Thursday, January 1, 2009

Leaning Utilitarian

I was a natural rights libertarian for some time, and even gave a defense of the natural-rights position in a previous post on this blog. However, over the last few months I’ve gradually shifted toward a more utilitarian point of view. While I’m still sympathetic to the natural rights approach (and believe that many of its critics use asinine or strawman arguments), I think it ultimately has a lot of problems.

I’ve done quite a few brain exercises with this. For instance, suppose the Marxist exploitation theory, or any other leftist exploitation theory, is in fact true. They aren’t, of course, but let’s pretend that they are. The pure deontological libertarian would then have to support capitalism anyway, even if he conceded it would mean massive exploitation, suffering and evil. This strikes me as crazy. Despite their anti-utilitarian rhetoric, I don’t think even most of the self-proclaimed natural-rights libertarians would remain so if they discovered one of these exploitation theories was true. Ludwig von Mises argued that natural-rights advocates don't really ever fully escape utilitarianism, and I think he’s right.

Consider an argument with a communist.
Communist: “Everyone has a right to have their needs fulfilled, no matter what.”
Sane person: “Even if it leads to hell on Earth and kills millions?”
Communist: “Yes. Everyone has a right to have their basic needs fulfilled.”

Obviously, I'm not claiming natural-rights libertarians are communists, but I think you get my point. So we’re supposed to only think about things in terms of “rights,” and never, ever consider the consequences or practicality of anything? While this will certainly help keep one principled (a huge plus of the natural-rights approach), it seems loaded with pitfalls.

A pure version of the NAP is also very problematic. To take one horrifying example, it would mean allowing private ownership of nukes (a position that even Rothbard rejected, though his rejection is a blatant violation of the NAP). As David Friedman has pointed out, a purist NAP would also mean breathing is immoral, since carbon dioxide is a pollutant and pollution is aggression. The infinite complexities of life can’t be reduced to a simplistic slogan like the NAP. The subjects of morality and rights in general are surprisingly complicated and exceedingly difficult to define and justify, once one really “gets into” them.

Note: While I could have easily made this post quite a lot longer, and given a lot more examples and explanations, I don’t think it’s necessary. I don't think anyone wants to read a long, rambling post anyway.

8 comments:

Rorshak (1313) said...

Have you read Roderick Long's "Why Does Justice Have Good Consequences"?

It does an excellent job of showing the problems with Utilitarianism.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Unheroic!

Cork said...

Heh, I knew this wouldn't be a popular post. :D

I don't want to give the impressiion that I've taken up utilitarianism entirely (or that I've given up the idea of rights), I'm just saying that I'm leaning more in that direction. If anything, my position is kind of a hybrid between the two. I don't think everything can be reduced to a flimsy cost/benefit analysis, but I'm also seeing a lot of problems with natural rights (alone) with being the basis for libertarianism.

The "exploitation theory" dilemma I described is one that I think is pretty hard to resolve.

Rorshak (1313) said...

I actually agree with you there. I view "what's moral" and "what works" (essentially deontology vs. consequentialism") as being a false dichotomy. Consequences can't be separated from moral theories anymore than concretes can be separated from abstractions.

I don't really understand why the exploitation theory dilemma you presented here is a problem though. If exploitation theory is false then it's not a problem and if it's true then I see no reason why it's a problem. Libertarians don't necessarily have to support "capitalism" (going by the definition you gave in an earlier post), because there are mutualists who believe in natural rights.

Cork said...

Libertarians don't necessarily have to support "capitalism" (going by the definition you gave in an earlier post), because there are mutualists who believe in natural rights.

You're correct that libertarians don't necessarily have to support capitalism (at least not as a personal preference). But a pure natural-rights libertarian (I'm not really including mutualists, because they make exceptions for land etc) would still have to call for complete non-interference in the marketplace, even if everyone was practicing capitalism and it was proven that one (or more) of the leftist exploitation theories was true.

I actually agree with you there. I view "what's moral" and "what works" (essentially deontology vs. consequentialism") as being a false dichotomy. Consequences can't be separated from moral theories anymore than concretes can be separated from abstractions.

Yeah, this is kind of what I'm getting at. I don't think natural rights can be entirely seperated from some degree of consequentialism.

Neverfox said...

I'm sorry, Cork, if you already know of these.

Roderick Long covered this exact topic in The Nature of Law Part III. Just scroll down to the section titled "Consequentialist vs. deontological approaches".

Also, you might be interested in John Hasnas' "Toward a Theory of Empirical Natural Rights" which seems to me like a blending of the two. He also has a thought-provoki review of another theory called "Are There Derivative Natural Rights?"

To your point about market interference, would you also "call for complete non-interference in the marketplace" of definitions of rights? That's something to think about. And just wait until you start asking yourself how this all applies to supporting the marketplace itself. I'm reading now John Egger's "The Free Market and the Standards By Which It is Judged". It seems interesting so far and might give you some additional framework for your ideas.

Have you given any thought to virtue-ethics? Some would call it a triangulation or "third way" to consequentialist or deontological reasoning.

Neverfox said...

Here is Richard Chappell on utilitarianism. It's not a political analysis of justice (FYI, Chappell and Cohen are non-libertarians) but more of a pure philosophical discussion of value.

Cork said...

Thanks for the links, Neverfox. I'll be sure to read them.