The Anarchist Township

Fight the war, fuck the norm!

Month: August 2012

Reflections and Responses #2: The Ethics of Liberty: Part I: Natural Law, Introduction to Chapter 3

Ethics of Liberty by Murray N. Rothbard

(I would like to note that I’m going to mention bits of the preface from time to time but I personally don’t find much use in going over it. There’s not much in there for me to examine or respond to and a good chunk of it is just the why and what of the book and that becomes plainly obvious as we go along. Even so you can find The Ethics of Liberty online and read it for yourself or even read along if this (that specifically or this reading in general) leaves you dissatisfied.)

A Brief Reintroduction

It’s good to finally be doing Reflections and Responses again but this time I’ll try to do a bit better. I’m sure my review of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (which you can find here, here, here, here, and…here) was in many ways a flawed one. Both in how I treated it as an essay and my own methodology in forming Reflections and Responses #1 in its totality. So here’s to hoping my treatment of what’s thought of by some as Rothbard’s second most important work (next to Man, Economy and State) The Ethics of Liberty to be a bit better.

The basic game plan is for me to review EoL (as I’ll abbreviate it or sometimes simply Ethics) chapter/section by chapter/section. In some cases I’ll see fit to do it by section if the sections are short enough or if I just want to go over the whole section and some common themes and points of interest I found. Otherwise I should typically be doing them chapter by chapter (and sometimes multiple chapters in one post if they’re short enough!) so I can give as detailed amount of a post as I feel they deserve without worrying too much if I’m giving enough attention to other matters.

My format throughout this probably won’t have a definite shape (where would the fun be in that right? :P) but I’ll probably stick to having it so I introduce what the general topics and themes are for whatever I’m looking at and how I generally felt about them and dive more into specifics as we go along, reaching conclusions along the way. Sometimes I’ll be more detailed than others and other times I might just even flat out write some sort of essay-length sub-section in which I go off on one specific topic but part of the fun of these posts is that even I’m not always sure how it’ll turn out!

I think that’s enough information for now. If you have any more questions please post a comment below or, reach me on Facebook!

With that all said let’s check out the ethics of The Ethics of Liberty! 😉

Part 1: Introduction: Natural Law

1. Natural Law and Reason

First off I’d just like my readership (all five of you…) that I am not a philosopher in any “professional” sense. I haven’t dedicated my life to the profession of truth seeking in any paid manner nor have I read all (or even any really) of the materials, authors and so forth that Rothbard brings up and will bring up. So when I’m responding to what Rothbard is saying, especially in this section, it’s important to keep in mind I’m mostly going on intuitive feelings and the little bit of philosophy here and there I’ve retained from college and my readings. Though I think it’s also worth noting that Rothbard was (I do believe…) an economist first and a philosopher and historian second and it seemed (by some of the responses I’ve seen to this book) that he probably should have stuck to economics. Whether that’s true or not is something I don’t have any plans to definitely answer one way or another but I’ll do my best to both reflect and respond on what Rothbard posits either way.

Now, in this section (not this chapter) specifically Rothbard is trying to both introduce and make a philosophical case for something called “natural law” (we’ll get into what Rothbard means by this soon). In this specific chapter he makes the case first by determining what natural law is and is not and introducing some prominent arguments for and against it. Obviously Rothbard, due to how many pages he spends on this subject in most chapters in this section, is coming from a lot of philosophical presuppositions that we, as the audience, must either take for granted to accept his arguments or we’re gonna have to go even deeper down the philosophical rabbit hole.

For my own benefit and yours I think I’ll take Rothbard’s premises as solid enough and that I probably shouldn’t be trying to get in over my head with it.

For example when Rothbard says stuff like,

Thus, let there be no mistake: in the Thomistic tradition, natural law is ethical as well as physical law; and the instrument by which man apprehends such law is his reason-not faith, or intuition, or grace, revelation, or anything else. (p. 5)

Here it’d be better for us to look into what a “natural law” in both ethics and physical law could look like then whether if the Thomistic tradition actually thought this or if Thomas would object to Rothbard’s use of his own logic here. Instead I’d rather take his presumptions of what a Thomistic sort of person would believe and look into what the difference is between reason and all of these other things and makes reason such a more valid instrument for man then (say) intuition. In fact, I’d be curious to see if Rothbard ever wrote on the intuition based morality.

But in any case, I’m just trying to make it clear that typically I’ll take Rothbard’s word for what he says in these philosophical matters and treat them as facts, at least some of the most basic presuppositions. I’d rather discuss the facts as facts themselves anyways then get involved in interpretations of traditions I don’t even know much about.

One of the first thing Rothbard discusses in this chapter is the idea that many (as he says) “intellectuals who consider themselves ‘scientific'” are outraged by the mere suggestion that something in man could be “natural”. Indeed, this is a philosophical inner-conflict I’ve had recently. What does it mean to have something be natural? Does it have some sort of substantive meaning at all? We’ll get to a deeper discussion of that in a later chapter in this section. But I think it’s a question worth our time and it’s certainly been occupying my mind off and on.

The idea that natural law is inherently tied up with theology and is wrong otherwise is another thing that Rothbard tackles (albeit he is briefly just explaining the opposition more so than attacking it although he does a bit of that too) or the idea that because this is true and because we’re men of science we must reject natural law! Rothbard makes it clear then, as he says himself, that a proponent of natural law is therefore bound to be dogged by people from both the secular and theological camps, either one claiming it’s far too “mystical” or not mystical enough for them.

Rothbard says that the people in the mystical camp are simply rejecting reason as a tool and replacing it with faith (a classic atheist rejoinder) and that the Thomist tradition instead treated philosophy (which he seems to equate with reason here) as a separate thing from theology. Therefore Rothbard prefers the Thomistic line of thinking rather than what he calls their “extreme Augustinian” position.

Here I must pause to try and quickly make a few points:

It seems silly to me to just chalk up their position as merely discarding reason. I think it’s pretty much methodologically impossible to discard reason on the whole even if this was somehow the intent of these “extreme Augustinians”. Instead, I think that using both reason and faith aren’t very much at all at odds with each other. I know that’s sounds like a big assertion but I don’t think it’s quite as big as (especially New Atheists) would think. I think it’s completely reasonable to sometimes simply believe in whatever’s gonna happen.

For example my belief in anarchy is based on a lot of faith (specifically in humans)because my reason can only take me so far. I simply can’t account for all the variables involved in all of these problems with modern society and so on and I can’t simply proclaim to have some sort of scientific program to get us from here to there in any absolute manner. To some degree or another I must say then that I simply have faith that this will work out. Now, of course that doesn’t mean I abandon my reason. Reason would come first for me and only once I’ve taken it as far as I feel I can would I leave up anything to just simple faith. But I think a lot of atheists (like Rothbard here) undermine the importance of faith in things. It’s not just for religious people.

That said it seems that Rothbard is at least partially correct that the “extreme Augustinians” aren’t separating theology and philosophy (or at least not enough) and that they should be separate endeavors. And hence I side with Rothbard and the Thomistic position on this one. Further, I do think reason is more important than faith but I think faith can be useful as well so I can sort of see both sides on this one.

Moving on, Rothbard quotes a few different writings in support of the natural law being divorced from theology. As I don’t personally have any dog in this fight I won’t really contest what Rothbard is saying here. It seems clear to me (at least as an agnostic-atheist) that if your philosophy is to be better consistent with reality it shouldn’t be theistic. So if “natural law” is to make any sense for me it is to be divorced from theism. I’m fine with that.

The modern Thomist philosopher’s quote about the word ‘natural” says it refers to man’s nature (duh) but doesn’t really help us with thinking about what is man’s nature. We’ll get to that later on like I said before though.

I want to move on to the last page of this chapter where Rothbard says,

In natural-law philosophy, then, reason is not bound, as it is in modern post-Humean philosophy, to be a mere slave to the passions, confined to cranking out the discovery of the means to arbitrarily chosen ends. 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. For the Thomist or natural-law theorist, the general law of morality for man is a special case of the system of natural law governing all entities of the world, each with its own nature and its own ends. “For him the moral law . . . is a special case of the general principles that all finite things move toward their ends by the development of their potentialities.”

I think it’s funny here that Rothbard sort of comes off…utilitarianish to me? I’m not sure how to explain it but I just think it’s funny how much he wants to de-emphasize the passions and use flat out logic and mechanical reason (by “mechanical reason” I mean a repeated process of discovering things) when he’s more famous for saying that we should all hate the state and that hatred was his muse which surely dominated a lot of his criticisms of other schools of thought. So Rothbard seems theoretically and practically at odds with himself here.

More to his points here however I’m unsure how much reason outweighs our passions or how much we should have one displace the other, that is, if they shouldn’t be equal. The “passions” are referring to…what? Emotions? I figure it must be but what sorts? The extremes of emotions? Hatred perhaps (:P)? If not, then why? It’s not clear exactly (at least here) what Rothbard wants us to move away from. He wants us to move away from Hume and the “passions” but why? He briefly skims over them as choosing “arbitrary ends” but how does this work? Rothbard simply leaves too many questions unanswered for me to take his passing-criticisms very seriously.

Finally Rothbard also has a quick bashing of relativism for its “flight from reason” that it undertakes in simply being what it is. I’m not an expert on relativism or natural law stuff so I can’t comment on this much more than just say that if Rothbard wanted to get across that an entire philosophy (here it’s relativism) is bunk that he’d do better to merely have a quote and then a small follow up. It seems arguable to me (though I’m not a relativist myself) that relativists have much more to offer then simply confused analysis of rights and wrongs and then not being able to conclusively follow up. They might even be able to bring some people who think too highly of themselves out of the clouds they reside in and on to solid ground…

Rothbard’s references always follow the chapter in question though I won’t typically comment on them much to at all. Here the only things notable are follow ups on his small criticism of relativism and the further explanation of why natural law might be non-theological (…using a dictionary…).

Overall I can’t say this chapter really impressed me with its arguments or did much for me. It certainly addressed and raised important questions and did so in a (mostly) professional way. But I can’t say any of the answers Rothbard gives are particularly insightful or seem that intuitively true to me. It’s of course worth bearing in mind that Rothbard says in the preface that Ethics isn’t a work in ethics per se’ as much as it is a work in those ethics that are subsumed by political philosophy or useful towards constructing one conducive towards liberty. Even so, the points in which he does focus on ethics here aren’t terribly interesting or very convincing, though of course Rothbard is just getting started. So I’m not saying he’s wrong thus far, just that if this is the best he’s gonna do throughout the book then I’m skeptical of how the rest is gonna be.

But let me hold my tongue for now. Rothbard has much more to say and we’ve yet to take a look at it so I shall reserve a more general judgement until I feel it’s more appropriate.

2. Natural Law as ‘Science'”

In this chapter things get a lot more explanatory driven as Rothbard makes his big attempt to further one of his main convictions about natural law being a secular and not theistic idea. Although so far I didn’t see any particularly good reasoning from Rothbard on why it should be like this I don’t disagree it should, I’m just not sure about his own specific case for it. But nevertheless this chapter’s main goal is to further that conviction and then explain what natural law as a sort of science would actually look like.

Rothbard kicks things off with talking about that thorny subject of the word “natural” claiming first that it’s “puzzling” why so many would see the term as a sign of some sort of mysticism. Rothbard talks about an apple falling from the tree to be in the nature of it and about molecules of hydrogen and oxygen and how they interact with each other to be a part of their nature. This, again, doesn’t really give us any sort of terminological explanation for the word but rather gives us an example driven explanation. With these examples he certainly makes a fine case that there’s nothing necessarily arcane or mystical about talking about something natural I suppose. But I don’t think it actually proves that word has much use but we’ll get to that.

This next part is important so I shall quote the whole of it:

The world, in fact, consists of a myriad number of observable things, or entities. This is surely an observable fact. Since the world does not consist of one homogenous thing or entity alone, it follows that each one of these different things possesses differing attributes, otherwise they would all be the same thing. But if A, B, C, etc., have different attributes, it follows immediately that they have different natures.[1][2] It also follows that when these various things meet and interact, a specifically delimitable and definable result will occur. In short, specific, delimitable causes will have specific, delimitable effects.[3] The observable behavior of each of these entities is the law of their natures, and this law includes what happens as a result of the interactions. The complex that we may build up of these laws may be termed the structure of natural law. What is “mystical” about that?

There are multiple parts to this.

First, it’s an observable fact indeed, that the world around us contains many things. When someone disputes the terms natural I’m unsure that they’d necessarily be denying empiricism as much as they’re denying how far empiricism can go. Here Rothbard, to me, seems to show how dangerous an over-emphasis on empiricism can be (not that I’m against the use of our senses to make sense of the world and even gain insights about how to figure out reality) when he conflated the words observable fact with the word fact itself.

Although it may be an observable fact that many things exist it does not follow from this that those many things, merely because they’re different have different properties or “natures”. For example you may see two pieces of wood on the floor but their “nature” is quite the same as the other for they have no real nature in them except what exterior forces make that nature (I’m still not sure what “nature” means but I’m using it as Rothbard has tried to use it so far, so just keep that in mind when I’m using that word). With humans of course this may be different because all humans have different properties, I believe the same even goes with twins and family members, etc. but nonetheless I don’t think it follows that just because there are many objects in the world (and I’ll grant that this is an observable fact however distorted our observational skills can often be…) this means many things like “natures” exist.

When Rothbard says,”It also follows that when these various things meet and interact, a specifically delimitable and definable result will occur. In short, specific, delimitable causes will have specific, delimitable effects.” this seems far too hard-lined for me as reality seems so much more static and sporadic to me than this. Various things can meet, interact and cause certain results for sure, but delimiting results seems to imply that you’ll always have the time or the senses to properly observe the phenomenons in question. Now, I’m not saying this is completely out of the scope of humans per se’ but it seems a bit far-fetched to treat all of reality in scientific terms like this. The world isn’t our laboratory and treating it like one and treating empiricism as some sort of one-size-fits-all solution is a bad methodology if you ask me.

It’s this sort of scientism that often disturbs me from analytic philosophers which Rothbard certainly was.

So while these things aren’t “mystical” they seem a bit logically far-fetched.

Rothbard questions if man’s nature is open to rational observation and reflection when he says, “And yet, 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…” but this again presumes too much out of us as humans.

I believe that we as humans can discern and observe much in the world. But drawing huge overarching conclusions about as a complicated things as humans and what “nature” they might have just seems past our limited amounts of knowledge. I’m not necessarily saying it’s not worth our time to try and do so but that, in the end, looking for something like a “nature” apart from inanimate objects, might be a lost cause. This is because, as I’ve said, humans are a much more complex and erratic thing then say, a rose or a rock. And you may even be able to argue that these things too are very complicated outside of their general uses that are usually observed.

Rothbard thinks however that man’s reason is what can help us establish such a natural law. Again, I remain skeptical of this. No doubt, man’s reason is a powerful thing but is it powerful enough to discern some things as natures and things of an objective quality? I certainly believe a system of codes, ethics, values or what have you are good things to have and important things to constantly revise but does searching for the “nature” in it all really help us in such a pursuit?

Rothbard also seems to have a strange definition (or an example, I’m unsure which) of the word objective which is,     “[something that] can be employed by all men to yield truths about the world.” Given then, I’m unsure what the opposite is, or in other words, what would a subjective reasoning be? What would it look like in comparison to this supposedly objective one? I consider myself a moral realist (of some sort or another…) but I think our moral reasoning and ability to do so is (for better or worse) limited and Rothbard wants us to go to places I’m just too uncertain we can actually reach.

Rothbard’s criticism of the opposition’s position that natural law should be discarded just because there are differences among them seems quite valid to me so I don’t have much to add there.

The next things that Rothbard talks about are how natural-law theories compare to utilitarianism, that value is more generally objective than specifically subjective like he claims it is for utilitarians in terms of moral theory and all else. In essence he is claiming they are committing a certain over-systemizing of their values on philosophy and that may be agreeable by me. Though it seems to me that moral choices, while objective and should be regarded as more generally objective are also not reducible to some sort of “nature” or inflexible truth. When Rothbard quotes Father Keanly who says,

This philosophy maintains that there is in fact an objective moral order within the range of human intelligence, to which human societies are bound in conscience to conform and upon which the peace and happiness of personal, national and international life depend.

I find myself agreeing with the premise (that there is an objective moral order within the range of human intelligence and that this is discoverable…albeit I may have a few caveats but I find this generally ok) but the conclusion (that we are bound by conscience to conform upon these values for these other higher values like happiness and life depend on) I find…inflexible. It seems too much like a sort of authoritarian-moralism to want some sort of conformity to morality as conformity just strikes me the wrong way. It could just be poor word choice but if so then I’d replace “conform” with something more like “skeptically adhere to” or something along those lines. To base our own subjective experiences and the world around us and use our intuitions to get these to the level of objectivity seems difficult enough but at least intuitions are in ourselves and a part of integral ethical sense that comes with being human.

I realize this sounds like I’m speaking of something like a “nature” but it’s quite clear we all have different sorts of intuitions and different ways of expressing them and using them as well as a slim minority of people seemingly not having them at all. So it seems to cut and dry here to claim a “naturalness” to humans because of our intuitions.

Again, this rigidity to morality seems to hold when Rothbard quotes psychologist Leonard Carmichael who says (emphasis added),

because man has an unchanging and an age-old, genetically determined anatomical, physiological, and psychological make-up, there is reason to believe that at least some of the “values” that he recognized as good or bad have been discov­ered or have emerged as human individuals have lived togeth­er for thousands of years in many societies. Is there any reason to suggest that these values, once identified and tested, may not be thought of as essentially fixed and unchanging? For example, the wanton murder of one adult by another for the purely personal amusement of the person committing the murder, once it is recognized as a general wrong, is likely always to be so recognized. Such a murder has disadvantageous individual and social effects. Or to take a milder example from esthetics, man is always likely to recognize in a special way the balance of two complementary colors because he is born with specially con­stituted human eyes.

I find a lot about this quote…well to be blunt pretty philosophically troubling and just flat out wrong.

I think it’s now clear where the sort of “natural law” that at least Rothbard prescribes takes us to. A “conformity” under morality, a rigidity in our own beliefs and a sort of scientism that once certain tests are done we can relax in our arm chairs and forever contemplate how to deal with the “realities” of “human nature”.

This is, quite simply, a bunch of philosophical nonsense (on stilts?). It throws empiricism in the highest order (next to science maybe) and actually tells us to suppress the important sorts of analysis (so much for “analytic” philosophy eh?). I’d prefer a much more anarchic system of methodology that while not necessarily a “free for all” in terms of self and external discussion is certainly more free spirited than this sort of moral exploration process advocated by Rothbard. I have some odd feeling that Nietzsche spoke out against this in Beyond Good & Evil or at least in favor of a more “free spirited” (by which he might just mean free for the strong :P) but I’m unsure where it is.

Anyways, what gets at me so much is especially that first line. How have we not changed? How are our genes, minds, bodies and the results of such been “determined” in such an absolute way? Not only does this seem totally prima facie bunk to me but seems like a sorry excuse for a reason to base any philosophy on, including Rothbard’s.

Carmichael tries to use the example of the “wanton murder” of one against another with the murderer simply doing it for the pleasure of themselves being seen as a “general wrong” and likely always to be such. Now, obviously, I’m not in favor of this being changed, but I don’t think me being opposed to such things represents some sort of deterministic chain in history. In fact a lot of ancient history was developed by the murdering of one for the pleasure of the murderer or others watching. We must merely look at the Gladiatorial games that happened in Rome to see what I’m talking about. Humans and their moral guides are constantly changing because our intuitive feelings of things change with time and aren’t simply inexorably linked to our genes or bodies or mind or history. Such a determinism seems to undermine any sort of notion of progress for me and is, again, highly unnecessarily rigid.

But I’ll let this go for now and tackle Rothbard’s last part which is dealing with the objection that natural law confuses the realm of fact with value. But the objection is never really spelled out past that. Rothbard gives a more detailed reply ala John Wild and it makes sense (the reply I mean)…but I’d have liked to see a more well thought out explanation of the objection to begin with. The quote that catches my eye is, “…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.”

Again, this seems to treat our epistemological outputs and empirical faculties as if they can extend past ourselves and our own intuitions. Which, again, seems difficult in of itself for me but possible only through a mixture of many sorts of methodologies instead of limiting ourselves to “empiricism” and “science”. You might ask, “well what else do we have?” well to be honest I’m unsure what we have besides our senses and a sort of methodology of how to treat such senses (while keeping our passions both in mind and in check) but I think we’re better off keeping our mind (and our senses, passions, etc.) open to the possibility of it. This “natural law” stuff doesn’t seem to do that to me.

The second part of this last part (there are two parts to this more general discussion of value and fact) is Hume and his “is-ought” dichotomy/philosophical problem. More or less what Rothbard decides to do here is do a sort of play on “argumentation ethics” or a “self-imploding” argument (ala Hoppe and Molyneux…half-respectably :P) by trying to show Hume himself actually supported natural law even though (and I’ll assume this is true for sake of argument and less headaches) that Hume thought it was emotions that should guide people.

I don’t have much of an opinion on this whole thing as I think I’ve debated this chapter quite enough and I’m too unfamiliar with Hume’s work to really defend or reinforce the attack on his thoughts here. I just think it’s notable what sort of methodology Rothbard is using to attack Hume here.

Oh and before I move on to the next chapter…Rothbard decides to dismiss the is-ought problem in about five sentences on a foot note. Don’t believe me? Check this out:

“[15]Hume in fact failed to prove that values cannot be derived from facts. It is frequently alleged that nothing can be in the conclusion of an argument which was not in one of the premises; and that therefore, an “ought” conclusion cannot follow from descriptive premises. But a conclusion follows from both premises taken together; the “ought” need not be present in either one of the premises so long as it has been validly deduced. To say that it cannot be so deduced simply begs the question. See Philippa R. Foot, Virtues and Vices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), pp. 99–105.” (p. 15)

Yeah…I don’t have much to say about that. You decide for yourself what that says about Rothbard.

3. Natural Law versus Positive Law

This last section is pretty short, only coming in at three pages and with all of the remarks I made towards the last chapter I’ll try to keep myself from commenting as much here.

Most of what Rothbard talks about here is the so-called “revolutionary” nature of the idea of natural law due to the use of reason it promotes. Due to the fact that I don’t necessarily approve of Rothbard’s premises and have already debated them at length I’m not sure how much more I can really say but I’ll do my best to add some new things.

For starters, let’s say I assume some of Rothbard’s premises are true. That natural law is a just way of expressing reason and is the best way of doing so.

Ok, so what? How does this necessarily lead to a critique of the existing political order as he says it does in this chapter? A good case could be made (accepting Rothbard’s premises first of course…) that natural law could be a good critique of political orders (or hell, order in general even) because it has such high hopes and dreams for humanity and their limits that just about any system would be open to criticism. I think a case could be made there but Rothbard doesn’t make such a case and hardly tries to make the case why the rigidity (that he proudly admits in the last paragraph of this chapter) would somehow lead to revolutionary criticisms of the currently existing political order.

Another thing that seems funny to me is Rothbard’s constant reference to philosophers who have also been theological in some way in their life. Either a pastor or just religious or whatever, he seems to make quite a few references to different religious philosophers. And with Rothbard bringing up Lord Acton (a, “great Catholic libertarian historian”, emphasis added) nothing seems to have changed in this chapter. Now why is this funny? Well at least it’s funny to me because Rothbard supposedly wants to distance the idea of natural law from “mysticism”, thinks faith is more or less useless compared to reasoning and constantly seems to want to push for the non-theological version of natural law. Yet, quite a few times already (only three chapters in) he’s mentioned theological thinkers who support the natural law. Anyways, this isn’t necessarily a critique of anything, more so than just pointing out how odd that is or, at least, how odd it seems to me. I hope I’m not the only one here thinking that’s weird though…

Going back to the “revolutionary” thing though, Rothbard tries to use a quote about classical liberalism, which is confusing because…well anarchists aren’t classical liberals. I mean, at best you could somehow try to infuse classical liberalism with some sort of anarchic spirit but I’m unsure this removes some of the presumptions from the classical liberal foundation that would seem problematic to match up with the anarchist assertions. Anyways, this is a whole ‘nother topic and I’m not saying there’s no way classical liberals could be anarchists…just that I’m skeptical that simply radicalizing classical liberalism is enough. Moving to the quotes though,

“Liberalism wishes for what ought to be, irrespective of what is.”

“…[T]he past was allowed no authority except as it happened to conform to morality. To take seriously this Liberal theory of history, to give precedence to “what ought to be” over “what is” was, he admitted, virtually to install a “revolution in permanence.”

The first quote simply advocates for some sort of weird a-contextual metaphysical revolutionary spirit that really has no place in any movement that wants to affect change. In order to affect positive social change effectively the context and consequences must first be determined to the best of our abilities. Instead, what Acton and (apparently) classical liberalism in general (at least according to Acton and Rothbard) wants us to do is go into some sort of extreme opposition to historical determinism that we go instead more towards some sort of weird other extreme. I’m unsure what to call it, but whatever you want to call it, I don’t think it looks too hopeful for it.

For the second quote, a “revolution in permanence” sounds not only like a cool album/song/band name but even perhaps a good way to think about life…but not under the natural law system Rothbard advocates. I don’t see it working out to well for the problems I’ve already outlined in my reflections and responses to chapter two. So in such a case I’m not gonna elaborate further than that apart from saying that you can’t implement generally effective metaphysical revolutions in people’s minds with bad ideas and a bad methodology and ways of viewing history with those ideas.

Finally, in response to the claim that the natural law is “conservative” due to its rigidity Rothbard responds:

Very true [that natural law is rigid]—but how does fixity of principle imply “conservatism”? On the contrary, the fact that natural-law theorists derive from the very nature of man a fixed structure of law independent of time and place, or of habit or authority or group norms, makes that law a mighty force for radical change. The only exception would be the surely rare case where the positive law happens to coincide in every aspect with the natural law as discerned by human reason.

Now, Rothbard, doesn’t actually explain why simply deriving facts from man’s nature (properly identified of course) leads to somehow a “weapon for radical change” in society outside of just relying on the assertion itself and what’s contained in it. But this seems problematic since it’s nigh a bare assertion and the assertion itself doesn’t actually prove much since man can find out much about themselves and what they are, what their general proclivities are and still get the facts wrong (or right) and end up justifying the existing current order over again. That is, unless Rothbard’s going to try to claim, in light of this obvious fact, that using natural law this wouldn’t happen, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he wouldn’t say something like that…

In any case rigidity is typically opposed to progress because…well progress typically requires some sort of flexibility right? If you can’t change under correctly focused pressures on certain aspects of your system of thought or whatever then, how are things gonna change let alone change radically? There’s also the question of consistency between means and ends for what good is it to aim towards flexibility with a proudly admitted inflexible methodology or foundation? How would that exactly work? Rothbard doesn’t explain.

Overall Thoughts

So, I don’t think I’ve very much been convinced by Rothbard so far for the most part but let me state this (and this is very important so please keep this in mind):

I am completely aware that Rothbard is not trying to write a fully laid out ethics book and some details are gonna be missing. To some extent then I can even excuse some of the laziness in which he dealt with certain topics or gave some things a pass altogether and so on (though his treatment of Hume’s is-ought is…another story). But I simply am not gonna give Rothbard a pass when he just seems wrong to me. I don’t think Rothbard’s take on natural law is the worst or something but I certainly don’t see much value in it. That’s what I’d say about it thus far.

Maybe I can be proven wrong and I’d invite other natural law folks to debate this with me (or anyone really…). I’m not claiming I’m a philosophy expert and I may have made many many beginners mistakes in my undertaking of trying to tackle Rothbard’s presumptions. That said I would ask that the natural law people or whoever reads this keep in mind I’m not a professional at philosophy in any meaning of the word (as I said before) and I just enjoy discussing this. That said, I hope I was treating Rothbard fairly so far and I look forward to the responses I get.

In the next section we will go through the rest of section one on our way to the second section which Rothbard calls the real “substance” of the book.

Further Research Material for Studying: CounterCulture

Hey guys, just making a personal note of some books I’d like to check out in the future so I can read up on one of my main obsessions: Countercultures!

I just finished Counter Culture Through the Ages by R.U. Sirius (AKA Ken Goffman) about a week or so ago and would just like to note some of the books from the bibliography that I’d like to read to get more familair with them as a historical movement and to try to tease out some philosophical presumptions about them that they may all share in some way or another. Goffman’s work here has been an invaluable start but I need to go deeper.

Here they are (unless otherwise noted with a * they can be found in the bibliography):

Part 1: The Makings of Counter-Cultures

Chapter Two: A Different Type of Human Excellence: Defining Counterculture

Revolution for the Hell of it by “Free” (a.k.a. Abbie Hoffman)
Flashback: A personal and Cultural History of an Era by Timothy Leary
The Making of a Counter-Culture by Theodore Roszak

Part Two: Across the Span of Times and Places

Chapter Four: Leap into the Boundless: Taoism

The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu by Chuang Tzu
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
The Way of Liberation: Essays and Lectures on the Transformation of the Self by Alan Watts

Chapter Five: The Hand that Stopped the Mind: The Zen Counterculture

Essays in Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki
An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by Alan Watts
The Golden Age of Zen by John C. H. Wu

Chapter 9: To Each his own God: The American Transcendentalists

The New England Transcendentalists: Life of the Mind and of the Spirit by Ellen Hansen
The Transcendentalists by Barbara Packeer (*)
American Transcendentalism by Phillip Gurra (*)
Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia Sterling Delano (*)

Part III: After Hiroshima, “The” Counterculture

Chapter Eleven: Rebels Without a Cause

Understanding the Beats by Edward Foster
The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage by Todd Gitlin
On The Road by Jack Kerouac
The White Negro by Norman Mailer

Chapter Twelve: When you Change with Every New Day: The Youth Counterculture, 1960-1967

em>Freak Culture by Daniel Foss
Revolution for the Hell of it by “Free” (a.k.a. Abbie Hoffman)
The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage by Todd Gitlin
Flashback: A personal and Cultural History of an Era by Timothy Leary
The New Left: A History by William O’Neill
The Making of a Counter-Culture by Theodore Roszak

Chapter Thirteenth: Wild in the Streets: The Youth Counterculture, 1968-1972

Freak Culture by Daniel Foss
Revolution for the Hell of it by “Free” (a.k.a. Abbie Hoffman)
The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage by Todd Gitlin
Play Power: Exploring the International Underground by Richard Neville
The New Left: A History by William O’Neill
The Making of a Counter-Culture by Theodore Roszak
Do It! Scenarios of the Revolution by Jerry Rubin

Chapter Fourteen: That which does not Kill me Makes Me Hipper: The Hedonist/Nihilist Countercultures of the 1970s (Note: I lovee that play on the phrase, “that which does not kill me”!)

Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century by Greil Marcus
Please Kill me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McNeil

And a more general suggestion from a comrade on Facebook

America’s Communal Utopias by Donald Pitzer


As you can see I have a particular interest in the 60s and really want to spend a good amount of time studying those years in particular. Not only for their general historical importance but also because I want to (eventually) research deeper into the alliance that was made between the New Left and libertarians like Karl Hes and Murray Rothbard. I want to see if I can at least tease out some clues to see if it was genuine and what went right and wrong and what we can learn.

Aside from that I don’t have any real deadlines to read or pickup any of this material. It’ll happen as my time and energy allow. This is just a helpful reminder.

For now I’ve gotta finish my book review of Karl Hess’s Community Technology and then move on to reading Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty and do a chapter by chapter review ending with a last blog post about my overall feelings on the book as a whole.

So look for all of that to be happening in the near future! 🙂

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