Saturday, September 22, 2018



I was asked about what desirism has to say about aggression, and decided I should give a response.

First, a point of clarification. I will be talking about the libertarian concept of aggression. Libertarians have a technical definition of aggression that is more precise than the vague term used in common speech. It means the first use of violence in a negotiation. A voluntary exchange of goods and services is perfectly fine. It remains morally legitimate until somebody brings violence in the negotiation. That is, somebody says, "Do as I say or I will make you suffer."

Note that fraud, lying, and other forms of deception count as aggression in the libertarian sense. A voluntary exchange of goods and services means a voluntary exchange of goods and services.

Many people equate libertarianism with an selfishness. This is because one of its most popular advocates, Ayn Rand, also promoted selfishness as a virtue. However, this is not a necessary part of libertarianism. Libertarianism, in its most basic form, is a philosophy of non-violence. It is one step short of pacifism in that, where pacifism prohibits all violence, libertarianism prohibits the first use of violence. The second use - violence in self-defense - is perfectly legitimate.

One should also note that, on the libertarian concept of aggression, pollution and other negative externalities are prohibited. They are acts of violence. If I were to start a fire on my property that got out of hand and burned down your house, that would be an act of aggression, and I would be responsible for the costs. If I were to put greenhouse gasses into the air that put your property at risk of being lost to a hurricane or sea level rise, then I owe you compensation for the loss of the value of your property. Libertarianism, then, is also a strongly anti-pollution philosophy.

On this definition, it seems quite reasonable to believe that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, universally, an aversion to aggression. People should not be eager to bring violence into interactions. It has a bad habit of getting out of hand, causing a great deal of death and suffering that people generally have reason to avoid. Even where violence does not get out of hand, it is often because one group is so much powerful than another that it may freely (and violently) abuse and exploit the other without fear of effective retaliation.

In the United States, where we have at least restrained the use of violence to violence by the state, the power of the state to redistribute wealth through violence means that agents have a strong motivating reason to use the state to use its threats of violence to redistribute wealth in their direction. Resources that would be invested in productive activities - producing the goods and services that would improve lives - instead gets invested in gaining control of some of that state violence, so that the special interest group can use it to force some money into its bank accounts.

On the off chance there may be somebody virtuous in the society who is opposed to these transactions backed by violence, they must still invest in preventing the power of the state being used against them. So, everybody - even the virtuous - ends up investing a great deal of lavor and capital in using state violence to manipulate wealth transfers.

However, desirism does not allow for any absolute good. There may well be many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to aggression, but this is only one of the sentiments that a person would have. An absolute prohibition means that an agent can have no other desire or aversion other than the aversion to aggression. If they had any other interest at all, then there would be a situation (at least a hypothetical situation) where the aggression is so small, and the force of this second interest is sufficiently great, to motivate an aggressive act.

So, the right to freedom of aggression is like a right to freedom of speech. It is something that each person should be granted. However, when other values are at stake. The right of freedom of speech is a right against violence for what one may say. However, agents do not have an unrestricted right to broadcast military or other government secrets. Nor do they have a right to commit fraud; a person who makes false statements about a product may be punished. Perjury is speech, and it is punishable. False advertising is prohibited and punishable.

These exceptions occur when the aversion to the use of violence in response to things said or written or otherwise expressed clashes with other goods or interests that people can also reasonably be expected to have. Every once in a while, those other interests outweigh the aversion to violence for things said.

In the case of aggression, the most problematic case is one of uneven power. Let us say that one person gains ownership of all of the water. This is a particularly sadistic individual and, at the start of each month, he identifies one person and claims that he will sell water to people of those people promise to refuse to trade with that person or anybody who trades with that person. For extra enjoyment, he usually chooses a child. He enjoys watching that child suffer and die.

On the libertarian account, others are duty-bound to refrain from giving water to this person. We are assuming that there is no other source of water, that contracts are binding, and the contract for receiving water says that none is to go to the agent's intended victim of the month.

Sometimes, aggression is legitimate.

This does not eliminate or erase all of the arguments above. Like the right to freedom of speech, there is reason for a strong presumption in favor of a freedom from aggression. Those who would use aggression are under a burden of proof to show that it serves and important good and no peaceful option for promoting that good exists. It is not up to those who would be victims of the agent's aggression to show that the aggression would be legitimate - it is always up to the person who would advocate for aggression to show that it is important and necessary.

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