exceptions
Before we start using our framework of Universally Preferable Behaviour to examine some commonly held ethical beliefs, we must deal with the question of “exceptions.”
Using the above “lifeboat scenarios,” the conclusion is often drawn that “the good” is simply that which is “good” for an individual man’s life.
In ethical arguments, if I am asked whether I would steal an apple rather than starve to death – and I say “yes” – the following argument is inevitably made:
Everyone would rather steal an apple than starve to death.
Thus everyone universally prefers stealing apples to death by starvation.
Thus it is universally preferable to steal apples rather than starve to death.
Thus survival is universally preferable to property rights.
Thus what is good for the individual is the ultimate moral standard.
This has been used as the basis for a number of ethical theories and approaches, from Nietzsche to Rand. The preference of each individual for survival is translated into ethical theories that place the survival of the individual at their centre. (Nietzsche’s “will to power” and Rand’s “that which serves man’s life is the good.”)
This kind of “biological hedonism” may be a description of the “drive to survive,” but it is only correct insofar as it describes what people actually do, not what they should do.
It also introduces a completely unscientific subjectivism to the question of morality. For instance, if it is morally permissible to steal food when you are starving, how much food can you steal? How hungry do you have to be? Can you steal food that is not nutritious? How nutritious does the food have to be in order to justify stealing it? How long after stealing one meal are you allowed to steal another meal? Are you allowed to steal meals rather than look for work or appeal to charity?
Also, if I can make more money as a hit man than a shopkeeper, should I not pursue violence as a career? It certainly enhances my survival... and so on and so on.
As we can see, the introduction of “what is good for man in the abstract – or what most people do – is what is universally preferable” destroys the very concept of morality as a logically consistent theory, and substitutes mere biological drives as justifications for behaviour. It is an explanation of behaviour, not a proposed moral theory.
The Purpose – and the Dangers
With your patient indulgence, one final question needs to be addressed before we plunge into a definition and test how various moral propositions fit into the UPB framework. Since the hardest work lies ahead, we should pause for a moment and remind ourselves why we are putting ourselves through all this rigor and difficulty.
In other words, before we plunge on, it is well worth asking the question: “Why bother?”
Why bother with defining ethical theories? Surely good people don’t need them, and bad people don’t consult them. People will do what they prefer, and just make up justifications as needed after the fact – why bother lecturing people about morality?
Of course, the danger always exists that an immoral person will attack you for his own hedonistic purposes. It could also be the case that, despite clean and healthy living, you may be struck down by cancer before your time – the former does not make the science of morality irrelevant, any more than the latter makes the sciences of medicine, nutrition and exercise irrelevant. One demonstrable effect of a rational science of morality must be to reduce your chances of suffering immoral actions such as theft, murder and rape – and it is by this criterion that we shall also judge the moral rules proposed in Part 3 of this book