Argumentation Ethics and Self-Ownership

Hans-Herman Hoppe is a German bourgeois economist who subscribes to the “Austrian school” of economics. Out of all the contemporary Austrians, Hoppe may indeed be the most reactionary, advocating not-so-subtle racism against non-white immigrants to the United states, an end to democracy and a return to monarchy – a view so reactionary one could almost call it anti-bourgeois. Hoppe has proposed a libertarian political/ethical theory called “Argumentation Ethics”, which he portrays as an ‘a priori’ ethical justification for Capitalism.

Marxism and Ethics

The response to (and criticism of) Argumentation ethics has been almost entirely from a right-wing perspective. The reason for this is simple: ethical theories are largely irrelevant to Marxism. Dialectical Marxism cannot produce an ethical theory because it is not in any way normative. Marxism, in this sense, can be understood as the scientific study of the laws of motion of history and of capitalism.

This means that if Hoppe truly has derived an “ought” from an “is”, he has not demonstrated the opposite to be true. Therefore it is possible to believe in both Marxism and Argumentation Ethics: one may believe that the working class described by Marx is completely immoral for forcibly seizing the means of production and thus violating the principle of self-ownership, and also believe that such action is historically necessary (the bourgeois economist Joseph Schumpeter held a position very similar to this). Therefore ethical theories(including A.E.) have no bearing on the truth-value of Marxism and cannot be used to falsify it.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s engage libertarianism on it’s own terms.

The argument can be summed up as follows:

1. Self-ownership is a prerequisite of argumentation

2. Therefore to argue against self-ownership is a ‘performative contradiction’.

Two fellow libertarians by the name of Robert P. Murphy and Gene Callahan responded to Hoppe’s argument in “Hans-Herman Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethic: A Critique”. Among other things, Murphy and Callahan argued (correctly) that use does not equal ownership:

But now we move on to a more fundamental objection to Hoppe’s argument: One is not necessarily the rightful owner of a piece of property even if control of it is necessary in a debate over its ownership. Because of this fact, a crucial link in Hoppe’s argument fails. Someone can deny the libertarian ethic, and yet concede to his opponents the use of their bodies for debate. There is nothing contradictory about this, as we shall demonstrate with a few examples. First, imagine a devout theist who believes that God created the entire universe, and is therefore the rightful owner of everything, including the bodies of human beings. The theist might believe that God has granted humans temporary control over His property, just as a landlord leases an apartment. However, just as the landlord would prohibit certain destructive acts, so too (the theist might think) would God prohibit such things as suicide and prostitution. Because of his worldview, such a theist might argue (against a libertarian Atheist, perhaps) that people do not own their bodies, and that it is perfectly legitimate for outsiders to use force to prevent someone from committing suicide. Now, we grant that the theist would have a difficult time proving his case; indeed, we would disagree with his conclusions if such a theist really existed and advocated this stance. However, we do not think he has, by making such a case, in any way engaged in contradiction. Since we have come up with a logical counterexample to his sweeping result, Hoppe’s argument as it stands must be incorrect.

Second, imagine that a Georgist were to argue that everyone should own a piece of landed property. The Georgist could go so far as to claim that his position is the only justifiable one. He could correctly observe that anyone debating him would necessarily grant him (the Georgist) some standing room, and then he might deduce from this true observation the conclusion that it would be a performative contradiction to deny that everyone is entitled to a piece of land. We imagine that Hoppe would point out to such a Georgist that using a piece of land during a debate does not entitle one to its full ownership, and Hoppe would be correct. But by the same token, Hoppe’s argument for ownership of one’s body falls apart; Hoppe has committed the exact same fallacy as our hypothetical Georgist… Hoppe’s response to this objection, when it was made by David Friedman, Leland Yeager, and others, was to point out that he was not denying the historical existence of slavery, but rather its justification. But Hoppe misunderstood his critics’ point. Friedman, for example, wasn’t merely saying that because slavery has existed, Hoppe must be wrong. Rather, Friedman argued that, because countless slaves have engaged in successful argumentation, Hoppe must be wrong when he claims that self-ownership is a prerequisite to debate.

Answering the Hoppean claims that the argument is ‘a priori’, Murphy and Callahan respond:

Misesian economists will no doubt appreciate Hoppe’s frustration; he believes he is in the analogous position of someone being asked to deal with ostensible “counterexamples” to the law of diminishing marginal utility. However, as we stated above, it is Hoppe who is misunderstanding the type of claim being made. Yes, Hoppe is arguing for a conclusion (namely, that only libertarian ethics are consistently justifiable) that by itself makes no empirical claims, and hence cannot be falsified by observation. However, Hoppe’s chain of arguments to reach that (empirically neutral) conclusion crucially relies on an empirical assumption, to wit, that a person needs to enjoy self-ownership (and all other libertarian rights) if he is to successfully debate. It is this empirical assumption that his critics attacked, and quite successfully so: It is simply not true that one needs to own his body in order to fairly debate, just as one doesn’t need to own standing room in order to fairly debate.

We do not wish to deny that there is a definite sense in which, if there is to be a legitimate give-and-take of ideas, the two parties in question must enjoy a degree of autonomy or “freedom.” It would indeed be silly if the puppeteer “debated” his marionette, or if a man trained his dog to engage in a mock argument. Yet this transcendental self-ownership is not what Hoppe is after; even the heretic being burned at the stake ultimately has free will and “owns” his mind. It was ingenious for Hoppe to attempt to equate the conditions necessary for rational discourse with the property rules of radical libertarianism, but it is obvious to us that this attempted mapping fails.

In their criticism of argumentation ethics, MC have actually stumbled across a much larger problem with self-ownership.

The Problem of Alienability

According to Rothbard, “the absolute right of each man [sic] … to control [his or her] body free of coercive interference. 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 [sic] the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered by coercive molestation.” [For a New Liberty, pp. 26-27]

The problem is that ownership cannot exist in a vacuum. Ownership, in general, is an implicit or explicit contract between the property-owner and a third party of enforcers: historically the state, but presumably in a hypothetical libertarian world, this job would be done by a private, mafia-like protection agencies. Property requires enforcement precisely because it is alienable. Nobody needs to enter into such a contract with regards to so-called ‘self-ownership’. No one needs a deed to control of their own body; the fact that people control their own bodies is so obvious in it’s immediacy that it requires no theory to justify it at all.

Rothbard in “For a New Liberty” seems to argue that self-ownership requires not being “hampered by coercive molestation”. In other words, it is implied that self-ownership is more than the simple fact that people control their own bodies and can be alienated by “coercive molesation” i.e. self-ownership is alienable. However, in defending argumentation ethics against the equivocation argument, libertarians seem to imply that self-ownership is defined as merely “the ability to control one’s own body”.

It would seem that ‘self-ownership’ and ‘ownership in general are two very different things. The reason libertarians have used the same word (ownership) to describe the fact that people control their own bodies with the social institution of private property is because they are ideologues who have started with the goal of justifying capitalism and have “worked backwards” to those premises. To sum it up:

If self-ownership is alienable, then argumentation ethics is false because it commits the fallacy of equating use with ownership.

If self-ownership is inalienable, then the conception of the self as property (self-ownership) is impossible because something must be alienable to be “owned” in the first place.


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