The Non-Aggression Principle is not the Golden Rule

The non-aggression principle (or NAP) is a foundational piece of libertarian philosophy. In short, it is:

…a moral stance which asserts that aggression is inherently illegitimate. NAP and property rights are closely linked, since what aggression is depends on what a person’s rights are. Aggression, for the purposes of NAP, is defined as the initiation or threatening of violence against a person or legitimately-owned property of another.

Now, any serious reader will see there’s a problem here: the NAP depends on the establishment of property rights, but if we do not agree on how property rights are established, then the principle isn’t really anti-aggression at all. It’s just pro-aggression in particular property-related circumstances. Here’s Matt Bruenig summing up the trouble with the NAP:

Libertarians typically respond that the violence mentioned here is not aggression: it is defense because the person owns the land. Wait a minute! That begs the question. The central question is: do you actually own the land? I am claiming you do not; and you are claiming you do. The way we are supposed to adjudicate that question is to ask: do the processes involved in you coming to own it involve aggression? The libertarian is saying he owns the land because he is being non-aggressive, and saying he is being non-aggressive (defensive) because he owns the land. The circularity is apparent.

In other words, the only thing the NAP really establishes is that the person advocating it believes in a particular brand of property rights apropos of nothing. What’s new, right? If you’re wondering why I’m still spending time on this, there are two reasons: firstly, I believe that the NAP wrongly appeals to well-meaning Christian libertarians because they mistake it for a principle of non-violence or pacifism; secondly, the NAP is wrongly identified with the Golden Rule, which misleads some Christian libertarians about the message of Jesus.

We’ve already established that the NAP is not a theory of non-violence or pacifism. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: it’s a theory by which violence against other people is justified so long as a person’s property has been threatened. We can immediately see that Jesus would never have advocated such a perversely high valuation of property, here in Luke 6:29-30:

If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.

Whether or not we take all of these principles literally or choose to expand them to any particular scale (many theological arguments are made on both fronts), it is clear that in each formulation, harming another person is the notably excluded alternative. One would expect to be told to hit back if hit, to take back if taken from, and so on — the fact that Jesus intentionally upsets this expectation draws attention to the overwhelming altruism of his alternative prescriptions. It also gives insight into the fundamental values of Christian ethics, by elevating human life and dignity over property or claims to property. The NAP does the opposite: it values human life and dignity only insofar as property is not threatened. So we can immediately see that it is not a Christian theory of non-violence in the tradition of, say, the Religious Society of Friends.

But why hone in on Luke 6? Lo and behold, the Golden Rule comes from Luke 6 (other gospels too, of course, notably Matt 7:12, but the most famous formulation is the Luke one, and none of them differ substantively). Nonetheless, some Christian libertarians consider the Golden Rule to be little more than an adumbration of the NAP. From the NAP wiki article, under their ‘Historical Formulations of the NAP‘ heading:

“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”Jesus of Nazareth advocated, and is closely associated with, the Golden Rule, otherwise known as “the ethic of reciprocity.”

When they say it’s known as ‘the ethic of reciprocity’, they’re referring to Olivier Du Roi and Hans Ritter, both of them 20th century theologians. It’s a neat thought, I guess, but the problems should be immediately visible. To quote John Topel in The Tarnished Golden Rule: the Inescapable Radicalness of Christian Ethics:

Thus both Dihle and Ricoeur understand the underlying motive of the Golden Rule to be do ut des (“I give in order that you may give”). Ricoeur’s fatal error is mistranslating Jesus’ “as you wish that others would do” as “as you expect that others would do.” The verb (e)thelem does not mean “expect,” neither in classical nor Hellenistic Greek, nor anywhere in the New Testament! Jesus’ form does not anticipate a response as the intention of the Golden Rule. He asks disciples to get in touch with their own desires and act accordingly for the other. Thus the underlying motive could be love of neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18); there is no hint of a do ut des.

In other words, you can’t have an ethic of reciprocity when the other agent hasn’t even acted yet, as reciprocity entails the reciprocating of an action. Since the other agent hasn’t necessarily even undertaken the act of estimating what you would want, the only active agent is you. The only action the Golden Rule asks you to undertake is to empathize with other people by recognizing their subjectivity (e.g. ‘they are like me in that they feel, think, and desire, as I can imagine them feeling, thinking, and desiring as I do) and proceeding accordingly. So the Golden Rule is not, strictly speaking, advocating reciprocity: it’s advocating superior forms of altruism regardless of what the other agent may do.

Most theologians refer to the negative formulation of the Golden Rule as the ‘silver rule’, that is, the notion that you shouldn’t do harm. (Remember: the NAP isn’t this, either.) But the Golden Rule in its positive formulation goes even further than that, and much further than reciprocity. Topel goes on:

The principle of beneficence… is the general principle underlying the Golden Rule, and it governs three different types of actions: (a) one ought to prevent evil or harm, e.g., not only by not doing it oneself ( = the principle of non-maleficence) but by interposing oneself between the one harming and any victims of an injurious action; (b) one ought to remove the cause of evil or harm, e.g., by legislation or individual action to combat exploitative business practices or epidemic disease; (c) one ought to do the good positively: on the level of basic duty, by acting justly, and on the level of heroic charity, by forgiving the same offense for the seventh time, or even “laying down one’s life” for the other, even the enemy. Now it is clear that the Silver Rule does not cover actions described in (a), (b), or (c). “Do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself does not obligate the Good Samaritan.

Topel’s explanation is right, I think, especially because a decontextualized Golden Rule is sort of nonsensical on its face; that is, we all want different things, and it would not necessarily yield good to do to others what we want specifically done to us unless we enact a sort of veil of ignorance regarding our own personal situation. Instead, the Golden Rule must be understood to follow the rest of the commands in Luke 6: to turn the other cheek, to give selflessly of our possessions, and to behave with utter mercy to those who offend us. As you can see from Topel’s expanded exploration of those maxims, none of them align with the NAP, which would suggest that one is doing good by doing nothing. On the contrary, the Golden Rule would require us to use any means at our disposal with due respect to a person’s dignity and life to prevent harm from befalling them, even if it means preventing poverty from befalling others by using tax-funded cash transfer programs.

And this brings me to the last reason that the NAP is not the Golden Rule, and moreover not a useful Christian axiom. Christianity contains sins of omission — that is, sins which occur because a person chose not to do something: e.g. James 4:17 — “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” Thus, suppose I’m sitting in my house, and across the street I see the roof of my neighbor’s house is falling in. I call my neighbor and tell her that her roof is about to cave in, and she says she knows and doesn’t care, that it’s her house and she isn’t leaving. I know I can’t just let my neighbor die, so I break into her house and put her in a burlap sack. I carry her out of her house just before the roof caves in, and she isn’t crushed to death. Under a Christian ethical framework, I’ve done the right thing here — though it’s contrary to the NAP.

On the other hand, if I’m sitting in my house watching my neighbor’s roof cave in under a libertarian frame, I’m not obligated to rescue my neighbor, or even to try to mend her roof. It’s her property to administrate as she sees fit, and I can’t intrude. By sitting still in my house while my neighbor’s roof caves in and kills her, I’m following the NAP, and therefore acting rightly, that is, doing good.

But the Golden Rule, and the breadth of Christian ethics at large do not imagine doing nothing as doing good. Doing nothing is sometimes neutral, and sometimes bad, but it’s never constitutive of moral good. As Topel writes, Jesus’ Golden Rule imagines an incredible form of altruism, which is an active, integrated altruism. It requires people to reach out to one another, to care for one another, to meet one anothers’ needs — physical as well as emotional and spiritual. There’s nothing ‘non’ about this rule: it’s not an injunction not to. It’s an injunction to do, with an implicit charge that not doing is, in fact, a serious problem.



  1. > “But the Golden Rule, and the breadth of Christian ethics at large do not
    imagine doing nothing as doing good. Doing nothing is sometimes
    neutral, and sometimes bad, but it’s never constitutive of moral good.”

    Really? You must always do something in every scenario?

    1. Elizabeth Stoker October 1, 2013 at 4:19 pm

      Says right there in the selection you quoted that doing nothing can be morally neutral.

      On definitions alone, non-action can’t be wholly constitutive of moral good, and it certainly can’t be constitutive of ‘doing’ good, as it’s not ‘doing’ anything at all.

  2. Jason Charewicz October 1, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    The concept of reciprocity that you have drawn from Topel is interesting. I agree with his point, although I would make a distinction between reciprocity and exchange. It seems to me that what Topel is objecting to is a principle of exchange, which entails that the justification for an action would be the expectation of another (preferably equal) action. I would define reciprocity as the principle by which all the members of any given action (the people who act and the people who receive) are understood to be equally important and equally participatory in that action. My interpretation of this principle is such that the receiver (or receivers), in the very “act” (or state, if you prefer), of receiving are providing immediately a good for the giver: him or herself (or themselves, if plural). The relationship between giver and receiver is at least as important as that which is being given, if not more so.

    My justification for this particular interpretation is twofold. First, I first discussed this interpretation of reciprocity in a class freshman year in undergrad (although I admit I do not recall the purpose for the conversation at the time, it was four years ago). But more importantly, the second reason is that I take issue with the egotism/altruism divide. I think it is a development that has infected moral though primarily through Kant’s understanding of ethics, although the notion itself existed long before his philosophy.

    It is not possible to divide the good deed from the agent. Doing good things for others is good for the agent, because human beings are the kind of beings that flourish when they will, and act towards, the good of other. In another word, human beings flourish when they love others. The relationship of love between two people in the context of giving and receiving is the principle of reciprocity.

    Anyway, I think you probably already understand all that. I merely felt obligated to point out that I have an alternate definition of reciprocal. My life is currently all about minute distinctions like this.

  3. Insightful post Elizabeth, although I’m going to disagree with you.

    While the observation that the NAP does infact rest on a particular definition of property, I would disagree that private property implies aggression. Or at least that private property requires aggression in the initial acquisition.

    Consider if a person goes out into the countryside and finds unowned, unused land and proceeds to clear the land and build a farm. No one else has been harmed by this action. Normal moral intuition held by 98% of the population would suggest that this person owns the farm since he’s the one who labored for it.

    If someone else were to come along and claim ownership of either the farm or of the crops this farmer produces again nearly everyone would suggest this is illegitimate since this other person did not labor for it.

    The same thing could be said of property acquired through the peaceful voluntary trade of property initially acquired in the above manner.

    So there is no aggression involved in the initial acquisition of property only from those who, for some reason, attempt to appropriate for themselves the fruits of someone else’s labor.

    If seems to me the burden of proof lies on those who want to claim that the moral intuition held by nearly everyone is wrong to justify why they believe that someone else’s can legitimately lay claim to the fruits of someone else’s labor or why the use of aggression in defense of your own property is unjustified.

    If you want to claim it’s unjustified because adhering to our moral intuitions will produce bad consequences (ie Poverty, inequality etc.) then this breaks down into a debate over economics not philosophy. A debate I welcome since I think it’s provable that such a system would lead to human flourishing.

    On a related note, I am a Christian myself. I would mention that one of the Ten Commandments says thou shall not steal. This is implying some concept of property. Why would we expect that God’s definition of property to be different from the one suggested by our intuitions, which were, presumably, put there by God Himself?

    For me I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the laws economics just so happen to shake out such that peaceful voluntary interaction leads to a vibrant, flourishing, spontaneous order and all human attempts to intervene in that state of nature produce suffering, poverty, and extreme inequality.

    1. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 12:34 pm

      For me to agree that the aggression taking place after someone has acquired the land is x or y, I’d have to agree that they had acquired it. Since nobody can explain how acquisition actually takes place, that is, how a piece of land becomes ‘yours’, the aggression is just that: aggression. It’s aggression you feel is justified because you adhere to a certain theory of ownership, but it’s by no means anything more than your own personal theory of how x became ‘yours.’ Since ‘mine’ doesn’t mean anything more than ‘I’ll violently exclude you from it’, I’d say the violence inherent in the process of property invention is pretty evident!

      1. I’m not so my providing a comprehensive theory of property except to suggest that there is a moral intuition held by nearly everyone that people own the fruits of their own labor.

        I would also offer up the economic observation that resources are scarce. That is, they can’t be simultaneously used by everyone at the same time. Resources can only be controlled by one at a time. That is a fact of nature. The question is who should that person be an why? I’m suggesting the people who labored for them since nearly everyone intuitively believes it would be unjust otherwise. And also since allocating control in any other manner produces horrible economic consequences.

        1. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 12:56 pm

          The notion that resources have to be ‘controlled’ or that they can only be controlled by one person at a time is entirely a matter of your imagination/intuition. I can imagine resources that are controlled by no one (air, for example) that nonetheless serve everybody.

          1. Air is not scarce, which isn’t why it shouldn’t be owned. Neither are ideas, recipes, formulas, algorithm, patterns, rhythms, melodies, etc. Which is why they shouldn’t be owned either.

          2. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 1:10 pm

            There’s certainly a limited quantity of it. But I have no insight into the intuitions that clue you into exactly how many atoms of something equates to scarcity.

          3. The economic definition of scarcity is when there isn’t enough of a resource to satisfy all human wants for it.

          4. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 1:21 pm

            Ah, so the intuitive position is that as long as ownership wouldn’t be problematic, e.g. there’s literally enough for everyone, ownership isn’t possible. But when ownership would be severely contested, we assume it. Very interesting!

          5. Let’s define property rights as an institutional arrangement for deciding who gets to control which scarce resources.
            There are other ways of allocating control, but I’m suggesting the burden lies on you to demonstrate why alternative means of allocating control is more just and that the means I’ve described is unjust.

            That’s not even getting into whether alternative arrangements are economically feasible.

          6. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 1:31 pm

            Ah, yes, the ‘prove me wrong’ burden, in which the negative position (in this case: the position that nobody can explain to me how a thing becomes property) has to explain why the ‘things become property through a mysterious metaphysical process’ folks are wrong. I’m still trying to figure out what the mysterious metaphysical process is. It’s important, because in many ideologies it’s what justifies violence and inequality.

          7. I’ll have a serious discussion if you want to cut out the snark. I’m at work and tying on my phone so I’ll have to reply later.

            Let me just say here that your comment about violence and inequality is an assumption relating to economics. Not philosophy.

            Wrote this a couple weeks ago. It’s only part of the explanation for inequality.

          8. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 2:54 pm

            Justification is what I’m talking about, and that’s always a matter of philosophy.

          9. If youre saying, “Private property can’t be just because it produces inequality” then you are making an economic assumption .

            If it didn’t produce those results (which I don’t believe it does) would you still come to the same conclusion?

          10. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 3:05 pm

            I am saying you need to explain to me how a thing becomes ‘property’ before this discussion can even be had.

            Not that I’m dying to get into the endless rigmaroll of first-occupier/labor-mixing yadda, yadda. I’m a Christian ethicist, and though this argument is interesting to me, it’s not really the chief preoccupation of my thought or this post. So I might decline to proceed here.

          11. I am a Christian too after all. Yet I dont find any alternative arrangements compatible with my faith.

            In a ‘state of nature’ (that is no government, the state God created us in) people would act according to their moral intuition. This would result in a society where nearly everyone would respect the property rights of others. The exception would be the handful of criminals who see fit to steal or plunder to benefit at the expense of others.

            Nearly everyone would see such actions as unjustified acts of violence against innocent people (the Bible also portrays it this way.)

            Yet I see no reason to see why these acts of violence would all of a sudden become morally justified (or even prescribed by the bible) if the violence is exercised by a group of people calling themselves “the government”. Violence is still violence. The amount wielded by modern states is orders of magnitude more than would be wielded by private property owners against common criminals in a state of nature.

            Nothing I’m my faith tells me that mass theft and threats of violence becomes justified when done by a bunch of people.

            Neither do I believe it’s possible to make a serious philosophical case for it either.

            Even more so if you consider the economic consequences (poverty, suffering, inequality)

          12. Elizabeth,

            There are plenty of universally accepted definitions of property ownership. The fact that you are consciously choosing to not acknowledge any of them doesn’t make them disappear.

            I could easily say something like, “Morality is subjective” (which I believe it to be)… But similarly to property rights, there are many universally accepted definitions of morality. We all are pretty clear that stealing, harming, etc. are morally negative acts. And even though I recognize that different people have different concepts of morality, I am competent enough to accept the universal standards of morality which do exist.

            The point is, you’re being purposely disingenuous when you pretend not to know what constitutes property ownership. Therefore, I have a challenge for you.

            If you REALLY believe that there is no such thing as legitimate property ownership, I’d like you to give me your address so that I may come over and live in your home for a week. Since there’s no such thing as property, naturally, there’s no such thing as your personal space, and I am just as entitled to it as you are. Correct?

            So put your money where your mouth is, post your address, and let us all come over and throw a party!

            If you’re not willing to do that, I think you should reconsider your position. Because actions speak louder than your obtuseness.

          13. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 4:41 pm

            The fact that I don’t acknowledge those theories of property only proves that they’re not universally accepted, Matt!

          14. I see you still haven’t provided your address.

            I guess you’re not interested in sharing your property, huh?

            Also, Do you accept the 10 commandments as some sort of ethical framework?

            If so, then you accept some form of private property.

            “Thou Shalt Not Steal”

            This commandment wouldn’t exist if God himself didn’t accept some form of private property. In order to steal, one must own something.

            Can you define what type of property ownership you support (if any) ?

          15. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 9:59 pm

            It must blow your mind that one can have a sense of an entitlement to a living space that isn’t dependent upon the inherent foundational value of private property ownership.

            It must also blow your mind that there are source critical interpretations of Biblical law, and that the commandment you’re referring to is mostly interpreted by classical Jewish writers to refer to the kidnapping of persons.

          16. That’s right… Move those goalposts!

          17. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 10:26 pm

            What I’m saying is that you don’t have the background to have a reasoned discussion about Biblical ethics. Nobody who did have that background would pull an English translation from the OT and say ‘QED private property is an inherent eternal truth.’ So I ain’t pursuing it with you.

          18. “It must blow your mind that one can have a sense of an entitlement to a living space that isn’t dependent upon the inherent foundational value of private property ownership.”

            It actually doesn’t blow my mind because it’s impossible.

            You have no entitlement whatsoever to a living space without private property rights. How could you!?

          19. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 10:20 pm

            You can value personal safety, for example, and spaces can come with various exclusions for particular purposes and time periods with that value in mind.

          20. That’s why I was speaking of moral intuition which is nearly universally accepted.

          21. Also, if you want to claim its unjust becausenit will produce bad consequences, then let’s have an economic debate.

          22. There is no notion that resources “have to be” controlled. Resources ARE controlled… They don’t “have to be”.

            And just because resources don’t “have to be” controlled (which they don’t) doesn’t mean they can’t legitimately be controlled or owned.

            You’re right that the resources which are uncontrollable do serve everyone.
            And I believe that those who own resources ought to both share (with no expectation of reciprocation), as well as capitalize from them in order to survive.

            But human freedom (which I find to be more important than any religion or religious text) would dictate that I am under no obligation to share that which I have legitimately acquired from a previous owner.

            If someone would like to acquire/use that which I own. It is up to me to share it.

            If someone would like to challenge my ownership, there are several civil and governmental avenues to determine rightful ownership. Although I can almost sense you challenging the legitimacy of those institutions as well (civil and/or government decisions as to ownership via courts or arbitration)…. Which is a valid concern. :)

          23. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 4:56 pm

            Ok, so we occupy totally different ethical frameworks. That’s fine.

  4. I think Christianity and libertarianism are mutually exclusive for the very reasons you outline above.

    This is why I rejected religion for libertarianism… Because I reject the notion that I don’t have an inherent right to defend my person, family or property, or that I shouldn’t react with reasonable, equivalent aggression should extreme aggression be initiated upon myself, my family or my property.

    And while I disagree with always “turning the other cheek”, I don’t disagree with Christ on concepts like giving of myself to the less fortunate with no expectations, loving my neighbors and treating my brothers with respect.

    But if being Christian REQUIRES pacifism, I’d posit that there are VERY VERY few self-proclaimed Christians who actually abide by this. In fact, most Christians I’ve met are extremely keen and equipped to defending their property and family. Are they really Christians?

    I firmly believe it’s impossible to be both Christian and libertarian… Because the NAP and libertarianism are inseparable concepts. Libertarianism isn’t libertarianism without the NAP. Libertarians are ‘peaceful fighters’ by nature.

    1. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 5:12 pm

      Then you and I are in agreement, Matt! I also think Christianity and libertarianism are mutually exclusive. It’s something I write about quite a lot. I just chose Jesus Christ instead of libertarianism.

      1. I’m going to suggest this comes from a fundamentally defective understanding of the economic world.

        Ask yourself this: If it was really the case that poverty and inequality are the byproducts of failure to uphold private property, rather than a byproduct of private property itself; or if it really is the case that strict adherence to private property rights would eliminate world poverty and result in a much more compressed income distribution than we have today, would you still hold the same belief about libertarianism?

        I seriously doubt that you would.

        If the roles were reversed and I believed that adherence to private property caused poverty and suffering, I wouldn’t be a libertarian. Or at least I would be advocating the minimal intervention necessary to correct the problems.

        So I’d ask is, your disagreement with libertarianism economic or philosophical? If it’s economic, I will point to quite a bit of evidence that the economic world works differently than you think it does.

        Just like I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the laws of physics just so happen to work out in a way that allows for matter and energy and stars and planets to form. Or that the environment on Earth just so happens to be juuuust right that human life can be sustained…

        I don’t find it a coincidence that our moral intuitions out property, the incentives that stem from property, and the laws of economics just so happen to work out such that human beings acting in state of nature (the state in which we were created) can not only survive but flourish.

        Private property would not lead mass starvation, poverty, or inequality, but the exact opposite of it.

        1. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 10:57 pm

          My disagreement is purely philosophical and pre-economic.

          1. So if some sort of collective property arrangement were to lead to poverty suffering and mass inequality you would just say to hell with poverty and inequality, we’re sticking with this arrangement on philosophical grounds?

          2. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 11:02 pm

            I’m not a utilitarian consequentialist, if that’s what you’re asking. A ‘collective property’ arrangement wouldn’t necessarily tick all the ethical boxes I’d insist be ticked before I’d call something a sufficiently ethical system, nor would a system have to be purely collectivist to tick all those boxes.

          3. So considerations of outcomes are a part of your philosophy or not at all?

          4. And a final question. Do you believe that if Jesus were here he would say that it is morally acceptable (or even obligatory) to send armed men to the house of someone who refused to help the poor, point guns at him, arrest him, and throw him in a prison?

            I haven’t found anything in my reading of the scriptures that suggests that Christ would support such policy. I’m hard pressed to believe the same Jesus that refused to stone a woman for adultery would support caging a person for lack of charitable giving.

            Christian libertarians often believe we are morally obligated to help the poor. But if we don’t, we are accountable to God, not to a mob of other people.

            And contrary to what you think about libertarians in general, we are not selfish people who refuse to help others. My experience has been that libertarians are some of the most giving people you will meet. Voluntarily helping others (without a gun pointed at are heads) is a core part of our philosophy and we live it.

            It’s the violence associated with collectivism that we oppose. The armed thugs who show up at people’s houses to imprison them for wanting nothing more than to sit there unmolested.

          5. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 11:43 pm

            If you don’t want violence, give freely; there’s a good post about this over at Vox Nova by Kyle Cupp called ‘acting freely under force’, which I think is a good, to-the-point handling of this constant whinge.

          6. That’s like saying, “If you don’t want to be stoned, don’t commit adultery”.

          7. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 11:45 pm

            The reverse of that is: ‘I want to commit adultery but get away with it’, sort of like ‘I want to refuse to help the poor at my leisure without any consequences, moral or material’, which is just not what Christianity is about.

          8. I’m really speechless at how you interpret the Bible. Christ clearly says “he who is without sin cast the first stone”. That doesn’t imply he is condoning adultery. Instead he is giving a decidedly libertarian view of human interaction. Namely, that it is not morally permissible for other people to use violence to enforce a moral code. It could just as easily read, “He who is without sin be the first to send the non-charitable-giver to prison”. God is the ultimate judge of the world, not other men. How do you not see that?

            Likewise in your post you quote from Luke “if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back” as if it is some kind of nod to collectivist property arrangements.

            On the contrary, He clearly picks slapping someone on the cheek and stealing their property because these are examples of things that are morally wrong. He could just have easily said, “If someone hugs you, hug them back”. But in order to preach pacifism, he needed examples of things that are wrong. Christ isn’t saying it is morally acceptable to take someone else’s property any more than he is saying it’s morally acceptable to slap someone in the face. Again, I don’t know how you come to the opposite conclusion.

            And btw, there’s nothing incompatible with libertarianism in His statement. The decision to turn the other cheek, or to not demand stolen property be returned is a personal decision. There’s nothing in libertarianism that says you have to extract revenge or return demand your property back. Just like there’s nothing that says you have to commit adultery or you have to hoard all your money.

            They are all personal decisions and people will rightfully be judged by God for the decisions we make. But it isn’t our place to judge others or, heaven forbid, use institutionalized violence against them. That is a core lesson of the new testament.

          9. Elizabeth Stoker October 3, 2013 at 9:05 am

            The entire Luke set-up hasn’t got anything to do with ‘personal choices’; Christ is recommending a new value system. In this new value system, the values are counter-intuitive: instead of valuing the self, you value the other. Instead of valuing your property, you value the other. Though human beings are sinful and inclined to love themselves and their things (this is the core ethic of libertarianism, which is why it’s anti-Christian) Jesus commands — and that’s COMMANDS, not suggests — that you relinquish your desire for personal fulfillment and worldly possessions in favor of valuing the lives of others. Thus the values system of Christianity, in which the lives of others are primarily meaningful, is antithetical to the libertarian system, in which the self and property are the primary values. But of course, libertarians thin that this ancient book is somehow advocating a 20th century pro-property political philosophy, and will twist themselves into pretzels to see it, so hey, I think this discussion is pretty much over.

  5. God himself supports private ownership of property.

    “Thou Shalt Not Steal”

    Such a commandment supports the concept of private property. Do you disagree with GOD!?!?!?!


    1. Elizabeth Stoker October 2, 2013 at 10:01 pm

      ;) Still doesn’t tell me how something becomes property. How can I know if I’m stealing if I’m not totally sure how something becomes property or not? Blah blah blah blah we can do this for five hundred years, but it’s already boring. ;(

      1. I concede, it is subjective in the end.

        Just like morality and many many other things.

        I mean… I could just as easily say that “Aggression” is as subjective as private property ownership.

        …And if I “need” something someone else “owns” and I take it by force, perhaps I didn’t really “steal” it since they didn’t really “own” it. And I didn’t really use “aggression” because hey…. I needed their stuff! And them keeping it from me is “aggression” and I can use physical force in “self defense”!

        At some point we have to define these terms or we’re left with no ethical foundation whatsoever.

  6. Wonderful post.

    I am in full agreement with you that Christians are called to a higher moral standard than simply abiding by the NAP. However, I do think more Christian libertarians understand the distinctions between non-aggression and non-violence than your post implies.

    I’m not entirely convinced of the two alternatives you presented in the burning house scenario. You present the first, where an individually forcibly removes another individual from their burning home, as the right thing to do; and the alternative, doing nothing, as the wrong thing to do. I agree that simply doing nothing is the wrong thing to do from a Christian standpoint. Where I am unsure, is whether using force to remove a non-consenting individual from the home is the right thing to do.

    Now I am making an assumption here that the individual in the home isn’t unconscious or otherwise incompetent to make the decision for themselves. If one reaches out to this individual offering help, yet they resist, I think it would actually be a violation of the golden rule to force them out of the home. It would not be consistent with empathizing with other people by recognizing their subjectivity.

    For a more common example of this, think of Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders. If a libertarian doctor comes across someone lying on the ground in need of aggressive resuscitation measures to save their life, it is not necessarily a violation of the NAP for them to do nothing. From a Christian standpoint, I do believe the doctor is obligated to at least try and provide care, but if the doctor rushes over to the individual and finds “Do Not Resuscitate” tattooed on their chest, what is the doctor to do? Should the doctor use force to prolong this individual’s life even though they previously indicated their wishes? Or should the doctor empathize with this individual by recognizing their subjectivity and respecting their prior decision?

    1. Elizabeth Stoker October 5, 2013 at 8:14 am

      A DNR order is considered morally permissible to follow by the Vatican only if resuscitation would impose undue burdens on a person, their family, or their community. What that formulation shows is that people do not, under most Christian ethical standards, just have the right to die because they feel like dying. This is why if someone were standing in front of me, holding a gun, calmly explaining that they intended to use it to kill themselves, I would be under a Christian moral imperative to prevent them from doing that. It’s also why the Church so powerfully condemns suicide. Christians operate under many principles, and the greatest of them (as affirmed by Christ and the Apostle Paul) is abiding love for the Other. Empathizing with a person’s subjectivity is good, but since people do not always act out of love for themselves (e.g. suicidal people), one cannot always use their wishes as a guidepost for what a loving action is. Love requires much more than affirming another person’s wishes whatever they may be; it requires a real and thoughtful interest in their ongoing welfare and salvation, which can only be achieved if they are, in fact, alive.

      1. You are going to have to do better than cite the Vatican before I am willing to accept the use of violence (i.e. reject pacifism) in the name of Christian love. As I’m sure you know, the Vatican has changed their positions on issues before (lending and slavery being two big examples). The Vatican is a good place to get some insight into the Catholic churches views, but history shows us that it can err in it’s guidance.

        I don’t question that you have a Christian moral imperative to try and help somebody in need, but can you please tell me where Jesus taught us to use force in doing so? Can you name one example in the Bible where Jesus used force to do good? Or even where someone was not loving themselves and Jesus used force to restrain them until they changed their mind?

        1. Elizabeth Stoker October 7, 2013 at 6:28 pm

          Catholic theologians have actually been some of the more revolutionary writers on the principle of life. Anyway, ‘pacifism’ is not pursuing violence for the sake of harm, not sitting listlessly and letting people commit suicide because you’d rather affirm a 20th century property-rights-centric political philosophy than accept that one cannot in good conscience allow a neighbor to die. Jesus absolutely used force to do good; he violently forced the money changers from the temple, and repeatedly threatens people with eternity in hell if they don’t obey him. He also calls people stupid and faithless on a regular basis: he is in no way a sitter-around.

          1. I don’t disagree there have been great Catholic theologians, I’m just pointing out that they are not infallible.

            What harm did Jesus cause to a single money changer? He cast them out of the church – that was all he did. Did he make a scene? Yes, but that is not violence. Furthermore, the church belongs to Jesus. If anyone had a right to cast someone out of a church, it was Jesus. But we should also note that Jesus was not permanently casting the money changers out of the temple. He was just cleansing the church so that the focus returned to God.

            Do you really believe that Jesus calling someone stupid is proof enough that you can use whatever force you deem necessary and circumvent the Gulden Rule? Do you really think that Jesus explaining to people the eternal consequences of their actions, gives you the right to exercise violence against them for “their benefit”?

            It sounds to me that you are trying to rationalize violence for the sake of your own desire to act violently in certain extreme situations (with all good intentions of course – it’s clear from your statements you are coming from a position of wanting to do harm).

            Using your suicide example, let’s pretend that I told you that I was going to kill myself. What do you feel the appropriate actions for you to take are? Certainly you have an obligation to talk to me, pray for me, try and get me help, etc. (we are in agreement here). But do you believe it is moral to restrain me, perhaps for my entire life, all the while force feeding me food and water to keep me alive? This is literally what you would need to do. You would need to exert a lifetime of violence against me just to prevent me from killing myself. Does chaining people up and force feeding them really sound like something Jesus would support?

          2. Elizabeth Stoker October 7, 2013 at 7:10 pm

            Hi there, the Greek word used for ‘cast out’ or ‘drove’ in Matthew 21:12 denotes a violent action. So yes, most Christian exegetes believe this is an example of Christ using violence to do good.

            If you were going to kill yourself presently before me, I would tackle you to get whatever instrument you were going to do it with out of your hand, and thereby save your immortal soul from eternal damnation for committing murder. If you told me over the internet you intended to commit suicide, I’d do everything in my power to report it to the proper authorities, who would come place you under a psych hold. Rightfully so.

          3. I’m by no means an expert in Greek, but it seems that the term is far less clear cut than you are implying. It appears the term may convey a “notion of violence”, but that is not required. Also, a “notion of violence” is not itself violence. Even if it is true that most Christian exegetes believe that this was an example of using violence to do good (you are really generalizing here…I don’t think most exegetes would agree with your simplification), it is not the case that all exegetes agree. As I read the Bible, as I pray, and as I interpret it through the totality of the teachings of Jesus, I simply do not believe that he was using the type of violence you are accusing him of.

            You claim that you would use of lifetimes worth of violence to restrain me from suicide, so now where would you draw the line? Would you use the same type of violence to restrain me from lust? What about gluttony or greed? It seems like if you are honest with the implications of what you are saying, you are obligated to be out in the world committing a ton of violence.

          4. Elizabeth Stoker October 7, 2013 at 7:50 pm

            Sometimes ekballo implies more or less violence; it’s context-reliant upon the passivity or activity of its usage. In Matthew 21:12, it’s an active verb, which implies a violent (not a verbally coerced) casting-out. This fits in with all of the other active verbs in the passage: the overturning of the benches and dovecotes, and so on. If you think that for some reason he violently upended tables and dovecotes but then verbally pleaded with or otherwise non-violently coerced the money changers into leaving, you fundamentally disagree with the Greek. (I love that you disagree with my reading, and Strong’s, without any knowledge of Greek! :) Shows me what the years I’ve spent learning this language have entitled me to.) Still, that’s fine; plenty of people feel like the Bible is false! It’s certainly no great sin in this day and age.

            I would do what I could reasonably do to prevent you from committing murder: murdering yourself (for life isn’t yours to take) or another person, and I would feel totally ethically entitled to do that by Christian ethics. Since the taking of life represents finality in the human salvific engagement with Christ, it’s of the utmost moral import: other sins, while still egregious, don’t carry that kind of finality. So protecting human life is of the very most importance in Christian ethics.

          5. You are leaving out the “notion of” portion of the definition. Why would it be such an outrageous idea to believe that Jesus treated a table differently than he treated a person? He needed to make a statement and he used the resources he had available to do so (in my belief) without actually resorting to violence against a person.

            I can’t fundamentally disagree with Greek when I don’t even know enough about it to make an intelligent interpretation. However, from what I do know, I do challenge whether your understanding of Greek is as strong as you are suggesting. You are making an absolute statement, of which even of which many of the greatest theologians don’t agree on, without accepting the possibility that you could be wrong. That comes across as intellectually arrogant to me.

            We are probably just going to be going in circles here, so it is probably time to just say thank you for the conversation. You believe that you have the right to use violence against others based on some personally defined threshold of the severity of their sins. You support that with your contextual interpretation of some Greek. I feel that your interpretation is incorrect. Therefore, I don’t see how we are justified in using violence to attempt to prevent an individual from committing a sin against themselves. We just aren’t going to see eye to eye on this.

            Do note that I do think some use of violence is justifiable in accordance with the Golden Rule. For instance, if a shooter is pointing a gun at an innocent bystander, I would have both the obligation and the right to try and restrain the shooter. It would be best if I could use persuasion and non-violence, but it is clear the victim would want me to step in and defend them. This is different than a situation where someone is sitting in their burning home refusing my assistance.

          6. Elizabeth Stoker October 7, 2013 at 8:57 pm

            “Notion” is essentially identical with the way we use “connotation” in English, but Greek is a different language than English, and the ‘flavors’ or ‘valences’ of words function differently than they do in English. Readers from Augustine to Luther have thought the Matthew temple incident included violence. Disagree all you want, but it’s by no means a minority position on that passage.

            I believe I have the right to use force to prevent murder; I believe almost all moral intuitions would affirm this belief, and I believe that Christian ethics would find me personally responsible if I could have intervened to prevent murder but chose not to because I was more concerned about my personal purity than a human life.

            But we’re not going to agree. I’m not a libertarian, and I won’t be. Ever. I’d be an anarcho-communist before a libertarian, as basically all anti-government and pacifist arguments advanced by libertarians really lead to a Tolstoyan anarcho-communism. But this conversation isn’t going anywhere, so thanks for reading, and goodnight.

          7. “basically all anti-government and pacifist arguments advanced by libertarians really lead to a Tolstoyan anarcho-communism”

            I was reasonably confident you were operating from a stance of intellectual arrogance on your knowledge of Greek, but I have no doubt that you are with regards to anarchist theories. I have a lot of respect for Tolstoy, but your statement is simply false.

          8. Elizabeth Stoker October 7, 2013 at 9:33 pm

            I am reasonably sure you know less about Greek than I do. It’s such total madness having to argue interpretation with someone who does not even read the language, but is still willing to accuse you of not knowing it. I’ve reiterated again and again that my position is not a minority one, and though there are dissenting opinions (there are dissenting opinions about literally every Biblical interpretation imaginable, up to and including the very existence of Christ’s corporeal body) my position remains orthodox. You have no idea what you’re talking about here, and I’m going to have to refuse to carry on the conversation on those grounds.

          9. When did I disagree? But I’m the one stating my ignorance. You’re speaking as if you’re infallible.

          10. Elizabeth Stoker October 7, 2013 at 9:37 pm

            I am reasonably sure you know
            less about Greek than I do. It’s such total madness having to argue
            interpretation with someone who does not even read the language, but is
            still willing to accuse you of not knowing it. I’ve reiterated again and
            again that my position is not a minority one, and though there are
            dissenting opinions (there are dissenting opinions about literally every
            Biblical interpretation imaginable, up to and including the very
            existence of Christ’s corporeal body) my position remains orthodox. I’m not talking to you any further about this — like I said, it’s maddening to study a language (I’m a divinity graduate student at Cambridge) and yet get accused of not knowing what you’re talking about by libertarians. This is my party, and I don’t have to deal with that nonsense here. Later gator!

          11. What is your take on Andy Alexis-Baker’s interpretation of the Greek text?

            Andy is a Christian anarchist, so it is no surprise the non-violent interpretation is appealing to him, but he seems to put together a very different analysis of the Greek than yours.

          12. Elizabeth Stoker October 8, 2013 at 11:41 am

            He’s talking John; I’m talking Matthew.

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