Oct 052016


There has been much discussion about “property rights”, “human rights”, “self-ownership” and the “non-aggression principle” or N.A.P. Most of the ideas on these subjects that seem worth discussing are existential in nature. For instance one often hears questions like,

  • Does “property” actually exist?

  • Do “rights” actually exist?

  • Does anyone really “own” anything?

  • What does it mean to both “be oneself” and “own oneself”?

  • …and what implications do these questions have concerning the validity of the N.A.P.?

While many academic philosophy buffs like to argue who has the best answers to such questions, the significance of their arguments is more a matter of ego aggrandizement than one of applying ethics in a practical way.

This body of subject-matter leaped into the minds of modern libertarians when Murray Rothbard introduced it as a way of understanding the libertarian perspective. Briefly, he opined that self-ownership is self evident… axiomatic. And based on that assumed logical starting point, deduced that therefore anything one’s body produces is also one’s own property. From this he went on to define property rights and expanded the definition to include anything found unclaimed in nature or acquired by voluntary trade. His logical equivalent of the N.A.P. was a further logical outcome of this thought path.

Rothbard’s reasoning is a good example of weak logic leading to correct conclusions. Some of the weaknesses include:

  • Rights” are not actually things…you can’t put them in a wheelbarrow.

  • The clear definition of “property acquisition” doesn’t actually explain the existential relationship between property and its owner.

  • And, most importantly, most people don’t intuit self-ownership, because they were indoctrinated as preschoolers to believe that their parents “owned” them, and later their teachers “owned them”, and in many cases their employers subsequently “own” them.

A consequent weakness in the N.A.P. is the common belief that it constitutes a complete ethic rather than a principle based on an ethic. While the N.A.P. forbids behavior deemed “bad”, it fails to define behavior deemed “good”. Thus use of the N.A.P. as the sole determinant of ethical behavior leaves much to be desired.

An Alternative Algorithm for Ethical Behavior

For a much more comprehensive discussion on this topic, check out this article on Ethics, Law & Government. Here I summarize some of the article’s conclusions without including the derivations covered in the linked article.

An act is said to be ethical (synonymously good, just, right, or righteous) if it increases truth, awareness, love, or creativity for at least one person, including the person acting, without limiting or diminishing any of these resources for anyone. An act that does diminish any of these resources for someone is said to be unethical (or synonymously bad, wrong, unjust or evil). An act that has neither effect is said to be “ethically trivial”.

Based on the foregoing definition, is is a simple exercise in logic to derive a set a dozen or so principles that can assist one in making ethical decisions on a day-to-day or moment-to-moment basis. Foremost among these is the fact that ethical “ends” require “ethical means” …which in turn must be ethical ends in themselves.

At this point, I hope you can see that the N.A.P. effectively defines unethical acts while leaving trivial acts and ethical acts undefined. So an act that complies with the N.A.P. could be either ethical or trivial. For anyone wishing to live their life as ethically as possible the N.A.P. fails to deliver the best guidance available. In other words the N.A.P. tells us what not to do but leaves us in the dark concerning what to do.

The ethic that I’ve recommended above not only tells us what specific resources are most worth amplifying, but it also opens the door to a way of organizing human institutions so that they make consistently ethical decisions. For a comprehensive explanation of how this can work, I invite you to read FLOURISH…An Alternative to Government and Other Hierarchies.