Mises and Rand (and Rothbard)

by Stephan Kinsella on January 16, 2010

in Mises Blog Posts

From Mises blog:

Mises and Rand (and Rothbard)

February 4, 2005 8:35 PM by Stephan Kinsella (Archive)

In a recent thread, a commentator (Feirman) wrote: “Rand herself didn’t agree with everything Mises wrote, such as his a priori methodology, subjectivism and utilitarianism, and I am sure that other Randians pick bones with other of his ideas as well. But this doesn’t amount to not endorsing von Mises, even by contemporary Randians.”

I have long thought this is in part because Rand and/or some Objectivists misundestand Mises. His subjectivism is not subjectivism in her sense–the idea that everything is relative and non-knowable. Rather he just means that a value is a value of a person, and that they are ordinal, not cardinal, not interpersonally comparable, and only demonstrated through action. This is actually similar to Rand’s concept of value–something that mans ACTS to gain and/or keep–rand even said somehwere she added “acts” because if you say you value achieving something your whole life and never do anything about it, in what sense can you be said to value it? This is the same insight underlying Mises’ “subjectivism” and value theory. Even Randians’ confusing belief that values are “objective” does not really seem to deny the idea that in fact, individuals are the ones who do the valuing. Also–Rand used “rational” to mean something broader than Mises’ usage; to him, all action is rational, as it employs means to achieve chosen ends. To Rand, only some actions are “rational”, because to her the term meant something like, “action aimed at achieving happiness, peace, prosperity”. I think Mises would have agreed that from a policy perspective, “rational” action is cooperative action in a free marekt, something like this; he was not claiming that every action, even wicked or socialist or criminal action, is “rational” in the sense that it is aimed at “good” things.

As for apriori theory: Mises was a realist as Hoppe has argued. He certainly was not an idealist of the caricature Rand paints of Kant. His main point was we can know certain “apriori truths” for certain because to deny them is to contradict oneself. Rand validates her “axioms” in the same way–by showing that their denial is self-contradictory. This is again, the same.

Finally, Mises’ utilitarianism was basically the idea that institutions that maximize human wealth, prosperity, and happiness are good; and as an economist he realized that the institution that does this is property rights/capitalism. Rand’s ethics is somewhat vague, but I believe it is in essence consequentialist. Mises says IF you want to foster human life, progress, peace, productive, THEN you need the free market. Rand said, IF you choose to live, THEN you have to recognize that rationality is valuable as a means of living, peace, prosperity, harmony, cooperation among men is also valuable, and therefore the free market is valuable. In both Rand’s and Mises’ case, the value of the free market is hypothetical: it rests on someone already choosing some value that it rests on–in Rand’s case, the choice to live, and its implication of the value of peace and cooperation and prosperity; in Mises’ case, he directly assumed the value of peace and cooperation and prosperity (but I don’t think he would disagree that the choice to live is extra-moral; but once one has decided to live as man, it has implications).

One wonders how much Mises really influenced Rand, perhaps without her knowing it. And perhaps, this helps explain Randians’ accusations that Rothbard “stole” from Rand without attribution (and there are many amazing similarities in arguments and ideas between Rothbard and Rand)–it could be that both were heavily influenced by Mises, and really learned from Mises; but being Aristoteleans, Rand and Rothbard expressed these ideas and arguments in a somewhat different language–axioms instead of apriori truths, etc.

Just a thought. Bookmark/Share | Comments (9)


Long points out another one here:  “Schaefer’s second objection is that Kinsella is departing from the praxeological approach which both Kinsella and Schaefer profess to accept, by employing an objective rather than a subjective conception of scarcity (or, for any Randians in the audience: an intrinsic rather than an objective conception of scarcity; cf. Long 2005). For the praxeological tradition, Schaefer reminds us, scarcity is a concept that applies in the context of purposeful action; means are scarce (or nonscarce) relative to the ends to which they may be put; yet Kinsella erroneously treats scarcity and nonscarcity as though they were objective natural facts. ” i.e., Austrian: objective = Randian: intrinsic; Austrian: subjective = Randian: objective Here’s a chart summarizing some of this:

Objectivism (value of things is relational with the valuer) Subjectivism
Value is something you act to gain and/or keep Demonstrated preference
Action in general Rational action
Rational action Efficient or moral action
Axiomatic reasoning (demonstrations by self-contradiction) Apriori reasoning
Rand’s consequentialist/hypothetical ethics (IF you choose to live, THEN…) Mises’ utilitarian/consequentitalist ethics (IF you want peace, prosperity, THEN…)
Rand’s (and Rothbard’s) Aristotelean terminology Mises’s Kantian concepts/terminology
Intrinsic objective

And searching on my computer I found this old draft article and notes for an article I was going to write with Ed Younkins years ago for a Rand symposium but I had to drop out for lack of time. I think he ended up publishing something similar to this that may have drawn on it.

See also Roderick Long, Praxeology: Who Needs It. As Roderick noted in an email to me, “This is the main place where I talk about the similarities and differences between Rand and the Austrians.”

See Younkins’s QL articles: Mises, Friedman and Rand: A Methodological Comparison (no 150 –  January 15, 2005); The Congruity Among Ayn Rand’s Metaphysics, Epistemology, Value Theory and Ethics  (no 145 –  August 15, 2004); Metaphysics and Epistemology for a free society: The views of Menger, Mises & Rand  (no 135 –  December 20, 2003); Developing a paradigm for a free society: The contributions of Mises, Menger, and Rand  (no 124 – May 10, 2003). And from the JARS  Ayn Rand Among the Austrians symposium, Younkins’s piece Menger, Mises, Rand and Beyond (abstract: “By combining and synthesizing elements found in Austrian economics, Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, and the closely related philosophy of human flourishing that originated with Aristotle, we have the potential to reframe the argument for a free society into a consistent reality-based whole whose integrated sum of knowledge and explanatory power is greater than that of its parts. The Austrian value-free praxeological defense of capitalism and the moral arguments of Rand, Aristotle, and the neo-Aristotelians can be brought together, resulting in a powerful, emergent libertarian synthesis of great promise.”).

Plus Younkins’ books: Philosophers of Capitalism: Menger, Mises, Rand, and Beyond (google books preview) (my blurb: “I applaud Dr. Younkins’ efforts to construct a synthesis of the two major defenses of free-market capitalism. To see common themes or ideas behind apparently dissimilar thinkers’ works can only help us gain a deeper understanding of the issues. Younkins’ words and those of the contributors to this volume can help one to see more clearly the interfaces between Aristotle, Rand, and the Austrians.”).

My draft article/notes:

Mises and Rand on Ethics, Economics and Epistemology Stephan Kinsella and Edward W. Younkins[1]

(See: Bettina Bien Greaves’s “To What Extent Was Rand a Misesian?” (blog discussion))

[Forthcoming in the Spring 2005 issue of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Symposium, “Ayn Rand Among the Austrians”]

Draft: Summary/notes:

There are several similarities between the thought of Rand, and Mises and/or followers/extenders of Misesian praxeology, notably Rothbard and Hoppe. Some are not so obvious because of apparent differences. Mises is said to be a Kantian, subjectivist, and utilitarian, all of which are anathema to Randians. But clearly they admired each other—and given Rand’s tendency to denounce even the smallest deviation in her followers, her admiration for Mises indicates that maybe he is not as far from her as would be supposed.

[NOTES: On Rand’s/Mises’s mutual admiration:

Rand on Mises: "Oh, leave him alone. He's done enough."

Hazlitt relates that he was walking with Rand one day, and told her that Mises had told him, "Ayn Rand is one of the greatest men in history." "Did he say men?" asked Rand. "Yes," Hazlitt responded. At which point Rand clapped her hands in glee. And another one: once, when a friend asked why she didn't go after Mises, given his utilitarianism and subjectivism in ethics, Rand responded, "Oh, leave him alone. He's done enough." She acknowledged him as one of the greatest minds of our time, even while disagreeing with his philosophic base, and as having made a tremendous contribution to liberty. The friend related this to me many years ago in astonishment; that was not normally Ayn Rand's attitude, and it stood out. But then, Ayn Rand was full of surprises. http://www.dailyobjectivist.com/Connect/randandlibertarians2.asp

Roy Childs Mises wrote a letter to Rand admiring Atlas Shrugged: published here in the JLS, along with Rothbard's letter of admiration (a copy of Mises's original letter is here).

Value. Rand’s view of “value” is similar to the Misesian idea of demonstrated preference. Rand said a value is that which ones acts to gain and/or keep. I recall that in response to a question as to how she arrived at this definition. And I think she said that it is not just something you want or desire; you might say all your life you want to make money but do nothing to achieve it; so how can it be said you really “value” it. So she added the “act” part in there. This is uncannily similar to the Misesian idea of demonstrated preference. Rand is saying that you demonstrate you value something by your action, which is what Mises would say too, more or less.

Subjectivism. Misesian economics is “subjectivist” in the sense that value is viewed as being subjective.  Value is not objectively “in” things, from the point of view of human action. Rand was opposed to subjectivism, but not of this type—she was opposed to what she thought was some idealistic or unrealistic Kantian epistemology; the idea that truth or reality is not objective, but depends on what the observer thinks. Of course value-subjectivism is not the same as epistemological-subjectivism. In fact I would say Mises’ value-subjectivism is compatible with Rand’s thinking. Moreover: I am not convinced that Kant is the demon Rand says he is. Admittedly, he was vague and unclear and subject to various interpretations—some of which have been “subjectivist” in Rand’s pejorative sense. Even Hoppe admits this (I can provide reference). Yet I think it’s arguable that Kant was more of a realist than Rand gives him credit for; and certainly, there have been some Kantians who do interpret his thought that way. But this is kind of irrelevant—it does not matter if Kant himself was a subjectivist. What matters is, was Mises? I think he was not. At the very least, Mises himself can be interpreted or extended to have a realistic epistemology—as Hoppe does, employing Kantian-type terminology; and, I think, as Rothbard does, using Aristotelean concepts (see e.g. Rothbard [reference? I think it may be here: In Defense of "Extreme Apriorism": Southern Economic Journal, 1957; also in his Mantle of Science essay]; and also, e.g., Barry Smith, in the JLS, “In Defense of Extreme (Fallibilistic) Apriorism”, (Vol. 12 Num. 1).

[NOTES: On Mises’ own realism, Hans Hoppe says (email): “For Mises' realism see in particular the chap. on epistemology in his Notes and Recollections [now Memoirs, ch. 13], and his dismissive remarks on Popper in the Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science [see p. 69-70 & 120] …” Guido Huelsmann says (email):

1) read again the first hundred pages or so of Socialism (or more, if you have the time), and create a shortlist of Mises speaking for the “nature” of various things — not very “Kantian,” I believe. 2) take a look at how Mises characterises the “subjectivity” of value in Theory & History (1985), p. 22; it is clear that he did not exclude that something like objective value could exist, he merely excluded that it be ascertained through a cognitive (scientific) process

Pete Boettke says (email):

The key article is probably Rothbard’s Mantle of Science essay as you are aware. The other issue that might be relevant is just the relationship between Rand and Mises–which until the Brandens got into the picture I understand was actually quite close and friendly. I am think that Barbara Branden’s book mentions Mises–but there is of course the famous blow up with Mises at dinner with Hazlitt–”dumb little Russia girl.” But then again, supposedly when Atlas Shrugged was published Mises told Hazlitt that Rand was the most courageous man in America–and when Rand heard this, she supposedly was very proud that Mises used the word man. See also: Sciabarra’s Total Freedom. Its treatment of Rothbard and the Austrian school, Rand, and “dialectical libertarianism” may be of help.

Rod Long wrote me: “Two articles you might be interested in–both seeking to reconcile what Rand means by objectivism with what Austrians mean by subjectivism:  Richard C. B. Johnsson, “Austrian ‘Subjectivism’ vs. Objectivism.”, part 1: Free Radical 55, March-April 2003.;part 2:  Free Radical 56, May-June 2003. and Edward W. Younkins, “Austrian Economics Can Be Compatible With  Objectivist Ethics.”

Re Kant’s realism: Barry Smith said, in private email: re Kant: “I think Continental interpretations of Kant are in fact even worse than US interpretations. But there is Ralph Walker’s book Kant (Routledge) (Ralph Walker is an Englishman), which might serve your purposes.” Ralph C.S. Walker, Kant (Routledge, 1999) Paul Abela, Kant’s Empirical Realism (Oxford, 2002) (?)] review of this by Richard Aquila].

Hoppe said, in private email: re Kant: “There are some Germans (cited in my books) Friedrich Kambartel and Paul Lorenzen (who has at least one English title Normative Logic and Ethics).” David Gordon wrote me: “try: J.N. Findlay, Kant and the Transcendental Object; you might also take a look at Paul Abela, Kant’s Empirical Realism.” On Kant’s realism, Kevin Mulligan wrote me: “Magdalena Aebi, Kants Begründung Der “Deutschen Philosophie”: Kants Transzendentale Logik, Kritik Ihrer Begründung (Basel: Verlag für Recht und Gesellschaft, 1947) ] This leads us to…

Epistemology. I think lots of similarities in the way Rand and Mises (and his followers, e.g. Rothbard, and Hoppe) reason. Not surprising in the case of Rothbard, who like Rand was Aristotelean and also was a bit of a Randian for a while. Rothbard (and Barry Smith) are evidence that there is a realistic way to view Mises’ framework—i.e., that even if Kant was an idealist/subjectivist, then Mises was not; he only used Kantian terms but was really a realist. And Hoppe puts the exclamation point on this. See Hoppe’s Economic Science and the Austrian Method; see, in particular, footnote 14, and accompanying text, of Section 1] ;  [see a bit more discussion of Hoppe on Rand, in footnote 67, and the paragraph that note is appended to, in my review of Hoppe’s book, The Undeniable Morality of Capitalism] Anyway, here are some similarities. Rand called certain fundamental truths to be “axioms”. Identity, existence, causality, even free will etc. I recall she defended many of these often by showing it is self-contradictory to deny them. This is in essence the same way that Mises and Hoppe validate fundamental praxeological and other truths—regardless of the Kantian terms such as “apriori” or “categories”. E.g. ends, means, causality, even free will—are all presupposed by actors and therefore it’s self-contradictory to deny this. This kind of reasoning is made even more explicit by Hoppe in his “argumentation ethic” in which he extends praxeological type reasoning into ethics.  Re free will, the argument used by Randians to defend it is similar to that used by Mises/Hoppe. Rand said (?) that if you don’t have free will, you can’t rely on your having chosen to pursue the truth; so it’s self-defeating to argue there is no free will. I think Mises points out that free will is an unavoidable operating assumption, even if God might know ultimately that/how we are determined. Hoppe points out (I think here: On Certainty and Uncertainty, Or: How Rational Can Our Expectations Be?) that we can know some things about the future but not everything—the future has to be uncertain to some degree. And the argument is based on the proposition that we can learn—which has to be presupposed in action. etc.

Ethics. Couple of points. While not a utilitarian in economics (since Mises recognizes value is subjective and choices are ordinal, not cardinal, and not interpersonally comparable—not even intertemporally comparable for the same actor) Mises was an ethical utilitarian (I think). Rand claimed not to be—but IMO many of her arguments (like her argument for patents) are utilitarian. In any event, I think there are some similarities between Rand’s ethics and that of Hoppe, which I take to be an extension of Mises’s framework. Both are both hypothetical and seem to recognize the is-ought divide. Rand says, IF you want to live (qua man), THEN you ought to live a certain way. That certain way depends on what man’s nature is–our nature is such that the (best) way to live (qua man) is to live by principle, by reason, in society in cooperation with others, etc.  So the natural law argument is invoked, but it is hypothetical since you only get to it IF someone WANTS to live qua man.  [See, e.g., H. Binswanger, ’Life-based Teleology and the Foundations of Ethics’, The Monist, vol. 75, no. 1, Jan 1992; also David Kelley and others—mentioned in NOTES below] Now this is similar to Mises, who says—I think—that IF you want peace, prosperity, and so on, THEN individual liberty, free markets, etc. are the way to accomplish it. But it’s also similar to Hoppe’s approach (and I think Hoppe’s is compatible w/ Rand—since it’s a very rational view, supported by reason.  Hoppe argues that IF someone chooses to engage in the (peaceful, cooperative) activity of argumentation, THEN he accepts certain norms implied in that activity. In both cases I don’t think you can say it’s categorically the case that an individual “should” act in a certain way.  You can only say that the should is dependent on certain conditions, namely the choice to live, or the choice to engage in civilized interaction.

[NOTES: David Gordon says: “On your Rand point, there is a discussion of whether Rand's ethics is hypothetical in Roderick Long, Reason and Value: Aristotle Versus Rand. George Smith defends the hypothetical view in Atheism: The Case Against God. I think there is a lot to be said for the view that Mises gives near the end of Human Action. To say, "If you want happiness, do such-and-such" is a hypothetical imperative; but since nearly everyone does want happiness, nearly everyone will have reason to accept the imperative. Obviously, the same is true for "If you want to live. . ."” Scott Ryan says:

“I defend exactly that view in Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality; Gregory Johnson does so as well in his piece (the name of which escapes me) in the first issue of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies; and David Kelley agrees with it (contra Peikoff) in his review of Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of  Ayn Rand (available online on the TOS site). So far as I know, Objectivists and quasi-Objectivists on the other side tend to duck the issue or handle it somewhat ineptly; e.g. Tara Smith takes the opposing (Peikoffian) view but not, I think, with very sound argumentative support (in Moral Rights and Political Freedom; I think she addresses it in Viable Values too but I don't own a copy). I believe there's also a piece in that collection edited by the Dougs (Rasmussen and den Uyl, The Philosophy of Ayn Rand) that makes the point that the Objectivist ethics is subjective/hypothetical but I don't recall whose it was. (Wheeler? Flew?) My discussion is in chapter 12 of my book, with the meat of it on pp. 295-298. (I cite both Johnson and Kelley.) I do agree that Objectivism's ethic is subjectivist and/or hypothetical.

Roderick Long: re rand’s hypothetical ethics: “Tara Smith's book Viable Values has a lengthy discussion of this question.  I think her solution tries to have her cake and eat it too, but it's an interesting attempt.”] NOTES/MISCELLANEOUS Other material:


From an email to Larry Sechrest:

Larry,  as you know, for the Spring 2005 J. Ayn Rand Studies issue, I’m doing a piece loosely described as “Comparative Analysis of Rand and Kant/Mises on Axioms & A Priori Concepts.” What I want to do is have a short article showing many similarities between Rand and Mises on fundamental issues, despite differences in terminology. And I’ll bring in people like Barry Smith, Rothbard, and Hoppe a bit too, who push/present the Misesian (even Kantian) paradigm in a realistic/Aristotelian direction, more similar to Rand. Etc.

E.g. I find the Misesian use of “Kantian” apriorism to be essentially realist, and “axiomatic” (especially as done/shown by Rothbard and Hoppe), similar to the way Rand herself justifies (argument by contradiction, essential presuppositions, etc.) her own “axioms”. And Rand’s definition of “value” as something that you act to gain and/or keep seems to me to be very consistent with the Misesian notion of demonstrated preference. Rand’s hostility to epistemological “subjectivism” (some kind of relativism) led her (I think) to dismiss Mises’ praxeological subjectivism, which I think is not inconsistent w/ Objectivism at all. Etc. I have jotted down somewhere a few other similarities … these should not be too surprising, really, if you: accept the Rothbardian sort of “intermediation” between the two (he was more Aristotelian, like Rand, and influenced by her, but also tried to fit the basic Misesian insights into this type of framework); consider Rand’s admiration of Mises and even her possibly indirect (through Rothbard) influence on Mises; and Hoppe’s realist, but Kantian-framework based interpretation of Mises–and even Mises’ own “realist” use of Kant (and besides, there are arguments that Kant was a realist anyway).

I need to start prepping for this, and I need to re-examine some of Rothbard’s stuff, his relationship with Rand, Barry Smith’s stuff on Aristotelian “apriorism”, etc. I wanted to ask if you have any thoughts you could jot down on this, just food for thought, suggestions for things to research, or any other similarities you’ve noticed, between Mises and Rand, that might be worth noting. Any thoughts at all would be appreciated–


I’ve read most of the special Rand-and-the-Austrians JARS issue, and it’s quite interesting. A few comments. I have long noted many similarities between Rand’s ideas and arguments, and those of Mises, Rothbard, et al. Let me just sketch a few here (some of which are covered in further detail in some of the articles in the JARS issue).

1. Apriori truths & axioms. As I think Roderick Long points out, the way Rand justifies some of her “axioms” is similar to the way Misesian “apriori” truths are justified: by showing that the denial of the axiom/apriori proposition are self-contradictory. See also Barry Smith’s In Defense of Extreme (Fallibilistic) Apriorism. Rand would deny the aprioristic approach because of her obsession with Kant-the-evil-One, but I think that’s just stubbornness. Hoppe’s realist, but Kantian-framework based interpretation of Mises–and even Mises’ own “realist” use of Kant (and besides, there are arguments that Kant was a realist anyway). I would point out the similarities in Rand’s ‘hypothetical” approach to ethics, with the Hoppean approach (which he views as an ethical extension of Mises)… and the similar approach Rand used to justify her “axioms” with the “self-refuting” “apriori” approach of Mises and Hoppe (also–Barry Smith argues for an Aristotelian apriorism, which I think could help link Rothbard’s aristotelian views to those of Mises and Hoppe).  I’ll bring in people like Barry Smith, Rothbard, and Hoppe a bit too, who push/present the Misesian (even Kantian) paradigm in a realistic/Aristotelian direction, more similar to Rand. Etc. E.g. I find the Misesian use of “Kantian” apriorism to be essentially realist, and >”axiomatic” (especially as done/shown by Rothbard and Hoppe), similar to the way Rand herself justifies (argument by contradiction, essential presuppositions, etc.) her own “axioms”. And Rand’s definition of “value” as something that you act to gain and/or keep seems to me to be very consistent with the Misesian notion of demonstrated preference.

3. Subjectivism. I believe Rand’s hostility to epistemological “subjectivism” (some kind of relativism) led her to dismiss Mises’s praxeological subjectivism, which is not inconsistent with Objectivism at all.

4. Value and demonstrated preference. 5.  Ethics. Rand’s approach to ethics is hypothetical, in a sense, as is that of Misesian Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s argumentation ethics. Have you read the Harry Binswanger article, Life-Based Teleology and the Foundations of Ethics.’ The Monist 75: (January 1992). pg 1.? See My Life And My Love Of It, by Bryan Register, for an interesting discussion of this.  I think it’s related to Hoppe’s “hypotehtical”/effectively-categorical neo-Kantian-realistic ethics. She would hate that, but there it is. You might want to point some of the following out on the list (I asked McPherson to temporarily unsubscribe me until I can catch up, so I may be unsubscribed already).

Also, my review essay, The Undeniable Morality of Capitalism, reviewing Hoppe’s The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, is online. In there, in footnote 38 and related text, I discuss and quote from a useful Harry Binswanger article: [Hoppe:]

“[T]his defense of private property is essentially also Rothbard’s. In spite of his formal allegiance to the natural rights tradition Rothbard, in what I consider his most crucial argument in defense of a private property ethic, not only chooses essentially the same starting point—argumentation—but also gives a justification by means of a priori reasoning almost identical to the one just developed. To prove the point I can do no better than simply quote: ‘Now, any person participating in any sort of discussion, including one on values, is, by virtue of so participating, alive and affirming life. For if he were really opposed to life he would have no business continuing to be alive. Hence, the supposed opponent of life is really affirming it in the very process of discussion, and hence the preservation and furtherance of one’s life takes on the stature of an incontestable axiom.” “FN38: See id. at 186 (citing Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty 32 (1982)).

Ayn Rand’s thought related to this subject is worth noting:

“[A]s Rand maintains, all ‘oughts’ are hypothetical, based on valuing one’s life …. “The point is not that one has to be alive in order to act to achieve anything. The point is that being pro-life is what makes end states qualify as values. Only choosing to hold one’s life as a value gives one the stake in one’s actions that is required for the whole issue of evaluation to arise …. “Contrary to biological determinism, one does not have to pursue any goals or proclaim anything to be of value. But contrary to subjectivism, if one does, the action or proclamation logically depends on implicitly accepting one’s life as one’s ultimate value….

“The issue of justifying choices arises only in the context of having already chosen to live. The choice to live is not extra-moral, but pre-moral; it is a precondition of all moral evaluation.”

Harry Binswanger, Life-Based Teleology and the Foundations of Ethics, The Monist 84, 99-100 (1992).

As Ayn Rand states: “Life or death is man’s only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course.” Id. at 100 (quoting Ayn Rand , Causality Versus Duty, in Philosophy: Who Needs It 95, 99 (Signet 1984)).”

Also, see Section 2, of: Cognition and Creativity: Creativity, Imagination and the Objectivist Epistemology, by J. Gregory Wharton, discussing Binswanger, etc. I.e., in one interpretation of Rand, you can’t say it’s unethical to commit suicide. But given the choice to live, this has some implications. So this means her ethical theory is hypothetical, in that sense. Or maybe this is the accepted view of her philosophy, I can’t recall.

Any pointers or suggestions, or your own view on this?

[1]Mr. Kinsella is an attorney in Houston, Texas, and Book Review Editor for the Journal of Libertarian Studies. Internet: www.StephanKinsella.com. Dr. Younkins is Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. He is the author of Capitalism and Commerce. The views expressed herein are those of the authors alone, and should not be attributed to any other person or entity.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

clay barham January 16, 2010 at 4:34 pm

To turn our country around, we must permit individual interests and not community interests to dominate. Obama, Democrats, socialists, liberals and everyone on the left wants to share the booty from America saying community is most important. SAVE THE PEBBLE DROPPERS & PROSPERITY, found on claysamerica.com, tells how America did so well in the first place, and shows us how to repeat the process of regaining our prosperity. America has drifted into meaningless altruism to the point we cannot earn our way back and focusing on individual interests as described so well by Ayn Rand. Claysamerica.com


Adam Knott January 17, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Hi Stephan

I’m glad you’re bringing this to the forefront, and I believe the issue of Misesian utilitarianism versus Randian and Rothbardian objective ethics is one that needs to be moved closer to resolution for theoretical libertarianism to move forward.

Your post here makes lots of good points, but in my opinion, overlooks important facts that would give your reader a more accurate picture of the history of this theoretical divide in the libertarian community.

First, Patrick M. O’Neils 1983 article “Ayn Rand and the Is-Ought Problem” (Journal of Libertarian Studies) is probably the definitive article making the case from a utilitarian point of view. I didn’t see you refer to this article in your post here, correct me if I’m wrong. I think a serious discussion about the ethics systems of Rand and Rothbard needs to address O’Neil’s challenge and either conclude that O’neil was indeed correct in his assessment, or incorrect. But if we just ignore it, we are left with the impression that Rand and Rothbard were somehow groping toward an “If X, then Y” type philosophy, whereas in fact, they were consciously trying to overcome and avoid precisely this kind of “means-ends” or utilitarian/consequentialist argument. Their systems are based on a positive and conscious critique of Humean/Misesian utilitarianism of the “If X, then Y” kind. As I understand it, they both were extremely hostile towards utilitarianism and utilitarians.

O’Neil’s article critiques the Randian/Rothbardian objective ethics systems in the context of Hume’s is-ought gap. Referring to what you write above, here is one of the primary issues at stake as phrased by O’Neil:

“If, for example, we say that “one ought to do x, in order that y,” we have made the obligation to do x dependent on some personal desire to have y occur.” (p.86)

This notion is precisely the notion that the objective ethics school is/was trying to overcome. The contention that this “if/then” approach is somehow connected with immorality is the very basis of objective ethics. Avoiding the “if-then” utilitarian/consequentialist analysis as a basis for ethical theorizing is the overriding imperative of objective ethics theorizing. Again, a critique of “if-then” analysis is the basis of objective ethics. This is the main point of The Ethics of Liberty, and also the primary gist of Long’s “Economics and Its Ethical Assumptions.” The attempt to avoid the standard, Misesian, means-ends analysis. The idea is that this kind of analysis “allows” immoral behavior, since it is left up to the individual to decide whether or not he wants to pursue X. Whether or not to pursue X is a “subjective” choice (choice of the subject), which then “allows” a person to act immorally by rejecting X. And thus objective ethicists search for a basis of ethics independent of the subjective choices (choices of subjects) of individuals.

As O’Neil writes regarding Rand (and this applies to Rothbard):

“There can be no doubt that she intends to construct an ethical system in which the standards of morality operate independently of their subjective acceptance by individual human wills.”(p.81)

It is clear from the replies of the defenders of the Randian/Rothbardian systems, that they vigorously denied this account of things. The proposition that their ethical theories reduce to or collapse to an “If X, then Y” consequentialist/utilitarian type proposition is exactly what they were denying.

Obviously this issue can’t be settled here by a series of blog posts. But what I think needs to be said clearly, and discussed and debated clearly, is that objective ethics is based on a critique of “If X, then Y” analysis, and claims that there is another approach that can arrive at an ‘objective’ standard of morality. But whenever these theories are closely examined, we find that the argument is indeed that “if” a person wants a certain thing or state of affairs X, “then” he “should” do thing or action Y.

When you write that Rand’s ethics theory is essentially “if X, then Y,” I believe it is important to add that she would have vigorously denied this notion. She was searching for a way to arrive at a basis of ethics that, as O’Neil correctly states, is independent of the subjective acceptance by individual wills.

To this, Mises replies:

“Man is capable of dying for a cause or of committing suicide. To live is for man the outcome of a choice, of a judgment of value.”(HA, 3rd rev. p.20)

Mises was obviously aware that the obligatory power of any “should”, is derived from the purpose of the individual concerned.

This is what O’Neil’s article discusses in clear detail, and O’Neil is making the same essential point that advanced utilitarians such as Mises and Hume made; that there is no standard of morality that doesn’t assume a purpose, and that purposes are purposes of individual subjects. This is what objective ethics first critiques (i.e., claims is false), and from this, attempts to construct an objective (nonsubjective) theory of ethics.

O’Neil concludes his article thusly:

“In conclusion, then, Ayn Rand’s system of Objectivist ethics does not provide the basis for a solution to the Humean dilemma of the is-ought gap; nor have attempts by a new generation of natural law ethicians to rework her system succeeded in subduing that central ethical difficulty. Since no ethical system has been demonstrated to have solved the is-ought problem, it may be thought a minor flaw in Rand. It is her specific claim to have overcome this difficulty that magnifies its importance in regard to her system.”(p.97)

In closing, my point is that I don’t think libertarian ethics theory can, so to speak, turn the corner, until libertarian social theorists come to view thinkers like Hume and Mises as foundational thinkers whose ideas can be built upon in constructing a libertarian ethics theory, as opposed to adversaries and “enablers” of immoral ethical codes whose ideas need to be disproved for libertarian ethics theory to succeed.


Leave a Comment

{ 10 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: