Does Stopping A Suicide Attempt Violate the NAP? Yes.

From: D
Sent: Saturday, June 04, 2016 11:03 PM
Subject: Re: Non-aggression principle and punishment

Dr. Block,

I’ve been thinking about your exchange with “BF” about the non-aggression principle, and in particular the sort of edge cases where we, as you phrase it, are tempted to add an asterisk. I find I agree with you: restraining a potential suicide does indeed appear to be a violation of the NAP. How do we reconcile this? I find that a lot of libertarians can tend to become highly mechanistic about the NAP; perhaps this is just a consequence that arises from living in modern American society, dominated as it is with crimes against paperwork. Libertarian theory, however, allows for no such crimes; it is not possible to violate the NAP just in general. In order to aggress, there must be a victim who was aggressed against, and, if said victim consents to the aggression, no crime has been committed — hence why libertarians have no philosophical objection to boxing, for example, in which both participants consent to punch and be punched.

It is the case that if we aggress against someone with his permission, we’ve done no wrong. I submit that it is also the case that if the victim of our aggression forgives it after the fact, this absolves us of the wrongdoing, and therein lies the crux of the matter: when I leap onto and restrain a suicidal friend, I definitely put myself at risk of violating the NAP, but I do so believing that he’s not thinking clearly right now, and that, once he calms down, he’ll understand what I did and forgive me for it. If I’m wrong, then I’ve done wrong, but if I’m not, I’ve acted within my bounds, since my friend approves of the use I put his property to, even though there wasn’t any opportunity to get permission beforehand.

The same thinking applies to “stealing from a thief.” If somebody steals my stereo, standard libertarian thinking holds that it’s no crime for me to take it back; it’s my stereo, after all, so he has no claim to it and I can do what I want with it. However, if I’m reclaiming my stereo and I happen to see that he’s stolen your TV, too, I can’t just take that; it’s not *his* TV, so taking it doesn’t aggress against *him,* but it’s not just up for grabs — it is still yours, after all. If I take it and return it to you, however, I’m assuming that you approve of that use of your property, and, if I turn out to be correct, I’ve committed no crime.

In a hypothetical world in which we all have perfect knowledge, of course, none of this would be an issue; it seems to me it’s not a limitation of the NAP itself so much as it’s a limitation of human understanding. If I see my friend who’s just gone through a really difficult time, and he’s had a few drinks, and he decides to end it all, I have to make a judgment about what to do right now, before I can gather all the facts. If he sobers up and says “man, what was I thinking? Thank you for stopping me,”

it’s hard to see that I’ve done wrong. The NAP cannot be offended of its own accord. In short, I suggest that, in these edge cases, we run the risk of doing wrong not because of flaws in the NAP, but because of flaws in our information. Anyhow, that’s where I’ve come to in thinking about this thorny issue. Thank you as always for your time, and for providing tough cases to think about!

Dear D:

I disagree with but one statement of yours: “In short, I suggest that, in these edge cases, we run the risk of doing wrong not because of flaws in the NAP, but because of flaws in our information.”

Here, we have FULL info. There are but two cases. 1. Our suicidal friend thanks us for temporarily kidnapping him. 2. Our suicidal friend blames us for temporarily kidnapping him. In the former case, there is no problem. As you say, this would be like boxing. Only in the latter case have we violated the NAP, and should be ready to be punished for it. But, presumably, any private court worthy of the name will give us but a slight punishment, given the context.

Best regards,



2:58 am on February 23, 2019