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

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

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).