Clearly actually harming another person is an instance of initiation of force and violates the person's rights. What about the case when I do not actually harm the person, but instead create a situation where there is a substantial risk of harm? Have I violated their rights?
For example, Russian Roulette: I load only one bullet into a revolver that can hold six bullets, spin the drum, and point the gun at you. Is pulling the trigger a violation of your rights (disregarding whether you are actually shot)?
The impetus for this question is a related (and I think dependent) question I have been mulling over, which is whether it is proper for the government to prevent risk creation. If it is a violation of rights, then I think it would be proper for the government to step in and stop it; if not, then it would not be proper.
So returning to my Russian Roulette example, would a third party be justified in using force to stop me from pulling the trigger? Keep in mind that I have not actually shot you yet, and it is not certain (or even more-likely-than-not) that I will shoot you--there is simply a risk that you will be shot (a one in six chance). Must the third party wait for actual physical harm before using force against me?
It seems to me that any rights respecting, life valuing person would not hesitate to stop me before I pulled the trigger. However, this seems at odds with other objectivist views--particularly the oft quoted injunction against "preventative law" (i.e. laws that prevent people from acting before any harm has been done). I understand the desire to get rid of many of the laws people are thinking of when they talk about preventative law (e.g. environmental regulations), but isn't the real problem here that the laws in question outlaw activities that do not really create substantial risks? In other words, it is not the preventive nature of the law that is wrong, but rather a factual error about the supposed harm that is sought to be averted.
As a budding objectivist and a law student I am trying to integrate what I have learned in philosophy and what I am learning in the law, and I would appreciate any guidance you more experienced objectivists out there might have on this issue. Thanks!
This is a great question, which I've done some thinking about.
A "risk of harm" is one in the same with danger. So, the question is, do we each have a right not to be placed in danger by another person?
Common sense says: "yes!" But can common sense be squared with the idea that danger is not literally the same thing as physical force?
Physical force, literally speaking, is to move or impact another person's body against his consent. But what if we don't do that, but instead simply aim a gun at his head?
Note, your example above with Russian roulette isn't necessary. Simply aiming a loaded gun at a person creates a possibility of injury -- after all, even if the gun is fired, the shooter may miss. And the gun might not be fired after all.
To aim a gun at someone is to threaten him. A "threat" is a risk of harm. To threaten someone is to choose to place him in danger.
When you threaten someone, you take his well-being out of his own hands, and place it in yours. You literally take control of his life, even though you don't literally physically move or impact his body.
In this way, a threat of physical force denies another man, while the threat exists, his right to live.
The right to life is not just the right to exist without literal physical intervention. If that were true, then even incarceration wouldn't be a violation of the right to live -- after all, if the man bumps into the walls or bars of his cell, that would be his own choice, right? So where's the physical force?
Physical force, in the broader sense, is the control of another man's action by means of physical agency. The threat of literal physical force is a form of physical agency. So is a jail cell.
Any genuine threat made by one man to another man's well-being is a violation of his right to live. Such a threat is a form of physical force, because by means of the threat one physically forces a man to comply with one's own wish, even if one's wish is merely to frighten him.
Regarding Russian Roulette, pointing a loaded gun at someone is the common law crime of assault, and is therefore a violation of their rights. Credibly threatening another with the use of force is a crime. In fact, the gun may not be loaded at all, or there may not even be a gun for it to be considered assault, as long as the threat remains. Objectivism supports this view; force or the credible threat of force warrants the use of force in response, either in the form of self-defense in the moment or by government after the fact.
I think the line to be drawn here with respect to law is the difference between an actual threat and a possible threat. The former should be illegal, the latter should not be. For example, if I own a gun, but never threaten you with it, that should be legal. The problem with many current-day laws is they carry over into the "possible" arena, which means they are impeding freedom, not protecting anyone.