Liberalism, is-ought and non-cognitivism

April 3, 2012

Here in Israel there are (relatively) a lot of Objectivists. This is partly due to a historical coincidence (a professor named Moshe Kroy was a charismatic and mentally ill  early adopter), and partly due to Rand’s staunch black & white, pro-Israel, pro-war stances which are appealing to the Israeli right (the fact that she is Jewish doesn’t hurt).

While I think Mrs. Rand has done a large net good to the cause of liberty (drawing very smart people to libertarianism with her novels), she has also done a lot of harm. Along with Rothbard, whom she greatly influenced, they popularized an incredibly naive, extreme, and ridiculously untenable view of morality. This caused them to make bizarre moral claims about things like homosexuality (which Rand thought was “immoral” [m. 12:00]) or suicide (which both Rothbard and Rand thought was “immoral”).

Even worse, these ‘natural rights’ views came after far more sensible positions held by scholars such as Mises, Hayek and Hazlitt. This dogma has unfortunatly now come to plague and be associated with libertarianism as a whole and Austrian-rationalism as well. Such positions are however the epistemological equivalent of crack. It might make you feel high, but you’re making a fool of yourself.

Skip this paragraph if you understand and accept the is-ought dichotomy. In short, descriptive claims about reality, like the real objects they refer to, are of course objectively true or false. There is a tree there or there isn’t. However, moral claims, ought’s and should’s, refer to goals. Goals are not a part of objective reality. Therefor the truth status of normative claims is not, by any stretch of the imagination, that of descriptive statements. It doesn’t matter how natural or intuitive the “right to life” or “self-ownership” appear to you. It doesn’t matter how much you enjoy taking the moral high-grounds in arguments. You epistemologically can’t claim such statements are somehow objectively true. What we cannot speak about, we better pass over in silence.

Interestingly, and as has become apparent due to the beautiful breakthroughs of the last 30 years, this is not the end of the story, and we  should not all just become utilitarians.[1]

First, 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 specific context of action, i.e. given the action axiom, some norms are already implied.

This is by the way a common point of confusion to people who fail to understand his argument. Hoppe does not claim the NAP is objectively true in the normal sense of truth, just that it is a logical presupposition of a specific class of actions. Not even the most ardent moral skeptic would deny that given a certain norm as an assumption you can then “objectively” derive other norms (“you ought to smell good”->”you ought to bathe”). Hoppe claims only this, not violating any of the rules of epistemology.

Separately de-Jasay came up with a weaker yet valid and original argument by noting that such normative propositions are still constrained by the epidemiological rules of verifiablity. Since you cannot be called on to prove a negetive, it can be shown that “positive rights” claims are all nonsensical (I’ll publish a post about this argument).

Both of these are value-free, rigorous (and a bit hard to understand) arguments. They are however slowly becoming the basis of a much more powerful and modern libertarian philosophy. We don’t need simplistic views carried from the enlightenment. Let’s move beyound natural rights, easy-life arguments, and hold rigor above emotion.

Both Hoppe and de-Jasay have shown that a humble epistemological view, combined with a strict use of logic are more then enough to establish liberalism in a delightfully dogmatic, non compromising and historically unprecedented way. Until libertarianism won’t shake off some of the more naive views, it will not be able to establish itself in the remarkable historic position it now, uniquely, has the tools to attain.

 A is A.


3 Responses to “Liberalism, is-ought and non-cognitivism”

  1. Brent Says:

    Thank you. I’m glad that there are more defenders of AE out there than just Kinsella and Hoppe.


    “This caused them to make bizarre moral claims about things like homosexuality.”

    How’s that? There’s no evidence that Rand’s perspective was anything but a personal opinion.

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