Libertarian Ethics, Lecture 1 with David Gordon - Mises Academy
Libertarian Ethics, Lecture 1
Introduction to Ethics
Three Types of Libertarian
●In this course, we’ll discuss three main
approaches to libertarian ethics. One of these
is a variant of utilitarianism, supported by
Mises and Henry Hazlitt. (Danny will be giving
three lectures on this view.)
●The other two approaches are Murray
Rothbard’s natural law theory and Hans
Hoppe’s argumentation ethics. In this lecture,
I’ll make some general points about ethics
and describe the three approaches.
Ethics and Value Judgments
●In some contexts, it’s important to
distinguish between judgments about
what ought to be the case and
judgments about what is good and bad,
but I’m not going to do that here. I’m
calling both “value judgments”. These
judgments are the subject mater of
●We can distinguish two questions about value
●1. Do value judgments have truth value? That
is, does it make sense to say that a value
judgment is true or false, in the same way
that we say, e.g., that it’s true or false that the
earth revolves around the sun?
●2. Why should we do what ethics prescribes?
Can an “Ought” Be Derived
From an “Is”?
●There is a famous passage in Hume’s
Treatise that is usually interpreted to
mean that you cannot derive a
judgment of what ought to be the case
from what is the case.
Hume on “Is” and “Ought”
●“In every system of morality, which I have
hitherto met with, I have always remarked,
that the author proceeds for some time in the
ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes
the being of a God, or makes observations
concerning human affairs; when all of a
sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of
the usual copulations of propositions, is, and
is not, I meet with no proposition that is not
connected with an ought, or an ought not.
The Passage Continued
●This change is imperceptible; but is however,
of the last consequence. For as this ought, or
ought not, expresses some new relation or
affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be
observed and explained; and at the same
time that a reason should be given; for what
seems altogether inconceivable, how this new
relation can be a deduction from others,
which are entirely different from it.”
Hume’s Law and Ethical
●If Hume’s Law is true, this does not rule
out an objective ethics. An objective
ethics means that ethical judgments are
true or false, not dependent on
Why Mises Rejected
●Mises claimed that theories of objective value
make arbitrary assertions. What happens if
someone denies that a value is objective;
how can the issue be resolved?
●Kant said we can show that certain ethical
rules are required by reason. (“The
categorical imperative.”) Mises rejected this.
Reason only enters the picture when an end
●Even though Mises had affinities with Kant in
epistemology, he didn’t in ethics.
Mises on the Motive to be
●Given Mises’s rejection of Kant’s argument,
he has another criticism to offer of moral
●These theories confront us with demands:
you ought to do so-and-so. But why should
we? Unless the theory can show that it is in
our interest to follow the rules, the demand is
arbitrary. This is the second question: why
should you be moral?
A Contrasting Position
●Mises’s position can be usefully compared
with the article of H.A. Prichard, “Does Moral
Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” Mind, 1912.
●Prichard says that it is a mistake to seek a
non-moral reason to be moral. Moral rules
make their own direct demand on us.
●Mises thought that that this position leads to
intolerance. John Stuart Mill also argued that
appeal to moral intuitions leads to intolerance
Mises and Value Objectivism
●Mises rejected value objectivism. He thought
that there were no further judgments one
could make about the values people have. He
thought that final ends weren’t subject to
●He also rejected another kind of objectivism.
This holds that certain moral principles are
constraints that people must follow,
regardless of the ends they have.
Mises and Utilitarianism
●If final ends are subjective, this raises the
question, what did Mises himself take to be
the final end?
●His answer was happiness. This makes him a
utilitarian, broadly speaking. The position is
also called eudaemonism, i.e, the position
that well-being is the ultimate goal of life.
Aristotle and other Greeks were
●Mises is not vulnerable to objections
usually raised against standard
●Mises does not compare or add-up
interpersonal utilities. He also does not
call for sacrificing some people to
promote overall happiness. The
hanging-the-innocent man case.
Utilitarianism and Social
●Mises’s sort of utilitarianism is much
less demanding than standard
●Its key point is that social cooperation
through peace and the free market is
the main way people can advance their
ends, whatever these might be.
Rothbard and Mises
●Rothbard agreed with Mises on the benefits
of social cooperation through the free market.
●But he disagreed with certain parts of Mises’s
●Rothbard, in contrast with Mises, thought that
ethics is objective. If we say, e.g., that we
ought to promote the free market, this tells us
what we ought morally to do. It’s isn’t only a
claim about how we can realize the
preferences for peace and prosperity that we
in fact have.
Rothbard and Natural Law
●If Rothbard thinks that ethics makes claims
that are objectively true, how are these claims
●If you are to flourish, you need certain things.
These requirements are dictated by human
●So far, this is parallel to Mises: it just says, “If
you want to flourish, you should do such-and-
such”. This is like Mises’s claim, “If you want
peace and prosperity, you should favor the
Rothbard and Natural Law
●Rothbard does not take human flourishing as
a mere hypothetical. In the natural law view,
it’s objectively true that this is a good---you
should want to flourish.
●Rothbard rejects Hume’s Law. From the fact
that certain things are needed for human
beings to flourish, Rothbard thinks that it
follows that we ought to want these things.
●What do we need in order to flourish?
Rothbard thinks that each person needs
to be a self-owner. Each person has the
right to decide what to do with his or her
●You don’t have to donate a kidney or
blood to someone even if he needs one
of these items more than you do. It’s
●Rothbard makes the case for self-ownership
by contrasting it with alternative principles.
These include slavery and a system in which
each persons “owns” parts of everyone.
●Given self-ownership, Rothbard proceeds to
develop an account of how persons acquire
property. Property rights leave no room for a
Hoppe, Habermas, and Apel
●Hoppe was a student of Juergen Habermas
who developed discourse or argumentation
●Another German philosopher, Karl-Otto Apel,
came up with a very similar approach.
●These writers aren’t libertarians. Habermas
began as a Marxist associated with the
Frankfurt School. Although he has become
more moderate than he was in his younger
days, he is still well to the left-of-center.
A Fundamental Mistake
●Discourse ethics, as Habermas and
Apel develop it, is an attempt to
discover the rules of conduct toward
one another that people would
●It is not an attempt to show that certain
moral judgments are requirements of
logic, i.e, that if you reject AE, you are
Argumentation Ethics and
●Here the issue is, what would it be
reasonable for people to agree on,
under the requirement that they agree
on rules that apply to everyone equally.
●These rules express our respect for
AE and Reason, Continued
●The basic idea here comes from the second
version of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. This
requires us to treat every person as an end-
in-himself, not as only as a means.
●AE says that they way we do this is to reason
together about the norms that should apply in
our relations with each other.
●AE applies only to this part of morality. It
doesn’t apply to ethical issues that concern
how to lead a good life.
●Hoppe suggests that the AE norms
would be libertarian.
●Wouldn’t people accept the rule that
everyone was a self-owner? If someone
suggested that one group of people
should enslave others, this wouldn’t win
agreement. This is an important point.
●To understand the next argument we have to
grasp the notion of a pragmatic paradox or
●This is different from a logical contradiction, e.
g., “HHH is both German and non-German”.
●A performative contradiction is a statement
that is false if you say it. E.g, you could say “I
am totally unconscious”, only if you were
conscious, so your saying it shows the
statement is false. Note that the statement
need not be self-contradictory. I could be
●Is it a performative contradiction if you deny
that you own yourself? Suppose you say, “I
don’t own myself.” Could you say this only if
you do own yourself?
●Why is there supposed to be a performative
contradiction? The contention is that in order
to say something, you must have control over
your own body. So just what you are implying
if you deny that you own yourself is that you
do have such control. This contradicts what
you say when you deny self-ownership.