Praxeological ethics?


I recently read an essay by Adam Knott about how praxeology makes a judgment that coercion is bad. I enjoyed the essay, but was left with the feeling that his argument was not very solid, despite being very creative.

Essentially, his argument is that praxeology says that happiness occurs when something “striven for” becomes “attained.” That is, when means are used to reach an end and the end is attained, that is happiness in the praxeological sense. Conversely, unhappiness occurs when something that is previously attained becomes striven for. For if attaining something is happiness in the praxeological sense, then moving from a state of attainment to striven for must represent unhappiness.

Mr. Knott then goes on to conclude that coercion means to strive for unhappiness. He says this because of the nature of coercion. For instance, when Smith points a gun at Tom and demands his money, Smith is forcing Tom to move from attained to striven for. Namely, Tom thought he had attained his own personal safety and security, but the coercion of Smith causes Tom to now strive for the previously attained safety and security by agreeing to Smith’s demands for money. Thus, Tom moves from a state of happiness to a state of unhappiness.

The implication for Smith, the coercer, is that he is striving after something that is subjective in nature, i.e. the unhappiness of Tom, the coercee. Mr. Knott concludes that the prototypical coercive exchange is one where the coercer is striving after a subjective want change in the coercee. In contrast, he says, the prototypical voluntary exchange is objective and verifiable, because most voluntary exchanges occur without regard to the happiness or unhappiness of another actor. For instance, voluntary exchanges in a supermarket on behalf of the buyer occur without regard to the subjective happiness or unhappiness of the seller; the buyer simply takes the cost of the items as a given.

Thus, we are to conclude, says Mr. Knott, that praxeology determines that coercion is bad, since the prototypical example of it is one where the coercer cannot objectively determine if he has attained what he is striving for. Whereas in the prototypical example of voluntary exchange, the actor can objectively determine if he has attained what he has striven for.

I was excited to read this essay because it sought for objective ethics. Unfortunately, it comes up short. The reason is that the prototypical case of coercion is as objective as voluntary exchange. It is true that a buyer may take the cost of an item at a supermarket as an objective cost without regard to the seller. However, why must one think the coercer is taking the unhappiness of the coercee into account? It is true that subjective unhappiness occurs in coercion, but it is also true that subjective happiness occurs on the part of the seller of the item at the supermarket, regardless of whether or not the buyer considers it during the exchange.

The coercer is striving after something subjective in nature, but is it true that he cannot really know if he’s attained it? No. For if the coercee agrees to the coercers demands, this action is an objective demonstration that the change in the coercee’s want status has occurred. Namely, the coercer would have an objective measure of changes in want status by the actions of the coercee.

I’m not sure how this attempted reasoning through praxeology sets up any sort of ethic. If it does, it doesn’t really tell me why I should follow it. I will be interested to read Mr. Knott’s forthcoming book which is supposed to elaborate more on this theory.

See the essay here:,%20First%20Edition.pdf

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