Reply to Andrew Young's 'argumentation ethics and the question of self-ownership'.

Authorvan Dun, Frank
  1. Introduction

    The title of Andrew Young's paper, "Argumentation Ethics and the Question of Self-Ownership," suggests that it is about argumentation ethics (also known as the argument from argumentation or the argument from reason). However, although Young's paper mentions argumentation ethics, it does not in any way depend on it and offers no analytically relevant criticism of it. He merely dismisses it as "a gotcha! tactic," noting, "As an economist, I find these tactics to be unproductive and distracting" (which, I am sure he will agree, is no more than an unproductive and distracting aside).

    The objective of argumentation ethics is to determine which propositions--in particular, which normative propositions--are undeniable in any argumentation. This goes beyond identifying well-proven facts and formal or semantic contradictions, because an argumentation is an exchange of arguments, questions, and answers between at least two speakers who must follow certain rules and standards in asking and replying to questions in order to defend or prove their own positions as well as to challenge or refute their opponent's positions. By and large, argumentation ethics assumes the rules and standards that define due process in a judicial trial, but it is concerned with all kinds of argumentations, not only with litigation in a court of law. The operative idea of argumentation ethics is that a speaker cannot, in reason, be allowed to challenge rules or facts on which he himself relies while objecting to his opponent's use of the same. In particular, a speaker should not be allowed to deny the obvious: for example, that he is making assertions, raising questions, and engaging the other speaker in an argument. Thus, apart from formal and semantic contradictions, argumentation ethics also identifies pragmatic, performative, or dialectical contradictions in a speaker's attitude and takes note of his dishonesty with respect to the ongoing argumentation itself (e.g., when he says or asks something and later denies having said or asked it).

    The following elements of argumentation ethics are directly relevant to Young's paper: (1) a person's self-control is a necessary condition of his ability to engage others in argumentation; (2) exercising self-control with proper respect for others is a person's undeniable (i.e., argumentatively undeniable) right of self-ownership. If "libertarianism" is defined as the requirement that all persons' undeniable rights (their self-ownership in the first place) be respected, it follows that (3) any argumentatively defensible ethical system must be libertarian.

    Young associates the third claim almost exclusively with the work of Hans-Hermann Hoppe. (1) Young rejects Hoppe's claim but does not argue against his defense of it. Instead, he merely presents, as a counterexample, an alternative ethical system that, in his opinion, is argumentatively validated but does not imply self-ownership (and is therefore not libertarian). If the counterexample were pertinent, it would refute Hoppe's claim. However, it is not pertinent, as I will show.

    Young proposes to "generalize" from Hoppe's determinate concept (hereafter H) of a person's undeniable rights being based on 100 percent self-ownership (and 0 percent other-ownership) to the indeterminate concept of a person's rights being based on n percent self-ownership and (100 - n) percent other-ownership. The point at issue is not whether for some value 0 [less than or equal to] n [less than or equal to] 100, the generalized concept (hereafter G) is formally inconsistent. Rather, it is Young's claim to have discovered a specification of G that is both nonlibertarian and undeniable, so that respecting it is a "categorical imperative," binding in all conceivable circumstances on all potential arguers (i.e., on all persons--assuming that the ability to reason or argue is a mark of personhood). It is not obvious how respecting or abiding by an indeterminate concept can be a categorical imperative, but before we subject Young's assertions to critical scrutiny, a brief explanation of self-ownership is in order.

  2. Self-Control, Self-Ownership, and Argumentation

    Each of us has direct control over parts of our body, and no one has direct control over any part of another's body. Some bodily movements (e.g., sneezes, spasms) merely happen to a person; other movements happen because he makes them happen (e.g., he lifts his paralyzed left hand with his right hand); but there are also movements that he simply and willfully performs without first having to do something else (e.g., he raises his hand to greet or to draw the attention of another person). Similarly, each of us has direct control over parts of our mind, and no one has direct control over any part of another's mind. Some thoughts (dreams, hallucinations, and passing thoughts) merely happen to a person even when he is not thinking, but other thoughts require him to focus his mind, which he can do simply and willfully without first having to do something else. A person's powers of self-control wax and wane in the process of growing up and then growing old, but most people can and do extend and refine some of them considerably by training and exercise. They manifest themselves in movements of his body and mind that he can and does perform at will.

    Although it may be possible for a person to override another's powers of self-control, he cannot make the other do or think something simply by willing him to do it. He needs to apply physical force in the form of drugs, mechanical or electromagnetic equipment, or other, less scientifically sophisticated means of distraction or torture to weaken or disable the other's powers of self-control.

    In the context of argumentation, self-control is an undeniable fact, at least as far as the arguers are concerned. It is the ability to think for oneself about questions to ask and answers to give, and it is the ability to speak for oneself in making assertions, asking questions, answering questions, and evaluating answers. Assuming one understands the distinction between participating in argumentation and pretending to do so or being forced to mouth or write down certain words, one cannot conceive of a case of argumentation in which an arguer lacks the self-controlled capabilities that distinguish a human natural person from a nonperson (e.g., a cat or a wardrobe) or an artificial person (e.g., a robot or corporation--one cannot argue with a robot, although one can argue with its manufacturers or programmers, and one cannot argue with a...

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