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Argumentation Ethics and Liberty: A Concise Guide

May 27, 2011

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Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe burst onto the Austrolibertarian scene in the late 1980s, when he moved to the United States to study under and work with his mentor Murray Rothbard. Since his arrival, Professor Hoppe has produced a steady stream of pioneering contributions to economic and libertarian theory. A key contribution of Professor Hoppe is his provocative "argumentation-ethics" defense of libertarian rights.

In setting the stage, Hoppe first observes that the standard natural-rights argument is lacking:

It has been a common quarrel with the natural rights position, even on the part of sympathetic readers, that the concept of human nature is far "too diffuse and varied to provide a determinate set of contents of natural law." Furthermore, its description of rationality is equally ambiguous in that it does not seem to distinguish between the role of reason in establishing empirical laws of nature on the one hand and normative laws of human conduct on the other. (The Economics and Ethics of Private Property [EEPP], p. 313; also A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism [TSC], p. 156n118)

Hoppe's solution is to focus on the nature of argumentation instead of action in general:

The praxeological approach solves this problem by recognizing that it is not the wider concept of human nature but the narrower one of propositional exchanges and argumentation which must serve as the starting point in deriving an ethic. (EEPP, p. 345)

Here he draws on the work of his PhD advisor, the famous European philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and fellow German philosopher Karl-Otto Apel, who had developed a theory of "discourse ethics" or "argumentation ethics." As Hoppe explains this basic approach,

any truth claim, the claim connected with any proposition that it is true, objective or valid (all terms used synonymously here), is and must be raised and settled in the course of an argumentation. Since it cannot be disputed that this is so (one cannot communicate and argue that one cannot communicate and argue), and since it must be assumed that everyone knows what it means to claim something to be true (one cannot deny this statement without claiming its negation to be true), this very fact has been aptly called "the a priori of communication and argumentation." (EEPP, p. 314)

That is, there are certain norms presupposed by the very activity of arguing. Apel and Habermas go on to argue that the ethics presupposed as legitimate by discourse as such justify the standard set of soft-socialist policies. But Hoppe, while recognizing the value of the basic approach, rejected their application of this theory and socialist conclusions. Instead, Hoppe took what was valuable in the Apel-Habermas approach and melded it with Misesian-Rothbardian insights to provide a praxeological-discourse-ethics twist on the standard natural-law defense of rights.

In essence, Hoppe's view is that argumentation, or discourse, is by its nature a conflict-free way of interacting, which requires individual control of scarce resources. In genuine discourse, the parties try to persuade each other by the force of their argument, not by actual force:

Argumentation is a conflict-free way of interacting. Not in the sense that there is always agreement on the things said, but in the sense that as long as argumentation is in progress it is always possible to agree at least on the fact that there is disagreement about the validity of what has been said. And this is to say nothing else than that a mutual recognition of each person's exclusive control over his own body must be presupposed as long as there is argumentation (note again, that it is impossible to deny this and claim this denial to be true without implicitly having to admit its truth). (TSC, p. 158)

Thus, self-ownership is presupposed by argumentation. Hoppe then shows that argumentation also presupposes the right to own homesteaded scarce resources as well. The basic idea here is that the body is "the prototype of a scarce good for the use of which property rights, i.e., rights of exclusive ownership, somehow have to be established, in order to avoid clashes" (TSC, p. 19). As Hoppe explains,

The compatibility of this principle with that of nonaggression can be demonstrated by means of an argumentum a contrario. First, it should be noted that if no one had the right to acquire and control anything except his own body … then we would all cease to exist and the problem of the justification of normative statements … simply would not exist. The existence of this problem is only possible because we are alive, and our existence is due to the fact that we do not, indeed cannot, accept a norm outlawing property in other scarce goods next and in addition to that of one's physical body. Hence, the right to acquire such goods must be assumed to exist. (TSC, p. 161)

Hoppe then goes on to show, following Rothbardian logic,[1] that the only ownership rule that is compatible with self-ownership and the presuppositions of discourse, is the Lockean original-appropriation rule (TSC, pp. 160–69). In his book reviewDownload PDF of Man, Economy, and Liberty: Essays in Honor of Murray N. Rothbard (Walter Block and Llewellyn H.Rockwell, Jr., eds., Mises Institute, 1988), Hoppe pithily summarizes his argumentation-ethics approach (elaborated in further detail in his own chapter in the volume) as follows:

by engaging in discussions about welfare criteria that may or may not end up in agreement, and instead result in a mere agreement on the fact of continuing disagreements — as in any intellectual enterprise — an actor invariably demonstrates a specific preference for the first-use-first-own rule of property acquisition as his ultimate welfare criterion: without it no one could independently act and say anything at any time, and no one else could act independently at the same time and agree or disagree independently with whatever had been initially said or proposed. It is the recognition of the homesteading principle which makes intellectual pursuits, i.e., the independent evaluation of propositions and truth claims, possible. And by virtue of engaging in such pursuits, i.e., by virtue of being an "intellectual" one demonstrates the validity of the homesteading principle as the ultimate rational welfare criterion. (emphasis added)

Hoppe also gives credit to Rothbard for recognizing, in a brief passage, the insights that Hoppe later built on more systematically:

This defense of private property is essentially also Rothbard's. In spite of his formal allegiance to the natural rights tradition Rothbard, in what I consider his most crucial argument in defense of a private property ethic, not only chooses essentially the same starting point — argumentation — but also gives a justification by means of a priori reasoning almost identical to the one just developed. To prove the point I can do no better than simply quote: "Now, any person participating in any sort of discussion, including one on values, is, by virtue of so participating, alive and affirming life. For if he were really opposed to life he would have no business continuing to be alive. Hence, the supposed opponent of life is really affirming it in the very process of discussion, and hence the preservation and furtherance of one's life takes on the stature of an incontestable axiom." (EEPP, p. 321–22, quoting Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, p. 32)

Not surprisingly, when Hoppe's argumentation ethics appeared in the late 1980s, e.g. in a Liberty symposium and other publications,[2] Rothbard was excited by this new approach:

In a dazzling breakthrough for political philosophy in general and for libertarianism in particular, he has managed to transcend the famous is/ought, fact/value dichotomy that has plagued philosophy since the days of the scholastics, and that had brought modern libertarianism into a tiresome deadlock. Not only that: Hans Hoppe has managed to establish the case for anarcho-capitalist-Lockean rights in an unprecedentedly hard-core manner, one that makes my own natural law/natural rights position seem almost wimpy in comparison.[3]

Tantalizingly, Rothbard concludes his piece,

A future research program for Hoppe and other libertarian philosophers would be (a) to see how far axiomatics can be extended into other spheres of ethics, or (b) to see if and how this axiomatic could be integrated into the standard natural law approach. These questions provide fascinating philosophical opportunities. Hoppe has lifted the American movement out of decades of sterile debate and deadlock, and provided us a route for future development of the libertarian discipline.

Mises Academy: Stephan Kinsella teaches The Social Theory of Hoppe

Since the advent of Hoppe's breakthrough theory of rights, it has continued to gain attention and adherents (and controversy). I based my own, related "estoppel" theory of libertarian rights on Hoppe's work starting in 1991 (see, e.g., "Punishment and Proportionality: The Estoppel Approach," 1996),Download PDF and ended up writing a detailed survey of related theories in "New Rationalist Directions in Libertarian Rights Theory" (1996).Download PDF In the meantime, other work has built on Hoppe's monumental rights theory, so much so that I've been tempted to collect material for an "argumentation-ethics reader."

Because of logistic, copyright, and other issues, I've not completed this project yet, but as most of these pieces are online, I thought it would make sense to provide a skeletal outline, with links where available, of such a book. It is below.[4] Hoppe's argumentation ethics and other important economic, philosophical, and political works are will be discussed in my upcoming Mises Academy course The Social Theory of Hoppe.

    Discourse Ethics and Liberty: A Skeletal Ebook

    Part One: Overview

  1. Introduction: "New Rationalist Directions in Libertarian Rights Theory," by Stephan KinsellaDownload PDF

  2. "Discourse Ethics" (Wikipedia)

  3. Part Two: Hoppe's Argumentation Ethics

  4. Precursors to Hoppe: "Is the Ethics of the Ideal Communication Community a Utopia? On the Relationship between Ethics, Utopia, and the Critique of Utopia," by Karl-Otto ApelDownload PDF

  5. "From the Economics of Laissez Faire to the Ethics of Libertarianism," by Hans-Hermann Hoppe

  6. "The Justice of Economic Efficiency," by Hoppe

  7. "On the Ultimate Justification of the Ethics of Private Property," by Hoppe

  8. "Appendix: Four Critical Replies," by Hoppe

  9. Part Three: Commentary on and Extensions of Hoppe's Argumentation Ethics

  10. "Beyond Is and Ought," by Murray N. Rothard

  11. "Hoppephobia," by Rothbard

  12. "Defending Argumentation Ethics: Reply to Murphy & Callahan," by Stephan Kinsella

  13. "Argumentation Ethics and The Philosophy of Freedom," by Frank Van Dun

  14. "Revisiting Argumentation Ethics," by Kinsella

  15. "Hülsmann on Argumentation Ethics," by Kinsella

  16. "The A Priori Foundations of Property Economics," by Guido HülsmannDownload PDF

  17. "Praxeology, Economics, and Law: Issues and Implications," by Larry SechrestDownload PDF

  18. "A Reply to the Current Critiques Formulated Against Hoppe's Argumentation Ethics," by Marian Eabrasu

  19. "Hopp(e)ing Onto New Ground: A Rothbardian Proposal for Thomistic Natural Law as the Basis for Hans-Hermann Hoppe's Praxeological Defense of Private Property," by Jude Chua Soo MengDownload PDF

  20. Part Four: Other and Related Approaches to Discourse Ethics

  21. "Punishment and Proportionality: The Estoppel Approach," by KinsellaDownload PDF

  22. "The Basis and Content of Human Rights," by Alan Gewirth

  23. "Ordering Rights Consistently: Or, What We Do and Do Not Have Rights To," by Roger Pilon

  24. "A Theory of Rights: Toward Limited Government," by Pilon

  25. "Mises and Argumentation Ethics," by Kinsella

  26. "Habermas: A Critical Approach," by Jeremy ShearmurDownload PDF

  27. "Economics and the Limits of Value-Free Science," by Van DunDownload PDF

  28. "On the Philosophy of Argument and the Logic of Common Morality," by Van DunDownload PDF

  29. "Individualism and Political Dialogue," by Tibor R. MachanDownload PDF

  30. Selections from "The Logic of Liberty," by G.B. MadisonDownload PDF

  31. "Political Legitimacy and Discourse Ethics," by Douglas B. Rasmussen

  32. "Rights, Robinson Crusoe, and Friday," by Michaël Bauwens

  33. Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, by Stefan Molyneux

  34. "From Dialogue Rights to Property Rights: Foundations for Hayek's Legal Theory," by Jeremy ShearmurDownload PDF


[1] See Rothbard's article "Justice and Property Rights." This piece was published in two forms in 1974: first, in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays (available online here) and also in The Logic of Action One:

we have two mutually exclusive claimants to the ownership of the hoop. If the economist agrees to endorse only Z's sale of the hoop, then he is implicitly agreeing that Z has the just, and Y the unjust, claim to the hoop. And even if he continues to endorse the sale by Y, then he is implicitly maintaining another theory of property titles: namely, that theft is justified. Whichever way he decides, the economist cannot escape a judgment, a theory of justice in the ownership of property.

… Let us consider the first principle: the right to self-ownership. This principle asserts the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to "own" his own body; that is, to control that body free of coercive interference. Since the nature of man is such that each individual must use his mind to learn about himself and the world, to select values, and to choose ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives each man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation.

Consider, then, the alternatives — the consequences of denying each man the right to own his own person. There are only two alternatives: either

  1. a certain class of people, A, have the right to own another class, B; or

  2. everyone has the right to own his equal quota share of everyone else.

The first alternative implies that, while class A deserves the rights of being human, class B is in reality subhuman and, therefore, deserves no such rights. But since they are indeed human beings, the first alternative contradicts itself in denying natural human rights to one set of humans. Moreover, allowing class A to own class B means that the former is allowed to exploit and, therefore, to live parasitically at the expense of the latter; but, as economics can tell us, this parasitism itself violates the basic economic requirement for human survival: production and exchange.

The second alternative, which we might call "participatory communalism" or "communism," holds that every man should have the right to own his equal quotal share of everyone else. If there are three billion people in the world, then everyone has the right to own one-three-billionth of every other person. In the first place, this ideal itself rests upon an absurdity — proclaiming that every man is entitled to own a part of everyone else and yet is not entitled to own himself. Second, we can picture the viability of such a world — a world in which no man is free to take any action whatever without prior approval or indeed command by everyone else in society. It should be clear that in that sort of "communist" world, no one would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly perish.

… Let us now turn to the more complex case of property in material objects. For even if every man has the right to self-ownership, people are not floating wraiths; they are not self-subsistent entities; they can only survive and flourish by grappling with the earth around them. They must, for example, stand on land areas; they must also, in order to survive, transform the resources given by nature into "consumer goods," into objects more suitable for their use and consumption. Food must be grown and eaten, minerals must be mined and then transformed into capital, and finally into useful consumer goods, etc. Man, in other words, must own not only his own person, but also material objects for his control and use.

[2] Hoppe, "The Ultimate Justification of the Private Property Ethic," Liberty (September 1988); "The Justice of Economic Efficiency,"Download PDF Austrian Economics Newsletter, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Winter 1988); TSC, 1st ed. (1989), ch. 7.

[3] Rothbard, "Beyond Is and Ought," originally published in Liberty (Nov. 1988); see also Rothbard, "Hoppephobia." See also this Rothbard video commenting on Hoppe's argumentation ethics, May 1989, after the publication of Hoppe's TSC, which has comments by Rothbard echoing his positive comments in Liberty. See also this amusing anecdote by David Gordon where he recollects a joke Rothbard pulled on him about Hoppe's argumentation ethics: David Gordon Speaks with The Society of Libertarian Entrepreneurs (part 2).

[4] See also my blog posts "Revisiting Argumentation Ethics" and "Extreme Praxeology." My post "Quotes on the Logic of Liberty" contains a several insightful quotes from famous and libertarian thinkers complementary to Hoppe's themes and arguments.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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