Rothbard's Ethics of Liberty, Rights Theory

Reading The Ethics of Liberty, Part 2 – Rothbard on Natural Law

Most people are comfortable thinking about libertarianism in connection with the idea of natural rights. And Rothbard’s form of libertarianism is, indeed, a natural rights position. But it is also a position based on a kind of natural law ethic, and this position is one that is less familiar to most libertarians. The first five chapters of The Ethics of Liberty are devoted to articulating and defending the natural law foundation of Rothbard’s libertarian view. This post will summarize and assess them. The first post in this series covered the introduction by Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

Chapter One, “Natural Law and Reason,” opens with a defense of the concept of human nature, a concept that Rothbard saw as being unfairly dismissed by intellectuals at the time. Rothbard rejects the claim that appeals to human nature are necessarily religious in nature, and seeks to defend the concept as the cornerstone of a secular natural law theory. The defense itself is reasonably straightforward, and is developed in greater detail in chapter 2, “Natural Law as ‘Science.'”

To say that human beings have a nature is to say that there is something that man is like (9). It is to say that there are certain regularities that we can discover about him – he dies if he doesn’t eat, he has a finite understanding of the world, and so on. Certain causes produce certain effects, and reason allows us to discover the connections between the two.

The observable behavior of each of these entities is the law of their natures, and this law includes what happens as a result of the interactions. The complex that we build up of these laws may be termed the structure of natural law. (10)

So far, so good, and one wonders why anyone would be opposed to the ideas of human nature or of natural law if this is all they amount to. But, of course, Rothbard doesn’t want to end up with a mere catalogue of empirical regularities about human beings. He wants not just a set of natural laws, but a natural law ethics. And ethics is not just about what man is like, but what he ought to be like. And that’s the rub. Because now Rothbard seems to run right smack into David Hume’s famous “is-ought problem.” Most readers of this blog, I suspect, have heard of this argument. But for those of you who’ve never read it in its original, it’s worth doing. It is surely one of the most influential arguments in moral philosophy in the past 250 years, and Hume’s presentation of it is surprisingly succinct. Here’s the whole thing, tacked on almost as a footnote to an argument that our moral distinctions are not derived from reason in his Treatise of Human Nature:

I cannot forbear adding to these reasonings an observation, which may, perhaps, be found of some importance. In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention wou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason.

To simplify Hume’s point somewhat, suppose we employ our reason to discover that as an empirical law of nature:

1) Human beings die when you cut their heads off.

Does reason allow us to conclude from this that

C) We ought not cut people’s heads off?

Strictly speaking, no. Logically, we could only draw that conclusion if we had an additional premise:

2) We ought not cause human beings to die.

But reason didn’t tell us that. Reason told us what effect (death) a certain cause (cutting off a head) produces. It told us, in other words, about a certain empirical regularity in the natural world. It didn’t tell us that the effect is one that we ought not produce. That claim is a normative claim, not an empirical one. So what the “is-ought” argument purports to show is that we can’t derive a conclusion about what we ought to do unless we already start with a premise about what we ought to do. We can’t “bootstrap” our way up from purely empirical generalizations to a normative conclusion. But this is exactly what Rothbard’s argument seems to try to do. Consider the following representative claim:

The natural law ethic decrees that for all living things, “goodness” is the fulfillment of what is best for that type of creature; “goodness” is therefore relative to the nature of the creature concerned…In the case of man, the natural-law ethic states that goodness or badness can be determined by what fulfills or thwarts what is best for man’s nature.” (11)

Arguments of this sort start with some premises about what man is like (say, “a rational animal”), and then go on to draw some conclusions about how man ought to behave (“rationally!”). But not only does this not follow, as Hume’s argument shows, it also just seems plain wrong. Suppose, to take an argument popular among natural law Catholics, that heterosexual sex is “natural” and homosexual sex is not. Why isn’t the correct response to this, “So what?” If homosexual sex can provide the same kinds of good that non-procreative heterosexual sex can (physical pleasure, emotional closeness, etc.), then why should we care whether it’s “natural” or not? Similarly, if Aristotle was right and being a philosopher turns out to be the most perfect realization of human nature, why should this matter to us if being a philosopher causes us to be miserable, poor, lonely individuals? i.e. if it undermines the values that we actually care about? Why should the fact that something is natural entail that it is something we ought to do or value?

Rothbard is aware of this sort of objection, of course. And it’s not as though the argument he’s making lacks a respectable pedigree. He is, as he notes, following broadly in the Aristotelean / Thomistic tradition. And there are sophisticated arguments out there by smart people in defense of that tradition – including some by our own Rod Long. But Rothbard doesn’t make those sophisticated arguments, and his brief responses to the arguments I suggest here strike me as utterly unpersuasive. (See my comment below for a discussion of one such response)

The fact is, most of us today, and perhaps especially those of us who are attracted to political libertarians, are subjectivists about a broad range of moral values. Not all of it, of course. Most of us think that things like stealing and torturing are objectively wrong. But when it comes to who we have sex with or in what way, what religion we practice (if any), how we spend our free time, most of us think that there isn’t any universal morally correct standard of behavior. What’s right for you depends very largely on what you like, and might be quite different from what I like. For many of us in the liberal / libertarian camp, this subjectivity about values is part of the reason we’re attracted to freedom. Freedom is good, in part, because it lets different people live their lives in the way that’s good for them, and doesn’t try to impose a single standard of value on everyone.

My point here isn’t to make any kind of knock-down argument against natural law ethics. You could, I’m sure, tweak a natural law ethic to account for the kinds of subjectivity we find attractive nowadays. And you could (and some have) come up with an argument for libertarianism that builds on a natural law ethic. So, I’m not saying that the tension in Rothbard’s work isn’t resolvable. Just that it needs resolving, in a way that many of Rothbard’s libertarian fans might not even be aware of. A lot of people probably assume that the subjectivism of Rothbard’s Austrian economics runs all the way down through his ethical theory. That, as we’ve seen, is a mistake. Rothbard believed the robust objectivism of his natural law ethic to be compatible with a subjectivist theory of economic value, and a political philosophy that accords individuals the freedom to pursue their (possibly incorrect) subjective moral values. Whether he was correct to believe in this compatibility is a different and far more difficult question.

Chapters 3 and 4 continue the discussion of natural law theory, but make far fewer claims that strike me as philosophically controversial. Chapter 3, just a little over 3 pages in length, makes the point that natural law theories provide a moral foundation from which to launch a radical critique of existing, positive law. This is true enough, though not, as far as I can tell, distinctive of natural law ethics as contrasted with other objectivist moral theories. A Kantian or utilitarian foundation could provide and has provided a similar foundation for radical politics.

Chapter 4 briefly discusses the connection between natural law and natural rights. This chapter draws heavily on Locke, an exhibits one of the most annoying characteristics of Rothbard as a historian of thought – his tendency to ascribe the label of “libertarian” in an entirely anachronistic way to anyone who expresses views that a contemporary libertarian might agree with. I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog that it’s a mistake to think of John Locke as a libertarian. Readers of Rothbard’s Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought will find plenty of other examples. Rothbard just doesn’t seem to get that while of course libertarians oppose slavery, and support private property, that doesn’t mean that everyone who opposes slavery and supports private property is a libertarian.

So that’s it for Part I of the book. Up next is Part II, “A Theory of Liberty,” with lots of meaty and exciting chapters on self-defense, land monopoly, the rights of children (with a famous footnote to a young Hillary Rodham!), and more. I hope you can read along and join the conversation! I’m pleased to see that Jason Kuznicki at Cato has joined the reading group. It looks like he has a more sympathetic assessment of Hoppe, and I suspect the same is true of his view of Rothbard. I’m looking forward to reading his continued reflections, and encourage others to join the fun!  Bryan Caplan? It’d be a nice followup to your reading group on For a New Liberty Anybody at the Murray Rothbard Ludwig von Mises Institute?  I’m a slow reader, so it’s easy to keep up with me!

  • It’s been a while since I’ve read Ethics of Liberty, but I recall being very underwhelmed by Rothbard’s attempt to get past Hume’s is/ought problem. If I recall correctly, Rothbard’s brief treatment involves him pointing out that Hume appears to make normative claims of a kind rooted in natural law considerations. But at best, all that would show is that Hume is inconsistent (and at best, that we just can’t help making normative statements out of descriptive ones) not that the is/ought problem is invalid. I don’t recall Rothbard offering any other arguments as to how the is/ought problem is not a problem for him.

    • Yes. See my response to Xavier below for more on Rothbard’s response to Hume.

  • I enjoyed this first part of Rothbard’s book and I thought it was broadly correct, though lacking in sophistication. It has been a few weeks since I read it now (yes, Matt, you are a slow reader), and my memory is not so good (too much boozing in years gone by), so I will be a bit vague.

    First, on ‘is’ and ‘ought.’ You should notice that the passage from Hume is weak on argument. It is in effect just a claim that ‘ought’ does not follow from ‘is’. But it should strike us as a curious claim to make. Surely, morality has something to do with our well-being. What would be the point of it otherwise? There must be a connection between what is good for people and what people morally ought to do. You even seem to admit this yourself, despite a penchant for subjectivism, when you say: “Freedom is good, in part, because it lets different people live their lives in the way that’s good for them.”

    Second, contemporary non-Aristotelian moral philosophy, and metaphysics of morals, appears to be closer to Rothbard than to Hume. For the contemporary positivists, the moral is supervenient on the natural: crudely (there are many alternative formulations of supervenience), if two things have the same physical (or, more broadly, natural) properties, then they must have the same moral properties. So it must be the (more or less physical) nature of people that gives rise to their moral status, and the (more or less physical) nature of actions that engenders their moral properties.

    Third, the traditional definition of a valid argument is one such that it is necessary that if the premises are true, then so is the conclusion. If we add the doctrine of supervenience to this account of validity, we must infer that moral propositions may be validly inferred from propositions about physical (or natural) facts. For, on supervenience, it is necessary that if a thing has a particular physical nature, it has a particular moral nature; in which case it is necessary that if the propositions attributing the physical nature are true, then so is the proposition attributing the moral nature. There is, unsurprisingly, a debate in philosophical logic as to whether the traditional account of validity should be amended (there are various rivals).

    Incidentally, it must not be thought that if an argument is valid it must be self-evidently so. Logic is awash with disputes over which arguments are valid.

  • “You should notice that the passage from Hume is weak on argument. It is in effect just a claim that ‘ought’ does not follow from ‘is’. But it should strike us as a curious claim to make. Surely, morality has something to do with our well-being. What would be the point of it otherwise?”

    Well, we have to be careful in recognizing what Hume was and was not arguing. He was not arguing that morality can’t have anything to do wit well-being, that facts have no bearing on moral discourse, etc. Hume was only suggesting that when we go from a descriptive statement to a prescriptive statement (arguing that the latter is based on the former), that something other than strict logic is involved – that we are probably smuggling in a normative premise into our argument somewhere.

    So, Hume is not arguing that moral discourse should not be informed by fact, but that one cannot go straight from a fact to a value statement and say that this was a purely logical progression.

    • It depends on what you regard as a purely logical progression, which in turn depends on an account of validity. Probably all that Hume would insist upon is that, whenever you derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ it is open to others to disagree. The trouble is, that is not saying much. Whenever you derive anything from anything it is open to others to disagree, as the state of contemporary logic attests.

  • Xavier M

    “Rothbard is aware of this sort of objection, of course. And it’s not as though the argument he’s making lacks a respectable pedigree. He is, as he notes, following broadly in the Aristotelean / Thomistic tradition. And there are sophisticated arguments out there by smart people in defense of that tradition – including some by our own Rod Long. But Rothbard doesn’t make those sophisticated arguments, and his brief responses to the arguments I suggest here strike me as utterly unpersuasive.”

    It should be kept in mind I think what Rothbard explained in the introduction:

    “it [the book] does not try to prove or establish the ethics or ontology of natural law, which provide the groundwork for the political theory set forth in this book. Natural law
    has been ably expounded and defended elsewhere by ethical philosophers. And so Part I simply explains the outlines of natural law which animates this work, without attempting a full-scale defense of that theory. Part II is the substance of the work itself, setting forth my theory of liberty.”

    • It’s fine to write a book that’s intended to present a view without defending it. But Rothbard doesn’t stick consistently to this plan. And when he does try to defend his view, he often does so badly.

      Consider, for example, his response to Hume’s is-ought argument. Essentially the whole of that response consists of a citation to the work of Professor Hesselberg, who argues that:
      1. Hume recognized that social order is indispensible to human well-being.
      2. He also recognized that justice is indispensible to social order.
      3. And he recognized that justice is the product of reason.
      4. Therefore, “Hume’s original ‘primacy of the passions’ thesis is seen to be utterly untenable for his social and political theory.”

      But this argument fails in several respects. First, Hume’s claim that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” is distinct from the is-ought problem. Even a successful refutation of the former would not be sufficient to refute the latter. But Hesselberg/Rothbard doesn’t even provide a successful refutation of the former. Hume never claimed that reason was important. Merely that it’s importance was instrumental. Reason helps us figure out how to satisfy our desires. One of the way it can do this is by constructing rules of justice. Justice helps us satisfy our desires. It does this, in part, by restraining our ability to act on our desires willy-nilly. But desire is still in the driver’s seat.

      So I take away two things from this. First, Rothbard’s specific critique of Hume’s is-ought problem fails, and his natural law ethic thus still faces a serious and undefeated challenge. And second, Rothbard is not very good at understanding and critically evaluating philosophical arguments. He didn’t do a very good job understanding Hume, and he didn’t do a very good job understanding how weak Hesselberg’s critique of Hume was. This, I think, should lead readers to view Rothbard’s claim that “all this natural law stuff has been worked out by very smart philosophers elsewhere” with a bit of suspicion.

      • Xavier M

        I do not feel competent enough to comment on his discussion of Hume. I do feel qualified on the other hand to point out the following. Just after I provided you with some clearcut evidence on the announced intents of the book, it is obviously unfair to suggest that it is all about presenting a view without defending it. First saying that he does not provide a full defense of natural law ethic is not the same as saying he does not want to provide any defense of it at all. Second, this is the first part, not the whole book. In case you missed it, I quoted him saying that “part II is the substance of the book”. If the book was about only one view, this is where the defense would have to be looked for.

        If I am not mistaken in my understanding of this book, the articulation looks like this: given the natural law tradition and its individualistic branch (part 1) and some reasons to take it seriously (limited defense), here is the political theory that should be deduced (part 2) because of X, Y and Z (full defense of why).

        • OK, I take your point about the difference between a non-full defense and no defense at all. But even still, I think there’s a difference between a partial defense and a bad defense. It would be one thing to partially defend natural law ethics by incomplete reference to solid arguments. It’s another thing to gesture at arguments that are based on serious misunderstandings, and at least in the case of Hume, I’m afraid that’s what Rothbard does.

        • “First saying that he does not provide a full defense of natural law ethic is not the same as saying he does not want to provide any defense of it at all.”

          That’s very true, but I’d also say that for a book whose case really relies on the idea that we can divine ethical norms from facts of human nature, Rothbard’s case only suffers to the degree that he does not engage in a full defense of the idea that doing that is possible. If he gives a partial defense of the idea that we can derive ethical norms from descriptive facts, then at very best, the rest of his case can only be PARTIALLY successful. (And that, to Matt’s point, assumes that this partial defense is a good partial defense.)

          ‘Second, this is the first part, not the whole book. In case you missed it, I quoted him saying that “part II is the substance of the book”.’

          It’s been a while since I”ve read it, but when R says “substance of the book,” I recall the second part basically being a discussion of the ethical norms that we can derive from facts of human nature, and how we should apply those norms to specific questions (questions about what aggression is, when it is legitimate to use force, etc).

          But as a skeptic that we can derive ethical norms from descriptive facts, I’d still say that this whole second part can’t get off the ground if R can’t convince me that ethical norms can be derived in a purely logical way from descriptive facts.

  • Xavier M

    “The fact is, most of us today, and perhaps especially those of us who are attracted to political libertarians, are subjectivists about a broad range of moral values. Not all of it, of course. Most of us think that things like stealing and torturing are objectively wrong. But when it comes to who we have sex with or in what way, what religion we practice (if any), how we spend our free time, most of us think that there isn’t any universal morally correct standard of behavior. What’s right for you depends very largely on what you like, and might be quite different from what I like. For many of us in the liberal / libertarian camp, this subjectivity about values is part of the reason we’re attracted to freedom. Freedom is good, in part, because it lets different people live their lives in the way that’s good for them, and doesn’t try to impose a single standard of value on everyone.

    My point here isn’t to make any kind of knock-down argument against natural law ethics. You could, I’m sure, tweak a natural law ethic to account for the kinds of subjectivity we find attractive nowadays. And you could (and some have) come up with an argument for libertarianism that builds on a natural law ethic. So, I’m not saying that the tension in Rothbard’s work isn’t resolvable. Just that it needs resolving”

    What tension? The tension between a natural law ethic and moral subjectivism? But that is not a tension in Rothbard’s book, as far as I can see. The only tension I can see here is between your attraction toward a natural law ethic insofar as it would imply that stealing is objectively wrong and your attraction toward moral subjectivism. In any case, tension or not, what “most of us” think is one thing, what Rothbard says or tries to convey is another.

  • Xavier M

    “Chapter 3, just a little over 3 pages in length, makes the point that natural law theories provide a moral foundation from which to launch a radical critique of existing, positive law. This is true enough, though not, as far as I can tell, distinctive of natural law ethics as contrasted with other objectivist moral theories. A Kantian or utilitarian foundation could provide and has provided a similar foundation for radical politics.”

    So what is controversial about his point then? This point does not claim that that only a natural law ethic can provide a foundation for radical politics.

    • I wasn’t claiming it was controversial. I was just summarizing the basic point of the chapter, and responding to it.

      • Xavier M

        It looks like you were, for what I quoted comes immediately after this sentence: “Chapters 3 and 4 continue the discussion of natural law theory, but make far fewer claims that strike me as philosophically controversial.”

        • Right. I was saying that there is not much that is controversial in those chapters. The sentences that followed were not intended, as you seem to have interpreted them, to present examples of things that *were* controversial. They were merely intended to summarize the main points of the chapter, and to present my response.

          • Xavier M

            Understood

  • Why should the fact that something is natural entail that it is something we ought to do or value?

    I think it’s a mistake to think of Aristoteleanism as first identifying a value-free conception of human nature and then deriving normative conclusions from it. The inquiry into what we should want and the inquiry into what sorts of creatures we can coherently think of ourselves as being are two sides of a single inquiry. (And see Michael Thompson for an explanation of why there is no such thing as a value-free characterisation of the nature of any species, even in biology.)

    But when it comes to who we have sex with or in what way, what religion we practice (if any), how we spend our free time, most of us think that there isn’t any universal morally correct standard of behavior.

    I doubt this is really true. People pay lip service to such things, but I suspect few really believe it. Most people who practice a religion think that the tenets of their religion are true, which entails thinking that the tenets of other religions, where incompatible with those of their own, are false.

    People aren’t really subjectivist or relativists even about aesthetics. Most people do claim to be, but just go to the message boards of AICN to see that quickly falsified. If someone dislikes a movie we liked, we virtually always think they’re missing something.

    As for sexual orientation, it’s worth keeping in mind that for Aristoteleanism some standards can be objective without being universal. Aristotle gives as an example the principle “don’t eat too much or too little,” and says that the standard for what count as too much or too little is different for different people; what is too little for Milo of Croton (a famous wrestler) is too much for an ordinary person. Likewise then, it might be objectively true that homosexual relationships are best for person A, and heterosexual relationships are best for person B. (The reasons for this may well appeal to A’s and B’s subjective values; but they won’t appeal exclusively or
    decisively to them. The fact that Jack the Ripper finds his activities enjoyable is not going to trump other considerations, for example.)

    Cicero (whose ethics is half Aristotelean and half Stoic) says in On Duties that each of us has four roles, or personae, to play throughout life; and he strongly implies that they are ranked in such a way that, in case of conflict, each trumps those below it:

    1. Our human nature
    2. Our individual nature
    3. Our social role
    4. What we choose for ourselves

    As for the suggestion that how we should spend our free time is subjective and arbitrary, I find D. H. Lawrence’s answer to the sphinx much more plausible.

    Rothbard believed the robust objectivism of his natural law ethic to be compatible with a subjectivist theory of economic value, and a political philosophy that accords individuals the freedom to pursue their (possibly incorrect) subjective moral values.

    For my own take on this see here.

    Any reason you don’t discuss Rothbard’s self-refutation argument in these chapters? That’s the bit that’s both most clearly influenced by Rand and most clearly influential on Hoppe.

    I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog that it’s a mistake to think of John Locke as a libertarian. …
    Rothbard just doesn’t seem to get that while of course libertarians oppose slavery, and support private property, that doesn’t mean that everyone who opposes slavery and supports private property is a libertarian

    But surely what’s crucial about Locke, and the reason Rothbard claims him as a libertarian, is that he bases his support for private property and his opposition to slavery (or, more precisely, his opposition to enslaving the innocent) on the principle of the natural equality of authority).

    • Rod, I’ll try to respond to the substance of your comments later, but for now, could you point me to the “self-refutation” argument you’re referring to? It’s not salient in my memory, and I couldn’t find it on a quick re-skim just now.

      • Oops, I’d remembered it as being in chapters 1-5 (where it seems to belong), but (for reasons unknown) it’s actually in chapter 6. It awaits you ….

        • Xavier M

          The passage you are referring to I guess is the paragraph starting on page 32 and ending on the next page.

    • So, starting with subjectivism. I think what you say here is both correct and important:

      It’s worth keeping in mind that for Aristoteleanism some standards can be objective without being universal. Aristotle gives as an example the principle ‘don’t eat too much or too little,’ and says that the standard for what count as too much or too little is different for different people”

      So, perhaps there’s nothing in natural law theories as such that compels them to say that the values and standards they endorse are universal. You could have a natural law theory that wound up saying the kinds of things I want to say – different art is good for different people, different sexual relationships are good for different people, etc. Still, most of the natural law theories I know of don’t wind up saying this. They might not be logically committed to universalism about values. But they wind up there anyway. Maybe that’s just a historical accident. But it’s puzzling nonetheless.

      As far as Locke goes, I’ll grant you his commitment to equality of authority. But that still doesn’t make him a libertarian. You might think that taking equality of authority seriously commits one to libertarianism. But Locke clearly didn’t. A classical liberal, maybe, but leagues away from Nozick, Rand, or Rothbard. And I don’t think it’s fair to say (as Rothbard sometimes seems to do) that Locke’s failure to embrace libertarianism was a failure to work out his ideas well enough. It’s because he had different ideas, ones that a sincere and honest scholar would have little difficulty detecting, but that Rothbard missed over and over again. And that, I suspect, is because Rothbard was not really all that interested in a serious and scholarly understanding of the ideas of the historical figures he wrote about. He was interested in building a historical pedigree for his own view.

      • Xavier M

        Now, if one must question someone’s honesty because of such an interpretation of Locke, this discussion is guaranteed to go exactly nowhere. One might as well speculate about some possible hidden motives you might have for doing what you do here.

        • Well, to be clear, my comment is not just based on Rothbard’s interpretation of Locke. It’s based on his interpretation of Hume, of Adam Smith, of Turgot, of Vitoria. I.e., it’s a pattern that one finds repeated over and over again in Rothbard’s historical work. One sees it when one reads Rothbard’s discussion of a thinker with whose ideas one is personally familiar. And one sees it when one reads critiques of Rothbard by historians who are expert in their subject.

          I still think Rothbard’s historical work is very worth reading. But it has serious shortcomings as objective scholarship.

          • Xavier M

            It’s not like it was the topic but I wondered about that while reading some parts of his history of thought book.
            Your comment was not simply based on Rothbard’s alleged dishonest portraits though, since you claimed that “a sincere and honest scholar would have little difficulty detecting” that Locke’s failure to embrace libertarianism was a failure to work out his ideas well enough. In other words, any scholar who disagrees on your interpretation of Locke whatever his publishing history must not be sincere and honest. Anyway, this is a distraction for the discussion was not supposed to be on someone’s hidden motives for saying what he says, was it?

          • Xavier M

            I meant “you claimed that “a sincere and honest scholar would have little difficulty detecting” that Locke’s failure to embrace libertarianism was NOT a failure to work out his ideas well enough”

          • Xavier M

            I meant “Your comment was not simply based on Rothbard’s alleged dishonest portraits though, since you claimed that “a sincere and honest scholar would have little difficulty detecting” that Locke’s failure to embrace libertarianism was NOT a failure to work out his ideas well enough.”

          • I see this tendency, for instance, when I look at Rothbard’s interpretation of Albert Jay Nock as libertarian. (You know this well, Matt.)

    • “People aren’t really subjectivist or relativists even about aesthetics. Most people do claim to be, but just go to the message boards of AICN to see that quickly falsified. If someone dislikes a movie we liked, we virtually always think they’re missing something.”

      I just want to question this a little bit. So, when I introspect on this (because I do consider myself a subjectivist when it comes to aesthetics), I think I FEEL like those who don’t like what I like must be missing something – it is a gut reaction I think I, and probably everyone else, has in that situation. But when i think about it for a minute, and think about the possibility that I just may have a different standard of beauty (etc.) than they do, and whether there is any way I can say OBJECTIVELY that my standard is correct where theirs is not, I find that it is impossible for me to keep thinking that they are just missing some fact of the matter about the beauty I find in the art I love.

      I suppose, a sort of error theory. I feel strongly that what I like is good and that when others feel differently, they just missed some fact of the matter. But I recognize that most likely, I am wrong about that.

      • Here is a contrast.

        (a) I like heavy metal. A friend of mine likes heavy metal and he also likes classical. I like bits of classical, but not much; and I don’t think I like any of the classical that my friend likes. But I can see how he can appreciate that stuff. I don’t think that it lacks value because I don’t like it. I don’t think that my friend has something wrong with him. I think that what he likes is probably objectively good and I accept that I may be missing something.

        (b) Although I like heavy metal, I think most heavy metal is crap. Yet a lot of the stuff I think is crap is very popular. What do I think of the people who like it? I think they like crap. I think they are lacking something. I shake my head and ask myself (and others): how can they listen to that crap? It is not objectively good: it is objectively crap!

        Here’s a diachronic contrast. Quite recently, I decided to watch some favourite old films from years ago. In some cases i thought the films were utter crap. How could I have watched and enjoyed such utter rubbish? I was missing something. I was young and stupid. Worse: I had something wrong with me. Some films I used to love are objectively crap. I now know better.

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  • I think that it is important to remember that logic itself is a derivation of Ought from Is. One ought to avoid contradictions because contradictions do not exist. One ought to accept the inference of the contrapositive because it is valid. But why should one care about what exists, or what is valid? The question is not answerable with an appeal to logic without collapsing into circularity. The only answer possible is an instrumental answer, one should care about what exists or is valid because that is required to remain in reality, to stay alive. But why should one choose to live? No answer in mere words will be sufficient. The error is expecting all justification to be in the forms of words and propositions, of arguments.

    • I think you are mistaken here. Logic is the study of validity, and thus of truth, falsehood, necessary truth and necessary falsehood. It says nothing about whether we ought to value validity or truth or necessary truth. For example, what classical logic tells us is that every contradiction is necessarily false. If you want to avoid falsity, YOU may say: ‘avoid contradictions’. But logic says nothing about the matter.

  • as to why there is only one possible instrumental answer that is because only life is an end in itself, requiring no further justification. Being alive requires taking action to stay alive, that is just a fact. Any other instrumental answer would assume being alive to accomplish the end, so one could keep asking “why?” until arriving back at the fact of being alive.

  • for someone already convinced that ethics come from God or social convention or evolved instincts the is-ought problem is a reassuring rationalization to stop trying to make ethics make sense.

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  • gertsieger

    “that doesn’t mean that everyone who opposes slavery and supports private property is a libertarian.”

    Why not? This is pretty much the definition of a libertarian.

    “If homosexual sex can provide the same kinds of good that non-procreative heterosexual sex can (physical pleasure, emotional closeness, etc.), then why should we care whether it’s “natural” or not?”

    If homosexual activity would invade property rights then it would produce victims, this is why we would care. Fortunately, this is not the case and I really don’t understand why you choose such an unfit example (It has nothing to do with Rothbard’s concept of natural). If you do not understand what I say, then simply replace the word ‘homosexual’ with ‘unconsenting’. Why should we care whether rape is “natural” or not? Because it’s an invasion of a person’s right.

    “You could, I’m sure, tweak a natural law ethic to account for the kinds of subjectivity we find attractive nowadays”
    Rothbard’s treatment of the subject does account of these kinds of subjectivities, so I’m not sure what’s there you want to tweak. It’s not like kinky sex has been invented yesterday – ever heard of Marquis de Sade?

    ” Rothbard believed the robust objectivism of his natural law ethic to be compatible with a subjectivist theory of economic value”
    Why wouldn’t it be? They are two completely different things. You haven’t made a single argument in favor of incompatibility.

    “A Kantian or utilitarian foundation could provide and has provided a similar foundation for radical politics.”
    In some cases maybe. In other cases, and Rothabard mentions some of them when he discusses Mises and the utilitarians, not. Gang rape fe can’t be objectively condemned from
    a purely utilitarian standpoint (despite the numerous failed attempts at this).