Ultimate Foundation of Private Property, Part I: Argumentation Ethics

December 20th, 2013   Submitted by Christopher Zimny

ArgumentEthicHans-Hermann Hoppe claims to have discovered the ultimate foundation of property rights in an argument that he calls “argumentation ethics”. (For two essays by Hoppe on this topic, see here and here.) The goal of his argument is to show what social norms must be considered valid prior to debate about any other social norms. This is an admirable undertaking, and he succeeds in showing exactly what norms all arguments necessarily presuppose. His argument captured the admiration of his mentor, Murray N. Rothbard, who called it “a dazzling breakthrough for political philosophy,” and it sparked a fiery debate since its original publication in 1988, which still continues among libertarian circles today.

I wish to add to this debate, for I find it to be lacking in one critical regard: it fails to show how individuals recognize the property rights of other people if no argument takes place. In particular, Robert Murphy and Gene Callahan have criticized argumentation ethics partially for this fact, though they did so improperly, and were met with rebuttals by numerous high-profile libertarians such as Walter Block and Stephan Kinsella (who attached to Hoppe’s case his own principle of estoppel, which I will go over in the next part). Here, I will add my own contribution to the discussion by examining Hoppe’s use of the principle of performative contradiction in his argument. In the next part, I will completely reconstruct his case for property rights by showing that their ultimate foundation rests in a broader mode of action than that which Hoppe claims.

Hoppe makes his case in the following fashion: Individuals who wish to avoid conflict over scarce resources may submit themselves to civil discourse. Several implications stem from this fact alone, and they constitute Hoppe’s ethic. Hoppe points out that whenever one argues, even with oneself, one presupposes that one has exclusive control and legitimate ownership of one’s own body, and in order to argue, one must have previously appropriated goods (such as sustenance, etc.) in order to survive up the point of making the argument; in short, this constitutes property external to one’s own body. Now, when one engages in an argument with another person, insofar as one expects the other person to understand what is being said, one must assume that the other person also has the right to his or her own body and the right to the goods that the other person used up to the point of making the argument, and it follows from this that any undue aggression against these implicitly recognized rights is an illegitimate invasion of them (what is also called the “non-aggression principle”).

In further elaboration of his argument, Hoppe says that with regard to social norms, all of these things must be implicitly assumed by individuals who wish to maintain peace (and thus to those who argue as opposed to immediately resorting to violent action). If these things were not assumed, in short, the entire human race would have died out long ago and no one would be around to argue about anything, let alone social norms. Too, the preference for conflict over peace, and war over debate, would defeat the entire purpose of norms (for the purpose of having social norms is to maintain a well-ordered society and prevent conflict; without these desires, norms would be pointless, if they could even be said to exist in the first place).

Furthermore—and crucial to his case—is that no person could argue otherwise. If a person attempted to dispute these truths either with himself or another person, one would be making an argument; hence, one would implicitly affirm exactly what one is trying to argue against. Too, he links his argument to the deductive science of human action (called “praxeology”) by showing that an act of argumentation is itself an action from which certain truths can be deduced, which were shown above. (On this point also see his paper, “On Praxeology and the Praxeological Foundations of Epistemology”.) He concludes his case by saying that this framework for discussion—which inherently recognizes and establishes respective property rights—is the only legitimate one in which norms can be discussed, and that it shows, too, the ultimate foundation of private property.

I want to draw attention to the particular fact that Hoppe grounds the ultimate truth of his argumentation ethics, and more widely, praxeology itself, in the fact that neither can be refuted through argumentation—that whenever a person tries to dispute these things he implicitly assumes them to be true (what is called a “performative contradiction”)—and these truths are thereby shown to be self-evident, or axiomatic. For Hoppe, the very fact that they cannot be disputed gives them their ultimate foundation.

However, I must contend that it is not a consequence of the fact that people cannot rationally deny them that makes such truths absolute. It is precisely the opposite; that such truths cannot be rationally denied is a consequence of their being absolute. The reason that axioms are what they are is that no further deduction is possible past a particular point—the axiom itself. As such, axiomatic truths are ultimate givens. No further reasoning can explain the fact that action is purposive behavior. Because of its axiomatic nature, then, its implications pervade all action. This is precisely what leads anyone who attempts to deny them into a performative contradiction. A man who says, “I am not acting,” therefore must performatively contradict himself, for he is ipso facto acting purposively. The role performative contradiction is such that it can be used as a tool to detect or discover axiomatic truths. It does not establish them as such.

This point is crucial to fully understanding the ground on which Hoppe erects his argument. Since, according to Hoppe, the ultimate foundation of property rights rests completely on the fact that they cannot be argued away, his ethic is fully predicated upon the specific act of argumentation.

Now, it is true that individuals who act and make choices (and thus internally argue) affirm their own self-ownership and their ownership of external objects. This follows directly from the fact that man acts. The rights of property are thereby axiomatically established for all actors. However, and this must be emphasized, this establishment stems from the logic of action itself, not from the fact that they cannot be argued against; indeed, to repeat, the foundation of property rights cannot be disputed precisely because they are implied in the logic of action.

Even if we disregard this problem with Hoppe’s construction, further problems lie with the argumentation ethic’s intersubjective recognition of such established rights. According to Hoppe, the recognition of Person B’s property rights by Person A would be impossible if Person A did not actually argue with Person B. Yet, assume that Person A aggressed against Person B anyway. Then, the aggressor “is beyond Hoppe’s reach[, for] the ‘fault’ of the argumentation ethics is that it is limited to people who argue.” (Block, “Rejoinder to Murphy and Callahan”.) But one senses intuitively that such aggression actually is a violation of property rights, regardless of the fact that Person A never actually argued with Person B in order to acknowledge Person B’s rights.

So we see that a second problem with his argument is the insufficiency of his ethic’s mutual recognition of property rights. This is precisely where Hoppe fails to establish mutual recognition of rights for all actors who interact with each other in some fashion, because only actors who specifically argue with one another mutually recognize each other’s rights. The glaring hole in his case is that it leaves out any pair of actors who don’t actually argue with one another.

On Hoppe’s own terms, then, mutual recognition of property rights is not absolutely established prior to argument between the two actors; it is so established only afterward. This seems out of line with the absolutely a priori character that Hoppe wants to ascribe to his case. The first fault is Hoppe’s improper grounding of the property ethic. The second major problem is the insufficiency of his ethic’s recognition of property rights. In order to remedy these flaws, I will reconstruct Hoppe’s case in the mere act of communication itself, rather than the specific act of argumentation. This reconstruction will constitute the second part of this essay.

However, before we press on into Part II, a word should be said about the remarkable achievement of argumentation ethics as such. Hoppe’s argument is nevertheless extremely important because it delineates what ideas can and cannot be legitimately argued about when a discussion which attempts to justify a stance on ethics is had. As far as that aspect of his case is concerned, Hoppe is correct. To be clear, as Hoppe is quick to point out, all propositions are by definition arguments, and his insights remain wholly applicable in such cases. I cannot and do not wish to take anything away from his case in this regard. Instead, what I will focus on in the next part is solely the proper establishment of the private property ethic itself. I will argue that as far as that goes, it is misplaced, and the foundation instead must be in a wider sphere than that which he suggests, i.e., the general sphere of communication, rather than the specific act of argumentation.

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13 Responses to “Ultimate Foundation of Private Property, Part I: Argumentation Ethics”

  1. Martin BrockNo Gravatar says:

    If I pay an attorney to argue on my behalf, this attorney’s argumentation does not imply any right to self-ownership, so I’m not sure how argumentation ethics gets off the ground without assuming that one rightfully argues on his own behalf, which seems to be Hoppe’s conclusion. In other words, the argument seems circular to me.

    • Marilynn BrickNo Gravatar says:

      If you pay an attorney to argue on your behalf, it is in his interest to do so because he wants your money.

      • Martin BrockNo Gravatar says:

        O.K. If the attorney is my slave, the fact that he argues with someone else on my behalf does not logically imply his assumption of his self-ownership. Since he is my slave, neither he nor I nor the person with whom he argues assumes his self-ownership.

  2. toaNo Gravatar says:

    Hoppe is one of my favorites. Looking forward to part two.

  3. Victor ClemensNo Gravatar says:

    Hmm…

    I’ve actually meant to write an article myself on this for a while, but haven’t ever had the time to work out my argument fully. Roderick Long says of Hoppe’s argument: “Hoppe’s argument seems to inspire two principal sorts of reactions. Some find it an ironclad demonstration of the truth of libertarianism. Others find it a crazy, hopeless argumentative strategy that could never have had any chance of working.”

    I fall into the second camp.

    If I claim: “I claim nothing”, then my action supplies empirical evidence that I do indeed claim something, and an observer may chime in and point out that my claim tests false against this evidence. But if I claim “I do not own my own body” or “I have no free will” or any of the other stuff the whole boomerang principle argument supposedly disproves, then I don’t understand in what sense my action demonstrates my “self-ownership” or my “free will” or what-have-you. Either the boomerang principle devolves into ordinary empiricism, or it fails to hold up as a valid argument.

    • spiritspliceNo Gravatar says:

      Morality has nothing to do with “working”. AE is saying “murder is wrong, theft is wrong”. It isn’t a spell to prevent these things.

      “I don’t understand in what sense my action demonstrates my “self-ownership” or my “free will” ”

      Because you could not have actions without self ownership. A robot cannot act, it must be controlled by others.

      • Victor ClemensNo Gravatar says:

        “Morality has nothing to do with “working”. AE is saying “murder is wrong, theft is wrong”. It isn’t a spell to prevent these things. ”

        Arguments have something to do with working though. If someone wants to demonstrate the truth of a claim, moral or otherwise, then they need to use valid logic to do so. (Unless they can demonstrate it more directly through empirical evidence.)

        ““I don’t understand in what sense my action demonstrates my “self-ownership” or my “free will” ”

        Because you could not have actions without self ownership. A robot cannot act, it must be controlled by others.”

        Why can’t an entity have actions without self ownership? Does an action cease to qualify as action if someone else controls me while I take it, or forces me to do it? What about all the youtube videos I’ve seen of robots flipping pancakes and such? Looks like action to me.

        Perhaps we need to differentiate between the ability to take an action, and the moral status of that action? When you make a claim that someone “owns” something, do you mean they have the physical ability to use that thing, or do you mean that they can morally use that thing? (Or at least that they’ve met one necessary condition for someone to consider their action moral?)

        • spiritspliceNo Gravatar says:

          “Why can’t an entity have actions without self ownership? ”

          Are you equivocating or are you unaware of praxeological uses of the words actors and action? Only actors have actions in this sense, just as only moral agents are able to act immorally.

          “When you make a claim that someone “owns” something, do you mean they have the physical ability to use that thing, or do you mean that they can morally use that thing? ”

          We are talking about moral right, he who has the best claim. Simple possession is not sufficient to determine ownership or theft could not exist.

          • I confess I haven’t studied praxeology. I thank you for your response though, I think we may have made at least some progress. How do you proceed from the premise that I take some particular action to the conclusion that I have the best claim to ownership of something?

            I concede that taking an action with a particular object, walking out the door with a hat for instance, may demonstrate that I have the physical ability to move or perhaps otherwise control the object in question, “simple possession” in your words. But I don’t understand how it demonstrates the moral status of another’s attempt to deprive me of said hat, or to take possession themselves. Can you help me make that connection?

    • If you claim you do not own yourself, etc., you recognize that you do because of the logical a priori implications needed to make the statement to begin with. Hoppe’s argument (and mine: http://dailyanarchist.com/2014/04/24/ultimate-foundation-of-priva te-property-part-2-presuppositions-of-communication/) expounds the implicit faces required to make such a statement to being with.

      Think about it this way: If no one existed and there is therefore no empirical evidence of communication or argumentation, these truths would still hold true regardless. The concept of actions still logically implies certain things (in this case certain truths regarding property rights).

      I hope that’s clear enough to help a bit.

  4. I haven’t read this all closely, but one initial comment jumped out at me:

    “Now, it is true that individuals who act and make choices (and thus internally argue) affirm their own self-ownership and their ownership of external objects. This follows directly from the fact that man acts. The rights of property are thereby axiomatically established for all actors. However, and this must be emphasized, this establishment stems from the logic of action itself, not from the fact that they cannot be argued against; indeed, to repeat, the foundation of property rights cannot be disputed precisely because they are implied in the logic of action.”

    If I am grokking your point, you seem to making more of an argument like Gewirth and his student Roger Pilon do. The idea that all action is “conative” and that universalizability applies to it. Hoppe successfully criticizes this approach, I believe. Hoppe focuses on argumentation b/c when you are making a justificatory claim that is when universalizability applies.

    see note 117 to ch. 7 of Hoppe’s Theory of Socialism and Capitalism:

    “Methodologically, our approach exhibits a close resemblance to what A. Gewirth has described as the “dialectically necessary method” (Reason and Morality, Chicago, 1978, p.42-47)—a method of a priori reasoning modeled after the Kantian idea of transcendental deductions. Unfortunately, though, in his important study Gewirth chooses the wrong starting point for his analyses. He attempts to derive an ethical system not from the concept of argumentation, but from that of action. However, this surely cannot work, because from the correctly stated fact that in action an agent must, by necessity, presuppose the existence of certain values or goods, it does not follow that such goods then are universalizable and should thus be respected by others as the agent’s goods by right. (On the requirement of normative statements to be universalizable cf. the following discussion in the text.) Rather, the idea of truth, or regarding morals, of universalizable rights or goods only emerges with argumentation as a special subclass of actions but not with action as such, as is clearly revealed by the fact that Gewirth, too, is not engaged simply in action, but more specifically in argumentation when he tries to convince us of the necessary truth of his ethical system. However, with argumentation recognized as the one and only appropriate starting point for the dialectically necessary method, a capitalist (i.e., non-Gewirthian) ethic follows, as will be seen. On the faultiness of Gewirth’s attempt to derive universalizable rights from the notion of action cf. also the perceptive remarks by M. MacIntyre, After Virtue, Notre Dame, 1981, pp.6465; J. Habermas, Moralbewusstsein und kommunikatives Handeln, Frankfurt/M., 1983, pp.110-111; and H. Veatch, Human Rights, Baton Rouge, 1985, pp. 159-160.”