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.