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.

Power: Is Might Right?

Every one who would be free must show his power. … He who exalteth himself shall be exalted, and he who humbleth himself shall be righteously trodden beneath the hoofs of the herd. “The humble” are only fit for dogs’ meat. Bravery includes every virtue, humility, every crime. He who is afraid to risk his life must never be permitted to win anything. Human rights and wrongs are not determined by Justice, but by Might. Disguise it as you may, the naked sword is still king-maker and king-breaker, as of yore. All other theories are lies and — lures. Therefore! If you would conquer wealth and honor, power and fame, you must be practical, grim, cool and merciless. You must ride to success (by preference) over the necks of your foemen. Their defeat is your strength. Their downfall is your uplifting. Only the powerful can be free, and Power is non-moral. Life is real, life is earnest, and neither heaven nor hell its final goal. And love, and joy, and birth, and death, and fate, and strife, shall be forever.

Ragnar Redbeard, Might is Right

Ragnar Redbeard’s “Might is Right” is unforgettable. It is both poetic and jarring. Redbeard’s relentless attacks are not confined to “safe” topics like the government or religion, but extend to ideas like the Golden Rule, egalitarianism, and secular notions of “goodness”. But despite Redbeard’s various tirades, his message is clear: “the only binding contract upon man’s conduct is the natural law of “might”. Do with that, what you will…”

It is might against might, remember, by land and sea, man against man, money against money, brains against brains, and — everything to the winner.

All quotes are from Ragnar Redbeard’s Might is Right, unless stated otherwise

While the phrase “might is right” only appears three times in the book, it has become synonymous with Redbeard’s racism, sexism, anti-theism, misanthropy, misogyny, anarchism, brutality, and gore-filled anecdotes. But what does the phrase “might is right” really mean? Can we sift gold from Redbeard’s book? Aside from being an exhilarating (if not exhausting) work, there are truths contained within.

While the phrase “might is right” can be interpreted in a few different ways, it is most valid as the observation: “that which did, could.” Asked another way:

Is “might” a law of nature?

According to this first interpretation, “might” is a method of nature. Just as gravity describes how mass attracts, “might” describes how social and even metaphysical entities compete.

“Love in sexual relationships, power in social adjustments, polarity and magnetism [in] physics[, …] gravitation in astronomy, and might in ethics, are exact synonyms; – correlated phases of one primary assertive – ‘the persistence of force.'”

But there are other interpretations. Unfortunately, “might” is hopelessly abstract. What exactly is it?

Yes, superior armies defeat smaller, untrained, uncommitted forces,
and it is their combination of fire-power, skill, cunning, maneuverability, persistence, and raw numbers that secure their victory, but how is this insightful? Does it even need stating? In other words, victors win because they have the ability to.

That which did, could.

To admit “might” is a method of nature, is not a commendation or condemnation. It is simply an objective observation, a description of how things are. It is as unremarkable as stating two is greater than one.

Clearly therefore, in every department of life, the lesser force must be overthrown by the greater; which (being interpreted) meaneth: — MIGHT IS RIGHT, absolutely, unreservedly.

Another side of the same coin is to state what “might” does. Rather than say that “might is right“, we might say “might is left” because “might” has determined what is leftover. This defines the mightier as those that overpower, succeed, persist, assert and establish themselves in contrast to the defeated, destroyed, or overcome. This too is just an observation, neither a commendation nor condemnation.

A different interpretation of the phrase “might is right” is that might is justified.

Power and Justice are synonyms; for Might is mighty and DOES prevail.

Does “might” justify actions taken? Does the victim deserve their fate?

What are (in popular parlance) called “rights,” are really “spoil” — the prerogatives of formerly exerted Might: but a “right” lapses immediately, when those who are enjoying it, become incapable of further maintaining it.

At times, Redbeard seems to claim “might justifies actions”. For example:

When not thwarted by artificial contrivances, whatever argument Nature promulgates is— RIGHT.

To justify something is to measure it against a standard. For example, to legally justify is to measure something by the laws of the land; to justify text is to align it against a margin; to culturally justify something is to measure it by a cultural norm.

When justifying, the meta-questions are 1) should we justify X by a standard, and 2) which standard should we use?

Justification is a human action, its requirement is a man-made concept. Things occur (nature happens) whether they fit according to another schema or not. Justification does not exist outside of the human mind. So, unless Redbeard is expressing a personal preference for nature as a standard for measuring acts/events, his claim is false. If Redbeard is claiming that nature objectively justifies actions, he is be wrong. Actions cannot be justified objectively because there is always the meta-question of what standard to use, and why the human concept of justification requires completion at all. There is no imperative to adopt human desire for justification as an objective goal.

The natural world is a world of war; the natural man is a warrior; the natural law is tooth and claw. All else is error.

But Redbeard would be the first to point out that it is “might” –not ideas– that are the only binding contract upon action. Justification is not required. We do not need to justify actions or preferences, and there is no imperative to choose any particular standard if we did. Even rational justification is a man-chosen standard — and there is no imperative to rationally justify actions or preferences.

So, “might is right” should not be interpreted to mean that “might” justifies, or that the weak deserve their fate, or the mighty deserve their rewards.

“You have just put your “right” (your desire to live) over the intruder’s “right” (their desire for you to die) via your might (the gun). This is the meaning of “might is right”.

James Theodore Stillwell III, Power-Nihilism: a case for moral and political nihilism

Is “might” obligatory?

In the following quote Redbeard implies that the strong ought to get “the delights of life” because it is natural and moral:

Why should the delights of life go to failures and cowards? Why should the spoils of battle belong to the unwarlike? That would be insanity, utterly unnatural and immoral.

But when Redbeard claims “oughts” or obligations without stating a conditional premise, he attempts to derive what ought to be from what is. This is the well known “is/ought gap”. The only way Redbeard could claim obligations exist is to propose a condition, for example: “If we want to act according to natural principles… then the delights of life ought to go to the strong”. But this condition is merely a preference, and we are not forced to hold it.

The further man gets away from Nature, the further he departs from right. To be right is to be natural, and to be natural is to be right. The sun shines, therefore it is right that it should shine — the rain falls, therefore it is right that it should fall — the tides ebb and flow, therefore it is right that they should ebb and flow.

Even though Redbeard is not comparable to Shakespeare or Dante,
Might is Right is largely a work of poetry. Redbeard favours bombastic language and cathartic self-expression over clarity and consistency. As such, we can salvage a favourable (and reasonable) interpretation that “might is right” is a description of nature rather than an imperative derived from nature.

Does “Might is right” mean a rejection of man-made doctrines?

By identifying Redbeard’s fallacies and faulty interpretations of the phrase “might is right” we can maintain a clear perspective of his valid points. It is in moments where Redbeard critiques established doctrines that he is most consistent and clear:

All ethics, politics and philosophies are pure assumptions, built upon assumptions. They rest on no sure basis. They are but shadowy castles-in-the-air erected by day-dreamers, or by rogues, upon nursery fables.

Equality can only exist amongst equals. Civilization implies division of labor and division of labor implies subordination and subordination implies injustice and inequality. Woe to me if I speak not truth!

Broadly speaking, meta-ethical writers like Redbeard, do two things: they negate and affirm. Redbeard rejects much of his society’s ideology. In its place, Redbeard espouses values of aristocracy, Western civilisation, Aryan race, patriarchy, etc..

The phrase “might is right” might symbolise Redbeard’s values, but then almost any set of values could be asserted under a Redbeardian meta-ethical perspective. As long as someone understands their values are preferences, then there is no layer of deception between desire and reality.

Too often people project their desires onto the universe and claim their preferences are objectively “good”. Redbeard would say: have your preferences –if you can take them— but don’t delude yourself that they are externally “good”.

Taken as a practical lesson, this is one of empowerment. You can believe what you want, if you can, you can attain your goals. There is nothing hypocritical about rejecting man-made ideas like “good”, egalitarianism, or God, in order to assert your own. Make your life what you want can.

[Our ancestors] did not … [speak of] … ‘Liberty,’ ‘Justice,’ and ‘Equality of Opportunity,’ or ‘Rights of Man,’ when they knew full well that not only their lives, but everything they nominally possessed was ‘by leave’ of their conquerors and proprietors.

Does “Might make right”?

This final interpretation says “might” is intrinsically “good”, i.e. that “might” is an end-in-itself rather than a means-to-an-end. However this interpretation has it backwards. “Might” is a means, not an end.

Subjectively, “good” is that which is desired or that which completes its purpose well. In the first case, a “good” car is a desirable car, at least to someone who desires it. In the second case, a “good” gun is one that shoots well, or one that looks “good”, depending on who gives the object a purpose.

Since every person desires differently, and assigns different purposes to things, there is nothing objectively “good”. There is nothing in the world that is objectively “good” unless there is something that is universally desired, or has a universal purpose. And even if there was something that everyone desired, and had been prescribed the same purpose, a newborn baby would not be obliged to share this sentiment. There is no imperative to desire anything, and there is no necessary purpose for anything.

“Might” facilitates the attainment of desired goals, so it is inaccurate to say that “might” is itself desirable. To illustrate my point, consider the phrase “life is good“. It is inaccurate to claim “life is good” because “good” is what we desire, and without life, nothing can be desired. More accurately, life facilitates desiring, and that which we desire we call “good“. All subjective “goods” require life so there is no use in stating this prerequisite. Since “might” is a prerequisite for the attainment of goals, the statement “might is good” is just as useless as stating “life is instrumentally desirable”.

The interpretation that “might” is “good” is fundamentally confused. It confuses what is desired with how it is attained. “Might” is not intrinsically “good” or “bad” (nor moral/immoral or any other moralistic terms). It is the means to attain a desired goal –a natural mechanism for attaining “ends”. “Might” is a means, not an end.

So, is might right?

At its worst, Ragnar Redbeard’s Might is Right is an inconsistent work, and can be interpreted myopically. At its best, it is a rejection of false doctrines and an incitement to embrace natural law.

I can hear Redbeard from the grave: “Don’t believe lies that others fall for. Feel-good ideologies like egalitarianism are designed to castrate you and keep you from asserting yourself. Only your natural ability limits you. Take what you can from life. Revere the successful! Struggle and succeed, or die trying!”

But we are taught ‘all men are created equal’?
You are taught many a diplomatic Lie.

But for one man to reign over another is wrong?
What is ‘wrong’? The Strong can do as they please.

Who are the ‘Strong’?
They who conquer. They who take the spoil and camp on the battlefield. All life is a battlefield.

But that is a harsh philosophy?
Nature is harsh, cruel, merciless to all unlovely things. Her smile is only for the Courageous, the Strong, the Beautiful and the All-Daring.

You praise the Strong, you glorify the Mighty ones?
I do. They are Natures noblemen. In them she delights: the All-Vanquishers! the Dauntless Ones!

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).

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.

Christian vs amoralist: a conversation

Today I had an interesting conversation. The conversation was not particularly rigorous, so, feel free to read my other blogs on the details of my view or save your time and just read something by a philosopher, e.g. Beyond Morality by Richard Garner. The other person (D), is a Christian and believes in objective values.

This has been heavily edited to save you time. I cleaned up typos and removed the names for anonymity purposes. A full transcript is available below, so, you can check my editing for mischaracterisations…

M Today at 12:29

Why [your] change away from atheism?

D Today at 12:29

One of the root arguments in philosophy is if there are transcendental moral standards and duties or whether morality is subjective. Once you go down line of reasoning you cannot be consistent anymore without a God.

M Today at 12:34

You said, that without a God you cannot be consistent and hold that there are transcendental moral standards, I agree, though what makes you think there are transcendental moral standards? (We may need to get into definitions — but I’m trying to use your phrases to bypass that for now). (most new atheists disagree with you BTW, and think you can establish objective morals without god — but I disagree with them).

D Today at 12:34

We know from personal experience that some things are always wrong. Like there’s no circumstances where it’s good to rape and kill children etc. If you want to deny that, then you are a scary person, it’s that simple.

M Today at 12:38

So, this is where I need to get us to tease apart a definition, because I think very few people (and I agree they are scary) would agree that raping and killing is desirable/likable/preferable. But you use the word ‘good’, which I think is entirely different than the concepts of desirable/likable/preferable, and so, I wonder how you know there is something that is ‘good’ to judge things by independent of our preferences?

D Today at 12:39

Preferences are not morals; preferences are subjective. Morality is objective; we can have subjective views of it, but that does not mean there is not an objective standard. And we know this because there are some things that are always wrong. We know this from experience. You know to kill your mum is wrong no matter what, regardless of preferences.

M Today at 12:40

But you are assuming a premise here. I know that I don’t want to kill my mum, but when you say it is wrong –regardless of whether I did want to kill my mum or not– you are assuming there is such a thing as objective goodness/wrongness (objectively morality, in short). But earlier you said that God exists because without a god we cannot consistently believe in transcendental moral standards (objective morality). So, at this point you justified a belief in God because of objective morality, and the justification of objective morality is God’s existence.

D Today at 12:44

So, if you do not accept those premises then you are not able to call anything good bad right or wrong. And we are all trapped in a sea of subjectivism.

M Today at 12:44

And so, what if that is the case?

D Today at 12:46

So, you would ignore your own experience, the feeling of guilt and pain and the human experience? If that is the case, we need to release all those rapists at once because they didn’t do anything wrong.

M Today at 12:47

Not at all, but I wouldn’t call it something else. It is certainly a feeling, but I do not know if an extraneous entity called objective morality exists, to call it that. Just because there is no objective standard, doesn’t mean individuals can’t have a personal standard. I happen to also, believe that due to evolution, as a social animal, most healthy people share our set of values (e.g. rape is extremely disliked/’wrong’).

D Today at 12:49

But that’s not transcendental and is subjective.

M Today at 12:49

Yes, while you can justify anything if morality is subjective, but if morality doesn’t exist, then there is no such thing as moral justification.

D Today at 12:49

Now it’s a matter of preference. So, you would deny the existence of morality?

M Today at 12:50

We should define it, but, yes, I am a moral-antirealist (i.e. I deny moral realism). [My preference is the term amoralist].

D Today at 12:50

Knowing right from wrong is different from being able to justify it.

M Today at 12:51

Again, I think we are confusing our words. I would probably agree with you as a person, on what you call right and wrong… And in every day speech would say so.

D Today at 12:51

You cannot make any claims to right or wrong from that position though. You cannot say anything is bad or wrong.

M Today at 12:51

That’s right, and I don’t. But philosophically, I don’t think there is anything beyond it other than agreeableness/disagreeableness.

D Today at 12:52

That’s absurdity if I come kill your family that’s only disagreeable to you?

M Today at 12:52

Of course it is. But again, that doesn’t mean I can’t have subjective disapproval/approval of things. But it is also, disagreeable to you and most other people. So, when it happens in rare cases in society, we use our force to deal with it legally or otherwise.

D Today at 12:53

Because it’s objectively morally wrong. That justifies subjective justification for the use of force also. These group here say that’s okay. So, it’s okay.

M Today at 12:54

Technically, it doesn’t justify it, it describes it. The difference is that I am not going around saying “I can, therefore I will” to all sorts of things that I don’t actually want to do, but it is a philosophical understanding that this is the nature of things.

D Today at 12:55

You have trapped yourself in a naturalistic paradigm and are denying your own experience to try and keep it consistent. You know cannot have morality and be consistent inside naturalism, so, you deny it.

M Today at 12:56

I’m not sure what you mean by naturalistic paradigm, but I do hold that being amoral is the default position. And that the burden of proof is on anyone asserting there is a thing called morality.

D Today at 12:56

Naturalism would be to deny that there is anything outside of the physical realm. There is only matter etc. You are free to deny there’s morality, but your existence contradicts your position. Anytime you feel wronged or wrong someone else. Your experience contradicts your position.

M Today at 12:57

But my experience of negative emotion to something like my mother being killed does not prove there is objective morality.

D Today at 12:58

But the fact you can wrong someone else proves there is objective morality. Otherwise you never wronged anyone. And there is no wrong. And that’s absurdity.

M Today at 12:58

That’s right, there is technically no ‘wrong’ done, whether it appears absurd or not.

D Today at 12:58

So, you choose absurdity to keep your naturalism consistent. You are stealing your own and everyone else’s ability to make moral claims to keep your ideological position consistent. You should scratch right wrong good bad from your vocabulary. They don’t exist according to you.

M Today at 13:02

Sure, I agree. I and in philosophical conversations I don’t use them as an advocate of them. I could say the same for your worldview, though. You have chosen God’s existence to keep your belief in objective morality consistent. Or — You have chosen your objective morality to keep your belief in God’s existence consistent. Or — you have chosen objective morality and God’s existence to keep your belief in strong emotional reactions consistent.

D Today at 13:02

No, I know there is morality, From experience…

D Today at 13:03

You lowered yourself to an animal. And denied right wrong good and bad. Just to keep a consistent position. If that’s what you want to do. I’m not saying that to be mean. It’s literally the implication of what you are saying.

M Today at 13:05

I guess from your world view, mankind are not animals, because they have the spirit of god in them and that, I am not differentiating myself from the animals.

D Today at 13:06

You shouldn’t need God to realize we are distinct from animals.

M Today at 13:06

We’re all animals.

D Today at 13:06

But if you deny morality you are by definition debasing yourself to that level.

M Today at 13:06

I don’t consider it debasing, but that’s a separate issue. I consider it logically consistent, the default view.

D Today at 13:07

Are you saying a human life is not more valuable than an animal? I value my wife’s life over my dogs…

M Today at 13:07

Same here. Life is the most valuable to the individual whose life it is.

D Today at 13:08

But you are saying that besides your subjective preference, her life is not more valuable than a dog. That’s the implication of your position.

M Today at 13:08

Her life can’t be more valuable, unless there is an objective standard for judging lives.

D Today at 13:09

See how far into absurdity you need to go to hold your position. You lower your wife’s objective value to that of a dog? And still can’t see the problem?

M Today at 13:09

But are you understanding that I am not saying your wife’s life isn’t valuable (to me), but that there is no such thing as objective value.

D Today at 13:10

Yes, I know what you are saying. And I’m telling you the implication of it.

M Today at 13:10

So, practically, the only difference we might have on this issue is that I am happy to live life as if there were no objective standard, whereas you claim there is one. Either way, my subjective values manifest in the same way as yours (at least with respect to your wive compared to a dog).

D Today at 13:11

You are pretending the implications don’t mean anything.

M Today at 13:11

What are the implications then? All you said is that I can’t objectively say that your wife’s life is more valuable than your dog’s. But practically speaking that doesn’t change the way you or I would act.

D Today at 13:12

You have no ability to make value judgments, you have no foundation for law, you cannot justify the value of human life I could go on.

M Today at 13:12

I can make value judgments as an individual, all foundations flow from there.

D Today at 13:13

You can do them, but you cannot justify them. Same old atheist dilemma. They can know good and bad, but they cannot justify it.

M Today at 13:13

The only justification is might.

D Today at 13:14

So, once again of I decide to shoot everyone in the street, well I was the mightiest. So, all good then.

M Today at 13:14

But now you are talking in hypotheticals, because if we look at that in more realistic way, it is not what happens. I do not say “all ‘good'” to someone shooting others, because technically there is no ‘good’. If someone shoots up a mall, they are killed in response, by the might of another person with a gun (presumably a citizen or the police). Why did you leave that out of the hypothetical? You’ve selected an unfavourable interpretation of might being justification for action by imagining actions we both don’t like.

D Today at 13:16

They “should” be killed. But according to you there’s no justification for that.

M Today at 13:16

There are no ‘shoulds‘, objectively.

D Today at 13:16

That’s absurdity. How many words do you need to deny the existence of? To hold your position? ‘Should’ doesn’t exist, ‘good’ doesn’t exist, ‘wrong’ … nope we just imagined it.

M Today at 13:16

Simply morality itself. I can hold on to ethics. I.e. The study of “what should I do?”, with conditional oughts, such as “if I want X then I ought to do Y”, e.g. If I want to act rationally, then I ought to consider the facts. But I dispense with Kantian, categorical imperatives such as “do Y” or “you ought to do Y”.

D Today at 13:17

Once again you deny the human experience to protect your ideology. Any claim for or against is an ideology.

M Today at 13:17

It’s not an ideology. Respectfully, you have an ideology, and I have the lack of one (at least on this topic of morality). The default position is that there is no reason to believe in an entity called morality without reason or evidence to adopt a belief in it. It’s a default position, not a for or against.

D Today at 13:20

No, the default position is human experience, you want to discard that pretend you are an animal and deny anything outside of it.

M Today at 13:20

As I said earlier, you are assuming that human experience includes knowing what is objectively moral, that I deny.

D Today at 13:21

No, we don’t need to know what is objectively moral for something to be objectively moral. It could be that nobody knows what is actually objectively moral.

M Today at 13:21

I agree with that, in the sense that I agree that one of the defining characteristics of objective morality is that it is independent of our thinking about it.

D Today at 13:21

But if you deny that objective morality exists you have nothing and are an animal, and cannot make claims to anything. Can’t have law. Can’t do anything.

M Today at 13:21

If I have preferences, I can have law.

D Today at 13:22

But you cannot justify them.

M Today at 13:22

They can be justified by might, and why do you assume that just because the only justification is might, that everyone will murder and rape?

D Today at 13:22

Because my preferences might include murder and rape.

M Today at 13:22

Indeed, for some people that is the case, but…

 [Here I tried to paraphrase the following quote, so put the whole thing here]

“The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine. I don’t want to do that. Right now, without any god, I don’t want to jump across this table and strangle you. I have no desire to strangle you. I have no desire to flip you over and rape you. You know what I mean?” Penn Jillette

D Today at 13:23

Yes, and they are just as correct in their preferences as you are. According to you.

M Today at 13:23

I wouldn’t use the phrase “correct”, but they will certainly try to justify themselves with their might — just as I will fight back.

M Today at 13:24

And many more people will stand in union with me, because most people share the subjective value that murder is wrong.

D Today at 13:24

If my preference is to kill you, and your preference is me not to kill you, we can’t both be right, someone must be wrong.

M Today at 13:24

There’s no “right”. It just is.

D Today at 13:26

Notice how I don’t need to deny the existence of anything. You need to deny everything outside of naturalism. You need to deny morality.

M Today at 13:27

No, on the contrary, you are invoking morality. I am in the default position. Maybe we are just repeating ourselves now?

D Today at 13:28

Pretty much. But just to end this. In my world humans have intrinsic value above animals and there is a right and a wrong. In yours we are animals and there is no right and wrong.

M Today at 13:29

I think that is fair.


[we ended this amicably, the above was not personal for either person]

Full chat below: (the only change made was on the names, and as I said, edits to make the above read quicker, but I intend no mischaracterisation. The only unfairness is that I added slight substance to some of my points.)

Continue reading “Christian vs amoralist: a conversation”

What obligation is there to be moral? Part 3

Part 3 of a three part series. Pt1. Pt2.

Required obligations?

Which things need to be committed to (if any)? In other words, if “something being obligatory” means that it is required for something else, which kinds of “something else” must we be required to commit to in the first place?

Are there any kinds of commitments that need to be made? Could someone avoid making commitments entirely, thereby avoiding obligations? Or would they still be obliged to be moral? Is morality a kind of obligation that transcends the need to commit to it in the first place?

It seems theoretically possible for someone to avoid making social and commitments. For example, there could be a person that refused to engage with others in society, and was therefore unable even to make implicit or unstated commitments to others. More simply, perhaps this person lived on a deserted island, alone with no one to make society with. What if someone refused to make moral commitments? Other than social or legal consequences, would there be any moral consequences?

One argument might be that there are no consequences for being immoral, for failing to uphold a moral commitment, but that it is still obligatory to uphold moral commitments for their own sake. If something is obligatory for the sake of being moral, must we assume that we need to obey morality or be moral in the first place? For example –and to clarify the question– if not murdering is obligatory in order to be moral, the question becomes whether we are obliged to be moral in the first place. The question is not whether we approve or disapprove of murder, nor whether there will be legal repercussions for committing murder (if we are caught).

The question is: must we assume that we need to obey morality or be moral in the first place?

If the answer is yes, then this pushes the question back one step: if it is obligatory to be moral in the first place, then being moral itself is obligatory. If morality is obligatory, it must be required for something else. This raises the same question again: “must we be moral in the first place?” You can see how this causes an infinite loop; we never reach an independent reason to be moral. This is like saying that being a thief is required to be a thief; being a liar is required to be a liar; being happy is required to be happy; being fast is required to be fast, etc.

If the answer is no –to the first question or any of its succeeding iterations– then what “something else” is moral behaviour required for? If the answer is ‘nothing’, then it cannot be necessary to be moral in the first place. Answering with ‘nothing’ is another way of saying being moral is obligatory ‘for its own sake/in order to be moral’. There would be no way to have a meaningful obligation because “required for nothing” seems to mean “there is no metaphysical force behind this moral threat”.

If, alternatively, someone tries to define morality as: “that which is required without any further justification/requirements”, or “the obligation which has no other requirement”, then I return to my central thesis: what, then, is the consequence for not being moral?

If being moral is obligatory in any metaphysically moral way, even if it is the only kind of “obligation which has no other requirement”, what is the repercussion for not being moral? We have now returned to my central idea, and it seems that without evidence of a metaphysical  necessity to be moral, there is no reason to believe that there is force behind any supposed obligation to be moral.

Perhaps you believe moral forces exist, in which case you dismiss my entire argument. If you haven’t already, read why I disagree that moral forces exist in my post rejecting moral realism.

What obligation is there to be moral? Part 2

Part 2 of a three part series. Pt1. Pt3.

Forces compel in their own realms only

If I make a social commitment, I would be compelled to uphold that commitment by social forces (e.g. social penalties like lower social status, group exclusion, etc). If I make a legal commitment, compulsion might come in the form of legal forces (e.g. the police). Social and legal obligations are only forceful in their respective realms: social obligations are not mind-independent forces, neither are legal obligations.

Assuming I can meaningfully make a moral commitment, what kind of forces would compel me to uphold a moral commitment? Strictly speaking, the appropriate answer is ‘moral forces’, and if such a force existed, it would compel us to uphold moral obligations and provide the threat of moral consequences. We need to analyse moral obligation as its own kind of force, independent of other kinds of forces (social, legal, etc).

So if we are to analyse moral obligation, and obligation requires a force or consequence, where is the empirical evidence for moral consequences or moral forces? Either would require that the universe has moral properties. These metaphysical moral properties would somehow constitute moral forces, that could make claims to moral obligation true.

Do moral consequences exist?

There are social or legal forces in the universe. These forces are not universal, metaphysical properties, but localised to human interactions and institutions. They are not claimed to be metaphysical in nature, independent of human-minds. Social repercussions for not upholding social commitments, are evidence for social forces in society, likewise, legal repercussions for breaking the law are evidence for the existence of the legal forces in society.

With the law, it is easy to see the force that makes legal commitments legally compelling. At some point, if you continue to break the law, physical force will be applied to you until you comply.

Likewise, stated or unstated social contracts compel participants to uphold social obligations. For example, if you constantly break your word, you may suffer expulsion from a group. The group’s members’ collective choice to socially exclude you does limit (or end) your ability to socialise with them.

In each case, there is a force behind the repercussions for breaking a commitment. Those forces are what establish meaningful consequences, and those forces actually exist (in their respective realms).

But by what force is a moral commitment compelled? Sure, social penalties and legal penalties may follow a supposed immoral act, or the breaking of a moral commitment, but what evidence is there for any strictly metaphysical moral consequences?

If there is no such thing as a moral force, then (as I said in part one), there would be no way to make a claim to moral obligation meaningfully. However, if we look at this another way, assuming we can make a moral claim to obligation, but there is no empirical force to compel us to uphold a moral commitment, then we can break our moral commitments. If we break our moral commitments, and there is no moral forces, there is no moral consequences. The takeaway message is that without empirical moral forces, there are no truth moral obligations.

There is no evidence for moral forces, and hence no moral obligations outside of the socially or legally associated man-made repercussions.

Obligation without consequence

One possible response to the above is that “we ought be moral/good just because”. There doesn’t need to be a consequence, or moral force, but somehow moral obligations exist without caveat.

Could someone avoid making commitments entirely, thereby avoiding obligations? Or would they still be obliged to be moral? Is morality a kind of obligation that transcends the need to commit to it in the first place?

On to part 3