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part 1: Value - Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution (LF ed.) 
Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution, ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005).
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Judgments of Value
Judgments of Value and Propositions of Existence
Propositions asserting existence (affirmative existential propositions) or nonexistence (negative existential propositions) are descriptive. They assert something about the state of the whole universe or of parts of the universe. With regard to them questions of truth and falsity are significant. They must not be confounded with judgments of value.
Judgments of value are voluntaristic. They express feelings, tastes, or preferences of the individual who utters them. With regard to them there cannot be any question of truth and falsity. They are ultimate and not subject to any proof or evidence.
Judgments of value are mental acts of the individual concerned. As such they must be sharply distinguished from the sentences by means of which an individual tries to inform other people about the content of his judgments of value. A man may have some reason to lie about his valuations. We may describe this state of affairs in the following way: Every judgment of value is in itself also a fact of the actual state of the universe and as such may be the topic of existential propositions. The sentence “I prefer Beethoven to Lehar” refers to a judgment of value. If looked upon as an existential proposition, it is true if I really prefer Beethoven and act accordingly and false if I in fact prefer Lehar and for some reasons lie about my real feelings, taste, or preferences. In an analogous way the existential proposition “Paul prefers Beethoven to Lehar” may be true or false. In declaring that with regard to a judgment of value there cannot be any question of truth or falsity, we refer to the judgment as such and not to the sentences communicating the content of such a judgment of value to other people.
Valuation and Action
A judgment of value is purely academic if it does not impel the man who utters it to any action. There are judgments which must remain academic because it is beyond the power of the individual to embark upon any action directed by them. A man may prefer a starry sky to the starless sky, but he cannot attempt to substitute the former state which he likes better for the latter he likes less.
The significance of value judgments consists precisely in the fact that they are the springs of human action. Guided by his valuations, man is intent upon substituting conditions that please him better for conditions which he deems less satisfactory. He employs means in order to attain ends sought.
Hence the history of human affairs has to deal with the judgments of value that impelled men to act and directed their conduct. What happened in history cannot be discovered and narrated without referring to the various valuations of the acting individuals. It is not the task of the historian qua historian to pass judgments of value on the individuals whose conduct is the theme of his inquiries. As a branch of knowledge history utters existential propositions only. But these existential propositions often refer to the presence or absence of definite judgments of value in the minds of the acting individuals. It is one of the tasks of the specific understanding of the historical sciences to establish what content the value judgments of the acting individuals had.
It is a task of history, for example, to trace back the origin of India’s caste system to the values which prompted the conduct of the generations who developed, perfected, and preserved it. It is its further task to discover what the consequences of this system were and how these effects influenced the value judgments of later generations. But it is not the business of the historian to pass judgments of value on the system as such, to praise or to condemn it. He has to deal with its relevance for the course of affairs, he has to compare it with the designs and intentions of its authors and supporters and to depict its effects and consequences. He has to ask whether or not the means employed were fit to attain the ends the acting individuals sought.
It is a fact that hardly any historian has fully avoided passing judgments of value. But such judgments are always merely incidental to the genuine tasks of history. In uttering them the author speaks as an individual judging from the point of view of his personal valuations, not as a historian.
The Subjectivity of Valuation
All judgments of value are personal and subjective. There are no judgments of value other than those asserting I prefer, I like better, I wish.
It cannot be denied by anybody that various individuals disagree widely with regard to their feelings, tastes, and preferences and that even the same individuals at various instants of their lives value the same things in a different way. In view of this fact it is useless to talk about absolute and eternal values.
This does not mean that every individual draws his valuations from his own mind. The immense majority of people take their valuations from the social environment into which they were born, in which they grew up, that moulded their personality and educated them. Few men have the power to deviate from the traditional set of values and to establish their own scale of what appears to be better and what appears to be worse.
What the theorem of the subjectivity of valuation means is that there is no standard available which would enable us to reject any ultimate judgment of value as wrong, false, or erroneous in the way we can reject an existential proposition as manifestly false. It is vain to argue about ultimate judgments of value as we argue about the truth or falsity of an existential proposition. As soon as we start to refute by arguments an ultimate judgment of value, we look upon it as a means to attain definite ends. But then we merely shift the discussion to another plane. We no longer view the principle concerned as an ultimate value but as a means to attain an ultimate value, and we are again faced with the same problem. We may, for instance, try to show a Buddhist that to act in conformity with the teachings of his creed results in effects which we consider disastrous. But we are silenced if he replies that these effects are in his opinion lesser evils or no evils at all compared to what would result from nonobservance of his rules of conduct. His ideas about the supreme good, happiness, and eternal bliss are different from ours. He does not care for those values his critics are concerned with, and seeks for satisfaction in other things than they do.
The Logical and Syntactical Structure of Judgments of Value
A judgment of value looks upon things from the point of view of the man who utters it. It does not assert anything about things as they are. It manifests a man’s affective response to definite conditions of the universe as compared with other definite conditions.
Value is not intrinsic. It is not in things and conditions but in the valuing subject. It is impossible to ascribe value to one thing or state of affairs only. Valuation invariably compares one thing or condition with another thing or condition. It grades various states of the external world. It contrasts one thing or state, whether real or imagined, with another thing or state, whether real or imagined, and arranges both in a scale of what the author of the judgment likes better and what less.
It may happen that the judging individual considers both things or conditions envisaged as equal. He is not concerned whether there is A or B. Then his judgment of value expresses indifference. No action can result from such a neutral disposition.
Sometimes the utterance of a judgment of value is elliptical and makes sense only if appropriately completed by the hearer. “I don’t like measles” means “I prefer the absence of measles to its presence.” Such incompleteness is the mark of all references to freedom. Freedom invariably means freedom from (absence of) something referred to expressly or implicitly. The grammatical form of such judgments may be qualified as negative. But it is vain to deduce from this idiomatic attire of a class of judgments of value any statements about their content and to blame them for an alleged negativism. Every judgment of value allows of a formulation in which the more highly valued thing or state is logically expressed in both a positive and a negative way, although sometimes a language may not have developed the appropriate term. Freedom of the press implies the rejection or negation of censorship. But, stated explicitly, it means a state of affairs in which the author alone determines the content of his publication as distinct from a state in which the police has a right to interfere in the matter.
Action necessarily involves the renunciation of something to which a lower value is assigned in order to attain or to preserve something to which a higher value is assigned. Thus, for instance, a definite amount of leisure is renounced in order to reap the product of a definite amount of labor. The renunciation of leisure is the means to attain a more highly valued thing or state.
There are men whose nerves are so sensitive that they cannot endure an unvarnished account of many facts about the physiological nature of the human body and the praxeological character of human action. Such people take offense at the statement that man must choose between the most sublime things, the loftiest human ideals, on the one hand, and the wants of his body on the other. They feel that such statements detract from the nobility of the higher things. They refuse to notice the fact that there arise in the life of man situations in which he is forced to choose between fidelity to lofty ideals and such animal urges as feeding.
Whenever man is faced with the necessity of choosing between two things or states, his decision is a judgment of value no matter whether or not it is uttered in the grammatical form commonly employed in expressing such judgments.
Knowledge and Value
The Bias Doctrine
The accusation of bias has been leveled against economists long before Marx integrated it into his doctrines. Today it is fairly generally endorsed by writers and politicians who, although they are in many respects influenced by Marxian ideas, cannot simply be considered Marxians. We must attach to their reproach a meaning that differs from that which it has in the context of dialectical materialism. We must therefore distinguish two varieties of the bias doctrine: the Marxian and the non-Marxian. The former will be dealt with in later parts of this essay in a critical analysis of Marxian materialism. The latter alone is treated in this chapter.
Upholders of both varieties of the bias doctrine recognize that their position would be extremely weak if they were merely to blame economics for an alleged bias without charging all other branches of science with the same fault. Hence they generalize the bias doctrine—but this generalized doctrine we need not examine here. We may concentrate upon its core, the assertion that economics is necessarily not wertfrei [value-free] but is tainted by prepossessions and prejudices rooted in value judgments. For all arguments advanced to support the doctrine of general bias are also resorted to in the endeavors to prove the special bias doctrine that refers to economics, while some of the arguments brought forward in favor of the special bias doctrine are manifestly inapplicable to the general doctrine.
Some contemporary defenders of the bias doctrine have tried to link it with Freudian ideas. They contend that the bias they see in the economists is not conscious bias. The writers in question are not aware of their prejudgments and do not intentionally seek results that will justify their foregone conclusions. From the deep recesses of the subconscious, suppressed wishes, unknown to the thinkers themselves, exert a disturbing influence on their reasoning and direct their cogitations toward results that agree with their repressed desires and urges.
However, it does not matter which variety of the bias doctrine one endorses. Each of them is open to the same objections.
For the reference to bias, whether intentional or subconscious, is out of place if the accuser is not in a position to demonstrate clearly in what the deficiency of the doctrine concerned consists. All that counts is whether a doctrine is sound or unsound. This is to be established by discursive reasoning. It does not in the least detract from the soundness and correctness of a theory if the psychological forces that prompted its author are disclosed. The motives that guided the thinker are immaterial to appreciating his achievement. Biographers are busy today explaining the work of the genius as a product of his complexes and libidinous impulses and a sublimation of his sexual desires. Their studies may be valuable contributions to psychology, or rather to thymology (see below p. 177), but they do not affect in any way the evaluation of the biographee’s exploits. The most sophisticated psychoanalytical examination of Pascal’s life tells us nothing about the scientific soundness or unsoundness of his mathematical and philosophical doctrines.
If the failures and errors of a doctrine are unmasked by discursive reasoning, historians and biographers may try to explain them by tracing them back to their author’s bias. But if no tenable objections can be raised against a theory, it is immaterial what kind of motives inspired its author. Granted that he was biased. But then we must realize that his alleged bias produced theorems which successfully withstood all objections.
Reference to a thinker’s bias is no substitute for a refutation of his doctrines by tenable arguments. Those who charge the economists with bias merely show that they are at a loss to refute their teachings by critical analysis.
Common Weal versus Special Interests
Economic policies are directed toward the attainment of definite ends. In dealing with them economics does not question the value attached to these ends by acting men. It merely investigates two points: First, whether or not the policies concerned are fit to attain the ends which those recommending and applying them want to attain. Secondly, whether these policies do not perhaps produce effects which, from the point of view of those recommending and applying them, are undesirable.
It is true that the terms in which many economists, especially those of the older generations, expressed the result of their inquiries could easily be misinterpreted. In dealing with a definite policy they adopted a manner of speech which would have been adequate from the point of view of those who considered resorting to it in order to attain definite ends. Precisely because the economists were not biased and did not venture to question the acting men’s choice of ends, they presented the result of their deliberation in a mode of expression which took the valuations of the actors for granted. People aim at definite ends when resorting to a tariff or decreeing minimum wage rates. When the economists thought such policies would attain the ends sought by their supporters, they called them good—just as a physician calls a certain therapy good because he takes the end—curing his patient—for granted.
One of the most famous of the theorems developed by the Classical economists, Ricardo’s theory of comparative costs, is safe against all criticism, if we may judge by the fact that hundreds of passionate adversaries over a period of a hundred and forty years have failed to advance any tenable argument against it. It is much more than merely a theory dealing with the effects of free trade and protection. It is a proposition about the fundamental principles of human cooperation under the division of labor and specialization and the integration of vocational groups, about the origin and further intensification of social bonds between men, and should as such be called the law of association. It is indispensable for understanding the origin of civilization and the course of history. Contrary to popular conceptions, it does not say that free trade is good and protection bad. It merely demonstrates that protection is not a means to increase the supply of goods produced. Thus it says nothing about protection’s suitability or unsuitability to attain other ends, for instance to improve a nation’s chance of defending its independence in war.
Those charging the economists with bias refer to their alleged eagerness to serve “the interests.” In the context of their accusation this refers to selfish pursuit of the well-being of special groups to the prejudice of the common weal. Now it must be remembered that the idea of the common weal in the sense of a harmony of the interests of all members of society is a modern idea and that it owes its origin precisely to the teachings of the Classical economists. Older generations believed that there is an irreconcilable conflict of interests among men and among groups of men. The gain of one is invariably the damage of others; no man profits but by the loss of others. We may call this tenet the Montaigne dogma because in modern times it was first expounded by Montaigne. It was the essence of the teachings of Mercantilism and the main target of the Classical economists’ critique of Mercantilism, to which they opposed their doctrine of the harmony of the rightly understood or long-run interests of all members of a market society. The socialists and interventionists reject the doctrine of the harmony of interests. The socialists declare that there is irreconcilable conflict among the interests of the various social classes of a nation; while the interests of the proletarians demand the substitution of socialism for capitalism, those of the exploiters demand the preservation of capitalism. The nationalists declare that the interests of the various nations are irreconcilably in conflict.
It is obvious that the antagonism of such incompatible doctrines can be resolved only by logical reasoning. But the opponents of the harmony doctrine are not prepared to submit their views to such examination. As soon as somebody criticizes their arguments and tries to prove the harmony doctrine they cry out bias. The mere fact that only they and not their adversaries, the supporters of the harmony doctrine, raise this reproach of bias shows clearly that they are unable to reject their opponents’ statements by ratiocination. They engage in the examination of the problems concerned with the prepossession that only biased apologists of sinister interests can possibly contest the correctness of their socialist or interventionist dogmas. In their eyes the mere fact that a man disagrees with their ideas is the proof of his bias.
When carried to its ultimate logical consequences this attitude implies the doctrine of polylogism. Polylogism denies the uniformity of the logical structure of the human mind. Every social class, every nation, race, or period of history is equipped with a logic that differs from the logic of other classes, nations, races, or ages. Hence bourgeois economics differs from proletarian economics, German physics from the physics of other nations, Aryan mathematics from Semitic mathematics. There is no need to examine here the essentials of the various brands of polylogism.1 For polylogism never went beyond the simple declaration that a diversity of the mind’s logical structure exists. It never pointed out in what these differences consist, for instance how the logic of the proletarians differs from that of the bourgeois. All the champions of polylogism did was to reject definite statements by referring to unspecified peculiarities of their author’s logic.
Economics and Value
The main argument of the Classical harmony doctrine starts from the distinction between interests in the short run and those in the long run, the latter being referred to as the rightly understood interests. Let us examine the bearing of this distinction upon the problem of privileges.
One group of men certainly gains by a privilege granted to them. A group of producers protected by a tariff, a subsidy, or any other modern protectionist method against the competition of more efficient rivals gains at the expense of the consumers. But will the rest of the nation, taxpayers and buyers of the protected article, tolerate the privilege of a minority? They will only acquiesce in it if they themselves are benefited by an analogous privilege. Then everybody loses as much in his capacity as consumer as he wins in his capacity as producer. Moreover all are harmed by the substitution of less efficient for more efficient methods of production.
If one deals with economic policies from the point of view of this distinction between long- and short-run interests, there is no ground for charging the economist with bias. He does not condemn featherbedding of the railroadmen because it benefits the railroadmen at the expense of other groups whom he likes better. He shows that the railroadmen cannot prevent featherbedding from becoming a general practice and that then, that is, in the long run, it hurts them no less than other people.
Of course, the objections the economists advanced to the plans of the socialists and interventionists carry no weight with those who do not approve of the ends which the peoples of Western civilization take for granted. Those who prefer penury and slavery to material well-being and all that can only develop where there is material well-being may deem all these objections irrelevant. But the economists have repeatedly emphasized that they deal with socialism and interventionism from the point of view of the generally accepted values of Western civilization. The socialists and interventionists not only have not—at least not openly—denied these values but have emphatically declared that the realization of their own program will achieve them much better than will capitalism.
It is true that most socialists and many interventionists attach value to equalizing the standard of living of all individuals. But the economists did not question the value judgment implied. All they did was to point out the inevitable consequences of equalization. They did not say: The end you are aiming at is bad; they said: Realization of this end will bring effects which you yourselves deem more undesirable than inequality.
Bias and Intolerance
It is obvious that there are many people who let their reasoning be influenced by judgments of value, and that bias often corrupts the thinking of men. What is to be rejected is the popular doctrine that it is impossible to deal with economic problems without bias and that mere reference to bias, without unmasking fallacies in the chain of reasoning, is sufficient to explode a theory.
The emergence of the bias doctrine implies in fact categorial acknowledgment of the impregnability of the teachings of economics against which the reproach of bias has been leveled. It was the first stage in the return to intolerance and persecution of dissenters which is one of the main features of our age. As dissenters are guilty of bias, it is right to “liquidate” them.
The Quest for Absolute Values
In dealing with judgments of value we refer to facts, that is, to the way in which people really choose ultimate ends. While the value judgments of many people are identical, while it is permissible to speak of certain almost universally accepted valuations, it would be manifestly contrary to fact to deny that there is diversity in passing judgments of value.
From time immemorial an immense majority of men have agreed in preferring the effects produced by peaceful cooperation—at least among a limited number of people—to the effects of a hypothetical isolation of each individual and a hypothetical war of all against all. To the state of nature they have preferred the state of civilization, for they sought the closest possible attainment of certain ends—the preservation of life and health—which, as they rightly thought, require social cooperation. But it is a fact that there have been and are also men who have rejected these values and consequently preferred the solitary life of an anchorite to life within society.
It is thus obvious that any scientific treatment of the problems of value judgments must take into full account the fact that these judgments are subjective and changing. Science seeks to know what is, and to formulate existential propositions describing the universe as it is. With regard to judgments of value it cannot assert more than that they are uttered by some people, and inquire what the effects of action guided by them must be. Any step beyond these limits is tantamount to substituting a personal judgment of value for knowledge of reality. Science and our organized body of knowledge teach only what is, not what ought to be.
This distinction between a field of science dealing exclusively with existential propositions and a field of judgments of value has been rejected by the doctrines that maintain there are eternal absolute values which it is just as much the task of scientific or philosophical inquiry to discover as to discover the laws of physics. The supporters of these doctrines contend that there is an absolute hierarchy of values. They tried to define the supreme good. They said it is permissible and necessary to distinguish in the same way between true and false, correct and incorrect judgments of value as between true and false, correct and incorrect existential propositions.1 Science is not restricted to the description of what is. There is, in their opinion, another fully legitimate branch of science, the normative science of ethics, whose task it is to show the true absolute values and to set up norms for the correct conduct of men.
The plight of our age, according to the supporters of this philosophy, is that people no longer acknowledge these eternal values and do not let their actions be guided by them. Conditions were much better in the past, when the peoples of Western civilization were unanimous in endorsing the values of Christian ethics.
In what follows, we will deal with the issues raised by this philosophy.
Conflicts within Society
Having discussed the fact that men disagree with regard to their judgments of value and their choice of ultimate ends, we must stress that many conflicts which are commonly considered valuational are actually caused by disagreement concerning the choice of the best means to attain ends about which the conflicting parties agree. The problem of the suitability or unsuitability of definite means is to be solved by existential propositions, not by judgments of value. Its treatment is the main topic of applied science.
It is thus necessary to be aware in dealing with controversies concerning human conduct whether the disagreement refers to the choice of ends or to that of means. This is often a difficult task. For the same things are ends to some people, means to others.
With the exception of the small, almost negligible number of consistent anchorites, all people agree in considering some kind of social cooperation between men the foremost means to attain any ends they may aim at. This undeniable fact provides a common ground on which political discussions between men become possible. The spiritual and intellectual unity of all specimens of Homo sapiens manifests itself in the fact that the immense majority of men consider the same thing—social cooperation—the best means of satisfying the biological urge, present in every living being, to preserve the life and health of the individual and to propagate the species.
It is permissible to call this almost universal acceptance of social cooperation a natural phenomenon. In resorting to this mode of expression and asserting that conscious association is in conformity with human nature, one implies that man is characterized as man by reason, is thus enabled to become aware of the great principle of cosmic becoming and evolution, viz., differentiation and integration, and to make intentional use of this principle to improve his condition. But one must not consider cooperation among the individuals of a biological species a universal natural phenomenon. The means of sustenance are scarce for every species of living beings. Hence biological competition prevails among the members of all species, an irreconcilable conflict of vital “interests.” Only a part of those who come into existence can survive. Some perish because others of their own species have snatched away from them the means of sustenance. An implacable struggle for existence goes on among the members of each species precisely because they are of the same species and compete with other members of it for the same scarce opportunities of survival and reproduction. Man alone by dint of his reason substituted social cooperation for biological competition. What made social cooperation possible is, of course, a natural phenomenon, the higher productivity of labor accomplished under the principle of the division of labor and specialization of tasks. But it was necessary to discover this principle, to comprehend its bearing upon human affairs, and to employ it consciously as a means in the struggle for existence.
The fundamental facts about social cooperation have been misinterpreted by the school of social Darwinism as well as by many of its critics. The former maintained that war among men is an inevitable phenomenon and that all attempts to bring about lasting peace among nations are contrary to nature. The latter retorted that the struggle for existence is not among members of the same animal species but among the members of various species. As a rule tigers do not attack other tigers but, taking the line of least resistance, weaker animals. Hence, they concluded, war among men, who are specimens of the same species, is unnatural.1
Both schools misunderstood the Darwinian concept of the struggle for survival. It does not refer merely to combat and blows. It means metaphorically the tenacious impulse of beings to keep alive in spite of all factors detrimental to them. As the means of sustenance are scarce, biological competition prevails among all individuals—whether of the same or different species—which feed on the same stuff. It is immaterial whether or not tigers fight one another. What makes every specimen of an animal species a deadly foe of every other specimen is the mere fact of their life-and-death rivalry in their endeavors to snatch a sufficient amount of food. This inexorable rivalry is present also among animals gregariously roaming in droves and flocks, among ants of the same hill and bees of the same swarm, among the brood hatched by common parents and among the seeds ripened by the same plant. Only man has the power to escape to some extent from the rule of this law by intentional cooperation. So long as there is social cooperation and population has not increased beyond the optimum size, biological competition is suspended. It is therefore inappropriate to refer to animals and plants in dealing with the social problems of man.
Yet man’s almost universal acknowledgment of the principle of social cooperation did not result in agreement regarding all interhuman relations. While almost all men agree in looking upon social cooperation as the foremost means for realizing all human ends, whatever they may be, they disagree as to the extent to which peaceful social cooperation is a suitable means for attaining their ends and how far it should be resorted to.
Those whom we may call the harmonists base their argument on Ricardo’s law of association and on Malthus’ principle of population. They do not, as some of their critics believe, assume that all men are biologically equal. They take fully into account the fact that there are innate biological differences among various groups of men as well as among individuals belonging to the same group. Ricardo’s law has shown that cooperation under the principle of the division of labor is favorable to all participants. It is an advantage for every man to cooperate with other men, even if these others are in every respect—mental and bodily capacities and skills, diligence and moral worth—inferior. From Malthus’ principle one can deduce that there is, in any given state of the supply of capital goods and knowledge of how to make the best use of natural resources, an optimum size of population. So long as population has not increased beyond this size, the addition of newcomers improves rather than impairs the conditions of those already cooperating.
In the philosophy of the antiharmonists, the various schools of nationalism and racism, two different lines of reasoning must be distinguished. One is the doctrine of the irreconcilable antagonism prevailing among various groups, such as nations or races. As the antiharmonists see it, community of interests exists only within the group among its members. The interests of each group and of each of its members are implacably opposed to those of all other groups and of each of their members. So it is “natural” there should be perpetual war among various groups. This natural state of war of each group against every other group may sometimes be interrupted by periods of armistice, falsely labeled periods of peace. It may also happen that sometimes in warfare a group cooperates in alliances with other groups. Such alliances are temporary makeshifts of politics. They do not in the long run affect the inexorable natural conflict of interests. Having, in cooperation with some allied groups, defeated several of the hostile groups, the leading group in the coalition turns against its previous allies in order to annihilate them too and to establish its own world supremacy.
The second dogma of the nationalist and racist philosophies is considered by its supporters a logical conclusion derived from their first dogma. As they see it, human conditions involve forever irreconcilable conflicts, first among the various groups fighting one another, later, after the final victory of the master group, between the latter and the enslaved rest of mankind. Hence this supreme elite group must always be ready to fight, first to crush the rival groups, then to quell rebellions of the slaves. The state of perpetual preparedness for war enjoins upon it the necessity of organizing society after the pattern of an army. The army is not an instrument destined to serve a body politic; it is rather the very essence of social cooperation, to which all other social institutions are subservient. The individuals are not citizens of a commonwealth; they are soldiers of a fighting force and as such bound to obey unconditionally the orders issued by the supreme commander. They have no civil rights, merely military duties.
Thus even the fact that the immense majority of men look upon social cooperation as the foremost means to attain all desired ends does not provide a basis for a wide-reaching agreement concerning either ends or means.
A Remark on the Alleged Medieval Unanimity
In examining the doctrines of eternal absolute values we must also ask whether it is true or not that there was a period of history in which all peoples of the West were united in their acceptance of a uniform system of ethical norms.
Until the beginning of the fourth century the Christian creed was spread by voluntary conversions. There were also later voluntary conversions of individuals and of whole peoples. But from the days of Theodosius I on, the sword began to play a prominent role in the dissemination of Christianity. Pagans and heretics were compelled by force of arms to submit to the Christian teachings. For many centuries religious problems were decided by the outcome of battles and wars. Military campaigns determined the religious allegiance of nations. Christians of the East were forced to accept the creed of Mohammed, and pagans in Europe and America were forced to accept the Christian faith. Secular power was instrumental in the struggle between the Reformation and the Counter Reformation.
There was religious uniformity in Europe of the Middle Ages as both paganism and heresies were eradicated with fire and sword. All of Western and Central Europe recognized the Pope as the Vicar of Christ. But this did not mean that all people agreed in their judgments of value and in the principles directing their conduct. There were few people in medieval Europe who lived according to the precepts of the Gospels. Much has been said and written about the truly Christian spirit of the code of chivalry and about the religious idealism that guided the conduct of the knights. Yet anything less compatible with Luke 6:27–9 than the rules of chivalry can hardly be conceived. The gallant knights certainly did not love their enemies, they did not bless those who cursed them, and they did not offer the left cheek to him who smote them on the right cheek. The Catholic Church had the power to prevent scholars and writers from challenging the dogmas as defined by the Pope and the Councils and to force the secular rulers to yield to some of its political claims. But it could preserve its position only by condoning conduct on the part of the laity which defied most, if not all, of the principles of the Gospels. The values that determined the actions of the ruling classes were entirely different from those that the Church preached. Neither did the peasants comply with Matthew 6:25–8. And there were courts and judges in defiance of Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that you be not judged.”
The Idea of Natural Law
The most momentous attempt to find an absolute and eternal standard of value is presented by the doctrine of natural law.
The term “natural law” has been claimed by various schools of philosophy and jurisprudence. Many doctrines have appealed to nature in order to provide a justification for their postulates. Many manifestly spurious theses have been advanced under the label of natural law. It was not difficult to explode the fallacies common to most of these lines of thought. And it is no wonder that many thinkers become suspicious as soon as natural law is referred to.
Yet it would be a serious blunder to ignore the fact that all the varieties of the doctrine contained a sound idea which could neither be compromised by connection with untenable vagaries nor discredited by any criticism. Long before the Classical economists discovered that a regularity in the sequence of phenomena prevails in the field of human action, the champions of natural law were dimly aware of this inescapable fact. From the bewildering diversity of doctrines presented under the rubric of natural law there finally emerged a set of theorems which no caviling can ever invalidate. There is first the idea that a nature-given order of things exists to which man must adjust his actions if he wants to succeed. Second: the only means available to man for the cognizance of this order is thinking and reasoning, and no existing social institution is exempt from being examined and appraised by discursive reasoning. Third: there is no standard available for appraising any mode of acting either of individuals or of groups of individuals but that of the effects produced by such action. Carried to its ultimate logical consequences, the idea of natural law led eventually to rationalism and utilitarianism.
The march of social philosophy toward this inescapable conclusion was slowed down by many obstacles which could not be removed easily. There were numerous pitfalls on the way, and many inhibitions hampered the philosophers. To deal with the vicissitudes of the evolution of these doctrines is a task of the history of philosophy. In the context of our investigation it is enough to mention only two of these problems.
There was the antagonism between the teachings of reason and the dogmas of the Church. Some philosophers were prepared to ascribe unconditional supremacy to the latter. Truth and certainty, they declared, are to be found only in revelation. Man’s reason can err, and man can never be sure that his speculations were not led astray by Satan. Other thinkers did not accept this solution of the antagonism. To reject reason beforehand was in their opinion preposterous. Reason too stems from God, who endowed man with it, so there can be no genuine contradiction between dogma and the correct teachings of reason. It is the task of philosophy to show that ultimately both agree. The central problem of Scholastic philosophy was to demonstrate that human reason, unaided by revelation and Holy Writ, taking recourse only to its proper methods of ratiocination, is capable of proving the apodictic truth of the revealed dogmas.1 A genuine conflict of faith and reason does not exist. Natural law and divine law do not disagree.
However, this way of dealing with the matter does not remove the antagonism; it merely shifts it to another field. The conflict is no longer a conflict between faith and reason but between Thomist philosophy and other modes of philosophizing. We may leave aside the genuine dogmas such as Creation, Incarnation, the Trinity, as they have no direct bearing on the problems of interhuman relations. But many issues remain with regard to which most, if not all, Christian churches and denominations are not prepared to yield to secular reasoning and an evaluation from the point of view of social utility. Thus the recognition of natural law on the part of Christian theology was only conditional. It referred to a definite type of natural law, not opposed to the teachings of Christ as each of these churches and denominations interpreted them. It did not acknowledge the supremacy of reason. It was incompatible with the principles of utilitarian philosophy.
A second factor that obstructed the evolution of natural law toward a consistent and comprehensive system of human action was the erroneous theory of the biological equality of all men. In repudiating arguments advanced in favor of legal discrimination among men and of a status society, many advocates of equality before the law overstepped the mark. To hold that “at birth human infants, regardless of their heredity, are as equal as Fords”2 is to deny facts so obvious that it brought the whole philosophy of natural law into disrepute. In insisting on biological equality the natural law doctrine pushed aside all the sound arguments advanced in favor of the principle of equality before the law. It thus opened the way for the spread of theories advocating all sorts of legal discrimination against individuals and groups of individuals. It supplanted the teachings of liberal social philosophy. Stirring up hatred and violence, foreign wars and domestic revolutions, it prepared mankind for the acceptance of aggressive nationalism and racism.
The chief accomplishment of the natural law idea was its rejection of the doctrine (sometimes called legal positivism) according to which the ultimate source of statute law is to be seen in the superior military power of the legislator who is in a position to beat into submission all those defying his ordinances. Natural law taught that statutory laws can be bad laws, and it contrasted with the bad laws the good laws to which it ascribed divine or natural origin. But it was an illusion to deny that the best system of laws cannot be put into practice unless supported and enforced by military supremacy. The philosophers shut their eyes to manifest historical facts. They refused to admit that the causes they considered just made progress only because their partisans defeated the defenders of the bad causes. The Christian faith owes it success to a long series of victorious battles and campaigns, from various battles between rival Roman imperators and caesars down to the campaigns that opened the Orient to the activities of missionaries. The cause of American independence triumphed because the British forces were defeated by the insurgents and the French. It is a sad truth that Mars is for the big battalions, not for the good causes. To maintain the opposite opinion implies the belief that the outcome of an armed conflict is an ordeal by combat in which God always grants victory to the champions of the just cause. But such an assumption would annul all the essentials of the doctrine of natural law, whose basic idea was to contrast to the positive laws, promulgated and enforced by those in power, a “higher” law grounded in the innermost nature of man.
Yet all these deficiencies and contradictions of the doctrine of natural law must not prevent us from recognizing its sound nucleus. Hidden in a heap of illusions and quite arbitrary prepossessions was the idea that every valid law of a country was open to critical examination by reason. About the standard to be applied in such an examination the older representatives of the school had only vague notions. They referred to nature and were reluctant to admit that the ultimate standard of good and bad must be found in the effects produced by a law. Utilitarianism finally completed the intellectual evolution inaugurated by the Greek Sophists.
But neither utilitarianism nor any of the varieties of the doctrine of natural law could or did find a way to eliminate the conflict of antagonistic judgments of value. It is useless to emphasize that nature is the ultimate arbiter of what is right and what is wrong. Nature does not clearly reveal its plans and intentions to man. Thus the appeal to natural law does not settle the dispute. It merely substitutes dissent concerning the interpretation of natural law for dissenting judgments of value. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, does not deal at all with ultimate ends and judgments of value. It invariably refers only to means.
Revealed religion derives its authority and authenticity from the communication to man of the Supreme Being’s will. It gives the faithful indisputable certainty.
However, people disagree widely about the content of revealed truth as well as about its correct—orthodox—interpretation. For all the grandeur, majesty, and sublimity of religious feeling, irreconcilable conflict exists among various faiths and creeds. Even if unanimity could be attained in matters of the historical authenticity and reliability of revelation, the problem of the veracity of various exegetic interpretations would still remain.
Every faith claims to possess absolute certainty. But no religious faction knows of any peaceful means that will invariably induce dissenters to divest themselves voluntarily of their error and to adopt the true creed.
If people of different faiths meet for peaceful discussion of their differences, they can find no common basis for their colloquy but the statement: by their fruits ye shall know them. Yet this utilitarian device is of no use so long as men disagree about the standard to be applied in judging the effects.
The religious appeal to absolute eternal values did not do away with conflicting judgments of value. It merely resulted in religious wars.
Other attempts to discover an absolute standard of values were made without reference to a divine reality. Emphatically rejecting all traditional religions and claiming for their teachings the epithet “scientific,” various writers tried to substitute a new faith for the old ones. They claimed to know precisely what the mysterious power that directs all cosmic becoming has in store for mankind. They proclaimed an absolute standard of values. Good is what works along the lines that this power wants mankind to follow; everything else is bad. In their vocabulary “progressive” is a synonym of good and “reactionary” a synonym of bad. Inevitably progress will triumph over reaction because it is impossible for men to divert the course of history from the direction prescribed by the plan of the mysterious prime mover. Such is the metaphysics of Karl Marx, the faith of contemporary self-styled progressivism.
Marxism is a revolutionary doctrine. It expressly declares that the design of the prime mover will be accomplished by civil war. It implies that ultimately in the battles of these campaigns the just cause, that is, the cause of progress, must conquer. Then all conflicts concerning judgments of value will disappear. The liquidation of all dissenters will establish the undisputed supremacy of the absolute eternal values.
This formula for the solution of conflicts of value judgments is certainly not new. It is a device known and practiced from time immemorial. Kill the infidels! Burn the heretics! What is new is merely the fact that today it is sold to the public under the label of “science.”
The Idea of Justice
One of the motives that impel men to search for an absolute and immutable standard of value is the presumption that peaceful cooperation is possible only among people guided by the same judgments of value.
It is obvious that social cooperation would not have evolved and could not be preserved if the immense majority were not to consider it as the means for the attainment of all their ends. Striving after the preservation of his own life and health and after the best possible removal of felt uneasiness, the individual looks upon society as a means, not as an end. There is no perfect unanimity even with regard to this point. But we may neglect the dissent of the ascetics and the anchorites, not because they are few, but because their plans are not affected if other people, in the pursuit of their plans, cooperate in society.
There prevails among the members of society disagreement with regard to the best method for its organization. But this is a dissent concerning means, not ultimate ends. The problems involved can be discussed without any reference to judgments of value.
Of course, almost all people, guided by the traditional manner of dealing with ethical precepts, peremptorily repudiate such an explanation of the issue. Social institutions, they assert, must be just. It is base to judge them merely according to their fitness to attain definite ends, however desirable these ends may be from any other point of view. What matters first is justice. The extreme formulation of this idea is to be found in the famous phrase: fiat justitia, pereat mundus. Let justice be done, even if it destroys the world. Most supporters of the postulate of justice will reject this maxim as extravagant, absurd, and paradoxical. But it is not more absurd, merely more shocking, than any other reference to an arbitrary notion of absolute justice. It clearly shows the fallacies of the methods applied in the discipline of intuitive ethics.
The procedure of this normative quasi science is to derive certain precepts from intuition and to deal with them as if their adoption as a guide to action would not affect the attainment of any other ends considered desirable. The moralists do not bother about the necessary consequences of the realization of their postulates. We need not discuss the attitudes of people for whom the appeal to justice is manifestly a pretext, consciously or subconsciously chosen, to disguise their short-run interests, nor expose the hypocrisy of such makeshift notions of justice as those involved in the popular concepts of just prices and fair wages.1 The philosophers who in their treatises of ethics assigned supreme value to justice and applied the yardstick of justice to all social institutions were not guilty of such deceit. They did not support selfish group concerns by declaring them alone just, fair, and good, and smear all dissenters by depicting them as the apologists of unfair causes. They were Platonists who believed that a perennial idea of absolute justice exists and that it is the duty of man to organize all human institutions in conformity with this ideal. Cognition of justice is imparted to man by an inner voice, i.e., by intuition. The champions of this doctrine did not ask what the consequences of realizing the schemes they called just would be. They silently assumed either that these consequences will be beneficial or that mankind is bound to put up even with very painful consequences of justice. Still less did these teachers of morality pay attention to the fact that people can and really do disagree with regard to the interpretation of the inner voice and that no method of peacefully settling such disagreements can be found.
All these ethical doctrines have failed to comprehend that there is, outside of social bonds and preceding, temporally or logically, the existence of society, nothing to which the epithet “just” can be given. A hypothetical isolated individual must under the pressure of biological competition look upon all other people as deadly foes. His only concern is to preserve his own life and health; he does not need to heed the consequences which his own survival has for other men; he has no use for justice. His only solicitudes are hygiene and defense. But in social cooperation with other men the individual is forced to abstain from conduct incompatible with life in society. Only then does the distinction between what is just and what is unjust emerge. It invariably refers to interhuman social relations. What is beneficial to the individual without affecting his fellows, such as the observance of certain rules in the use of some drugs, remains hygiene.
The ultimate yardstick of justice is conduciveness to the preservation of social cooperation. Conduct suited to preserve social cooperation is just, conduct detrimental to the preservation of society is unjust. There cannot be any question of organizing society according to the postulates of an arbitrary preconceived idea of justice. The problem is to organize society for the best possible realization of those ends which men want to attain by social cooperation. Social utility is the only standard of justice. It is the sole guide of legislation.
Thus there are no irreconcilable conflicts between selfishness and altruism, between economics and ethics, between the concerns of the individual and those of society. Utilitarian philosophy and its finest product, economics, reduced these apparent antagonisms to the opposition of short-run and long-run interests. Society could not have come into existence or been preserved without a harmony of the rightly understood interests of all its members.
There is only one way of dealing with all problems of social organization and the conduct of the members of society, viz., the method applied by praxeology and economics. No other method can contribute anything to the elucidation of these matters.
The concept of justice as employed by jurisprudence refers to legality, that is, to legitimacy from the point of view of the valid statutes of a country. It means justice de lege lata [from existing law]. The science of law has nothing to say de lege ferenda [for proposing or making a law], i.e., about the laws as they ought to be. To enact new laws and to repeal old laws is the task of the legislature, whose sole criterion is social utility. The assistance the legislator can expect from lawyers refers only to matters of legal technique, not to the gist of the statutes and decrees.
There is no such thing as a normative science, a science of what ought to be.
The Utilitarian Doctrine Restated
The essential teachings of utilitarian philosophy as applied to the problems of society can be restated as follows:
Human effort exerted under the principle of the division of labor in social cooperation achieves, other things remaining equal, a greater output per unit of input than the isolated efforts of solitary individuals. Man’s reason is capable of recognizing this fact and of adapting his conduct accordingly. Thus social cooperation becomes for almost every man the great means for the attainment of all ends. An eminently human common interest, the preservation and intensification of social bonds, is substituted for pitiless biological competition, the significant mark of animal and plant life. Man becomes a social being. He is no longer forced by the inevitable laws of nature to look upon all other specimens of his animal species as deadly foes. Other people become his fellows. For animals the generation of every new member of the species means the appearance of a new rival in the struggle for life. For man, until the optimum size of population is reached, it means rather an improvement than a deterioration in his quest for material well-being.
Notwithstanding all his social achievements man remains in biological structure a mammal. His most urgent needs are nourishment, warmth, and shelter. Only when these wants are satisfied can he concern himself with other needs, peculiar to the human species and therefore called specifically human or higher needs. Also the satisfaction of these depends as a rule, at least to some extent, on the availability of various material tangible things.
As social cooperation is for acting man a means and not an end, no unanimity with regard to value judgments is required to make it work. It is a fact that almost all men agree in aiming at certain ends, at those pleasures which ivory-tower moralists disdain as base and shabby. But it is no less a fact that even the most sublime ends cannot be sought by people who have not first satisfied the wants of their animal body. The loftiest exploits of philosophy, art, and literature would never have been performed by men living outside of society.
Moralists praise the nobility of people who seek a thing for its own sake. “Deutsch sein heisst eine Sache um ihrer selbst willen tun,” declared Richard Wagner,1 and the Nazis, of all people, adopted the dictum as a fundamental principle of their creed. Now what is sought as an ultimate end is valued according to the immediate satisfaction to be derived from its attainment. There is no harm in declaring elliptically that it is sought for its own sake. Then Wagner’s phrase is reduced to the truism: Ultimate ends are ends and not means for the attainment of other ends.
Moralists furthermore level against utilitarianism the charge of (ethical) materialism. Here too they misconstrue the utilitarian doctrine. Its gist is the cognition that action pursues definite chosen ends and that consequently there can be no other standard for appraising conduct but the desirability or undesirability of its effects. The precepts of ethics are designed to preserve, not to destroy, the “world.” They may call upon people to put up with undesirable short-run effects in order to avoid producing still more undesirable long-run effects. But they must never recommend actions whose effects they themselves deem undesirable for the sole purpose of not defying an arbitrary rule derived from intuition. The formula fiat justitia, pereat mundus is exploded as sheer nonsense. An ethical doctrine that does not take into full account the effects of action is mere fancy.
Utilitarianism does not teach that people should strive only after sensuous pleasure (though it recognizes that most or at least many people behave in this way). Neither does it indulge in judgments of value. By its recognition that social cooperation is for the immense majority a means for attaining all their ends, it dispels the notion that society, the state, the nation, or any other social entity is an ultimate end and that individual men are the slaves of that entity. It rejects the philosophies of universalism, collectivism, and totalitarianism. In this sense it is meaningful to call utilitarianism a philosophy of individualism.
The collectivist doctrine fails to recognize that social cooperation is for man a means for the attainment of all his ends. It assumes that irreconcilable conflict prevails between the interests of the collective and those of individuals, and in this conflict it sides unconditionally with the collective entity. The collective alone has real existence; the individuals’ existence is conditioned by that of the collective. The collective is perfect and can do no wrong. Individuals are wretched and refractory; their obstinacy must be curbed by the authority to which God or nature has entrusted the conduct of society’s affairs. The powers that be, says the Apostle Paul, are ordained of God.2 They are ordained by nature or by the superhuman factor that directs the course of all cosmic events, says the atheist collectivist.
Two questions immediately arise. First: If it were true that the interests of the collective and those of individuals are implacably opposed to one another, how could society function? One may assume that the individuals would be prevented by force of arms from resorting to open rebellion. But it cannot be assumed that their active cooperation could be secured by mere compulsion. A system of production in which the only incentive to work is the fear of punishment cannot last. It was this fact that made slavery disappear as a system of managing production.
Second: If the collective is not a means by which individuals may achieve their ends, if the collective’s flowering requires sacrifices by the individuals which are not outweighed by advantages derived from social cooperation, what prompts the advocate of collectivism to assign to the concerns of the collective precedence over the personal wishes of the individuals? Can any argument be advanced for such exaltation of the collective but personal judgments of value?
Of course, everybody’s judgments of value are personal. If a man assigns a higher value to the concerns of a collective than to his other concerns, and acts accordingly, that is his affair. So long as the collectivist philosophers proceed in this way, no objection can be raised. But they argue differently. They elevate their personal judgments of value to the dignity of an absolute standard of value. They urge other people to stop valuing according to their own will and to adopt unconditionally the precepts to which collectivism has assigned absolute eternal validity.
The futility and arbitrariness of the collectivist point of view become still more evident when one recalls that various collectivist parties compete for the exclusive allegiance of the individuals. Even if they employ the same word for their collectivist ideal, various writers and leaders disagree on the essential features of the thing they have in mind. The state which Ferdinand Lassalle called god and to which he assigned paramountcy was not precisely the collectivist idol of Hegel and Stahl, the state of the Hohenzollern. Is mankind as a whole the sole legitimate collective or is each of the various nations? Is the collective to which the German-speaking Swiss owe exclusive allegiance the Swiss Confederacy or the Volksgemeinschaft [Social Community Society] comprising all German-speaking men? All major social entities such as nations, linguistic groups, religious communities, party organizations have been elevated to the dignity of the supreme collective that overshadows all other collectives and claims the submission of the whole personality of all right-thinking men. But an individual can renounce autonomous action and unconditionally surrender his self only in favor of one collective. Which collective this ought to be can be determined only by a quite arbitrary decision. The collective creed is by necessity exclusive and totalitarian. It craves the whole man and does not want to share him with any other collective. It seeks to establish the exclusive supreme validity of only one system of values.
There is, of course, but one way to make one’s own judgments of value supreme. One must beat into submission all those dissenting. This is what all representatives of the various collectivist doctrines are striving for. They ultimately recommend the use of violence and pitiless annihilation of all those whom they condemn as heretics. Collectivism is a doctrine of war, intolerance, and persecution. If any of the collectivist creeds should succeed in its endeavors, all people but the great dictator would be deprived of their essential human quality. They would become mere soulless pawns in the hands of a monster.
The characteristic feature of a free society is that it can function in spite of the fact that its members disagree in many judgments of value. In the market economy business serves not only the majority but also various minorities, provided they are not too small in respect of the economic goods which satisfying their special wishes would require. Philosophical treatises are published—though few people read them, and the masses prefer other books or none—if enough readers are foreseen to recover the costs.
On Aesthetic Values
The quest for absolute standards of value was not limited to the field of ethics. It concerned aesthetic values as well.
In ethics a common ground for the choice of rules of conduct is given so far as people agree in considering the preservation of social cooperation the foremost means for attaining all their ends. Thus virtually any controversy concerning the rules of conduct refers to means and not to ends. It is consequently possible to appraise these rules from the point of view of their adequacy for the peaceful functioning of society. Even rigid supporters of an intuitionist ethics could not help eventually resorting to an appraisal of conduct from the point of view of its effects upon human happiness.1
It is different with aesthetic judgments of value. In this field there is no such agreement as prevails with regard to the insight that social cooperation is the foremost means for the attainment of all ends. All disagreement here invariably concerns judgments of value, none concerns the choice of means for the realization of an end agreed upon. But there is no way to reconcile conflicting judgments of value, no standard by which a verdict of “it pleases me” or “it does not please me” can be rectified.
The unfortunate propensity to hypostatize various aspects of human thinking and acting has led to attempts to provide a definition of beauty and then to apply this arbitrary concept as a measure. However there is no acceptable definition of beauty but “that which pleases.” There are no norms of beauty, and there is no such thing as a normative discipline of aesthetics. All that a professional critic of art and literature can say apart from historical and technical observations is that he likes or dislikes a work. The work may stir him to profound commentaries and disquisitions. But his judgments of value remain personal and subjective and do not necessarily affect the judgments of other people. A discerning person will note with interest what a thoughtful writer says about the impression a work of art made upon him. But it depends upon a man’s own discretion whether or not he will let his own judgment be influenced by that of other men, however excellent they may be.
The enjoyment of art and literature presupposes a certain disposition and susceptibility on the part of the public. Taste is inborn to only a few. Others must cultivate their aptitude for enjoyment. There are many things a man must learn and experience in order to become a connoisseur. But however a man may shine as a well-informed expert, his judgments of value remain personal and subjective. The most eminent critics and, for that matter, also the most noted writers, poets, and artists widely disagreed in their appreciation of the most famous masterpieces.
Only stilted pedants can conceive the idea that there are absolute norms to tell what is beautiful and what is not. They try to derive from the works of the past a code of rules with which, as they fancy, the writers and artists of the future should comply. But the genius does not cooperate with the pundit.
The Historical Significance of the Quest for Absolute Values
The value controversy is not a scholastic quarrel of interest only to hair-splitting dons. It touches upon the vital issues of human life.
The world view that was displaced by modern rationalism did not tolerate dissenting judgments of value. The mere fact of dissent was considered an insolent provocation, a mortal outrage to one’s own feelings. Protracted religious wars resulted.
Although some intolerance, bigotry, and lust for persecution are still left in religious matters, it is unlikely that religious passion will kindle wars in the near future. The aggressive spirit of our age stems from another source, from endeavors to make the state totalitarian and to deprive the individual of autonomy.
It is true that the supporters of socialist and interventionist programs recommend them only as means to attain ends which they have in common with all other members of society. They hold that a society organized according to their principles will best supply people with those material goods they toil to acquire. What more desirable societal state of affairs can be thought of than that “higher phase of communist society” in which, as Marx told us, society will give “to each according to his needs”?
However, the socialists failed entirely in attempts to prove their case. Marx was at a loss to refute the well-founded objections that were raised even in his time about the minor difficulties of the socialist schemes. It was his helplessness in this regard that prompted him to develop the three fundamental doctrines of his dogmatism.1 When economics later demonstrated why a socialist order, necessarily lacking any method of economic calculation, could never function as an economic system, all arguments advanced in favor of the great reform collapsed. From that time on socialists no longer based their hopes upon the power of their arguments but upon the resentment, envy, and hatred of the masses. Today even the adepts of “scientific” socialism rely exclusively upon these emotional factors. The basis of contemporary socialism and interventionism is judgments of value. Socialism is praised as the only fair variety of society’s economic organization. All socialists, Marxians as well as non-Marxians, advocate socialism as the only system consonant with a scale of arbitrarily established absolute values. These values, they claim, are the only values that are valid for all decent people, foremost among them the workers, the majority in a modern industrial society. They are considered absolute because they are supported by the majority—and the majority is always right.
A rather superficial and shallow view of the problems of government saw the distinction between freedom and despotism in an outward feature of the system of rule and administration, viz., in the number of people exercising direct control of the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion. Such a numerical standard is the basis of Aristotle’s famous classification of the various forms of government. The concepts of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy still preserve this way of dealing with the matter. Yet its inadequacy is so obvious that no philosopher could avoid referring to facts which did not agree with it and therefore were considered paradoxical. There was for instance the fact, already well recognized by Greek authors, that tyranny was often, or even regularly, supported by the masses and was in this sense popular government. Modern writers have employed the term “Caesarism” for this type of government and have continued to look upon it as an exceptional case conditioned by peculiar circumstances; but they have been at a loss to explain satisfactorily what made the conditions exceptional. Yet, fascinated by the traditional classification, people acquiesced in this superficial interpretation as long as it seemed that it had to explain only one case in modern European history, that of the second French Empire. The final collapse of the Aristotelian doctrine came only when it had to face the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and the autocracy of Hitler, Mussolini, Peron, and other modern successors of the Greek tyrants.
The way toward a realistic distinction between freedom and bondage was opened, two hundred years ago, by David Hume’s immortal essay, On the First Principles of Government. Government, taught Hume, is always government of the many by the few. Power is therefore always ultimately on the side of the governed, and the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. This cognition, logically followed to its conclusion, completely changed the discussion concerning liberty. The mechanical and arithmetical point of view was abandoned. If public opinion is ultimately responsible for the structure of government, it is also the agency that determines whether there is freedom or bondage. There is virtually only one factor that has the power to make people unfree—tyrannical public opinion. The struggle for freedom is ultimately not resistance to autocrats or oligarchs but resistance to the despotism of public opinion. It is not the struggle of the many against the few but of minorities—sometimes of a minority of but one man—against the majority. The worst and most dangerous form of absolutist rule is that of an intolerant majority. Such is the conclusion arrived at by Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill.
In his essay on Bentham, Mill pointed out why this eminent philosopher failed to see the real issue and why his doctrine found acceptance with some of the noblest spirits. Bentham, he says, lived “in a time of reaction against the aristocratic governments of modern Europe.” The reformers of his age “have been accustomed to see the numerical majority everywhere unjustly depressed, everywhere trampled upon, or at the best overlooked, by governments.” In such an age one could easily forget that “all countries which have long continued progressive, or been durably great, have been so because there has been an organized opposition to the ruling power, of whatever kind that power was. . . . Almost all the greatest men who ever lived have formed part of such an opposition. Wherever some such quarrel has not been going on—wherever it has been terminated by the complete victory of one of the contending principles, and no new contest has taken the place of the old—society has either hardened into Chinese stationariness, or fallen into dissolution.”2
Much of what was sound in Bentham’s political doctrines was slighted by his contemporaries, was denied by later generations, and had little practical influence. But his failure to distinguish correctly between despotism and liberty was accepted without qualms by most nineteenth-century writers. In their eyes true liberty meant the unbridled despotism of the majority.
Lacking the power to think logically, and ignorant of history as well as of theory, the much admired “progressive” writers gave up the essential idea of the Enlightenment: freedom of thought, speech, and communication. Not all of them were so outspoken as Comte and Lenin; but they all, in declaring that freedom means only the right to say the correct things, not also the right to say the wrong things, virtually converted the ideas of freedom of thought and conscience into their opposite. It was not the Syllabus of Pope Pius IX that paved the way for the return of intolerance and the persecution of dissenters. It was the writings of the socialists. After a short-lived triumph of the idea of freedom, bondage made a comeback disguised as a consummation and completion of the philosophy of freedom, as the finishing of the unfinished revolution, as the final emancipation of the individual.
The concept of absolute and eternal values is an indispensable element in this totalitarian ideology. A new notion of truth was established. Truth is what those in power declare to be true. The dissenting minority is undemocratic because it refuses to accept as true the opinion of the majority. All means to “liquidate” such rebellious scoundrels are “democratic” and therefore morally good.
The Negation of Valuation
In dealing with judgments of value we have looked upon them as ultimate data not liable to any reduction to other data. We do not contend that judgments of value as they are uttered by men and used as guides to action are primary facts independent of all the other conditions of the universe. Such an assumption would be preposterous. Man is a part of the universe, he is the product of the forces operating in it, and all his thoughts and actions are, like the stars, the atoms, and the animals, elements of nature. They are embedded in the inexorable concatenation of all phenomena and events.
Saying that judgments of value are ultimately given facts means that the human mind is unable to trace them back to those facts and happenings with which the natural sciences deal. We do not know why and how definite conditions of the external world arouse in a human mind a definite reaction. We do not know why different people and the same people at various instants of their lives react differently to the same external stimuli. We cannot discover the necessary connection between an external event and the ideas it produces within the human mind.
To clarify this issue we must now analyze the doctrines supporting the contrary opinion. We must deal with all varieties of materialism.
[1 ]See Mises, Human Action, 1st ed. 1949, pp. 74–89; 4th ed. 1996, pp. 75–91.
[1 ]Franz Brentano, Vom Ursprung sittlicher Erkenntnis, 2d ed. Leipzig, 1921.
[1 ]On this controversy see Paul Barth, Die Philosophie der Geschichte als Soziologie (4th ed. Leipzig, 1922), pp. 289–92.
[1 ]Louis Rougier, La Scholastique et le Thomisme (Paris, 1925), pp. 102–5, 116–17, 460–562.
[2 ]Horace M. Kallen, “Behaviorism,” Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (Macmillan, 1930–35), 3, 498.
[1 ]See Mises, Human Action, 1st ed. 1949, pp. 719–25; 4th ed. 1996, pp. 724–30.
[1 ][“To be German is a thing to be sought for its own sake.”] In Deutsche Kunst und Deutsche Politik, Sämtliche Werke (6th ed. Leipzig, Breitkopf and Härtel), 8, 96.
[2 ]Epistle to the Romans 13:1.
[1 ]Even Kant. See Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, Pt. I, Bk. II, Sec. I (Insel-Ausgabe, 5, 240–1). Compare Friedrich Jodl, Geschichte der Ethik (2d ed. Stuttgart, 1912), 2, 35–8.
[1 ]Mises, Socialism (Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, 1981), pp. 5–6.
[2 ]John Stuart Mill on Bentham, ed. by F. R. Leavis under the title Mill on Bentham and Coleridge (New York, Stewart, 1950), pp. 85–7.