Non Aggression Axiom and Morality

A friend of mine brought to my attention this discussion over at FreedomMainRadio about the Non-Aggression Axiom (NAA) or Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) as some refer to it by.  The premise of the discussion starts with the question “What exactly is a violation of the NAP?” but really divulges into more of a question about whether the NAA is suitable for a dividing line between what is Moral and what is Immoral.

To start lets pull the first post that started the discussion:

Imagine the following scenario:  You are visiting a city you’ve never been in.  You are crossing the street.  Somebody you’ve never seen before rushes up, pushed you onto the sidewalk.  You fall so hard you chip 2 teeth.

[hits pause on the YouTube video]

Is this a violation of the NAP?

[hits continue on the YouTube video]

you get up, and as you do, you hear a car speeding off.   You realize if they hadn’t pushed you out of the way, you would have been ran over by a drunk driver careening out of nowhere!

[hits paus on the YouTube video]

Is this really a violation of the NAP?

– – – – – – – – – – – –

How about this scenario: you are a kid who is scared of needles.  Gov. Rick Perry insists you are vaccinated for HPAP virus.  Years later, when your friends are dying of throat cancer and cervical cancer, you are glad you actually got the shot.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

In both of these examples, at the moment the violence was done to you, you did not give your consent.  But later, you did give your consent.  Were you agressed against until you gave your consent?

What if you never gave your consent?  E.G. suppose somebody pushed you out of the way of a car, but you didn’t see the car, and you just believed the guy who saved your life was a complete asshole?  But if you *would* have seen the car, you *would* have given your consent?

Or you got a shot when you were a kid, but died before you realized it was probably a good idea?  But if you *would* have lived long enough, you *would* have been glad you got the shot?

– – – – – –

Its easy to state what the NAP is:  Non agreession principle  But do we have a clear statement of what exctly agression is?

Watered Down

He brings up a simple, seemingly contradicting point about the NAP.  Is aggression really aggression if it’s done to reduce future aggression?  Maybe the NAA needs some conditions to make it more applicable in life?  Fundamental truths are typically quite simple and adding exceptions and methods to a principle makes it seem less axiomatic.  Would the NAA really be viewed as a simple, cohesive principle that can be used as a founding block for an entire social system if it went something like:

The Non-Aggression Axiom states  that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else given that the aggressor met conditions A, B and C.


The Non-Aggression Axiom states  that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else given that aggression isn’t aggression under conditions A, B, and C.

Probably not, however even user Jax mentioned that the Non-Aggression Axiom can be rephrased such as  “do not use force against a person unless the following conditions apply: they have first used force.”  So what’s harm in adding a few more conditions?

Adding exceptions and conditions muddies the water.  Exceptions and Conditions makes murky and confusing a philosophical concept; when there shouldn’t be a need to.  Either the philosophical concept is correct, “water tight” and can be used as a foundation for a whole line of thought or it leaks like a sieve and needs exceptions and conditions in order to patch up those leaks and is thus unsuitable to be used as a foundation.  A leaky philosophical concept can probably be tossed out and improved upon by a better concept.  The Ten Commandments, being a list of DOs and DON’Ts (mostly DON’Ts) got extremely murky over the hundreds of years of interpretation and exceptions and conditions imposed by the Pharisees.  Christ made it simpler by introducing the 2 Great Commandments which simplified the whole Law.

Part of the discussion on FreedomMainRadio is to resolve this conflict – is the NAA good enough or does it need to be tossed out or improved?  Is the NAA suitable for an analysis of human action?  This article is an attempt to resolve this conflict and keep the NAA as it is, but to also further understanding about where it is applicable.

So What IS Aggression?

Aggression, for the purposes of the NAP, is defined as the initiation or threatening of violence against a person or legitimately owned property of another. Specifically, any unsolicited actions of others that physically affect an individual’s property, including that person’s body, no matter if the result of those actions is damaging, beneficial, or neutral to the owner… (Wikipedia)

Simple enough.  Any unsolicited action to another, regardless of whether it is damaging or beneficial IS aggression.  By this definition if Adam pushes Bob out of the way of an oncoming Car, Adam still initiated aggression against Bob and thus violated the NAA despite having done the seemingly moral action.

So what IS a Moral Action?

Derived from the semi-universal Gold Rule: A Moral Action, for the purposes of this article, is defined as an action that is in all involved parties personal interests.  Thus, the morality of an action is not determined solely by the actor’s interests, nor on only part of the party’s interests.  Instead, it is based on the actor’s perceived interests of the other parties, given that the actor has taken every available means to perceive the other’s interests accurately.  Thus, forcing someone to eat vegetables “for their own interest” is an immoral action because the actor has obviously not listened to the victim’s cries to stop, nor even considered that it is in the victim’s interest to feed themselves.  Pushing Bob out of the way of a Car is then a Moral Action if, and only if, there is no time to warn Bob.  For a warning, under even a simple analysis, has much greater value to Bob then being aggressed upon, when a warning would do.

Non-Aggression Axiom and Morality

Human Action based on Morality and Aggression

Human Action: Shown split for Morality and Aggression

Why does the NAA and Morality diverge?  Where does this divergence even take place?  To ease the evaluation process,  Human Action can be split into two sets of two mutually exclusive “halves”.  The first distinct pair of halves is Moral Action and Immoral Action.  The second distinct pair is Aggressive Action and Non-Aggressive Action.  Each pair of halves share traits with the other distinct set.  Thus we have 4 subcategories: Morally Aggressive Action, Immorally Aggressive Action, Immorally Non-Aggressive Action, and Morally Non-Aggressive Action.

Some proposed examples of these four categories are as follows:

  • Morally Aggressive: Adam pushing Bob out of the way of the Car
  • Immorally Aggressive: Theft or Murder
  • Immorally Non-Aggressive:  Gossip, Drunkenness, Consensual sex between un-wed partners or pornography
    *Note: Individuals definition of Immoral may differ between cultural and religious viewpoints.  
  • Morally Non-Aggressive: Trade, Eating, walking, or working

Some would propose that there is no such thing as a Morally Aggressive Action; and that Moral Actions and Non-Aggressive Actions are synonymous.  Some would also propose that there is no such thing as an Immoral Non-Aggressive Action and that Immoral Actions and Aggressive Actions are also synonymous.

If this were the case however, how can there be a such a socially normal contradiction in the Adam/Bob/Car example given?  It seems that Adam did a Moral Action by aggressing against Bob, and Western social norms would seem to agree.  Some proponents suggested in the FreedomMainRadio discussion that maybe aggression should be redefined so that Adam didn’t aggress, thereby solving the problem.  However, for reasons already given there is no need to muddy the philosophic waters with exceptions, conditions or new definitions.

It is this authors proposition that Morally Aggressive Actions do exist where Moral and Aggression are as defined above.  If they exist, then the NAA and Morality do diverge.  This divergence then takes place when knowledge is unable to be transferred.  In the Adam/Bob/Car example, the only time when aggression becomes Moral is when “there is no time to warn Bob” or there is no time to transfer knowledge of the impending Car collision to Bob.  Given more time in a perfect situation Bob could be warned.  But, what if more time was given but Bob was deaf and not looking towards Adam?  How can this knowledge transfer, this warning, take place?  If he was hearing maybe Adam would have had time time to warn him; but as he is deaf and looking away once again pushing him out of the way is a Moral Action.  His physical condition and placement prevented the knowledge transfer.  This same can be said of Adam if he had no voice.  Adam’s physical condition and Bob’s physical placement (not looking towards Adam) allows Adam to morally aggress upon Bob.  Thus, changing the knowledge transfer circumstances also changes the when and how a Moral Action can take place.

So what’s the purpose of the Non-Aggression Axiom?

Should it be tossed out and only Moral Actions should be allowed?  No.  Both are valuable and both serve their distinct, yet related purposes.

If society made illegal only Immoral actions (whether aggressive or non-aggressive), society would contradict itself as enforcement requires immoral, aggressive behavior.  If Adam didn’t save Bob, then in this society Adam would be in jail or owe his life for “failure to attempt to save another”.  This then alters peoples perceptions as the immoral actors seek to withdraw from society or hide; creating a more “police state” society.

If humans only socially approved of Non-Aggressive actions in all situations, Bob would be dead and Adam should (though probably wouldn’t) be ashamed of his immoral inaction – immoral because he didn’t take into account Bob’s interests.  This alter’s peoples perceptions as morality gives way to the NAA and people thus take less notice of other people’s needs.  Taking notice of other’s needs is critical for well-run businesses and trades.

However, let’s twist these two bold statements around.  What if, human society socially approved of only Moral actions and made illegal Aggressive Actions?  Drug users and impaired drivers who aren’t violating anyone’s property are socially disapproved of but legally protected and Bob has a legal recourse for any damages that Adam did to him; if Bob and the arbitration court decided so.

The Non-Aggression Axiom conflict arises when it is applied as a single definitive moral statement.  The same can be said about basing a legal framework on Morality.  As Barry Goldwater saidYou can’t legislate morality”.  Moral Actions simply aren’t the basis for a legal framework and the NAA simply isn’t a definition for moral human action.


The Non-Aggression Axiom is an ethical principle that can, and should be used to build up a judicial framework.  It contains within it everything needed to socially formulate a legal system that is both moral and just without the subjectivity inherent in moral dilemmas.  The Non-Aggression Axiom is not an ethical principle for individuals to use as a foundation for their actions.  Doing so would leave humans unable to act for their better judgement where knowledge transfer is inhibited and is also then against the semi-universal ethic of the Golden Rule.  In such a society where moral behavior is based on people’s interests and the legal framework is based on attempting to rectify aggressive actions, Adam may still owe Bob for any damages he caused and Adam may have done the moral thing.  This conflict isn’t something to be feared but is instead a good thing.  It leads to a need for evaluation of the legal framework: if laws are just and upright.  It leads to an evaluation of our own moral principles.  If an action is aggressive and perceived to be moral, is it really moral?  Is the actor really taking into account the “victim’s” interest from their point of view?

“You shall love your neighbor, as yourself.” – Matthew 22:39b
“But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.” – Luke 16:17


6 thoughts on “Non Aggression Axiom and Morality

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