Mises Review

Ethics as Social Science: The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation, by Leland Yeager

The Mises Review

In Defense of Misesian Ethics

Mises Review 7, No. 2 (Summer 2001)

Leland B. Yeager
Edward Elgar, 2001; viii + 334

To those who know Leland Yeager’s work, it will come as no surprise that he has given us an illuminating book, informed by careful thought and wide-ranging scholarship. Professor Yeager finds much of contemporary moral philosophy unsatisfactory, and he offers as an alternative view a variety of utilitarianism. In my opinion, his ambitious project does not entirely succeed; but we can learn much from his valiant attempt.

To philosophers tempted to dismiss him as an outsider, he has a ready response. Precisely his expertise as an economist fits him for the immense task he has undertaken. Yeager puts the point in this way: “Economists are professionally equipped to deal with ethics not only because they recognize what scarcity implies for interpersonal conflict and cooperation but also because they are alert to regularities and patterns in human affairs that may not have resulted from anyone’s deliberate intentions” (p. 9).

To understand our author’s case, one must first grasp his indictment of non-utilitarian ethics. As he sees matters, statements about what one ought to do cannot be derived from factual premises alone, as David Hume demonstrated long ago. Somewhere in one’s ethics, one must introduce one or more value judgments, and these do not admit of complete objectivity. Faced with this situation, many have been tempted to follow a barren path. They maintain that their value judgments rest on moral intuitions that convey an insight into reality. Such assertions arbitrarily claim authority for one’s own preferences.

Other philosophers seek to escape the threat of the subjective in another way. They allege that reason establishes certain ethical truths; one must acknowledge these, or be branded irrational. Professor Yeager finds all such claims unacceptable. Readers of The Mises Review will be interested to find that Murray Rothbard does not escape his far-flung condemnation; he too, Yeager avers, dogmatically insists on the truth of his own arbitrary judgments.

But has not our author painted himself into a corner? Ethics, he says, cannot do without value judgments, yet these cannot be demonstrated. You must either take them or leave them. If so, how can Yeager escape his own indictment? Will he not give us an ethic that rests on his subjective judgments? Why are his preferences less arbitrary than, say, Rothbard’s?

To this he has an ingenious answer. Value judgments cannot be avoided, but their use can be minimized. In particular, Yeager proposes what he deems a noncontroversial assertion as his fundamental value judgment: happiness is better than misery. “If pressed to explain why happiness and misery are intrinsically good and bad, most people (or I anyway) would merely say something to the effect that they just are; one cannot explain anything so obvious; one either sees it or does not” (p. 30).

Given this patently evident judgment, Professor Yeager is in business. All else in ethics stands before the bar of reason and fact. If Yeager has not been able totally to excise unsupported value judgments, his sweeping use of Occam’ s razor has rendered his problem manageable.

Let us grant the author his fundamental value judgment; what ethical guidance does he derive from it? He maintains: “one means to satisfying it [the happiness of individuals] is so pervasively requisite that it becomes almost a substitute criterion. It is social cooperation, which means a well-functioning society-the whole complex of institutions, practices, and precepts whereby people can interact peacefully and to mutual advantage” (p. 13). Our author has here been much influenced by Henry Hazlitt’s The Foundations of Morality, which is ”the best single book on ethics that I know of” (p. vii).

Here indeed is ethics in the style of Hazlitt and also of Mises, for whom the vital importance of social cooperation is a constant theme. Since social cooperation, as Mises has abundantly shown, can best take place in an unhampered market economy, we arrive at a result that I find appealing. Much of ethics consists in promoting the virtues and institutions that best fit the free market. 

When I read Yeager’s paean to social cooperation, I thought of an objection; but our author has forestalled me. He writes: “critics sometimes object . . . [that utilitarianism] fails to settle the controversy over abortion, or, one might add, over capital punishment. . . . Pondering such issues may require looking beyond the proxy moral criterion of social cooperation to more nearly direct effects on individual happiness and to particular facts of specific cases” (p. 293).

I read this passage with the shock of recognition. Several years ago in these pages, I raised this objection:  “Yeager clearly has identified a central element in ethics, but I doubt that the sum and substance of ethics can be derived from social cooperation alone. How, as an instance, does social cooperation bear on the rightness or wrongness of abortion?” (The Mises Review, 1995, p.21).

Professor Yeager has replied to my objection with characteristic directness. He need not appeal to social cooperation to decide the morality of abortion. That, after all, is only the proximate criterion of morality. The ultimate criterion is happiness, and that must be our resort, should the proximate criterion leave us in doubt.

As it seems to me, Professor Yeager has escaped my problem only to land himself in a more severe difficulty, one that strikes at the root of his ethical system. A great advantage of using social cooperation as a criterion is that one can often readily tell what measures will advance it. We can safely say, e.g., that, judged from the point of view of social cooperation, tariffs and minimum wage laws must be rejected.                                   

The situation changes completely if one directly brings to bear the ultimate criterion, happiness. By itself, the judgment “happiness is better than misery” tells us little. Whose happiness is to be considered? All human beings? All sentient creatures, as Bentham thought? Only the members of a certain race, nation, or class? Are we to take account only of individuals who now exist, or do future generations also matter? And what, by the way, is meant by happiness?

But, it may be said, I am here being grossly unfair. The issues I have raised are well known to Professor Yeager. Several of them he discusses in the book. Why should I suppose that the mere fact that these and other questions must be answered in some way or other poses a major difficulty for his approach?

The problem, I suggest, is this: Yeager wishes to cope with value judgments by minimizing their ungrounded use. Accordingly, he claims to assume only one fundamental value judgment--fundamental in the sense that it rests on no argument. Further, the fundamental principle he advances is one it seems impossible to reject: happiness is better than misery. Who but a misanthrope could cavil at this? 

But Yeager’ s bold tactic fails, because in order to answer the questions posed above, he must resort to additional value judgments, ungrounded in the fundamental judgment. Should one, in thinking about the morality of abortion, take account of the interests of both the mother and the fetus? It is no good to repeat, “Happiness is better than misery”; the question we need to answer is, whose happiness? Our answer as regards abortion may turn out to depend on whether fetuses are to be included among those whose happiness is to be taken into account. Nor will it do to allege that social science can tell us that society will be happier if our question is answered in a particular way. Once again, the question arises, who is to be included within society?                                                            

If, then, one fills out the fundamental value judgment in a way sufficient to answer controversial moral issues, one will find oneself saddled with a large number of other value judgments. Whether these are fundamental judgments, in the sense that they are not derived from more basic premises, I do not know. But Professor Yeager’ s fundamental value judgment does not suffice to ground them, and he then has not shown his approach to ethics less arbitrary than the intuitionist rivals he so readily condemns.

Professor Yeager, ever resourceful, has anticipated a criticism related to, but not identical with, my own. He considers the charge that utilitarianism is vacuous. ”Many critics . . . see the defensive maneuvers available to utilitarians as evidence of how feeble their position is in the first place. Utilitarianism is called plastic or vacuous or tautological, evading any challenge by transforming itself or wriggling away” (p. 227).                                                           

In response, Yeager lists a large number of ethical systems at variance with utilitarianism; his favored doctrine is not at all empty. Clearly, he is right: the fundamental value judgment, e.g., rules out the principle “maximize misery.” But this rejoinder does not suffice to turn my difficulty aside. I claim not that Yeager’s variety of utilitarianism is empty, but that it requires more value judgments than he bargains for.

“ But,” Yeager may reply, “my system has at least this to be said for it, against its many rivals. They claim that certain ethical truths, e.g., our duty to keep promises, have a basis independent of utility. Is this not senseless? If something does not promote happiness, what can be the point of accepting it? Would we not have here an instance of blind rule worship?”

The argument that I have just suggested Yeager might make rests on a fallacy. Let us imagine an ethical rule that had consequences disastrous for happiness, e.g., never permit food to pass your lips. Would we not at once laugh out of court anyone so foolish as to claim this practice to be ethically required? No doubt; but here danger threatens.                                  

It does not follow from the fact that we would abandon a rule, if it led to enough unhappiness, that happiness is our real criterion of ethics. A further example will I think make evident the fallacy. I would do a great deal to avoid losing all my money; but it hardly follows that my supreme goal is to make as much money as possible.                                               

Professor Yeager, I regret to say, falls into this mistaken pattern of inference. He states: “Suppose two situations: (1) rights are fully respected but people are miserable; (2) rights are taken casually but people are happy. Which situation is preferable? . . . If, faced with the need to choose, one is unwilling to prefer rights over happiness, isn’ t one giving up any claim that a rights approach is distinctive and takes precedence?” (p. 225).                                               

By no means. Someone can hold, with entire consistency, both that a rights claim should be abandoned if it leads to enough unhappiness, and also that the claim has a moral basis independent of happiness.

Even if successful, my arguments do not show that Professor Yeager’ s system is wrong, but only that he has failed to prove its superiority to rival approaches. I propose, in conclusion, to compare Yeager’s indirect utilitarianism with Murray Rothbard’s different conception of political ethics.

As one might anticipate, Yeager criticizes Rothbard for dogmatic reliance on a few favored moral intuitions. “Rothbard . . . tries to deduce all sorts of specific judgments from a few axioms about rights. These include the right of self-ownership, the right to property acquired through the Lockean process of mixing one’s labor with hitherto unowned resources, and the right to property acquired through voluntary transactions” (p. 277).

Rothbardians who ask what Yeager wishes to put in place of these axioms are in for a pleasant surprise. Our author himself accepts them, on utilitarian grounds. Rothbard might have written his defense of self-ownership: “If each person does not own his own body, who does? Other particular persons? . . . Or is each person to be owned collectively, by everybody? How workable would each of these alternatives be? Would its consequences be coherent with a society of effective and happy men and women? Almost certainly not” (p. 272). I commend to the reader the entire page as a brilliant exercise in Rothbardian thought.

If Yeager accepts principles quite similar to those of Rothbard, why does he condemn him as dogmatic? Yeager’ s complaint is that Rothbard deduces from the axioms various consequences that he considers implausible; the example he stresses is that Rothbard considers libel and slander legally permissible.                                                      

But what exactly is Professor Yeager’s complaint? Does he admit that the consequences follow from the axioms? If they do, how does Yeager avoid accepting these conclusions, since he too accepts the axioms? And if they do not, then Rothbardians will gladly expunge them from their ethics. But Yeager may have something else in mind. He may mean that even if the conclusions about libel and slander proceed properly from the axioms, they should still be rejected on utilitarian grounds. We should not accept what follows from our axioms, come what may. Should we not be willing to modify our axioms, to avoid conclusions sufficiently unpalatable?

I do not see why a Rothbardian should reject this. Yeager himself notes that Rothbard offers utilitarian arguments in defense of his views about libel and slander. But, our author claims, ” [r]esort to them almost concedes that the program of deriving all policy stances from a very few axioms about rights does not work after all” (p. 279). I should prefer to say that resort to them shows that Rothbard’ s program is less dogmatic than Yeager thinks. Once more Yeager wrongly supposes that any use of utilitarian considerations entails total surrender to that system.


Professor Yeager sheds light on an enormous number of issues in the course of his wide-ranging book. I especially recommend his incisive discussion of democracy (pp. 245-47); the analysis of John Harsanyi’ s treatment of utility (pp. 123 ff.); and the spirited reply to Bernard Williams’s criticisms of utilitarianism (pp. 149-51).

Mises Review Archives


Gordon, David. “In Defense of Misesian Ethics.” Review of Ethics as Social Science: The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation by Leland B. Yeager. The Mises Review 7, No. 2 (Summer 2001 ).


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