Every political philosophy deals with property rights, whether it is said explicitly or not. Marxists believe that private property is rightfully collectively owned by a community or country, which the state may control in stewardship. Neoconservatives believe that property rights truly belong to private individuals, insofar as that property is not required for foreign interventionism and other supposedly essential government services. Libertarianism, though, uniquely holds that property rights belong to those private individuals who initially appropriated it from its original state in the unowned commons of nature. Anarcho-capitalism, as the radical application of libertarian principles to their logical ends, takes this rule as being factually true, without any exceptions.
Many anarcho-capitalists have made varying arguments as to why property rights must be this way. David Friedman has used consequentialism as his ethical basis for anarcho-capitalism, and Roderick T. Long has used eudemonism in a similar fashion. Most though tend to make deontological arguments for anarcho-capitalism, which are those which are concerned with ethical duties. Many deontological anarcho-capitalists have been in the tradition of natural law theory, such as Murray Rothbard, who devised his own secular theory of natural law. In his final years, though, Rothbard came to accept a neo-Kantian ethical theory called argumentation ethics, as was pioneered in 1988 by one of his most prominent students named Hans-Hermann Hoppe.
Argumentation ethics descends out of Hoppe’s rearrangement of a theory of his PhD advisor Jürgen Habermas and fellow German philosopher Karl-Otto Apel called discourse ethics. While discourse ethics lead Habermas and Apel, as neo-Marxists, to a democratic conclusion, argumentation ethics lead Hoppe to a libertarian one. Even thirty years after Hoppe’s formulating of argumentation ethics, there is great division regarding its validity, especially amongst anarcho-capitalists. This is because of the fact that if Hoppe’s claims are correct, then the simple act of arguing implies the sole validity of anarcho-capitalism as a political philosophy. The sheer might of his argument has drawn libertarian scholars to heavily scrutinize its every detail, resulting in some disregarding it and others praising it.
Theory of Hoppean Argumentation Ethics
In his explanation of his theory in A Primer on Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics, Hoppe writes:
First, it must be noted that the question of what is just or unjust — or for that matter the even more general question of what is a valid proposition and what is not — only arises insofar as I am, and others are, capable of propositional exchanges, i.e., of argumentation. … There is then, trivially enough, no way of justifying anything unless it is a justification by means of propositional exchanges and arguments. However, then it must be considered the ultimate defeat for an ethical proposal if one can demonstrate that its content is logically incompatible with the proponent’s claim that its validity be ascertainable by argumentative means. To demonstrate any such incompatibility would amount to an impossibility proof, and such proof would constitute the most deadly defeat possible in the realm of intellectual inquiry.
The first point in Hoppe’s argument is that the justification of truth claims is dependent upon individuals’ abilities to engage in argumentation. There are certain truths that are inherently implied within the act of arguing, though, such as – for example – the statement “I am capable of communicating”. It is superfluous for one to argue in favor of this, because it is implied in the action of arguing that one can communicate. To claim otherwise would result in one engaging in a performative contradiction, because it is impossible to claim that one cannot communicate while in the act of communicating. Hoppe believes that any philosophy or theory which acts contrary to any of the presupposed truths of argumentation must necessarily be incorrect, because it would be impossible to argue in favor of them without contradicting oneself. Hoppe simply claims here that argumentation may implicitly entail certain truths, and that the law of noncontradiction is true, neither statement of which can be logically denied.
Hoppe continues his explanation:
[N]o one could possibly propose anything, and no one could become convinced of any proposition by argumentative means, if a person’s right to make exclusive use of his physical body were not already presupposed. It is this recognition of each other’s mutually exclusive control over one’s own body which explains the distinctive character of propositional exchanges that, while one may disagree about what has been said, it is still possible to agree at least on the fact that there is disagreement. It is also obvious that such a property right to one’s own body must be said to be justified a priori, for anyone who tried to justify any norm whatsoever would already have to presuppose the exclusive right of control over his body as a valid norm simply in order to say, “I propose such and such.” Anyone disputing such a right would become caught up in a practical contradiction since arguing so would already imply acceptance of the very norm which he was disputing.
One of the truths that Hoppe holds are necessarily entailed in the act of arguing is that all arguers must be self-owners, which is true by virtue of the fact that argumentative exchanges are necessarily nonviolent actions. It is certainly possible to attempt to deal with disagreements through aggressive means, but such an interaction can never be argumentation, for it is a test of the capabilities of physical force, rather than the argumentative force of a proposition. Interpersonal nonviolence is equivalent, in this context, with self-ownership, as it implies that only the direct user of a physical body as the right to determine what should and should not happen to it. Argumentation ethics then follows that it is logically absurd to assert in the course of an argument any belief which denies self-ownership, for this would contradict the principle of self-ownership already implied within the act of arguing.
Hoppe carries on his argument:
Furthermore, it would be equally impossible to sustain argumentation for any length of time and rely on the propositional force of one’s arguments if one were not allowed to appropriate in addition to one’s body other scarce means through homesteading action (by putting them to use before somebody else does), and if such means and the rights of exclusive control regarding them were not defined in objective physical terms. For if no one had the right to control anything at all except his own body, then we would all cease to exist and the problem of justifying norms simply would not exist. Thus, by virtue of the fact of being alive, property rights to other things must be presupposed to be valid. No one who is alive could argue otherwise.
The act of arguing, Hoppe relates, is similar to all other actions in that it requires physical space. If the use of physical resources is not justified, then it is impossible for all actions – and thus life – to justifiably occur. It is self-contradictory to claim in the course of an argument that “I should not live”, because it is impossible to justify such an assertion without first being alive. Thus, the right to appropriate finite resources must be demonstrated, for anything contrary results in contradiction.
Hoppe further explains:
Moreover, if a person did not acquire the right of exclusive control over such goods by homesteading action, i.e., by establishing an objective link between a particular person and a particular scarce resource before anybody else had done so, but if instead late-comers were assumed to have ownership claims to goods, then no one would be allowed to do anything with anything as one would have to have all of the late-comers’ consent prior to ever doing what one wanted to do. … Simply saying that the first-user-first-owner rule of libertarianism can be ignored or is unjustified implies a contradiction, for one’s being able to say so must presuppose one’s existence as an independent decision-making unit at a given point in time.
Being that the appropriation of goods is ethically acceptable, and necessary for the sustenance of life, there must be some means to do so. This means, Hoppe contends, must be the initial use of a previously unowned resource, for it is impossible to universalize any other rule of ownership, such as the use of a second or third user. If Adam had no right to inhabit Eden as its initial appropriator, then Eve would not be justified in being created from his rib, and likewise the births of Cain, Abel, and the rest of mankind would not be justified either. As such, only a homesteading rule of initial appropriation is logically consistent, which is synonymous with a neo-Lockean theory of appropriation, the crux of libertarian property rights. This is Hoppe’s theory in basic.
Critique of Hoppean Argumentation Ethics
Argumentation ethics has been discussed countless times over the decades, both in academic papers and internet forums, with numerous critiques being offered. Many of these, Hoppe himself has responded to, while others have been responded to by defenders of argumentation ethics, such as Stephan Kinsella. One legitimate criticism which has been levied by many regards his statement: “[N]o one could possibly propose anything, and no one could become convinced of any proposition by argumentative means, if a person’s right to make exclusive use of his physical body were not already presupposed”. Hoppe is correct that argumentation must be peaceful, and thus mutual self-ownership is implicitly recognized by arguers, but he is flatly incorrect regarding the duration of this presupposition. All truths implicitly entailed in the act of arguing are only entailed for the duration of the act, and not any longer.
In a lecture at the 11th annual meeting of the Property and Freedom Society (an organization begun by Hoppe), he responds to this critique:
[An] “objection” to my argument from argumentation, advanced repeatedly and by several opponents in a seemingly most serious manner, actually better qualifies as a joke. It boils down to the claim that, even if true, my argument is irrelevant and inconsequential. Why? Because the ethics of argumentation is valid and binding only at the moment and for the duration of argumentation itself and even then only for those actually participating in it. Curiously, these critics do not notice that this thesis, if it were true, would have to apply to itself, too, and hence, render their own criticism irrelevant and inconsequential also. Their criticism itself then would be just talk for the sake of talking, without any consequence outside of talking. For, according to their own thesis, what they say about argumentation is true only when and while they are saying it and has no relevance outside the context of argumentation; and moreover, that what they say to be true is true only for the parties actually involved in argumentation or even only for them alone, if and insofar as there is no actual opponent and they say what they say in an internal dialog only to themselves. But why, then, should anyone waste his time and pay attention to such private “truths”?
The objection that the unintended presuppositions of argumentation are true only for the duration of argumentation is unaffected by the fact that the intended contents of argumentation are true after argumentation. The intended and unintended truths of argumentation are starkly different categories and should not be treated as being the same. After all, though the statement “ice is frozen water” is universally true, it does not mean that the mutual recognition of self-ownership by people arguing about the equivalence of ice and frozen water must be too. This is true for all argumentation.
Some propositions, though, are unlike “ice is frozen water” in that they do not apply at all times, such as: “I am angry”, or more properly: “I am angry right now”. Being angry at one time does not mean that one always will be in the future, and it is only correct to say that it will always be historically true that one was angry at that time. Likewise, even if the intended and unintended argumentative presuppositions were to be treated as being the same, it would still only be correct to say that a given pair of historical arguers only mutually demonstrated self-ownership while they were arguing, and stopped doing so at the argument’s closing.
Argumentation ethics also fails in its supposed demonstration of a first-use theory of property acquisition. Hoppe leaps from the proposition that arguers demonstrate the right to use the finite resources of the world to the proposition that they demonstrate the right to own such resources even when they are not in use. This speaks to a common debate within individualist anarchism regarding what the just theory of property is: proviso Lockean, non-proviso Lockean, mutualist, geoist, or Stirnerite. All theories but the Stirnerite “might-makes-right” variant are universalizable, and Hoppe demonstrates nothing more than the logical extreme of the mutualist “occupancy-and-use” position. His attempt to demonstrate Lockean property rights from the category of argumentation is unsuccessful, and no theory regarding the just use of finite resources is complete without an underlying theory of property. Hoppe’s formulation of argumentation ethics fails doubly and thusly.
Theory of Neo-Hoppean Argumentation Ethics
A new theory can be built in the framework of argumentation ethics, utilizing its strengths, and annihilating its weaknesses, similar to what Hoppe did with Habermas and Apel’s discourse ethics.
Hoppe made a point of distinguishing between what different philosophers have posited as the foundation of philosophy:
The question of how to begin philosophy, i.e., the quest for a starting point, is almost as old as philosophy itself. In modern times, Descartes, for instance, claimed his famous “cogito, ergo sum” as such. Mises considered the fact that humans act, i.e., that humans pursue anticipated ends with means (whether successfully or not), as such. The later Wittgenstein thought of ordinary language as the ultimate point of departure. Others, such as Popper, denied that any such starting point existed and could be found. As a little reflection shows, however, none of this will quite do. … Whatever has been claimed here as starting points, or even if the existence of such a point has been denied, they all, unwittingly and as a matter of fact, have affirmed the existence of one and the same point of departure: namely argumentation; and they could deny argumentation the status as ultimate starting point only at pain of contradiction.
Such an analysis is important, as it effecasiously demonstrates that due to the fact that no truth claim can be justified without the engagement of argumentation, it must be that argumentation is the starting place for philosophy. Thus, a neo-Hoppean theory of ethics must similarly descend from the category of argumentation.
Argumentation is the purposive use of finite resources (ie. the body, some ground space, etc.) to discern the validity of a given truth claim within the context of the human mind’s logical framework. Fundamental to argumentation must be disagreement, for the engagement in an argumentation must be done in mock or merely for the sake of going through the motions if no actual disagreement exists. Disagreements are not always dealt with argumentatively, as one may take recourse to engaging in physical aggression with someone they disagree with, or they may do nothing at all.
There is nothing wrong with the decision that one is going to do nothing at all in light of a disagreement, as it relies on the question of whether the use of the engagement in argumentation will result in a net gain of personal utility of the potential arguer or not, which requires a subjective calculation of utility. In terms of engaging in action, though, there is only one route which one may justifiably take, and that is argumentation. The initiation of offensive violence during a disagreement is possible and often occurs, but it is contrary to the teleology of disagreement. It is simply impossible to determine who is correct and who is incorrect during a disagreement through the use of aggression, but rather aggression implicitly posits a new, unjustified proposition; namely that the initiation of violent force is acceptable against disagreeing parties, which cannot be universalized. Being that aggression is impossible for the actual resolution of disagreements, and no objections can be made to the engagement in argumentation being used for this end without engaging in a performative contradiction, it may be said that the only action which may be taken in light of a disagreement is argumentation.
This requires it that argumentation be always taken as a means for the settlement of disagreements, thus causing all positive action taken in light of disagreements to be nonaggressive, and thus demonstrating a mutual recognition of self-ownership by arguers. Now, it is true that this demonstration does not last forever, as Hoppe believed that it does, but rather it must occur in all cases of disagreement, which is the only time at which aggression could possibly take place. If there is no disagreement, and thus no aggressive capacity, self-ownership is implied anyway by virtue of the voluntary interpersonal relationships of parties involved. Thus, the first failure of the Hoppean argument has been fixed.
Even after self-ownership is demonstrated, though, the problem of private property rights is introduced. Hoppe has not demonstrated that they exist, other than in the form in which the property title diminishes after direct use ceases. All arguers, though, must demonstrate the preference for property titles to last after the cessation of direct use.
Simply put, all purposive action is desired by the actor to be successful at the time of action, meaning that success is always preferable to failure. When applied to the category of argumentation, it entails that all arguers must intend to successfully convince another arguer of their claims, meaning that they must demonstrate a preference to be capable of communicating. Communication, though, requires physical movement, and thus the preference for being able to successfully move demonstrates it that arguers must have the preference to have the exclusive right to justifiably move their body (or parts of it) to given places that they are not at the time occupying. This means that argumentation implies the right of potential arguers to acquire property through direct use that they justifiably hold title over even after the cessation of that use.
The Hoppean formulation of argumentation ethics is miraculous in its defense of a libertarian theory of property rights, other than a few slight issues that it has. These issues are easily resolved within this updated theory of neo-Hoppean property rights. The first users of given finite resources gain property title over them until they voluntarily give this title away, for they are self-owners. All socio-political systems which advocate things contrary to this are violating that which they have already implicitly asserted. A system of absolute private property rights must be the only one which is consistently justifiable. As such, the sole validity of anarcho-capitalism has been demonstrated.