A critique of Argumentation Ethics

6 min readOct 29, 2013

Hans Hoppe in On the Ultimate Justification of the Ethics of Private Property (From: The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, 1993 & 2006. Article reprinted from 1988):

“According to Mises there exists no ultimate justification for ethical propositions in the same sense as there exists one for economic propositions. Economics can inform us whether or not certain means are appropriate for bringing about certain ends, yet whether or not the ends can be regarded as just can neither be decided by economics nor by any other science. There is no justification for choosing one rather than another end. In the last resort, which end is chosen is arbitrary from a scientific point of view and is a matter of subjective whim, incapable of any justification beyond the mere fact of simply being liked.”

Is Hoppe not an Austrian? The subjectivity of values is a central theme of Austrian Economics. Furthermore, this begs the question of a justification towards what or whom?

At the level of an individual, ends are not arbitrary. All individuals are different, and what drives them is based on their unique genes combined with their unique life history.


“Many libertarians have followed Mises on this point. Like Mises, they have abandoned the idea of a rational foundation of ethics. As he does, they make as much as possible out of the economic proposition that the libertarian private property ethic produces a higher general standard of living than any other one; that most people actually prefer higher over lower standards of living; and hence, that libertarianism should prove highly popular. But ultimately, as Mises certainly knew, such considerations can only convince somebody of libertarianism who has already accepted the “utilitarian” goal of general wealth maximization. For those who do not share this goal, they have no compelling force at all. Thus, in the final analysis, libertarianism is based on nothing but an arbitrary act of faith.”

Hoppe de-individualizes his analysis again. If person A desires a higher over a lower standard of living for himself, over the medium to long run, then we can argue from his own point of view that it will benefit him if the people besides A act according to libertarian norms, so that it would benefit him to support it.

Take Mises himself, while he was still in Europe. Social cooperation was disintegrating at an astonishing pace. Any degree to which he could keep other people away from socialism and towards liberalism would benefit him personally.

Hans Hoppe in From the Economics of Laissez Faire to the Ethics of Libertarianism (From: The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, 1993 & 2006. Article reprinted from 1988):

“As Rothbard points out, economic analysis only establishes that laissez faire will lead to higher standards of living in the long run. In the long run, however, one will be dead. Why then would it not be quite reasonable for a person to argue that while one perfectly agreed with everything economics had to say, one was still more concerned about one’s welfare in the short run and there, clearly for no economist to deny, a privilege or a subsidy would be the nicest thing?”

It is possible for a person to be that short-term oriented. It is also possible for a person to have a longer term orientation. The fruits of a pure private capitalistic society materialize quickly. To illustrate: If I were the richest man in the world today, I would give it all up if that would give me a guarantee that the world would embrace pure capitalism.

A parameter of my gain (of which there would be dozens and dozens): I would expect to live longer because of it. I think 20 years of pure worldwide capitalism would far exceed the quality of healthcare provided to a lower to middle income person compared with the quality provided after 20 years of development under the current conditions to the richest man alive.

Isn't this what Hoppe himself has encountered? While working for a publicly funded university, he was advocating for pure capitalism; with the knowledge that this wish could end the existence of that very university.

Another thing to point out is the breadth of psychic benefit. The ability to travel, the ability to enjoy communication with new people, increasing one’s understanding of reality through scientific discovery, having the knowledge that the world is cooperating instead of fighting. These are the sorts of things that a free market brings, and to many people (such as myself) they have tremendous value.

Given that I am not the richest man alive, what libertarianism has to offer me is all the much greater.

To reiterate: I argue for libertarianism not because for me it is an end in itself that is disconnected from all my other desires. Libertarianism for me is the means.

On the Ultimate Justification of the Ethics of Private Property (continuing):

“First, it must be noted that the question of what is just or unjust—or for that matter the even more general question of what is a valid proposition and what is not—only arises insofar as I am, and others are, capable of propositional exchanges, i.e., of argumentation. [..] | Second, it must be noted that argumentation does not consist of free-floating propositions but is a form of action requiring the employment of scarce means; and that the means which a person demonstrates as preferring by engaging in propositional exchanges are those of private property. | For one thing, no one could possibly propose anything, and no one could become convinced of any proposition by argumentative means, if a person’s right to make exclusive use of his physical body were not already presupposed. It is this recognition of each other’s mutually exclusive control over one’s own body which explains the distinctive character of propositional exchanges that, while one may disagree about what has been said, it is still possible to agree at least on the fact that there is disagreement. | It is also obvious that such a property right to one’s own body must be said to be justified a priori, for anyone who tried to justify any norm whatsoever would already have to presuppose the exclusive right of control over his body as a valid norm simply in order to say, ‘I propose such and such.’ ”

When person A is communicating with person B, the only things that he momentarily demonstrates as preferring is that A momentarily has enough control over his body to have the conversation, and that B momentarily has enough control over his body to have the conversation. There are many non-libertarian ethical systems compatible with that preference.

Hoppe here substitutes the smallest of freedoms (temporal conditional control) with (what he perceives as) the biggest of freedoms.

I see no inconsistency in the fact itself of a person trying to argue against libertarianism. I would suggest to take on the content of the argument itself. And most of all: I would suggest to study economics and psychology as to present the best case for it, from the point of view of other people’s own thoughts and feelings.

Other critiques of Hoppe’s reasoning are: