Beyond Is and Ought

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Liberty, November 1988

Prof. Hans
Hoppe, a fairly recent immigrant from West Germany, has brought
an enormous gift to the American libertarian movement. 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 anarchocapitalist, Lockean rights in
an unprecedentedly hard-core manner, one that makes my own natural-law/natural-rights
position seem almost wimpy in comparison.

In the modern
libertarian movement, only the natural-rights libertarians have
come to satisfyingly absolute libertarian conclusions. The different
wings of "consequentialists" – whether emotivists,
utilitarians, Stirnerites, or whatever – have tended to buckle
at the seams. If, after all, one has to wait for consequences
to make a firm decision, one can hardly adopt a consistent, hard-nosed
stance for liberty and private property in every conceivable case.

Hans Hoppe
was schooled in the modern (in his case, Kantian) philosophic
tradition, rather than in natural law, acquiring a PhD in philosophy
at the University of Frankfurt. He then moved to a dissertation
in the philosophy of economics for his "second doctoral,"
or Habilitation degree. Here he became an ardent and devoted follower
of Ludwig von Mises and his "praxeological" approach,
as well as of the system of economic theory Mises built on this
approach, which arrives at absolute conclusions derived logically
from self-evident axioms.

Hans has
proven to be a remarkably productive and creative praxeologist,
partly because he is the only praxeologist (as far as I know)
who arrived at the doctrine originally from philosophy rather
than from economics. He therefore brings to the task special philosophic

Hoppe’s most
important breakthrough has been to start from standard praxeological
axioms (e.g., that every human being acts, that is, employs means
to arrive at goals), and, remarkably, to arrive at a hard-nosed
anarcho-Lockean political ethic. For over 30 years I have been
preaching to the economics profession that this cannot be done:
that economists cannot arrive at any policy conclusions (e.g.,
that government should do X or should not do Y) strictly from
value-free economics.

In order
to come to a policy conclusion, I have long maintained, economists
have to come up with some kind of ethical system. Note that all
branches of modern "welfare economics" have attempted
to do just that: to continue to be "scientific" and
therefore value-free, and yet to make all sorts of cherished policy
pronouncements (since most economists would like at some point
to get beyond their mathematical models and draw politically relevant
conclusions). Most economists would not be caught dead with an
ethical system or principle, believing that this would detract
from their "scientific" status.

yet, remarkably and extraordinarily, Hans Hoppe has proven me
wrong. He has done it: he has deduced an anarcho-Lockean rights
ethic from self-evident axioms. Not only that: he has demonstrated
that, just like the action axiom itself, it is impossible to deny
or disagree with the anarcho-Lockean rights ethic without falling
immediately into self-contradiction and self-refutation.

In other
worlds, Hans Hoppe has brought to political ethics what Misesians
are familiar with in praxeology and Aristotelian-Randians are
familiar with in metaphysics: what we might call "hard-core
axiomatics." It is self-contradictory and therefore self-refuting
for anyone to deny the Misesian action axiom (that everyone acts),
since the very attempt to deny it is itself an action. It is self-contradictory
and therefore self-refuting to deny the Randian axiom of consciousness,
since some consciousness has to be making this attempt at denial.
For if someone cannot attempt to deny a proposition without employing
it, he is not only caught in an inextricable self-contradiction;
he is also granting to that proposition the status of an axiom.

Hoppe was
a student of the famous neo-Marxist German philosopher Jurgen
Habermas, and his approach to political ethics is based on the
Habermas-Apel concept of the "ethics of argumentation."
According to this theory, the very fact of making an argument,
of trying to persuade a reader or listener, implies certain ethical
precepts: e.g., recognizing valid points in an argument. In short,
the fact/value dichotomy can be transcended: the search for facts
logically implies that we adopt certain values or ethical principles.

Many libertarian
theorists have recently gotten interested in this kind of ethics
(e.g., the Belgian anarchist legal theorist Frank van Dun, and
the British Popperian Jeremy Shearmur). But theirs is a "soft"
kind of argumentation ethics, for the question may always arise
why one should want to keep an argument or dialogue going. Hoppe
has gone way beyond this by developing a hard-core axiomatic,
praxeological twist to the discussion.

Hoppe is
interested, not so much in keeping the argument going, but in
demonstrating that any argument whatsoever (including of course
anti-anarcho-Lockean ones) must imply self-ownership of the body
of both the arguer and the listeners, as well as a homesteading-of-property
right so that the arguers and listeners will be alive to listen
to the argument and carry it on.

In a sense,
Hoppe’s theory is similar to the fascinating Gewirth-Pilon argument,
in which Gewirth and Pilon (the former a liberal, the latter a
minarchist libertarian) attempted to say the following: The fact
that X acts demonstrates that he is asserting that he has the
right to such action (so far so good!) and that X is also implicitly
conceding to everyone else the same right. That conclusion, though
soul-satisfying to libertarians, and similar to praxeology in
its stress on action, unfortunately didn’t make it – for,
as natural rights philosopher Henry Veatch pointed out in his
critique of Gewirth: why should X grant anyone else’s rights?
By stressing self-contradiction in the arguments of non-anarcho-Lockeans,
Hoppe has solved the age-old problem of generalizing an ethic
for mankind.

by coming out with a genuinely new theory (amazing in itself,
considering the long history of political philosophy) Hoppe is
in danger of offending all the intellectual vested interests of
the libertarian camp. Utilitarians, who should be happy that value-freedom
was preserved, will be appalled to find that Hoppean rights are
even more absolutist and "dogmatic" than natural rights.
Natural rightsers, while happy at the "dogmatism," will
be unwilling to accept an ethics not grounded in the broad nature
of things.

will be particularly upset because the Hoppean system is grounded
(as was the Misesian) on the Satanic Immanuel Kant and his "synthetic
a priori." Randians might be mollified, however, to learn
that Hoppe is influenced by a group of German Kantians (headed
by mathematician Paul Lorenzen) who interpret Kant as a deeply
realistic Aristotelian, in contrast to the idealist interpretation
common in the United States.

a natural rightser, I don’t see any real contradiction here, or
why one cannot hold to both the natural-rights and the Hoppean-rights
ethic at the same time. Both rights ethics, after all, are grounded,
like the realist version of Kantianism, in the nature of reality.
Natural law, too, provides a personal and social ethic apart from
libertarianism; this is an area that Hoppe is not concerned with.

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


N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic
vice president of the Mises
. He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell —
of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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