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“Purity” vs. principles

Posted by Richard on August 18, 2005

It’s pretty funny, really. I put up this post (continuing a gunbloggers’ discussion) in which I concluded that there is an individual right to own nuclear weapons(!). So Kirsten proceeded to fisk me for not being as pure a libertarian she is.

Well, not fisk, really — that implies a point-by-point refutation of the other’s arguments. Kirsten does something much easier. She quotes a couple of paragraphs that you’ll completely misunderstand when presented out of context. Then she just figuratively points at them and goes "eeewwww!"

[Kirsten also takes me to task for opposing the immediate release of Islamofascists captured on the battlefield "simply because they might do something he opposes if released" — like immediately setting out to kill as many infidels as possible, preferably sawing of the heads of their liberators on the way out the door. But that’s a topic for another day.]  

She quotes the paragraphs where I suggest that, regarding explosives, grenades, etc., what my urban neighbor may possess is somewhat different from what someone in the boonies may possess because of the concept of reckless endangerment. In the paragraphs that followed, I elaborated:

You have a right to defend yourself, even if doing so exposes innocent bystanders to some risk. If that weren’t true, you’d essentially have no right to use a weapon beyond your bare hands. But you don’t have an unlimited right to put innocents at risk.

So, how much risk to innocents is appropriate and how much force may you use?  I think it depends on the scale of the aggression you’re facing. …

But Kirsten doesn’t have time to think about the principle of reckless endangerment or the difficult question of how much you may put innocents at risk. She’s already decided that I’m "impure":

This clearly opposes property rights by advocating restrictions on property rights when nobody else’s rights have been violated simply because they might be violated at some time in the future.

She then argues that I’m just like the leftists in Greenpeace, NOW, CIFC, and the ACLU. Well, not argues, really — she just declares that I am. You see, their arguments against genetic engineering, breast implants, junk food, and the 2nd Amendment can be phrased around the word might — bold and italic — just like her mischaracterization of my position.

As if concerns about hundreds of pounds of high explosives in the house 10 feet from mine are on a par with irrational fears about GM corn and silicone gel. As if empirical evidence that silicone gel won’t hurt you, but that C4 will, doesn’t matter.

As if only an unprincipled rights-violating pragmatist would conclude that using a grenade to defend yourself and your property is OK in some circumstances — even if there is some risk to innocents — but not OK in other circumstances — say, against a purse snatcher on a Denver street.

Kirsten apparently rejects the concept of reckless endangerment completely. To her, it’s no different from the environmentalists’ precautionary principle. So, if I stood just on my side of the property line and juggled glass bottles of nitroglycerine and sarin gas, my neighbor would have no complaint. She’d be violating my property rights if she tried to stop me just because I might drop the bottles.

Heck, let’s take it a step further. In Kirsten’s world, I can sit on my porch, put a single cartridge in my revolver, spin the cylinder, aim at my neighbor’s head, and pull the trigger. As long as the chamber under the hammer is empty, I haven’t committed an act of aggression, have I? If you stop me because I might violate my neighbor’s rights with the next trigger pull, you’re no different than the "leftie-style statists," right?

This is, of course, nonsense. Kirsten is no doubt young and all excited about these wonderful libertarian ideas she’s discovered. Why, it all makes so much sense! And it’s so easy! Simply whip out your sturdy non-aggression principle and apply it firmly, and all moral and political questions are easily resolved!

Kirsten doesn’t understand that it’s the non-aggression principle, not the non-aggression rule or commandment. Rules and commandments must be mindlessly obeyed. No hard work involved. 

Principles, on the other hand, require heavy mental lifting. Principles guide your behavior, but don’t absolve you of the need to use judgement — to evaluate the context and circumstances and then use reason to apply the principle appropriately. Yes, I realize that this can be hard work and it doesn’t always give you quick, simple yes/no, right/wrong answers the way rules and commandments do. But it’s what rational human beings acting as moral agents do. Because we can.

It isn’t our ability to blindly obey rules that distinguishes us from lesser creatures.

Some libertarians who describe themselves as consequentialists or pragmatic or utilitarian point to the Kirstens of the world as evidence of the impracticality — the downright silliness, at times — of what they call pure or principled or absolutist libertarianism.

But Kirsten’s unthinking obedience to a rule isn’t the proper exercise of principled libertarianism, and you don’t have to abandon principles and adopt utilitarianism (or some semi-utilitarian variant) to avoid the errors of so-called purists. Here’s what you do have to do:

  • You have to think. Hard, at times. The right answer isn’t always obvious.
  • You have to acknowledge that humans aren’t omniscient or infallible. Sometimes, you won’t have enough information, or it will be inaccurate. Sometimes, your best judgement will be wrong.
  • You have to admit that, at the margin, distinctions can become arbitrary. The principle of reckless endangerment says that I may legitimately expose you and your property to some risks as a result of my actions, but that other risks are so great — causing you to reasonably fear for your life or property — that those actions infringe on your rights. The two categories can be clearly defined and distinguished in principle, but at the margin, there’s a band of uncertainty. It’s analogous to measurement uncertainty. You know that 1.735" and 1.773" aren’t the same thing, but if your ruler can only measure to the nearest quarter inch, about all you can say is that both are bigger than 1.5" and smaller than 2.0". So you pick a spot and draw a line.
  • You have to understand that reasonable, well-intentioned people sharing the same principles and values will sometimes arrive at different conclusions. You and I may disagree about what constitutes reckless endangerment in a given context and circumstance. We’re both certain that we’re right, but at least one of us — maybe both — is wrong. If we need to resolve this disagreement, we may negotiate a compromise between our two positions. This is not abandoning our principles.
  • Finally, you have to accept the fact that utopia is not an option.

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4 Responses to ““Purity” vs. principles”

  1. Eric said

    Nicely written and excellent points. You have me seriously debating writing an entry on why I reject such things as the non-aggression principle now.

    The simplest test of the principle is whether it would have been morally right or wrong to kill Adolf Hitler BEFORE he came to power in Germany. I don’t mean for the state, but for me personally. What if I was alive in 1929, read Mein Kampf, and decided that this guy needed to be killed? By the non-aggression principle I would be morally wrong, which is the argument that the ALP is using against intervention in Iraq and why I refuse to associate with the ALP.

  2. Jan said

    You go, Boy! Kristen says she “pormotes liberty and neighborliness”. But she doesn’t seem to understand how reasonable neighbors should act. I think your neighborhood examples are good and thought provoking. When I first read that “rights” post, I thought people might think you were one of those libertarians who go too far! I feel somewhat removed from this “more libertarian than thou” debate now that I am no longer a libertarian party member (but a proud small-l libertarian republican). I think you are right. Kristen is young and overly excited. But she is an INTJ and so am I! She is at least the kind of person who knows her Meyers-Briggs type.

  3. Anonymous said

    Eric: Thanks, I appreciate it. But I have a problem with your Hitler example. Do you really think you’re justified in killing any wacko windbag who publishes a book with statist ideas in it? Or only when your amazing ability to foretell the future warns you what this wacko will actually do?

    See, that’s where the whole “apply the principle with judgement” comes in. In 1929, you’re not justified in killing Hitler. In 1939, you certainly are. Somewhere between the two, the decision tips, depending on the evidence available to you and your best judgement. If all you know is what’s in the newspapers, it might not be until Kristallnacht (1938).

    Jan: Thanks to you, too. Yeah, most people would say that defending an individual right to own nukes is going pretty far. That’s what really tickled me. When I read Kirsten’s post, I actually said to the screen something like “Jeez, I’m talking about private nukes here, lady!”

    Re Meyers-Briggs: INT libertarians? What are the chances? 😉

  4. Eric said

    I understand what you’re getting at, but there are a few things to consider.

    In 1929 Hitler wasn’t your “run of the mill whacko”. He had already, in 1923, proved his willingness to use force, as well as publishing Mein Kampf and forming the SA, which he used to bully his own party and other political parties. Suppose, instead, that I talk about choosing to kill Hitler in 1934, instead of 1929. He still has not launched a war of agression, or created concentration camps, etc. But, he had already made it clear what he intended to do and now he controlled the apparatus of a nation-state and had the ability to carry out what he declared he would do.

    Not taking action because the evil hasn’t happened yet is the argument that is currently being used by the left regarding Iraq. Following that line of argument, should a moral person not take action until the evil occurs?

    I hold that the individual is the only place that moral decision-making can occur and that each and every individual is responsible for their actions. Others may judge my actions to be illegal or wrong, but only I can determine, within my own framework, what decision or action I should take. Others can, obviously, influence my choices. The problem with the non-aggression principle is that there are times when you cannot wait for the infringement of your rights to happen. If my neighbor is holding a gun, but has not yet taken action against me, as you rightly argue, I need to take action myself. If my neighbor is pointing a gun at my other neighbor, but hasn’t pulled the trigger yet, must I wait until he does so? After all, it can be argued that he is just another whacko at that point.

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