Thursday, June 20, 2013

Threats, Predictions, and the Non-Aggression Principle

Perhaps the best summary of the libertarian moral outlook is something called the Non-Aggression Principle (or NAP), which holds that most fundamental wrong is the initiation of force on other people. Initiation is usually interpreted to mean "the use or threat" of force, to include instances of coercion in which no actual violence is physically wielded. This blog has written extensively about the implications of this outlook for government.

What I have not discussed is the implications of this outlook for religion. As a Christian man, I do not feel the NAP in any way contradicts my religious outlook. Other libertarians disagree, and today I encountered a new argument against Christianity from an anarchist atheist friend of mine on Facebook. He argued that telling children they would burn in hell for all eternity if they didn't behave in a certain way amounted to a threat of violence on other people, particularly on people as impressionable and innocent as children.

My first reaction was to roll my eyes - this man had become so consumed by complex theories on liberty that he'd forgotten the freedom of religion as one of the most basic. Normally, I wouldn't have given this conversation the time of day. But on second thought, I realized there was a larger issue at stake here than whether parents can teach the Bible to their children: namely, what counts as a threat? Since threats of physical violence are the only type of speech libertarians do not tolerate, it is essential to distinguish between threats and other types of speech. Clarifying what a libertarian legal code would mean in practice requires a definition of what is and isn't a threat. My response to that friend attempted to outline that definition by distinguishing it from a mere prediction of calamity:

"The following are examples of predictions:

"If y
ou play in traffic, you will get hit by a car."
"If you touch that hot stove, you will burn yourself."
"If you eat GMO's, you will be poisoned."
"If you sin, you will burn in hell for all eternity."

All of those predicted outcomes are scary, for a child or anyone else. But not all of them are guaranteed to happen. In fact, some of them are highly opinionated (some people think GMO's are just as healthy as regular food, and would predict differently - as of yet there is no objective answer to that question). But regardless of our certainty that outcome X will result from activity Y, people can still prognosticate about harms that may befall somebody, without being guilty of harming that person themselves.

The following are examples of threats:

"If you play in traffic, I will run you over with my car."
"If you touch that stove, I will dump the boiling water on your head."
"If you eat GMO's, I will poison you."
"If you sin, I will burn you alive."

These are not predictions, because they are not mere observations of cause and effect. Unlike the previous examples, the outcome resulting from the activity is entirely up to the person saying the sentence. I's not a remark about the likelihood of a negative outcome by other agents (real or imagined), but a promise that the speaker will actively bring that negative outcome to pass themselves. There is no such thing as a threat by proxy, because what makes a threat a threat is the involvement of the threatener. That what separates coercion from mere advice."

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