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The Zero Aggression Principle (ZAP), or the Non-Aggression Principle, is the defining rule of peaceful coexistence. This version was composed by L. Neil Smith, who says: "A libertarian is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, or to advocate or delegate its initiation. Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim."
This is the basis of a freedom philosophy which respects the rights of everyone. It applies to everyone equally. The basic idea has been expressed throughout human cultures across the globe and in every era. The "Golden Rule"* and "The Wiccan Rede"** are just two examples among many. Each culture has its own way of saying basically the same thing. Even very young children have an innate understanding of this one "law of humanity". In any dispute they always cry "He started it!" I think that this idea is part of what makes us philosophically human.
Notice, too, that advocating the initiation of force against others is understood to be wrong. You can not threaten to use force to coerce someone's compliance. Prohibited as well is using thugs (such as "government" employees) to impose your coercive desires upon the unwilling, yet otherwise peaceful, person.
This is how you show your respect for the self-ownership of those around you. If you follow this principle, you may not be a perfect person, but you would probably be a pretty good neighbor. You would definitely be a good example of true libertarianism.
I have heard the argument that "initiating force" can be defined any way the person wishes to define it. I do not believe this. Even small children understand the concept of "he started it!" Someone calling you a nasty name has not initiated force; someone pointing a gun at you has. Only someone physically attacking you or making a credible threat against you has initiated force. I don't see that it is a difficult concept to grasp. Once force has been initiated, you have the right to counter that force with defensive actions, including force.
You may have an ethical obligation to use an appropriate amount of force. In other words, if someone shoves you, you probably can't justify beating that person to death with a statuette of Gandhi. In most common situations, you would be smart to simply walk away. This is not always an option. You might need to point a gun at that person and warn them to leave or be shot. At that point, they have a choice to escalate the situation, or leave.
Some people may claim that this is "Utopian" but I know it works, for real, in everyday life. I have never run across a situation where it failed to provide the proper perspective in dealing with others. If you don't want to accept it, you can sit around and formulate all sorts of "what if" scenarios that you will probably never face. That just shows me that you have a desire to keep open the option of attacking someone you don't like, even if they have not attacked you first. That is a sign that you may not be a trustworthy, or nice, person.
Belief in "government", at every level, violates the ZAP in every action it leads to.
The reason the ZAP works
The reason the Zero Aggression Principle (ZAP) works so well in real life is that it only applies to YOU; it is completely individually personal. It is telling you how you can live a free, self-responsible life, without being a coercive threat to everyone around you. It is removing your excuse to pretend you don't know any better.
It isn't telling you how the other person will behave, although you might hope they will act responsibly. It is not dependent upon the actions or cooperation of anyone around you. It doesn't dictate that others act any certain way, or respond to you in any particular way, or even that they respect your rights.
You live by it, and you defend yourself against anyone who violates it. You don't need to convince even one other person to live by the ZAP in order for it to work. That it doesn't depend upon the cooperation of the bad guys is its strength; a strength not shared by any other world-view.
It isn't a pacifist philosophy as those who wish to continue feeling good about being aggressors try to claim; it recognizes the human right to defend yourself against aggression however you see fit. If you don't believe me, try attacking a ZAP adherent.
You can spend your life worrying about what other people are doing wrong, from your point of view. Or you can concern yourself with doing right personally, also from your point of view. Are you being consistent in your beliefs and actions? Are you taking responsibility for your actions and accepting the consequences that result? Are you really, or do you simply wish to hold onto cherished notions while ignoring a huge blind spot?
I have never in my own life encountered a situation where the ZAP failed; where it would have been OK to initiate force (attack the other person). There have been instances where my human nature would have liked to have excused such behavior. It would have been wrong anyway.
I have never met a truly consistent authoritarian; whether they claimed to be "liberal" or "conservative", they always have a big "but". Some who claim to be libertarians or anarchists don't live up to their principles either, but that is their individual shortcoming. Their actions are not consistent with the principles they claim to accept.
Is the ZAP a "principle"?
A dear online friend and I have discovered a difference of opinion. She thinks The Zero Aggression Principle is a "value judgment" rather than a "principle", and doesn't think too highly of it in any case.
To bolster her point, she uses Black’s Law Dictionary's definition (copied from her blog): “Principle, A fundamental Truth or Doctrine as of Law. A comprehensive or doctrine which furnishes a basis for legal determination. A Truth or proposition so clear that it cannot be proved or contradicted, unless by a proposition which is still clearer.” Personally, not being a lawyer, I would say the ZAP still qualifies.
I used Dictionary.com to look up "principle" and found this: "an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct". I think the ZAP qualifies. I accept and profess the ZAP as a rule for my action and conduct. It even fits with the other definitions as well: "a fundamental, primary, or general law or truth from which others are derived". I derive a great deal of truth from the ZAP. Such is the difference in a "legal definition" and a sensible definition, I suppose.
So moving onto other questions, she says a principle can not vary, while a value judgment varies from person to person. I honestly can't think of a single example of a "principle" that every person on this planet accepts. And I have tried. The only thing I can see concerning "consistency" is that for me personally, the principle that it is not right to initiate force never varies. No matter whether I think it is in my interest at this moment to do so or not. If I go ahead and initiate force I will consider myself in the wrong and will accept my consequences. Someday there may be a situation extreme enough that I will make this choice, but it would still be wrong of me to do.
In fact, I would be so bold as to think that this principle may very well apply equally well in extraterrestrial societies. Would other planets have moralities so different that things that are wrong here would be right there? Probably. Different biologies would call for different moral realities. I can imagine a great many different moral codes, some that would be repellent to just about any human. But try as I might, I can't imagine any society that would think initiating force - attacking others of their own kind - is right. Any society where this is a widespread idea wouldn't survive (not that this proves anything other than the usefulness of the ZAP, of course).
Even among humans we normally see this as wrong for everyone - except for "governments", in the opinion of statists. This "exception" is a small enough proportion of the actual population that it hasn't doomed us to extinction. Yet. It has just retarded our civilization a great deal; keeping us centuries, or possibly even millennia, behind where we would otherwise be without this millstone slowing the progress of human civilization.
The ZAP is a foundation of ethical behavior
It is a fundamental truth that it is never OK to attack others, nor to take their property away from them against their will as long as they aren't using it aggressively at that moment. You can not act in this manner and still fulfill your obligation of right conduct. This is "aggression" and is a completely separate matter from "self defense" which is responding to aggression. It matters not if you are doing this strictly on your own, or if you are doing it on behalf of an organization that claims to have the consent of its victims. It doesn't matter if you are wearing jeans and a T-shirt, or a business suit and tie, or a uniform of any kind. It is still absolutely wrong. This is what the ZAP is all about- it illustrates that there is a level playing field and if it is wrong for you to do in this instance, it is also wrong for me to do. There are no extenuating circumstances.
You can not make a subjective estimate of whether it is OK to attack an innocent person or to steal from them. Well, you can try, but you would still be wrong even if you decided it was OK today or under "these circumstances". This is where statists go wrong. Acts that harm the innocent are excused as long as it is "them" who are harmed. And of course, to the statist, being "them" makes a person guilty anyway. This is absurd and contradictory.
It is not a subjective estimate if it harms someone who does not deserve to be harmed right now. It is objectively wrong.
Does this mean that you will always do the right thing? Of course not. Does it mean that you and I will never cause any harm? No. If an action is that important to you, just do it and then attempt to convince others that it was necessary at the time. Imagine tackling an old woman to get her out of the path of a bus. You would probably cause harm to her in the desire to protect her from potentially greater harm. Ask her forgiveness, and if she refuses to give it, make it right or seek arbitration. Do what you feel you must, and if you cause harm, face the music like an adult.
*"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"
**"An it harm none, do as thou wilt" ("an" is an archaic form of "if")
**"An it harm none, do as thou wilt" ("an" is an archaic form of "if")