Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics: A User Friendly, Neighborly Introduction

December 25, 2011

“What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.”
–Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Humans act in incredibly stupid, as well as incredibly clever ways. Trade and production coexists alongside murder and rape. The application of deductive reasoning to actions such as trade and production (“praxeology“) gives us interesting insights into economics. We can deduce trade to be mutually beneficial and artificially low interest rates to cause an unsustainable economic boom. However to apply praxeology only to trade and production, as if they were the sum total of human activity, would be somewhat of an understatement. Us humans know some other tricks.

Other than the problem of our desire for goods and services, we also encounter other problems in our life. A very important problem, one that is at the core of much death and strife, is that of conflict resolution. Reality doesn’t provide unlimited plenty on mere request. In economical jargon, scarcity is pervasive. Some resources are rivalrous by nature. Differing ideas about how to use them can conflict. Though there are many motives for engaging in war, all acts of war can be reduced to this- a conflict over “resources”.

To illustrate, imagine a husband and wife both own a car, which they want to use for different aims at the same time. There is not only a relationship problem, but a conflict over a resource. Both can’t simultaneously drive the car to two different places. A car, by its nature, is therefore a rivalrous resource. A non rivalrous resource, for example, is the air we breath. Air is so abundant and all-around that conflicts over the use of it do not arise. We can freely breathe and breath as much as we want. Air is therefor not rivalrous but superabundant. People steal cars, but not air. Most goods of course are not air-like. And so, it’s only fair to ask the golden question of political philosophy… How should such conflicts be resolved?

At the most basic level, humans have two options:

  1. Fight for control.
  2. Talk it over.

Now, if one chooses to engage in violence against his wife over the use of a car, the choice has been made and option 1 was selected. This is the “animal like” choice, as non-human animals are mostly incapable of resolving conflicts in other ways. Only if the parties choose to avoid violence and instead engage in discourse to resolve their dispute, the question of what is justified arises. The parties are then engaged in an interaction. A goal oriented peaceful corporation, which we can now praxeologicly examine.

Trade is said to be mutually beneficial because by choosing  to trade both willful participants demonstrate their common preference for the post-trade state of affairs over the pre-trade state of affairs. Otherwise they wouldn’t have voluntarily traded. Underling every voluntary corporation is some common goal… So, lets reflect  on what goal is implied by engaging in argumentation as means to resolve a conflict. The implied goal is of course option 2. The participants prefer to resolve their dispute peacefully, without the threat of force.

Let’s put it in formal terms: Violence-aversion, i.e achieving peaceful conflict resolution, is the presupposition or demonstrated preference of the argument participants. The act of Argumentation, presupposes the basic norm of peaceful conflict resolution. Physically speaking, an actor engages in argumentation by using his body to express a proposition (i.e by moving his mouth, hands, blinking morse code, some combination of those, ext.). An argument is nothing but an exchange of verbal propositions. Thereby, it is by the very act of expressing a proposition that one demonstrates his preference to resolve the given conflict without the use violence.

But then you see, professor Hans Hermann-Hoppe asks, what if the actual content of your proposition is in direct contradiction with what is implied by the act of expressing it (the demonstrated presupposition of argumentation)? That is, what if the content of your proposition is something like- “I don’t care about what you have to say, violence is the only way to resolve disputes…”?

In philosophy propositions that contradict what is directly implied by the very act of expressing them are called performative contradictions. For example propositions like “I am currently dead”, or “I can’t express arguments”  are performative contradictions. An attempt to argue them is just by itself contradictory. The very action of proposing them implies they are false… A participant who is engaged in argumentation and argues for violence is thus also engaged in such a performative contradiction. If argumentation implies “option 2” it’s contradictory to argue for option 1. This is all almost a matter of semantics.

Contemplating such propositions will make their incoherence even clearer. What point is there to argue with someone who openly states the result of the argument is of no interest to him? In effect that argumentation has no bearing on how the conflict should be actually bee resolved.  And so, the presupposition of argumentation- violence-free conflict resolution, cannot logically be argued against (denied).

From this first presupposition we can now derive other, directly derived presuppositions, which also cannot be logically denied. For example, it is presupposed in argumentation that- “Claims need justification”. Trying to deny this (arguing “I don’t need to justify claims I make…”) contradicts the underling first presupposition of achieving conflict resolution based on non-violent (i.e verbal means). Because if anyone can just claim whatever nonsense he wants, with no need to provide justification, the dispute cannot be peacefully resolved on the basis of nothing but claims. So we can also deduce that “Claims need to be justified” is another, derived, presupposition of argumentation. “Language is capable of meaning” is another. We can see now that argumentation is not a bunch of random, free floating statements, but a practical affair with guiding underling presuppositions which cannot just be rationally denied.

So, now it is only sensible to ask, which other propositions (specifically which moral, normative propositions) can be consistently expressed without contradiction, in order to resolve a conflict? The answer is simple: It depends on the conflict… To explain, let’s first examine a situation where the conflict is over the use of the most important and basic resource human beings have: the humane body. That is, imagine a conflict where one person wants to put another person’s body to some use, but that other person has, say, a headache at the moment. Now, let’s suppose both want to avoid violence and so begin to argue the matter at hand.

Will one of them be consistent with the aforementioned presuppositions of argumentation if he argues “I can use your body as my own, because you are black and I am white”? or maybe “I can use your body because my eyes are green and your eyes are blue”? The answer is he wouldn’t. This is since both participants are moral agents fully capable of reasoning and discourse, and then, since it is presupposed that “Claims need to be justified” an arbitrary, deniable, moral distinction between them, by the very nature of being an arbitrary distinction, cannot be justified. That is, a person with blue eyes can coherently deny such a claim with no implied contradiction (or just as well assert the opposite proposition- “I can use your body because my eyes are blue and your eyes are green”). Acceptance of a norm containing in it such a subjective, arbitrary distinction is then also arbitrary. Claims need to be justified”, and thus arguing an arbitrary norm contradicts a presupposition of argumentation, trapping the arguer in a performative contradiction.

In general slavery norms are therefor illogical, inconsistent propositions. And so since arguing arbitrary assertions is logically to be avoided, only universalizeble “same for all” norms can in principle be justified. It does not follow that all such universal norms are automatically justified, among them the universal norm- “Everyone should hug every kitten they see”, or “Everyone should get drunk every morning”. It only means that a norm which is not universal (i.e. particularistic) is by its very nature, a-priori, unjustified and inconsistent with the basic presuppositions of argumentation.

Slavery norms aside, by examining which universal norms can be used for resolving conflicts over a body, we can now show that only the norm “Every person owns its own body” can be justified in argumentation. This is because any other universal norm simply does not justify a person acting- i.e using his body at all. Partial ownership of body (every person having an equal very small share in every other person) nor a complete lack of ownership over body, justify an actor’s own independent choice to move, if only to engage in argumentation (Read in further detail here on this blog or read Murry Rothbard original discussion of this here). Thus, any non-self ownership universal propositions are contradicted by the very act of proposing them.

Not bad! We have now shown that argumentation must presuppose each person owns its own body. The denial of this is a performative contradiction. But wait… before we can go and calmly smoke whatever we want, knowing we justifiably own our body, we must first also deal with the question of conflicts over external, rivalrous resources. That’s what we’ll be smoking.

A norm used to resolve conflicts over external resources must essentially match (i.e link) between a resource and its owner. Such a link can be defined in a subjective manner (e.g. “whomever wants more the resource is its owner”, or “whomever noticed first the resource  is its owner” ext.) or an objective manner, which will be discussed. A subjective norm is essentially nothing more than a verbal assertion of ownership (“I claim that I want it more, and therefore it is mine”). The other party could just as easily (and consistently) claim the contrary (“You are wrong, I want it more, and therefore it is mine”). No one can justify his claim, that is, objectively demonstrate his claim of ownership is correct, based on a subjective norm. Therefore holding such a subjective norm is inconsistent with the presuppositions of argumentation, and therefore contradictory.

As for an objective norm, unlike your body, which is naturally objectively linked to you just by virtue of your direct control over it and your use of it in argumentation, external resources are by default not objectively linked to anyone. To establish an objective link to a resource (what Emanuel Kant termed intersubjectively ascertainable) one must first act upon the resource to physically create a clear and evident link. As John Lock termed it- by “mixing ones labor” with it. This established link can than be used (by the actor or by others) to objectively resolve or avoid conflicts. An actor can put an apple in his pocket, or he can erect a nice white picket fence (If the rivalrous resource is land). This act is called Homesteading or appropriation. Homesteading creates an objective, intersubjectively ascertainable link to a resource*. No one can then justifiably use a homesteaded resource as this would disregard the prior objective link to it, thereby adopting some invalid subjective norm. If you have such a claim, you can now go and smoke…

Light it up, don’t be shy. We have now shown that the Non-Aggression Principle (A.K.A. NAP) is presupposed in every argument, and so only it can logically be justified. Initiation of violence cannot. We have now finally, after much hardship, proved that socialists are irrational! Yeeeha! Wait… didn’t we know that? Never mind, moving on…

So this was the ultimate proof of the freedom philosophy, which is implied in the very act of peacefully resolving disputes, as the civilized human beings we so often are not. As mentioned, this argument was formulated by Hans Hermann Hoppe during 1988.

In the next (short) post, I will deal with a few misunderstandings I encountered about this argument. Meantime, have a blast. Live Free. Tu ne cede malis.

UPDATE: Post here.


* Note that since such a link has been artificially created, it can also be disowned, redirected ext. And so one can also trade with others those resources he labored to homestead. Read more here (sec. “Property in External Things”).

** Note that the ownership extent of what homesteading grants is derived from it’s pupose- deciding who can justly act upon a resource. And thus Rothbard introduces the concept of relevant technological unit (RTU). Read here.

*** Resources about Argumentation ethics (It is recomended to also read Hoppe’s presentation of the argument and Hoppe’s explanation of the problem of social order, further discussing scarcity).

6 Responses to “Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics: A User Friendly, Neighborly Introduction”

  1. […] Lets review two common objections to the argument in the previous post. […]

  2. […] As Hoppe noticed, moral propositions are only really relevant in a certain context, come to think about it –  in the context of discourse. And in this context of action, given the action axiom, some norms are already implied. […]

  3. […] often hear that Argumentation Ethics (explained here) is guilty of equivocation. When I ask why, I’m told that since AE deduces self-ownership […]

  4. […] then engaged in an interaction. A goal oriented peaceful corporation, which we can now examine. Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics: A User Friendly, Neighborly Introduction | Dismal Stories Here is another which I think does a greate job. Understanding Universally Preferable […]

  5. […] אומלל, Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics: A User Friendly, Neighborly Introduction, (Dec. 25, […]

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