Edward Feser's critique of Murray Rothbard.

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  • #349

    Jacob
    Keymaster

    I wanted to hear what fans of Murray Rothbard thought of this article by Edward Feser. I mostly agree with him, and I remember thinking the passage from Ethics of Liberty that he quotes was problematic when I first read Ethics of Liberty, for similar reasons, (e.g. Rothbard’s list of alternatives isn’t jointly exhaustive as he claims, and “communist” norms need not entail a requirement for everyone to get the permission of every other human to take any action, indeed I doubt any communist would defend such an idea, so it seems like a straw man on Rothbard’s part.)

    I found an earlier part of Ethics of Liberty more frustrating, (at least I think it was earlier,) but this passage has more easily explained errors, and so serves as a good illustration.

    Anywho, when some of us met up to chat after the Anarchism Forum back in January, someone mentioned this passage as a good argument from Rothbard’s book. So, I wanted to hear what people thought about Feser’s criticisms.

  • #353

    Hogeye
    Participant

    As usual with spurious Rothbard bashing, all I had to do was look up the quote and examine the context. Then Feser’s objections fall apart.

    1. Feser mistakenly (or purposely, who knows?) takes the following statement of Rothbard’s to be an argument:

    “Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation.”

    Taken out of context, it does look like an argument, of the form “Since A then B.” But if you read the actual passage, it is not an argument, but the elucidation of a premise, an “axiom.” The premise was explicitly stated, and explicitly called an axiom, in the first half of the paragraph Feser butchered! Here is the whole paragraph:

    “The most viable method of elaborating the natural-rights statement of the libertarian position is to divide it into parts, and to begin with the basic axiom of the “right to self-owner- ship.” The right to self-ownership asserts the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to “own” his or her own body; that is, to control that body free of coercive interference. Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation.”

    Feser’s other objection in point (1) is that he considers, “each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish” to be false. Yes it is, taken literally. But (as Feser acknowledges) we need to use philosophical charity and interpret natural language in a manner that makes the most sense. It is obvious to me that Rothbard was making a general statement about mankind, and how man as a species survives and prospers. “Each individual” in this context means members of mankind – homo sapiens. Despite some cases of dependency (which Feser points out), on a macro level mankind must think and act to live (survive and prosper.) To any reader of Ayn Rand this is obvious, but to Feser I guess not. In other words, Rothbard (and Rand) is making an evolutionary biological observation. A true one, in my opinion.

    Note that in preceding paragraph (in “For a New Liberty”) he makes his biological empiricism quite clear, and contrasts man’s means to plant and lower animal means for living. Rothbard’s argument for self-ownership is found there:

    “Since men can think, feel, evaluate, and act only as individuals, it becomes vitally necessary for each man’s survival and prosperity that he be free to learn, choose, develop his faculties, and act upon his knowledge and values. This is the necessary path of human nature; to interfere with and cripple this process by using violence goes profoundly against what is necessary by man’s nature for his life and prosperity.”

    2. It is true that Rothbard leaves out some of the ownership possibilities, but only the really stupid ones. Like (b) “God owns everyone.” Rothbard skips the superstitious theist claims without evidence. That seems reasonable to me. Otherwise, we may have to include, “Everyone is owned by Martian unicorns.” I think that it’s okay to ignore the possibilities that are not based on rational empiricism.

    By Rothbard’s definition of ownership, the fact that one does have disposition over one’s self (“men can think, feel, evaluate, and act only as individuals”) ipso facto is ownership. This is analogous to mutualist possession property, where possession is a fact, not something ordained by others. Thus, Feser’s objection (a) fails. Man either chooses what to do with his body and mind or follows some other’s directions or orders. Either he is self-owned, or (at least partially) owned by others.

    The other part of this objection is misinterpreting Rothbard’s “ownership” as absolute, and uncharitably refusing to grant that Rothbard was including “partial ownership” when he wrote the word. Thus (c) and (d) are included in Rothbard’s first alternative: “(1) a certain class of people, A, have the right to own [at least partially] another class, B.”

    I do think that Rothbard erred in his second alternative: “(2) everyone has the right to own his own equal quotal share of everyone else.”
    He could simply drop “equal quotal” from it, and it would be fine. He is obviously addressing outcome egalitarians, and implicitly added one of their fairness conditions – that everyone has equal rights, in this case of ownership of others. He should have explicitly noted this added assumption.

    3. Feser gives a silly semantic objection. Rothbard calls people who are slaves (partial or full) “subhuman.” I know he means something like “not a full-fledged autonomous moral agent. Feser uncharitably takes it in a biological sense. If I say, ”Mississippi cotton plantation owners treated slaves as less than human” everyone knows what I mean.

    4. This objection totally ignores Rothbard’s evolutionary biological explanation in the previous paragraph. In short, Rothbard is talking about *humans*, who have a different mode of survival than lower animals and plants. (So the animal counter-example fails.) And he is, as mentioned, making a praxeological observation about mankind, not denying that dependency relationships exist for children and retards.

    In short, Feser took a Rothbard passage out of context, ignored Rothbard’s main explanation and argument in the preceding paragraphs, and interpreted Rothbard remarkably uncharitably. Instead of Rothbard being a bad philosopher, that article made me think that Feser is a bad reader, and kind of a sophist.

    Here’s the pdf for this wonderful book: For a New Liberty

    • This reply was modified 2 months, 1 week ago by  Hogeye.
  • #358

    Jacob
    Keymaster

    Hogeye>

    By Rothbard’s definition of ownership, the fact that one does have disposition over one’s self (“men can think, feel, evaluate, and act only as individuals”) ipso facto is ownership. This is analogous to mutualist possession property, where possession is a fact, not something ordained by others. Thus, Feser’s objection (a) fails. Man either chooses what to do with his body and mind or follows some other’s directions or orders. Either he is self-owned, or (at least partially) owned by others.

    Ok, let me ask for some clarification here.

    If I’m holding, say, a backpack, which is “mine” according to lockean property rules, and another person takes it without my permission, then the taker “owns” the backpack, (since they now control it,) but they do not “rightfully own” it, since it is not their property according to lockean property rules, correct? All this is in accordance with Rothbard’s definition of “ownership?”

    Similarly, if a tenant is standing in an apartment which is, according to lockean property norms, the property of another person from whom they have rented it, they “own” the room they are standing in, since they have control over it, correct?

    I had definitely thought Rothbard had been erroneously equivocating between control and right to control, using the resulting fog to try breaching the is-ought gap here, but perhaps not… I don’t have time to reread the whole chapter right at the moment, but perhaps I will do so and see if I can read it more charitably, as you put it.

    Hogeye>

    Feser’s other objection in point (1) is that he considers, “each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish” to be false. Yes it is, taken literally. But (as Feser acknowledges) we need to use philosophical charity and interpret natural language in a manner that makes the most sense. It is obvious to me that Rothbard was making a general statement about mankind, and how man as a species survives and prospers. “Each individual” in this context means members of mankind – homo sapiens. Despite some cases of dependency (which Feser points out), on a macro level mankind must think and act to live (survive and prosper.) To any reader of Ayn Rand this is obvious, but to Feser I guess not. In other words, Rothbard (and Rand) is making an evolutionary biological observation. A true one, in my opinion.

    I think that, in order to make Rothbard’s, and Rand’s, claims here true, you are diluting them so much that they are no longer useful for their purposes. Both of these philosophers wanted very much to elucidate moral theories that, 1) encompassed vast spheres of human action, (though far less vast in the case of Rothbard’s book Ethics of Liberty,) 2) were demonstrably correct in most or all particulars, and 3) were absolute in their requirements, leaving no room for compromise or lapse of adherence.

    The absoluteness they desired can no longer be generated, (if it ever could,) once one allows that, in many cases, it is not true that human beings must control their own physical bodies, and their own lives, in order to “survive and prosper.” I think the vast majority of people living today have nothing close to control over their lives in the ways in which Rand and Rothbard thought was required for them to survive and prosper, and yet they remain physically alive, and they may believe themselves to be prosperous. It is hard to reconcile this fact with the claim that self-ownership, in the absolute sense Rothbard advocated for, is a requirement for survival and prosperity, unless he thinks it is only so for some human beings, rather than all, in which case he looses his ability to use it as the basis for a moral theory applying to all human beings, as I think he wanted to do.

    Your, (Hogeye’s,) claim that Rothbard based his argument in “biological empiricism” takes me quite by surprise. When I think of philosophers basing their arguments in empiricism, I think of people like Jesse Prinz, the author of Furnishing the Mind and The Emotional Construction of Morals, who, in both of those books, spent many pages discussing the scientific literature relevant to his claims, reviewing study after study, picking apart experimental methodologies, explaining the successes and shortcomings of others’ ideas, until finally able to construct a thesis that worked with all the empirical evidence available.

    A book defending libertarian ethos in the same way would be nothing like the writing of Rothbard or Rand. Such a work would have to deal exhaustively with the literature on experimental psychology and economics, among many other fields. One would need to examine all experimental studies on the effects of autonomy vs. lack thereof on people’s behavior, psychological state, and lives. One would need to look at how much of each person’s behavior resulted from rational deliberation, how much from obedience to authority, how much from whim, etc. One would have to come up with operational definitions for “prosperity” and “life,” in contrast to the vague, seemingly obscurantist use of these ideas by Rothbard and Rand.

    All Rothbard does in the explanation you quote is take a few vaguely stated, yet still controversial claims for granted, before attempting to construct an extensive moral castle on top. Where is his appeal to, or examination of, empirical evidence?

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