Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethic: A Critique
by Bob Murphy and Gene Callahan
Anarcho-capitalist theorist Hans-Hermann Hoppe justly enjoys a reputation for controversial positions and uncompromising scholarship. Perhaps his most famous result, the argumentation ethic for libertarianism, purports to establish an a priori defense of the justice of private property. Hoppe claims that the very act of debating anything, including social arrangements, demonstrates that each participant in the debate acknowledges the self-ownership of all of the others. Some libertarians have celebrated Hoppe’s argument as the final nail in the coffin for collectivism of any type; following Hoppe, they believe that to deny the libertarian ethic is not only wrong, but also internally contradictory.
Hoppe is engaging in a venerable philosophical exercise dating back at least to Plato: the attempt to remove contingency and uncertainty as factors in political discourse, in order to arrive at a method of achieving political conclusions that are demonstrably, logically correct, rather than merely persuasive. Indeed, Hoppe must be counted, with Plato and Rousseau, as one of the few thinkers who has actually recognized what is necessary for apodictic politics to succeed: all conclusions must spring from a single axiom. The introduction of “diverse and potentially conflicting axioms,” as in a natural rights attempt to create an apodictic politics, defeats the entire project from the start, since we are thrust back into the realm of contingency and persuasive discourse whenever we must resolve the conflicts between the different natural rights. (We might note that this difficulty does not apply to those who employ natural rights as maxims to be taken into consideration in political persuasion, only to those who regard such rights as axioms to be employed in political proofs.)*
The present authors believe that Hoppe’s argument is unfortunately invalid. Although we appreciate the boldness of his attempt, we conclude that in this case, Hoppe has failed in his task. We shall demonstrate that even on its own terms, the argument does not prove self-ownership in the way Hoppe wants. More important, we shall then demonstrate a crucial flaw in the argument, which renders it a non sequitur.
Inasmuch as Hoppe’s case is a bit complicated, and our critique will at times rely on subtle distinctions, we strongly encourage the serious reader to review Hoppe’s own exposition. Unfortunately, the essay is apparently not online at present, so we offer the following sketch of the argument for those not able to locate the original article, which appeared in Liberty:
Certain propositions are self-contradictory; an example is, “This statement is false.” (This statement also involves a paradox, but that’s a different matter altogether.) Other propositions are not self-contradictory, but it would still be contradictory to utter them. To use an example from David Gordon, the statement “Reagan is dead” is not self-contradictory, but if the Gipper were to say it, his action would be self-contradictory. Philosophers call such an action a performative contradiction.
The next concept we need is the “ethics of argumentation” (developed by Habermas and Apel). Whenever people engage in argumentation, they implicitly agree to a set of norms. For example, each participant implicitly agrees to try to persuade the other(s) through peaceful methods.
Now then, Hoppe claims that in order to justify something with propositional exchange, people must have exclusive control over their bodies; and they must have the right to homestead unowned property, and to voluntarily obtain ownership of others’ property, in order to sustain themselves in debate. In short, anyone who engages in a rational argument must be granted the full range of libertarian rights.
Given this, Hoppe concludes that the libertarian view of property rights is the only justifiable one. Anyone who denied the libertarian doctrine would be unable to consistently justify his rival theory; the moment he engaged others in debate, he would implicitly grant them their due libertarian rights, and hence would commit a performative contradiction. Thus, Hoppe claims, not only is the libertarian view of property correct; it is irrefutably correct, and we can claim for it apodictic certainty.
We close this section with a concise summary of Hoppe’s argument in his own words:
One cannot deny [the law of non-contradiction] without presupposing its validity. But there is another such proposition. Propositions are not free-floating entities. They require a proposition maker who in order to produce any validity-claiming proposition whatsoever must have exclusive control (property) over some scarce means defined in objective terms and appropriated (brought under control) at definite points in time through homesteading action. Thus, any proposition that would dispute the validity of the homesteading principle of property acquisition, or that would assert the validity of a different, incompatible principle, would be falsified by the act of proposition making in the same way as the proposition “the law of contradiction is false” would be contradicted by the very fact of asserting it. (Liberty, November 1988, p. 53)
HOPPE’S ARGUMENT FAILS ON ITS OWN TERMS
As stated in the opening, we believe that even if one grants the basic validity of Hoppe’s approach, his argument fails to make the case for full self-ownership. At best, Hoppe has proven that it would be contradictory to argue that someone does not rightfully own his mouth, ears, eyes, heart, brain, and any other bodily components deemed essential for debate. But this clearly would not include, say, a person’s legs; after all, it is certainly possible for someone to engage in fruitful debate without having any legs at all. (Consider physicist Stephen Hawking, who is quite physically handicapped and yet manages to engage in propositional discourse of the highest caliber.)
To make the point more applicable, we could easily imagine a collectivist arguing, “People should not have full ownership of their bodies, as libertarian theorists believe. For example, if somebody is sick and needs a kidney, then it is moral to use force to compel a healthy person to give up one of his kidneys.” Since it is not necessary to have two kidneys in order to debate, Hoppe’s argument would in no way hinder this collectivist claim.
Thus we have shown that, even on its own terms, the argument only establishes ownership over portions of one’s body. Now we extend this, and show that at best it only establishes ownership during the course of the debate.
For example, suppose a collectivist argues, “Generally speaking, people have the right to use their bodies as they see fit. However, during national emergencies, it is moral to use force to compel certain individuals to act in the public interest. In particular, if the nation is being invaded, and voluntary recruitment falls short, the government may draft people into military service. Therefore, the libertarian claim to absolute self-ownership is illegitimate.”
Now how does Hoppe’s argument show that someone uttering the above (during a policy debate) is engaging in a performative contradiction? The collectivist is not using force during the debate; he is merely arguing that under certain conditions the use of force is appropriate to compel military service, and thus denies the libertarian ethic. We certainly disagree with this hypothetical collectivist, but we don’t see how his claims are internally contradictory.
Before moving on, let us point out one rejoinder that is not valid for the defender of Hoppe’s argument. In response to arguments like the above, a Hoppeian might be tempted to say, “The fact that such collectivists would not be performing a contradiction at that moment is irrelevant. The beliefs of these collectivists necessarily rest on ‘might makes right’ when force is applied, and at that point, they show that they are not really interested in justifying their aggression. For example,” the Hoppeian might continue, “a person forced into a hospital to have a kidney removed certainly can’t argue while he’s under, and a person forced to the front lines to repel invaders certainly isn’t in a fair position to debate the justice of his condition. Therefore, these collectivists are engaging in a contradiction when they try to justify forced kidney transplants or the draft.”
(On this issue, Hoppe himself has written: “[I]n the same way as the validity of a mathematical proof is not restricted to the moment of proving it, so, then, is the validity of the libertarian property theory not limited to instances of argumentation. If correct, the argument demonstrates its universal justification, arguing or not” [Liberty p. 54].)
Again, reasoning such as this is invalid; the defender of Hoppe must come up with a different way to respond to our arguments above. To see why this purported defense fails, consider the proposition, “One should not argue during a funeral.”
Now, not only do we feel that it is consistent to justify this proposition, but we actually believe it is true. In fact, if someone were to start arguing during a funeral, we feel it would be completely appropriate for family members to escort the person away from the somber proceedings. We can imagine this disruptive individual (perhaps versed in the writings of Habermas) claiming that his oppressors were relying on naked aggression, and were uninterested in debating the justice of their use of force. In fact, he could quite correctly point out that it would be a performative contradiction for the family members to argue, during the event itself, “One shouldn’t argue during a funeral.” Nonetheless, would this demonstration prove that force had been unjustly deployed?
Of course not. The truth of a proposition can be argued outside of the circumstances in which the proposition must be applied. So for the funeral, as for the military draft or organ transplant: Just because one can’t argue on the front lines or in an operating room, doesn’t itself prove that these outcomes are unjustified uses of force. So it is true, as Hoppe points out, that once a proposition has been proven, the proof does not “expire” the moment the discussion of it ceases. But the proof only holds when the premises it assumes also hold. Hoppe has shown that bashing someone on the head is an illogical form of argumentation. He has not shown that the fact that one has ever argued demonstrates that one may never bash anyone on the head, nor has he demonstrated that one may not argue that it would be a good thing to bash so-and-so on the head. We cannot convince you of anything by clubbing you, but we may quite logically try to convince you that it is OK for us to club you.
Finally, we wish to note that, even if the above problems are overlooked, it’s still the case that Hoppe has only proven self-ownership for the individuals in the debate. This is because, even on Hoppe’s own grounds, someone denying the libertarian ethic would only be engaging in contradiction if he tried to justify his preferred doctrine to its “victims.”
For example, so long as Aristotle only argued with other Greeks about the inferiority of barbarians and their natural status as slaves, then he would not be engaging in a performative contradiction. He could quite consistently grant self-ownership to his Greek debating opponent, while denying it to those whom he deems naturally inferior.
Once again, let us point out that the fan of Hoppe must exercise caution. It is tempting to respond to the above example by saying, “That’s silly. If Aristotle tried to justify his views to a barbarian debating opponent, he would necessarily be engaging in contradiction. Therefore, his views are in general unjustifiable.”
Why is this response illegitimate? Because, if we accept it, then we must also admit that human “domination” of “lower” animals is also unjustifiable. Human beings never ask polar bears their thoughts on zoos. Horses are never allowed to debate the justice of their position in society. But surely the Hoppeian would not consider the denial of self-ownership to these creatures as an unjustifiable practice. Indeed, there are debates all the time on the issue of animal rights, and humans do try to justify experiments on animals, slaughtering animals for food, etc. But when these humans do so, it is always in order to convince other human beings. Nobody – not even animal rights activists – ever demands that we justify our practices to the animals themselves.
Of course, the Hoppeian might respond that horses are not as rational as humans, and therefore do not need to be consulted. But Aristotle need only contend the same thing about barbarians: they are not as rational as Greeks. And the only way to prove him wrong would be to argue that barbarians deserved the same rights as Greeks; i.e., one would have to start from scratch in trying to defend natural rights. Hoppe’s argument as such offers nothing to help in this task. To assume from the outset that whatever rights any particular individual enjoys (through argumentation), must therefore extend to all people – including newborn infants, the mentally retarded, as well as senile and comatose individuals, none of whom can successfully debate – is to beg the question. (To simply declare that ownership rights must be “universalizable” is no help, either; after all, communists could cite the same principle to “prove” that everyone should have equal shares to all property. And, of course, what set of living beings ownership rights must be “universalizable” over is precisely what Aristotle or the animal-rights activist wishes to dispute with Hoppe.)
HOPPE CONFLATES USE WITH OWNERSHIP
In the previous section we argued that, even if one grants the basic validity of Hoppe’s approach, he has still not made the case for universal, full self-ownership in the libertarian sense. At best, all Hoppe has proven is that it would be a performative contradiction for someone to deny in an argument that his debating opponent (and perhaps those in the same “class”) own the body parts (such as eyes, brain, and lungs) necessary for debate, for the duration of the debate. This is a far cry from showing that it would be a contradiction for someone to deny the libertarian ethic. In particular, a collectivist could argue that people must give up a kidney, or go to war, if such actions would help the rest of society.
But now we move on to a more fundamental objection to Hoppe’s argument: One is not necessarily the rightful owner of a piece of property even if control of it is necessary in a debate over its ownership. Because of this fact, a crucial link in Hoppe’s argument fails. Someone can deny the libertarian ethic, and yet concede to his opponents the use of their bodies for debate. There is nothing contradictory about this, as we shall demonstrate with a few examples.
First, imagine a devout theist who believes that God created the entire universe, and is therefore the rightful owner of everything, including the bodies of human beings. The theist might believe that God has granted humans temporary control over His property, just as a landlord leases an apartment. However, just as the landlord would prohibit certain destructive acts, so too (the theist might think) would God prohibit such things as suicide and prostitution. Because of his worldview, such a theist might argue (against a libertarian atheist, perhaps) that people do not own their bodies, and that it is justified for outsiders to use force to prevent suicide.
Now, we grant that the theist would have a difficult time proving his case; indeed, we would disagree with his conclusions if such a theist really existed and advocated this stance. However, we do not think he has, by making such a case, in any way engaged in contradiction. Since we have come up with a logical counterexample to his sweeping result, Hoppe’s argument as it stands must be incorrect. (I.e., Hoppe didn’t begin his proof by saying, “Assume God doesn’t own everyone.”)
Second, imagine that a Georgist were to argue that everyone should own a piece of landed property. The Georgist could go so far as to claim that his position is the only justifiable one. He could correctly observe that anyone debating him would necessarily grant the Georgist some standing room, and thus it would be a performative contradiction to deny that everyone is entitled to a piece of land. We imagine that Hoppe would point out to such a Georgist that using a piece of land during a debate does not entitle one to its full ownership, and Hoppe would be correct. But by the same token, Hoppe’s argument for ownership of one’s body falls apart; Hoppe has committed the exact same fallacy as our hypothetical Georgist.
Finally, we point out with some irony that Hoppe and Rothbardian libertarians in general do not believe in universal self-ownership. In particular, they believe that criminals may be rightfully enslaved to pay off their debts to victims (or their heirs). Now we ask: Would it be contradictory for legal procedures in an anarchist society to allow convicted criminals the right to appeal? Couldn’t criminals take the stand and testify as to their wrongful conviction? We can imagine a private judge saying to the criminal, “You currently do not possess full self-ownership rights, but we want the community to trust in the equity of our proceedings, so by all means, please explain your objections to your conviction.” Would such an utterance by the judge be contradictory?
If not, then it must not be true, after all, that one needs to own his body in order to debate. This is obvious; Thomas Paine wrote the first portion of The Age of Reason while imprisoned, the famous “Birdman of Alcatraz” submitted scholarly articles to journals while serving time for murder, and the imprisoned Timothy McVeigh certainly tried to justify the bombing to which he had confessed, in correspondence with Gore Vidal. Indeed, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and Hans Hoppe were denied their rights to self-ownership, yet they managed to advance plenty of arguments.
Before moving on, let us mention Hoppe’s response to this objection when it was made by David Friedman, Leland Yeager, and others: Hoppe pointed out that he was not denying the historical existence of slavery, but rather its justification. But Hoppe misunderstood Friedman et al.’s point. Friedman wasn’t saying, that because slavery has existed, Hoppe must be wrong. Rather, Friedman was saying, that because countless slaves have engaged in successful argumentation, Hoppe must be wrong when he claims that self-ownership is a prerequisite to debate. And as for Hoppe’s contention that empirical observations are irrelevant to an a priori debate, we can only respond that one of the links in Hoppe’s argument is an empirical claim – specifically, the claim that argumentation requires self-ownership – and moreover, an empirical claim that we believe is obviously false.
We hope we have demonstrated the inadequacy of Hans Hoppe’s argumentation ethic for libertarianism. In the second section we showed that, even on its own terms, Hoppe’s proof only establishes fleeting and partial ownership of one’s body. In the above section, we showed that his proof doesn’t even succeed in this, for it confuses temporary control with rightful ownership.
Let us emphasize that we realize Hoppe’s observations are consistent with the body of libertarian thought. We realize, for example, that Hoppe believes in universal, default self-ownership, which then may be denied to criminals. But the whole point of Hoppe’s approach is not to argue that libertarianism is merely reasonable or preferable, but that it is logically undeniable; and for his argument to work, he cannot afford to assume any other libertarian principles before he starts. So if Hoppe’s argument doesn’t prove that criminals own themselves, then it can’t prove that non-criminals do, either (since there’s nothing in the argument itself concerning criminal behavior).
Hoppe’s argument is an intriguing one, but it ultimately fails. Although we support Hoppe’s goals, we cannot endorse flawed arguments aimed at achieving those goals, as the acceptance of such implies that we do not have better arguments on our side. We close with a quote from Mitchell Jones, taken from a symposium on Hoppe’s argumentation ethic:
I am a believer in the theory of natural rights. But this does not obligate me to endorse blindly every argument that is offered in its support. The cause of liberty is poorly served when its proponents march into battle with unsound arguments. (Liberty p. 49)
*See Michael Oakeshott, “Political Discourse,” from Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, for an extended discussion of these points. The quoted text in the above paragraph is from page 84 of that essay.
September 19, 2002
Bob Murphy is a graduate student in New York City. He is a columnist for LewRockwell.com and The Mises Institute, and has a personal website at bobmurphy.net. He is also Senior Editor for anti-state.com.
Gene Callahan is an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the author of the book, Economics For Real People.