In order to present the theory of ethics which underlies my libertarian political philosophy, I am going to first carefully discuss the theory of ethics currently dominant among other Austro-libertarians: that of Murray N. Rothbard.
Note: In what follows, I'm going to come down pretty hard on Rothbard's formulation, and agree very strongly with that of David Hume. So let me just say at the outset that, in my estimation, Murray Rothbard may very well have been the greatest man this past century has been graced with, and certainly a far better man than Hume was. I differ with him here out of the spirit of free inquiry and love of truth that he himself championed so brilliantly.
All of the Rothbard quotes in this essay are drawn from the first chapter of The Ethics of Liberty. (My thanks to "hashem" on the Mises Forums for collecting and organizing them.)
The Rothbardian System
Let us begin with Rothbard's discussion of the existence of human nature.
"If apples and stones and roses each have their specific natures, is man the only entity, the only being, that cannot have one? And if man does have a nature, why cannot it too be open to rational observation and reflection? If all things have natures, then surely man's nature is open to inspection."
What does Rothbard mean here by "nature"? Rothbard is something of an Aristotelean (or at least a Thomist, which is much the same thing) so let's consider Aristotle's conception of nature. A likely definition of Aristotelean nature you'd hear from an Aristotle expert would be an "inner principle of change or rest." Myself, I think a more precise definition would be an "endogenous tendency of change or rest" (thus Rothbard's repeated reference to "tendency" later on in the following quotations). To Aristotle, stones had an endogenous tendency to move toward the center of the world, stars had an endogenous tendency to move around the center of the world, seeds had an endogenous tendency to grow into plants, and man had an endogenous tendency to pursue ends.
Ends can also be apprehended by reason as either objectively good or bad for man" "[T]here is therefore room for the concept of right reason, reason directing man's acts to the attainment of the objective good for man." Moral conduct is therefore conduct in accord with right reason: "If it is said that moral conduct is rational conduct, what is meant is that it is conduct in accordance with right reason, reason apprehending the objective good for man and dictating the means to its attainment." "For the ends themselves are selected by the use of reason; and right reason dictates to man his proper ends as well as the means for their attainment."
Here is one of my most fundamental disagreements with Rothbard. I believe that Hume was right when he insisted that ends (ultimate ends) are determined by our passions, not our reason. The function of our reason is to choose means, and only means. This is necessarily true, because to determine by reason whether something is "objectively good or bad" is to judge it according to whether it fulfills a certain requirement. In that case the "something" is, by definition, not an end. It is a means to the end of fulfilling whatever the "certain requirement" is. Therefore ends cannot be creatures of our reason. They must emerge involuntarily from our psyche. Hume calls the part of our psyche they emerge from "the passions"; this is NOT to say that all men are basically wild beasts. The "passions" that produce ends include, for example, the involuntary urge of curiosity that impels a philosopher, scientist, or mathematician to seek out truth.
Another problem is that here Rothbard eschews the methodological individualism he promotes in his economic works (especially Man, Economy, and State). This might be fine, if he did so consistently, or at least justified his inconsistent application; but he doesn't. When he brings up "moral conduct", he can only be talking about individual moral conduct, because as he correctly states in Man, Economy, and State, only individuals act. But he says that moral conduct depends on recognizing the "the objective good for man": not for the individual acting man in question, but man as a class. Needless to say, the objective good for man as a class will not always be the same as the objective good for the acting man in question. Why ought (since "moral conduct" implies "ought") a man choose the objective good for man as a class over the objective good for himself?
"The natural law ethic decrees that for all living things, "goodness" is the fulfillment of what is best for that type of creature; "goodness" is therefore relative to the nature of the creature concerned...In the case of man, the natural-law ethic states that goodness or badness can be determined by what fulfills or thwarts what is best for man's nature" "The natural law, then, elucidates what is best for man -- what ends man should pursue that are most harmonious with, and best tend to fulfill, his nature...
Rothbard defines "goodness" for any given thing as the fulfillment of the nature of that thing. Again nature is an endogenous tendency of change or rest. So "fulfillment" occurs when that tendency is allowed to actualize, or "play out". This descriptive analysis is sound, but in the following Rothbard moves from descriptive to prescriptive.
For in natural-law ethics, ends are demonstrated to be good or bad for man in varying degrees; value here is objective -- determined by the natural law of man's being." "This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law...demonstrating that this or that action tends to man's real happiness, and therefore very justly concluding that the performance of it is a part of the law of nature; or, on the other hand, that this or that action is destruction of man's real happiness, and therefore that the law of nature forbids it."
Here Rothbard slips into the "ought" realm when he brings in the term "natural-law ethics." Implicit here is that the individual man ought to act in a manner which promotes the fulfillment of the nature of man, in other words, the actualization of the endogenous tendencies of man as a class. Again WHY a man ought to do so if that manner happens to not promote his own individual ends is not stated. Moreover, an individual is a member of a great number of classes. Why should his selfless allegiance be to any one in particular? If his membership in a class imposes some magical "ought" upon him, why wouldn't he be just as much bound to act in a manner which promotes the fulfillment of the nature of a broader class like "primate", or a narrower class, like "welfare recipient"?
"One common philosophic objection to natural law ethics is that it confuses, or identifies, the realism of fact and value. In answer we may point out that [natural law] identifies value not with existence but rather with the fulfillment of tendencies determined by the structure of the existent entity. Furthermore, it identifies evil not with non-existence but rather with a mode of existence in which natural tendencies are thwarted and deprived of realization."
"Existence is. . . not a property but a structuralized activity. Such activities are a kind of fact. They can be observed and described by judgments that are true or false: human life needs material artifacts; technological endeavors need rational guidance; the child has cognitive faculties that need education. Value statements are founded on the directly verifiable fact of tendency or need. The value or realization is required not merely by us but by the existent tendency for its completion. From a sound description and analysis of the given tendency we can infer the value founded upon it. This is why we do not say that moral principles are mere statements of fact, but rather that they are "founded" on facts."
"Ethics, for man as for any other entity, are determined by investigating verifiable existing tendencies of that entity, [but] why are such principles felt to be binding on me? How do such universal tendencies of human nature become incorporated into a person's subjective value scale? (1) Because 'the factual needs which underlie the whole procedure are common to man. The values founded on them are universal. Hence, if I made no mistake in my tendential analysis of human nature, and if I understand myself, I must exemplify the tendency and must feel it subjectively as an imperative urge to action.' The ethics of natural law...recognizes prescriptive moral laws but asserts that these are founded on tendential facts which may be described.... Goodness...must...be conceived dynamically as an existential mode, the realization of natural tendency. In this view, the world is not made up of determinate structures alone, but of determinate structures in an act of existing which they determine toward further appropriate acts of existing.... No determinate structure can be given existence without determining active tendencies. When such a tendency is fulfilled in accordance with natural law, the entity is said to be in a stable, healthy, or sound condition-adjectives of value. When it is obstructed or distorted, the entity is said to be in an unstable, diseased or unsound condition-adjectives of disvalue. Goodness and badness in their ontological sense are not phases of abstract structure, but rather modes of existence, ways in which the existential tendencies determined by such structures are either fulfilled or barely sustained in a deprived, distorted state."
Here, Rothbard attempts to justify his deriving "ought" from "is": value from fact. The problem with his justification is that, while the "factual needs" for fulfillment are, loosely speaking, common to all man, they are not so STRICTLY speaking. Let's say a man needs to rob someone to pay off the mafia, who will otherwise kill him, and that in the course of doing so, the man would likely end up killing his victim. In that case the factual needs for the fulfillment of the robber/murderer's nature as an individual man (to survive and flourish) directly conflicts with the factual needs of the victim for the fulfillment of his nature (also to survive and flourish), as well as conflicting with the factual needs of the rest of society to flourish, since the crime might engender further crime, through its example, or through back-and-forth retaliations. But the robber is not himself "the rest of society", so since strictly speaking, the factual needs for natural fulfillment are NOT common, why do some factual needs trump others?
"Professor Hesselberg has shown, however, that Hume, in the course of his own discussions, was compelled to reintroduce a natural law conception into his social philosophy and particularly into his theory of justice, thus illustrating the gibe of Etienne Gilson: 'The natural law always buries its undertakers.' For Hume, in Hesselberg's words, 'recognized and accepted that the social...order is an indispensable prerequisite to man's well-being and happiness: and that this is a statement of fact.' The social order, therefore, must be maintained by man. Hesselberg continues:
But a social order is not possible unless man is able to conceive what it is, and what its advantages are, and also conceive those norms of conduct which are necessary to its establishment and preservation, namely, respect for another's person and for his rightful possessions, which is the substance of justice....But justice is the product of reason, not the passions. And justice is the necessary support of the social order; and the social order is necessary to man's well-being and happiness. If this is so, the norms of justice must control and regulate the passions, and not vice versa.
Hesselberg concludes that 'thus Hume's original 'primacy of the passions' thesis is seen to be utterly untenable for his social and political theory, and . . . he is compelled to reintroduce reason as a cognitive-normative factor in human social relations.' Indeed, in discussing justice and the importance of the rights of private property, Hume was compelled to write that reason can establish such a social ethic: 'nature provides a remedy in the judgment and understanding for what is irregular and uncommodious in the affections' -- in short, reason can be superior to the passions."
I argued against Rothbard's and Hesselberg's critique of Hume's natural law position in my post Morality, Reason, and Passion, in which I wrote:
As discussed and concurred with by Rothbard, A. Kenneth Hesselberg countered that Hume, in his own writings, inconsistently resorts to normative natural law. Hume states that man’s happiness depends on a social order. Hesselberg notes that the way a social order can be attained and preserved can only be found through contemplation of natural law. Therefore, according to Hume’s own theory, concludes Hesselberg and Rothbard, reasoning from natural law is needed for choosing ends.
While Rothbard is an intellectual hero of mine, I must here differ with him. In Hume’s construction, the social order is a MEANS to the end of human happiness. And, as Rothbard himself states, Hume recognizes the value of natural law in choosing means. And, nowhere in his construction, does Hume ever promote the use of natural law to choose the end of human happiness; it is only promoted for choosing the means of social order.
The Mises Forum user "hashem" wrote in response to this: "Maybe Rothbard did not "refute" Hume, but he showed that Hume required Natural Law for social order, and social order for man's happiness."
But again, "ought" concerns the individual man. If the individual man would be himself happier if he actively contributed to social disorder in his own small way, nothing in what Rothbard wrote indicates why he is bound not to do so.
The Humean-Libertarian Synthesis
So, ultimately I don't think Rothbard's formulation of natural rights ethics stands. My understanding of human morality is much closer to that of Hume's. True human morality consists of moral urges. Moral urges are human ends, and like all human ends they are a product of the passions. Hume made the case for this position in his Treatise of Human Nature:
Take any action allow’d to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but ’tis the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it.
When we assign names to things it is from seeing them as distinct. So what makes morals distinct from other feelings and other human ends? What most distinguishes morals is that they are urges which are hardwired into us for the sake of the material well-being of other individuals, even to the detriment of the material well-being of the moral person in question.
If, as Hume and I contend, morality is subjective and arises from the passions, should morality be ignored for being chaotic and irrational? Should we all be amoral egoists? Did Hume destroy natural law, and thereby reveal the feet of clay upon which libertarianism stands? No. Far from destroying natural law, Hume's conception of morality, correctly understood and carefully improved, puts libertarianism upon a different natural rights conception which provides a much firmer footing than what might be called "extreme moral rationalism" (basing morals on reason alone).
Morality may not be the product of the top-down order present in human reason. But it is not chaotic. I believe it is the product of the emergent order present in natural selection. There is a burgeoning school of thought in evolutionary biology and the cognitive sciences (led by Marc Hauser and Steven Pinker) which contends that morality is not just cultural artifice, but that it is an intrinsic feature of the human mind which evolved over the countless millennia of humans living together. As I concurred with Rothbard, loosely speaking there ARE factual needs for flourishing which are common to man. There is an overwhelming general need in the human species for self-restraint and fellow-feeling if it is to flourish. It only makes sense that this overwhelming general need would mean that familial groups who tend to have certain highly-functional moral feelings would end up prospering and propagating their genes, while familial groups made up of individuals who were constantly killing and plundering each other would have died out.
Economic science teaches us that the MOST highly-functional moral feelings are those concerning ownership (both of one's bodily self and of external objects). I believe it is no coincidence that we find in experience and in history that these same moral feelings concerning property are, of all moral feelings, the most timeless and universal. When we take up some unused thing and begin to use it, we automatically think of it as our "ours". We take reflexive affront when our person or our property is aggressed against by others. We feel involuntary outrage when we see the person or property of others aggressed against. And we spontaneously feel guilt when, or at least after, we aggress against the person or property of others. Of course there are exceptions (as with those suffering from Aspberger's), but these facts are true for the overwhelming preponderance of humanity. We don't need to be taught to feel revulsion toward murder, plunder, and enslavement; it has been stamped on our hearts by nature. THAT is what I mean by "natural law": not moral precepts which can be deduced from an understanding of nature, but moral precepts which have arisen out of nature. And chief among these precepts are the property rights implicit in our natural revulsion toward murder, plunder, and enslavement. I would go so far as to say that anyone who says they don't feel such revulsion are either impaired or lying. And the fact that a great many people every day override that revulsion and go ahead and murder, plunder, and enslave anyway is owing to two causes. First of all, frailty is just as much a part of human nature as morality is. Moral urges are one kind of urge among many, and sometimes they lose the tug of war over human action. The second cause is that institution that fosters and feeds upon human frailty: the state.
As I've argued, there is a moral code written in our hearts. This inherent moral code is only shoved aside when we enter conditions of extremity (known as "lifeboat situations"), in which circumstances have forced the human community to devolve into a war of all against all. In those cases, the involuntary urge for survival overwhelms the involuntary urge for moral behavior, and we therefore cast aside our communal moral feelings for the sake of extreme short-term selfishness. In other words, we allow ourselves “necessary evils”.