On Mises’s Ethical Relativism
I think it important to delineate briefly what relativism is and what the issues are on this important topic. Let us first consider the polar opposite of relativism: absolutism. The absolutist believes that man’s mind, employing reason (which according to some absolutists is divinely inspired, according to others is given by nature), is capable of discovering and knowing truth: including the truth about reality, and the truth about what is best for man and best for himself as an individual.
The relativist denies this, denies that man’s reason is capable of knowing truth, and does so by claiming that rather than being absolute, truth is relative to something else. This something else may be different things, and so there can be many kinds of relativist; some of these things have been the subject of psychology of each individual, the economic interests of the individual (or of the “class” to which he belongs), the “Spirit of the Age” in which the person happens to live, the social structure of the society in which he lives, his “culture,” his race, etc. Philosophically, I believe that libertarianism—and the wider creed of sound individualism of which libertarianism is a part—must rest on absolutism and deny relativism.
The bulk of this essay by Mises, the preeminent economist and praxeologist of our time, deals in his profound and unique way with a defense of economics against such relativist opponents as the historicists, who claimed that economic laws must be relative to each historical epoch. There are many excellent points made: an exposition of the Windelband-Rickert refutation of positivist methods in the sciences of human action; a critique of the deficiencies of the classical economists in confining themselves to a study of wealth and production, and therefore in fragmenting action into the “economic” and “noneconomic” spheres; critiques of the radical empiricists such as the intuitionalists, of Max Weber, and of the nature of historical events.
In short, Mises attacks the various schools of epistemological relativism in the sciences of human action, and defends the absolute and eternal truths arrived at by the science of praxeology. As a result, this paper, as is almost any by Mises, is excellent and worth reading by every scholar. (I would consider the fundamental axioms of praxeology as based empirically on the nature of man rather than on “the logical structure of the human mind” as Mises does, but this is not important here.)
Having said this, and never being able to express how much of an enormous intellectual debt I owe to Mises, I must record two important defects in the paper, which stem from what I consider basic weaknesses in the Mises worldview. One is Mises’s attempt to deny anyone the use of the concept “irrational.” Mises categorically denies that anyone can ever act irrationally, either in the means he undertakes or in the ends for which he strives. I think this is flatly wrong, especially since M
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