Friday, July 5, 2019

The Search for Liberty; Chapter Eleven: On Ethical Absolutism

NB: All previous chapters can be found here.

On Mises's Ethical Relativism, by Murray Rothbard

As the purpose of this book is to search for liberty, sooner or later I would come to this point: bringing the natural law framework and libertarianism together.  There is no libertarian thinker of which I am aware that has made a stronger and more complete statement on this matter than Murray Rothbard.

I will use this essay from Rothbard not for the purpose of a compare-and-contrast with Mises, but because in this essay Rothbard makes strong statements about his own views on the matter of ethics and the connection of ethical values to liberty.  In subsequent chapters, we will explore the whats and hows of Rothbard’s views and therefore his views regarding natural law.  But before getting to this, an understanding of his position on ethics is necessary.

This will be a very short chapter.  It may also be the most important chapter in the book.

Rothbard opens by contrasting what he means by absolutism as opposed to relativism on this topic of ethics:

The absolutist believes that man's mind, employing reason (which according to some absolutists is divinely inspired, according to others is given by nature), is capable of discovering and knowing truth: including the truth about reality, and the truth about what is best for man and best for himself as an individual.

I could probably stop here; from this statement, two points are clear: first, that there is an objective truth regarding humans and for humans, and second, that it is to be discovered by humans, not created by humans.  But I won’t stop here; his statements grow ever stronger and more relevant.

Philosophically, I believe that libertarianism — and the wider creed of sound individualism of which libertarianism is a part — must rest on absolutism and deny relativism.

It is worth noting: Rothbard is clear that – unlike in economics, for example – when it comes to ethics, there is an absolute, objective standard.  Not all values are subjective.  Rothbard offers strong – even forceful – criticisms of the idea of relativism in ethics.

What I have been trying to say is that Mises's utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics is not nearly enough to establish a full case for liberty. It must be supplemented by an absolutist ethic — an ethic of liberty, as well as of other values needed for the health and development of the individual — grounded on natural law, i.e., discovery of the laws of man's nature. Failure to recognize this is the greatest flaw in Mises's philosophical worldview. (Emphasis added.)

Rothbard clearly understands that a “full case for liberty” can only be made on a foundation of values built on natural law – and that natural law is to be discovered, not created.  To emphasize this point, Rothbard identifies himself as one who…

…[accepts] both praxeological and ethical absolutism, and [recognizes] that both are vitally necessary for a complete philosophical view, as well as for the achievement of liberty.


“Anything peaceful” and property rights as the highest value might exemplify thin libertarianism, but libertarianism is not sufficient for liberty.


  1. Frank Van Dun has this to say. (

    “The most obvious (and to most people for all practical purposes sufficient) reason why we ought to respect the natural law primarily involves the fact that not doing so usually causes immediate harm or loss to some innocent people and is likely in the long rum [sic] to be harmful to many more.”

    This statement alone sums up quite well why natural law, the NAP, and the Golden Rule should mesh seamlessly into one integrated whole which respects every individual’s (including those unborn) right to live his life in a state of liberty.

    Van Dun goes on:

    “Opponents of natural law believe that there is no natural order of the human world or else that it is not a respectable order. Hence, they see no reason why they (or anybody else) should respect the distinctions that define that order.”

    While they may pay lip service to this principle (natural law), many people will justify the use of force to create a world which is opposed to it. And there are those who just simply disavow the entire matter. The first group is inconsistent, the second is contemptuous. In the long run, neither viewpoint will prosper.

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  3. Rothbard was completely wrong. When he claims that there is a natural law waiting to be discovered, he is saying that human judgement is insufficient to act as a moral guide. Therefore, we should search for the hidden moral code of the universe. According to Rothbard, humans cannot create a moral code; because for some unspecified reason it would be imperfect.

    And to support his ridiculous assertion, he claims that not all values are subjective. He's wrong there, too. All human values are a reflection of culture; and therefore all values are subjective. There is no such thing as "ethics" there are only "morals."

    1. Ron, the shortest reply I can offer is via the Golden Rule - subscribed to in all major religions throughout history:

      A more detailed reply will be found by reading the posts at this link:

      The most complete reply I can give is by stating with the posts in the following link:

      ...after which you should read the posts in the aforementioned link, here again for reference:

      Beyond this, I can not be of assistance - you are, and will remain, lost.

    2. Ron, I will add: check back tomorrow, when I will address this point specifically via a post to be published.

  4. BM. Are do you understand what Rothbard is referring to when talking about Mises' relativist ethics?

    I have only read about Mises' subjective value theory in economics which is totally spot on. I havent seen where he supplied same idea to ethics. My initial reaction would be to side with Rothbard on this but it would be interesting to understand where Mises was coming from.

    1. I have not read Mises on this, although I have heard others refers to something similar about his views.

      As mentioned in the post, my purpose was driven by Rothbard's views in the underlying essay, nothing more.

  5. Ron, are you saying that human judgement IS sufficient to act as a moral guide? That humans CAN create a perfect moral code? If so, can you give any examples in human history where man's judgement about anything has held up through the ages as a proper moral code to be followed? Can you be sure that this was something which man found on his own? How can you be certain that it is NOT a reflection of absolute, objective truth which man simply stumbled upon?

    Humans cannot create a moral code which is perfect because we are imperfect. We are flawed, therefore anything which we attempt to create as truth will have flaws built into it. If it is flawed and imperfect, then it is not true. If it is not true, it will fail. If it fails, then it should be discarded and abandoned. If it is not true and fails, then people will be hurt, which is what we are trying to avoid.

    I’m not sure what you mean that “There is no such thing as "ethics" there are only "morals.", but I am absolutely pleased that Hillary Clinton’s “morals” are not directing this country’s affairs. I would be just as pleased if Donald Trump’s “morals” were aligned with absolute truth instead of being subject to the whims and vagaries of his opinions.

    God knows, and so do I, my own “morals” could stand improving. And I daresay, truth be known, that I am not alone.

    1. Roger,

      I don't understand why you think that a moral code has to be perfect. Is anything perfect? And just because it's imperfect, or incomplete, does not mean that it's not true. Moral codes change naturally over time, as human values evolve.

      Many philosophers have tried to come-up with a "perfect" value system; by using mathematics, or the stars, or logic. But all of those attempts fail because they ignore the obvious point: There is no such thing as a non-human value. Ethics tries to exist in a vacuum. It's the argument that decision-making authority should be outside the domain of human values.
      That's a very convenient argument for the government, who wishes to exclude citizens from the decision-making process. They claim that they are using "scientific methods' to impose unpopular laws and high taxes. But what they are really doing is using "Secrecy" to subvert Democracy. They don't have a secret scientific method, they only have political goals. Have you ever seen a moral analysis of our government? No. And you never will. Morals extend directly from the will of the people, which would threaten their power.

      So now let me say a few words about Bionic Mosquito. First of all, he's a great guy, and this is a great website. I really appreciate all of his hard work.
      My complaint is that B.M.'s writing is way too theoretical; in fact it's almost obtuse. The mark of a good writer is to present information in such a way that the reader can judge the value of the work as soon as possible, so that he won't waste his time. The first two or three sentences should be a good indicator of what to expect.

      But B.M. has subdivided what should be a unified set of ideas into dozens of classifications; as if morals for "Patriots", and morals for "Libertarians", were two different things. They are not. Everything that B.M. has written falls under the main heading of "Morals."
      His individual articles are merely sub-classifications.
      And of course, there's the fact that Rothbard and Mises made a horrible mistake when they failed to make human morals the foundation of their work.

    2. If there is no such thing as a perfect moral code, objectively designed and mandated, then all we are doing is blundering around in the dark, trying hopelessly to make some sense of it. If there is a perfect moral code, at least it gives us a sense of something better than ourselves to live for. And what is wrong with that?

      I asked some questions. You didn't provide any answers. I really don't expect any.

      As far as Bionic Mosquito is concerned, if you have a beef about his work, take it up with him. He's more than capable of addressing your criticisms. Leave me out of it.

      As far as Rothbard and Mises are concerned, it's not enough to just say they made a horrible mistake. Produce the evidence if you can. If you can't, then back off.

  6. Perhaps it's better to consider what is termed 'morality' to in fact be a kind of strategy. By abiding by a certain set of 'moral' rules one hopes to avoid trouble and curry favor.
    In such case one needn't bother postulating divine legislation mystically revealed for the benefit of a benighted mankind. Rather, by chance different strategies arise among different groups - strategies which are able to impose themselves on the group for some period. I think there are in circulation many such strategies without a strategist. For example in the West monogamy is considered the moral position while anything more than one is considered immoral. By contrast among the Mosuo of the East multiplicity is the accepted moral position while the singular relationship is regarded as immoral.

  7. The genesis of natural law is in biology; philosophy probes it logically; economics describes it behaviorally. Mises' praxeology melds that mere description of behavior (action) with human biological motive - purposeful human action.

    Sociobiology and related sciences of evolution and mind, eventually will discover and reveal the evolved facts (laws) of human nature that result in the universals of human behavior. Relativism, obnoxious as it is, when it is honest, merely recognizes and results from the limits of human perception and with that comes epistemological doubt.

    Rothbard may be driven to absolutism by the dishonesty of the opposition - those who seek to deny logical or practical truth by way of relativism.

    We need to celebrate knowledge acquisition, that is the trait that sociobiologically defines humanity. Human action IS knowledge creation, by innovation, win/win transactions - trade and it serves each individual's genes. Individualism, of necessity is social; individual human action is leveraged by sociality; that sociality, in that leverage, attenuates individuality.

    Too often when we mean "property" we say "liberty." It is a rhetorical necessity. BO's Rothbard quote above, does that. Self ownership and ownership of the products of self is where human sociobiology begins; it's also where trade, human action, begins..

    1. John Laing I would like to quote to you what Foucault said about the concept of 'human nature' in his 1971 debate with Chomsky:

      It is true that I mistrust the notion of human nature a little,
      and for the following reason: I believe that of the concepts or
      notions which a science can use, not all have the same degree
      of elaboration, and that in general they have neither the same
      function nor the same type of possible use in scientific dis¬
      course. Let’s take the example of biology. You will find concepts
      with a classifying function, concepts with a differentiating func¬
      tion, and concepts with an analytical function: some of them en¬
      able us to characterize objects, for example that of “tissue”;
      others to isolate elements, like that of “hereditary feature”; oth¬
      ers to fix relations, such as that of “reflex.” There are at the same
      time elements which play a role in the discourse and in the in¬
      ternal rules of the reasoning practice. But there also exist “pe¬
      ripheral” notions, those by which scientific practice designates
      itself, differentiates itself in relation to other practices, delimits
      its domain of objects, and designates what it considers to be the
      totality of its future tasks. The notion of life played this role to
      some extent in biology during a certain period.

      In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the notion of
      life was hardly used in studying nature: one classified natural
      beings, whether living or non-living, in a vast hierarchical
      tableau which went from minerals to man; the break between
      the minerals and the plants or animals was relatively unde¬
      cided; epistemologically it was only important to fix their posi¬
      tions once and for all in an indisputable way.

      At the end of the eighteenth century, the description and
      analysis of these natural beings showed, through the use of
      more highly perfected instruments and the latest techniques,
      an entire domain of objects, an entire field of relations and
      processes which have enabled us to define the specificity of bi-
      ology in the knowledge of nature. Can one say that research
      into life has finally constituted itself in biological science? Has
      the concept of life been responsible for the organization of bio¬
      logical knowledge? I don’t think so. It seems to me more likely
      that the transformations of biological knowledge at the end of
      the eighteenth century were demonstrated on one hand by a
      whole series of new concepts for use in scientific discourse and
      on the other hand gave rise to a notion like that of life which has
      enabled us to designate, to delimit, and to situate a certain type
      of scientific discourse, among other things. I would say that the
      notion of life is not a scientific concept; it has been an epistemolog¬
      ical indicator of which the classifying, delimiting, and other
      functions had an effect on scientific discussions, and not on
      what they were talking about.

      Well, it seems to me that the notion of human nature is of
      the same type. It was not by studying human nature that lin-
      guists discovered the laws of consonant mutation, or Freud the
      principles of the analysis of dreams, or cultural anthropologists
      the structure of myths. In the history of knowledge, the notion
      of human nature seems to me mainly to have played the role of
      an epistemological indicator to designate certain types of dis¬
      course in relation to or in opposition to theology or biology or
      history. I would find it difficult to see in this a scientific concept.

  8. Can ethical absolutism be extended to consensual acts?

    Non aggression principle can be held as absolute. Hence, violations of NAP (killing, stealing etc) can be held as absolute wrongs. Natural law can be seen as the application of NAP in concrete situations. But, is there more to natural law? Can it be extended to consensual acts?

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    2. Read rest of the chapters. I think I get the author's point.

      Libertarians hold that non-aggression is the right thing to do. But why do the right thing in the first place?

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    4. "But, is there more to natural law?"


      "Can it be extended to consensual acts?"


      "But why do the right thing in the first place?"

      What is "right"? Who says? I think only one answer is supportive of liberty - the answer must preclude man's manipulation.

      " those religious demands preclude AnCap libertarianism?"

      I don't think so, but I guess it depends on what is meant by AnCap. Non-violent violations of natural law, if dealt with in a non-violent manner, would seem to be consistent with the NAP. But this is the idea that I am yet to develop in later chapters - writing about it will help me to think it through.

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    6. Is it possible for consensual acts to be anti-liberty?

  9. Foucalt? Science isn't science? Non-responsive.

  10. NAP as absolute is complicated in practice and definition.

    What are the limits of self defense? Suppose perfect knowledge/certainty of imminent attack? Does NAP then allow a pre-emptive strike?

    Then there's the relativists' dishonesty in denying truth by characterizing it as micro aggression? By their dishonest lights, nonaggressive truth IS aggression.

    1. "NAP as absolute is complicated in practice and definition."

      John, it was when I came to this point - now several years ago - that I concluded that the application of the NAP will be driven (in the large gray area of the continuum between the extremes) by culture and tradition.

  11. "It is worth noting: Rothbard is clear that – unlike in economics, for example – when it comes to ethics, there is an absolute, objective standard. Not all values are subjective. Rothbard offers strong – even forceful – criticisms of the idea of relativism in ethics."

    You guys, look: There can't be any such thing as "natural law" or "objective standards". If there were, that would be a refutation of free will. You keep trying to claim that there is an invisible fixed value system; but there can't be. There is no such thing as "ethics" or "philosophy" or "theology." These are just euphemisms. There is only one branch of human reason: Morals. It's the connection between the physical world and human action. Calling Morals by any other name is simply an attempt to separate man from his environment. It's like trying to do something the hard way, on purpose. There is no invisible guide to human action. If a chain of reasoning does not have its roots in the physical world, then it's purely imaginary, and thus not legitimate.

    Imagine if you will that a superior race encountered an intellectual dilemma that had them stumped. Now imagine that they created our universe, and filled it with as much free will as possible, in order to see if we could come up with a solution to their problem. They wouldn't want us to start searching for their hidden codes. They would want us to use our free will to create new codes; and new solutions that perhaps they have never thought of. They wouldn't bother to make slaves, that would be pointless. Our universe is a physical object, that through the application of morals, becomes an expression of what we think is good, and right. So do me a favor, stop searching for hidden codes that aren't there; and start thinking about how Morals, through Rothbard and Mises (if you will) can be applied to create a happy society. Use your free will, and try to come up with something new.