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.

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As AE shows, since norms must be objectively derived from the praxeological grundnorm of peaceful conflict resolution, arbitrary particularistic moral distinctions are unattainable positions. The intuition of slavery norms being inconsistent with the goal of peaceful conflict resolution is indeed grounded in the nature of discourse.

Normative distinctions based on skin-color, height or sexual preference are trivially arbitrary, as people of any skin-color, height or sexual preference can deny them in argument with no implied contradiction. Such a distinction has nothing to do with their ability to respect the rights of others, and implied in that, to resolve conflicts in discourse. They are fully capable moral agents.

However, what about the removal of moral distinctions, that is, broadening the category of moral agents to include animals, for instance? It can be shown that this is not the removal of a moral categorical distinction, but  in fact the introduction of one. It is because animals are cognitively “blind” to the notion of rights and the rights of others; they cannot then be logically held accountable for committing rights violations any more than a blind man can logically be punished for bumping into someone, after taking all possible precautions.  Therefore, to claim that the rights of animals should be respected by man is not to claim that animals are equal to man, but rather that animals are superior to man. Man will be punished for spitting in the face of a lama, but the lama will not be punished for spitting at his*. (*Again, to argue the lama should be punished is a clear reductio ad-absurdum)

Abortions

Abortion poses a different yet very much related question.

As far as I can see, every approach which recognizes a two-celled fetus to be a rights entitled moral agent must also completely appose abortions. The fetus was put in its current hazardous situation inside the mother’s womb by the direct actions of its parents, and so they have a moral responsibility not to kill him. Such approaches, however, are more reminiscent of the old unfounded “natural rights” approach to libertarian ethics, and are in my view inconsistent with the presuppositions of argumentation.

A fetus has been claimed to be comparable to a sleeping man. The fetus, like a sleeping man will in the future become an actor, “waking up”. By this analogy of course a sleeping man does not lose ownership of his body during sleep. This is of nothing special; as a person similarly does not lose ownership of his house while he’s away. Ownership claims must be grounded in past events, which can be known, not in future events. The future is inherently uncertain. A valid AE ownership claim must of course also be traceable to a moral agent. So, given that a fetus will most likely become a moral agent, can he be considered a sleeping man?

Since a fetus lacks the cognitive ability to respect rights, he is most certainly not currently a moral agent. However, unlike ownership over the body of a sleeping man, the body-ownership of a fetus cannot be traced to a moral agent other than his mother (and maybe father, to a lesser extent). The moral agent the fetus will presumably become, and has yet to come to existence is a late-comer with regards to the mother. Such a hypothetical moral agent never showed himself to be capable of argumentation, nor has appropriated anything. No valid rule of ownership can assign ownership to a moral agent who has yet to come into existence.

The implications of relying on nothing but cognitive ability to define moral categories, while in and of itself somewhat intuitive, can lead to some non-intuitive conclusions. The fact animals cannot logically be regarded as moral agents legalizes not only killing and eating them, but also gruesomely torturing them for no apparent reason. While such an act may be socially appalling, AE shows that it does not justify the use of violence against the torturer. Similarly the fact that a fetus is not a moral agent not only allows abortions during the entire term of pregnancy but also during the time the baby is still extremely young. This of course also includes genital mutilation also known as circumcision. While such acts are deemed discussing, they only justify the use of the powerful social sanctions a free-society will surely have in order to prevent their occurrence.

I will also note that a child does not go from having no rights to being a full moral agent in an instant. As a baby grows older and develops some cognitive ability to respect the rights of others, he also gradually gains some rights for himself. Once the child has shown he is able to fully respect the rights of others and maturely resolve disputes, he must be considered full moral agent, and has all the rights of a grownup himself.

Lets review two common objections to the argument in the previous post.

First-

When people engage in argument they don’t use their body, but rather parts of their body. They use the mouth, or the hands, but they don’t use their kidney! Therefor, engaging in argumentation does not imply participants recognize each other’s right to own their kidney, only the parts used for discourse.

In his book Theory of Socialism and Capitalism Hoppe examines various presuppositions of discourse (I didn’t have room to mention all in the previous post). One such presupposition is that language is capable of meaning, that is. words have an objective interpretation both parties can recognize. This of course is assumed by anyone who chooses to speak to someone else. Another such presupposition is that objects have distinct boundries. That is, objects have boundaries which can be recognized by both parties. If I hold a ball it is distinct from the air around it. The boundary of the ball is not arbitrary. I can also say you are distinct from me, we are also separateobjects. To deny this presupposition is the say the world is one big moosh. Nothing is distinct. No meaningful discourse can take place. When the following objection is raised, i.e. that the “mouth” is distinct from the body, what objective border is refered? Which specific line separates the mouth from the rest of the body? Such a line must probably dissect an artery at some point, or otherwise simply pass through flesh, blood vessels ext. To say that the “mouth” or the “hand” are distinct from the body, even the speaker’s kidney, is to deny the universe has any meaning at all.

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Second-

What you say may be relevant for the actual participants in argument, but it is not relevant to a third party. When I’m speaking to you, I can’t logically say I own you body, but, I can say I own someone else’s body with no contradiction. Imagine two slave owners talking to each other.

You must remember, we are talking about dispute resolution. When one say’s “I own someone’s body” he is really saying, I prefer unjustified violence to discourse in some cases. One cannot justify such a claim in an argument, which presupposes  justification has nothing to do with force of violence (and everything to do with content). True, one can, however, babel as much as he wants, If he were to act on his beliefs he then could not justify his actions in argument. Actual violent actions can’t be justified, only the NAP.

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See more replies to critiques here.

“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.

Notes

* 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).