The London Libertarian

The London Libertarian

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

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PhilosophyPosted by Jan Lester Mon, June 23, 2014 14:12:40

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

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

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

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

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

See *utility monsters, etc.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism

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