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Argumentation Ethics: some brief notes on the concept


Tags Philosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

Humans have discovered the ethics of liberty over and over again throughout history. Of course, an ethical system for rational animals has to take account of the dynamic aspects of conflict, and not just zero sum scenarios. All other species in the world are not characterized after a vigorous a) capability and b) need, for owning and creating property. Men profit from a more advanced division of labor, whereas the animals and plants suffer when they compete for scare resources, since they cannot create more or just conceive of any alternatives for large numbers. The need for property is now evident. But how are we to validate the justice behind property and -of course- its allocation?

The best answer available to us (yet) is Hoppe's development of Habermas-Apel's concept of discourse or communicative ethics. Those German thinkers have written about it to justify democracy and even dialog for the sake of dialog. Hoppe, a student of Habermas and a scholar on both, took the concept one step beyond. Thus, we can properly speak of Hoppe's Argumentation Ethics.

Prof. Hoppe studied and applied the epistemological breakthrough that Ludwig von Mises provided as an answer to Kant's dilemma: how are categories of the mind supposed to fit reality. Is it that humans create reality or at least that there is no reality but our mind makes sense (arbitrarily) of a senseless cosmos? Is it that reality created the human mind, and because of that human mind can understand reality around him?

The last position fits perfectly with what Neurobiology teaches us about the human brain. Our brain is not, by any means, a tabula rasa. We are born with a brain (mind) that is the result of millions of years of evolution, and even if free will is a fact (which it is), we still have analogical processes that allow us to understand concepts which are key to our survival.

One of those concepts is the concept of property. Intuitively or rationally, men have always known that property homesteaded (by mixing labor with a resource) or created, belongs to the actor. But a contract to homestead a forest implies understanding more than meets the eye: the capitalist is the homesteader, and the employees just play a limited role and accept to receive a reward for it from his capital fund. That someone now owns the forest after some labor exerted over it, may be intuitive to some point. What cannot be is the fact that the capitalist existed, since he hired them over the phone and was not present to the eye of the natives in the zone. Those subtle categories of action (contract, fraud, wages) and the fact of -inevitably- limited information in an individual brain (no human being is omniscient, although I couldn't know, since I am not and so I have to deal with categories and generalizations). Those categories require reflection upon the meaning of human action, and in this case, human relations. The capitalist-wage earner relation is not self-evident, as we see. But neither is property. From the simplest to the most advanced form of property (say, company stocks or insurance policies), the human mind has to reflect upon basic categories of action in order to establish the proper relation between owner and property.

What about the human body? Nature (before us, that is) never had to deal with organ donation or robbery. Donation implies contract through the will of the parts. Robbery implies just the opposite. In order to distinguish both to a degree that will satisfy the victim or a judge, proper ownership of body parts has to be established.

But it is action what creates property around us. Isn't action capable of determining property of ourselves too? A right to self-determination embodied (yes, literally) on self-ownership?

Argumentation as action: the act of engaging in an argument is certainly revealing of some facts. First of all, we are willingly interacting in a peaceful way with the interlocutor. Argument, after all, is not any form of talking: it implies at least two people engaging voluntarily and freely in it. A speech to the slaves in a galley may not be an argument although it certainly is communication, of course. But if we talk about ethics, we are talking about principles equally valid (the universalizability of rights is a vital part of its definition, as a table has to hold things from falling to the ground in order to be a table) for all humans in the same situation.

Second, then, some ethical principles are revealed in the course of argumentation. One of them is contract, of course (and this is not tautological by any means, just keep in mind the galley example). But contract requires property. So denying self-ownership to the parts, would be denying the whole argumentation possibility. And yet, the one denying it would be engaging in some sort of argument if he was free to do it or not from the start. So in this case, we have a clear case of proof by contradiction of the opposite.

Human beings have a right to own themselves, as the act of argumentation clearly shows: nobody else can have command of their own bodies.

In sum, Hans-Hermann Hoppe has discovered and developed a system of rights that is grounded on the fact that humans act, that humans have a mind that is analogical to its circundating reality and that does not require an "is-ought" duality in order to show us the proper ethical system for rational animals. We are the rightful owners of our bodies and of property we create through the use of our minds, ourselves or through contract. If slaves in a galley can dream of freedom in the near future, so can citizens of an statist world. Argumentation Ethics provides us with a template based on facts of how to untangle, understand and finally free a world ridden with contradition and denial of justice.

Stephan Kinsella is an attorney in Houston, director of the Center for the Study of Innovative Freedom, and editor of Libertarian Papers.

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