Friday Philosophy

From Athens to Vienna: Understanding a System of Ethics

The Political Thought of David Hume: The Origins of Liberalism and the Modern Political Imagination

by Aaron Alexander Zubia

Notre Dame 2024; 366 pp.

The central thesis of Aaron Zubia’s very scholarly book will be of interest to students of Ludwig von Mises. Zubia argues that the thought of David Hume underlies contemporary liberalism. He intends “liberalism” broadly, so that it encompasses not only twentieth-century liberalism, but classical liberalism as well. According to liberalism, the state should not be guided in its policies by theories about what is objectively good or bad. These are inevitably controversial, and attempts to impose one of these theories on those who dissent from it will lead to unrest and, quite possibly. open war. In particular, the state should stay out of religion. Beliefs about God depend on faith and can’t be rationally verified, yet are often the worst sources of unrest. Instead, the aim of politics should be to promote peace and prosperity.

As the title of Zubia’s book suggests, Zubia finds Hume at the source of these views; and behind Hume there is another figure---Epicurus. Like Hume, Epicurus thought that the gods, if they existed, were subject to the laws of nature and were uninterested in human beings. Further, Epicurus denied the existence of objective principles of morality. Instead, people should be guided by pleasure and pain, inevitably a matter of subjective taste. Zubia’s association of Hume with Epicurus is not controversial, he tells us. The connection of the two philosophers was common knowledge in the eighteenth century; and Hume’s greatest critic, Thomas Reid, was among the many who wrote about it. He “described the Epicureans as ‘the only [ancient] sect who denied that there is any such thing as honestum, or moral worth, distinct from pleasure.’ ‘In this,’ Reid continued, Mr. Hume’s system agrees with theirs.’” (emphasis in original.)

Why should students of Mises find this of interest? The answer is not far to seek. Mises explicitly identified himself with the Epicurean tradition in ethics. He says in Socialism:

To eudemonism, which looks at social phenomena rationalistically, the very way in which ethical Socialism states its problems seems unsatisfactory. Unless Ethics and ‘Economy’ are regarded as two systems of objectivization which have nothing to do with each other, then ethical and economic valuation and judgment cannot appear as mutually independent factors. All ethical ends are merely a part of human aims. This implies that on the one hand the ethical aim is a means, in so far as it assists in the human struggle for happiness, but that on the other hand it is comprised in the process of valuation which unites all intermediate aims into a unitary scale of values and grades them according to their importance. The conception of absolute ethical values, which might be opposed to economic values, cannot therefore be maintained.

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.

Isolated man settles all his ends according to his own law. He sees and knows nothing but himself and arranges his actions accordingly. In society, however, he must temper his actions to the fact that he lives in society and that his actions must affirm the existence and progress of society. From the basic law of social life it follows that he does not do this to achieve aims lying outside his own personal system of ends. In making the social ends his own he does not thereby subordinate his personality and his wishes to those of a higher personality or renounce the fulfilment of any of his own desires in favour of those of a mystical universe. For, from the standpoint of his own valuation, social ends are not ultimate but intermediate in his own scale of values. He must accept society because social life helps him to fulfil his own wishes more completely. If he denied it he would be able to create only transitory advantages for himself; by destroying the social body he would in the long run injure himself.

Zubia clearly thinks that the Epicurean view is mistaken. Who is right; Zubia or Epicurus and Hume? I don’t think we have to choose either side. There is a third alternative, namely, that there is indeed an objective ethics, but it supports the right of individuals to pursue their own good, so long as they do not violate the rights to liberty and property of others. In this way of looking at things, there is no role for a “perfectionist” state of the sort that Zubia envisages.

I haven’t presented any argument for this position, but interested readers will find it in several books by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl. I offer a brief account of their view in my review of The Realist Turn. Murray Rothbard’s defense of libertarianism rested on a similar Aristotelian approach, and here The Ethics of Liberty is the book to consult.

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