Thursday, January 8, 2009

Sneaking Utility Through The Back Door

A post over at Libertarians Against War disputes that utilitarians can be libertarians:

This is why I think that anyone claiming to be ‘liberal’ or ‘libertarian’ should be grounded in natural law only.

As usual with natural law proponents, he doesn’t go into a coherent justification for natural law.

To put it bluntly, I have yet to hear any kind of coherent argument for natural rights that doesn't simply fall back on utility in some way, shape, or form, or attempt to slide it in through the back door. Let’s look at some of Rothbard’s arguments for natural rights.

The natural law, then, elucidates what is best for man — what ends man should pursue that are most harmonious with, and best tend to fulfill, his nature. In a significant sense, then, natural law provides man with a "science of happiness," with the paths which will lead to his real happiness.

To further explain natural law, he quotes Sir William Blackstone:

This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law … demonstrating that this or that action tends to man's real happiness, and therefore very justly concluding that the performance of it is a part of the law of nature; or, on the other hand, that this or that action is destruction of man's real happiness, and therefore that the law of nature forbids it.

Hmm…sounds pretty utilitarian-ish to me, but maybe it’s the shrooms kicking in.

Rothbard tries to deny that he’s sneaking utility through the back door, but fails.

In contrast [to natural law] praxeology or economics as well as the utilitarian philosophy with which this science has been closely allied, treat "happiness" in the purely formal sense as the fulfillment of those ends which people happen — for whatever reason — to place high on their scales of value. Satisfaction of those ends yields to man his "utility" or "satisfaction" or "happiness." Value in the sense of valuation or utility is purely subjective, and decided by each individual. This procedure is perfectly proper for the formal science of praxeology, or economic theory, but not necessarily elsewhere. For in natural-law ethics, ends are demonstrated to be good or bad for man in varying degrees; value here is objective — determined by the natural law of man's being, and here "happiness" for man is considered in the commonsensical, contentual [is this even a word? –Cork] sense.

There you have it, folks. Yes, natural law is still based on utility, but it’s different, y’see, because the happiness it promotes is more “commonsensical” (seriously, this sounds like Boomhauer from King of the Hill). Y’see?

First off, Rothbard seems unfamiliar with the various branches of utilitarianism (what he’s describing here is preference utilitarianism, and what he’s describing in other essays is generally a bastardized form of act utilitarianism). But I digress. While this section is so vague that it barely makes sense, Rothbard seems to be saying that he’s only promoting utility in a “general” sense—in the sense that’s based around man’s natural being. But isn’t any theory of utility for man going to have to acknowledge man’s nature in one way or another?

Now, a thousand people are going to show up in the comments section to kick my ass (god bless 'em). For all I know, maybe they’ll succeed. I don’t claim to be any sort of expert philosopher, and I know there are many natural-rights proponents out there who are extremely intelligent. But still…if were to purge all those who use utility-based rationales for libertarianism, the natural-rights proponents would be purged as well, no?

8 comments:

David Z said...

I approach natural law from the Aristotelian POV, Molyneux uses a form of that in his "universally preferable behavior" thesis. It's been a while since I gave it any serious thought, but neither struck me as particularly incoherent.

It says, in a nutshell, that there are certain actions/behaviors that further man's ability to sustain his own life (and that further, only a subset of *all* actions can be applied universally). Is this a "preference"? I guess.

Cork said...

I agree with you 100% that there are certain rules that further man's ability to sustain his own life (I'm sure we agree that libertarianism is the best set of rules). But isn't this argument still based on utility at its core?

BTW David, you have awesome taste in movies :D

Sukrit said...

Rothbard "natural law" is somewhat different, in that he derives his principles using praxeology (a scientific way of deducing axioms about human action). Thus, he considered his natural law conclusions "value free", unlike some other approaches that consider it as being God-given.

I don't know whether this makes him a utilitarian or not. Although I'm the original author of the post you refer to, you'd have to ask someone smarter than me.

All I know is he detested utilitarianism of a particular type. For example, he did not think that free-market economics (technical cost/benefit calculations) were an adequate defense of liberty. If someone calculated that it would be worth torturing your grandmother to stop an act of terrorism, that still would not justify such an action under Rothbard's law. But many utilitarians are led to say that torture is OK. Does pro-torture really seem "libertarian" to you?

Rorshak (1313) said...

This is quite a coincidence, I was reading the wikipedia article for "Eudaimonism" and it discuss exactly what you're talking about here.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eudaimonism

See the "etymology and translation" section where it talks about the difference between Eudaimonia and "happiness". I think better explains what Rothbard was trying to get at.

Neverfox said...

Cork,

Did you read Long's "Why Does Justice Have Good Consequences?" yet? I think it answers most of your questions about this "mystery". I would be curious to know what you think of it.

Cork said...

For example, he did not think that free-market economics (technical cost/benefit calculations) were an adequate defense of liberty. If someone calculated that it would be worth torturing your grandmother to stop an act of terrorism, that still would not justify such an action under Rothbard's law. But many utilitarians are led to say that torture is OK. Does pro-torture really seem "libertarian" to you?

*Laugh* This is the standard strawman argument against utilitarianism.

Step 1: Conflate all utilitarianism with a bastardized version of act utilitarianism

Step 2: Come up with some zany situtation (killing someone for their organs, torturing redheads) and claim, in shock, "utilitarianism would allow this!"

Now let me turn the tables and ask: What would happen if torturing people ended up being necessary for the "nature of man?" Would natural-law proponents support it?

Cork said...

Neverfox,

Thanks again for the link. I've read bits and pieces of that article (a few sections), but haven't read the full thing quite yet. I'll be sure to read it.

anarcho-mercantilist said...

I think individuals define natural rights differently.

I have read Long's article a while ago. In his article, Long defines "natural rights" as synonymous to "inalienable rights." Libertarians should all agree with natural rights in this sense. We should deny certain actions, such as murder, rape, torture, and assault, regardless by its consequences. In his article, Long basically uses a semantic redefinition for his justification of natural rights.

While some others deny the existence of all rights, including the self-ownership principle and the non-aggression axiom. They see rights as unenforceable abstractions. They define rights differently.

I think we should reject "natural rights." The term "natural rights" has multiple definitions. I think we should instead defend "inalienable rights" or "universal rights."

P.S. Right now, I find it very difficult to post comments here. It gets slow and outputs errors at times. I have already retyped this comment.