Being humble or even productively self-critical isn't fashionable. People groundlessly and publicly proclaiming, "I'm the greatest" or "Nobody is as smart as me" seems commonplace today. When people hold differing opinions, I have noticed many people "listen" to others but hear nothing as they prepare their "brilliant" and mostly regurgitated stock responses. We live in a chest pounding, self-aggrandizing, money flaunting society. I don't pretend to be totally immune.
Like most people, I have always thought of myself as an enlightened guy. I am generally comfortable I have arrived at correct conclusions for all the issues I have carefully considered. However, as I have grown older, I have learned the value of carefully and regularly re-evaluating all my conclusions. I now enjoy the process; especially discarding a long held but erroneous conclusion for a new more correct one. I have become a bit more humble in my conclusions, at least inwardly. I have sincerely adopted the difficult position of being more dedicated to holding correct conclusions rather than simply maintaining the same conclusions forever.
The Non-Aggression Principle
I'm proud to say I'm a man of peace. I have enthusiastically been telling people for decades I oppose the initiation of force or fraud against non-aggressors a/k/a the "Non-Aggression Principle" hereinafter, the "Principle." The Principle seems simple, elegant and self evident to me. Sometimes I express the Principle as follows, "How about we agree I'm in charge of me and my property and you are in charge of you and your property?" Duh! Sometimes I express the Principle in a slightly more complex way thusly: "Voluntary exchanges between peaceful and competent adults ought to be legal, while involuntary exchanges ought to be illegal."
I'm not advocating for utopia. I realize lots of important issues remain unresolved such as determining actual competency, identifying who is initiating the force and defining the outer boundaries of "force" or "fraud" or "imminent risk of force" and "coercion."1
Despite these debatable issues, adhering to the Principle as the major foundational and guiding legal principle of a civilized society is the only way to possibly achieve a free society. To the extent this Principle is not followed, what results is a tyrannical society where force or fraud is initiated against non-aggressors, allowing some people to unjustly impose their will upon others. Said another way, to the extent this Principle is adhered to, a civil and just society results.
I have probably thought through, discussed and even gladly argued about countless applications of this Principle with more people than I could ever recall over many years. I'm generally offended by any compromise of the holy Principle. As such, I consider myself to be pro-freedom, pro-peace, and a solid, some would say "hard core" or even "radical"2 libertarian.
Honestly Considering Animal Rights
Every once in a while, during some hotly contested debate with either a statist or another libertarian, the issue of animal rights arises. Like most libertarians I have met, I quickly and mindlessly dismissed the issue with a terse assertion about how the Principle is simply inapplicable to "animals."
I have never been consciously aware of any conflict in promoting the Principle as I was cheerfully eating my way through some portion of a cow's dead flesh. In fact, I suspect few people regularly ate more dead animal flesh than me. I clearly recall the joy I once derived from strictly adhering to the Atkins Diet. For me, eating bacon cheeseburgers for breakfast, chicken for lunch and steak for dinner was second only to eating some form of pork for any meal. For the first 44 years of my life, I was undoubtedly a huge fan and regular consumer of eating dead animal flesh.
I have always been very interested in promoting good health.3 I have exercised vigorously and regularly since the age of 16. In Marine Corps boot camp, I achieved the highest score in my series for the physical fitness test. Few Marines could ever outperform me on either a physical fitness test or a push up challenge. For most of my life, I have regularly been going to the gym approximately six days per week. I have always appeared to be both healthy and fit.
However, at age 44, my doctor informed me that both my cholesterol level and my blood pressure were a bit high. After the issues persisted, prescription drugs were suggested. At this point, I grudgingly decided to reexamine my diet. After reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and Eat to Live by Joel Fuhrman, I resolved to radically change my diet and adopt a "whole food plant based" diet instead.4 I made this change solely for health reasons without the slightest thought to any ethical or environmental concerns. It wasn't long after I had adopted a whole food plant based diet my overall health dramatically and objectively improved.
Quite unexpectedly, I soon realized my thinking about animal rights had been entirely corrupted and thoroughly biased by my previously insatiable desire to eat dead animal flesh. Prior to my dietary change, I would never have envisioned giving up eating dead animals nor would I ever have entertained the possibility that eating dead animals necessitated an unjustified initiation of force. Although not by any conscious or dishonest intention, I realized I had previously been too dismissive of most animal rights arguments.
For the first time in my life, I confronted the animal rights issue free from my own personal need to justify my seemingly insatiable desire to continue to consume dead animal flesh. With full awareness of my new health related biases against consuming dead animal flesh, I endeavored to consider the issue anew.
For most of my life, I have not consumed any tobacco, alcohol or carbonated drinks. Despite my personal preferences, I remain an uncompromising defender of the rights of others to peacefully consume such items. Indeed, I have previously written about the virtue of defending the rights of others to peacefully engage in activities you personally abhor.5 Nonetheless, I endeavored to proceed carefully applying my dearly held Principle.
It's easy to exclude "animals" from the Principle until you honestly admit humans are also "animals." Sometimes we pretend humans are not animals, but I expect any serious biologist would quickly dispel that notion. Humans are undoubtedly special mammals for many reasons, but that special nature does not magically convert us into something other than animals.
I have often wondered how many of our nation's founding fathers could speak and write so eloquently about the philosophy of freedom while also being so hypocritical by holding black slaves. Now I understand. By simply exempting black people from the rights of other humans, slavery seemed legally and morally justified. By simply exempting non-human animals from the Principle, it appears as if I did the same thing as our slave owning founding fathers.
However, my sincere effort to apply the Principle to non-human animals has proven extraordinarily difficult. For starters, something seems wrong about equating the rights of a Bonobo Monkey with that of a common mosquito. For that matter, it wasn't clear to me why all plants were automatically exempt from the Principle. Additionally, the purpose for the initiation of force also appears relevant to me. Killing animals for pleasure, a/k/a "hunting," seems qualitatively different from initiating force against, or even killing, animals for critical life saving medical research to possibly save countless human lives.
As part of my sincere attempt to objectively determine how the Principle applies to non-human animals, I created a chart detailing my best efforts to figure it out. I created my "Wonderfulness of Life" scale for the X Axis. It reflects my entirely subjective determinations based on many factors, including complexity of life, consciousness level, ability to experience pain and others. The Y Axis contains my entirely subjective rankings about the reason force is employed. As you will see from briefly reviewing my best efforts, there are lots of conclusions for reasonable people to disagree with and argue about in this area. I don't pretend to have now uncovered the objective truth about when force can morally be initiated against non-human animals.6
The Moral Realm and the Legal Realm
As I have frequently lectured, discussed and even argued with countless people about the Principle for decades, I have concluded that the failure to distinguish between the "legal realm" and the "moral realm" may be the single most significant obstacle to achieving a free society. To state it bluntly, the "legal realm" is actually that section of our morality that we impose upon others by force if necessary.7
I know many libertarians hate how I describe the legal realm. We don't like to think of ourselves as imposing our morality upon others. However, I think we are stuck with it. Like all other opinions, the holy Principle is merely a subjective opinion. Accepting the Principle first requires an underlying subjective opinion about self-ownership as well as a particular theory of property rights. As such, the Principle cannot be objectively proven to be anything more than a subjective opinion.8
Although most people initially claim to agree with the Principle, many of them, whether consciously or unconsciously, simply abandon it to forcefully impose their wider moral views upon others who disagree. Unfortunately, many people are happy to initiate force against others for a variety of reasons. As such, I have invested lots of time, both successfully and unsuccessfully, attempting to convince others to actually embrace the Principle rather than to simply give it lip service.
Given that the legal realm is imposed upon people whether they like it or not, it ought to be as small and least intrusive as possible. It ought to reflect the least common denominator of morality that most reasonable people can agree upon. The Principle fits this requirement perfectly. I don't feel badly about imposing upon people laws that restrict them from initiating force or fraud against other people or their property.
We each have moral views far in excess of the Principle. The Principle is entirely insufficient as a complete moral code. Beyond prohibiting the initiation of force or fraud, it says nothing. The Principle is of no help whatsoever in determining how we ought to affirmatively treat our fellow humans. One could entirely comply with the Principle and be an antisocial, self-centered jerk.
All humans require a moral code far more extensive to resolve most of life's challenges. Indeed, we all have an extensive moral code upon which we rely even if we are not consciously aware of it. Our respective moral codes can be either fixed or fluid and are derived from a variety of different sources. We don't all agree on moral issues and we never will. Despite the claim that one's morality is objectively true, the reality is that if any particular moral code was objectively true, we would have all agreed on it a long time ago. No moral code can be objectively proven as the one true moral code.
Given the endless difficulties in achieving agreement on morality, society has two reasonable options: 1. Engage in an endless and often violent struggle between groups of differing moralities, each trying to impose their particular morality upon others by force, or 2. Limit what we impose on others to the bare minimum by limiting the legal realm to the Principle. Choice #2 seems the obvious winner.
As for important and enduring moral principles, I suspect better theories will be persuasive to others on their merits alone. Good moral principles don't require the force of law to coerce their acceptance. Such "acceptance" really isn't true acceptance at all. This is why a free, civilized and truly moral society requires a clear wall of separation between the legal realm and the moral realm. We ought not to settle for anything less; even in cases where a proposed law is consistent with or even promotes our own personal moral code. A free society requires that we resist the urge.
Animal Rights Belong in the Moral Realm
I have a very intelligent and thoughtful libertarian friend who personally holds that prostitution is an immoral act. I happen to know his conclusion on this point is derived directly from his Christian beliefs. I suspect he advocates as persuasively as he can to discourage people from engaging in prostitution. I support his right to peacefully advocate against people engaging in prostitution. I also know he advocates for legalization of prostitution. The reason my friend is entirely consistent is because he successfully distinguishes between the moral realm, where he is free to peacefully discourage prostitution, and the legal realm where he should not be free to forcefully impose his personal moral views upon others.
It is easy to conclude the issue of prostitution ought not to be prohibited in the legal realm. Applying the Principle, and assuming there is no force or fraud employed, competent adults decide for themselves how to use their own money and bodies. As such, voluntary and consensual prostitution among consenting adults ought to be legal.9 The same can be said for the drug war, homosexual acts, euthanasia, blasphemy, gambling, premarital sex and many other issues. A free society requires we acknowledge the rights of other competent adults to arrive at their own moral conclusions and act accordingly so long as they don't violate the Principle. For each of these issues, it is clear that the person who peacefully engages in any one of them does not violate the Principle.
Determining whether the Principle is violated is the crux of the difficulty for the animal rights issue. I certainly could have utilized my animal rights chart and concluded that all acts in the "immoral zone" violate the Principle and should therefore be illegal. However, all aspects of my animal rights chart are entirely subjective judgments, opinions, observations and conclusions with which anyone could honestly and reasonably disagree. In fact, I could easily be persuaded to make changes to it myself, and I reserve the right to do so any time in the future. As such, the issue of animal rights properly resides almost entirely in the moral realm rather than in the legal realm.
I use the words "almost entirely" because I'm not saying animals ought to be afforded no rights at all. Indeed, there are some acts at the margins that some communities may and have determined clearly violate the Principle and therefore ought to be illegal.10 Indeed, as time passes and our society as a whole continues to become more open minded and enlightened, I expect the legal rights of non-human animals will continue to expand; maybe someday to even properly legally prohibit eating steak for pleasure. However, that day is still far away.
The difficulty, or even impossibility, of fashioning an honest bright line rule in this area is evidence that the issue of animal rights ought to be relegated to the moral realm except for the clearest of cases upon which enough people agree. Reasonable people using best efforts to apply the Principle can and do honestly disagree on the vast majority of animal rights related issues.11
My personal view, employing my animal rights chart, is that eating steak is an immoral act. However, like my friend who concludes prostitution is immoral, I intentionally refuse to impose my moral judgments upon others by enshrining them into law. I strictly respect the rights of others to reach different moral conclusions and peacefully live accordingly to them.
It is worth stating again that the failure to distinguish between the "legal realm" and the "moral realm" may be the single most significant obstacle to achieving a free society. To the extent I have had success in converting people into peace promoting libertarians, my success has been largely based upon convincing them to no longer seek to impose their moral judgments upon others by employing the force of law.
Because of my journey thinking through the animal rights issue, I selected the issue of animal rights to help illustrate the difference between the moral realm and the legal realm for this article. However, most people fail to analyze their use of force even as applied to our fellow humans. Typical liberals enthusiastically initiate force against their fellow humans in order to impose their particular moral views in a variety of areas such as controlling distribution of income, mandating healthcare coverage, prohibiting safe firearms ownership, controlling charitable donations and regulating employment contracts.
These are merely a few examples of liberals wrongfully imposing their greater moral views upon others by enshrining them into law. That I may even agree with their particular moral ends does not justify their wrongful initiation of force to accomplish those ends. The hypocrisy of liberals who honorably oppose initiating force against non-human animals, but who gladly and enthusiastically initiate force against humans to accomplish their own personal goals is stunning.
Conservatives are no better than liberals in exercising restraint in forcefully imposing their particular moral conclusions upon their fellow humans. Typical conservatives also violate the Principle in a variety of areas such as opposing gay marriage, prohibiting peaceful recreational drug use or prostitution, promoting their particular notions of "family" or "American" or "Christian" values upon other people or nations and simply forcing others to fund foreign aid to other nations for whatever reason. Although I may also agree with some of their moral goals, violating the Principle to accomplish those ends corrupts the worthiness of the effort. Violating the Principle is always an immoral act, even when it is violated in good faith to allegedly bring about a worthy moral goal.
In the end, imposing your morality on another person by enshrining it into the law is an admission your moral view is unpersuasive and unavailing. To truly convince another person of the worthiness of your moral view, you must honestly win their heart and mind.
A real and honest dedication to a free society requires the sometimes difficult commitment to the concept that other competent adults are legally entitled to peacefully engage in acts you personally oppose and find morally reprehensible. Accepting and even embracing this notion requires a higher degree of thinking, but admits you to the growing club of humans who honestly support a free society. I urge you to join us!
1There are many other issues as well. These issues require judgment calls and may be resolved differently in different communities. So long as people are sincerely dedicated to the Principle in their analysis, I applaud and recognize them as being sincerely committed to achieving a free society.
2It has never bothered me to be called a "radical." I actually like it. However, I have never understood what was so radical about asserting that competent adults ought to be in charge of themselves, their money, their property and their time. Asserting that one person, or even a majority of people, have the right to control others by coercion or force seems the radical position to me.
3Well, so I thought.
4I actually read several books by many different authors about diet. I also carefully reviewed the critiques of The China Study as well as T. Colin Campbell's written responses to those critiques. I interviewed T. Colin Campbell on my radio show, attended a seminar on nutrition where T. Colin Campbell was a lecturer and personally discussed health and nutrition with him for several hours at my home after we became personal friends. I also carefully read his second book entitled Whole, which I also highly recommend.
5See my article entitled, "Are You Really For Freedom?"
6Here is a link to a solid, well-reasoned and entirely philosophical approach concluding that eating animals is immoral: The Immorality of Eating Meat
7Libertarians hate the notion of imposing their morality on others. However, we shouldn't pretend we aren't doing it. Although we agree that imposing this particular and small section of our morality upon others is justified, we should be honest about it.
8That something is a subjective opinion does not mean it is unimportant, irrelevant or wrong. Not all subjective opinions ought to be treated equally. Indeed, I attempt to carefully arrive at my fundamental and basic subjective opinions. If I concluded your subjective opinions were better then mine, I would adopt yours.
9An entirely different conclusion is reached if the people involved are not competent adults or there is force or fraud employed in the transaction. Such a transaction would violate the Principle and therefore ought to be illegal. My personal conclusion about whether prostitution is a moral act is beyond the scope of this article.
10An example may be killing or torturing a Bonobo monkey for the "fun" of it. I wouldn't object to a community honestly attempting to apply the Principle and concluding this ought to be an illegal act.
11The vast majority of serious human conflicts can be easily and justly resolved by honestly applying the Principle. The issue of animal rights is one of the few but serious exceptions. Other examples of difficult issues better left mostly to the moral realm include abortion and the rights of minors. That the Principle doesn't easily resolve 100% of all issues is in no way an indictment of the Principle. Using best efforts to honestly adhere to the Principle is still the only way to possibly achieve a just and free society.
This article contributed courtesy of Marc J. Victor, AttorneyForFreedom.com.