Shayne Wissler
Imagine a world where we figured out the right direction to push, and then we pushed in that right direction…

Hans Hoppe’s “Argumentation Ethics”

July 04 2014

A careless reader recently compared my metaethical view to Hans Hoppe’s “Argumentation Ethics”, insisting that my view is some kind of variation. In this post I highlight the problem with argumentation ethics and clarify the difference between Hoppe’s view and mine.

Consider Hoppe’s own outline of his game plan:

“I want to demonstrate that the libertarian private property ethic, and only the libertarian private property ethic, can be justified argumentatively, because it is the praxeological presupposition of argumentation.”

There are a number of oddities here. He says “justified argumentatively”, as if he believes there are several ways of justifying something, whereas the natural view is that the justification of a proposition is per se a rational (i.e. logical and evidence-based) argument. He refers to a “praxeological” presupposition, as if there are different types of presupposition, whereas the natural view is that presupposition is per se logical presupposition. He implies that a proper political philosophy has a “private property ethic” at its foundation, as opposed to individual rights (a far broader concept) being at the foundation.

Multiply these oddities paragraph after paragraph and you can see why the initial reaction to his original paper was a general confusion about what his view actually was[1]. In my opinion of his writing, knowing precisely what he means here is impossible. So while we can get the general gist of what he thinks he’s doing, in the final analysis, it’s indecipherable gibberish, and this constrains a comparison. But let us rewrite Hoppe’s summary of his view such that it makes some kind of sense:

I want to prove that only a philosophical system that upholds individual rights can be proven to be correct, because all proof presupposes individual rights.

This is the hallmark of “argumentation ethics”: the claim that a particular ethical system is presupposed by the very process of proof.

In contrast to this, the only kinds of things philosophers have typically advocated as being presupposed by the process of proof are very basic things, such as the validity of reason or the idea that “existence exists.” For example, if we are going to prove something, we must assume that our rational faculty is valid in a general sense, otherwise proof is meaningless – that reason is valid is axiomatic. Where philosophers have generally proceeded to ethics via argument, they have done so by arguing that reason supports their particular ethical view, in the sense that they are employing reason in order to make their case; their ethical views are purported to be implied, not presupposed, by reason.

It is Hoppe’s very “nontraditional” reversal of the use of presupposition vs. implication that is defining of “argumentation ethics.”

Distinctive of my own ethic is its metaethical kernel: that one must follow reason is the ultimate ethical presupposition. Such is a trivial, axiomatic observation: since reason is our means of truth, and ethics is a species of truth, then following reason is a precondition of being ethical. (Precisely what it means to follow reason is a metaphysical question.)

My system follows the same general pattern as most philosophy. I identify what reason is and argue that it is axiomatic. I propose a very spartan metaethic: that one should follow reason. Only later do I make the case that following reason leads to endorsing individual rights, that if we follow reason and observe the facts, then we arrive at the truth of individual rights, just as all truth whatsoever comes from following reason where it leads. This is a very ordinary and traditional style of reasoning, of course. (In this sense, Hoppe is far more “innovative” than I am.)

So no, my system is not a variant of “argumentation ethics.”

What Hoppe’s argument amounts to is cheating. It is as if he wishes to cash in on the easy inevitability of validating axioms, in order to advertise that he’s solved this longstanding ethical problem. What he’s doing isn’t philosophy, it’s cargo cult philosophy: he apes the form of validating self-evident axioms, without comprehending the spartan substance of an axiom.

  1. See Liberty Symposium: Breakthrough or Buncombe

  2. A critique of Sam Harris’s metaethic: To Sam Harris: A Challenge and a Solution

  3. A critique of Ayn Rand’s metaethic: Ayn Rand's metaethic