The thin ethics of libertarianism: In search of a solution
Daniel Ajamian has recently restated Murray Rothbard’s philosophical foundation for libertarian ethics. As all who are familiar with the philosophy of “paleo-” (or somewhat misleadingly “conservative” ) libertarianism will be aware, Rothbard rejected the utilitarian framework of Ludwig von Mises in favor of an absolutist theory based on natural law. By the stadards of today’s market of ideas this is a superb world-view, and one which I would be very happy to endorse. None the less, I am not convinced that Rothbardian natural law theory, based ultimately on Aristotle and Aquinas, is the best that we can do. Thus in the interests of that “competition” beloved of free-market theorists, I would like to propose an alternative.
Specifically, I would like to consider Max Scheler’s value-objectivism as a meta-ethical framework, within which Misesian praxiology can be comfortably placed as a specific science with its own principles and parameters. Not only would this be far superior to the vulgar libertarian elevation of Praxiology into a “theory of everything” or TOE, but it would provide an equally ethical, and more integral, meta-ethics compared to that offered by the natural law/virtue theory approach.
Libertarian promise and poverty
Among the deepest objections raised against libertarian ethics are those concerned over the primacy of negative formulations. Such objections bear a family resemblance to anti-legalistic arguments. Hence libertarian ethics is seen as a “thou shall not” philosophy. Of course libertarian legal theorists rightly endorse the primacy of negative rights over the modern obsession with entitlements. However this is a principle proper to the science of law, a particular department of life and one which falls short of a philosophical anthropology. Defining human beings as “the animals who can and ought to obey the non-aggression principle” is not an adequate statement of human essence, even if certain libertarians might find it sufficient for their immediate purposes.
One can imagine a world in which all human beings have vanished from the Earth. In such a world written formulations of the non-aggression axiom would still survive, in libraries, on computer hard-drives and elsewhere. Even in this scenario, such statements of the non-aggression axiom would remain formally true. However they would lose all their application, together with most of their meaning. Such meaning as was retained in a depopulated world would pertain only to a kind of potential being which was no longer actual. Any non-human intelligences as might decipher these formulae (angels, AI, aliens or whatever) would understand that they referred to some species no longer found on Earth. If, for example, tigers still remained on the planet, it would be manifest that the non-agression principal had no application to tigers, and was certainly not an artifact of tiger thought or communication.
Perhaps one can think of other, and better, illustrations. However the inescapable truth is that ethics, not just the non-aggression principle (NAP) but any possible ethics, is a branch of philosophical anthropology, and not the other way around. To clarify, I use the adjective “philosophical” to distinguish the science of human nature from that interesting and occasionally useful discipline (also called anthropology) which studies bones, tools, genes and words in minute detail. It is a science which can provide many facts about human beings, but which has become too focused and materialistic to pose philosophical questions about the human essence.
Not that there have been any lack of philosophical anthropologies in the strict sense. A particular variation of philosophical anthropology is one of the twin pillars on which the whole of Judeo-Christian thought rests, the other being theology. As for Greek humanism, we tacitly invoke its anthropology whenever we employ the post-Linnean term “homo sapiens.” Even non-Western thought could not escape the problem of anthropology. For example Buddhism, though talking grandly of “sentient beings” when called upon to get down to details, expounds on the unique promise and responsibilities of a human incarnation.
On all the above, there is little argument between myself and Mr. Ajamian, or for that matter Rothbard himself. Unlike the vulgar libertarian for whom a particular (albeit correct) version of ethics has become a religion, the natural law libertarian understands that the non-aggression axiom is meaningless unless it is embedded within a larger theory of nature, and specifically human nature.
Virtue ethics vs. an objective ethics of values
In short, I agree with Mr. Ajamian, Murray Rothbard, C.S. Lewis and all the other good guys that “the abolition of Man” is something we don’t want to do. Not only do we want human beings as such to thrive and survive, but we want to preserve the unique place in our sciences for “the human” as a category within the cosmos. However, and this is where I begin to part company with Rothbard and Ajamian, there are several ways in which this might be done. One is broad path laid out by Aristotle, Aquinas, and the late Scholasitics, starting out with the Catholics, branching out to Protestant Scholasticism, and on down to our day, possibly including such offshoots as the Straussians. This is the natural law tradition, in all its venerable, rational, and well-demonstated glory. However I think there is at least one other way to embed libertarian principles within a larger human and natural context. This other way is less familiar and somewhat more difficult to understand than the natural law tradition. However I think it holds the promise of a closer connection between ontology and ethics than is possible in the hybrid natural-law-plus-libertarianism approach of Rothbard and his close adherents. Without depreciating the genius of Rothbard, for me it is enough to be a loose adherent.
This path less chosen is the non-formal ethics of values discovered by Max Scheler. The key concepts in Scheler’s ethics are value and person. In contrast to the economic concept of value (found in its pure form only in the Austrian school) Scheler’s ethics are objective, not subjective. This sounds, at first blush, like a basic incompatibility. However Scheler’s system of ethics is notable for its hierarchical arrangement of values. This calls to mind the way in which Austrian graphs demonstrate valuation in ordinal units. However Scheler’s hierarchy is much broader in scope, dealing with the basic structure of human needs rather than individual acts of choice. In general, Scheler’s hierarchy ranges from material values at or near the bottom, up to spiritual values at the top. Hence it is not a value-free method, of the sort endorsed by Ludwig von Mises, but later criticized by Rothbard as an inadequate basis for ethics. Of course Rothbard endorsed both subjectivism and value freedom within the parameters of the theory of exchange. Like Scheler, Rothbard did not feel that economic subjectivism could be expanded into a “theory of everything” and to head off any such vulgar assumption he had recourse to the bedrock notions of natural law theory.
Rothbard’s natural-law objectivism provides a workable philosophy for libertarians who sense they need to base their opinions on something more substantial than utilitarianism, even the judicious meta-utilitarianism of Ludwig von Mises. However, as Mr. Ajamian is candid enough to admit, there is something adventitious about Rothbard’s synthesis of modern libertarian theory and the natural law tradition. Anyone with a historical appreciation of that tradition will realize that, from Aristotle onward, that it contains the concept of the “political animal” as an integral component. Born out of the pagan polis, albeit Christianized over the centuries, the bedrock layer of natural law theory is collectivist, albeit a collectivism which has been increasingly modified in the direction of individualism with the passing of the ages.
Up until Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard (the former presenting any historian of thought with peculiar problems) the modern libertarian movement bore much greater resemblance to Kantianism than the natural law tradition. The representative American libertarian of the 20th century was, like Kant, an advocate of the supremacy of ethics over life. This may be considered a gross overstatement, and unfair both to the subtlety of Immanuel Kant and the benevolence of libertarians, but I am trying to paint the spirit of a movement in the boldest possible colors. Yet at a more cognitive level, it should be obvious to any philosophically informed reader of Ludwig von Mises that he was a very original, but also very orthodox neo-Kantian.
Mises vs. Scheler, the men vs. their methods
Unfortunately it appears that Mises and Scheler, though contemporaries, never met. Worse, what they knew of one another, either through publication or third parties, was mutually misunderstood. What Scheler thought of economics is probably irrelevant. What is more relevant is his historical relationship to Immanuel Kant. Up until Scheler all philosophy was either non-Kantian (Thomism, Scottish Realism etc.) or neo-Kantianism. Scheler, at least according to his own claims, was the first genuinely post-Kantian thinker. In other words, he was the first philosopher to critically examine Kant, extract what was true in his thinking, and then set out in a completely different direction. One might think this was of relevance in light of what I mentioned concerning the affinity between American-style libertarianism and Kantian thought.
At a more substantial level, Scheler’s thought was tightly wrapped around the primacy of persons. He made a sharp distinction between the person, which he considered a real entity, and the individual which he deemed little more than an abstraction. Given this, and that he had no great regard for either Manchester Liberalism or Herbert Spencer, it is no wonder that the insights of Scheler’s thought have remained largely invisible to libertarians. None the less, a strong family resemblance remains between personalists and individualists. In the case of Scheler, the theory of personalism is developed to such depths that it can incorporate both individualist and collectivist approaches to the person.
Finally, and most critically, we arrive at the objectivity and hierarchical nature of values. This, it seems to me, is the most promising alternative to natural law theory as a foundation for libertarian thought and practice. The question of the compatibility of Austrian value-subjectivism and Schelerian value-objectivism is easily answered by noting that first, that “values” referred to are different concepts , and second, that one is a special case of the other. Scheler actually hints that the subjective nature of economic calculation is intrinsic to its (rather low) position on his hierarchy of values. This might be a blow to the ego of economists, but should bear no reflection on the worth of their science.
Both Schelerian value-ethics and the virtue ethics of natural law theory are adequate to circumscribe and support libertarian thought. This is because both assert the value and dignity of the human person. My preference for Scheler is based on a hunch that value-ethics will tend to be more flexible and less collectivist in the long run, while remaining just as objective as the natural law tradition. A correlative hunch is that virtue ethics bears considerable affinity with statism (remember Robespierre’s “cult of virtue”).
Whether I am right about this or not, it is better not to approach Scheler’s philosophy with excessive veneration for Scheler’s opinions, political or otherwise. He was a man of constant changes, embracing a wide variety of causes, and equally willing to repent of his past mistakes. Libertarians should view his sneers at Manchester liberalism and Herbert Spencer as typical of a man of insatiable curiosity who frequently jumped to conclusions before jumping off to other matters. However this was only at the edges, at his core Scheler professed a deep and consistent theory of ethics, one which in its objectivity and compatibility with human dignity rivals the natural law tradition. One should not expect to agree with the man entirely, any more than Murray Rothbard would have agreed with Thomas Aquinas entirely.