What Is Aggression?

April 27, 2010

The following essay was my submission for an ATP 101 assignment asking: What is aggression? How can we distinguish between aggression and other kinds of undesirable influence? The space in the assignment was limited so I only intend this to be a starting point for further research.

A key concept underlying aggression is that of a moral agent’s ‘boundary’. I do not mean for this term to imply a continuous, spatiotemporal boundary [1] , though it will often correspond to exactly that. Instead, the boundary is a logical entity that divides the set of all actions that can be performed by others into (a) those that treat our agent as a means [2] (“inside the boundary”) and (b) those that do not (“outside the boundary”).

Simply performing an action that treats another person as a means (i.e. is within that person’s boundary) is not sufficient to make the action one of aggression, however. That would count most, if not all, of human interaction as aggressive, making it a poor basis for a legal system [3] . Therefore, we might be tempted to separate out those ‘boundary crossings’ that occur without the consent of our agent. But that too seems a poor basis for a legal system that needs to enforce its judgment without being itself unjust.

I do think, however, that lack of consent from our agent is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for an action committed against her to be classed as one of aggression. Either of two other conditions must obtain: (a) the action is not necessary to end an act of aggression on the moral agent’s part; or (b) the action is necessary to end an act of aggression but morally disproportionate (in the direction of excess) to the seriousness of that act. Therefore, aggression is treating someone as a means without their consent where doing so is either (a) unnecessary to end aggression or (b) disproportionate to the seriousness of that aggression [4] . (Long) We might call this, and therefore define aggression as, “treating someone as a mere means.”

Because I have given a definition that relies on the concept of “treating someone as a means,” using it to distinguish between aggression and other kinds of undesirable influence will require a method for knowing what “treating someone as a means” means. It also relies on an ability to determine the necessity of an action (to end aggression) and whether an action found so necessary is disproportionate in moral seriousness. The necessity of an action to end aggression is likely something that can be determined empirically, for the most part. The other two factors will require more complex methods of determination (e.g. critical reflection, reflective equilibrium, intuition-pumping, additional moral principles, community norms etc.)

I will say something further about “treating someone as a means.” I do not think that treating someone as a means requires intention. Nevertheless, intention can play a role in certain contexts, e.g. “threatening to invade someone’s boundary is itself an invasion of that person’s boundary (since in announcing my intention of using you as a means I am already treating you as the sort of thing it is legitimate to use as a means).” (Long) I do think it requires subjecting or subordinating someone to some condition, rather than simply taking advantage of the facts about someone.

You will notice that I do not refer to property rights nor do I specifically refer to physical force. It may be the case (and I think there are good reasons for thinking) that in the process of unpacking ‘treating someone as a means’ that it will necessitate some consideration of external property and/or a limit to actions that are physical violations of person or property. This more general definition, however, keeps the underlying moral premise in the foreground so as to prevent any question-begging formulations prior to a discussion of property rights or non-physical harm among those who share a desire to capture the spirit of non-aggression.

Works Cited

Long, Roderick T. “Abortion, Abandonment, and Positive Rights: The Limits of Compulsory Altruism.” 1993. <http://praxeology.net/RTL-Abortion.htm&gt;.


[1] Imagine a sphere in 4D space-time surrounding our moral agent.

[2] I will not be defending this notion here but it comes from (though not only from) the Aristotelian virtue-ethical normative principle that states that, “Every person has the right not to be treated as a mere means to the ends of others,” where ‘right’ is understood to mean in the sense of ‘legally enforceable’. To treat someone like a mere means is to not treat them as an end in themselves. (Long)

[3] I will only focus on aggression as it relates to legal institutions concerned with the legitimate use of force. There are many other domains concerned with correctly defining ‘aggression’, including psychology and biology, but these are not generally concerned with the normative realm implied by a non-aggression principle.

[4] The recursive nature of this definition is not problematic because (a) obtains in the case where there is simply a lack of any reciprocal boundary crossing.

13 Responses to “What Is Aggression?”

  1. James Says:

    Here are my thoughts,

    I like the fact you didn’t refer to violence or property, that’s a refreshing change.

    Wouldn’t it be more concise to say the problem is treating people as if they aren’t an end in themselves rather than treating them as a means then qualifying it?

    You’re approach reminds me of Long talking about spheres of authority, which is good, so I think it’s important to add that the reason defensive and in some cases retaliatory force are not aggression is because they don’t occur within the victims (to use that term loosely) sphere of authority and then to specify that requires proportionality etc.

    The only substantial disagreement I have with you though is on threat

    ““threatening to invade someone’s boundary is itself an invasion of that person’s boundary (since in announcing my intention of using you as a means I am already treating you as the sort of thing it is legitimate to use as a means).” ”

    However so is writing a book on why the state is good. I don’t think statist philosophers deserve to be punished (well…lol) for that though. It’s basically the same flaw as Kinsella’s justification for punishment has, there are numerous ways I can show i’m in favour of using force without actually committing a crime.

    What was the ATP 101 course like?


  2. You have to refer to property rights and force to define aggression. “using someone as a means” won’t cut it. In fact it’s perfectly okay to use people as means: see my discussion in Causation and Aggression–the section “COMPLICATING THE PICTURE: CAUSATION, COOPERATION, AND HUMAN MEANS” on p. 101.

    Aggression is simply the unconsented to (or uninvited) change in the physical integrity (or use, control or possession) of another person’s body or property–as Hoppe puts it, it’s aggression if someone “uninvitedly invades or changes the physical integrity of another person’s body and puts this body to a use that is not to this very person’s own liking”. I elaborate on this in What Libertarianism Is, particularly notes 9 and 11. So of course what aggression is depends on what property rights there are. So what makes libertarianism unique is our unique view of aggression, which is unique just because of our unique property assignment rules. As I wrote in the article noted above, “Protection of and respect for property rights is thus not unique to libertarianism. What is distinctive about libertarianism is its particular property assignment rules: its view concerning who is the owner of each contestable resource, and how to determine this.”

    And this, I submit, is the Lockean view of homesteading, more or less. This is precisely why I object when left-libertarians veer from this with either ambiguous, vague, non-rigorous standards as you are doing here with this “means” talk; or when they adopt non-Lockean rules like the mutualist occupancy rules or crankish Georgist-related rules.

  3. Neverfox Says:

    Wouldn’t it be more concise to say the problem is treating people as if they aren’t an end in themselves rather than treating them as a means then qualifying it?

    Perhaps. What I’m talking about in this paper is not just using someone as a means but a mere means, which to me is that same as not treating them as an end in themselves.

    However so is writing a book on why the state is good. I don’t think statist philosophers deserve to be punished (well…lol) for that though.

    That’s Long’s quote and he actually addresses this exact example in one of his lectures. The basic answer is that writing a book simply isn’t a threat properly so called. It’s not enough to favor force. You actually have to be creating a situation that can be interpreted as intentionally directed and containing an element of actual and tangible risk of actual physical force. This is fairly consistent with how common law has treated the matter, I think, e.g. the nuance in laws concerning assault.

    What was the ATP 101 course like?

    It is really fun and Gary is a great instructor. The class is really loosely structured so you can do it on your own time.

  4. Neverfox Says:

    You have to refer to property rights and force to define aggression.

    And I quote:

    It may be the case (and I think there are good reasons for thinking) that in the process of unpacking ‘treating someone as a means’ that it will necessitate some consideration of external property and/or a limit to actions that are physical violations of person or property.

    The point is to highlight the ethical foundations of such a concept, which is really no different from what I can tell, than starting with something like argumentation ethics or grundnorms. The space here was very, very limited. This was meant as an introduction to further discussion, not a completely unpacked definition.

    In fact it’s perfectly okay to use people as means

    And I quote:

    Simply performing an action that treats another person as a means (i.e. is within that person’s boundary) is not sufficient to make the action one of aggression, however….

    That’s why this essay refers to mere means, not just means. That little word is extremely vital word.

    Did you choose to ignore what I actually wrote or was it just a matter of rushed inattention?


  5. Neverfox: Sure, then I agree. Excellent! There’s hope for you leftoids after all. :)


  6. As for keeping “the underlying moral premise in the foreground” — well, that’s why I and others of my ilk emphasize peace and prosperity–and property. See the motto of our blog The Libertarian Standard.

  7. Neverfox Says:

    Before we get too lovey-dovey ;), I suspect that we would disagree on the relative priority of these concepts. It’s one thing to say that it might be necessary to refer to external objects to one’s person when talking about using them as a “mere means” and quite another to say that property is absolute lest someone be treated as a “mere means.”


  8. Neverfox:

    Aggression is inextricably linked with property and violence, whether you “want” to “emphasize” the “ethical aspects” of the concept, or whether or not you choose metaphorical, imprecise, colorful language like “using someone as a means” instead.

    Now, I have no problem with using metaphors and colorful language so long as you realize that’s what it is; and I prefer to buttress it with more rigorous, precise concepts and reasoning.

  9. Neverfox Says:

    “Mere means” is not a metaphor anymore than “purposeful behavior” is in the first sentence of Ch. 1 of Human Action. “‘Purposeful behavior’? How metaphorical, imprecise, colorful this Mises character is. I’ll read no further!”

  10. James Says:

    Do you think some types of risk should be considered as threats? If you accept the concept of innocent threats could someone be prevented from acting recklessly if, despite not intending any harm, their behaviour could potentially violate someone’s rights? Say using firearms on your own property, with a chance the bullets could hit someone else.

  11. Neverfox Says:

    Well, I would first say that it’s a conceptual truth (as I understand rights) that you cannot use force because someone is “potentially” going to violate someone’s rights. But we can rehabilitate your question by asking, “Do certain kinds of reckless behavior count as violating rights, i.e. do they treat someone as a means without their consent where doing so is either (a) unnecessary to end aggression or (b) disproportionate to the seriousness of that aggression?” I think the answer to that can be yes. But I also think there are constraints of practical reasonableness involved. Life is run through with risk; we’re swimming in it. If we take one extreme position that any risk is a rights violation, social life would be impossible. If, on the other hand, we eliminate any risky actions from our theory, common sense examples of threats (e.g. someone is preparing to fire a gun at you), which necessarily are a type of “acting recklessly” are excluded. The answer, as it so often is, is somewhere in the middle. This led me to say:

    The necessity of an action to end aggression is likely something that can be determined empirically, for the most part. The other two factors will require more complex methods of determination (e.g. critical reflection, reflective equilibrium, intuition-pumping, additional moral principles, community norms etc.)

    And I would add some consequentialist considerations too. In a sense, all of the low-level aggressive noise one might, if one were so inclined, count as a violation drops out for sheer lack of any reasonable response that involves force. You could also approach it from the other side and say that what counts as a boundary itself changes as a result of this deliberation. Thus, I think we go on with our lives and let people carry guns (but not fire them randomly) and drive cars (but not at irresponsibly high speeds), all the while encouraging an effective tort system.

  12. James Says:

    “we can rehabilitate your question by asking, “Do certain kinds of reckless behavior count as violating rights”

    Yeah, that’s better.

    Thanks for the response. I’ve been reading through anarchy, state and utopia and working out which bits of Nozick’s theory make sense. His thoughts on compensation and the state are a definite no but I was partially convinced by some of his argument on risk, basically that we shouldn’t have to wait until someone is harmed and some preventitive action is ok in the case of a serious risk. But there needs to be some distinction between just everyday risk (since everything is potentially risky) and what could be called threatening to be an innocent threat. Something that would make driving drunk a rights violation but being in a demographic more likely to drive drunk not a rights violation. The drunk driver is definately not respecting his victims as ends in themselves but is he treating them as mere means?


  13. [...] had the pleasure of discussing this with Roman Pearah  so I’ll be borrowing a lot from his post What is Aggression? (which borrows a lot from [...]


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