Property, Ownership, and Discrimination

This post was prompted by Hans Herman Hoppe’s claim that “property implies discrimination” (YouTube).

In this post I’m attempting to tease apart the related concepts of property and ownership to uncover implications for free thought, speech, and association/relationships.

Section One – a simple model of reality and some definitions

Parts of this universe are physically material. Tables, chairs, people, and atoms are some examples of material objects. All material objects can interact with each other physically (e.g. leaves falling to the ground) but only some material objects can intend their physical interactions. These material objects possess consciousness. Much of the animal kingdom, including humans, are examples of objects which possess consciousness.

As a quick aside, note that consciousness itself is not an object. While the mechanisms by which material objects are in possession of consciousness are unknown, there is indeed consciousness in the universe. Material objects exist in objective reality, that is, they exist independent of any consciousness awareness of them. Material objects that experience consciousness are objects that possess subjectivity. All this means is that consciousness allows perception which is independent of objectivity. To end this aside, the intricacies of how immaterial consciousness connects to material objects, and the problem of justified belief (epistemology) is not central to this model of reality.

Conscious objects can intend their actions. Non-conscious objects cannot. To clarify my terminology at this point: a conscious object is a material object that has consciousness (through some unknown mechanism –this is the “hard problem of consciousness”). A mind is the subjective agent associated with a conscious object that has a set of intentions.

Conscious objects have a set of desires/drives/motivations that constitute their intentions (a will). Hunger, procreation, survival, love, anger are examples of such desires/drives/motivations. Whether these conscious objects are fully aware of their desires or just act out of impulse, is equivalent for our purposes here: they “aim” their material bodies toward specific interactions with other material objects, e.g. a deer is motivated to eat grass when subjectively experiencing hunger. So, just as the deer can will the act of eating grass, by my own thinking, I can cause physical action (I can will my arm to move). As experiencers of subjectivity (minds), we have motivations (e.g. hunger) to act in certain ways (e.g. eat) to satisfy some subjective goal (e.g. fullness/satiation).

Unlike conscious objects, non-conscious objects do not “intend” their physical interactions. For example, a paperweight which has no consciousness, no set of motivations, cannot intend to affect paper, even if it can physically affect paper. It doesn’t matter whether these non-conscious objects are inanimate (e.g. atoms, rocks, mountains, planets, stars, tables and chairs) or not (e.g. plants, bacteria, and fungi), they do not have the ability to intend. It is a side issue, whether we grant plants, or other “lower” forms of life to have consciousness. If we grant them consciousness, then my definition of control applies to their “intended” physical interactions.

Consider a toddler with a ball. When the toddler throws the ball against a wall (presumably for fun), it controls the ball. Contrast this with a toddler that bumps a cup off a table. The toddler did not intent the physical interaction with the cup. So, as a definition, when a material object is interacted upon by intentional force, the conscious object responsible for the intention is controlling said object. Control is therefore different to pure physical interaction (even though both involve interaction of physical force between objects) because control involves intention. In an act of control, a mind controls, while an object is controlled. (Therefore, a paperweight which does not have a mind does not control paper, it merely affects paper).

This definition of control does not change even if it involves two conscious objects, say two people playing football. If the red team’s player intends to tackle the blue team’s player, the resulting clash involves, by my definition, the control of the blue team’s player by the red team’s player.

Note that while physical bodies are controllable, minds themselves are not material objects and therefore cannot be physically interacted with and therefore cannot be controlled. Consciousness can intend physical force upon material objects but cannot itself be physically affected. It is responsible for all controlling but is not itself controllable. The is not to say that minds cannot be changed through debate or different experiences, but a mind cannot be coerced to have a different set of desires/drives/motivations all else being equal. Kahlil Gibran makes this point succinctly in the following quote from The Prophet.

“You may chain my hands, you may shackle my feet; you may even throw me into a dark prison; but you shall not enslave my thinking, because it is free!”

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

The body is necessarily the first object that a body’s mind controls. While the “hard problem of consciousness” itself is not current solved by science or philosophy, so we cannot say what exactly consciousness is, or how it works, we can say that conscious beings have direct control over their physical body with their minds. This is to say, animals’ minds physically interact with their bodies through a direct mind-body connection. This mind-body interaction is prior to all other (physical) interactions. It is the root cause of all physical interactions that a mind makes. Hence, a mind controls its associated body and, with it, can then control other objects.

No mind can directly control another mind’s associated body. For example, my mind cannot directly make a dog walk, I can only try to have the dog’s mind walk its body. This is indirect control. Indirect control is ultimately done through physical interaction. For example, a dog can control a ball with its mouth; a human can control a dog with a leash. In each case, the control is indirect: the human does not control the dog’s mind, instead he uses physical force via a leash, whereas the dog does not (and cannot) control a ball’s non-existent mind but uses physical force to control a ball.

Property Redefined

Property has three qualities: control, exclusivity, and restriction. Property is any object that is exclusively controlled without restriction.

  1. Property is a controlled object. For example, a mind’s body is its property; a dog is its master’s mind’s property.
  2. Property is exclusively controlled. An object can only be controlled by one mind at a time.
  3. Exclusively controlled property is unrestricted by other minds. For example, a mind (A) cannot restrict another mind’s (B) use of its property (or else it would be A’s property).*

It follows from my definitions that just as non-conscious objects cannot control (due to the fact that they do not have intentional physical interactions), non-conscious objects cannot have property of their own. Even though non-conscious objects can physically interact with other objects, they cannot choose to, and hence cannot control objects and therefore cannot have property. This also implies that any mind’s property that is physically interacted with by non-conscious objects remains the mind’s property.

Regarding point two: At any one moment, only one mind (the dog’s or the human’s) is in exclusive control of an object (e.g. the dog’s body). This does not contradict the earlier definition I provided that only the dog can have direct control over his body. While the dog’s mind is the only consciousness that can directly interact with his body, at any one time his body is under physical forces as the result of one mind. At any one moment, the dog’s body is property to only one mind, hence property control is exclusive.**

Regarding point three: A dog being walked by a human does not have unrestricted control over its body. The body is restricted by the human’s control of a leash. The dog is allowed only restricted physical interaction with his own body by leave of the human. The owner allows the dog to walk (within the confines of the leash) because it suits the human to allow such restricted freedom to the dog.

This definition of property allows for hierarchies of property. First, let’s understand that an object may itself be comprised of children-objects, for example, a car may be comprised of many parts such as wheels, chairs, an engine, among other things. There is no objective hierarchy between these objects, just a subjective one. In other words, for the purposes of defining property, a “child-object” (e.g. a wheel) is as much an object as a parent-object (e.g. a car) is. It does not matter whether the wheel forms part of a car and that a car does not form a part of a wheel — what matters is that each object is a physically material object which can be physically interacted with. The same logic applies to objects with consciousness, e.g. a hand in relation to a person (non-conscious to a conscious object). As such, any object or child-object can be property, independent of other conceptually related objects.

Second, in relation to hierarchies of property, let’s understand that the naming/labeling/identification of an object does not map directly and perfectly/discretely to the objective world. By this I mean, when looked at with enough precision, any object being referred to has poorly defined and ambiguous edges/bounds. The Ship of Theseus**** is a thought-experiment which serves as an example how the usefulness of labels breaks down when the physical objects are altered. Or consider this question: “which position on your arm objectively marks the boundary of your hand and forearm?” Labels (or signs) are just convenient and arbitrary conceptual abstractions of the objective world. Conscious minds break the objective world into useful concepts. This allows communication and shared understanding between subjective agents within a community of shared signs. Since a named object refers to an intrinsically a fuzzy child-object of the universe, there can be errors in defining property. These errors result from misidentifying an object, but by definition, property is that which is under exclusive control without restriction. Therefore, the constant in this definition is the object that has intentionally applied physical force –whatever the subset of the universe the object is conceptually.

Having clarified hierarchies of property, I can give a simple example. Consider a man walking a dog. The human may have the dog as property, while the dog has its tail as property. The human is controlling the dog, while the dog controls its tail. Unless the human is grabbing the dog’s tail, it is wagging due to the dog’s (probably subconscious) intention, hence it is the dog’s property not the human’s. The human only controls the dog’s overall location, via the force of the leash. While some of the leash’s force contributes to the tail’s overall physical action, the tail wags independent of the leash. The problem of “whose property is the tail” is just one of ambiguous labels. When we say “dog”, we tend to think that includes a tail, but so the degree that a human controls a dog but not a tail, then “dog” is not how we usually consider the label to mean. At all times, property is exclusively controlled property, without restriction.

While a dog can be a human’s property, this does not necessarily mean that the human owns the dog: property control is not and does not imply ownership. Property is a controlled object, but property is not necessarily owned. Ownership is rightful control.

Section Two – ethical claims and perspectives

We now enter the man-made world of ethics and norms. I am not stating positively which ownership claims are true or correct, nor that rights exist independent of minds. In this section I am describing ownership as a subject ethical assertion, a communication of one mind to other minds about its subjective relation to its controlled property.

By telling you, “I own my car,” it is communicated that I perceive my right to exclusively control my car. It may be that I control my car, or it might be that my car has been stolen and someone else currently controls it. Either way, communicating ownership, communicates the perception of rightful control.

Claiming ownership is an ethical assertion. It is an act that contains claims of what ought to be. To say that we own an object is to claim that it is our property and that certain rights accompany this fact. For example, if I claim ownership of my house, I must be in control of it and I am claiming that no one else should take control of it even if they wanted to and could physically succeed in taking it. Furthermore, if others did take my house under their control against my intentions, that act would violate my rightful control of my house — at least from my perspective.

To recap: Objects are physical entities which can interact. They become property (by definition) when they are controlled by minds (which is “intentional physical interaction”). Minds can communicate (via their associated bodies, e.g. vocal cords) their perspective of possessing ownership, which is an ethical claim to rightful control of property. And as Hans Hermann Hoppe points out in his “Argumentation Ethics“, without the ability to communicate this there would only physical interactions could solve ownership disputes.

The truth of such claims to rights is only ever subjectively determined, there can be competing claims to ownership over a given object. And so, while rights are subjective, and hence ownership can be in dispute due to many claims of ownership over a given object, there cannot be any objective ambiguity about the physical control of an object. (The mind that is the root cause in the causal chain of indirect control over property is the controller). That is, by the above definitions, property is metaphysically unambiguous, even if ownership is not. Ownership is subjective, property is objective.

Hypothetically, if it were possible for a mind to physically control all the objects it desired, and there was no competition or threat of other minds appropriating such property, there would be no need for claims to rights and legitimate ownership. But, of course, this is not a reality in this world of scarce resources.

In reality where minds control objects, and desire to maintain their control against threat of loss of control, a variety of methods are used to maintain control. In addition to physical control (which is at the root of all other methods of control) is argumentation. From a biological-energy conservation perspective, words and argumentation are less expensive than blood, sweat, and social influence.

The control of property can be sustained or ended. If control ends, it was either released by a mind (intentionally abandoned) or taken by another mind (intentionally appropriated). Such property transfer is merely objective fact, there is no need or possibility for subjective approval or disapproval. Disputes which arise from property transfer however, involve man-made assertions of ethical norms or individual grievances.

Sure, owners assert rights over their property, but specifically which rights do owners have? Naturally, when ownership is claimed, the minimum assertion is to the rightful sustained control of the property in question. This is of course in addition to the necessary definition of property, which involves its unrestricted, exclusive control. Ownership necessarily asserts the right to control some property until released or transferred willingly, whether with terms and conditions or not.

From the perspective of a given mind, if ownership is released, there is no ethical consequence, but if ownership is violated (i.e. “rightful” control of property is violated), an ethical wrong is committed.

The system of ethics I am describing here is a subjective one. No doubt the appropriation of property by a mind will be seen as wrong by an existing owner. The appropriator, however, might not accept the previous “owner’s” claim to rightful control. This conflict does not invalidate my definition of ownership because I am not prescribing which claims to ownership are rightful, I am merely describing the nature of ownership claims.***

One meta-question that goes beyond an analytical definition of terms asks: Who has the right to claim which objects as property? This question however is meaningless as it grasps at an objective authority which is not there. Without an outside standard, there cannot be a satisfactory answer to this question. Unless there is a super-owner, e.g. a monarch, there is no authority above to receive permission to claim rights beneath. Even in such a case, the meta question goes one step further back: which objects does the monarch have the right to claim as property? All we can do is defer to descriptive ethics: whoever has the ability and the desire to assert control over property in continuity, does so. Such people may also claim ownership, which is a communication to others about their subjective claims to rightful control.

If a mind disputes a claim of property ownership, the conflict can only be resolved, ultimately by physical force (recall: objects physically interact with each other). There is no higher authority by which a rights-claiming-license is awarded. “Rights” are subjective and exist in minds. They can be delegated but are always first attained by the physical control and subsequent assertion of ownership of property. Beyond physical control, there are no justifications for ethical claims because ethical claims are subjective and subjective standards are independent of objective reality.

Simply put: owners have exclusive, unrestricted control of their property until they have it taken from them. At no time do they, or any other mind, have objective rights over property, objects, or to anything at all. Owners call themselves so, which is an ethical claim “I have the right to perpetual exclusive control over this property”. Other minds may not share this subjective ethical claim. To them, this claim is false. If they are of the disposition, they may be able to successfully take control of another mind’s property. Subjective rights disputes will ensue, but our case is settled: we have described what is, and described the intentional physical force as the mechanism.

Owners assert their perpetual unrestricted control over objects (until released) and maintain this control with physical force. They can choose who can and who cannot have use of their property. If owners cannot discriminate, and if they must give control of their property to others, even temporarily, then they are not fully in control of their property.

So what is ownership?

While there are no objective owners (there are only subjective claims to ownership), owners have the unrestricted control of their property, and hence can discriminate who can use, borrow, or otherwise control their property. They descriptively “can” (not prescriptively “can”) because they have physical control over their property. The right to discrimination is never forfeited for as long as there is ownership. Discrimination is the correlate of unrestricted exclusive control. Even if control of property is granted temporarily to another, if ownership is maintained throughout, rightful control can be resumed at the owner’s discretion.

Being non-controllable, minds cannot be owned and cannot own other minds. Minds have an unrestricted ability to will. Their will is only limited by their inability to control other minds. Thoughts, opinions, and beliefs are therefore always free from restriction. The closest that a mind can get to controlling another mind is to coerce secondary obedience to its will. For example, a captor may convince his victim to speak certain words, but he cannot coerce him to alter his beliefs.

Relationships are ongoing agreements between minds to allow some form of physical interaction, whether directly (e.g. a football team), or indirectly (e.g. a debate club, a trust fund, or otherwise). In the final analysis, all relationships have physical effects: a toddler throwing a ball, a tackle on a field, walking a dog, an idea that indirectly inspires a physical act, or bankruptcy which causes homelessness or hunger etc.

Relationships are between one or more mutually consensual parties, to the exclusion to others. A wife, for example, excludes all men except her husband in their marriage; an employer excludes all candidates except the successful applicant from his business, etc. Any member of a relationship can end it as it was constituted. If not, then it is not consensual and it is not a relationship, it is control and they are the property.

Section Three – Implications for liberty

Having laid the groundwork: as owners of bodies, minds can claim the right to the sustained exclusive and unrestricted control over them. This includes all of their derived behaviours, speech, and associations (relationships). This means the ability to discriminate with respect to how they are used and by whom. This would not free the mind from the consequences of its choices. In terms of responsibility, only the mind directly associated to an act is responsible for it. If a mind indirectly controls another body or objects (its property), then it is responsible for its acts. And, since it cannot control other minds, it is not immune to discrimination for its behaviours and speech, nor can it compel others to acknowledge them. Minds have the right to enter into relationships with consenting partners and to leave relationships at will. Furthermore, as owners of material possessions (including land), minds claim the right to the sustained exclusive and unrestricted control over them. Likewise, this means the ability to discriminate with respect to how they are used and by whom.

Any argument against your free movement, speech, or thought is an intellectual attempt to indirectly control your body. Such arguments are no more justified than assertions of self-ownership themselves. All that grants ownership over a body (an object), is the ability to physically control it. It is entirely up to a mind to perceive/will control, claim/communicate a right to control, then have/maintain such control over its body (or any other object). It speaks to the character of a mind that does not do any of these aspects:

  1. Perceive/will/desire/intend to physically control;
  2. Claim/assert/communicate this intention;
  3. Take/ensure this control — which is to attempt justify this claim to ownership.

Conclusion

Ownership implies unrestricted control and exclusive property rights.

Property, being controlled objects, may also be rightfully controlled (owned). The minimum claim to ownership is that one’s property shall remain rightfully controlled until released. Such a claim implies the right to discriminate with respect to the property that is in question. These definitions of property and ownership say nothing about what anyone ought to claim ownership to nor how to control their property. Such an answer is provided by each individual mind without recourse to any external standard, measure, or license. Hence, it is not my role to invent positive norms, all I can do is describe facts. You will either assert your rights to freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom of association or you will not. This reflects your character.

There can be no owners. Not objectively. So, the outcome for the mind intent on controlling objects of desire is take control and maintain control in the most effective, and ideally efficient, method possible. Claim rights if it suits (especially if it dissuades usurpers), use sophistry, wit, guile, charm, favours, trade, work, money, or even brute force if you must, but don’t fool yourself, definitions of ownership do not create owners in a reality where there are no objective rights. Take what you want if you can, whether that be a life of giving and sacrifice for others, or a life of manipulation, domination, and Hell for others. This is a warning to sheep and a license to wolves.

* The objection that "objects seem controllable by two minds at once," (e.g. 1: a dog controlling its legs walking, while a human controls its head by yanking on a leash; e.g. 2: two people controlling one tandem bike) can be explained as an inaccurate understanding of objects. An object can be comprised of component-objects, i.e. an object like a dog, has component objects like legs and a tail etc. While two minds can simultaneously control the component-objects (legs and tail), only one mind can control a given object at a time. The objection fails by only seeing a whole object (a dog), and not its parts (legs and tail). The extent to which a whole object is controlled, is determined by the extent to which the control over the whole object's components are controlled. Until a mind controls a whole object, it only control component objects. 

** A dog's body can be controlled directly by a dog's mind or indirectly by a human's body. Consider a person controlling a dog with a leash. The question becomes, who's property is the dog's body? Is it the dog --who has direct control-- or the human --who has indirect control? This is a simple question of defining the specific object being controlled because one object cannot be controlled by two minds at the same time. For example, when a human controls a dog's body, the dog is the human's property; while a dog barks, the dog's throat is the dog's property, but when intentionally muzzled, the dog's throat becomes property of the human. Strictly speaking, the dog's body is the human's mind's property or the dog's mind's property, depending on which mind is in control -- or how accurate the analysis intends to be. While different minds can have similar desires, each mind is metaphysically unique, meaning that no two minds have the exact same desires. If two minds did will exactly as each other, they would be the same mind. So, an object controlled by many minds would by definition have many different wills in conflict over it. The controller of the object would be in perpetual flux. In other words, the property's control will constantly be transferred from one mind to another. Hence, at any one moment, 
only one mind can control property.  

*** It does not follow that owners cannot violate others' rights or take control of their property, rather, in the purest sense, the concept of ownership only allows for meaningful communication regarding perceived rightful control. The assertion that owners must also respect other's ownership claims if they are to assert their own is a further, separate (egalitarian) claim, going beyond the minimum definition of ownership. In this essay, I am describing what ownership means, not prescribing norms.

**** https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus

Fighting words: Argumentation ethics

Hans Herman Hoppe, a contemporary libertarian theorist, describes the fundamental problem of society and suggests a libertarian solution:

We live in a world of scarcity. Either resources are scarce, or the time in which to use them is scarce. We all have different ideas on how these resources are to be used. Therefore, if we wish to live in a world where conflict over resources is minimised, we must agree on rights of ownership and transfer. It must be taken for granted that we own ourselves. To claim the opposite leads to obvious inhumanity. It raises at least the potential for unlimited conflict over who owns whom. Where external resources are concerned, the ideal solution is that they belong to whoever first appropriates them from the State of Nature, and that they are then transferred by consent — that is, by sale or by gift or by inheritance.

Sean Gabb summarising Hoppe’s views, from the introduction to Getting Libertarianism Right by Hans Herman Hoppe

Hoppe claims the libertarian “rights” of self-ownership and non-aggression are argumentatively irrefutable. According to “argumentation ethics”, argumentation is the process of resolving conflicts through dialogue and the absence of physical conflict. Hoppe assumes that we should argue (i.e. discuss) rather than physically fight:

“Now let me emphasise that I consider these elementary insights argumentatively irrefutable and, because of that, also a priori true.” [bold added]

Hans Herman Hoppe, Democracy, Democracy, Civilization, and Counterculture (PFS 2015) YouTube

I agree, conflict without discussion means violence. But even if we can’t argue against libertarian principles, why must we agree to avoid physical conflict? Despite the fact that many people do want to rationally justify their beliefs, there is always the option of their physical enforcement instead. Argumentation itself is a matter of preference — as is violence. The pertinent question is, “Would you rather engage in rational discourse or fight?”

It would be wise to remember that all man-made concepts are built on premises (“if-clauses” and assumptions). It is foolish and can be dangerous to assume that others share your premises (including preferences for argumentation). While useful, all man-made concepts are constructed with the formula: “if we want X, then Y is a useful concept.” Hoppe can be seen doing this here:

“If you want to live in peace with people … you must have private (or exclusive) property in all things scarce and suitable as means or goods in the pursuit of human ends.”

Hans Herman Hoppe, Democracy De Civilisation, and Counterculture (PFS 2015) YouTube

This argument has two parts: an “if-clause” and a “then-clause”. Without the initial assumption (“If you want …”), Hoppe’s argument would become a decree: “You must have private … property…”, which would naturally raise the question: “Why ought we have private … property… ?” On the other hand, without the conclusion (“[then] you must have private … property …”), all that remains is a question: “[do you] want to live in peace with people[?]”, which naturally raises the questions: “what happens if someone doesn’t want to live in peace?” and “do I want to live in peace with people?”

There will always be people that reject the principle of non-aggression — at least at some times and in some situations. More generally, the preference for peace and equal treatment is itself a premise of egalitarianism (that all are equal or should be considered equal). But there will always be people that reject egalitarianism.

Why would Vladamir Putin, a highly powerful and influential Russian President and influencer in world politics, accept a libertarian premise “to live in peace with people”? Accepting this premise would amount to him disarming himself of his powerful position in order to equalise himself with others in society. He currently has the ability to not respect his citizen’s self-ownership, and why would he give that ability up? Why would a burglar with two guns give the homeowner one when robbing a house? Frankly, Putin and those with the ability to ignore libertarian principles, will ignore them if it is in their interest to — because they can.

“I don’t see how it is the case that just because I am engaged in an argument with you I must therefore respect your self-ownership. I could just be arguing with you as opposed to being in a state of conflict because it is cheaper, as violence is very expensive –far more so than arguing. If not through the explicit cost of weapons or the damage I might take from doing so, it is also expensive considering how others may treat me after I have acted violently. So naturally, I could argue that you don’t own yourself because I can’t afford the expenses of coercing you …”

Truediltom, “On the ‘non-aggression principle'” On ‘The Non-Aggression Principle’ retrieved Jan 20, 2019.

“Sticks and stones may break bones,” but words and decrees only compel if they are backed by force, i.e. only enforced words can break bones and coerce action. Even then, it is the force (and not the words) that does the coercion. (All man-made laws are secondary to the laws of nature, (which cannot be broken. Gravity cannot be refuted, ignored, or paused, whereas rules such as “thou shalt not kill” can be and are often broken.)

How could a libertarian rule of law be established? Ironically, if a libertarian society contained people that rejected libertarianism, there would be a performative contradiction: libertarianism’s non-aggression principle would be violated when libertarian rule of law was enforced upon individuals in society. For example, a pimp would be legally punished for violating his associate’s rights. To him, being put in a jail cell is an initiation of force — a violation of non-aggression.

One solution to this is Hoppe’s private law society. Private cities, operated like corporations would have their established rules. Built on libertarian principles, each private city could have differing sets of incidental laws and rules. Citizens could be free to associate (or disassociate) with any city that would let them in, but once inside, they would have to agree to the rules or be physically removed.

… So to speak…

Hans Herman Hoppe

In a libertarian society, there will always be conflict about its principles. Dissenters will always exist. People may argue with the premises of libertarianism, but according to argumentation ethics, by definition they will always lose. Their only avenue for winning is to disband with argumentation itself. But, while argumentation persists, there is peace and libertarianism is practised. However, as soon as libertarian’s detractors reject argumentation itself, the society must be ready to implement physical removal.

Here we have come full circle: preferences for libertarian principles such as self-ownership and non-aggression are asserted with the acknowledgment that physical force is the ultimate/final means of justification. This might be ironic, but it is in accordance with the laws of nature.

Veganism is Compatible with Libertarianism

While most vegans are left-wing supporters of government, it doesn’t surprise me to meet libertarian vegans who see veganism as a natural extension to their political philosophy. Libertarian principles of (human) self-ownership and the non-aggression principle can graciously be extended to (non-human) animals. While Rothbard and other libertarians would not grant animals rights, veganism is compatible with libertarianism.

The fundamental question of animal rights is, “Are animals individuals?” In other words, are animals members of the “moral community” or merely objects that require little or no ethical concern.

The strongest philosophical strain of veganism in the West is the abolitionist approach to animal rights (AAAR). The AAAR claims that all sentient beings are members of the moral community and so cannot be used, exploited, or killed. It would seem then, that those who accept this position would be open to libertarian principles of non-aggression and self-ownership. However, while most vegans are strongly left-wing, it seems their bleeding hearts bleed for all except the tax-payer.

Veganism as a way of life is completely apolitical. Whatever their reasons, a vegan is someone who attempts to avoid animal use as far as possible.

“A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

The Vegan Society, retrieved from https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism

Conversely, libertarianism is completely a-nutritional. Libertarianism does not state that using animals is required, so there is no fundamental inconsistency in being vegan and a libertarian. Even though libertarians like Murray Rothbard claim that animals cannot be granted rights, one could be hold a vegan diet and lifestyle without claiming animals have rights.*

… individuals possess rights not because we “feel” that they should, but because of a rational inquiry into the nature of man and the universe. In short, man has rights because they are natural rights.

Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, 1998

But, even if animals do not have rights, it would not be against libertarian principles for someone to be vegan. A libertarian might choose to be vegan even if “natural rights” were not granted to animals. Libertarianism does not forbid veganism. Rothbard continues:

… [rights] are grounded in the nature of man: the individual man’s capacity for conscious choice, the necessity for him to use his mind and energy to adopt goals and values, to find out about the world, to pursue his ends in order to survive and prosper, his capacity and need to communicate and interact with other human beings and to participate in the division of labor.

Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, 1998

This view is anthropocentric, a self-serving definition of rights; for humans-by humans. If you were able to communicate with pigs, frogs, fish, or bacteria, they would likewise define rights so as to secure their interests. Pigs would state that their natural ability to forage and make nests establish their “natural” right to forage and make nests –preventing humans from “processing” them for bacon. Fish would state that their natural ability to breathe underwater establishes their “natural” right to breathe underwater uninterrupted — preventing humans from removing them from the ocean for consumption.

Perhaps the following questions becomes more obvious now that animal examples have been used: How does any natural fact establish any natural “right”? And why do we assume human supremacy in the “rights” making department? Why would the pig or fish’s definition of rights be rejected in favour of the humans?

I am not claiming that humans ought to live timid lives, wary of harming other beings. I am not saying humans ought to accept the pig (or fish’s) definition of rights. I am not saying that humans can’t assert themselves, flourish, and live according to their own values (whatever they may be). I am not saying that it is wrong to eat meat. I am merely recognising that all “rights” are man-made inventions. Even human “rights” and other ideas like egalitarianism. This is why there is no inherent contradiction in being vegan and libertarian. We can invent both animal rights and libertarian principles.

One reply to my view is that we could also invent horrible or evil values and principles. This is true, but then the people who hold these values don’t see them as evil. In fact, your values seem evil to them. Another critique of my view would point out that we can’t invent and hold contradictory values. I could attempt to argue that usually people don’t try to, but then it is more robust to reply that logical consistency is itself a value premise. But without theorising about madmen, it is enough to state: veganism is not logically inconsistent with libertarianism.

Grounded in emotivism, we can assert our values, and grant whatever rights we prefer. As such there is no inconsistency in preferring to grant rights to animals — even to the extent that eating meat is prohibited — and being a libertarian –maintaining the non-aggression principle and self-ownership.

Of course, modern natural-rights libertarians would oppose laws that forbade eating meat. To them, this would be an initiation of force upon an individual’s right to act (eat meat) without initiating force against anyone else. But this begs the very question that animal rights raises: are animals individuals? How do we define individuals, and what rights do they have? If animals are merely objects and not individuals, they do not have rights and can be property. As property, the owner can do as he or she wishes. (This is the point that the AAAR raises and challenges).

In short, man is a rational and social animal. No other animals or beings possess this ability to reason, to make conscious choices, to transform their environment in order to prosper, or to collaborate consciously in society and the division of labor.

Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, 1998

Rothbard is making a similar mistake that Rene Descartes made. Descartes claimed that “animals could not reason nor use language rationally”. As such, they did not have souls, and therefore had no need for rights. But Rothbard’s view like Descartes’, is contrary to the 2012 Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness which states:

Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates. [bold added]

Retrieved from http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf

So, even if some animals have consciousness, to what extent should we grant rights to animals (and to what extent)? To answer this, first consider why libertarians grant rights to humans. Natural-rights libertarians say that they grant self-ownership rights to humans because they derive from people’s natural ability to think, feel, etc. The argument is that the “nature” of something determines what rights it has: since “each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish” they must have rights to self-ownership (Rothbard, For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, 1973). But by this same logic rights can be granted to animals: Since each sentient animal must be conscious, …, in order to survive and flourish, then must have rights to self-ownership. This would establish the animal’s right not to be bred, killed, eaten, or made into shoes.

You may disagree with me, like my friend did:

Natural rights are derived from argumentation ethics. And due to reciprocity of rights they can’t be extended to animals.

One libertarian’s rebuttal to my argument (from an actual conversation)

But Hans Herman Hoppe’s “argumentation ethics” doesn’t derive natural rights. Argumentation ethics states that, as an assumption, when we argue we implicitly agree not to physically fight. Hoppe assumes that libertarianism’s principles cannot be argumentatively refuted — which may be true — but this is a separate concept to whether it is being able to argue itself that establishes rights.

Assuming that animals cant be extended rights because animals can’t make rational arguments begs the question: Why do you assume that it is rationality (and the ability to argue) that establishes rights? Why not assume it is the ability to be sentient (as the AAAV does) that establishes rights?

What characteristic does establish rights? (Or stated in the emotivist way: what characteristics do we want to define for establishing rights?) The natural-rights libertarian Hans Herman Hoppe answers in the following:

Every person is an exclusive owner of his physical body as a primary means of action, no person can ever be the owner of any other person’s body, for we can use another person’s body only indirectly, that is, in using own directly appropriately and controlled own body first, thus direct appropriation precedes indirect appropriation.

Hans Herman Hoppe speech Youtube.

So, if libertarians are granting property rights to humans exclusively due to their ability to directly control themselves, then they must also grant property rights to all beings that are in direct control of themselves: ala sentient beings.

Veganism is compatible with libertarianism, not incompatible.

While consuming animal products causes unnecessary suffering I prefer not to consume animal products. While I can’t avoid animal use completely, that does not mean I don’t want to avoid it as much as possible. Yes, my house was built on cleared land that animals homesteaded, yes my vegan food is currently fertilised with manure that was taken by force from animals, and yes, you could point out many reasons that veganism doesn’t avoid using animals completely. For others, it may be health or environmental reasons that motivate their veganism, but for me, it is primarily an emotional response towards the way humans use animals that maintains my veganism. The overlap of veganism and libertarian thought is obvious and wide.

*Rothbards's libertarianism is based on the natural rights justification. I have attacked such groundings elsewhere, and contrary to Rothbard, I do claim that "rights" are granted only by human preferences (by having a "feel"/desire/preference in granting animals rights).

A Critique of Libertarian Natural Rights

If the central axiom of the libertarian creed is non-aggression against anyone’s person and property, how is this axiom arrived at? What is its groundwork or support?

Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto

Murray N. Rothbard’s “For a New Liberty” was published in 1973. It proposes a political system called libertarianism based on the core principle of non-aggression. The non-aggression principle states that no one can legitimately initiate force against another person’s body or property. Rothbard derived this principle from the “right” to self-ownership, i.e. the view that individuals have exclusive property rights over their own body.

Rothbard did not simply assert libertarianism’s political, economic and societal solutions, he was genuinely concerned with justifying his system. So, in addition to empirical and historical arguments supporting libertarianism, Rothbard offered philosophical justifications for it.

Rothbard argued that the “nature” of being human implies a “right” to act according to that “nature”. He rejected emotivist and utilitarian justifications for libertarianism in favour of “natural law theory”.

(Emotivists have emotional preferences for libertarian principles, whereas utilitarians assert libertarian axioms from their preference for the consequences of the non-aggression principle*).

“Natural law theory” is based on “natural rights”, but what are “natural rights”?

  • To what extent do they exist (if at all)? (or are they just man-made concepts?)
  • Can “natural rights” be derived from nature?
  • If they can, how do specific principles (e.g. the non-aggression principle) derive from them?
  • What mechanism links nature to specific principles that instruct human behaviour in society (politics/laws)?
  • How do such mechanisms make such principles obligatory, such that they are ethical imperatives — or are they just man-made concept enforced by a state?

These are important questions for libertarians to answer. If “natural rights” don’t exist, then does emotivism or utilitarianism serve as sufficient justification for libertarian principles? For the sake of honesty and truth it is important to understand if principles can be derived from facts (like objective “natural rights”) and even if “natural rights” exists in the first place.

Rothbard explains “natural law theory” here:

Natural law theory rests on the insight that … each entity has distinct and specific properties, a distinct “nature,” … the nature of man is such that each individual person must, in order to act, choose his own ends and employ his own means in order to attain them. … The right to self-ownership asserts the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to “own” his or her own body; that is, to control that body free of coercive interference. [bold and italics added]

Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto

Assuming we can derive “rights” from natural properties, in what sense can they be “absolute”? Rothbard’s claims that being human establishes certain “absolute” rights but for something to be absolute, it would have to be undeniable — necessarily the case. Self-ownership is deniable. For example, while no one can directly control anyone else’s body (only their own mind can directly control their body), they can take control indirectly by force. By capturing or killing them, they would have control, of what is now, their property. This drastic example shows that self-ownership is not absolute in any sense implying “necessary”.

What if Rothbard used the word “absolute” to be replaceable with the phrase “libertarian proclaimed“? Now, “The right to self-ownership asserts the libertarian proclaimed right of each man… to ‘own’ his or her own body…” So, self-ownership is nothing more than a plea bargain that libertarians make with murderers, kidnappers, thieves, non-libertarians, and anyone who would take control of others’ bodies in defiance of libertarians’ claims of a priori “natural rights”.

The libertarian … concludes … the universal right of self-ownership, a right held by everyone by virtue of being a human being.

Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto

How does a fact, such as being a human, establish the existence of a “right”, or lead to the knowledge of a principle such as self-ownership? Isn’t this just anthropocentric projection onto nature? People who claim that self-ownership is a natural fact, a principle-for-all, think they see it as a (self-evident) property in nature. This is just special pleading of an egalitarian variety. Even if self ownership exists as a principle in nature, why assume that all people have it equally? The libertarian has not yet explained the mechanism by which self ownership is linked from nature to people. Since people are different, by almost all measures, why would a natural mechanism, grant people equal ownership over unequal bodies? Such an unexpected result strikes me as the wishes of moralists, not of the cold, logical result of rational libertarian philosophies.

But, as often in philosophy, people project their values externally in an attempt to satisfy their existential insecurities. Libertarians have a temperament, or personality that is predisposed towards fairness, and logical rules. No wonder, they see “in nature” such biases expressible as principles.

I’ll make my view clear: “rights” are man-made concepts and do not exist outside of human convention.** The phrase “natural law theory” is often confused with “the laws of nature”, but there is an important difference between them. “Natural law theory” describes the set of principles derived from the “laws of nature”. Whereas the only “laws” that exist independent of the human mind are the laws of nature itself. (These are the objective laws of nature, not those proclaimed by men in courts or approximated by scientific descriptions e.g. gravity). Hence “natural rights” can only be observed manifesting in reality as the physical actions of men whose minds invented (or submitted to) them — and always under the control of the laws of nature.

But so what if libertarian principles are based on assumptions and “if-clauses”? Don’t preferences for arbitrary principles suffice as groundings for them? Aren’t libertarians simply trying to provide solutions to problems? If solutions are identified, why can’t they be adopted? Consider how the following quote could be made much more honest and transparent by adding assumed words.

Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation.

Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto

“Since [we would have it so that] each individual [can] think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish [as they see fit], [in our libertarian political system, we would grant] the right to self-ownership which gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation.”

— Revised

This is something that many people would agree with. In the worst case, it loses its rhetorical power because it is clearly just a preference. But doesn’t this expose the sophistry — the argumentative tricks — that have been used to peddle “natural rights law”?

Libertarianism is not justified by “natural law theory”. This leaves room for the metaphysically honest emotivist grounding for libertarianism: it does not claim objective “rights” exist, nor that principles derive from them.

The libertarian does not need objective, cosmological justification for self-ownership “rights” or the non-aggression principle. Libertarian solutions to political problems can be proposed even if self-ownership “rights” and the non-aggression principle are not laws of nature. Not only is “preference” all there is to refer to, but emotional preference (whether for the consequences of principles or direct principles themselves) is sufficient grounding for libertarianism.

*But isn't utilitarianism just a form of emotivism: a preference for preferred consequences? -- a preference for "the greatest good for the greatest number"?  

** Along with property rights, legal rights, human rights, animal rights, ethical norms, morals, etc., as a man-made concepts, they do not necessarily map directly to metaphysically properties of reality. Even if these things exist, we have no way to know for certain. We cannot establish their existence with any certainty by inference from empirical reality. Also, human intuition cannot establish their existence.