Hoppe’s argumentation ethics

Hoppe’s argumentation ethics are an attempt to justify libertarianism. Hoppe starts by criticising Ludwig von Mises’ approach to ethics:

According to Mises there exists no ultimate justification for ethical propositions in the same sense as there exists one for economic propositions. Economics can inform us whether or not certain means are appropriate for bringing about certain ends, yet whether or not the ends can be regarded as just can neither be decided by economics nor by any other science. There is no justification for choosing one rather than another end. In the last resort, which end is chosen is arbitrary from a scientific point of view and is a matter of subjective whim, incapable of any justification beyond the mere fact of simply being liked.

In the following I outline an argument that demonstrates why this position is untenable, and how the essentially Lockean private property ethic of libertarianism can ultimately be justified. …

The argument then runs as follows:

First, it must be noted that the question of what is just or unjust — or for that matter the even more general question of what is a valid proposition and what is not — only arises insofar as I am, and others are, capable of propositional exchanges, i.e., of argumentation.

Second, it must be noted that argumentation does not consist of free-floating propositions but is a form of action requiring the employment of scarce means; and that the means which a person demonstrates as preferring by engaging in propositional exchanges are those of private property.

Furthermore, it would be equally impossible to sustain argumentation for any length of time and rely on the propositional force of one’s arguments if one were not allowed to appropriate in addition to one’s body other scarce means through homesteading action (by putting them to use before somebody else does), and if such means and the rights of exclusive control regarding them were not defined in objective physical terms. For if no one had the right to control anything at all except his own body, then we would all cease to exist and the problem of justifying norms simply would not exist. Thus, by virtue of the fact of being alive, property rights to other things must be presupposed to be valid. No one who is alive could argue otherwise.

This argument sounds plausible, but it is flawed in ways that will lead those who hold it make serious errors. First, the argument is justificationist – it purports to show that a particular position is true or probably true or something along those lines. All justificationist arguments are false for reasons I have described in previous posts [1,2].

Another problem is that many people don’t agree ethics is about argument. Some people believe it is ethical to beat a person up with a bike lock, or to run people over with a car. Such a person might be willing to take a break from using physical violence to talk, but unless you change his mind all he’s doing is taking a break. Worse, most people think it is necessary to initiate the use of force in some ’emergency’ situations that don’t involve the use of force. For example, people who support the welfare state think it is acceptable to threaten people who don’t want to pay taxes to support the welfare state with prison and to use violence against them if necessary. If you can’t change the minds of those who are taking a break from using physical violence directly or through the state then your argument is pretty useless since almost all people are in that category.

Many people also see ethics as an emotional issue. You’re ethical if you feel the right sort of emotions. For example, many people say that if you feel like the US should have universal health care you’re an ethical person and otherwise you’re a scum bag. Any reasons you might have for thinking universal health care would be disastrous are irrelevant.

Lots of people also won’t concede that private property is necessary for rational argument. They think rich people control the media and can say absolutely anything they want. In reality, the mass media have to stick to a very narrow set of ‘respectable’ opinions or they will lose customers and money. Other people think that some private property is okay, but the government has to set limits on it.

The only people who will buy Hoppe’s argument are those who reject the positions in the previous three paragraphs, i.e. – people who already support unrestricted capitalism. Hoppe might say in reply that the rejection all of those positions have been justified by Misesian economics. Although Mises’ economic ideas are true the epistemological ideas Hoppe advocates as a justification are wrong. Hoppe’s argument solves no problems and can’t reach any target audience other than people who already agree with him.

Hoppe’s argument is a rationalist argument in the sense explained by Peikoff in Understanding Objectivism Lecture Seven. Hoppe focuses on an abstract idea without tying it to reality. Hoppe starts with a premise that differences must be settled by argument and pretends he can prove a conclusion from it. Where does this premise come from? Nowhere. Why should we use argument as opposed to hitting people with bike locks? No reason is given or even referred to. We’re just supposed to accept it with no explanation or context.

A better argument along the same lines would say the following. I think that differences should be settled by argument, not by violence or emotional presuppositions. I also think that free markets are required for people to be able to undertake arguments properly. People have to be able to live to make arguments and to try out ideas to settle arguments and this requires unrestricted capitalism. You could then have a discussion about these points. Instead we get a very brief statement of each of these points and a lot of filler about how this is a justification when it’s not. We can only get moral progress through discussion not by trying to concoct a gotcha argument in a few pages. Moral and political knowledge is created by guesses tempered by criticism, just like other kinds of knowledge, see Elliot Temple’s squirrel essay.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

2 Responses to Hoppe’s argumentation ethics

  1. > This argument sounds plausible, but it suffers from some major flaws.

    This phrase sounds kinda like the argument is (metaphorically) afflicted or diseased with flaws. It’s a common thing to say. But I think the argument is a *source* of flaws (errors), which is different.

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