Monday, July 10, 2006

Thinking Beyond Non-Aggression

About a week ago, at the Libertarian Party convention, a coalition of moderates managed to lead a voting out of many of the stranger planks in the Party's exhaustive platform. This small advance for the moderates set off intense reaction (well, at least, intense grousing on Internet blogs) from hardcore purists who saw the entire platform as flawlessly deduced from the "non-aggression principle", the moral axiom that no person should ever initiate the use of force against another person.

While I think the non-aggression principle is an excellent guideline for working out the rules of a free society, I also think it can lead to absurd conclusions when used without grounding in reality. (See my earlier post: The Importance of Discomfort.)

Now, let me step a little deeper into my heresy against Libertarian dogma and say that the non-aggression principle is not the be-all and end-all of moral precepts. Especially when in the service of someone who sees it as an invitation to unlimited retaliation. Why stop at the Biblical "an eye for an eye", when you can use your enemy's aggression as an excuse to exact both his eyes, his fingernails, his liver, and his spinal cord.

Think how poorly the non-aggression principle applies to a quagmire like Palestine. It just doesn't matter any more who started it. Both sides have lots of blood on their hands. No sensible approach to building peace there would center around compiling lists of grievances, looking for the side that committed the first aggression.

Is it possible to do better than the non-aggression principle? I think so. I've started thinking along those lines since I took up studying the Japanese martial art of Aikido a few months ago. The jumping off point for the moral philosophy behind Aikido is essentially the same as the non-aggression principle.

Aikido has only defensive techniques. In practice sessions, there is plenty of attacking, but anything one learns about attacking is incidental. In fact, the point is driven home over and over again that attacking other people is a bad idea -- every bout ends with the attacker neutralized or overpowered by the defender.

attacker pinned

But mastery of Aikido goes beyond mere non-aggression. The student's never-ending goal is to develop his power to control situations and to control himself, so that he can use the minimum amount of force needed to resolve any conflicts that come his way. Mastery is exhibited by promoting peace and harmony, resolving conflict by turning one's enemies into friends if possible.

Now, I don't want to oversell Aikido as the answer to all the world's problems. In actual practice, the potential of the moral philosophy behind Aikido hasn't been explored much outside of its applications to hand-to-hand fighting. One brilliant Aikido master, Terry Dobson, put a lot of thought into how Aikido could be applied to one's personal life, but, as far as I know, nobody has tried to extend the same ideas to the political world.

Libertarians have the potential to evolve political principles much more sophisticated than the non-aggression principle. The Party is full of so many people who passionately defend free thought and exchange of ideas in general; it should tolerate the same free thought and exchange of ideas internally.

In closing, I'll link to a wonderful story from Terry Dobson, that is often repeated in Aikido circles, because, well, its a really cool story:

The trained clanked and rattled through the suburbs of Tokyo...