Rights Theory, Libertarianism

How Not to Argue for Libertarianism

Murray Rothbard believes that each person has a right of full self-ownership, and that if we were consistent in recognizing this fact and its implications, we would see that anarcho-capitalism follows from it.   Much of Rothbard’s written work is devoted to tracing out the implications of self-ownership, and critiquing the foundations and policy prescriptions of alternative ethical/political theories.  And in this work there is much of value.  (In this I largely agree with Caplan‘s analysis).  But his argument for the self-ownership thesis itself is disappointingly weak.

Essentially, Rothbard’s argument amounts to the following:

(1) There are three and only three possibilities regarding ownership of the self: (i) each person is a full self-owner, (ii) “a certain class of people, A, have the right to own another class, B,” or (iii) “everyone has the right to own his own equal quotal share of everyone else.” [For a New Liberty (San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1978, p. 29)]

(2) (ii) “contradicts itself” because it proclaims that some humans have human rights of self-ownership while others lack them, and “violates the basic economic requirement for life” because it allows some individuals to live parasitically at the expense of others.

(3) (iii) is implausible insofar as it holds that people are entitled to partial ownership of others, but not of themselves; and it is impractical insofar as no one could survive if they required permission from all other persons before taking any action.  Also, “if a world of zero self-ownership and one hundred percent other ownership spells death for the human race, then any steps in that direction also contravene the natural law of what is best for man and his life on this earth.” (FaNL p. 29).

(4) Since( ii) and (iii) are unacceptable and are the only alternatives to (i), we are left with (i) by default.*

(5) Therefore (i) is the correct position to hold with respect to ownership of the self.

This is not a very good argument.**  Of course, if self-ownership were really an axiom, as Rothbard often describes it, the fact that he could not produce a good argument for it would not be a problem.  That’s just how axioms work.  But it’s not an axiom.  Rothbard hasn’t shown that those who deny self-ownership thereby commit themselves to a contradiction.  He’s simply given us an intuition pump.  He thinks (ii) and (iii) commit us to implausible moral beliefs, and that (i) doesn’t.

But, of course, (i) does. Rothbard thinks, for example, that consistent recognition of self-ownership leads to anarcho-capitalism.  And most people find this deeply implausible.  He also thinks that consistent recognition of self-ownership leads one to the conclusion that the law “may not properly compel [a] parent to feed [his or her] child or to keep it alive” (The Ethics of Liberty, p. 100).  Even most libertarians, I hope, would cringe at this.

But my point isn’t to argue that anarcho-capitalism is really a position that we ought to reject.  Or even that we should reject Rothbard’s principle of self-ownership.  My point is about how we should think about the role of foundational principles in moral and political arguments.

Rothbard seems to think that he can show us that we are committed to accepting self-ownership, and that once he does this we are committed on pain of irrationality to accepting everything that follows logically from it, no matter how absurd it might seem.***  But this is not how moral reasoning works, or ought to work.  Demonstrating that a moral principle has some intuitive support gives you some reason to accept it.  (e.g. “taxation is like theft and theft is wrong so taxation is wrong”).  But that reason can be overcome if it turns out that the intuitive principle has deeply counterintuitive implications.  (e.g., “it is wrong to tax $100 away from a millionaire to save the life of a starving child”).  Good moral reasoning involves something like the back-and-forth method of reflective equilibrium.  All but our most deeply held moral beliefs, and perhaps even them, are held subject to revision in the light of new evidence, new arguments, and new inquiries.  This is why my own attraction to libertarianism is grounded in a kind of moral pluralism.  Yes, I believe that coercion is a prima facie bad.  But I also believe that it is prima facie bad for people to fail to get what they deserve, or for their basic needs to be unmet.  These moral beliefs, to my mind, have just as firm a standing as my opposition to coercion.  I see no reason to believe that in a conflict between them, the opposition to coercion should always trump.  Of course, this also makes it difficult for me to support an absolute, bright-line, form of minimal state libertarianism, as opposed to a more modest form of classical liberalism (see here for elaboration of the distinction).  But such is the price of nuance, I think.


* – This seems to be the unstated conclusion of the argument as it appears in FaNL.  A somewhat expanded version appears in Rothbard’s essay on “Interpersonal Relations: Ownership and Aggression,” in The Ethics of Liberty.  Rothbard appears to give somewhat more in the way of an independent argument for (i) there.  I have yet to read this essay carefully and so will refrain from discussing it further here.

** – (1) ignores a host of relevant alternatives to (i), (ii) and (iii), such as, for example,  (iv): “every person has a right to own (control) his person  in the following respects 1…N, but not in the following respects in which his ownership of his person is subject to restriction or regulation by others in the following ways…”.  The contradiction in (2) is not really a contradiction at all, and whether it violates the basic requirements for life is not at all clear, largely because the meaning of that phrase itself is unclear.  The first half of (3) is an insufficient basis for rejecting (ii) insofar as it relies on a uncharitably implausible interpretation of how “universal communism” might be implemented.  The second half of three is simply a howler.  A world of zero land and 100 percent water spells death for the human race, but it hardly follows that any steps in this direction also contravene the natural law.  Finally,  (4) doesn’t work even if (i)…(iii) really are the only options, since showing that (ii) and (iii) are implausible is not sufficient to warrant that (i) is not even less plausible.

*** – Rothbard is not alone in (a) providing fascinating and informative arguments about what follows from a basic moral principle, but (b) providing scarcely anything in the way of credible argument for the basic moral principle itself.  Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia has been (only somewhat unfairly) been characterized by Thomas Nagel as “Libertarianism Without Foundations” for the slight attention it gives to providing argumentative support for the basic libertarian rights.  And even John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, a masterpiece of moral philosophy as far as I’m concerned, is at its weakest when it comes time to present any positive argument for the principle of utility.  So Rothbard is, at least, in very good company.

  • “Not very good?” It’s a perfectly terrible argument.

    How about this premise instead — whatever selves are, they are not the kind of thing that can be owned, by themselves or others. So even slaves, who the law and their masters purport to treat like property, are not in fact owned, but maintain their un-ownable human dignity intact.

    • Right. Isn’t it at least as plausible a to hold this principle:

      For every person X, nobody owns X.

      If that principle is correct then Rothbard’s trilemma falls apart.

      Of course, another very plausible approach is to hold that there can be no fundamental moral principles regarding property, since property is a social convention or institution.

      • Carlos F. Véliz

        Dan: If nobody owns X for every X, then every X is at liberty to do to any other X whatever they see fit (“every man has a right to every thing, even to one another’s body” Cf. Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651 ), and you have a cuatrilemma.

        • Mlister

          Well, Hobbes doesn’t base his argument on self-ownership, and even the Sovereign doesn’t become the owner of people, so I don’t think this works. Dan’s point, I take it, is that “ownership” of selves is itself a controversial point that needs to be argued for, and that is rejected by many. (Rightly, I think.)

          • Carlos F. Véliz

            Mlister: I am not saying that Hobbes base his argument on the self-ownership thesis. Quite to the contrary, I am saying that if there are no self-owners agents, if for every X, nobody owns X; then the Hobbesian point of departure follows: everybody has a liberty right to do whatever she wants to another, even to take his body.

          • Where do these alleged “rights” and “liberty rights” come from? . From the claim that no person is owned by anybody nothing at all follows directly about any rights of any kind to do anything with anyone.

          • Carlos F. Véliz

            Dan: delete the word “right” if you want, and don’t be mislead by the language of Hobbes. The result is the same, and, I believe, do follow from your proposition: everybody is at liberty or has the privilege to do to any other whatever one see fits, even to take his body, precisely because no one has a correlative claim-right against that kind of actions.

          • Again, where do these alleged “liberties” and “privileges” come from?

            This is one of the reasons I eschewed political philosophy in graduate school, and stuck to other areas of philosophy. Arguing political philosophy these days feels like doing revealed theology.

          • Carlos F. Véliz

            Dan: they come from the absence of rights.

            (I also like many other areas of philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mathematics, even philosophy of religion, etc).

          • John

            Putting it a bit differently from Carlos, if nothing prohibits me from some action then that action is available for my activities.

            You seem to be suggesting that something exists that prevents such behaviors but I’m not sure what you’re basing that position on.

          • I’m suggesting that there are no such things as rights, privileges, liberties or permissions that exist by nature, outside of of the frameworks of rules established by human beings. I’m suggesting that the fact that some system of rules does not contain a rule entitling some given person control over some particular thing does not entail that that system contains an implicit or explicit rule entitling someone else to control over that thing. And I’m also suggesting that the fact that some system of rules does not contain a rule prohibiting some behavior does not entail that it contains an implicit or explicit rule permitting that behavior.

          • Carlos F. Véliz

            Dan: My point is not evaluative or normative, but analytical. I think it is a conceptual truth that the absence of rights (moral or legal) over our own bodies amounts to liberties or privileges over our own bodies (nobody has the duty not to take our own body as they see fit).

            You can resist that conclusion without resorting to the self-ownership thesis , but you need to provide a substantive, normative argument for the existence of duties not to take another’s body without correlative rights over their bodies vested on those agents: Perhaps everybody is under the duty not to take another’s body because it is God’s command or because we should be virtuous agents, etc.

          • Sorry Carlos. I guess I just don’t understand the language you are speaking here, and we seem to be speaking past one another. To me, “rights”, “liberties”, “privileges” and “duties” are inherently evaluative or normative terms. Those terms do have a logic, however, and it seems to me that we disagree on a point of logic. I take it that you believe that this claim:

            1. No person has a duty not to do with B as they see fit.

            entails either:

            2. Each person has the liberty to do with B as they see fit.


            3. Each person has the privilege to do with B as they see fit.

            But I don’t believe these inferences are valid. My thesis is that the normative status of actions is a matter of social institutions: any normative status an action has it has because that status is assigned to it by some system of rules or institutionalized standards or practices. And such a system of rules could omit the assignment of any normative status whatsoever to all or most behaviors concerning B. It could leave behavior regarding B altogether outside its system of normative classifications.

            And just to be clear, this latter point is independent of the further issue about whether it need be the case that if somebody does possess the right to do with B as they please, that right corresponds with or derives from an ownership right.

          • Fernando Teson

            Hey Matt: Why is it so controversial? I would have thought the principle, properly reformulated as Kant does (see my comment below), has high intuitive appeal, especially if you are agnostic as to whether it can serve to ground ownership of external assets.

      • Of course, another very plausible approach is to hold that there can be no fundamental moral principles regarding property, since property is a social convention or institution.

        That doesn’t seem to follow. Just because something is a social convention doesn’t mean we can’t make moral statements about it. Or rather, this argument seems to be using the word “fundamental” to distance moral statements about property from more “basic” moral considerations. It seems that you’re making a similar error as Rothbard did — making some categories of bad outcomes automatically worse than others. I fail to see how moral statements regarding matters other than property are more significant or prior to moral statements about property (any more than being poor because of racism is “better” than being poor because of government policy).

        • Fair enough, Kurt. I was suggesting that to call something a “fundamental moral principle” is to imply that it has a normative status that is prior to and independent of any social conventions or institutions. And I assumed that such principles must have a kind of universal validity, and so employ only concepts that apply independently of contingent social arrangements and institutions. But perhaps that is too strict an understanding of fundamental moral principles.

      • Galen Rutledge

        I would suggest that property is only a social convention in as much as a completely isolated individual would have no need to assert property rights, since there cannot possibly be a threat to them.

        However, that is an impossible “last creature in the universe” situation that isn’t worth considering.

        Property ownership is a nature exerted by many animals, not just human beings. Lions will protect and distribute their kills as property, bees and ants will decent “their” hives and nests. Dogs defend and mark their domain. Its pretty widespread practice to define ownership of property by behavior an constructive practices, and for good reason.

        Instinct for self preservation, caused by an essential need for every creature to occupy physical space, and have energy inputs, and sometimes to build structures that enhance their survival

    • Galen Rutledge

      Mtraven, that’s circular, since it presumes self ownership.

      It also presumes the self as a special sort of good without Giving a reason for saying so. Not that there isn’t a reason, just you never gave it.

      Its also usually not best to lack a definition of “self” while suggesting imperatives regarding it specifically.

      Better to start with a general factual construct regarding property, and then see how it applies to atomic components of “self, such as “mind” and “brain” and “body”.

      That would be a progressive derivation from analysis of indisputable facts of reality.

      All the best.

      • mtraven

        I have no idea why you see a circularity in what I said.

        Selves are not “goods”, under any normal economic definition of good. They aren’t fungible, they aren’t ownable, they aren’t traded on a market (slave bodies may be trade goods, but as I argued above, that is not the same thing).

        I know it is the libertarian thing to treat everything as property by default, but I don’t see why any normal person should go along with that idea, which is both factually wrong and morally odious.

        • Galen Rutledge

          Goods do not need to be fungible. Your criterion for what is a good is flawed.

          Fungibility is not part of the defining characteristics of a good. Is a tailored suit not a good? It isn’t fungible.

          How about a house? It may be unique, and if it is, why would you think it wasn’t a good?

          Furthermore, I never suggested that a person, or self, should be a tradeable good. Your implication that I did is offensive and wrong.

          I kindly offered useful suggestions. You came back with falsehoods and offensive remarks. I know where you stand now.

  • The biggest leap in Libertarian thinking, I think, comes in the jump from self ownership into absolute property rights. Nozick and Rothbard both have loose Lockean justifications for this, but they are not water tight by any means. Even if we are allowed to appropriate property, why does this give us the entitlements Libertarians claims it does over it?

    There is also a leap in logic between self ownership and absolute liberty. Why cant there be constraints on self ownership even if we find it plausible? I am yet to find someone of any political persuasion who doesn’t see the idea as at least vaguely plausible or interesting – it is rather what Libertarians assert flows from the idea that is questionable.

    What about consquentailist (or utilitarian) arguments for Libertarianism, which you briefly touch upon with Mill?

    Final point, do we draw the line between classical liberal and Libertarian on the issue of self ownership? Can we still argue for Libertarian leaning principles on the basis of some other ideas?

  • Matt,
    Excellent post. I would quibble only with the idea that Nagel is just “somewhat unfair” to Nozick, on two grounds. First, Nozick gives much more of an argument for natural rights than Nagel credits him with, or for that matter than is commonly appreciated. See particularly ASU, 34 (“Thus, we have a promising sketch of an argument from moral form to moral content…” and 48-9 (his discussion of the basis for moral constraints on how people may be treated). Second, as you recognize, not just Rothbard and Nozick, but utilitarians, egailitarians and prioritarians all generally proceed on an axiomatic basis, so I fail to see Nagel’s justification for singling out Nozick for lacking “foundations.”

  • M vR

    Hi Matt,

    I think I disbelieve all of the premises of that one. Myself I’d go for people being unowned even by themselves but with rights of various sorts that overlap with a good bit of what the fans of self-ownership think we have. But that isn’t my main comment.

    You said there would be no problem in not having any arguments for the thesis if self-ownership was an axiom. But I wonder about that, and I also think that’s a bit contrary to the spirit of the rest of what you say. Even in logic people disagree about some purported axioms, and they provide arguments to help choose between candidate axioms. I’d be surprised if in moral philosophy the most axiom-like commitments had nothing to be said in their favor. It counts in favor of a candidate basic principle that it explains a bunch of other plausible claims we’re inclined to believe. And there are other ways to make a view plausible as well. So I don’t think that candidate moral principles are OK in the absence of support so long as they’re axioms.

    Mark van Roojen (Since the autologin used my initials)

    • Good point, Mark. I was trying to cut Rothbard a break, but of course you’re right about this.

  • Sam Waskowicz

    Can someone explicate proposition 2 for me a little more? It seems like even in a framework of self ownership we make the distinction of whether a person can credibly act on their own behalf which would imply that some people (mostly children and the mentally incapable) don’t own themselves.

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    I agree that self-ownership has conceptual problems (although I think it’s a useful heuristic), but not seeing the criticism of Rothbard here. Can another person rightfully claim to own me? If no, then (at least operationally) I own myself. I don’t get why you think he’s mistaken to make this move. Self-ownership needn’t be conceptually complex, but rather the remainder when you rule out being owned by others.

    • My criticism was of his argument, not of the principle of self-ownership itself. I think he’s too quick to reject the idea that others have ‘partial ownership’ of us, in the sense that they have a right to control our behavior in certain ways. Maybe they don’t, but it takes more than Rothbard’s given us to show it.
      (Consider: a political regime like the one we have in the United States today is not consistent with full self-ownership. But most people think that such a regime is morally acceptable – at least better than the kind of regime that Rothbard operates. So suppose that Rothbard is correct that anarcho-capitalism follows from full self-ownership. And suppose that our current system could only be justified by some non-self-ownership based morality. My guess is that if most people knew all of this, and had to choose between rejecting self-ownership or rejecting our current regime, self-ownership would come out the loser. Again, that might not be the right decision, but it’d take more argument than Rothbard’s given us here to show why)

      • John

        Doesn’t the concept of negative rights produce the same control over all of our behavior without the need to muddy the water of who owns me?

        I’m not that familiar with Rothbard’s arguments in full but I do agree that on the surface self ownership doesn’t lead uniquely to anarcho-capitalism.

  • Miko

    He also thinks that consistent recognition of self-ownership leads one to the conclusion that the law “may not properly compel [a] parent to feed [his or her] child or to keep it alive” (The Ethics of Liberty, p. 100). Even most libertarians, I hope, would cringe at this.

    While I don’t accept the concept of self-ownership, Rothbard does reach a correct conclusion here. There are three main problems with your argument against it:

    1) There are lots of things that many people would cringe at. For example: abortion, Westboro Baptist Church protesting at soldier funerals, flag burning, gun ownership, finding probable-criminals not guilty at trial for procedural reasons, recreational drug use, sex before marriage, sex after marriage, condom use, etc. If a society bans everything than some group of people finds cringe-worthy, the result is not going to be remotely close to libertarianism.

    2) What is the boundary? If you think that such a law should exist, you should be able to state in exactly what cases it applies. Unless parents are forced to plan ahead to ensure that their grown children continue to be fed long after the parents die, there has to be some point at which parents cease to have this obligation: what is this point? Unless parents are forced to continuously feed their children 24/7, there has to be some limit to how often parents have to feed their children: is this just the bare minimum required to sustain life, or something more? Does it matter what type of food parents feed their children? No matter what standard you choose, I’m pretty sure you could look just to the other side of that borderline and find a cringe-worthy situation that you’re calling legal, which makes the whole thing rather arbitrary.

    3) You’re actually cringing (I imagine) at the idea of children starving to death, not at the lack of a law that attempts to compel parents into feeding children. So, you would presumably only support such a law if you think that it would lead to many more children being fed than would be in the absence of the law. This is unlikely to be the case. First, ought does not imply can: if I hear of a famine that’s causing numerous children to die, my first thought is to send food; I can only hope that your first thought is not to send policemen to arrest the parents. In the absence of famine, most children are fed because most parents want to feed their children, and in such a society this sort of law is pretty much unnecessary. Conversely, in a society where this were not the case, a law would not be sufficient to compel parents to feed their children because it would be too difficult to enforce. In the rare case in which parents are able to feed their children but choose not to, wouldn’t it be simpler to have someone else take the children away from their parents and feed them rather than trying to force the parents to do this at gunpoint? (The case of parents who are able to feed their children, want to keep their children, yet don’t want to feed their children is so extreme that it doesn’t really need to be considered, but for the sake of full discussion: if we accept that every person has self-ownership, then surely children do too, in which case the child has the right to accept the new caregivers if it feels that its parents have not done an adequate job; if the child is not at an age where it can do this, the would-be new caregivers should be able to seek arbitration on what the child would choose were it able.)

    • Hey Miko. I didn’t actually give an argument against Rothbard’s claim. That it makes me cringe is not in itself a justification for rejecting the claim. But I’m quite confident that an argument could be given.
      Your points in (2) seem just to be appealing to a Sorites Paradox: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sorites-paradox/. I don’t think this is a serious problem – it is certainly not one that is unique to this issue.
      As for 3, you’re right I guess that a big part of what makes me cringe is the idea of children starving to death. And if you could convince me that fewer children would starve to death without such a law than with it, I guess I’d say that we shouldn’t have such a law. But Rothbard’s claim seems to be that such a law is in-principle impermissible as a violation of self-ownership. And that makes me cringe – the idea that a callous parent’s self-ownership is of such tremendous moral import that it could not be violated even to save the life of an innocent child seems to me indicative of a kind of philosophical obsession – an overriding focus on a single moral value to the absolute neglect of all else.

      • Yes, we can distinguish the fact of self-ownership from the moral weight we accord it.

  • Fernando Teson

    I agree with the post, although I think one can be a bit
    more charitable with Rothbard here. It is true that he does not establish a conclusive
    argument for self-ownership, for the
    reasons Matt gives. But Rothbard is
    right that the alternatives he describes, domination and common ownership, are
    terrible alternatives. So I think he does a bit of reflective equilibrium.

    What is then the
    status of self-ownership? The first thing to say is that the idea is
    figurative, not literal. As Kant pointed out, we don’t want to say that people
    own themselves in the same sense as they own objects, because we don’t want to
    say that we can buy and sell ourselves like we buy and sell objects. He proposes instead the notion of mastery of oneself. We are sovereign
    over our persons in the sense that only we, not others, may use our moral powers
    for our ends, as long as those ends do not consist of denying others the use of
    their moral powers (I am using Arthur Ripstein’s reconstruction of Kant’s
    view.) I think Kant’s notion is superior to Rothbard’s because it avoids the
    pitfalls of ascribing the incidents of property to our own body and mind. The
    second thing to say is that this notion, mastery over our own powers, comes as
    close to an intuition as any principle I can think of, for the reasons Rothbard
    gives: the alternatives are unsavory.

    Is there any way to derive
    this concept from more fundamental ones? If pressed, I would say that
    sovereignty over oneself derives from some fundamental idea of personhood. My
    natural assets are so tied up with me and
    my identity that denying my mastery over them is almost like denying me
    personhood. But I’m not sure about this move.

    • Fernando Teson

      sorry it came out with weird formatting…

    • Mike Valdman

      I’m not sure what you mean by “moral powers”, but, whatever you mean, they seem a rather slender reed from which to hang a libertarian political philosophy. Suppose you’re kidnapped at gunpoint and locked in a dungeon. As far as I can tell, this needn’t disturb your moral powers in the slightest. After all, you’d retain your ability to think, reason, wish, move, etc. Your options may thus be reduced, but your powers (understood as counterfactual abilities) seemingly can remain intact, in the same way that a person’s ability, say, to play chess needn’t be undermined by a lack of playing opportunities.

  • I regard Rothbard’s mistake as believing that it is possible to construct a formal argument for self-ownership. The fact that this may be impossible does not suggest, at least to me, that s.o. should not have a powerful influence on how we view the world. In my view, s.o. is implied by universal notions we share regarding person identity. When we refer to ourselves, e.g. “John Smith,” we are (I think) manifesting the idea that there is some unique “thing” that is ours, that constitutes “John Smith.” This identity makes no sense w/o the concept of ownership. If there were no such unique identity and “ownership” we would not have a self but would be part of some larger collective self or identity, but we intuitively know this not to be true.

  • John

    So what changes if we entirely toss out the idea the we own ourselves? Seems to me that we end up at the exact same place by rejecting to concept of self ownership. We still pretty much reject the analogous arguments of ii and iii and return to the non self ownership version of i.

    It’s not like anyone is arguing some different level of individual autonomy and freedom of will than follows from the self-ownership starting point, that appropriation from the external world is possible or that the product of one’s own labor belongs to the laborer.

    “Of course, this also makes it difficult for me to support an absolute, bright-line, form of minimal state libertarianism,”

    I’m not sure the issue of well defined lines for the minimal state follows from the need to balance competing moral stances. Unfortunately that’s only an intuitive response without any well articulated thoughts behind it just now. I do think they are separate issues though and argument for or against the minimal state do not hang on the uncertainty of the moral balances.

  • KenS

    This was an interesting post and got me thinking about why moral intuitions would cause people to diverge on this issue, so here a shot in the dark in predicting (and this is just a prediction, I’m not arguing that the situation itself is just) what moral intuitions will be able to accommodate:

    The extent that (ii) and (iii) are plausible could be in our genes… inclusive fitness theory and the existence of the ant and honeybee already proves that even ‘self interest’ can get out of hand and cause very unusual ingrained ‘intuitions’ of what the right actions are. On the surface these animal societies flatly contradict (i) as an intuitive social arrangement and lean much closer to examples of (ii) and (iii). Of course, (i) would be the default moral arrangement of an asocial species, but humans definitely fall somewhere in between. Additionally, to the extent that our genes that assist/inhibit social behavior vary between individuals, there would be no reason to expect a complete moral system that could accommodate everyone’s intuitions all the time.

    I don’t mean to entirely identify the ‘self’ with our genetic identity nor ‘ownership’ with ‘the means of genetic survival’, but the correlation needs to be considered because it is a plausible place to look for causes of moral intuitions. The correct moral system by some other measure could easily upset these intuitions. Worse yet, it is counterintuitive to me to put much weight on the process of reflective equilibrium if a genetic survival mechanism was indeed the primary source of my own moral inutitions when using the process to decide what is right in particular cases. There is too much potential in the brain to be affected by genes that create shortcuts and short circuits in intuitive reasoning for this process to be consistent and stable among all groups of people.

  • Anonymous

    Assuming you are representing Rothbard’s argumentation accurately (I would have no idea), doesn’t his triptych of possibilities leave one plausible one entirely unaccounted for: namely, the view/possibility that no ownership in persons — oneself or other persons — exists; that self-ownership is a theoretical concept with no actually-existing coordinate in the world, and therefore a concept that no one is bound to contend with in any way or other at all, unless they are simply inclined by intellectual curiosity to consider it?

  • Millie Yanillie

     It may not be a good way to argue for libertarianism, but it’s definitely a way to argue against legalized marijuana: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2011/05/12/the-endless-medical-marijuana-debate-continues/

  • Liam

    What is going on here is an exercise in dismissing Rothbard to justify coercion. 

    The raison d’etre of this whole blog is to come up with a justification for imposing one’s own moral views (always by coercion) on others whilst maintaining the appearance of libertarianism. This type of libertarianism might be the most practical, but in my experience it too easily leads to “Kochian-libertry as a policy – beltway think tank” thinking.   The argument that self-ownership is not an axiom is flawed. The starting point for this is the fact that Rothbard makes an argument for self-ownership. It is right to say that axioms are self-evident but the fact you also make an argument in support of the axiom does not negate it. Actually all that Rothbard does is argue the very points made by those who deny the truth of self-ownership in order to show the fallacies in their arguments and the axiomatic nature of his own proposition.  Where Rothbard falls down, however, is in the practical utility of his axiom, namely that is and can be practically denied to a greater or lesser extent by means of coercion, slavery, imprisonment etc. What you actually are engaged in is the justification for denying an axiom, which ironically shows that all you can say is this: what you are saying is not itself axiomatic.  And this is where the rot really sets: to argue against Rothbard and his self-evident proposition (with the forces of logic and reason against you)  you start using an apparently analytical approach  but to support your own arguments you abandon that approach and  instead rely on vague blandishments, straw men arguments and of moral what ifs and buts  the highlight of which is :Yes, I believe that coercion is a prima facie bad.  But I also believe that it is prima facie bad for people to fail to get what they deserve, or for their basic needs to be unmet.  These moral beliefs, to my mind, have just as firm a standing as my opposition to coercion.  I see no reason to believe that in a conflict between them, the opposition to coercion should always trump.  Of course, this also makes it difficult for me to support an absolute, bright-line, form of minimal state libertarianism, as opposed to a more modest form of classical liberalism… But such is the price of nuance, I think.This type of thinking is very much in the Boaz tradition which, can be dressed up with all kinds of epistemological and philosophical stunts and buzzwords, but  ultimately leads to coercion and war:


  • C Cruz

    (“a kind of moral pluralism” = pragmatism) + libertarianism = pragmatarianism.  You can draw your “absolute, bright-line, form of minimal state libertarianism” where you want and I can draw my line where I want.  This will result in a reflective equilibrium that directs the line to its optimal location.

    “Pure libertarianism needs something to curb its extremity.  That something is pragmatism.  Philosophical pragmatism is an essential American development.  Its animating principle is that truth is social and constructed rather than transcendent and objective.  It holds that ideas prove their worth in action, and that the results of an idea are the best criteria by which to judge its merit.  And since what works for me might not work for you, pragmatism advocates a strenuous openness to all perspectives.” – James Walsh, Liberty in troubled times

    If you get a chance you should check out my blog entry on The Dialectic of Unintended Consequences… http://pragmatarianism.blogspot.com/2011/10/dialectic-of-unintended-consequences.html

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  • Galen Rutledge

    For absolute ownership of a thing, three criterion must be met.

    No valid prior claim.

    Exclusive control of use.


    All of these properties apply to my mind since my creation, and by extension, to my body.

    Therefore I own myself.

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