Danny Frederick criticizes Hoppe’s recognition argument in the second section of his paper “Hoppe’s Derivation of Self-Ownership from Argumentation: Analysis and Critique” (Reason Papers Vol. 35, no. 1). This blog entry will raise questions about that critique. Frederick’s presentation of Hoppe’s ideas provides an unusually clear discussion. Even when I disagree, he helps me to understand. I agree that Hoppe’s explanation makes it hard for the reader to understand the flow of Hoppe’s argument, in the sense that I can read all of Hoppe’s words and not know how Hoppe intends his argument to hold together. But I think Frederick has misinterpreted Hoppe. I present two alternative interpretations of Hoppe’s recognition argument. I also make some other quibbles. In a later blog entry I hope to raise similar critical questions about Frederick’s analysis of Hoppe’s pragmatic contradiction.

Hoppe’s recognition argument is intended to support his idea that argumentation presupposes self-ownership. Frederick reconstructs Hoppe’s recognition argument like so:

(i)  Arguing is both cognitive and practical;

(ii)  one who argues makes use of his own body;

(iii) argumentation is conflict-free in the sense that the participants cooperate in arguing.

(iv) When people are engaged in argumentation, each ipso facto recognizes that each has the moral right to exclusive control over his own body.

The only problem I have is with the word “recognizes,” but it is a big problem. Hoppe does use that term, but I am not sure that Hoppe means what Frederick thinks he means. Here is the original:

Hence, one would have to conclude that the norm implied in argumentation is that everybody has the right of exclusive control over his own body as his instrument of action and cognition. Only if there is at least an implicit recognition of each individual’s property right in his own body can argumentation take place. Only as long as this right is recognized is it possible for someone to agree to what has been said in an argument and hence can what has been said be validated, or is it possible to say “no” and to agree only on the fact that there is disagreement. Excerpt From: Hans-Hermann Hoppe. “The Theory of Socialism and Capitalism.” Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2011. iBooks.

3 possible interpretations of Hoppe:

1) Conscious recognition: This is Frederick’s interpretation. Recognition is conscious, and the right of self control is about purpose, activity, not bodily control but obedience. Arguers recognize each others’ rights consciously and explicitly, to the extent that they do.

2) Unconscious recognition is by action, unconscious. Hoppe uses the phrase “implicit recognition.” This could easily mean that arguers act as if they all have rights to property in their own bodies. If arguers stop acting as if the other participants have such rights, the argument ends. But they may not consciously admit this, and even may deny with words the meaning of their actions.

3) Literal control, arguers consciously recognize that my mind and brain make my hands move and make words come out of my mouth, and other peoples’ minds and brains do the same for their respective bodies. They also recognize that we have the right for our brains to control our bodies, that principles of justice must defer to physical and biological facts.

Hoppe’s whole thing is the contradiction between thought and action, so I liked interpretation 2. The fact that Frederick ignored the word “implicit” makes me curious. His presentation is otherwise fairly clear and painstakingly careful.

Yet there is another problem. Frederick constructs 3 thought experiments that illustrate exceptions to interpretation 1. His counter-examples use self-ownership in a different way than Hoppe does.

First, imagine a society in which there is a noble and serfs. Each person in this society believes that the noble has the right to exclusive control over his own body; that no serf has the right to exclusive control over his own body; and that the noble has, and exercises, extensive rights to control the use of the bodies of the serfs.

The sort of right to exclusive control the noble may have over the bodies of the serfs is indirect, while the serfs have direct control. The serfs control themselves by thinking, the noble may control them by issuing commands. For them to participate in debate, they must control their bodies, whether or not the noble commands them one way or the other, or mentally denies their right, or physically violates their rights if they seek to defend them. Frederick and Hoppe are not discussing the same thing. So his supposed counter-examples strike the wrong target.

I also disagree with Frederick about liberties versus rights. Here he summarizes Hoppe’s point:

[W]here people engage in an activity voluntarily, either by themselves or with others, they thereby behave as if all of the acknowledged participants in the activity have the liberty to engage in that activity, at least for as long as the activity lasts.

Here Frederick is distinguishing between rights, that entail duties on others not to interfere, and liberties, that carry no such duties. An example of a liberty is the ability of a library patron to borrow a particular book; we may borrow a specific book, so long as someone else has not beaten us to it. The library has no obligation to make a specific book available to us at a specific time.

If Frederick and I arranged a debate based on the assumption that those who argue are at liberty to do so but do not have a right to do so, I could hit him with a stick every time he tried to speak. He would have no cause to complain, as his liberty to speak puts no obligation on me to respect his bodily integrity. Yet, would this be a debate? Would anyone call our activity argumentation? Or would the whole thing come to an end the first time I gave him a serious whack? Even if he decided to tolerate my abuse, would he be able to argue? Argumentation presupposes that we treat each other in a certain way. Maybe the rights we afford each other are not exactly those Hoppe argues for, but there’s something going on there, and it is a right, not a liberty.

I can’t resist tossing in one more quibble from Frederick’s section 2. He uses the example of a kidnap victim, who may choose to cooperate with her captors, as an example where engaging in an activity does not imply endorsement of the activity. It is true that in both the case of a statist denigrating rights and a captive cooperating with a kidnapper, thoughts and deeds are in conflict. But if we think of them as arguments, which is fallacious? A kidnap victim can and probably will condemn kidnapping once the ordeal ends. Will the statist condemn argumentation?

In Frederick’s defense, Hoppe does not make his case clear. I’ve made numerous errors trying to figure out how Hoppe thinks his argument works, and in spite of many hours of study and many blog posts, I may still not understand correctly. I am not yet ready to write “Argumentation Ethics for Dummies.” But someone needs to do it.

In a future blog post I hope to raise similar critical questions about Frederick’s analysis of Hoppe’s pragmatic contradiction.


The photo used for the cover was taken by Henrique Pinto (CC BY 2.0 — cropped)