Thursday, September 28, 2006

Utilitarianism (Revised)

Chapter ? - Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism (from the Latin utilis, useful) is a theory that prescribes the quantative maximization of good consequences for a population. It considers virtue to be based on utility, and thus it is a form of consequentialism. Though some utilitarian theories might seek to maximize other consequences, these consequences generally have something to do with the welfare of people (or of people and nonhuman animals). For this reason, utilitarianism is often associated with the term welfarist consequentialism.

There's a huge problem. Utilitarianism is completely revolved around the ends, and ignores means altogether. Thus, utilitarianism is often prone to jump to "the ends justify the means" conclusions. But that means that any ethical standard goes out the window as soon as a presumed "good" consequence appears achievable. However, no matter how "good" a consequence may seem, it does not negate the question of the means to such consequences. We will find that in each case that one applies utilitarianism, it tends to violate common-sense notions of justice. Modern political talking points such as "we have to fight them there so we don't have to fight them here" and "we have to have a huge social safety net or millions of people would starve to death" is pure utilitarianism. Thus, a utilitarian would argue that the consequences of welfare, or the consequences of warfare, are somehow positive, and that these supposedly positive results justify the means used to achieve them. This type of consequentialism is “positive utilitarianism”.

There are many utilitarian libertarians and free market economists that use consequentialist arguments as their fundamental foundation. This type of utilitarianism is revolved around demonstrating that a given action leads to bad or even unintended consequences, and thus it is “negative utilitarianism”. The negative utilitarian still seeks the maximization of good consequences, but their method is to promote the least amount of negative consequences, or to prevent the greatest amount of negative consequences for the greatest number. There is nothing inherently wrong with showing how the consequences of a given government intervention or human action are bad, and there is not necessarily anything wrong with wanting to achieve the least amount of negative consequences, but when that is one’s fundamental argument it brings one to shaky ground. For if one is solely concentrated on consequences, the underlying ethics of such matters becomes demphasized if not disposed of altogether. While the natural rights libertarian may very well agree with the utilitarian that a particular action or lack of that action will yield good or bad consequences, this is not their primary reason for supporting or opposing a particular measure. Their reasoning fundamentally lies in the ethics of the means.

Before looking into the ends, a principled libertarian and/or economist must first establish a critique of the means. Before demonstrating how any given means will lead to negative ends, one must demonstrate how the means themselves are negative, that the particular means chosen are in violation of freedom. After all, the basic reason why a particular end is negative stems precisely from the negative means that are used to obtain such results. For example, if Jack is walking down the street minding his own buisiness, and Joe jumps out an alley and beats up Jack, the ends of Joe’s actions are negative. However, it is not enough to merely point out that the ends are negative, it is incumbent upon the opponent of violence to demonstrate that the means, the action of non-defensive violence, is not ethical to begin with. We must realize that Joe’s initial action in itself is negative. In short, we cannot avoid ethics. While the utilitarian libertarian may strongly believe in individual liberty, they pose the risk of providing “justification” for its invasion, wether or not they intend to do so.

There is a problem of subjectivity in utilitarianism. A question that inevitably arises is that of how are we to decide precisely what consequences are positive or negative, and who decides that. Surely, different individuals and groups have varying definitions of what makes them happy, different personal morals. The utilitarian has the burden of proving that a particular consequence is good, and one cannot do this without resorting to personal value judgements. Utilitarianism conflates the many diverse desire systems present in a society and imposes a single desire system by which to measure utility. The determination of maximal utility is made from the perspective of a single impartial spectator, or ``perfect legislator,'' who represents all the people in the society. In this way, a single system of desires and a single conception of the good operate to determine the correct allocation of benefits and burdens. Utilitarianism's use of an impartial spectator with these characteristics conflicts with common notions of justice.

Thus, while a negative utilitarian himself, Austrian economist Ludwig Von Mises went out of his way to refrain from personal value judgements and adhered to a subjectivist view of human action. He correctly believed that the end of happiness cannot be objectively measured precisely because of the variety of subjective value judgements between individuals, and therefore his definition of happiness was merely the attainment of one’s desired end. He also correctly asserted that one cannot quite accurately predict future consequences, especially in economics. Mises was as restrained as a negative utilitarian could possibly be. If Mises would not have done this, he would have been an “armchair utilitarian”, one that superimposes their personal value judgements of happiness onto others and attempts to predict the future.

However, while it is indeed important to aknowledge the subjectivity of one’s happiness, there nonetheless remains objective ethical grounds by which one can measure not happiness, but right and wrong. While we may be correct in maintaining that value judgements are subjective, utilitarianism does not take into account the nature of the desires being satisfied; utilitarianism makes the mistake of considering right and wrong to be determined by happiness or the lack of it. This leads us into a realm of ethical ambiguity. Afterall, one could easily obtain what appeases their happiness through the use of unethical means. Since utility is the satisfaction of one’s subjective desires, we run into a problem when those desires are contrary to justice, when one’s desires are “evil”. This is the main flaw with the doctrine of subjectivity. For example, the utility of a slave owner is to continue to possess slaves and to have more slaves, and the utility of a torturer is to inflict as much pain on their victim as possible. If it could be demonstrated that slavery or torture were beneficial to the overall population in some way, which was a common argument used by opponents of the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, a bold utilitarian would have to accept these devices on such grounds. But it remains that such things are unethical.

Thus, we see how utilitarian methodology can be used to provide false justification for unethical means, by asserting that it is justified to violate the individual’s interest in the name of the “greater” interest or “public good”; or utility in general. Since utilitarians judge all actions by their ability to maximize good consequences, any harm to one individual can always be “justified” either by a greater gain to other individuals or the resignation to utility itself. If we are overly dogmatic about the subjectivity of individual choice, we run into absurdities such as a robber being justified because theft was the means by which they could achieve maximum results, in this case the possession of property, in the easiest and fastest manner possible. And therefore, while it is most certainly true that everyone’s value judgements are inherently subjective, that it is entirely subjective to the individual what makes them happy or not, it must be realized that happiness is not what determines right and wrong, and thus the subjectivity of happiness is not a valid argument for the notion of the subjectivity of right and wrong. The subjectivity of happiness does not “prove” that right and wrong is subjective.

We must distinguish between judgements of value and judgements of ethics. A judgement of value, such as between various religions, lifestyles, products and services, is subjective. A judgement of ethics, such as between using force or not using force, between compulsion and voluntary cooperation, is not subjective. For example, there is nothing subjective about whether a mass-murderer is right or wrong. Their actions can be considered to be objectively wrong because of the forceful nature of their actions. It would be absurd to suppose that the act of murder is subjective. Subjective judgements of value, such as being a Christian over an atheist, or buying the brand of cigarettes of one’s choice, can be expressed as rights. But surely noone would suppose that the judgement of whether or not to rape or steal from someone is a “right”, that it is a subjective judgement as to whether or not someone is correct in engaging in such actions. Such invasions of person and property can be objectively considered as wrong because they violate the nature of the victim, they go against the victim’s ownership of their body or possessions. Because of the fact that the victim naturally owns their own body and their possessions, it is objectively wrong to invade their person and property. In short, it is wrong precisely because it violates what objectively is; the individual’s control over their property. On a one-dimensional plane, if one’s ownership of their person and property is X, and the invasion of that individual’s person and property is Y, then the introduction of Y into the equation is wrong because it violates the nature of X. X on its own would literally be “correct” by its mere existance; it simply objectively is. X is natural. Violating its existance must be considered as “incorrect” because it violates what naturally is.

The utilitarian runs into a problem in terms of the lack of action, the degree of a given action or the lack of a particular presumed “good” consequence or “greater” consequence. In other words, a utilitarian may consider something to be “wrong” because it does not achieve the most maximally “good” consequence, but rather a consequence that is more marginal or lesser. For example, if someone donated $5,000 for a charity intended to help starving children in Africa when that person could have donated more or could have donated to a more efficient organization, a positive utilitarian would consider this action to be wrong because the donator did not choose what is presumed to yield the most maximum result. Or, take a situation of self-defense or defending others. Suppose that Jane sees Joe attacking Jack on the street – not to the level of murdering him, but assaulting him. In order to maximize good consequences, a utilitarian could suppose that Jane must choose to defend Jack, and therefore if Jane does not choose to do so she would be considered wrong in not taking action.

Or, if we take Jane out of the equation, a pacifist utilitarian that presumes that a total lack of violence is the maximum consequence to be desired, they would conclude that Jack must refrain from defending himself because it would cause additional harm. On the other hand, a utilitarian that thinks that self-defense will yield the best results may take it to the extreme of considering it imperative to extend self-defense beyond the proportion of the crime, and therefore they would conclude that Jack must kill Joe, and even other individuals that relate to Joe in some way, even after the crime of assault has transpired. This would constitute unproportional vengeance. Such notions lead us to ethical absurdities. Any theory that accepts an unjust distribution of benefits and burdens must be flawed. To define right action only by reference to whether it produces a good “state of affairs” (the achievement of the actor’s desired end) necessitates a fundamental clash between an agent’s moral character and that allegedly right action.

Instead of starting on a results-based ethic, how about using a real axoim to determine right and wrong? The non-aggression axoim. Everyone is free to choose, act and think without harming the person or property of others, outside of self-defense from invasions of that freedom. In short, everyone is “free” in their person and property, to not have their body and possessions aggressed against, and they have a right of self-defense when their liberty has been violated. The violation of one’s rights in their person and property is defacto unjust because it violates one’s nature. You would think that such a contention as non-aggression would be common sense - it's in practically every religion and philosophy known to man in one form or another. Every single view on any issue could stem from that. It's that simple. The difference between the natural rights libertarian and many others is that the natural rights libertarian consistantly applies the golden rule to government itself. They don't give government a double standard, they consistantly hold all individuals and groups to the exact same ethical standard. If it's wrong for Joe to murder Jack, it's wrong for people acting on behalf of the government to murder Jack as well. Immediately we come to the grounds for being anti-war - war is mass murder. The ends don't justify the means. If it's wrong for Joe to steal from Jack, it's wrong for people acting on behalf of the government to steal from Jack as well. In theory, immediately we come to the grounds for not exactly being fond of taxation - the act of taxation itself is not really separable from theft. The ends don't justify the means. Even if you tell me that the thief then gives money to the poor, or any good thing, the initial act of theft is still wrong. Even if you tell me that murdering thousands of civilians “saved lives”, which is a very dubious and ambiguous claim to begin with, the actual act of mass-murder is still wrong.

Thus, we see a political atmosphere in which people are convinced that their particular desired ends should be sought out no matter what the means are, wether their desire is to reduce crime, make people moral, stabalize the middle east, help the needy, or make us "secure" and enlightened. In the name of achieving presumably good things we use means that are absolutely "evil" by all common sense ethical standards. To make a doctor analogy, the result is often that you kill the patient in the name of curing their disease. Often, the desired ends don't even become a reality, and it becomes even worse then "the ends justify the means", it becomes "the goals/intentions justify the means". In this respect, the negative utilitarian is correct that such things will yield unintended consequences, but these negative results are still not the fundamental reason why one should oppose “doctor kills the patient” measures.

The reason why such things are wrong is because of the unethical nature of the action itself, not the negative results of the action. In other words, right and wrong pre-exists the consequences. Something is not wrong because it leads to undesirable or negative consequences, it is wrong because of the very nature of the initial action that lead to those consequences. Using force against an innocent individual to take their money in the name of achieving possession of money as easily and maximally as possible is not “right” because the aggressor recieves the positive consequence of obtaining money, it is in fact “wrong” because of the very nature of the aggression against the property of the victim. On the other hand, sucessfully using force in self-defense against such an aggressor is not “wrong” because the aggressor received a negative consequence, it is in fact “right” because the defending individual was aggressed against in the first place. In short, right and wrong is intrinsic to the means, not the ends. It is not the effect itself that is right or wrong, it is the initial cause, the stimuli that created the effect, that can objectively be considered as right or wrong.

It would be innacurate to suppose that the opponent of utilitarianism does not believe in achieving results at all or that they do not wish well upon society. Like anyone in the world, they indeed have desires of their own and believe that they should be achieved, and therefore will advocate the course of action that best achieves the desired ends. What sets them apart from the utilitarian, however, is that they expressly contemplate the means to such results. If someone is using unethical means even in the name of achieving the results that the opponent of utilitarianism supports, they must resist such measures. In short, while believing in achieving results like anyone else does, they confine the means used to achieve such results within well-defined ethical bounds. For example, if one’s desired end were to abolish slavery, they would not support murdering all of the slave owners. The advocate of liberty must be proportional and consistantly adhere to their own ethics while attempting to achieve their ends. The utilitarian, on the other hand, cannot be proportional or heed to any ethical concerns because they’re solely revolved around ends.

Most of the arguements between natural rights libertarians and other groups revolve around the libertarian pointing out that the means are unethical. Then the utilitarian points to the ends to try to justify it, and the libertarian repeatedly asserts that the ends are irrelevant, they do not cancel out the ethics of the means. Utilitarianism all about ends and ignores means. It "justifies" unethical things by making an arguement of results. The results are irrelevant if the initial means violate liberty. The ethics never go out the window. One concerned with ethics doesn't dispose of right and wrong because of results. If the right thing doesn't lead to perfect results, the advocate of liberty still supports it. If the wrong thing leads to presumably good results for a particular group, they still oppose it. There is no double standard. The problem with utilitarianism is that it is prone to opposing ethically correct things because they do not achieve what the utilitarian considers to be the maximum “good” results, or supporting ethically incorrect things because they do achieve what the utilitarian considers to be the maximum “good” results.

Take something like "Click It Or Ticket" laws for example. What the law essentially does is coerce people to put on their safety belts, backed up by the force of a man with a gun, and if they are "caught" they are fined by the state. While that force of the bayonette may not be used, the threat of that force is unethical all the same. The fining of the person for the "crime" of not being safe is unethical all the same. Here we have a classic case of unjust force or compulsion being used against the person and/or property of someone. Some proponents of such laws may point to statistics demonstrating that deaths and injuries from car accidents are down ever since such laws were put into place (which is misleading nonsense in the first place: compulsion does not stop harm in accidents, the seatbelt does). Even if true, it is irrelevant to the ethics of the matter - it does not justify the use of coercion to force people against their will to act in a particular manner, nor does it justify stealing their money for not taking such precautions. The ends do not justify the means - the law is unjust, in violation of personal (the compulsion) and economic (the fine) liberty, no matter what results it leads us to. The proper argument against such measures is not that it fails to achieve the maximization of positive results, not that it fails to make the roads safer, but that it violates liberty.

Often, when debating about economic issues and capitalism, people make utilitarian arguements about the results of wealth and poverty. They aim for the maximization of wealth and property. The real question should be of the means to wealth and poverty. Not the end results themselves. The terms of the means is what needs to be defined. Was the wealth achieved through force? Then it is not legitimate. Was it achieved voluntarily? Then it is legitimate. Was the poverty created by force? Then it is not legitimate and should be corrected. Was the poverty created naturally, voluntarily? Then it is unfortunate, but not legitimate to use force in reaction to it. The true essence of the matter is not rich vs. poor, but force vs. cooperation or just vs. unjust. If the conditions around us were created through cooperative means, without any violations of liberty, then despite one’s desire to improve such conditions we must have the discipline to accept reality. This may seem cold, but it is simply realistic.

The question about income disparity is irrelevant if we do not address the means to that disparity. "Is income disparity good or bad" is not a fair question, because it ignores the question of the means. It all goes back to the economic and political means to wealth. Franz Oppenhiemer argued that the economic means to wealth is voluntary, peaceful exchange and production, and the political means to wealth is involuntary expropriation and violence. If it's the voluntary, economic means to wealth - then, regaurdless of results, it is legitimate. If it is the coercive, forceful political means to wealth - then, reguardless of results, it is not legitimate. This all stems from our initial axoim of non-aggression. It is important to further note that the person whom uses the political means to wealth, the parasite, eventually siphons off the source of their own supply, and therefore after a certain point it becomes a net loss for both the expropriator and the expropriated. Most importantly, however, is that this method of parasitism is contrary to the nature of both the parasite and their hapless victim. Income disparity, inequality between people’s property, naturally exists to begin with. That type of income disparity is not only not a crime (this is what is of vital importance to us), but is necessary for the division of labour. Politically created income disparity is what is not legitimate. But the natural voluntary disparity between people who have better and lesser achievements is something that is going to always exist until the end of time, as an intinsic part of human nature, and it presents no ethical violation. What is truly unethical is to use violence to achieve another’s just property. The maximization of utility is irrelevant to this. One must not allow concern for results to negate ethics.

And thus, we get to why socialism is bad news. It tries to "cure" that natural disparity through the use of the political means. It considers human nature, the natural differences between individuals, to be "evil". It tries to change something that cannot be changed - human nature. It demonizes those that have achieved their status and sucess voluntarily as if it is some kind of crime against humanity (the irony being that it is the very crux of humanity), and thus sets out to cripple the economic means to wealth. Why's communism bad? Because it's based on hatred for the natural division of labour and tries to abolish it through forceful means. It isn’t enough to say that it doesn’t achieve its desired ends, it is necessary to point out that it is simply unethical. The common phrase that communism is “good in theory and bad in practise” is not accurate; it is bad in practise precisely because it is a bad and erroneous theory, precisely because it uses the means of force and compulsion in the name of achieving the ends that it desires.

The same goes for fascism and neoconservatism, for different matters. It seeks to justify the mass-murder of countless people by making arguements about "democracy" and "peace" and "freedom". It seeks to justify making innocent people into criminals through victimless crimes by making arguements about "order" and "tradition". It argues that alleged "security" brought through a surveillance state somehow negates the loss of liberty it requires. It argues that making everyone pay to keep an innocent and non-violent person in jail for something like drugs, and the loss of liberty such prohibitions require, is somehow justified by the end of isolating such people from the rest of society. Again, it is not satisfactory to simply point out that fascistic measures do not lead to good results, it is necessary to consider it to be unethical. Whatever the ideology in question is, it seeks to impose its own value judgements onto others with the presumption that the applications of such judgements onto everyone else will yield the maximum utility for society, and in the quest to achieve the presumed good consequences it violates liberty.

Where communism cannot accept the natural economic divisions, reactionary rightism cannot accept the natural social/personal divisions. Both abandon principle in the name of seeking desired ends that are either impossible to achieve or do not justify the means. People from all over the political spectrum tend to make the mistake of defining their rights as a gaurantee of a particular result, without realizing that the means used in the name of achieving such goals often violate their rights in the first place. Even if they do achieve their desired ends, it was achieved through unethical means. What about "Don't Kill" and "Don't Steal" don't people understand? It does not require any particular religion or philosophy to come to such ethical conclusions.

Utilitarianism is an ideology that abandons values in the name of people's innermost fantasies. Liberty should never be sacrificed in the name of the desire for results. Both personal and economic freedom is not expendable. Right and wrong is not a gaurantee of results, it is a matter of the means to a given result. True liberty depends on adhering to non-agression consistantly. Any deliniation from that will lead to a violation of liberty. It's a sad fact of life that governments tend to violate liberty with a promise of results, and it attempts to justify its unethical actions by pointing to results while ignoring principles. Utilitarianism is the perfect tool for tyranny to attempt to justify itself to its subjects.

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