Readers might be interested in my new Working Paper: “Two Philosophers Skeptical of Liberty”. I discuss the views of Sen and Nussbaum.
Also, from my new book (A Man Without a Hobby, Hamilton, 2004), I offer this passage that discusses Austrian Economics and the Mises Institute:
I do have reservations about some aspects of Austrianism. I do not think that praxeology is a strictly successful conception of human action, mainly because of what I take to be its debts to Immanuel Kant’s a priori method of reasoning about the world. More particularly, I am concerned about the idea, advanced by von Mises—one that does not jibe easily with his endorsement of entrepreneurship—that human action is driven by “uneasiness.”
Such an approach seems to imply a measure of determinism I cannot happily associate with human life. Still, I was able to make hay out of the view that action is motivated by felt dissatisfaction in a 1988 paper, “A Neglected Argument Against Theism,” for the Journal of Speculative Philosophy.
I am perhaps the only academic philosopher who has published in a journal of philosophy on the theological ideas of Ludwig von Mises. My article reported that, according to Mises, God could not have created the world since no perfect being would have any reason for acting, having no need to improve on itself at all. “An acting being is discontented and therefore not almighty,” Mises wrote. “If he were contented, he would not act, and if he were almighty, he would have long since radically removed his discontent. For an all-powerful being there is no pressure to choose between various states of uneasiness….The paradoxes are insoluble.”
Such was his praxeological disproof of the existence of God (an omnipotent God, anyway) as proffered in the early pages of Human Action. Perhaps not the most famous argument in this area but a notable one nonetheless.
Another sticking point pertains to the view held by both the neoclassicists and the Misesians that we always act rationally, a claim that doesn’t mesh well with my own philosophical conclusions. (Mises actually says this in one place but takes it back at another.) But perhaps my most important reservations have to do with the subjective theory of value. As I eventually came to understand it, this theory isn’t quite the same as ethical subjectivism in the field of philosophy, although students of Austrian economics often speak as if it were.
For example, in an issue of Austrian Economics Newsletter, Don Balente says that the Austrian approach “is most distinct from mainstream economics in its thorough emphasis on the individual decision maker as the focus of scientific analysis. Yet with the values and motives of individuals being entirely subjective it is impossible for an analyst to pass judgment on the optimality of the individual’s chosen actions.”
This is surely tantamount to ethical or moral subjectivism that if consistently applied would, in my view, thoroughly undermine the decidedly normative claims in favor of individual liberty, as well as any other moral judgments. My 1990 book, Capitalism and Individualism: Reframing the Argument for the Free Society, was an attempt to reconcile natural-law ethics and free-market economics. Following leads from Ayn Rand, Eric Mack and others, I conceived of a less confusing way to understand values than what seemed to be the Austrian one—a resolution that would work both for economists and for philosophers who believe in the possibility of objective value judgments.
My solution hinged on the nature of individual—what I learned was being called agent-relative—values. This position holds that when people try to figure out what is right for them (what to wear, what to aim for in life, how to deal with others, etc.), they can come up with correct or incorrect answers and many possibilities in between. Not just anything will do; i.e., it is not possible for a person, as subject, to create the right answer for himself ex nihilo. The answer must be discovered in relation to our human individuality and the world. So, yes, for different individuals, the right answers might vary greatly—but there are still right and wrong answers for any particular individual in a particular situation.
It is a bit like medicine: some general principles must be observed by everyone, but specific therapies and cures may vary in their utility from person to person, and sometimes drastically so. Values need to “fit” the person for whom they are of value. This is completely consistent with the fact that there are facts: objectively knowable aspects of reality that must be taken into account in each case.
I suspect that the subjective theory is motivated in part by the seemingly reasonable assumption that if what’s right for someone to do is entirely subjective, others cannot know what that right thing is—and therefore cannot pretend to be competent to force them to do that right thing. Subjectivism thus appears to be a bulwark against authoritarianism and tyranny.
Alas, if no one can judge what is right, no one can judge what is wrong, either! No one can say that it is wrong to push other people around without any justification! From a subjectivist stance nothing whatever can be said against it. All a person could say is, “Well, I subjectively find your brutalizing of that innocent person to be appalling, but of course, on your own subjective values it may be perfectly acceptable.” It’s the subject’s call, so to speak. I once debated this question with Milton Friedman, who said that if anyone could know what is right, that would authorize him to coerce others to follow suit. Some Popperian and existentialist classical liberals also claim this.
I believe the answer is that in order to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, one must do it voluntarily. No moral credit can come to someone who is coerced into doing the right thing, nor blame to someone who is coerced to do what is wrong. As Kant put it, “ ‘Ought’ implies ‘can.’ “ But even aside from the question of moral credit or blame, there is the question of whether values are even truly attainable when they are imposed from without by force. Rand argued that an “attempt to achieve the good by force is like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes.”
If you force someone to marry the “right” woman, will he be as happy with that woman as he would have had he chosen her on his own? If you force someone to pursue the “right” career against his wishes, will he pursue it with the same gusto and dedication had he chosen it on his own? Such “best” outcomes are possible only if the original act of coercion is followed by volun-tary acceptance and choosing of the alleged good, as opposed to bitter and resentful submission. If the person is never free to choose “the good” at any point—good by his own judgment and choice—but has it constantly thrust upon him, his moral and reasoning capacity is essentially ripped away. Yet for human beings this capacity is the means of survival and flourishing.
It isn’t that what is good for another person cannot be known, at least sometimes. It’s that imposing it by force can easily cause harm to the person being forced—precisely because the actual re-quirements of human well-being are thereby treated as irrelevant. Coercion is destructive because it violates our ability to be moral, choosing, rational agents—the very ability that enables us to attain values to begin with.
Compelling others to do one’s bidding thus makes sense only when one is dealing with persons who have not yet achieved much capacity for moral choice—for example, very young children. And even in the case of children, it’s best to foster their independent decision-making as much as possible so that they may develop the moral skills needed to flourish as self-responsible adults.
On this view, it is certainly possible to justify freedom for individual decision-making even if an outsider might reasonably judge that such-and-such decision (e.g., being drunk all the time) is wrong, while another (e.g., showing up on time for a job interview at a company you want to work for) is right. An individualism grounded in a theory of objective values thus supplies us with most of what we need to fend of authoritarianism, whereas the theory of subjective values can all too easily pave the way for the bad guys.
Some might ask: What about those who kill or assault other persons? Are we supposed to refrain from stopping such things on the grounds that if we intrude, we are thwarting the free choice of the culprits? But opposing such conduct is justified not because the conduct is wrong (or not solely because it is wrong) but because it violates the rights of others, and because the victims or their agents are justified in putting up a defense.
Moreover, violations of rights are not wrong in the same way that failure to do the morally right thing is wrong. To violate rights is to undermine the preconditions of choosing to act morally at all within a human community. They are, to use the term of Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl, meta-normatively wrong. While all this seems reasonable enough to me, the writing of Capitalism and Individualism landed me in trouble with one of the Mises Institute’s favorite people, Professor Leland Yeager.
In a review for Liberty magazine he concluded that the book was, in fact, a threat to human liberty. Alas, one cannot please everyone, but that was a bit harsh—and fortunately, it is an assessment that seems to be unique among libertarians who have considered my work. (The same work elicited a very favorable review from David Gordon, not known for critical charity, in the Mises Review.)
That blip aside, my reflections have often been welcome among scholars of the Institute; and so I find myself returning again and again to the Scholars Conferences to present and test the ideas I have found intellectually compelling. These conferences have been the setting of some of my most fruitful encounters with people also interested in topics of concern to me, and I am forever thankful to the Mises Institute for making it possible…..