Libertarian Ethics, Lecture 5 with David Gordon - Mises Academy
Libertarian Ethics, Lecture 5
Rothbard vs. Mises
●Danny last week raised some very
interesting questions about Rothbard’s
●Where do consequences, and in
particular economic consequences,
come into Rothbard’s ethics?
●I think that consequences have a place
in Rothbard’s ethics in two ways.
Consequences and Rothbard
●First, when Rothbard is considering the
various alternatives to self-ownership
such as slavery and universal
ownership by everybody of parts of
everybody else, he takes the fact that
the alternatives wouldn’t work as
conclusive reasons against them.
●Second, the basis of Rothbard’s version
of natural law is what human beings
need to flourish. “Flourishing” mans
“leading a happy life.”
●Consequences are thus integral to
●One objection to Rothbard is that he
makes use of a controversial
assumption---people have essences or
natures. He speaks of natural
“tendencies” even though no conscious
goals are involved.
●Mises can get along without this
assumption. Isn’t this an advantage of
Problems for Mises
●I think that this is an advantage for
Mises over Rothbard. But there are
some disadvantages as well.
●One of these comes out if we think
about Danny’s excellent “parachuting
fallacy”. The fallacy is to think that
Mises can tell us in each particular case
why it is our interest to follow the rules
●I think it is correct that Mises doesn’t try to do
this. He is rather talking about general rules
that would make us better off if everyone
●But this raises a question. What then is the
basis of moral obligation in particular cases?
Not, why is it in my interest now to act
morally, but what does it mean to say that I
now ought to do something?
Mises on “Ought”
●For Mises, there are no objective
“oughts”, other than hypothetical
●We have been trained or conditioned to
feel guilty if we act in certain ways, but
there is nothing to “ought” other than
these responses that have been
inculcated in us.
●This strikes me as a wildly
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
Types of Reason
●When we talk about reason, we can mean:
●Logical consistency: Here, someone who
violates logical laws has gone against reason,
but not otherwise. Suppose, e.g., that
someone does something very much against
his interest, e.g., walk into moving traffic.
Unless you can show that doing this violates
a logical law, it isn’t irrational in the logical
Hume on Reason
●Hume was famously skeptical about the
possibility of showing that actions were
irrational in this logical sense:
●“Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the
destruction of the whole world to the
scratching of my finger.
●‘Tis not contrary to reason for me to
chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least
uneasiness of an Indian or person
wholly unknown to me. ‘Tis as little
contrary to reason to prefer even my
own acknowledg’d lesser good to my
greater, and to have a more ardent
affection for the former than the latter.”
●Reason can mean something other than
logical consistency. It can deal with
whether your means will achieve your
●Given that I want x, I should do do y.
Mises uses this meaning of reason. He
argues that given the ends people have,
we should establish a free market.
Reason and the Good Life
●Another sense of reason goes beyond
instrumental rationality. Here, the claim is that
reason can establish the nature of the good
life for each person.
●Aristotle and Rothbard can be viewed in this
●Ayn Rand thought that values depend on
each person taking his own life as the highest
value. Other values are instrumental to this
Argumentation Ethics and
●AE uses a different sense of reason
from the ones discussed so far.
●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.
Two Mistakes to Avoid
●AE is not trying to answer the “what’s in it for
me?” question. It isn’t an attempt to argue
that it’s in our self-interest to observe the
rules it comes up with. That is a different
approach to morality.
●AE isn’t an attempt to say that you are
violating the laws of logic if you violate its
rules. As we’ll see, this leads to trouble later.
How to Get the Rules
●Habermas and Apel have an interesting
idea on how to find out what rules
people would agree on. They say,
doesn’t the process of trying to find out
the rules itself impose certain
requirements on us?
●This is what they mean by discourse or
●The claim they make is that argumentation for
this purpose, i.e., to decide on universalizable
rules, imposes certain norms.
●AE doesn’t cover every use of argument or
communication, e.g., trying to deceive
someone. It doesn’t cover Danny Sanchez’s
fable of the lion. The lion says, “I’m talking to
you because you are inedible.”
●One objection sometimes advanced against
AE is that the norms it come up with apply
only to the process of argument itself. If, e.g.,
you have to recognize that everyone is a self-
owner when he argues, why does this apply
once you stop arguing?
●This misconceives what AE is trying to do.
The point is that the norms of argument
suggest what the general norms should be.
●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 performative contradiction.
●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 unconscious:
●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. But just what you are implying
if you deny that you own yourself is that you
don’t have such control.
A Bad Objection
●Some people have objected, “Maybe
you only need part of your body in order
to speak, so you are not guilty of a
performative contradiction unless you
deny that you own any part of yourself.”
●Both the original claim of performative
contradiction and this objection suffer
from the same mistake
What Is Self-Ownership?
●The statement “I own myself” is
deceptive in its form. It appears to be a
descriptive statement, one stating a
fact, like “I am an old man.”
●But it really isn’t descriptive. It’s a covert
ought-statement, something like, “I
ought to be the person who gets to
decide what to do with my body, not
Why Is This Relevant?
●If this is kept in mind, we’ll see what is
wrong with the claim that if you deny
you own yourself, you have fallen into a
●If someone denies that he owns
himself, he is saying, “It’s not the case
that I ought to be the person who
decides what to do with my body”.
●Then, if you say to this person, “But
you’re speaking!”, you haven’t pointed
to a contradiction.
●If you say, “It’s not the case that I ought
to be the person who decides what to
do with my body,” this is consistent with
the fact that you are deciding what to do
with your body.
●Why might one think that there was a
●You might think that if I’m doing
something, this implies that I think I
have a right to do it , but this need not
be true. If a thief steals your wallet, he
need not in doing so implicitly claim to
●The English philosopher William
Wollaston (1659-1754) argued that all
immorality rests on lies. A thief has
made the false claim, “This property is
mine.” This is the fallacy we have just
●This leaves intact the basic contention
that it wouldn’t be reasonable for people
seeking agreement on universal
principles to reject self-ownership.
●Also, it seems reasonable to think that
people might agree on a libertarian
homesteading principle. But why need
this be the only logically possible rule?
●All sorts of rules are logically possible.
What’s contradictory about saying, the
third person to own property acquires
it? This would not make property
●Of course, the libertarian principle is
reasonable, but we shouldn’t make
stronger claims for it than are justifiable.