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Nap as (single) universal Ethic

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The Texas Trigger Posted: Mon, Oct 15 2012 11:52 PM

 

I'll try to make this short as I am sure this question has been asked before. Any links t threads/articles/books you can point me to would be helpful.

I am reading Molyneux's Universally Preferred Ethics. In it, he sets the following ground rules for ascertaining a good code of ethics. 

 

1. I fully accept the Humean distinction between “is” and “ought.” Valid moral rules cannot be directly derived from the existence of anything in reality. The fact that human beings in general prefer to live, and must successfully interact with reality in order to do so, cannot be the basis for any valid theory of ethics. Some people clearly do not prefer to live, and steadfastly reject reality, so this definition of ethics remains subjective and conditional.

 

2. Ethics cannot be objectively defined as “that which is good for man’s survival.” Certain individuals can survive very well by preying on others, so this definition of ethics does not overcome the problem of subjectivism. In biological terms, this would be analogous to describing evolutionary tendencies as “that which is good for life’s survival” – this would make no sense. Human society is an ecosystem of competing interests, just as the rainforest is, and what is “good” for one man so often comes at the expense of another.

 

3. I do not believe in any “higher realm” of Ideal Forms. Morality cannot be conceived of as existing in any “other universe,” either material or immaterial. If morality exists in some “other realm,” it cannot then be subjected to a rigorous rational or empirical analysis – and, as Plato himself noted in “The Republic,” society would thus require an elite cadre of Philosopher-Kings to communicate – or, more accurately, enforce – the incomprehensible edicts of this “other realm” upon everyone else. This also does not solve the problem of subjectivism, since that which is inaccessible to reason and evidence is by definition subjective.

 

4. I do not believe that morality can be defined or determined with reference to “arguments from effect,” or the predicted consequences of ethical propositions. Utilitarianism, or “the greatest good for the greatest number,” does not solve the problem of subjectivism, since the odds of any central planner knowing what is objectively good for everyone else are about the same as any central economic planner knowing how to efficiently allocate resources in the absence of price – effectively zero. Also, that which is considered “the greatest good for the greatest number” changes according to culture, knowledge, time and circumstances, which also fails to overcome the problem of subjectivism. We do not judge the value of scientific experiments according to some Platonic higher realm, or some utilitarian optimisation – they are judged in accordance with the scientific method. I will take the same approach in this book.

 

5. I also refuse to define ethics as a “positive law doctrine.” Although it is generally accepted that legal systems are founded upon systems of ethics, no one could argue that every law within every legal system is a perfect reflection of an ideal morality. Laws cannot directly mirror any objective theory of ethics, since laws are in a continual state of flux, constantly being overturned, abandoned and invented – and legal systems the world over are often in direct opposition to one another, even at the theoretical level. Sharia law is often directly opposed to Anglo-Saxon common-law, and the modern democratic “mob rule” process often seems more akin to a Mafia shootout than a sober implementation of ethical ideals.

 

6. I am fully open to the proposition that there is no such thing as ethics at all, and that all systems of “morality” are mere instruments of control, as Nietzsche argued so insistently. In this book, I start from the assumption that there is no such thing as ethics, and build a framework from there.

7. I do have great respect for the ethical instincts of mankind. The near-universal social prohibitions on murder, rape, assault and theft are facts that any rational ethicist discards at his peril. Aristotle argued that any ethical theory that can be used to prove that rape is moral must have something wrong with it, to say the least. Thus, after I have developed a framework for validating ethical theories, I run these generally accepted moral premises through that framework, to see whether or not they hold true.

 

8. I respect your intelligence enough to refrain from defining words like “reality,” “reason,” “integrity” and so on. We have enough work to do without having to reinvent the wheel.

 

9. Finally, I believe that any theory – especially one as fundamental as a theory of ethics – does little good if it merely confirms what everybody already knows instinctively. I have not spent years of my life working on a theory of ethics in order to run around proving that “murder is wrong.” In my view, the best theories are those which verify the truths that we all intuitively understand – and then use those principles to reveal new truths that may be completely counterintuitive.

So far, so good. 

Earlier today I emailed Molyneux this: 

You illustrate a universal ethic in your book by saying that it is similar to the claim "if you want to survive, you must eat." While true, doesn't using this statement as a proof of your argument nullify one of the rules you set earlier; namely that no proper code of ethics can be got based on pragmatism (ie good for the survival of the species) and that to say that eating is good or universally preferred behavior is just a value judgment? After all, eating is not universally regarded as "good" as in the case of an anorexic person, or am I over complicating your point?

My point is, your statement can only be regarded as valid if, and only if, every person agrees with your premise that living is good, which clearly there are some that do not (ie those who commit suicide). That said, your premise could only be justified if you claimed that what is good is what the majority deems to be good, which would directly contradict your (and my) outrage against democracy.

I don't know if this pins down my question or not. Basically, how can we argue that the NAP is valid as an objective ethic without appealing to its being pragmatic, such as from the perspective of evolution, or that it is "largely agreed upon" such as in a democracy?

I think perhaps the most important question we, as Libertarians, must have a good answer for is this question: 

"What makes the NAP the universal ethic/moral which is the only one that society must enforce?"

Put another way, how come I can't use force to steal from you, but I can use force when you steal from me?

I understand the difference between these two occurrences intellectually, but not from a philosophical standpoint.

Put most simply, if someone just says, "You are wrong. Values, ethics, and morals are subjective, so it cannot be said that it is wrong to coerce you. You can only say that to you it is wrong to do so. I don't think it is. Therefore, when I try to coerce you, you have no more right to stop me than I do to coerce you." How can you refute this claim absent an almighty, all powerful God who enacts laws that are above any of man's?

Note: While many of you probably know that I believe in the "God argument" just stated, I know that many don't (both on these forums and off, libertarian and statist), and so I wonder how else this could be answered. I never try to witness or mission in debates like these, so It would be helpful to me to hear the atheist's perspective on the NAP as a universal ethic.  

When it comes right down to it, I think we place all bets on the NAP, and for good pragmatic reasons. Again, though, what I cannot answer is the question above and I'd love some help on it.

 

"If men are not angels, then who shall run the state?" 

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Put most simply, if someone just says, "You are wrong. Values, ethics, and morals are subjective, so it cannot be said that it is wrong to coerce you. You can only say that to you it is wrong to do so. I don't think it is. Therefore, when I try to coerce you, you have no more right to stop me than I do to coerce you." How can you refute this claim absent an almighty, all powerful God who enacts laws that are above any of man's?

Value subjectivism doesn't equal moral subjectivism (at least not the kind that you're describing).  Imagine that you and I are politicians, and we agree that one of the things that would make us good people is if we help others.  So we share this value, even though its subjective.  Then I say "in order to be good people, we have to raise taxes, and enact all sorts of legislation that will punish businesses for exploiting workers, its the right thing to do!"  Your response to me is "wait a minute!  Those sort of policies actually hurt people, taxation is theft, etc.  What we need to do is provide more freedom -- that's how you help people."   Now a moral subjectivist might come along (not realizing that we share a common goal) and say "look, you're both right.  To Mike, it is right to raise taxes, and to Texas Trigger, it is wrong."  ----  But the subjectivist would be incorrect.  Right and wrong can be determined by any outside party who has the right information in this case.

So in your example, the issue comes down to whether or not coercing someone fits in with this guy's ends.  I think in most cases, people aren't saying that coercion is good or right, they either don't realize that such and such an act is coercive, or they view coercion as a necessary evil.  In both scenarios, its simply a matter of economics or political philosophy to show why such a view point is incorrect. 

That being said, I think trying to prove that all people ought to follow the NAP at all times is a mistake.  First off, you have this huge problem of trying to universalize the principal which usual relies on assuming that all individuals share an ultimate end.  This alone is an insane task.  Then, you have all sorts of issues of understanding when and how to apply the NAP.  A lot of times libertarians act as if every possible act has a tag on it that says "agressive" or "non-agressive" -- but its not that simple.  Finally, it leaves open the question whether there are additional moral principles, and which ones take precedent if they ever conflict. 

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gotlucky replied on Wed, Oct 17 2012 3:45 PM

mikachusetts:

Value subjectivism doesn't equal moral subjectivism (at least not the kind that you're describing).  Imagine that you and I are politicians, and we agree that one of the things that would make us good people is if we help others.  So we share this value, even though its subjective.  Then I say "in order to be good people, we have to raise taxes, and enact all sorts of legislation that will punish businesses for exploiting workers, its the right thing to do!"  Your response to me is "wait a minute!  Those sort of policies actually hurt people, taxation is theft, etc.  What we need to do is provide more freedom -- that's how you help people."   Now a moral subjectivist might come along (not realizing that we share a common goal) and say "look, you're both right.  To Mike, it is right to raise taxes, and to Texas Trigger, it is wrong."  ----  But the subjectivist would be incorrect.  Right and wrong can be determined by any outside party who has the right information in this case.

This is not an accurate portrayal of moral subjectivism.

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gotlucky replied on Wed, Oct 17 2012 4:54 PM

@mikachusetts

I decided to go more in depth:

Imagine that you and I are politicians, and we agree that one of the things that would make us good people is if we help others.  So we share this value, even though its subjective.

Sure, let's assume that you and I share this value exactly and not just similarly.

Then I say "in order to be good people, we have to raise taxes, and enact all sorts of legislation that will punish businesses for exploiting workers, its the right thing to do!"  Your response to me is "wait a minute!  Those sort of policies actually hurt people, taxation is theft, etc.  What we need to do is provide more freedom -- that's how you help people."

Here is the first problem. If we truly share the same end exactly, then the only reason we can disagree about the means is if we have differences in knowledge. If we had the same knowledge and the same end, then we would have the same means.

You have not defined what it means to be a good person in either of our eyes, only that we agree that we want to be good people.

Now a moral subjectivist might come along (not realizing that we share a common goal) and say "look, you're both right.  To Mike, it is right to raise taxes, and to Texas Trigger, it is wrong."  ----  But the subjectivist would be incorrect. 

This is not the opinion of a moral subjectivist, which is why your scenario is inaccurate. A moral subjectivist only talks about the ends being subjective. You say that we are sharing identical ends, so the moral subjectivist cannot say that it is simultaneously right to raise taxes and wrong to raise taxes.

If we do not share identical ends, but similar ends, then a moral subjectivist could make that claim. That to you it is right to raise taxes, and to me it is wrong. Of course, it would depend on how our ends differ. A moral subjectivist might not make that claim depending on how our ends differ.

Look at drugs. We might say that we want to help people. You might say that it is right to let people do drugs, and I might say that it is right to force people to not do drugs. If we have this difference in means, it's either because our ends differ or because our knowledge is different. I might have knowledge that says drugs kill people after the second use. So maybe that is why I would want to force people to not do drugs.

But what if we both had that (quite incorrect) knowledge? What if I thought it was okay to force people to not do drugs and you still thought it was okay to let them? This would mean our ends were different, even if we claimed that we had the same ends - helping people.

Right and wrong can be determined by any outside party who has the right information in this case.

No. Any outside party is a subject too. This person has his own values and knowledge.

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gotlucky:
Here is the first problem. If we truly share the same end exactly, then the only reason we can disagree about the means is if we have differences in knowledge. If we had the same knowledge and the same end, then we would have the same means.

More or less, I agree with this.

You have not defined what it means to be a good person in either of our eyes, only that we agree that we want to be good people.

Actually, I said: "we agree that one of the things that would make us good people is if we help others."  So we both want to be good, and we both agree on what it means to be good.

 

This is not the opinion of a moral subjectivist, which is why your scenario is inaccurate. A moral subjectivist only talks about the ends being subjective. You say that we are sharing identical ends, so the moral subjectivist cannot say that it is simultaneously right to raise taxes and wrong to raise taxes.

I wasn't trying to paint an accurate picture of moral subjectivism, I was addressing an argument made by Texas Trigger's hypothetical moral subjectivist who said "so it cannot be said that it is wrong to coerce you. You can only say that to you it is wrong to do so. I don't think it is."  This is  a statement criticizing means, not ends.

If we do not share identical ends, but similar ends, then a moral subjectivist could make that claim. That to you it is right to raise taxes, and to me it is wrong. Of course, it would depend on how our ends differ. A moral subjectivist might not make that claim depending on how our ends differ.

I'm not sure what you're trying to say here, beyond what's self-evidently the case -- that we have to criticize means according to their ends. 

Look at drugs. We might say that we want to help people. You might say that it is right to let people do drugs, and I might say that it is right to force people to not do drugs. If we have this difference in means, it's either because our ends differ or because our knowledge is different. I might have knowledge that says drugs kill people after the second use. So maybe that is why I would want to force people to not do drugs.

But what if we both had that (quite incorrect) knowledge? What if I thought it was okay to force people to not do drugs and you still thought it was okay to let them? This would mean our ends were different, even if we claimed that we had the same ends - helping people.

So what you're saying here, is that if someone has knowledge that X doesn't lead to Y, and they do X, then they don't really hold Y, right?  The problem with that though, is that we don't always use or act on our knowledge.  In the drug example, this isn't so clear.  But imagine you are at a friends house, and he tells you not to flush the toilet because it will overflow.  You don't want the toilet to overflow, yet you end up flushing it anyway.  Now this doesn't mean that you wanted it to overflow afterall, it just means that you didn't use your knowledge about this particular toilet at the moment you flushed it.

mikachusetts:
Right and wrong can be determined by any outside party who has the right information in this case.

No. Any outside party is a subject too. This person has his own values and knowledge.

What???  I was talking about the right and wrong way to achieve a given end.  What if I had said "the right and wrong way to bake a cake can be determined by any outside party" -- would you still answer the same way?  I hope not.

Anyway, here's an article by Roderick Long that gives a good idea of where I'm coming from.  

http://mises.org/daily/2103/Economics-and-Its-Ethical-Assumptions

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Ok, so it has been an interesting debate between Mika and GotLucky so far, but I don't know if you guys totally understand my point.

Let me try to summarize everything said so far in a linear fashion and see if that will help flesh out my question in a better way.

  1. I believe that there is an almighty, all knowing creator that exists outside of time and space, and I call it "God". This God has bequeathed to all mankind a supreme law that holds authority over any law that man creates. Because all men are created by God to be "equal" (I use this word in the sense that no one man has any moral right [in the divine sense] to inflict his rule against the will of any other man), and this law is the NAP. The NAP is a "natural law" that is engraved in the hearts, if you will, of all men, and the state slowly eats away at this "natural law". *-see note at end of outline
  2. If either I am wrong in my belief in point 1 above, or I come to believe that I am wrong (I am increasingly becoming more open to this possibility), or I am debating someone who believes that I am wrong, then I am left in the same position as Libertarian secularists with regard to defending the NAP as a legitimate law (a “legitimate law” being a law that one can force other’s to follow even if they do not want to follow it [i.e. punish someone for murder]). That is, 

 

  1. If there is no almighty, all knowing creator (God) that has bequeathed to all mankind the supreme law (the NAP)
    1. Which holds authority over any law that man creates,
  2. Yet we still accept that all men are created equal in the same sense that I used the word “equal” above,
  3. Then I would think that an alternative justification for the NAP’s “legitimacy” must be put forward.

 

  1. The reason an alternative justification must be put forward is because if all men are created “equal” (again using the definition above), then no one man’s rules, values, and/or morals are any more legitimate or righteous than any other’s. My law is mine and your law is yours.

 

  1. I’ll now use Mises’ praxeology to further my point and address the comments that Mika and GotLucky have made so far.

 

  1. Perhaps my understanding of Mises’ Praxeology is flawed in this respect (let me know if you think it is), but it seems to me that an integral point of Misesian Praxeological analysis is that one cannot judge another’s desired ends as good or bad; the ends simply are what they are. However, one can make observations and judgments as to whether or not the means that another is using to achieve his desired ends are good or bad (or, whether or not the means being employed are the best means to employ in order to achieve the desired ends). In other words, we cannot judge the ends; we can only judge the means.

 

  1. For example, if your desired end is to go fishing in your free time off work, then that end is what it is; whether or not that end is a good one (not in the moral sense) is really not my place to say.  

 

  1. However, if you choose to use your means of free time off work, and your means of gasoline and car to drive to a place where there is no fishing, spending money you do not have to get there, then I can say that these are bad ends to employ if, in fact, your desired end is to go fishing.

 

 

  1. I may be wrong in my judgment of your means, but I may, at the very least, judge them.  

 

  1. If we accept this, then let’s say that I am a psychopathic killer. I get sadistic pleasure from inflicting physical pain on others against their will and, more than anything, I enjoy watching the light dim in the eyes of my victims as I strangle them to death. Although murder is usually a means to some end (i.e. satiating one’s pride, asserting dominance over another, or fulfilling an obligation in order to receive money as in a life insurance policy), in this situation, murder is the end.

 

  1. Thus, in this case, my means may be a bat to my victim’s head or a pillow over their face while they sleep.
  2. My end, however, is always murder, the act of killing a person against his will (a violation of the NAP)

 

  1. I know that Mises was not saying that we couldn’t disapprove of someone’s end in a moral sense. Certainly most of us would (and do) disapprove of murder whether it is a means or an end. However, I think he did make the case that ends, in and of themselves, are not something that can really be judged from the perspective of Praxeological analysis because they exist in a vacuum separate from moral considerations.
    1. This is why Mises stressed that Praxeology and its sub-category of economics can only be used to analyze means with regard to an end.
    2. As an objective science, it cannot tell you whether end X is good or bad because it cannot tell you what is good or bad,
      1. Only people can decide what is good or bad or whether end X is desirable. 
    3. The science of Praxeology can only tell you whether or not means Q and means Z are good means to employ if one wants to attain end X
      1. People must always input what end is desired. Praxeology cannot do that.

 

  1. Because we accept that all men are equal (again, in the sense of the word used above), which means that you and I are equal and so too is the psychopathic killer. If he is equal to us and we take the points I just made about Misesian Praxeological Analysis, it would seem to me that his end of killing people is no less legitimate than any other end one may have. The killer may attempt to kill me, and I may defend myself from this attempt, but beyond that, how can I say that his attempt was wrong? How can I say that any aggression is wrong in any internal sense?

 

  1. Of course, I understand that there are certainly pragmatic arguments against letting people go around committing murder without repercussions, but I think that you cannot defend the NAP from a position of pragmatism IF you want to assign words like “rights” to it. If you do, you must simply admit that rights are just social privileges that are granted when the majority is willing to protect them from those who don’t respect them.
    1. Even from atheists as fervent as Molyneux, I continue to hear that pragmatism is not a good enough justification for a moral rule and that the NAP is worthy of enforcing on the unwilling, and is so because of moral grounds.
    2. I suppose one could make these arguments if one were willing to claim that not all men are equal; some men do have the right to inflict rule on other’s against their will. However, I don’t see any secular libertarian make this claim.
  2. I guess what I don’t understand is: without some supernatural judge that we will all be held accountable to, one where his power and jurisdiction over-rides our own, what makes one’s lifestyle/ends/actions/morals/values/ideas of law any more or less right than any other’s, being that we are all equal? How are we not only left with defending the NAP of utilitarian or pragmatic grounds? And, if we are only left with that defense, how does that not de-evolve into the majority ruling over the minority based on what it deems to be of good utility and bad utility?  

                  *As stated before, I understand that those who do not believe in God will not accept the first part of my argument just as one would not accept a religious scripture as evidence to prove a religion's legitimacy. I do not want this to become a debate over the existence of God or God's being a supernatural dictator, which is why I ask the question in the thread in the first place. I just want to understand the Libertarian secularist's argument better for my own growth and skill. If you want to debate the religious portion, I would be willing to, and I have actually written my own treatise on this topic and would be happy to furnish it to you.

"If men are not angels, then who shall run the state?" 

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I just read this article and it has helped me express my question in a more succinct light, and it is in two parts.

1) without a god, is there any argument that the NAP is a law that is universally heteronomous to all people?

2) if not, if the NAP is an autonomous law, how then can we righteously enforce it on others who do not accept it?

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if the NAP is an autonomous law, how then can we righteously enforce it on others who do not accept it?

This is my current internal position on the topic. Ironically, holding this position is not easy - you will be attacked by both fervent statists and fervent believers in NAP as the Only True Principle.

The Voluntaryist Reader - read, comment, post your own.
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1) without a god, is there any argument that the NAP is a law that is universally heteronomous to all people?

 

2) if not, if the NAP is an autonomous law, how then can we righteously enforce it on others who do not accept it?

 

1.  Short Answer:  Not that I'm aware of – though I've never seen an argument that justifies the NAP as a law from God either.  However, I'm really thrown off by your use of heteronomous / autonomous here.  I'm just not sure what you mean, especially because the article you linked talked about how Mises used the terms and how Kant used the terms, so the way I answer these questions might change.

 

2.  Righteousness doesn't make sense in this context.   If moral laws are autonomous (in the sense that I think you mean), then righteousness is simply a matter of doing whatever best achieves your goals, a matter of expediency.    

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gotlucky replied on Mon, Oct 29 2012 11:19 AM

@The Texas Trigger

I'm going to break down your post and respond in bits.

I believe that there is an almighty, all knowing creator that exists outside of time and space, and I call it "God". This God has bequeathed to all mankind a supreme law that holds authority over any law that man creates. Because all men are created by God to be "equal" (I use this word in the sense that no one man has any moral right [in the divine sense] to inflict his rule against the will of any other man), and this law is the NAP. The NAP is a "natural law" that is engraved in the hearts, if you will, of all men, and the state slowly eats away at this "natural law". *-see note at end of outline

I don't think that the NAP is engraved in all men, however I think that the vast majority of people understand the basic idea behind it: the Golden Rule (ethic of reciprocity). The state actively works against this. It is, after all, an organization that exists only by violating this reciprocity.

If either I am wrong in my belief in point 1 above, or I come to believe that I am wrong (I am increasingly becoming more open to this possibility), or I am debating someone who believes that I am wrong, then I am left in the same position as Libertarian secularists with regard to defending the NAP as a legitimate law (a “legitimate law” being a law that one can force other’s to follow even if they do not want to follow it [i.e. punish someone for murder]). That is, 

I don't think it matters whether you believe in God or not. Surely you have heard: "Is it moral because God said so, or did God say so because it is moral?" If God says the golden rule is moral, why did he say so? I think bringing God into the discussion confuses the issue. I think the main question is: Do you prefer harmony or discord?

  1. If there is no almighty, all knowing creator (God) that has bequeathed to all mankind the supreme law (the NAP)
    1. Which holds authority over any law that man creates,
  2. Yet we still accept that all men are created equal in the same sense that I used the word “equal” above,
  3. Then I would think that an alternative justification for the NAP’s “legitimacy” must be put forward.

Crusoe, Morality, and Axiomatic Libertarianism by Nielsio is a good starting point. I happen to believe that the golden rule is moral for the reason that I do. It's circular for me. I know other people have written about what Nielsio wrote, but that link is short and to the point. He shows how a utilitarian argument can be effective for people who don't just take the golden rule/ethic of reciprocity/NAP as a starting point. I think the golden rule is even more basic that the NAP.

The reason an alternative justification must be put forward is because if all men are created “equal” (again using the definition above), then no one man’s rules, values, and/or morals are any more legitimate or righteous than any other’s. My law is mine and your law is yours.

Regarding your psychopathic killer, praxeology doesn't need to enter into the equation. You have a choice, do you prefer harmony or discord? Cooperation or conflict? If you prefer harmony and cooperation, then you don't like the psycho killer's actions or ends. If you prefer discord and conflict, well, maybe you still don't like his ends because you want to remain alive. Maybe you do like his ends.

Most people prefer harmony and cooperation, and what's more, most people (wrongly) associate the state with those concepts. But here's the thing, what if you don't care either way about harmony or discord? Suppose you are neutral, you want to live your life and you don't care much either way. You still have an incentive to prefer harmony, because what happens when the conflict includes you? You have an incentive to think of muggers as bad even if you never get mugged. Why? What if you do get mugged? Do you want muggers to roam the streets? If they go unchecked, you may very well get mugged. So even if muggings happen to other people, you have an incentive to consider mugging bad. It's the same with property rights in general. Nielsio used the shovel as an example in the link I provided. If you want people to respect your stuff, you need to respect theirs. It's the golden rule, and basically every culture has some concept of it one way or another. The real problem is that people don't understand the double standard that is the state. The state is not about the golden rule, it is about violating it.

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Can we return to the OP's question in this thread?  My thoughts:

1) It would be impossible to establish the veracity of this, yes?  So we must assume

2) And given this, why is it enforceable?  Because by engaging in non-coercive commerce (argumentation, contractual agreements) humans demonstrate that such is possible and preferable; while by engaging in coercion, humans demonstrate that they discard the necessity of argumentation, effectively giving up the benefit of it.

Isn't that good enough to answer the question?

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