Friday Philosophy

Ludwig von Mises on Ethics

Ludwig von Mises maintains that there are two ways of looking at ethics: one is that ethics is about how each person can satisfy his personal preferences, and the other is that there is an objective law that dictates what people ought to do. Mises places almost all ethical systems except for utilitarianism, which he sometimes call eudaemonism, in the latter camp. These systems include natural law ethics, divine command ethics, and Kantian ethics. Natural law ethics says that human beings have a certain nature or essence that dictates what they ought to do. Divine command ethics says that God dictates rules that people are required to follow. Kantian ethics says that just by thinking about reason, we can know that there are moral imperatives (i.e., things you are required to do).

Here is a passage from Mises’s book Socialism that states his opinion:

Of course one cannot discuss this point with the ethical a priori-ist or the intuitionist. Those who uphold the Moral as ultimate fact, and who rule out scientific examination of its elements by referring to a transcendental origin, will never be able to agree with those who are dragging down the concept of Right into the dust of scientific analysis. Ethical ideas of duty and conscience demand nothing less than the blindest submission. A priori ethics, claiming unconditional validity for its norms, approaches all earthly relations from the outside and aims at transmuting them into its own form with no concern whatever for the consequences. Fiat iustitia, pereat mundus is its motto, and it is when it becomes honestly indignant about the eternally misunderstood plea, “the end justifies the means”, that it is most sincere. (emphasis in original)

To understand Mises’s position on ethics, it is essential to bear in mind that he is a psychological hedonist. He thinks everyone is always motivated by pleasure and pain. We seek pleasure and avoid pain.

You might object that this is obviously false. Don’t we do things very frequently like go on restrictive diets, exercise, study subjects that aren’t fun, and so on? How can Mises then claim that we are always motivated by pleasure?

Mises’s answer is that even though we are motivated by pleasure and pain, it doesn’t follow that we are motivated by what will give us the most pleasure, or the least pain, at a given moment. We can be motivated by our wish for the most pleasure, or the least pain, over a long period of time. Doing things that are unpleasant now can result in more pleasure for us in the long run.

Another point essential to understanding Mises is that when he talks about “pleasure” and “pain,” this isn’t confined to physical sensations. Mises is talking about whatever we prefer and whatever we are averse to. We aim to satisfy our preferences and to remove “felt uneasiness.”

Mises says:

We call contentment or satisfaction that state of a human being which does not and cannot result in any action. Acting man is eager to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory. His mind imagines conditions which suit him better, and his action aims at bringing about this desired state. The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness.

Mises puts the point in this way:

For liberal social theory proves that each single man sees in all others, first of all, only means to the realization of his purposes, while he himself is to all others a means to the realization of their purposes; that finally, by this reciprocal action, in which each is simultaneously means and end, the highest aim of social life is attained—the achievement of a better existence for everyone. As society is only possible if everyone, while living his own life, at the same time helps others to live, if every individual is simultaneously means and end; if each individual’s well-being is simultaneously the condition necessary to the well-being of the others, it is evident that the contrast between I and thou, means and end, automatically is overcome.

This is just what Mises denied. According to him, all laws of nature are just descriptions of how nature operates. They don’t say that nature “ought” to act in one way or another. If you said that, you would imply that nature might not act that way—it should act that way, but maybe it won’t.

Reason can’t tell you what you ought to want, but it has an instrumental role to play. It can tell people, “If you want to get the most long-run pleasure, you ought to support social cooperation in the free market.” However, doesn’t this just reintroduce “ought,” in this case as part of a hypothetical? If Mises rules out laws about what people ought to do, is he guilty of just the error he condemns?

I do not think that he is. We can simply reword the hypothetical to read, “Social cooperation through the free market increases everyone’s long-run pleasure.” In that way, the strict separation between descriptive and normative judgments is preserved.

When Mises says that the free market works better than alternative systems, then he is making a strictly scientific statement, not a subjective “value judgment.”

We can now identify the last step in Mises’s argument. This is that almost everyone does in fact want an abundance of material goods for a long period of time. People who don’t have this preference will tend to die out. Thus, the judgment that “the free market will best satisfy the preferences of almost everybody” is not a normative statement—in his view, a subjective judgment—but an objective truth.

Thus, we see how Mises tries to remain within the strict limits of science when he says that the free market enables human beings to get what they want.

I’d like to mention a final objection one might raise to Mises’s position about ethics. When he says—commenting on asceticism—that “the enticement of life triumphs,” isn’t he saying that it’s part of human nature to want to live? In that case, isn’t he a supporter of natural law, despite his repeated opposition to natural law theories of ethics?

Once again, he can escape the objection. Mises is not saying that people ought to act in accord with the life instinct but that they in fact do so. He is not making an ultimate “ought” judgment but is instead keeping within the bounds of science.

In conclusion, I have tried to show that Mises has a well-developed conception of ethics that merits our careful attention. That is a normative judgment of my own but, because I don’t think that all normative judgments are subjective, a judgment that I claim is objectively true.

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