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The London Libertarian

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Commentary and debate on politics, economics and culture from a libertarian perspective. To Libertarian Alliance Website >


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utility monsters, etc.

Philosophy Posted on Mon, June 23, 2014 14:18:05

utility monsters, etc. Mental-state utility aside (see *utilitarianism), if utility ought to be maximised in some form then we need to reply to three classic *criticisms of this as a desirable criterion (and also as compatible with *liberty). 1) This will engender the social and even genetic evolution of utility monsters: people with huge appetites that have come about because the biggest appetites will win in any *resource-distribution contest based on mere utility. 2) We ought to engineer people’s wants by dishonest *propaganda, coerced *eugenics, etc., to make sure that their wants can most fully be met. 3) We should prefer a more-*populated world with low average utility as long as total utility is plausibly higher than that of a less-populated world of much happier people.

We can immediately agree (if only for the sake of argument with 3, which is not so clear) that all of these outcomes would be undesirable, and unlibertarian if imposed, but argue that they are not entailed by utilitarianism as such. 1) We can rule out pandaring to utility monsters on the basis that the long-run effects would be disastrous for utility. It would be like always giving in to the tantrums of a small child, only on a society-wide scale. So gross appetites alone are not a sufficient reason to *proactively impose on others. 2) People do not want to be deluded or forcibly engineered to achieve someone else’s conception of their ‘utility’. People value having their own *spontaneous wants satisfied, including as these wants also spontaneously evolve. Therefore any proactively imposed wants do not count as utility-improving by this conception of utility. 3) This is a mere logical possibility. In practice it would involve forcing people to reproduce and then maintain their offspring, by some method, beyond what they would freely choose to have done. The ensuing loss of utility to the parents and wanted children plus the kind of *totalitarianism that would need to be involved, and the *tax-funding of that totalitarianism, do not seem to make it a practical problem for utilitarianism.

However, even if there were a systematic clash between liberty and utility at some theoretical extreme, that need not indicate an inconsistency between libertarianism and utilitarianism for most practical purposes. And thus the *classical *liberal compatibility thesis is preserved in practice. See *consequentialism.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism



utilitarianism

Philosophy Posted on Mon, June 23, 2014 14:12:40

utilitarianism This is the idea that the ultimate criterion of *morals is utility, and so whatever actions appear to maximize overall utility (in the long term and as far as we can tell) are at least *legitimate and probably mandatory. Several points need to be made in a *libertarian context. What follows relates only to *persons and not to non-person *animals.

1) Conception of utility. If ‘utility’ is understood as a mental state, as it was originally and often still is, then it is hard to defend it as desirable in principle because most people want at least some real states of affairs. They do not want the *happy or pleasurable delusion of having the things they want, nor some zombie-like state of wellbeing. The more recent preference utilitarianism, by contrast, means having more of your preferences or wants satisfied, even if you can never know it (such as a lost friend’s wellbeing or what happens to your paintings after your own *death). Only one’s unimposed wants (not those induced by *fraud or force) will count, because we do not value *proactively-imposed wants however happy, etc., they might make us. Thus (unimposed-)want-satisfaction is a criterion of *welfare, although not an exclusively *self-interested one, that people would choose for themselves if they could. *Economics should be interpreted as referring to this sense of utility.

2) Conceptual connection with liberty. There are conceptual connections between preference utilitarianism and libertarianism: individual persons have more *liberty and utility to the extent that they are not proactively imposed on; and liberty and utility are necessarily desired. These connections are not ad hoc: they involve interpretations of liberty and utility that independently withstand *critical scrutiny. These connections do not make the overlap between utility and liberty tautological: we can coherently imagine the *state’s being able to increase overall utility by infringing liberty.

3) Contingent connection with liberty. There is no logical incompatibility between preference utilitarianism and *laissez faire; contra, for instance, Bernard Williams (1929-2003) (see *unintended consequences). And, contingently, it appears from economics, primarily, that the *free market and liberty are just what does maximize want-satisfaction. There seem to be no systematic clashes between them, at least (see relevant topic entries if this is doubted). Thus ‘rule utilitarianism’ can be interpreted as requiring the rule of observing libertarian *rights (rather than calculating the consequences for each act as ‘act utilitarianism’ entails; but see *consequentialism).

4) Significance of connection with liberty. Neither preference-utility nor liberty are ultimate values (goals we would uphold as ends in themselves no matter what the consequences): both are only moral frameworks, or can even be mere egoistic modus vivendi (possibly arising from a *social contract), within which diverse values and ends may be pursued. That utility and liberty do not clash is not a *‘justification’ of either by the other. Correctly understood, they can both float as unrefuted practical moral conjectures. But it allays criticisms of each that, if either were to be maximised, it would damage the other too much. And liberty and utility are the two biggest, supposed, rivals in Western moral theory; so they make an overwhelming alliance. Ultimately, one is a libertarian or utilitarian first and foremost to the extent that one would favor liberty or utility in the event of a clash. Not many people would favor liberty regardless of the consequences for utility, or vice versa. But as they do not clash in systematic practice one need not choose.

See *utility monsters, etc.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism

utilitarianism This is the idea that the ultimate criterion of *morals is utility, and so whatever actions appear to maximize overall utility (in the long term and as far as we can tell) are at least *legitimate and probably mandatory. Several points need to be made in a *libertarian context. What follows relates only to *persons and not to non-person *animals.

1) Conception of utility. If ‘utility’ is understood as a mental state, as it was originally and often still is, then it is hard to defend it as desirable in principle because most people want at least some real states of affairs. They do not want the *happy or pleasurable delusion of having the things they want, nor some zombie-like state of wellbeing. The more recent preference utilitarianism, by contrast, means having more of your preferences or wants satisfied, even if you can never know it (such as a lost friend’s wellbeing or what happens to your paintings after your own *death). Only one’s unimposed wants (not those induced by *fraud or force) will count, because we do not value *proactively-imposed wants however happy, etc., they might make us. Thus (unimposed-)want-satisfaction is a criterion of *welfare, although not an exclusively *self-interested one, that people would choose for themselves if they could. *Economics should be interpreted as referring to this sense of utility.

2) Conceptual connection with liberty. There are conceptual connections between preference utilitarianism and libertarianism: individual persons have more *liberty and utility to the extent that they are not proactively imposed on; and liberty and utility are necessarily desired. These connections are not ad hoc: they involve interpretations of liberty and utility that independently withstand *critical scrutiny. These connections do not make the overlap between utility and liberty tautological: we can coherently imagine the *state’s being able to increase overall utility by infringing liberty.

3) Contingent connection with liberty. There is no logical incompatibility between preference utilitarianism and *laissez faire; contra, for instance, Bernard Williams (1929-2003) (see *unintended consequences). And, contingently, it appears from economics, primarily, that the *free market and liberty are just what does maximize want-satisfaction. There seem to be no systematic clashes between them, at least (see relevant topic entries if this is doubted). Thus ‘rule utilitarianism’ can be interpreted as requiring the rule of observing libertarian *rights (rather than calculating the consequences for each act as ‘act utilitarianism’ entails; but see *consequentialism).

4) Significance of connection with liberty. Neither preference-utility nor liberty are ultimate values (goals we would uphold as ends in themselves no matter what the consequences): both are only moral frameworks, or can even be mere egoistic modus vivendi (possibly arising from a *social contract), within which diverse values and ends may be pursued. That utility and liberty do not clash is not a *‘justification’ of either by the other. Correctly understood, they can both float as unrefuted practical moral conjectures. But it allays criticisms of each that, if either were to be maximised, it would damage the other too much. And liberty and utility are the two biggest, supposed, rivals in Western moral theory; so they make an overwhelming alliance. Ultimately, one is a libertarian or utilitarian first and foremost to the extent that one would favor liberty or utility in the event of a clash. Not many people would favor liberty regardless of the consequences for utility, or vice versa. But as they do not clash in systematic practice one need not choose.

See *utility monsters, etc.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism



harm principle

Philosophy Posted on Mon, June 23, 2014 14:05:00

harm principle It is often suggested, sometimes even by *libertarians, that actions that harm other people should not be allowed. But taken literally, this cannot be correct. For we often *objectively harm others, or *risk harming them, with their permission: such as by providing them with ‘junk food’, cigarettes, or participatory *sports. Harming, or risking harming, others on a voluntary basis is part of *liberty. A better criterion of what should not be allowed is what *proactively imposes on other people (or normal adults, at least; with the mentally impaired, etc., being treated like *children of similar intellect), even if it does the imposed-on people some objective good.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism



happiness

Philosophy Posted on Mon, June 23, 2014 14:02:15

happiness In the popular psychological sense of ‘happiness’, although the *free market gives people ever more material goods of all kinds, critics often observe that, 1) this does not seem to make them any happier, and 2) there is no significant gain in happiness above an average Western income. 1 is used to *criticize *materialism and 2 to criticize inequality. There is one major source of happiness that it is a *politically-correct taboo to discuss, 3) homogeneity of *race, ethnicity, and *culture.

1) People might well tend to become quickly accustomed to their circumstances however good or bad, and they then feel more or less as they did before. But it is hard to accept that people are really no happier at all with the market-enabled advances that cure early death and terrible diseases, and give us more leisure time and more things to enjoy during that leisure (though people often fail to count their blessings, and that is usually folly). Even if this were mistaken, happiness is not the only thing that people seek. We want some things as ends in themselves even if they do not make us happier; though these can sometimes fit in the broader sense of ‘happiness’ that includes personal flourishing. And if we are thwarted in these ends by *political intervention then we will, in any case, be made less happy. (See *commodities; *welfare.)

2) This argument has recently been used as a defense of *taxation to create a more *equal society. But such wealth as we enjoy now is only possible because certain types of inequality exist. *Market pricing (of products and *labor) is necessary for *economic calculation. And inequalities are an inevitable consequence of allowing it. The more that any market inequality is curbed, the poorer all would become; which, prima facie, reduces happiness too. And some people are only happy (though sometimes in the more general sense) with more wealth than most are content with, as is indicated by the greater effort they generally put into acquiring it. This is not to suggest that there might at least be some trade-off between the *free market and equality that maximizes happiness: as the various entries on equality explain, all movements toward forced equality are more than likely to reduce overall happiness.

3) Researchers into happiness often reveal a high positive correlation between racial and cultural homogeneity and happiness. But according to a leading ‘happiness economist’ Richard Layard (1934- ), at a public meeting on happiness, many researchers dare not publish their findings for fear of damage to their careers and even persons if they are consequently branded as guilty of *racism. (See *multiculturalism; *racial integration and segregation; *racialism and racism.)

John Locke (1632-1704) is famously supposed to have written of *natural *rights to protect one’s ‘life, liberty, and property’ (but that is all property: “… his property—that is, his life, liberty, and estate …”; or “life, health, liberty, or possessions”). Can it be without significance that the Declaration of Independence (mainly drafted by Thomas Jefferson [1743-1826]) prefers “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”? This suggests that a legitimate *state can expropriate our *private property (“estate” or “possessions”) while promising to facilitate our protection and happiness. The reality of politics is that we thereby have less of all three.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism



consequentialism

Philosophy Posted on Mon, June 23, 2014 13:54:39

consequentialism (teleological ethics) The theory that we should judge *moral desirability by the good consequences (however these are conceived), which we should usually maximize (though it is not logically entailed that more is always better), rather than the types of behavior involved (which is deontologism: observing specific *duties). In practice, we are almost bound to choose by reference to both.

An immediate problem is how far this distinction is coherent. For if we ought to do what maximizes some good end then that is itself a kind of duty that we must obey irrespective of any other, supposedly morally irrelevant, consequences. And all normal supposed duties have some prima facie good consequences involved. It is not arbitrary that theft and murder are generally thought wrong: they are believed to do overwhelmingly more harm than good. In any case, it is certainly compatible with consequentialism that there be general moral rules as these are needed to avoid uncertainty, *corruption and *moral hazard.

Consequentialism, as such, leaves open which consequences are good in themselves. Logically, virtually anything (and not just one thing) might be judged so, but prime contenders include varying conceptions of *utility. A less mental-state version of this (more conducive to both *libertarianism and *economics) would allow people to maximize the satisfaction of their wants irrespective of how this made them feel: why be forced to have more *happiness when you would rather achieve some other end? And some would restrict these consequences to *persons as relevantly superior to mere beasts (see *animal welfare).

A much-discussed problem is how much sense it makes to sum different people’s *welfare outcomes. Many deny that this can be ‘scientific’ or *objective so opt for strict *Paretianism. But with strict Pareto comparisons we could never even say that the abolition of the worst kinds of *slavery improved general welfare, because of the slave-owner’s supposedly completely incommensurable loss. So some rough and ready comparisons seem to make intuitive sense and are sometimes sufficient to show that certain rule-systems promote more welfare than others for the *populations that have to live by them. This argument does not entail, as is sometimes alleged, that 1) detailed comparisons must be possible, or 2) even if they were that they could overcome the problem of *economic calculation and so allow *state planning.

Libertarians tend to argue that there is a *right to *liberty, hence a duty to respect it, and that liberty has the most desirable consequences in terms of want-satisfaction (though some do opt strictly for one side or the other). Do they want to have their cake and eat it? No. The traditional conception of rights is that they arise and are defensible only in terms of their being the best general rules for promoting good consequences. What would be the point of a right that was generally damaging? And how could some good end be defended practically but by some general rule about behavior? Thus libertarianism can even be viewed as a form of rule-consequentialism (though this act-rule distinction is also of dubious coherence: if rules work best then the best act is to follow them; or if we see when it is best to break a general rule, then that can be put into a new rule). That libertarian rules maximize welfare cannot be demonstrated; it is a conjecture that invites *criticism.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism



welfare

Philosophy Posted on Mon, June 23, 2014 13:48:31

welfare *Libertarianism is not a theory of welfare in the sense of quality of life. It is, however, compatible in practice with preference *utilitarianism, which definitely is a theory of welfare. However, this is an unusual theory of welfare in that what we prefer need not relate to how we feel when it is achieved or even to ourselves at all. But if people regard themselves as being better off to the extent that they get what they spontaneously want (i.e., without *proactive imposition), then this seems to be the conception of welfare that they would choose for themselves (or choose above ‘welfare’, for those essentialists who deny that this can be a conception of welfare). And *liberty and the *free market give us more of what we individually want. *Politics involves politicians attempting to give us more of what they think we ought to want, and they often even fail at that. See *consequentialism; *happiness.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism