Debate: The Best Case for Liberty Is Consequentialist

What are the philosophical underpinnings of libertarianism?


Freedom Is a Means to a Happier World

Christopher Freiman

Joanna Andreasson

Economic and political freedom helps us feed the hungry, heal the sick, and enrich the poor. In short, liberty has good consequences. And that's why you should be a libertarian.

Don't get me wrong—rights are important. But they're important because they're beneficial. Private property, free trade, and civil liberties are valuable as means to a prosperous, peaceful, and happy world. Adam Smith tells us that market exchange is good because it's mutually beneficial. What's more, as F.A. Hayek showed, market prices convey information that enables economies to allocate resources efficiently. And robust protection for market liberties functions as a safeguard against government overreach—a state with limited regulatory and redistributive powers is a much less valuable prize for "rent seekers." To get rich in a place with a minimal state, you can't lobby the government for subsidies or for regulations that drive your competition out of business; instead, you'll need to make better and cheaper products that help stretch everyone's paycheck.

Deontological libertarians think that justice means respecting individual rights, not because doing so produces good outcomes but because rights are important in themselves. The trouble is, deontologists have a hard time explaining why enriching the poor and healing the sick matter at all. At most, these are fringe benefits of liberty. To deontologists, a political system that feeds the hungry is like a polio vaccine that freshens your breath—the bonus is nice, but it's not the point. This view gets things wrong, however. That freedom makes us happier, healthier, and wealthier is the point.

Along the same lines, deontologists have difficulty explaining what makes some violations of rights worse than others. For instance, these libertarians typically believe that we possess a right of exclusive control over our bodies that's comparable to the property rights we possess over material objects. Just as a thief who extracts my radio from my car without my consent violates my rights over my stuff, a dentist who extracts my tooth from my mouth without my consent violates my rights over my body.

But now consider two unethical dentists who pull teeth without their patients' permission. The first is gentle, so she at least has the decency to administer anesthetic to ensure her patient won't feel pain. The second dentist is sadistic and wants to maximize her patient's pain. Although both extractions are wrong, the gentle extraction is less wrong. Why? It isn't because the gentle extraction is a lesser violation of the patient's right of bodily integrity—if anything, it's a greater violation, because the injection of Novocaine involves an additional invasion of the patient's gums. The gentle extraction is less wrong because it causes less suffering. Notice that this explanation is available to the consequentialist but not the deontologist.

Deontological libertarianism is also implausibly rigid. For instance, if the duty to respect private property rights is insensitive to costs and benefits, then you may not violate these rights even when the cost is microscopic and the benefit is monumental. But surely you're right to steal the apple pie cooling on a windowsill if that's the only way to keep your child from starving to death. The victim of the theft will lament the loss of the pie, but that's nothing compared to the loss of your child's life. And ratcheting up the examples only makes things worse for deontology. Suppose a scientist develops a cure for cancer but keeps it locked up because he's an evil misanthrope. You should feel free to steal it. Sure, you'll violate his property rights, but that's a trivial price to pay to save millions of people.

What's more, deontological libertarianism's insensitivity to costs and benefits implies that your freedom may be restricted in wildly unreasonable ways. Take air pollution. When I drive my car past my neighbor while he retrieves his newspaper, some particles of pollution will undoubtedly invade his lungs. I've therefore trespassed against him and violated his right of bodily integrity. So if we're being strict about enforcing rights, we may not drive cars or ride buses. Indeed, we're barred from operating hospitals, water purification plants, farms, and pretty much everything else under the sun.

"To deontologists, a political system that feeds the hungry is like a polio vaccine that freshens your breath—the bonus is nice, but it's not the point. This view gets things wrong."

Some deontological libertarians embrace this reductio ad absurdum and support prohibiting pollution outright. But this view is, in a word, absurd. Pollution prohibition would grind the world to a halt, killing billions of people in the process. A consequentialist libertarian, by contrast, will permit you to emit some pollution because the cost of prohibiting all such emissions is intolerably high. The optimal amount of pollution is not zero. So consequentialism will endorse reasonable policies like emissions trading or carbon taxes to arrive at the level of pollution that maximizes social welfare.

Consequentialism can also resolve intramural libertarian policy debates that stump deontologists. For instance, deontological libertarians have burned thousands of calories arguing about intellectual property. One side says that copyrights are state-conferred, anti-competitive privileges that restrict your freedom to peacefully produce an image of Mickey Mouse. The other side claims that intellectual property rights protect a person's ownership of the fruits of her labor, just like other sorts of property rights. Frankly, I think both sides make good points, and I don't see any way to resolve the dispute from within the framework of rights.

Consequentialists don't have this problem. They can simply endorse whatever system the social science tells us strikes the most efficient balance between the need for market competition, the need to give people incentives to innovate, and so on.

I sometimes hear the worry that consequentialism is a shaky foundation for liberty because it could, in principle, license terribly oppressive policies. After all, if communism worked, then a consequentialist would need to brandish the hammer and sickle. But so what? If the world were radically different from the way it actually is, then good institutions would be radically different from the way they actually are. If humans could perform photosynthesis, then the case for eating french fries would crumble—but that's no reason to stop eating french fries. Just because there's an alternate universe in which authoritarianism creates a heaven on Earth doesn't mean we should disown free minds and free markets in the here and now.

Consequentialism Is Mostly Imaginary

Jason Kuznicki

I love good consequences, but I am against consequentialism.

Freiman writes that "economic and political freedom helps us feed the hungry, heal the sick, and enrich the poor." I agree. I welcome these "fringe benefits" of liberty. I just don't think they lead to a workable ethical system.

John Locke and John Stuart Mill, public domain.

Most consequentialists will say relieving suffering is good because it makes people happier. And the good, they usually add, is really just the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But I find that happiness is not a reliable guide to judging what's right or wrong.

Morally good things can make people happier. But I have often noticed that morally bad things can make people happier too: A petty thief steals a tomato from a neighbor's garden. The neighbor thinks an animal ate it. The thief loves to steal, and the neighbor is only mildly disappointed. Aggregate happiness has increased, yet we find the thief's action despicable.

The mismatch between the emotions and the moral sense gets worse as more people are involved. Sometimes a whole society grows happier when someone behaves badly: The thief, clad in a ski mask, makes a video of his act and posts it to YouTube. Millions laugh, which they often do about milder forms of bad behavior. The neighbor remains ignorant.

Again, how could a consequentialist object? One might turn to rule utilitarianism, which holds that we should craft rules of behavior that, if followed, would lead to the greatest good. But this doesn't solve the problem. Can't I just say the rule is "Respect property rights, except when breaking them is hilarious and when copycats will be few"? What's wrong with that? If we only value happiness, then I'm afraid it has to stand.

Or consider Prohibition. It seemed to make people happier at the time; after all, they voted for it through their representatives after a long period of deliberation. A consequentialist might want to say that the pains imposed on the opponents were weightier. But that assertion would require an ad hoc rejiggering of our beliefs about the emotional states of millions of people, simply to make the math work out.

A more sophisticated consequentialist might invoke the sum, suitably discounted, of a whole set of pleasures and pains felt across the lifetime of the law, however long that may be. To which I'd say: Good luck with that. And can't I always reply that repeal would make the prohibitionists sufficiently sad that we shouldn't do it?

As Christopher Hitchens used to say, that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Even within my own mind—that is, in the territory I know the best—I'm still not always sure I can do the necessary calculations for what will make me happiest. The problem looks less and less like actual math the longer we look at it. If I'm often unsure about how to maximize my own utility, how can I do the same for an entire society?

Herbert Spencer wrote of utilitarianism that "we find ourselves involved in complicated estimates of pleasures and pains, to the obvious peril of our conclusions…trustworthy inferences are attainable in but a minority of cases." And Hayek wrote that utilitarians "failed to take seriously this crucial fact of our necessary ignorance…and…have proposed a theory which presupposes a knowledge of the particular effects of our individual actions." Yet almost no such knowledge is possible.

A deontologist avoids these problems by starting elsewhere. As Robert Nozick wrote, "individuals are ends and not merely means; they may not be sacrificed or used for the achieving of other ends without their consent." Respect for others means we must refrain from treating people as tools for our use.

We may therefore ethically constrain even the pursuit of happiness when someone engaged in it starts using others merely as a means to an end. That's why the coercive dentist in Freiman's example behaved wrongly, and it's also why the coercive dentist who worked without anesthesia was even worse: Of course it shows greater disrespect to people when, keeping other things exactly equal, you also gratuitously inflict pain on them against their will.

Nozick also believed that "no moral balancing act can take place among us; there is no moral outweighing of one of our lives by others so as to lead to a greater overall social good." I agree with this view. It is not merely that the math is too hard. It's that there is something wrong about undertaking that math in pursuit of a "social good" that does not exist. What makes our actions good or bad is not their effects, but whether in acting we abide by our duties to others—including above all a presumptive duty to let them pursue their happiness as they think best.

I believe that a society based on individual liberty and property ownership is the most likely one to curb all of the worst aspects of treating people as tools. A person with socially recognized individual rights and with the refuge of private property is very difficult to use as a tool. We who think that people have an inherent dignity and moral worth should band together and form this type of society, or else join one that already exists.

As a matter of law, we may also prohibit many, though clearly not all, violations of individual autonomy. (Even Nozick admitted that prohibiting every violation would be impossible.) Pace some objectors—including some libertarians—deontological libertarianism need not and should not be impossibly strict. Something like the categorical imperative may be what we aim at, but it is unreasonable to expect that we can implement it perfectly tomorrow, or that heads should roll if we don't. We've got a lot of learning to do before we reach Utopia, and it's best that we all move cautiously toward the ideal. Neither Rothbardians adhering to a deontological nonaggression principle nor their consequentialist opponents have shed sufficient light here, and I instead believe that a gradualist deontology is both philosophically defensible and well-suited to the fallible creatures we are.

One virtue of this approach is that it avoids consequentialism's pretense of knowledge. We can ignore speculative claims about the emotional states of future people regarding unknown events a century hence. And we don't need to say we're doing math with their emotions when, plainly, we are not.

Instead, we can just say that putting people in cages (for example) is detestable thanks to the respect we owe to every human being. We can hold that individual liberty should never be denied without an utterly compelling reason. (One such reason may be the danger that the confined person would otherwise pose to the liberty of others, but criminal justice is a complicated subject that I don't have space to address right now.)

A second virtue of deontology lies in how it allocates the burden of proof: When we hold that all people have a common dignity, and that this dignity implies a form of generally shared individual liberty, then the burden of proof falls on all those who would carve out exceptions to the rule. They are obliged to tell us why the exceptions are justified, and why certain people really do belong in a cage. For many, many reasons, this is precisely how it ought to be.

Reply: Freiman to Kuznicki

There's no point in denying it: Consequentialists have bullets to bite. But every moral theorist has bullets to bite. My view (with apologies to Winston Churchill) is that consequentialism is the worst moral theory—except for all of the others.

Take the case of the YouTube thief. That consequentialists must applaud the crowd-pleasing crime is bad. But far worse is a deontological moral theory that categorically prohibits petty theft—even if, for instance, it's needed to save millions of lives.

Kuznicki writes, "Pace some objectors—including some libertarians—deontological libertarianism need not and should not be impossibly strict." This claim could mean that deontologists should forgive real-world institutions for being unable to respect rights 100 percent of the time. Fair enough, but this reply doesn't address the real objection—namely, that it's morally right to commit a trivial rights violation to, say, fend off the apocalypse.

The claim that deontologists should not be impossibly strict could also be taken to mean that it would be wrong to always stick to deontological principles. Nozick, for instance, suggests that it could be permissible to violate rights to prevent "catastrophic moral horror." But this wins the battle at the cost of losing the war. It addresses the problems with deontology by effectively abandoning deontology. Consider:

Geocentrist: "My model is pretty good at accounting for the motions of the planets."

Heliocentrist: "Pretty good, yes, but what about Mars?"

Geocentrist: "Mars is a problem, but we need not be strict about geocentrism."

We wouldn't buy the geocentrist's response because it amounts to an admission that the theory has no solution to the problem. I think the same goes for relaxing respect for rights when the going gets tough for deontology. (In any case, relaxing one's principles doesn't favor deontology over consequentialism, because consequentialists can make the same move to get out of a jam.)

What about the objection that we cannot know which institutions will have the best long-term consequences? Both theory and practice have taught us enough about private property, market prices, and government failure to justify our confidence that classical liberal institutions produce better results than the alternatives. Even Hayek, a thinker who worried about the limits of our knowledge as much as anyone, had little doubt that liberal capitalism outperforms socialism. Indeed, one of the big takeaways from the work of people like Hayek, Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, and Deirdre McCloskey is that we ought to embrace markets precisely because they make us better off. And I'll note that Kuznicki himself agrees that economic and political freedom makes us happier, healthier, and wealthier.

The consequentialist case for liberty isn't perfect. But perfection isn't on the table. So we should go for the least imperfect moral theory—and that's consequentialism.

Reply: Kuznicki to Freiman

Theories of ethics all share one goal: to supply logical arguments about right and wrong in support of conclusions that, in the absence of argument, ordinary human beings would still find intuitively obvious. One hopes the arguments we supply help us to refine our intuitions and perhaps to extend our understanding of right and wrong action into new areas.

That's a big project. It faces many challenges, including that ordinary human beings disagree about what's intuitively obvious. It should not surprise anyone, then, that even the most promising lines of argument still contain loose ends and unresolved conundrums. Consequentialism and deontology are similarly situated in this regard; neither ties everything up neatly in the way of a geometric proof. As Aristotle wrote, we should not expect of this subject more precision than it will bear.

As I see it, the advantage of deontology, which at least sets it above consequentialism, is that deontology harmonizes much more closely with our existing, pervasive, and seemingly immovable intuitions. It does not attempt to make ethics look like a branch of political economy.

"If I'm often unsure about how to maximize my own utility, how can I do the same for an entire society?"

Deontology starts, I would say, with something much like the Golden Rule, an ethical maxim that is by no means unique to the Judeo-Christian world. It has been discovered or rediscovered on many occasions in a wide variety of traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and those of the Yoruba and Igbo peoples of Africa. This gives great credence to deontology as a field of inquiry. It suggests that this is not just a thing invented by a particular culture. It's a gateway to ethical reasoning that is potentially accessible to all.

Theoretical deontologists may be as abstruse and technical as they please, or not. What matters is that people, to make use of it, aren't required to think about ethics in any terribly surprising, new, or counterintuitive way. They don't need to begin with complicated math about inscrutable emotions—which, if we're being honest, few people ever really attempt—and then work backward. An individual wishing to be a good person may begin instead with the Golden Rule, and with what this simple but powerful statement would do for us if we were to incorporate it more and more fully into our behavior.

It may seem like a surrender to insist on the importance of a widely shared intuition in place of a scientistic system. But that system asks too much of most people, myself certainly included, in the way of computations. Deontology begins with the idea that the foundations of ethics must be universal, spanning all cultures and time periods, and accessible to all people, educated or not. No other sort of foundation seems fit to help shape individual actions in a responsible and publicly defensible manner.

NEXT: Real Men Can Eat Whatever They Want, Even a Vegetarian Diet

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  1. This is angels-on-a-pin-head silly. Rights, such as self-ownership and property, are recognized as such because they work. Rights such as feudalism are not recognized as such any more because they no longer work.

    Socialists may like them some money grabbing, as in every socialist paradise ever, but the right to grab other people’s property in the name of the common good never lasts for long because every such socialist paradise fails.

    Only property rights and self-ownership have worked. Governments naturally infringe on these rights all the time, which only goes to show that government suck and property and self-ownership do work and are right.

    1. So, consequentialism then?

      1. I say they are the same, that rights are recognized as such because they work. I suppose you could say rights grew out of consequences, but I don;t think of it that way.

        1. There’s certainly an argument to be made that they are more a matter of two perspectives on the same underlying reality than starkly different ‘things’.
          It’s a bit like correlation and causation ? there is no causation without correlation even if correlation is not causation.
          There are no ethical principles without consequences even if not all consequences have ethical import.
          And, oddly enough, consequences usually matter ? they are all but inevitably presented in discussions of ethical test cases. We consider consequences regardless of whether we are consequentialists or deontologists.

          1. Hmmm …. rights as a subset of consequences …. I suppose a corollary is that rights without consequences are ignored. People who ask if the second amendment includes nuclear weapons or phased plasma rifles in the 40kw range, and people who think it is a serious question, are debating a hypothetical in a slightly different way. But the two cannot be separated, as you say.

      2. Consequentialism without deontology leads to the tyranny of the majority. Deontology without consequentialism is meaningless and stultifying. It’s obvious we need both. But we also need emotivism/ethical intuitionism, because out ethical instincts are rooted in our evolutionary biology based on pack cooperation. All three ethical theories are necessary and each is correct in its own way.

        1. This deserves more comment?

          SHORT VERSION: The other two approaches each have many drawbacks, as noted here in the article and commentaries. Emotional intuition has a HUGE drawback in my mind, and that is self-righteousness! Jesus was spot-on, in repeatedly and strongly warning about self-righteousness!

          LONG VERSION: Those who accept evolution and sociobiology (as I do) readily accept that our evolution has left us with bad instincts that need to be over-ridden, if we can. Periodic starvation in the old days left us with lusts for too many sweets and fats? Not good for us in the days of cheap, plentiful foods! Not much controversy there?

          Old days: Distrust of the stranger, territorialism, wars over mates, tribalism, then nationalism? Not too dangerous in the old days, and could sometimes advance your tribe or nation. Now we have nuclear weapons, we REALLY need to watch our step, or we may all wipe ourselves out!

          1. Now self-righteousness: Who left behind more babies, more genes, A or B?
            ‘A) The shaman who said that he and HIS tribe had ALL the right rituals, beliefs, language, dress, etc.?
            ‘B) Or the easy-peasy shaman who was all into, relax, his rituals (gods, goddesses, or lack thereof, or trees and rocks and grasses) are every bit as good as the next shaman’s, or any other human’s?

            I think it is intuitively obvious that self-righteousness has (in our sociobiological past at the very least) been WAY too reproductively successful, biologically as well as culturally! THIS is where Jesus was correct, and THIS is where we need to keep our intuitions firmly in check!

            Yes, be judgmental (AKA “intuitive”) about murder and rape and robbery! But watch it about religions or lack of same, and about one language or skin color or another, chopsticks v/s forks and spoons, and so on!

          2. “Distrust of the stranger, territorialism, wars over mates, tribalism, then nationalism”

            Here’s a problem… Those aren’t good examples!

            Those things are STILL very valuable in practical, day to day life. Largely because if you unilaterally disarm from them and others don’t, you’ll get fucked. This is essentially what the western world is doing right now, and it is causing it great harm, and may end up being an existential threat if not addressed soon.

            I watched a video the other day of a German guy talking about migrant crime in Germany. Many of the foreigners are committing crimes at 20 times the rate of native born! The fact that they tossed these things to the side is causing REAL harm to individuals in their nation, and the nation as a whole. Not being hateful, but skeptical, practical, and wise in your choices based on the above things would be a wise choice.

            Being cautious of the stranger, but not hating for no reason, is likewise a wise choice. One never knows if ANY stranger, of your ethnicity or not, will be friend or foe. Being protective of your territory (property) is also a good instinct, as bad people exist and might REALLY be out to take it from you.

            A better example to prove the same point you wanted to would be running around punching people in the face for looking at you wrong. There’s not any real upside there, but it’s an instinct we still have. Many of our perceived primitive “bad” traits stills serve us well, but definitely not all.

        2. Deontology is duty centered ethics and divorced from causality. The only thing you HAVE to do is die.

        3. I’ll quote the great Don Ernsberger (co-founder with David Walter of Society for Individual Liberty, now merged with Libertarian International to become International Society for Individual Liberty):

          Liberty works because Liberty is right. Liberty is right because Liberty works.

          A good understanding of Moral Foundation Theory would help out a lot here. Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is very informative and directly on point here. Humans have a nature, and some near-universal characteristics that show how moral reasoning affects us in the real world.

    2. You lost me when you referred to feudalism as a “right”.

      1. Kings and nobles thought feudalism was their right.

        1. In feudal days, the concepts of peasant property rights or single payer health care could not even be explained. Society was basically the biggest dick waving it around. The idea of self-ownership was impossible even for the king — nobles ganged up on kings all the time. Women were bargaining chips to seal transient royal deals.

          In fact, peasant property rights and self-ownership would not have worked because society was simply too damned poor to support educating peasants in the reading and writing necessary to explain such concepts. You’d need books to start with, and paper and writing tools, and that stuff was simply unavailable to peasants because that’s how poor society was.

          Survival was the only thing most peasants cared about, and that meant putting up with feudalism. Having a good kind and good nobles was the closest any peasant got to rights because that was the only way anyone would ever collect and stockpile food to hand out in bad times.

          That’s what I mean by rights only being recognized when they work, that consequences and rights go hand in hand.

        2. “Kings and nobles thought feudalism was their right.”

          This has precisely squat to do with the modern conception of individual rights. Those “rights” belonged to them alone, they were not universal.

          1. Describe one single universal right in the feudal days. Please don’t say property rights and self-ownership. Choose a right which was recognized at the time.

            1. Choose a right which was recognized at the time.

              Pretty much everything that we now call ‘due process’ originates in the Magna Carta and was explicitly deemed a universal right.

              NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right. – from the parts of Magna Carta incoroporated into English statutory law in 1297

              1. The beginning of the end for feudalism.

                1. No. The beginning of the end for feudalism was a coinage-based economy. Once that happens, then all the previous mutual obligations (contracts) based on land will end up breaking when it becomes advantageous to those in power to break them

                  1. Um, coinage was invented by, and widely used by, Athens and the other Greek city-states.
                    Coinage could hardly be a single, or major, factor in the end of feudalism.

    3. It’s not any sillier than last weekend’s “Anarchists vs: Minarchists” slap fight…

  2. Theoretical rights v/s practical results, my ass!!! Why do the two have to conflict anyway?!?!

    Why can’t it be both a dessert topping AND a floor wax? Why not both a hemorrhoid ointment AND a toothpaste?!?!?

    1. NOTE, you recycling ecofreaks and tree-huggers, that after you’ve suppressed your hemorrhoids with your hemorrhoid ointment / toothpaste, you can scrape it off of your butthole and re-use it again as toothpaste!!!!

  3. I would suggest the argument is inherently flawed as here, and typically, presented and discussed.
    It presupposes a meaningful ‘we’ who can or should, or are at least expected to, solve the problems of good action and of the good life for ‘everyone’.
    Yet ethics does not begin in the crowd. It is grounded in individuals, and much of the mucky work of getting to fundamentals in ethics requires grappling with individuation.

    And just btw, wht’s so wrong with the attempt “…to make ethics look like a branch of political economy”?
    All ethical issues involve human beings acting. Only individuals act. Actions are motivated by desire and will. All acts have consequences, which leads to a peculiar situation wherein the consequentialist and deontologist may both claim the same act and same consequences of that act in support of their view.

    1. Are consequences in any significant way distinct from the natural order? I think not.

      Consequentialism would indeed seem to argue there is is one ultimate vantage point from where all outcomes can be evaluated – the ‘we’ you speak of. Which, in a world of autonomous individuals is nonsense.

      Eudaimonia is not a single thing, it is a myriad of concepts, one unique to every person. The goal of libertarianism is to allow for a maximum range of individual judgements on what is best in life, and the maximum ability to pursue that goal.

      Your consequences are not necessarily my consequences, and it is only when those conditions are not met that rights must be defended.

      1. “Are consequences in any significant way distinct from the natural order? I think not.”
        Okay, but is there anything at all that is in any significant way distinct from the natural order?
        It’s really going to come down to exactly what scope you define for nature. There are those who take all human action as somehow ‘outside of’ or ‘other than’ nature. There are those who take ‘nature’ to mean the transitive closure over entities involved in any possible cause/effect relationship. There are those who take nature as synonymous with everything.

        I largely agree with the rest of what you posted. James Buchanan had interesting things to say about subjective values and the possibility of external or prior judgement as to values, consequences, etc.

        1. “[I]is there anything at all that is in any significant way distinct from the natural order?”

          Yes. The distinction is consequences, which stem from the natural order, and human imposed consequences, which do not necessarily follow from the natural order, and always involve some expression of human will.

          It is a similar distinction between natural rights – e.g self defense, and civil rights, e.g. voting. The latter requiring some degree of order and consensus in order to even exist.

  4. In terms of deontology and the wrongless of committing small wrongs that avoid worse consequences: one thing that isn’t discussed here is: what’s the definition of “wrong”?

    If I say it’s wrong to steal your cure for cancer and heal the sick, does that mean we can’t do it?

    Or, does that mean that, if we do it, we owe you damages?

    It’s not a given that deontologist propose that if something is wrong, then you should never ever do it or you’re going to hell. In fact, it does supply a framework for taking action, considering consequences, and resolving disputes that is capable of nuance.

    Consider eminent domain: we often think it’s “wrong” for the government to take property without compensating people of its value (say a house for building a highway). But what about about the damages? The inconvenience of finding a new home? The difference in actual value vs. compensation?

    A deontologist has an answer: the violation of property rights deserves adequate compensation. That’s why we’re having the exercise.

    Meanwhile, for a consequentialist: if more people want a highway, why should we give the home owner anything at all? Sure, that’s not perfect, but what is? We’re making more people happy. Isn’t that good?

    You can see how the latter can end up potentially scary sometimes.

    1. Some of us think that the debate is scarcely worth having…

      The both of them could well be replaced by Jimminy-Cricket-ism… “Always let your conscience be your guide”.

      This is very flexible, and covers a HUGE swatch of territory!

      (Well OK then, some people have a defective conscience… Let’s brain-scan everyone and sort them out!)

      1. PS, evil people are going to act evilly, whether they are deontologists, consequentialists, or Jimminy-Cricket-ists, or anything else (or pretend to be one or several of these). So there’s a ton of “machs nix”, doesn’t matter, going on here…


        1. Yeah, but the point of the exercise is to come up with a system which minimizes the ability of the evil people to do harm, by limiting the scope of their power.

        2. Do you think brain scans will be used in the future for employment purposes?

          “we just want to make sure you are not a psychopath. Or a pedophile. Or suffer from Oppositional Defiance Disorder.”

          1. Yes, it will happen if it is allowed to happen.

            If Government Almighty will GTFO of the way for people employing themselves, minus tons of red tape, the bossy and snooping bosses become far less of an issue. These days, private family doctor practices, for example, are being driven out of business by all the red tape.

            1. More often, they’re being taken over by hospitals due to perverse incentives in US health care law.
              I used a private practice for years. It was purchased by one of the giant hospital conglomerates. Their motivation is the ‘facility fee’ that Medicare (and, I believe Medicaid) pays ‘outpatient clinics’.
              The *only* change to my doctor’s practice was in ownership, but now there’s an extra charge tacked on.
              There’s strong motivation for the hospitals to buy out private practices. Eventually, it becomes a better deal for those practices to sell rather than soldier on.

          2. The problem is that most personality traits are neutral. They can be used for either good or evil.

      2. Jimminy Cricket-sim = ethical intuitionism. See my comment above.

      3. It’s ultimately an argument over the categorization scheme rather than over the things to be categorized.
        As such, it puts the cart before the horse. And thus a debate scarcely worth having, as you note.

    2. Objective morality which deals with actions between individuals tells us that only initiating force is wrong.

      1. Force or fraud. And the fraud part seems to me to be the most problematic.

  5. . After all, if communism worked, then a consequentialist would need to brandish the hammer and sickle. But so what?

    ’nuff said.

    Expel these progressive monsters.

    1. Communism, socialism, fascism, they all worked at first. The first few years could be argued as better than what preceded them.

      Robbing a bank works too, in the very short run. It takes a while for the theft to ripple into police work and higher insurance premiums and bank customers losing money, but the money brightens the robber’s life immediately. FDIC just distributes and lengthens the loss cycle.

      Flooring the gas pedal gets you closer to your destination sooner than being sensible. It works in the short run.

      It’s just a matter of perspective. Who wants to live forever anyway?

      1. Work for whom? Those in power. But for others not so much. The initiation of force “works” for the aggressor but not for the victim.

        It’s why Buddhism posits the law of karma.

        1. Consider Nazi Germany. How many of the German people were aggressors? Certainly the Brownshirts, the SS, and the Gestapo. But your average working man, let’s call him Hans, who, up until Hitler rose to power, was unemployed by the Great Depression in the US and the defeat of Germany in WW1? There was no way he knew what the aforementioned aggressors were doing to the Jews, the gays, the gypsies, etc. He’s just happy to be working again. And would you look at that! The NSDAP put Hans to work building a road system that he and his descendants will benefit from for generations! The Autobahn! It was so impressive that when Dwight D. Eisenhower saw it, he said, “We gotta have one of these!”

          And that’s how we got the Eisenhower Interstate System.

        2. If we’re being honest, a well orchestrated tyranny can be a VERY effective form of government, and can often do quite well by the majority of the population.

          Augustus Caesar was a dictator. BUT he managed Rome quite well. Sure he had to murder some of his political rivals, but who doesn’t? He had fair taxes by the standards of the day, respected many rights of his subjects (errrrr, citizens?), looted foreign nations for their benefit, built infrastructure that served them, and so on.

          His reign was probably more effective than if the Republic had been fully restored, as they had basically fallen into being a disaster that wouldn’t govern, much like the USA today.

          So, not saying that tyranny is a GOOD thing, but it can sometimes be better than the realistic alternatives that are on the table, and it’s not always completely horrible. The reason to not be in favor of dictators and tyrants is that the majority of them are NOT well intentioned, enlightened despots like Augustus. And of course nebulous objective principles.

  6. Liberty works, and Liberty is right.

    1. Liberty is proper, and it is beholden upon every individual to maximize the opportunity that liberty affords.

  7. Hey bub,

    Philosophy is really simple. It is the study of truth, reality.

    As soon as anyone deviates from truth, their “philosophy” is done.

    When your freedom is greed, and your basic regulation prohibits the initiation of coercion, the fact that your first step toward greed is the initiation of coercion must be a tough pill to swallow.

    Then you have a choice, reconsider the viability of your philosophy, or restrict and surround yourself by stupid people.

    1. The problem is that “truth” can only be approximated, and “reality” is subjective. Intersubjective, at best. That’s why there are so many philosophical schools and ideologies, some better, some worse.

  8. One problem with the consequentialist arguments is that they tend to rely on these caricatures and strawmen in order to justify the consequentialism. For example, the evil scientist who creates the cure for cancer but locks it away – this is absurd. Or, that the solution to the infringement of property rights via pollution from cars is to ban cars. Take away all these absurd examples and consequentialism looks a lot less attractive.

    1. The thief who steals the pie can find no one one to provide a meal for their starving child?

      1. This was my thought. Even if I’d baked the pie for a special occasion, if someone came to my door and said that their child was literally starving, I’d cut them a slice of pie.

        And I’m an asshole! So presumably normal people would do similar.

        1. #AssholeToo

    2. The problem with being a purist is that there are countless practical and real world situations where that gets just as absurd.

      What both sides must accept is that the universe is a shit place, and humans are shit beings. Utopia is not possible. The best we can do is muddle along, and try to cook up something that’s not TOO terribly fucked.

      For me this is being pretty strongly on the side of going with principles/NAP/Golden Rule, and making the occasional exception when there is a VERY strong logical, objective, practical argument to be made against doing so. By my standards, we would have a society that is 10 million times freer than it is now, but with a few exceptions in very important areas. It would be a vast improvement over the shit show we have now, but certainly would still piss off plenty of purists. But it would create a very functional system with excellent real world results.

  9. Fascinating to me in the flow of history is how early on the idea of property rights began accruing to women (in fact, were the earliest rights they had.) Once the girls got their feet in that door and even eventually managed to nudge to the front of the line ahead of some males in the succession/inheritance hierarchy the die was cast for the modern world.

    This happened in common law long before the right to vote, for common males or females.

    1. And you can be sure there were self-interested men behind those women. If she gets the throne then we get the power and so on.

    2. No that long before. Coverture laws were a thing until the 1840s.

    3. I read a legal history of the colonies and to the present. Said the colonies split from English common law in several major ways.

      1. Land could be bought and sold; apparently England required an act of Parliament.

      2. Women could inherit, and thus own, land.

      3. No more primogeniture (where the oldest male relative inherited all land and everybody else was left out in the cold).

      England had those rules to keep land under the nobility’s control. They obviously couldn’t apply in the colonies, where a family might move across the Appalachians, out of touch with even the weak “civilization” near the coast, not to mention mother England. Eventually mothers in England got tired of being special and wanted the same back home.

      1. And it ALL went down hill from there 😉

  10. “what are the philosophical underpinnings of libertarianism?”

    OMG So racism is a philosophy now?

    1. + Liberal Arts education.

    2. Racism was part and parcel of progressive thought. See Ralph Waldo Emerson.

    3. Fuck off, slaver.

    4. Race is a myth to begin with.

      Leftover crap from old pseudoscience.

      1. No it’s not. “Race” is too broad a category to be useful really, but there are large differences between different ethnicities of people around the world, that have real world implications. For instance mixed black-white people actually have problems getting organ transplants, because they have rejection issues for either black or white donors. Many health problems are found in particular groups in vastly different numbers. We’re different heights, weights, builds, etc. I could go on for days.

        If humans were categorized the same way we do other animals, based on objective trait differences, there would probably be a dozen or more sub-species of humans. We decided to ignore this stuff in the name of universalism in the 2nd half of the 20th century… But it’s all still true, whether anybody wants to admit it or not.

  11. Happiness is not what you think it is. The reason is that it actually is mostly based on prestige differentials over others. This means that maximizing it often entails undermining society in subtle ways to gain an advantage. It happens ‘unintentionally’ despite the best of intentions – this is why socialism fails. People don’t want to work hard because the fruit of their labor will be distributed to others, even though overall happiness would increase.

    So yeah, it’s all about protecting rights – freedom of speech, religion, press, and association. Without these, societies will go to war as is happening right now across Europe. They are heading for disaster. Whereas the US will be fine if we can hold on to our basic rights. The way to do this is to expose some basic fallacies. For example, many people believe that hate speech incites violence and therefore must be censored. But the truth is, failure to condemn hate speech is what causes violence. Another fallacy is that drugs cause mischief and crime. However in fact the restriction of drugs causes this. Recently there has been a strong push to outlaw “holocaust denial” both by government and on social media. The rationale is that it will lead to genocide. However the truth is that censoring it will cause a backlash that will result in another holocaust, ironically enough. America was founded to escape the witch hunts and wars of Europe caused by government restrictions. This should not be surprising.

    1. Libertarianism says you are free to peddle notions of false consciousness, but I don’t think you are going to get many customers here.

      1. There is no – emphasis no – happiness other than what you think it is. To argue otherwise is to both lay claim to some form of secret knowledge or higher awareness, and to effectively negate the individual’s autonomy.

        1. Happiness is the knowledge, not delusion, that your life is in order.

          Knowledge requires recognizing and accepting truth and reality.

          You may think fentanal will make you happy, and death won’t, without recognition and acceptance of truth, regardless of what you think, you probably won’t be happy.

          1. Happiness is a personal definition. You do not define happiness for anyone else. If his happiness is fentanyl, that’s none of your business.

            Fuck off, slaver.

            1. What makes you believe that to be true?

              If happiness or anything for that matter has conflicting definitions, it is meaningless.

              How’s the weather down there?

              Periods of piss and shit?

              1. You first. What makes you believe your definition is correct?
                A definition that excludes cases commonly taken to fall under the scope of the term defined are at best questionable.
                Your definition may cover some valid cases of happiness, but it seems to do violence to our ordinary experience by not covering other valid cases of happiness.

                1. The evidence of truth from logic is the reason that I think happiness is the knowledge that your life is in order.

                  If something makes you “happy” one day but not another, then logically it was not the definition of happiness.

                  Mine represents the best definition that I can think of, that is globally consistent as a definition must be, unless you can demonstrate any inconsistency of course.

                  For what it’s worth, love is helping someone else be happy.

                  1. So the context in which the happiness occurred is irrelevant? If not, than it’s not hard to see how ‘the same thing’ might result in happiness in one case but not the other. If, on the other hand, the context really is irrelevant, you’re talking about something very different from what most people mean by ‘happiness’.

                    You are also carelessly conflating the definition of a thing with the thing defined.

                    I have demonstrated inconsistencies. Improving one’s life can make one happy even, or perhaps especially, when that life is not yet ‘in order’ is one.
                    And that little phrase needs some serious unpacking. What does it mean for a life to be ‘in order’? Who determines if the life in question is, in fact, ‘in order’?
                    Where and how is error possible, discoverable, and, at least in ideal cases, rectifiable?
                    Can I be in error when I assert “l am happy”?

                    1. Yes the only context that is consistent is with regards to your life.

                      Our happiness results from our choices and the choices of others who affect our lives.

                      We can incrementally put our lives in or out of order.

                      Your example supports my statement.

                  2. Your life is always “in order” by definition. You may not be happy with that order, but it always is.

                    1. Order does occur in nature. The simplest lifecycles demonstrate the most natural order, and with choice comes the opportunity for disorder.

                      The complexity of our civilization has created an environment that is very disordered. Recognizing this does not improve ones feeling of security or well being but it is necessary for discerning and choosing order. Suck it up princess.

                      This is the definition of order I’m referring to

                      a condition in which each thing is properly disposed with reference to other things and to its purpose; methodical or harmonious arrangement:
                      You must try to give order to your life.

                    2. Things have inherent purpose?
                      Who knew?
                      “Properly disposed” begs the question.
                      Equivocation on ‘context’.

          2. “Happiness is the knowledge, not delusion, that your life is in order.”
            That may be the stupidest thing I read all day. There are countless instances of what we have to take as genuine happiness that don’t eve glance in the direction of ‘having your life in order.’
            In particular note how a shift from less order to greater order may result in happiness even in the face of full knowledge that your life is still a mess. Slightly less of a mess, but still ‘out of order.’

            1. Surely, you can provide an example of how having ones life in order decreases happiness.

              1. Or vice versa

              2. I need not. All I need to show is that there are cases of happiness that can occur even if one’s life is not ‘in order’. On your own grounds in your post of 12:40.
                Happiness at improving one’s lot can occur even when further improvements are possible and even known.

                1. Shirley, did not Rob begin a sentence to you saying Surely? Now that kind of nonsense tickles me plum to death. . .

              3. “Surely, you can provide an example of how having ones life in order decreases happiness.”

                Prison comes to mind.

        2. Got to agree with ThomasD here. Although there are different kinds of happiness and degrees of well being. And different things make distinct individuals happy. Not everyone cares about “prestige differentials”. Prestige is more of a conservative value.

          1. “Prestige is more of a conservative value.”


            Conservative in the sense that prestige must rely on some shared sense of order, and that order being self perpetuating.

            But there are exceptions. Iconoclasm, of a particular bent, has become a sort of prestige among the cultural Marxism crowd.

            So not always conservative.

  12. A priori moral assumptions are bunk. Consequences are all that matters. This is known.

    1. Consequentialism =/= consequences

    2. Nice a priori moral assumption.

    3. So a murderer should receive the same sentence as someone who runs over a kid that suddenly ran in front of the car?

  13. Freiman won the battle of the ridicules strawmen. Kuznickie won the debate. Utilitarianism is collectivism with zero respect for the individual.

  14. Static systems continue to the point of catastrophic collapse. That’s my theory.

  15. To be fair to the consequentialists, I think their argument is wielded rather clumsily by the people trying to embrace it.

    For example: universal healthcare.

    It’s somewhat odd for people of a consequentialist/utilitarian bent, who carefully weigh the balance between pain and pleasure, cost and benefit, suffering and contentment, realizing that prices must be paid to make society better… turn around and say every single person needs to be guaranteed life and healthcare.

    Oh, really? So we need to tax some people heavily to pay for some other people’s healthcare? Does that really lead to the most happiness for the most people? Do we really know that letting some small minority of people take financial responsibility for their healthcare, or possibly die, really isn’t the most happiness for the most people, if it means the difference for a lot of between, say, a 25% tax bill and a 60% tax bill? How do consequentialists so often get to this place of “zero tolerance, zero consequences, everyone must be guaranteed everything necessary!” place, if life is no nuanced, and costs and benefits are so complex?

    And they answer is: they’re not really consequentialists. That’s just an excuse for whining to get what they want from whoever will give it to them.

  16. “Deontology starts, I would say, with something much like the Golden Rule”

    I would consider this my starting point even as an Atheist. I think that also influences my draw towards libertarianism. Leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.

  17. I don’t care which dentist is “less wrong”. If there’s some crazy motherfucker running around yanking teeth out of people against their wills, find them, put a bullet in their head, and move on.

    1. Especially the naughty dentists. Fortunately the fillings are hidden away, quite safely.

      1. There’s an old story about Butch Cassidy, maybe apocryphal, about the dentist in Denver who pulled the wrong tooth out of Cassidy’s mouth. Butch and his pal Sundance put the dentist in the chair and pulled all his teeth.

  18. But this wins the battle at the cost of losing the war. It addresses the problems with deontology by effectively abandoning deontology.


    100% rigid deontology ties you to a very specific and static position, yes. 99% deontology leaves you the necessary room for your “act of petty theft that saves millions of lives”, and still limits how far afield you can go. The problem with your consequentialist position is that it has no anchor. It can go anywhere “what seems to make the most people happy” takes it.

  19. Liberty produces the most benefit for society AND allows for individual rights. Win-win. Why’s it gotta be one or the other?

    You simply don’t get to shit on individual rights just because program X benefits a majority at the expense of the minority.

  20. Consequentialism is a losing proposition for liberty. Progressives are already convinced, and have armies of experts to attest, that their policies deliver the best consequences to the most people.

    1. Only if they resolutely ignore the actual results every time those policies were put into effect, and define happiness as what THEY think you should want, rather than as what YOU feel about it. As another poster pointed out, one’s life is perfectly in order in a well-run prison, but prison sentences are a deterrent to nearly everyone who thinks past the current moment.

  21. I’d say I subscribe to deontology while being aware of the negative consequences of it and adjusting accordingly.

  22. Two altruists walk into a debate…. The punchline, naturally is that all attention is focused on how best to sacrifice someone else’s values to, (get this!), someone else. The above fake debate is the best example of why freedom is indefensible without a standard of value, and why all of the fakes and wannabees are as much a waste of time now as they were before Ayn Rand wrote the NAP and inspired the libertarian party to change bad laws by pressure of conscientious and ethical casting of votes. Ayn Rand’s ethical conclusions were right there in the work of ethicists of the 1940s and 1950s, but scattered haphazardly. She was the prime integrator, like it or not, bringing together the relevant concepts on which the LP was founded. Why not find someone to debate Tara Smith?

    1. Absurd.
      The NAP was part of popular culture, in the form of “it’s wrong to be the one to start a fight” decades before Rand was born. Centuries, even. It’s not even unique to Western Civilization. Tarting it up with a fancy acronym and calling it a ‘principle’ ought not obscure the second-hand nature of her work, here or elsewhere. Is reminiscent of her claims to originating the idea that man needed to exert mindful effort to thrive. Von Mises had a thing or two to say about that.
      She was a master polemicist, an ace spinner of bromides, and an intellectual second-rate hack.
      Her ethics were as inconsistent as her life, she plagiarized her main, and best, ideas, and was philosophically an absurdist of the first degree.
      That she was one of the beacons leading to libertarianism is laudable, but her fanboys want to ascribe an exclusivity, an originality, to her assertions that they do not deserve.

      1. My problem with Rand has always been that she dismisses Hume’s is-ought problem too casually. She asserts that her ethical philosophy overcomes the problem, but in my opinion she never really grappled with it at all. What she really did is place choosing to thrive and sustain life as her highest moral value axiomatically.

        I don’t think there’s anything wrong with axiomatic moral values. In fact, I think they’re the only way to have a moral system because the is-ought problem is actually impossible to overcome. I just think it’s better to be honest about it. Also, I place individual liberty as my highest moral value, so I’ve got a fundamental disagreement with Rand there.

        1. Most of Rand’s ‘grand solutions’ to hard problems in philosophy are simply casual dismissals with no real grasp of the issues.
          Stamping one’s foot and whining “nuh uh” is not a philosophical argument.

        2. Anyone with the slightest interest in philosophy can read Tara Smith, of UTexas, Austin. Dr. Smith derives equivalent ethical principles from regular professional philosophers teaching at US universities in the 40s and 50s. In a different book she goes over the same ground criticizing Ayn Rand’s derivations. This is 20th-Century ethics, compiled under radioactive clouds casting shadows over the War Crimes Trials of Christian National Socialist judges and Japanese field-marshals–the explicit rejection of the initiation of force so apropos in an era in which a single modern weapon can microwave an entire looter looter government with minimal collateral damage to the fools who let it gather strength in the first place. Objectivism is the force of example, as opposed to the example of force, and Reason could do with a housecleaning.

          1. Now that’s funny right there.

          2. Nazis weren’t Christians. I’ve proven this time and again and you refuse to notice or change.


            “No, Christianity is not dependent upon the Apostle’s Creed… True Christianity is represented by the party, and the German people are now called by the party and especially the Fuehrer to a real Christianity” – A real Nazi

      2. “The NAP was part of popular culture, in the form of “it’s wrong to be the one to start a fight” decades before Rand was born. Centuries, even. It’s not even unique to Western Civilization. ”

        I agree with that. It was there long before. About 2000 years ago a wise man (Hillel) said it this way “”That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah, (or ethics if you prefer) the rest is explanation”

        He also bridged the tension between self-interest, Rand’s guiding principle, and consequential altruism this way ” “If I am not for myself who is for me? And if I am only for my own self, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”

        So none of these are new ideas.

        1. Rand admits she stole everything from Aristotle. Remember she was a novelist. It’s only because people kept asking about philosophy that she began discussing it.

          1. That may be kinder to Rand than she deserves.
            She insisted she was doing new, valid, work that ‘extended’ and ‘repaired’ Aristotle’s efforts.
            She “admits” to starting from an Aristotelian basis, but was emphatic that such notions as ‘measurement omission’ were new, product of her own mind.
            Those familiar with late 19th/early 20th century history of philosophy, and of her academic roots, have good grounds for believing ‘measurement omission’ is a botched, baldly remembered, rehash of Husserl’s method of ‘free variation.’ I.e., a literally stolen concept.
            One of the significant tells is her use of the phrase ‘philosophy [sometimes epistemology] with a knowing subject’. This bridges from her to her professor to his studies in Germany pre-1914, where he was exposed to, and reportedly positive about, the early phenomenologists who coined this phrasing.

      3. Gosh, you make Ayn sound as bad at economics as Margaret Mead was at sociology field methods, or Rachel Carson at statistical analysis. Next you’ll be picking on Sacajawea for taking Lewis and Clark on that side trip.

        1. Picking on women, is the point…..leave great women lie…’s safer that way

        2. Anyone claiming economic insight who also holds to ‘objective value’ goes much further wrong than Mead on anthropology or Carson on statistics.
          Rand was never able to explain why or how, in a world of ‘objective value’ exchange could ever happen voluntarily.
          It’s Marx-level foolishness.

  23. The problem w/ consequentialists, as far it is practiced in the real world, is that – much like Keynsianism – they never pay much attention to the actual consequences, as much as their own contorted rationalizes for “what might lead to better-consequences”

    iow, they’ll say, “well, you should accept this X (ostensibly liberty-encroaching regulation) because further down the road you might get Y (less regulation)”

    its just so much endless sugar being put on the pill of ‘more govt’. See: Niskanen-ites, et al.

    And then they pivot to being “principled” on issues that actually have obvious adverse consequences. Open borders, for example, might sound swell: but are they leading anyone anywhere to a more-libertarian future?

    “Well, eventually” they might say. The consequences, you see, are long-term – the immediate ones don’t count. This sort of dancing bait/switch becomes the standard mode.

    1. *disclosure:

      Some of the above critique is actually acknowledging flaws i’ve found in my own arguments sometimes.

      I don’t really think of myself as an either/or, deontological/consequentialist, or a thick/or/thin person either.

      I’d call my own posture closer to consequentialist; more ‘realist’ in most matters: try to be pragmatic in most issues, but where pragmatism has no obvious benefit, default to principle.

      I don’t have any good examples ready to hand.

      one thing that pops to mind are people who think ‘religion, if left unchecked, restricts liberty’

      (e.g. some religions dislike teh gays; ergo, we need to make laws to ensure they don’t not-sell cakes and stuff. or maybe its because god-folks don’t like abortion.)

      therefore, laws which muzzle religious folk are OK. Because ‘liberty’ yay.

      in those cases – which effect is actually the more liberty-reducing? the effect of the god-folk’s unchecked opinion? or the effect of the laws used to squelch them?

      I’d probably say the latter. I suppose you could say its some hybrid of consequentialist. I’m not 100% saying there’s no principle involved – but it involves weighing principle w/ practical-impact.

    2. “they never pay much attention to the actual consequences, as much as their own contorted rationalizes for “what might lead to better-consequences””

      This is very much a major issue with being utilitarian. In order to DO IT RIGHT, you need to be able to actually step back and realize when you fuck up… I have no doubt that a lot of leftists MEAN WELL. The problem is that they should have been able to step back and say “Well shit… These welfare programs have REALLY not worked out the way we thought they would. Who knew that requiring the man to not be around to get welfare money would break up so many homes? Or that getting free money would make people not want to work! Well I guess we need to scrap this whole idea and go back to the old way or come up with something radically different.”

      But I don’t think utilitarian arguments are always bad either. Although I lean towards principles when there is only a small, proportional, negative outcome… I don’t think being principled 100% of the time makes any sense. Open borders are one of those areas where I give ZERO fucks about sticking to the NAP, because the real world problems with true open borders would be so immense.

    3. The basic problem with consequentialism is that people are bad at predicting long-term effects. For example, government-provided health care mostly works for the first generation, but people will overuse anything that is free. So to keep the costs from overrunning the entire government revenue, they will have to impose rationing and limit the fees or salaries of the health care providers. That discourages the next generation from going through the lengthy and difficult training needed to become a doctor, and the waiting lists or other rationing only becomes worse. And the money for research into innovations in healthcare just isn’t there.

      Americans should see the results of universal health care in the many Canadians crossing the border to buy American health care rather than waiting for their free health care, and in the dominance of American drug companies over all the advanced nations with socialized medicine (in spite of having one of the world’s worst regulatory regimes for getting approval for new drugs and medical devices) – but half of American are screaming for us to follow the example of those countries that have socialized themselves into dependence on the USA for both new treatments and for old treatments that their systems cannot deliver promptly.

  24. speaking of consequentialists:

    Bloomberg View:

    Govt seizing and re-distributing property is uncool – but hey, it has some possible economic benefits

    Maybe that’s not consequentialist, maybe that’s just plain retarded.

    Mike Malice says ‘conservatives are just progressives driving the speed limit’. Which i think is true in many ways (at least the way so-called ‘conservative’ politicians act).

    But I think ‘neoliberals’ like Noah (or will wilkenson) are just fucking progressives who want to pretend they’re something different because it gets them sweet think-tank gigs.

    1. [Noah Smith:] It might also be a good idea to consider sending restless unemployed people out into the countryside to farm.

      Why not employ them as computer programmers, rocket scientists, or brain surgeons as well? All of those are perfect jobs for unskilled labor!

  25. There is only one human right, to not have force initiated against you.

  26. One of the difficulties with certain sects of libertarianism is that they are seemingly divine craps players: regardless of the ethical concerns, there is a reading of libertarianism that ALWAYS rolls 7 and benefits them. While all of the most influential thinkers have struggled with concepts of right and wrong, they have seemingly unlocked the secret code. Curious.

    Even if you were to accept the deontological reading of let’s say the NAP, it is almost always an incomplete reading, with numerous footnotes attached describing the all the ways it can be transgressed (and by what degree and surely more to follow) by self-interest. Rarely is it a Iron Law demanding sacrifice by its adherents in order to maintain its viability and not be called complete hypocrites.

    It is in this vein I’m curious if there are any libertarian deontological obligations the individual has towards the greater society (and why these are not championed as vociferously as the much more self-serving aspects of the brand). I mean it is well and good to demand others support libertarian conceptions of the state, but then what do they get in return?

    1. Selfishness is a virtue, sacrifice a sin.

      1. Disagree. Libertarianism is a concept that requires (at least some of) us to surrender our ability to dominate others for personal gain so that we all might experience maximum autonomy.

        To be sure, some libertarians may choose to be so because it matches well with their passive or subservient nature. But not all of us are here by default.

        1. “Libertarianism is a concept that requires (at least some of) us to surrender our ability to dominate others for personal gain so that we all might experience maximum autonomy.”

          I must admit, I had never actually thought about that from that view. In a way, being a strict libertarian, and enforcing that on others, DOES require those of extraordinary ability to sacrifice being able to dominate others. Genghis Khan surely would not have been able to subjugate large portions of the world if he were following the NAP, so to him it is in fact forcing altruism on his part!

          Ha! An interesting thing to think about.

  27. To me libertarianism is the only political philosophy that puts the individual in the center of the moral universe. It is also the only one in our current environment that actually has a set of guiding principles even if do not all agree.

    Axioms are great. They are like a lighthouse. Without them there is no way to navigate in the world around us. At the same time we live in a real physical world with real problems. To actually accomplish anything a person soon realizes that the world is a very messy place, full of contradictions. Otherwise we can just spend our days meditating on our mountaintops and what fun is that?

  28. The question as posed presents a false alternative. IT’s like asking which is more important–your life, or the things you want to get in life? What are the consequences for a person if his individual rights are routinely denigrated and violated? What are the consequences for all persons in a society if the rights of all persons are routinely violated and justice is not a guiding principle of the government and the citizenry? Society consists of individuals. Start with the individual, human nature, and the requirements of survival in a social context. There is no other way to proceed. One cannot talk about “the consequences for society” of treating individuals like crap without looking at individuals, their nature, and the respect for their rights that they are morally entitled to from others in society.

  29. Consequentialism and deontology both have problems.

    The problem with consequentialism is that it’s ultimately no different from utilitarianism. If it’s okay to steal a cancer cure from a reclusive scientist, then is it also okay to force scientists to work on a cancer cure, if it will save millions of lives? Is the only question that matters the utilitarian one of whether scientists can be forced to work well under duress?

    The problem with deontology is that it starts with a set of universal principles that are far from universally accepted. You may accept the non-aggression principle as absolute truth, but most people don’t. Ultimately how is, “people should not be used as tools” different from “people should be treated equally” or “suffering should be minimized” as a fundamental axiom?

    My own view of libertarianism is subjectivist. I value freedom in my own life, and I value living in a society where other people are free to live their lives in the way they choose. As a result, I believe that libertarianism is the best route toward a freer society.

    I’m not a libertarian because I like the side effects of freedom. I’m a libertarian because I value freedom in itself.

    1. I had in mind saying basically this.

      I consider myself a deontologist, however, I think that libertarianism will never catch on without consequentialism. Americans in general are programmed to consequentialist outcomes because that’s what mainstream politics is all about (right or wrong). It’s up to libertarians, in my mind, to really meld the two philosophies together if we ever want to impact public policy.

      A purely deontological movement will never gain traction. A purely consequentialist movement isn’t worth having.

      1. I consider myself a deontologist, however, I think that libertarianism will never catch on without consequentialism.

        Yes, but a very limited consequentialism. Arguments like “vote libertarian if you don’t want jerks like Trump to tell you what to do”, not arguments like “vote libertarian because free markets will make you wealthy”.

      2. That’s because at the end of the day consequences ARE what matter. If the consequences of libertarianism were all horrible, why would anybody want to have a worse life just so they could say they were principled? They wouldn’t! Thankfully freedom IS good for people, so we’re in the clear.

  30. Apparently we’re finally lining up on who’s here for First Principles and who’s here for the weed?

  31. I am here to sell you a time share apartment in sunny Idlib province. There will be clouds in the morning, with only a small chance of Mig bombers in the afternoon. If you see or hear a drone, take cover immediately.

    A prospectus will be available soon, unless POTUS decides to make this the OK corral showdown moment with Putin, in which case large discounts on all properties in the Middle East may be expected later in the month. Watch our website for updates.

  32. Reason (as currently amended) offers us a dichotomy consisting of two death-affirming philosophies grounded in hypothetical assumptions. So why ignore the only life-affirming virtue-ethical philosophy in which the flourishing lives of actual human beings is the standard of value?

    1. Why, do you know of one?
      Hint ? Rand does not, emphatically not, pluralize human beings as the standard of value. Not that plain text, lack of equivocation, or consistent meanings for words ever mattered much to Objectivists, despite their protestations to the contrary.

  33. Context & Consequences

    “I the Lord search the heart,
    I try the reins,
    Even to give every man according to his ways,
    According to the fruit of his doings.” -Jeremiah 17:10

    Fruit of his doings. Consequences.

    All behavior occurs in a context. Consequences determine its future strength.

    Excerpt from the just-published novel, Retribution Fever:
    The Old Testament through Jeremiah implies that we should judge ourselves more by the consequences of our behaviors than by our behaviors themselves. In the context of enhancing human efficiency, if the consequences diminish our meaning as individuals or our purpose as a species, the behavior that preceded them, by definition, is evil.

    How far past the behavior itself, though, must we look to determine its consequences? After all, life acts as a continu?m ? from the supernovae, the elements of which we all are formed, to the predicted and likely but distant future of an accelerating, essentially lifeless Cosmos. Accordingly, any such determination necessarily must be somewhat arbitrary. There are, nevertheless, scientific guidelines to aid us; for example, the closer in time a consequence is to a behavior, the greater its potency. We, thereby, can place values on the consequences of a behavior as a function of their qualities and of their latencies as well as of their magnitudes and durations.

  34. Consequentialism eventually leads to immoral behavior. A good result can never justify the continuation of an evil means, but consequentialist argue for this all the time. Sure, a perfectly moral action can lead to an awful result, but once it is clear that an action is leading to an awful result, no moral person would argue for its continuation. The goal of morals is to take justifiable actions. If an action is not justifiable, it is not moral, even if it leads to a good result. If an action is justifiable, but directly leads to an awful result, the action stops being justifiable, at least in that situation. No immorality occurs because the action was justifiable and the awful result was unknown. On the other hand, the conscious act to take an immoral action cannot be justified just because it all came out good in the end.

    1. “If an action is justifiable, but directly leads to an awful result, the action stops being justifiable, at least in that situation”

      I don’t know that that is the case. There are lots of things that aren’t immoral, but lead to bad results for somebody, but they will continue forever because that’s just how shit goes down in the hood.

      An example a leftist might use could be paying somebody a wage that is so low it leaves them permanently impoverished. A not so bright person, in the free market, has skills that are only so valuable… So somebody is willing to pay them what they’re worth. If that person piles up billions of dollars, they COULD pay that person more, so their suffering is less… But there is no reason to when they can pay them less.

      This situation could go on forever. As a hard nosed guy, I say fuck the blow it case. If they don’t want to make garbage wages, learn a more useful trade. But the argument still contradicts your assertion that it would stop if a person was moral.

  35. “Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what’s right.” – Isaac Asimov

  36. First off, IMO, we are ALL consequentialists when it comes down to it.

    If it was an indisputable fact that Communism produced nations that were vastly wealthier, the people were happier, everybody felt better about themselves because all were equal, why wouldn’t people like it best? Imagine the USSR took off like a rocket ship upon founding – I’m talking commies all live in 10 bedroom mansions, have their own personal jets, etc and capitalists pigs live in shacks and are half starved – Just to make the distinction clear!

    How many people would be fighting for Capitalism to be the economic system JUST because it was arguably more moral? I would wager that number would be next to nothing. People support capitalism because it produces the best results, even as most would concede it is still not entirely perfect. That it is also moral is secondary.

    Where it really comes down to it, since the differences would not likely be quite that massive, is on the edges. Is it worth a little sacrifice of principle for a little gain here and there? What about a small sacrifice for a LARGE gain?

    I guess I would have to say I’m a consequentialist at the end of the day, because if libertarian thinking did produce horrible results I would probably not support it. Thankfully it doesn’t!

    But I also think we should have massive deference to principles too.

    IMO I think we should stick to principles, even if there is a small/proportional negative outcome, since freedom is enhanced.

    1. Even if legalizing crack DID produce a SMALL AMOUNT more problems for people than having it be illegal, we should probably do it anyway because FREEDOM!

      That said, if it were a known fact that legalizing crack would turn 50% of the population into non functional crack heads, and cause 5 million OD deaths a year… I might change my mind. I think proportions matter to everybody at the end of the day.

      I think things would be outright better with legal drugs of course, but I’m just trying to make a point.

      So, in short I think we should lean strongly towards libertarian principles, which IMO produce the best results anyway 95% of the time, but there is room for exceptions in some circumstances.

      Frankly, I think people that are 100% rigid about ANYTHING are fools. As the saying goes there is an exception to every rule. The NAP has exceptions that seem pretty clear to me in some situations. Maybe I’m wrong on some of them, but I’m certainly not wrong on all. Sometimes the gain in freedom is so small, and the cost is so large, it’s just not worth being a purist. TRUE open borders is one IMO!

      As a non hyper individualist to the point of insanity person, I also accept that there is such a thing as a society/culture/civilization. While we ought not make too many concessions to society, especially by force, I think many people that deny anything that is not a single atomized individual miss out on why nobody gives a fuck about their extremist opinions.

    2. Humans are pack animals. We have instincts that guide us, and some of those involve group well being. We’re also individualist. We have BOTH in our nature. So on some of these things, even if you believe in a more extreme individualist point of view, I think you need to accept it just ain’t ever gonna happen. So from a practical perspective, even as someone who DOES give a lot of sway to the principled arguments, pushing the positive consequences is definitely the way to persuade most people.

      We can and should become 1 million % more libertarian than we are, but I think there will always be sensible exceptions to the rule. The way we can get as close as possible though will be pointing out the positive results for all the areas where the NAP/Freedom does serve us well. Mental masturbation about principles will NEVER convince people… But showing them how they’ll be wealthier, happier, healthier, etc will.

  37. When I was in college, learning the difference between utilitarian and deontological ethics, I spent a lot of time asking myself questions like this one. I don’t do that anymore. I think the answer is we don’t have to choose — that consequentalist and deontological arguments are BOTH necessary and useful to advance the cause of liberty. The deontologist is correct that people don’t like to think consequentially. They prefer to defend moral actions by harmonizing them with deeply held intuitions. But consequentialists are right that you can’t possibly persuade every one of the importance of liberty on deontological principles alone, because some people have very different intuitions. Consequentalist arguments are a way to beat the advocate for non-liberty principles on his own turf, by showing that the things he wants to achieve (e.g., better standard of living for the poor) are better achieved in a political system that maximizes individual liberty.

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