Is the Zero Aggression Principle linguistic nonsense?

February 13, 2017
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Philosophy: The art of using words to undo meaning. The Zero Aggression Principle case. RETWEET
By Jim Babka
The Zero Aggression Principle (ZAP)Don’t aggress against persons nor delegate aggression to others — is an imperfect rule.
But it’s not flawed in any of the ways its critics contend. The critics believe (some) aggression is justified. So they cleverly pretend they can prove that the ZAP — also known as the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) — is flawed. As you’ll see, they want you to overthink the plain meaning of the concept until the ZAP becomes too flawed to accept.
The critics make claims about the ZAP that ZAP proponents do not make.
They essentially say, “Let me redefine your principle for you because you don’t really understand what you mean by it.” This is presumptive to the point of rudeness.
Inevitably, their objections to the ZAP are based (in part or in whole) on these two flawed assumptions…

  1. The ZAP is pacifist (or is only consistent when it produces a pacifist result), which means…
  2. It’s disconnected from reality. The “reality,” we’re told, is that there are bad people in the world who will take advantage of us. And this is always explained as if it’s news to the ZAP advocate. But…

It’s never a news flash to the ZAP advocate that there are bad people who do bad things!
How else would The State exist?
After calling you a naive pacifist, it’s not uncommon for the critic to offer “helpful” advice. Change your terminology, tweak your definition, and then your argument will fare better. But please realize…
Renaming the concept won’t satisfy the critics.
It’s virtually impossible to provide a label for any concept and expect it to explain everything contained in it. With a bit of effort, you can usually over-analyze and cause the intended definition to fail. Philosophers are often just cunning linguists.
The purveyors of these word-play theories pretend they’re being insightful. They might even get some “ooh’s and ahh’s” from others. But the resulting analysis is clever-by-half. Observe…
Some philosophers argue that the Golden Rule is severely flawed. They pick it apart through hyper-literal reading, as follows….

  1. Masochists get pleasure from pain, so…
  2. “Do unto others as I would have done to me,” means that the masochist should hurt people.

But this is a “clever-by-half” objection. Even a child gets the basic intent of the Golden Rule. Moreover, masochists would soon arrive to (rightly) defend their honor. They know that…

  • A masochist doesn’t surrender their right to withdraw consent! Most employ a “safe word” to ensure that right.
  • Masochists also choose the person who will have control over their sensations.
  • Masochists NEVER presume that they can inflict pain on others. That’s not masochism, but it might be sadism.

Alas, philosophers are linguistic sadists. They torture language until we’re at a loss for words. Perhaps that’s because…
They don’t want the idea, represented by those words, to have any force.
Please understand this key point, words are mere approximations of the thing itself — not the actual thing. Language is like a map, and the map is not the territory. You cannot estimate how long it will take to get from one place to another by laying a map on the floor and walking upon it. Likewise, a brief definition isn’t going to fully and literally explain all elements of a concept like the Golden Rule or the ZAP. Mere words cannot bear that weight. Nor is a full and literal definition necessary for an idea to be understood.
Here is what I, a ZAP advocate, want you to grasp when someone attempts to overcomplicate this standard…
Aggression is never justified as a means for solving a social problem.
My ability to defend that claim depends on how we define the three key words…

  1. Zero
  2. Aggression
  3. Principle

Principle is thesaurically like guideline, rule, or heuristic — only stronger. When someone says, “These are my principles,” they mean, “These are the primary or most important values I hold.” So when a ZAP advocate calls it a principle, they want to be understood as saying, “This is my doctrine or standard.” More precisely, by using the word “principle,” they’re saying…
“When presented with a social problem, the ZAP is the first standard I’ll apply.”
Zero (or “non”) is a necessary modifier to the word aggression. We wouldn’t necessarily know what was being recommended by an “aggression principle.” But zero (or “non”) is not, in this instance, a word of precise conclusion. Rather, it has these two features:

  1. Direction: Few (if any) ZAP advocates believe we’ll ever reach a place where there’s no aggression in the world, but that’s the goal we want to move toward.
  2. Intention: When seeking to solve social problems, we don’t start by assuming a need for legislation that threatens to point a gun at someone. Rather, we intend to think long and hard until we discover a way to solve the problem with zero aggression.

The word aggression in the ZAP means excessive force. Force or violence can be excessive when…

  1. It’s a first strike designed to coerce an otherwise peaceful person.
  2. Its aim is to harm a person or property (otherwise known as a crime).
  3. It’s an escalation of violence beyond what was justified by the situation.

Legislators frequently produce “laws” that threaten otherwise peaceful persons with violence for non-compliance. The agents who enforce those laws can escalate that violence to the point of death for something as minor as a broken taillight or an unpaid tax. This excessive use of force is clearly aggression.
Those actions cannot be justified. Aggression is never “just.” But consider respectively, some things that are not aggression…

  1. You cannot be “aggressive” in self-defense because you were not the one who struck first.
  2. You cannot be “aggressive” in merely stopping a crime, nor in requesting justice for it because you had no intent to harm an innocent person.
  3. Suggesting that due process is aggression turns the concept on its head. At each stage of due process, including arrest and imprisonment, society goes out of its way to avoid using more force than necessary to achieve justice. And all of us — libertarians and voluntaryists too — want justice. Even criminals want justice when someone they love is harmed by an aggressive act.

There are tons of hairsplitting opportunities in the points just made, but only linguistic sadists (word torturers) will seize upon them. Perry Willis addresses some of these details in his article Why criminal law enforcement does not violate the Zero Aggression Principle.
But linguistic analysis includes context. And the ZAP tends to come up in a specific context — the realm of government action. Statists think little or nothing about rushing to impose taxes and regulations on non-consenting people in order to achieve some good intention. ZAP advocates have a more just standard. We think 99% of social problems would be better handled by first applying the ZAP, instead of the typical and tired statism politicians deliver instead. And a tool that works that often is surely beneficial for building civilization.
This article, by Jim Babka, may be an excellent piece to share with a libertarian friend.
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