Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Cross-posted at Hume and Action.

One of the topics that will  be covered in this blog is wertfreiheit.  This is German for "value freedom".  Ludwig von Mises, following Max Weber, subscribed to the notion that science must be value-free to truly be a science, and not merely an expression of one's own desires.  Liberals in the tradition of Murray Rothbard generally agree with Mises that economics is a value-free science.  But Mises regarded all science, and not just economics, as necessarily wertfrei.  This was rejected by Rothbard, who believed in a "value laden" science of ethics.

Rothbard believed there is an objective ethic, discoverable by man's reason. He believed there is a natural law which provides an absolute standard of right and wrong. One can infer from the nature of man that the homesteading-and-exchange-based propertarian ethic is the only correct ethic for man.
Furthermore, he thought economic science, by itself, is not enough to make a case for liberalism (or its fullest extention, anarchocapitalism). Economics, as a value-free science, can teach what social arrangement is an appropriate means for certain social ends. But the science of objective natural law ethics is necessary to determine what ends men should have.

In The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard wrote:
"In order to advocate public policy, therefore, a system of social or political ethics must be constructed. In former centuries this was the crucial task of political philosophy. But in the contemporary world, political theory, in the name of a spurious “science,” has cast out ethical philosophy, and has itself become barren as a guide to the inquiring citizen. The same course has been taken in each of the disciplines of the social sciences and of philosophy by abandoning the procedures of natural law. Let us then cast out the hobgoblins of Wertfreiheit...1"
Why did Mises subscribe to thoroughgoing wertfreiheit?   He believed that science only has to do with "existential propositions": with the "is".  It is only with regard to existential propositions that there can be any question of truth vs. falsity.  Value judgments are not existential propositions, and thus are not subject to proof or disproof.  Value judgments, moral or otherwise, cannot be judged as right or wrong without imposing one's own personal values upon them as the standard by which they are judged.

In Theory and History, Mises wrote:
Propositions asserting existence (affirmative existential propositions) or nonexistence (negative existential propositions) are descriptive. They assert something about the state of the whole universe or of parts of the universe. With regard to them questions of truth and falsity are significant. They must not be confounded with judgments of value.
Judgments of value are voluntaristic. They express feelings, tastes, or preferences of the individual who utters them. With regard to them there cannot be any question of truth and falsity. They are ultimate and not subject to any proof or evidence.2
This fact/value dichotomy, or "is/ought" divide, was greatly advanced by David Hume. In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume wrote:
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.3
Mises believed the "is/ought" divide posed no problem for liberalism. This is because he believed that there is a "harmony of interests". The overriding concern of humanity is secular well-being: greater abundance, health, security etc. Now, regardless of whether one only is concerned for the secular well-being of himself, for his immediate family, for his community, for his country, or for the world as a whole, economic science shows that the secular well-being of whichever portion of humanity is concerned with would be better promoted by a liberal social order than by any other order. This is Mises' conception of value-free, individualist utilitarianism.

Mises also believed that social orders are utilitarian devices that ultimately are always determined by the beliefs of the preponderance of society with regard to the relative efficacy of various social orders. So the only way that liberalism can be effected is if enough people either (a) understand sound economics well enough to realize the efficacy of liberalism, or (b) trust thought-leaders who understand economics to that extent.

However, Rothbard's position won the day among Misesians, to the point that today, thoroughgoing wertfreiheit has nearly died out in the Austrian tradition.  Perhaps the only major Misesian proponent of it is the nonagenarian scholar Leland Yeager.

But, many of the young intellectuals who have just recently been introduced to Austro-libertarianism are unsatisfied with the arguments provided by Rothbardians against thoroughgoing value-freedom in science. Misesian/Humean wertfreiheit may yet have its day in the Austrian tradition once again.

1Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, Chapter 5
2Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History, Chapter 1, Section 1
3David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part I, Section I

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