Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Desire Utilitarianism and Political Libertarianism

One this issue of the relative merits of socialism and capitalism, one question that I have gotten from the studio audience is:

do you find it possible for me to consider myself a libertarian (free market anarchist/voluntaryist) as my legal framework position and a desire utilitarian as my moral position, or do you consider that would be an absurd/totally inconsistent thing to be?

Desire utilitarianism does not contradict libertarianism in one sense.

There are, actually, two types of libertarians. There are natural rights libertarians (such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard) who argued that libertarianism represented a system of natural rights discoverable in nature. These natural rights, they argued, were revealed by reason alone and were grounded on what is true of "man qua man".

This theory is not at all compatible with desire utilitarianism. First, this entity that lies at the root of this type of libertarianism - this entity known as “man qua man” - is as fictitious as any God. So, natural-rights libertarianism is founded on a false premise.

Second, even if there were such a thing as “man qua man”, the libertarian would need to explain how she can make the leap from certain factual or “is” statements about such an entity to conclusions about what ought or ought not to be done.

At both of these steps, the natural-rights libertarian fails miserably. Their morality is grounded on entities as fictitious as those of any religion and their reasoning about those entities is no more sound.

On the other hand, there is another group of libertarians who are utilitarian libertarians. They hold that capitalism has merit precisely because it fulfills the requirement of bringing the greatest good to the greatest number.

However, utilitarian libertarianism holds that if it were to be shown that libertarianism did not bring the greatest good to the greatest number – if it were to be shown that some aspect of socialism did a better job - the utilitarian libertarian would have to give up on libertarianism (in those cases) and go with the alternative.

This stands in contrast to the natural-rights libertarian, who would hold that any socialist scheme would be a violation of those fundamental natural rights such that, even though some alternative will bring a greater good to more people, it must still be rejected as a violation of these fundamental rights. We may not violate fundamental rights to bring more good to more people.

In fact, some libertarians that I have known said that, even where a violation of the moral law were necessary to save the whole Earth from destruction (one had to forcefully take a plain granite rock from its rightful owner to prevent aliens from destroying the Earth and everybody on it), it would be better that the earth be destroyed than that a single item of property be taken without consent.

Of these two options, natural rights libertarianism is not at all compatible with desire utilitarianism. It asserts that intrinsic value properties exist and can be found in certain families of actions. Intrinsic value properties do not exist.

It also asserts that people can be made to suffer where necessary so as to help to preserve and promote these imaginary entities. This is different than the religious practice of calling for the sacrifice of individuals so that God will show us favor and protect us from natural disasters and foreign aggression. In this, too, it is little different from religion.

In contrast, utilitarian libertarianism can be compatible with desire utilitarianism. A desire utilitarian holds that there are certain desires that people generally have reason to promote or inhibit. It may be that the desires that people generally have reason to promote are those of a capitalist system. They may have reason the libertarian non-aggression policy for the specific reason that if everybody had such an aversion to aggression that the more and stronger of all of our desires will be better realized.

Ultimately, I think that utilitarian capitalism fails as well. I will mention a few of its problems in my next post. However, its problem is not some fundamental conflict with the basics of desire utilitarianism. Its problem is that there are areas in which it fails the utilitarian test of making good people better off.


Andrew said...

Alonzo, have you ever written a more detailed critique of Ayn Rand/Objectivism that's online? If so, I'd be interested in reading it.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I suppose the best place to go would be:

Chapter 2: Libertarianism