So What is Aggression anyway?

At the heart of true libertarianism is the non-aggression principle. Throughout the ages mankind has expressed understanding of the idea that we should “live and let live” to the extent that we can do so. Around 300 BC Epicurus told us that “natural justice is a symbol or expression of usefulness, to prevent one person from harming or being harmed by another.”

“No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a non-aggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.” ~Murray N, Rothbard

Walter Block once said that the difference between libertarians and most people who give lip service to the non-aggression axiom is that libertarians really mean it.  We’re rabid about it and we make deductions from it. The way to be successful in analyzing a given situation, from a Libertarian perspective, is to keep your eye on the non-aggression axiom; never violate it no matter what. Of course, hand in hand with the non-aggression principle is the idea of property rights. One may not legitimately aggress against an innocent man nor his rightfully owned property. This solid core of libertarianism, the non-aggression principle, is in many respects a kind of political corollary to the Golden Rule.


On Twitter the other day some friends were talking about the non-aggression principle and the question of “what is aggression” came up. After all, it is all well and fine to be against aggression but to be against aggression means you have to know what aggression is in the first place. No?

So what is “aggression”? Aggression is the initiation of violence or the threatening of violence against a person or his legitimately owned property. Specifically, any unsolicited actions of other people that physically affect an individual’s property or person. This includes force, fraud, and intimidation. It does not matter if the result of these actions is damaging to the individual or not, it is still considered aggression when the actions are against the owner’s free will and interfere with his right to self-determination and the principle of self-ownership or violate his property rights. Aggression is harmful behavior that is forceful, hostile, or attacking. I reject the definition used (often in the social sciences) that aggression is a response by an individual that delivers something unpleasant to another person. After all,  telling another person the truth is often unpleasant to them but that does not make it aggression! Leave it to the social sciences to undermine the clear meaning of a word.

It is easy to see that if I hold you up with a gun and take all your money that I have committed aggression against you. It is likewise easy to see that if I swindle you out of your money via subterfuge that I have committed aggression against you. Similarly, it is easy to see that if I deface your house in an act of vandalism that I have also committed aggression against your property rights. But what about verbal aggression? The Twitter conversation had Ken tweet that “I don’t mean simply verbal threats because that is obvious, I mean all forms of verbal aggression.” So what is “verbal aggression”?

It is difficult to nail down “verbal aggression” if we use the phrase in the modern usage of the “everyone is a victim” mindset of modern America. For the purposes of the non-aggression principle and libertarian law one must hold that any threat must be a credible one. If I say to you that I am going to blow you up with a bazooka as I stand in front of you unarmed, I have just made a non-credible threat. In terms of libertarian law I have not committed an actionable crime, but I certainly have disturbed the peace and tranquility! On the other hand, if I point a pistol at you I have committed an act of aggression without even saying a word!

One thing aggression is not is when I simply tell you my opinion. If I say that the new hair color you had done at the hair dresser today is not very faltering, or that it is downright horrible, I have not committed aggression. If I tell you that you are a damn idiot, I have not committed aggression. It is not true that every mean utterance by someone is aggression. Don’t get me wrong, I think that being mean is immoral and we should teach our young to be nice to people, but in terms of the Non-Aggression Principle we don’t include statements that are simply mean things to say. If we did we would have to round up everyone in all the middle schools at jail them! Let us keep our eye on the ball and remember that  any unsolicited actions of other people that physically effects an individual’s property or person is aggression, and not if that other person says we are a “poopy-head”. (a major insult in the kid world I understand)

Even though one can say mean things without violating the non-aggression principle let us not forget that intimidation is a violation. Intimidation is intentional behavior, physical or verbal, that would cause a normal, reasonable person to fear of injury or harm. I suspect that there are many different opinions of what constitutes intimidation and that will continue to cause some controversy — especially when children and parents are involved. I can only offer the observation that some children love to play the victim so be careful before you believe that every mean comment made to your child is “intimidation”.

As I re-read the above I suspect that I will revisit this topic again when time allows me to post more in-depth on this topic. Perhaps this coming summer should I live that long and WordPress lets me keep publishing these random musings. The idea of that dividing line between verbal intimidation and just being mean is one place that aggression becomes a little fuzzy. Thanks to Ken for bringing up the topic.


9 thoughts on “So What is Aggression anyway?

  1. Mark, I’ve been wondering on this very topic. It seems to me that there are differences amongst people and cultures which make it hard to justify limiting agression to physical only.
    It really does seem as though an act of “emotional agression” can affect some people as much as one of “physical agression”. A highly public shaming, for example. Personally, I am not that kind of person, and I suspect you are not as well. But can we advocate this idea as a universal principal, when it isn’t actually universally applicable?
    There’s apparently whole cultures where “honour/shame” is the primary social principle rather than “innocence/guilt”. And even in western culture, I know it seems that there’s just different people types.

    • I agree that under libertarian law that aggression need not be only physical aggression. There is the fraud that I mentioned besides the intimidation.

      I think that a subset of fraud and intimidation would be defamation. Defamation is seen as illegal by almost everyone. In some places they distinguish between spoken defamation (slander) and defamation in other media such using printed words or images (libel), but regardless of the method defamation is communication of a false statement that harms the reputation of an innocent party.

      I think your idea of “shaming” is defamation if it is done to an innocent party. Don’t you?

      • Rothbard (who you quote initially) developed the “Title-transfer theory of contract”. He argued that the only time legal force could be used in enforcing a contract was when that contract involved the transfer of title. So selling someone 400 grams of corn labeled as 500 grams for $5 would be fraud, not because lies are bad, but because you’ve effectively taken their property from them against their will. What I’m getting at is that there’s some very strong arguments for defamation (which involves no property) not being legally enforcable.

        I think that Rothbard is right in limiting the Agression in the NAP to use of or threat of physical force against a person or their property. If you expand the definition of agression too far you loose libertarianism.

        On the other hand, I meet people whom, it seems to me, take a verbal attack as being as real as a physical attack.

        Have a look at this video, but stop after the parent/coach discussion (the rest isn’t relevant to this):
        So, in a libertarian sense, should it be legal for an enforcer of law to use physical force against that coach for his verbal agression? To arrest him, or fine him, or force him to leave his occupation?

        • It would not be illegal in a libertarian land for that coach to use those methods. After all, he said it best — the mom can take her child to a different coach whose methods suit her better.

          By the way, I was soccer coach of the year (high school) once upon a time and I never yelled at any kid. We played the “beautiful game” well and we worked hard. No need to yell. But I did ask my best defender what the hell he was doing when we suffered an own-goal by him. 🙂

  2. “I think that being mean is immoral and we should teach our young to be nice to people…” I disagree. Being mean is not immoral. You should be mean to people with stupid, shitty ideas. If you aren’t then they will not be discouraged from preaching their stupid, shitty ideas, and then you end up with things like statism.

    • We have a different idea of what “mean” means it looks like.

      If someone is preaching statism and aggression against you then you have a right to fight back. But until they do; you would teach your children to be mean to people for the hell of it? Probably not I wager.

      Voluntary, mutual cooperation is the very heart of the anti-state message I consider to be proper.

        • Morally and ethically speaking one would “fight back” using appropriate and proportional means. If someone defames me causing damage to my reputation then I would seek damages in a court rather than just seek to kill him. However, I have heard the case made that if one were to get me fired due to his defamation of myself then I would be entitled to “fight back” by killing the dirty bastard. I have always thought that was taking things too far morally speaking, but then I have never faced that situation.

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