May a Libertarian Initiate Hurt or Harm?

This query or its equivalent was asked of Walter Block. His reply, which was “Yes”, called for precision in how we use words. That caused me to look up the words hurt and harm using Google search. Much to my surprise, the definitions stressed the physical. Hurt is a term that seems exclusively to entail the physical:

verb: hurt; 3rd person present: hurts; past tense: hurt; past participle: hurt; gerund or present participle: hurting

1. cause physical pain or injury to.
“Ow! You’re hurting me!”
synonyms: injure, wound, damage, disable, incapacitate, impair, maim, mutilate, cause injury to, cause pain to

Harm is a concept that also prominently means the physical:

physical injury, especially that which is deliberately inflicted.

There is more wiggle room, but not much, in some of its secondary definition in the terms “ill effect” and “adverse effect”.

If we are precise or substantially so, to respect non-aggression and not initiate physical violence does mean not to initiate hurt and harm.

But should we be precise? If commoners are prone to think of hurt and harm as emotional pain and loss of income through competition, then it doesn’t pay to be faithful to the dictionary definitions of hurt and harm. It pays to stick to other concepts like rights violations.

“Hurt someone” is not the same as “hurt someone’s feelings”. The latter, again using a dictionary, means “unhappiness or sadness caused by someone’s words or actions”. This lets in the non-physical aspect.

To be precise enough to make our meanings clear, we need to know the object of hurt and harm. “I hurt him” has a different meaning than “I hurt his feelings”.

Do your feelings belong to your body? Precisely, i.e., via dictionaries, the answer seems to be “no”. Body refers to something physical: “the physical structure of a person or an animal, including the bones, flesh, and organs.” This excludes emotions and feelings, which are called “states”. A dualism seems to be embodied in our language and concepts of the human being. We separate our selves from our bodies.

If someone curses you or tells you she doesn’t love you, that doesn’t violate your rights. It may hurt your feelings. It’s easy to slip into saying “she hurt me.” Speaking precisely is costly and much of the time we don’t incur that cost. This reality favors not using hurt and harm as defining concepts for a libertarian law, even if they are precise and substantially refer only to the physical.


8:13 am on June 24, 2019