I have recently been enjoying good conversation with some friends who describe themselves as “anarchists” and “voluntaryists.” Although I am new to exploring the meaning of these labels, my friends have explained them to me by returning to certain philosophical cornerstones: the non-aggression principle, respect for boundaries, and the avoidance of the use of force. From what I have gathered, a summation of their point of view, be it political or economic or simply interpersonal, is that all human interchange and interaction should be voluntary: that is, that no one should be forced to do anything by anyone or should practice force on others. Perhaps one could restate it by saying that no one should be aggressive toward others or cross others’ boundaries. This, they explain—assuming I have understood it correctly—is the basis of morality.
Although I don’t consider myself an anarchist, perhaps because I haven’t yet considered the word’s meaning enough to realize that I might already be one, I admit to liking this conception of morality. Interestingly, my main professional work thus far has been in the field of psychiatry, and a main tenet of my viewpoint there, if not the main tenet, is that psychiatry and the whole mental health system would improve dramatically if it stopped forcing people to do things. In short: no more force! Respect people, no matter what their problems or situations, enough to provide them the choice to do what they feel is best for their lives. Don’t force them to take psychiatric drugs, don’t force hospitalization on them, and don’t force them to participate in any type of treatment. Instead, provide them with options and viable alternatives and transparent information so that they can be in the driver’s seat regarding the key decisions affecting their lives. I practiced this intensely as a therapist and saw its value every day, and for that reason was able to tolerate working for so many years in such an otherwise backward field. So perhaps I am a sort of psychiatric anarchist. I actually rather like the label.
As regards this essay, my attraction to the subject of voluntaryism comes because I see some holes in the arguments of my anarchist friends. One came last night when I was reading them a prototype of an essay I wrote on the subject of how to solve the world’s overpopulation epidemic, an epidemic which I see as underpinning the planetary ecological catastrophe we are facing. Some of the options I proposed—in a wave of rather uncritical brainstorming—included requiring all parents to qualify for a license to procreate, creating a lottery which would choose which couples can breed and which cannot, heavily taxing those who procreate, providing financial incentives for people who don’t breed, and, as rotten as it sounds, even sterilizing people after they’ve produced one child. Although I find the sterilization option bordering on evil, my friends pointed out that all the options I provided failed their moral test of voluntaryism, because every one reeked of force. So this left me thinking: am I a wolf in sheep’s clothing—a non-force person who, secretly, in my private moments, wishes to bend the world to my will? Am I really a person who lacks an ability even to brainstorm realistic, non-force options?
I thought about it before falling asleep, and have returned to my computer this morning to type out my reply. Here it is. Interestingly, I realized that my anarchist friends themselves had, some conversations earlier, given me the philosophical connections to construct my argument. The first key point they’d shared is that there is a basic, seeming exception to their no-force principle: the self-defense clause. In self-defense you can use what looks like force to stop someone else from practicing force on you. Translation: if someone is attacking you—violating you or behaving aggressively toward you in any number of ways—you have the right to repel them through self-defense. And this might even entail hurting them physically—if that is what is required to get them to respect those of your boundaries they are violating.
I also considered my friends’ second key point: that there’s such a thing as self-defense by proxy, that is, that it’s okay to defend vulnerable others who can’t defend themselves. So, for example, if I see an adult attacking a child, it’s morally okay for me to step in and defend the child. Fundamentally, according to them, we can use our empathy and compassion and wisdom to guide us in siding with children as if these children were ourselves. Interestingly, this has been a key theme of my writings for years: that it is our responsibility as mature beings to side with the child, on a psychological and literal level. No matter what.
So these two caveats have guided my defense of my essay on population control: that although it seems like I’m pro-force, I’m actually not. My reasons: first, bringing more children into the world violates our already vulnerable planet, and second, when parents procreate, they, to the degree that they have not resolved their own traumas from childhood, force trauma on their child. Although the first reason is easy to see, for those, that is, who feel a connection to nature and empathize with the non-human living world, the second, for many, seems to be harder. Denial of childhood trauma and its effects is profound. From what I’ve observed, however, all parents commit this second violation; traumatizing children, especially mildly, is so ubiquitous that we consider it normal and even healthy. Either of these reasons, however, is enough to justify my point of view, yet put together they even more strongly highlight the larger theme: that we as individuals and a species have a responsibility to do something about this destruction. What is this if not self-defense by proxy? Yet, when it comes to defending nature, perhaps it is not even entirely self-defense by proxy. After all, our fragile planet’s ecosystems are not something apart from us: they are us. We are a part of them. An attack on them is an attack on us.
As regards realistically solving human overpopulation, I remain befuddled. So I explore options. Not options of force, but options that deny people their non-right to go on abusing others and abusing our planet home.