Labels are best used with caution. When having conversations with one’s peers it is easy to steer a discussion over a cliff by identifying with a position or group of people that one’s conversation partner has deeply embedded preconceptions about.
And yet, it is difficult to try and dispense with labels. If we do not clearly explain where we stand, others will happily assign us the box of their choice, perhaps without even consciously trying to do so.
In the hopes of facilitating communication, then, my own strategy, at present, is to go ahead and identify with some specific labels, but also try to explain, to those genuinely interested in knowing me better, the specific principles I hold to and which I try to use various labels to allude to. The principles, I am sure, are more important than the names used for them.
Of course, in accordance with the suggestion given by the golden rule, I also try to reciprocate by listening to others and asking about the specific principles and values that they hold, being careful not to make unfounded assumptions about them based on the labels they adopt, the authors they quote, the people they associate with, or the life circumstances in which they find themselves. I hope readers will do these things for me.
In this essay, I want to discuss a few principles that I use when thinking about interpersonal relationships and deciding how to interact with other people.
1) It is useful to distinguish the actions that people take from our evaluations and judgments of those actions.
Think of a person taking an action, for example smoking weed. Now imagine someone breaking into their home, physically dragging them to a car, locking them in the back seat of that car, driving them away to a building, dragging them into a room in the building, and locking them in, all against the weed smoker’s will and with their continuous explicit protests.
All of these actions are physical, real, concrete. The descriptions given do not presuppose any judgement or ethical claim about the actions taken. People may react to reading such a description by quickly evaluating the actions described in ethical terms; they may project intuitions about what they believe people ought to do onto the description as they read it, without any conscious effort. Indeed, I expect them to do so. However, these ethical judgements are projections, products of both the description and the ethical principles and values readers may have internalized. The description itself merely describes physical actions taken by specific people. (The description above is of course a hypothetical situation, but it still describes merely what is physically happening, not what anyone involved should or shouldn’t do.)
This is important because when people disagree about what someone ought or ought not do in a given situation it is vital that they be able to agree on the objective facts regarding what is going on, regarding what physical actions have taken place, before they attempt to reason about how to evaluate the actions in question. With this in mind, let us discuss possible evaluations of the actions taken in the hypothetical.
2) In considering the actions of others, I ask myself whether I would be willing to do the same as them were I in their position. I use the same standards to judge the actions of everyone, including myself.
I regard myself as ethically complicit in actions taken by others that I explicitly condone. I do not support actions taken by others that I would be unwilling to take myself, as supporting actions taken by others and taking the same actions myself seem like ethically equivalent actions, intuitively speaking.
I use this principle when deciding whether or not I support a law. In my mind, asking whether or not I support a law is really asking whether or not I condone the actions taken by those enforcing the law. This takes a somewhat vague question about an impersonal abstraction called a “law” and zeroes in on the real people and concrete actions being discussed, thus asking a question for which I can provide a clear answer.
The question of whether or not it is ok for the weed smoker to smoke weed often occurs to ordinary people. They are able to ask that question. They are able to formulate a judgment regarding the weed smoker’s behavior.
However, I often get the impression that ordinary people tend to overlook the question of whether or not it is ok for the second person in the hypothetical to act as they did. It seems to not occur to them to think about this at all. If one brings it up in conversation one has to be careful to explain what one is asking about, lest the person one is talking with hears a question about the second person’s actions and registers it in their minds as a question about the first person’s actions.
Now, in a society with a government that prohibits people from smoking weed, when police arrest a marijuana smoker they are of course acting in the same way as the second person in my hypothetical. Yet, it seems that when most people in such a society are asked whether they think a government should prohibit people from smoking marijuana, and incarcerate those who disobey, the people being asked this question register, in their minds, a question about whether or not it is ok for people to smoke marijuana, instead of the question actually being asked: whether or not it is ok to kidnap and lock up a person who has smoked marijuana merely because of their act of smoking marijuana.
The question being asked seems to be extremely difficult for people to grasp, or to get into the habit of thinking about at all. Even those who think that it is ok to smoke marijuana have trouble understanding this question about the actions of the second person in my example. One hears discussions about the health hazards of marijuana, about whether it is ok for people to harm themselves and what it is ok for them to do with their own physical body, about whether marijuana has genuine medicinal properties, and so on. But ordinary people usually fail to extend the discussion to how one may or may not respond to a marijuana smoker. It doesn’t occur to them to judge the actions of the police breaking down the person’s door, there is a veil of sorts in their minds that causes them to regard this action as outside the discussion or as not open to ethical judgment or inquiry in the way that the initial act of smoking marijuana is.
3) I do not divide actions taken to enforce a set of principles from other sorts of behavior. I do not regard acts of enforcement as exempt from the rules they are supposedly taken to enforce, nor do I regard people acting to enforce a set of rules as exempt from the rules they are allegedly enforcing.
Breaking a rule in order to enforce it still breaks the rule in question. This is trivially true, yet still seems hard for many to appreciate.
One might tentatively try to generalize the points from the previous section by saying that ordinary people often ask what rules everyone should live by, but fail to remember that the actions taken by anyone attempting to enforce those rules are also actions taken by human beings which can be judged in the same way as any other action. Even if they concede this point, they may still not judge the acts of enforcement by the same rules that the actions are allegedly intended to enforce. This intuitively seems to me to be inconsistent. If one applies a rule, principle, or value only in some cases rather than in all of them, with the choice of when to apply it being completely arbitrary, then why, (I am inclined to ask,) bother holding the principle at all?
4) I prefer peer-to-peer, or self-enforcing systems of social norms over authoritarian systems of social norms.
The ideas here arise out of attempts at applications of the principles previously outlined.
Human beings can adopt different kinds of heuristics to employ when deciding how to interact with one another. Communities can be formed when groups of people agree amongst themselves, perhaps implicitly, to adopt a common set of social norms. Their norms give their members guidance regarding how to cooperate effectively with other members of the group. Such norms are heuristics used in decision making, abstract principles or rules applied to various situations.
One could have a set of social norms that divided people into different groups or had them play different roles, in particular having members of one group obey a set of rules and members of another group enforce those rules on the members of the first group without themselves being bound by those rules. Alternatively, one could imagine a set of social norms that apply a given set of rules or principles to every agent, without any fundamental distinction between those who rule and those who obey. (I’m not claiming that these options are jointly exhaustive or mutually exclusive, but I do think one can make a useful distinction between these different sorts of social-norm-sets.)
I want to live in a community that comes as close to the second kind of norms, applying the same principles to everyone, as possible, while also staying as far away from the first kind of norms, dividing people up into authorities and followers, as possible. (For simplicity’s sake, let’s call those norms in which the same principles apply to everyone “horizontal norms” and the norms dividing people into rulers and ruled “vertical norms.”)
An important question is: in a community practicing horizontal norms, why would people abide by the norms at all? If people violate social norms in a vertical-norm community, the authorities can simply punish those who have broken the rules, and the threat of punishment from above, theoretically, can encourage people to stay in line. What could keep a horizontal-norm community intact?
The answer is that a horizontal-norm community can adopt norms that are mutually beneficial to those who practice them, and that, if they succeed in inventing such a system of norms, people will have motivations to abide by those norms in order to achieve their own values. Actors in such a community are expected to cooperate out of their own self-interest.
- I respect you so that you will respect me in turn. If I treated you disrespectfully, I would fear that you would respond in kind. (Social scientists often call this “direct reciprocity,” or sometimes just “reciprocity.”) I won’t hurt you so long as you don’t hurt me. I won’t steal from you so long as you don’t steal from me. I won’t cheat or exploit you so long as you don’t do so to me. Etc.
- I treat you well in order to gain a positive reputation. Even if you and I don’t directly interact with each other again in the future, if you will let others know that I treated you kindly then I benefit because those others become more willing to work with me later on. Similarly, if I treat you poorly, you can let others know, and large numbers of people could ostracize me because I injured you in some way. (Social scientists often call this “indirect reciprocity,” or just “reputation.”)
- If I expect to gain from interacting with you over the long term, I may go out of my way to demonstrate to you that I can be trusted. Since interacting with me is risky, this may involve making a good “first impression,” doing things to show you that I am worth taking the risk to continue interacting with, because I am unlikely to cheat you or do you harm. For example, I may show up to an interview or a date well-dressed and well-groomed, or take the time to learn your language or your customs if you are from a different culture, or interact with you under specific circumstances in which neither of us will be able to do any serious harm to the other, like meeting up in a public space or using an escrow service for a trade. (This is my attempt to explain in lay-person terms what social scientists call “costly signaling.”)
These are just some examples, by no means an exhaustive list. The basic idea, though, is to come up with principles that people will have an incentive to follow because they’ll expect to benefit by following them, and lose by violating them.
When a group of people adopt a set of principles that apply to everyone in the same ways, which they all have incentives to follow in order to achieve their own values, this is the kind of social system I call “peer-to-peer,” “horizontal,” “self-enforcing,” and so on.
I think that, by advocating for and participating in this kind of a social system as much as possible, I can achieve the values outlined in the earlier sections of my essay. When living in a community of people who practice horizontal, “peer-to-peer” style norms instead of vertical, “authoritarian” norms, I can apply the principles I want to follow without the cognitive dissonance that arises from attempting to live by “authoritarian” norms, where different standards are applied arbitrarily to different people.
5) Non-aggression and consent work well as roots for peer-to-peer social norms to grow from.
The “non-aggression principle” is the principle that one may not initiate the use of force against another, and that one may only use force defensively or in response to those who have initiated it.
This principle seems useful for anyone wanting to adopt a set of horizontal social norms. It forbids people from harming anyone through initiation of force, but permits people to use force once someone has initiated force in order to restore the equilibrium, attempting to heal the damage done. Thus, the principle forbids rape, murder, kidnapping, theft, and so on, but permits one to use force to defend victims of these acts and obtain restitution for them at the expense of the offenders.
Applying this principle, however, takes some work. What counts as “force?” (Or “coercion,” another word commonly substituted for “force” when defining the principle?) Usually advocates of the non-aggression principle, (or NAP,) expand “force” to mean “physical violence, deprivation of justly owned property, and fraud.” This of course raises further questions. What counts as justly owned property, (if anything?) What counts as fraud?
Even physical violence requires at least some clarification. My own intuitive conception of “violence” is hitting, punching, slapping, pulling someone’s hair, shooting, whacking with a baseball bat, hitting with some other weapon or projectile, grabbing a hold of someone, physically dragging someone from one position or place to another, binding someone with duct-tape or a rope, and so on.
Here’s a simple thought experiment, though. Say a blind man is about to walk out into traffic, and I grab a hold of them and pull them back, saving their life. Have I engaged in “violence” against them? Well, yes, by the conception of “violence” explained in the previous paragraph, my physical action is an instance of violence.
Remember that one can distinguish physical actions from evaluations of those actions. If we want to come up with fundamental ethical principles for people to adopt, we need to express our principles in concrete terms, in terms of actions that we can observe in the real world. If we include violence in such a principle, then we need a conceptualization of violence that does not presuppose any sort of ethical evaluation. Otherwise we will run the risk of falling into circular reasoning, or for instance claiming that “goodness consists of doing good,” a useless tautology that tells us nothing whatever about the real world. We don’t want our principle to be reduced to this, where “aggression” becomes a catch-all term for anything bad done to another person. This would empty the principle of any usefulness.
A useful qualifier for the non-aggression principle involves consent. If two boxers consent to spar with each other, then our ethical intuitions, (well, my ethical intuitions,) indicate that there is nothing wrong with them punching one another, at least within the rules of the boxing match as they’ve agreed upon them. Perhaps, then, we can include a qualification in our definition of the non-aggression principle to the effect that engaging in coercive actions that the coerced party has consented to are permissible. Thus, (borrowing examples from philosopher Michael Huemer,) punching someone during a boxing match in which both people have agreed to participate in the match, during which they of course expect to punch and be punched, does not constitute aggression or a violation of the non-aggression principle. Similarly, using a knife to cut open a person’s abdomen would normally constitute aggression, but no longer does if the person using the knife is a doctor performing a life-saving surgery and the person being operated upon has explicitly, expressly consented to be operated upon by the doctor.
What about the blind man stepping out into traffic? One may not have time, in the split second available to act, to ask for the man’s consent to engage in violence against them by grabbing them and pulling them back to the safety of the sidewalk. Yet, our intuitions, (my intuitions, and probably yours as well,) not only permit us to grab the man and pull him to safety, but may even obligate us to do so.
One could, in this instance, add another qualification. We expect that the man, if he knew what were going on, would want us to save him. This seems like the crucial factor that makes our action no longer “aggressive,” intuitively speaking. Thus, we could adapt our formal definition of the non-aggression principle to align with our intuitions here as well.
This all may seem like a bit of a tangent. What do all these minutia regarding what exactly constitutes aggression have to do with whether or not we can successfully base a peer-to-peer system of norms around the non-aggression principle? Surly any ethical principle we choose will require us to do some case-by-case analysis. We are merely adopting these principles as heuristics, after all; we can regard them as useful tools that will help us make decisions in novel situations while still acknowledging that in some cases it may be more useful to depart from the principles as we have formally defined them. This is not necessarily inconsistent, or, if it is, its being so is not self-evident, and would require some deeper argument to show.
What I want to accomplish, however, is not merely persuading others to adopt the non-aggression principle, as formally defined, as a guide to how to interact with others. People practicing a set of horizontal norms need more than a formal definition or outline of the norms in question, they need a common understanding of those norms, and this includes a need to have intuitions and ways of thinking about people and interpersonal interactions that, even if dissimilar, are at least compatible, in that the people involved can map each others’ intuitions onto their own well enough to cooperate. When disagreements arise, the people who disagree need to at least be able to agree on some method of resolving their disagreement. Regarding the non-aggression principle and any similar principles, people adopting it need to understand not just the formal definition given to it by others, but the principles by which they came up with their formal definition to begin with. (If readers will pardon the verbiage, one could call principles about principles “meta-principles.” I’m a little scared to adopt this term for the rest of the present essay lest my readers’ eyes glaze over, however.)
Now, if you are worried that I will now double, triple, or quadruple the length of the present article by embarking on a quest to outline some principles we might use to figure out how to apply the non-aggression principle in specific situations, feel free to breath a sigh of relief, as the principles I have in mind are simply the ones I discussed before bringing up the non-aggression principle to begin with.
For example, why might a group of people adopt a version of the non-aggression principle that permitted them to save blind men from walking out into traffic? Easy, because they themselves hope that others will save them if they ever end up in those circumstances themselves, and they want the social norms of their community to encourage others to do so.
We come back, then, to the purpose for which we propose adopting heuristics like the non-aggression principle in the first place, we hope to come closer to achieving our own personal values if we succeed in persuading others to adopt the norms in question. This gives us some ideas about how to come up with different possible norms to be used in peer-to-peer or horizontal systems, and how to adapt them as circumstances change. We want to come up with norms that we have good reason to think people will follow willingly, without being forced to, out of their own self-interest, because they expect to benefit from abiding by the norms far more than violating them. In the same vein, we want to come up with norms that we expect others to want to try and spread, persuading those they know to also adopt them, again engaging in these attempts at persuasion out of self-interest, because they expect to benefit from living in a community of people who generally act in accordance with the norms in question.
I could discuss a number of possible norms that could work. Don’t do things to people without their consent, such as touching their body or possessions. Don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff. Mind your own business. Live and let live. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Don’t initiate the use of force against anyone. And so on.
All of these principles, as stated, are imperfect. I expect that one could construct thought experiments to find some divergence between the application of almost any formalized ethical principle and the ethical intuitions of the person who believes they hold to that formal principle in their ethical views and judgments.
But inventing conundrums and exploring the nooks and crannies of ethical theories is the play-realm of philosophers and obsessively analytical personalities like myself, and I will let my readers off the hook today with the knowledge that they can always peruse my other writings for such eccentric endeavors.
6) Labels are dangerous, but may, perhaps, be useful with a great deal of care.
Voluntaryism is the doctrine that relations among people should be by mutual consent, or not at all. It represents a means, an end, and an insight. Voluntaryism does not argue for the specific form that voluntary arrangements will take; only that force be abandoned so that individuals in society may flourish. As it is the means which determine the end, the goal of an all voluntary society must be sought voluntarily.
I am comfortable identifying as a voluntaryist, in accordance with this usage of the word. The principle that one associate with those who are willing to associate with one, and not with those who do not want to associate, and the principle that the association ought to take whatever form the associates agree to, the principle, in other words, of respecting each other’s ability to give or withhold consent, is, in my opinion, an excellent foundation upon which a peer-to-peer, horizontal system of norms could be built.
The word “libertarianism,” which I have often seen reduced, (or expanded,) to “the philosophy that advocates for adoption of the non-aggression principle, or the principle that no one may initiate the use of force against any other,” expresses, I believe, a similar position.
I have also heard of the word “consentist,” which I especially like, as valuing consent is, I think, about as foundational a principle as one can find in these philosophies. It is also something that I think it is hard to make sense of from within an authoritarian context, but intuitive from within a peer-to-peer context. A ruler has no need for a concept of consent. They may do as they will. It is only in a community where one interacts with peers, or “ethical equals” to use a vague phrase, people one neither stands above or below, people one walks alongside and works with out of one’s own choice for the joy one gains in doing so, it is only in this sort of a community that the concept of consent has any use. Peers can use the concept to capture the idea that each individual has some sphere of influence which is their own, and which others may only enter when invited, and which they must leave when asked. A group of individuals who each has such a sphere can capture the value of mutual respect of each other’s spheres with the idea of consent, the idea that one must ask for the consent of a given individual before entering their sphere, and that each individual can thus be secure in themselves by the expectation that others will have a reason to respect their boundaries, (the reason being that others will reciprocate the respect.)
I am, then, a voluntaryist, an advocate for a free, peaceful, and consensual society, in which relations among people are by mutual consent, or not at all.
My hope is that I have given my audience more than a mere box into which they may place me. I hope, rather, that I have helped readers understand my values, and why I want to create and live in the kind of society that I do.