Mises and Morality



The procedure of this normative quasi science is to derive certain precepts from intuition and to deal with them as if their adoption as a guide to action would not affect the attainment of any other ends considered desirable. The moralists do not bother about the necessary consequences of the realization of their postulates. We need not discuss the attitudes of people for whom the appeal to justice is manifestly a pretext, consciously or subconsciously chosen, to disguise their short-run interests, nor expose the hypocrisy of such makeshift notions of justice as those involved in the popular concepts of just prices and fair wages. The philosophers who in their treatises of ethics assigned supreme value to justice and applied the yardstick of justice to all social institutions were not guilty of such deceit. They did not support selfish group concerns by declaring them alone just, fair, and good, and smear all dissenters by depicting them as the apologists of unfair causes. They were Platonists who believed that a perennial idea of absolute justice exists and that it is the duty of man to organize all human institutions in conformity with this ideal. Cognition of justice is imparted to man by an inner voice, i.e., by intuition. The champions of this doctrine did not ask what the consequences of realizing the schemes they called just would be. They silently assumed either that these consequences will be beneficial or that mankind is bound to put up even with very painful consequences of justice. Still less did these teachers of morality pay attention to the fact that people can and really do disagree with regard to the interpretation of the inner voice and that no method of peacefully settling such disagreements can be found.

All these ethical doctrines have failed to comprehend that there is, outside of social bonds and preceding, temporally or logically, the existence of society, nothing to which the epithet "just" can be given. A hypothetical isolated individual must under the pressure of biological competition look upon all other people as deadly foes. His only concern is to preserve his own life and health; he does not need to heed the consequences which his own survival has for other men; he has no use for justice. His only solicitudes are hygiene and defense. But in social cooperation with other men the individual is forced to abstain from conduct incompatible with life in society. Only then does the distinction between what is just and what is unjust emerge. It invariably refers to interhuman social relations. What is beneficial to the individual without affecting his fellows, such as the observance of certain rules in the use of some drugs, remains hygiene.

The ultimate yardstick of justice is conduciveness to the preservation of social cooperation. Conduct suited to preserve social cooperation is just, conduct detrimental to the preservation of society is unjust. There cannot be any question of organizing society according to the postulates of an arbitrary preconceived idea of justice. The problem is to organize society for the best possible realization of those ends which men want to attain by social cooperation. Social utility is the only standard of justice. It is the sole guide of legislation.

In response to this, Roderick Long writes in Realism and Abstraction in Economics: Aristotle and Mises versus Friedman (PDF):

Whatever else they may disagree on, [Milton] Friedman and Mises agree that an a priori ethics is impossible. Those who defend the possibility of a rationally justifiable ethics, Mises contends, are essentially claiming that moral knowledge is "imparted to man by an inner voice, i.e., by intuition," and fail to recognise that "with regard to the interpretation of the inner voice ... no method of peacefully settling ... disagreements can be found." The parallel between Mises' criticism of a priori ethics and Friedman's criticism of Mises' own a priori economics is striking - and should lead us to suspect that Mises has here fallen into Friedman's own confusion between the private character of an "inner voice" and the public character of logic.

Whether there is any strong connection between a priori ethics and a priori economics, I do not know. It may very well be the case that deduction from axioms is legitimate in one case and not the other. But I am skeptical that much can be learned about the world through non-empirical methods.

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I have no need to [prove I

I have no need to [prove I own you].

Okay, then I will just get on with doing what I want to with my life.

The beauty of consequentialism is that it works regardless of whether we live in a free or deterministic world.

Really? Why go through all of that hard work trying to figure out what could happen if you can't change it?

Are you going to claim that you were pre-ordained to plan our lives for us?

Or are you hoping that we will sit back quietly and accept our lot while you exercise the volition you secretly believe you have so you can exploit our apathy.

By the way, I don't really believe you are trying to do these things. I am underlining how fatalism and subjectivity is used to get people to accede to slavery. Which doesn't speak to its reality, of course.

On what grounds can we claim

On what grounds can we claim that humans have free will, but cats do not?

I don't claim this. I think that cats have free will, and instinctively understand property (qua territory and prey), to boot.

But I have overstretched my quota of positive statements for one day.

the state in which I live

the state in which I live does recognize the ownership of animals...

Which is why we have to be careful about our term "to own". I would prefer not to have politicians do my metaphysics for me.

In a battle of wills between a slave and a master, the slave can assert his volition, but only if this is more important to him than the force he suffers at the hand of his master. Assertive slaves either escape or are destroyed. Those who submit to the will of the master have decided to wait until more opportune times arise, or in the most tragic cases, have come to believe that they are truly owned by their master.

The above description matches my observations and intuition about what actually happens when a people are subjugated than any alternate metaphysical description I have seen.

Okay, then I will just get

Okay, then I will just get on with doing what I want to with my life.

That's fine, but the argument here is whether there is any objective moral prohibition of slavery. The slave owner need not make any positive claims regarding the morality of people-ownership; they simply do what they do. It is the slaves or those who object to slavery on behalf of the slaves who bring morality into the mix.

Really? Why go through all of that hard work trying to figure out what could happen if you can’t change it?

True, it doesn't make consequentialism work as a moral theory. But it doesn't cause as much of a problem for consequentialism as it does for deontology. The truth of deontology fundamentally depends upon some notion of free will; i.e. murderers should be punished not simply because we don't like murders, but because they chose to violate another person's free will. Even if we posit determinism, we still have the illusion of preferences, and we do what we can to satisfy them. Determinism may make this effort fruitless, in the sense that whatever happens would have happened regardless, but it doesn't seem to violate the justifications for pursuit of desirable consequences as much as it does deontology. In other words, under consequentialism, we don't have any problem punishing murders even though those murders didn't have any choice when they committed their act. We punish them because we observe the cause-and-effect relationship between providing a disincentive to murder and the result of less murder. We would do the same thing if the murderer was an automaton. Think about it as the difference between punishing a healthy adult for murder and punishing a young child or a mentally disabled adult, neither of which have the capacity to understand the consequences of their actions. Deontology would make a sharp distinction between these two cases based on some understanding of free will; consequentialists would not.

I don’t claim this. I think that cats have free will, and instinctively understand property (qua territory and prey), to boot.

But you don't have any personal objections to people owning pets? Owning in the sense of keeping them locked indoors and catching them if they try to escape?

In a battle of wills between

In a battle of wills between a slave and a master, the slave can assert his volition, but only if this is more important to him than the force he suffers at the hand of his master. Assertive slaves either escape or are destroyed. Those who submit to the will of the master have decided to wait until more opportune times arise, or in the most tragic cases, have come to believe that they are truly owned by their master.

A child and a mentally disabled person cannot assert his volition, yet most of us would object to enslaving children or the disabled.

Those who submit to the will of the master because they don't have any good alternatives are not really "choosing" to remain enslaved; it is the threat of force that keeps them in their present condition. Just as one who is mugged does not "choose" to hand his wallet over to the mugger; he is coerced through threat of violence just as much as a person who has his wallet physically removed from his person by the mugger.

"Because it is an

"Because it is an opinion."

An opinion about what? About your preferences? You know what you you prefer.

A prefernce that people act a certain way is not an opinion that they ought to, and you know it since you are not of the opinion they ought to.

You say "I believe X", but X clearly is not "People ought to do Y" since you don't believe "People ought to do Y". And X is clearly not "I prefer people to do Y", since you don't believe that, you know you prefer people to do Y.

Saying "X is my opinion" is no different from saying "X is my belief" or "I believe X".

So what the heck is this X that you profess to believe?

Mark. Ownership is a

Mark. Ownership is a metaphysical concept?

I'd be interested to hear more about that.

A prefernce that people act

A prefernce that people act a certain way is not an opinion that they ought to, and you know it since you are not of the opinion they ought to.

I think we are just using these words in different ways. I think it makes lots of sense to say that a prefernce that people act a certain way is in fact an opinion that they ought to act a certain way. If it were not merely a preference or opinion, it would be an objective fact that people ought to act a certain way. But since I don't believe in any objective facts about oughts (other than people ought to act in such a way as to achieve their goals, which is somewhat of a tautology), I speak of preferences and opinions, not facts.

When Kennedy tells me that murder is wrong, Kennedy is not simply telling me his opinion, but is tellimg me a fact (a fact in his opinion, of course!)

>>The laws of physics all

>>The laws of physics all make specific claims about the real world which can be tested and demonstrated to be true or false. Things which are true by definition simply repeat the same information twice and so say nothing new about the real world.

Yes, you're right of course.

>>They are simply using their intelligence for purposes other than acquiring true knowlege about the world. Intelligence has many uses; acquiring true knowledge is only one of them.

Hmm. this may be another definitional issue involving the word "intelligence." Maybe I should use the phrase, "capacity for rational thought" instead. Then I think my above reasoning completely resolves down to argument by definition.

Hmm. this may be another

Hmm. this may be another definitional issue involving the word “intelligence.” Maybe I should use the phrase, “capacity for rational thought” instead. Then I think my above reasoning completely resolves down to argument by definition.

Either it's a tautology, as you suggested, or it is false, depending on how we define the term "rational". Is it irrational to use one's intellectual faculties for reasons other than acquiring true knowledge about the world? Is it irrational to believe something you know or suspect is false because it is emotionally comforting or in some other way useful?

On second thought, I'd lean

On second thought, I'd lean closer to the tautology position, because rationality entails reason, reason entails logic, and logic necessitates against contradiction.

...the argument here is

...the argument here is whether there is any objective moral prohibition of slavery...

I thought the argument was first of all, whether there was any objective human volition, and second of all, whether there was any reason to assume that the burden of proof should be on slaveholders to prove they have property rights over humans, or potential slaves to prove that they should have their volition respected.

As I suggested before, Bernard, I don't think "self-ownership" and "slave ownership" are using the verb "to own" in the same way. What I am suggesting is metaphysically objective is human volition.

...we don't have any problem punishing murders...

Hmm... How do you think your description is changed by using the singular, as in "I don't have any problem punishing murders, or asking others to help me punish murders..." I might concede to consequentialism so long as I am examining the consequences in relation to my own values, and not choosing consequences for other people by assuming I know their values (or worse, having them choose consequences for me). I think this is my main objection to what you have called consequentialism in the past, but I'd have to re-read some of your previous posts to see if consequentialism is inherently collectivist.

The two principles of ethics I suggested before, volition and mutual respect, are incomplete in that children, the mentally disabled, and animals are outside their scope. This is unforgivable since I spend so much time with children and animals. I have a good idea about how I deal with children--I will try to prepare this for another day, if you will allow me a grace period to fit it in. ;) Animals I am less sure of, except to say that my wife and I differ on the topic. I maintain that human volition always trumps the volition of lower animals. She thinks that major trespasses against an animal can be balanced by minor trespasses against humans. She will try to get the SPCA to take away the neighbor's dog if it is being chained up all day, but I will not.

I allow my own animals as much exercise of their volition as possible, and communicate with them more than most people seem to, but ultimately I use force and deceit against them for my own convenience. The cows think I am their benefactor and protector who cuddles them and gives them shelter and food, but one day I will take them, one-by-one, around the shed where the others can't see them, and put a bullet in their brain. They will never know of the deceit--I will feel bad about it, but will feed my family.

One who is mugged does not "choose" to hand his wallet over to the mugger...

Odd. I think one does, but has been forced into deciding between two poor choices by an immoral mugger. In fact, in training for the very real possibility of this situation in South Africa, I found it calming to realize that if a thief holds a gun to your head, but has not shot you, he wants something from you and a space has opened for you to gain some control over the situation.

It's fine to examine ethics, but life is happening now, and you need to make decisions about the limited choices in front of you. I don't think that it is fair to claim that you can't exercise volition until that shining day when the world is free from force or deceit.

Mark, I just don't see on

Mark, I just don't see on what grounds you're making the jump between volition and self-ownership. I see the former as a given, while the latter has been and remains hotly contested and approached differently in different societies during different time periods (which is a strong indication of subjectivity).

Hmm… How do you think your

Hmm… How do you think your description is changed by using the singular, as in “I don’t have any problem punishing murders, or asking others to help me punish murders…” I might concede to consequentialism so long as I am examining the consequences in relation to my own values, and not choosing consequences for other people by assuming I know their values (or worse, having them choose consequences for me). I think this is my main objection to what you have called consequentialism in the past, but I’d have to re-read some of your previous posts to see if consequentialism is inherently collectivist.

It was just shorthand for "lots of people believe this; it isn't considered a controversial position." I don't think my version of consequentialism is inherently collectivists; it's purpose is to appeal to each individual as a way of satisfying his subjective values. It won't appeal to everyone, and that's just too bad, but then, no ethical system will satisfy everyone's subjective values.

Odd. I think one does, but has been forced into deciding between two poor choices by an immoral mugger.

True, it depends on how one defines "free choice", which is yet another reason why I find theories which depend upon free will to be problematic. Free choice is difficult to define: does it mean entirely free, completely uninfluenced by others in society? That doesn't seem like a very useful definition. It all comes down to "I know it when I see it", which won't resolve any controversies between people who use different definitions.

"I think it makes lots of

"I think it makes lots of sense to say that a prefernce that people act a certain way is in fact an opinion that they ought to act a certain way. If it were not merely a preference or opinion, it would be an objective fact that people ought to act a certain way. But since I don’t believe in any objective facts about oughts (other than people ought to act in such a way as to achieve their goals, which is somewhat of a tautology), I speak of preferences and opinions, not facts."

Since you are not of the opinion that people ought to act a certain way, how can it possibly make sense to say that you are of the opinion they ought to act a certain way?

Your preference is a fact, known to you, it is not an opinion or belief you hold.

You say "I believe X" but you cannot coherently fill in the X. That's not a semantic quibble, it's you declining to communicate in a coherent manner.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I own you. On Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, you own me. We all own each other in some socialist paradise.

Find! But it just proves my point! That you cannot own others without owning yourself. Because on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, you own yourself and then own me.

Are you claiming that

Are you claiming that slaves have historically lacked free will? It seems to me you are using multiple definitions of the term “self-ownership", one relating to free will and the other relating to political or ethical freedom.

Actually, all I am saying is that any ownership requires ability to exercise free will. I think you are confusing between having a free will and exercise the free will. Freedom is nothing but lack of constraint on exercise of free will within a certain domain (jurisdiction).

If one does not own him/herself that means that person is not free to exercise his/her free will. In such case, he/she cannot own others.

Your example, of circular ownership (depending on day of the week), still does not answer my question of how one can own others without owning him/her self!