Monday, May 19, 2014

Abortion and the Non-Aggression Principle: A Reply to A Pro-Life Libertarian

By Jeff Godley

Brandon Craig is the creator of a Facebook page entitled “Non-Aggression Principle Against Abortion” (NAPAA). The page is intended to persuade that abortion is an act of aggression against an unborn human being, and therefore is not permissible according to libertarianism.

I think this is an admirable effort; as libertarians, our opinion on all issues must be informed by the non-aggression principle (hereafter "NAP") - or else we are not really libertarians. And Mr. Craig’s claim, if true, is certainly a slam-dunk case against abortion. If abortion ipso facto violates the NAP, than no further discussion of the legitimacy of abortion is needed among libertarian circles. 

However, in a recent post at the NAPAA page, Mr. Craig made his argument against a competing attempt to reconcile the NAP and abortion - evictionism (view the whole post here). Mr. Craig objections to evictionism and positive case for his own views reveal what I believe to be several flaws in his reasoning, which I would like to address over the course of several posts.

In this first entry, I want to show that Mr. Craig is not being consistent in his appeal to the NAP when he argues against eviction. He states his thesis on evictionism as follows: “I do not even think eviction is morally permissible.” This subtle change in criteria casts some doubt on his argument. His initial claim is that abortion violates the non-aggression principle, yet he is now seeking to prove that eviction immoral. These two claims are vastly different in scope.

The NAP is but a small subset of morality. It is one thing to say "abortion is immoral". But if abortion is immoral, that does not in any way imply that it violates the NAP. It is possible even to be a wretched, immoral monster and NOT violate the NAP. 

People have the legal right (i.e. a negative right derived from the NAP) to shoot up with heroin and pay other people for sex. That does not mean that these actions are moral, or that anyone should condone them. It does however, means that our response to them cannot be one of force. That is all the NAP ever implies. 

The NAP does not address whether you should or should not shoot someone who breaks into your home. It only tells you that you have a legal right to do so - or, more to the point, that no one ought to force you NOT to shoot the intruder. Similarly, the NAP does not address whether you should or should not get an abortion. It only specifies what the legal ramifications ought to be if you make the decision to abort. 

This is not a semantic difference. It is fundamental to libertarian philosophy that we keep crystal-clear the distinction between the strict negative legal rights implied by the NAP, and all other positive obligations which may be placed on us by other aspects of moral theory. 

Yet Mr. Craig cannot seem to maintain this fundamental distinction in his argument. To respond to the common evictionist analogy of trespassing, he offers this counter-analogy: “Imagine it is winter time and it is 0 degrees outside. Now lets say I am paralyzed from the waste down and you invite me over to your house. You wheel me in and then once I am there you tell me to leave. Since I am not able to leave, I do not move. You tell me I am trespassing and I still do not move because I am not capable of it….For the eviction argument all you do is wheel me out into the 0 degree weather and I freeze to death. That would be what eviction is like.”

As an evictionist, I do not quibble with this analogy. I do not need to, because in the analogy the person wheeling the cripple into the cold has not violated the NAP!  Trespass has nothing to do with the intent of the trespasser, nor with their ability to leave. It has to do with the will of the person who owns the property. If a person is not welcome, they are by definition a trespasser. Their reason for being there is irrelevant; the owner’s reason for wanting them gone is also irrelevant. Most of all, the trespasser’s ability to leave or the difficulties they may have once they do are not relevant as far the NAP is concerned. 

In this analogy, Mr. Craig is not appealing to the NAP at all - he is simply appealing to our moral outrage at the monster who would cast a person into certain death. Monster though they may be, according to the NAP this person is not a criminal; they have committed no aggression, they have merely revoked permission for another person’s use of their property, as is their right. There is nothing invalid about the analogy; it simply does not imply was Mr. Craig believes it does. 

In abandoning his thesis that “abortion violates the NAP” in favour of the argument that “abortion is immoral”, Mr. Craig has ceased to argue as a libertarian and instead argued as an ethicist. In that regard, I support his efforts. I too have ethical problems with abortion; I too believe life begins at conception, and that every life, no matter how small, ought to be preserved.

But as a libertarian, I cannot condone the confusion of making an immoral choice, even one that harms another, with violating the NAP. The first in no way implies the second. Mr. Craig does a disservice both to liberty and to his own pro-life views by his imprecision. I urge him to do better. 

[Note from Anand: I think Jeff Godley has made an interesting and well-written case for the "evictionist" position, which means evicting the pre-birth fetus without killing it. While I am personally more inclined to the pro-life position, I believe Jeff thoughtfully reconciled the argument that abortion is morally impermissible and that it doesn't violate the non-aggression principle. I believe that one can hold the "evictionist" position without believing that abortion is moral, for evictionism makes no moral statement about the abortion itself; it only argues that abortion doesn't violate rights and thus shouldn't be criminalized).