Utilitarianism and Natural Rights

Much has been made over the years about economic science being value-free, and the public choicers will resort to economic models to measure the relative utility of various options and select the one that achieves the “best” outcome.

While this may have some merits in practice, using it as your basis for decision making is dubious at best; and downright dangerous at worst.

While economics may be value-free, it is a tool, like a weapon that can be used to protect life and property, or it can be misused and destroy it.  Without having the principled moral grounding, a utilitarian can justify damn near anything.

Here are several articles by Murray Rothbard, with appropriate quotes presented making the case that Natural Rights are necessary when considering appropriate action, and though utilitarianism may often support the conclusions of moral actions – they cannot alone be justifications in taking such action.

Utilitarianism vs. Natural Rights


The utilitarians declare, from their study of the consequences of liberty as opposed to alternative systems, that liberty will lead more surely to widely approved goals: harmony, peace, prosperity, etc. Now no one disputes that relative consequences should be studied in assessing the merits or demerits of respective creeds.

But there are many problems in confining ourselves to a utilitarian ethic. For one thing, utilitarianism assumes that we can weigh alternatives, and decide upon policies, on the basis of their good or bad consequences.

But if it is legitimate to apply value judgments to the consequences of X, why is it not equally legitimate to apply such judgments to X itself?

May there not be something about an act itself which, in its very nature, can be considered good or evil?

Let us consider a stark example: Suppose a society which fervently considers all redheads to be agents of the Devil and therefore to be executed whenever found. Let us further assume that only a small number of redheads exist in any generation—so few as to be statistically insignificant.

The utilitarian-libertarian might well reason: “While the murder of isolated redheads is deplorable, the executions are small in number; the vast majority of the public, as non-redheads, achieves enormous psychic satisfaction from the public execution of redheads. The social cost is negligible, the social, psychic benefit to the rest of society is great; therefore, it is right and proper for society to execute the redheads.”

The natural rights libertarian, overwhelmingly concerned as he is for the justice of the act, will react in horror and staunchly and unequivocally oppose the executions as totally unjustified murder and aggression upon nonaggressive persons. The consequence of stopping the murders—depriving the bulk of society of great psychic pleasure—would not influence such a libertarian, the “absolutist” libertarian, in the slightest.

Dedicated to justice and to logical consistency, the natural rights libertarian cheerfully admits to being “doctrinaire,” to being, in short, an unabashed follower of his own doctrines.

Property and Exchange

Let us take, for example, two of the leading anarcho-capitalist works of the last few years: my own For a New Liberty and David Friedman’s Machinery of Freedom. Superficially, the major differences between them are my own stand for natural rights and for a rational libertarian law code, in contrast to Friedman’s amoralist utilitarianism and call for logrolling and trade-offs between nonlibertarian private police agencies.

But the difference really cuts far deeper. There runs through For a New Liberty (and most of the rest of my work as well) a deep and pervasive hatred of the State and all of its works, based on the conviction that the State is the enemy of mankind. In contrast, it is evident that David does not hate the State at all; that he has merely arrived at the conviction that anarchism and competing private police forces are a better social and economic system than any other alternative. Or, more fully, that anarchism would be better than laissez-faire, which in turn is better than the current system.

Amidst the entire spectrum of political alternatives, David Friedman has decided that anarcho-capitalism is superior. But superior to an existing political structure which is pretty good too. In short, there is no sign that David Friedman in any sense hates the existing American State or the State per se, hates it deep in his belly as a predatory gang of robbers, enslavers, and murderers. No, there is simply the cool conviction that anarchism would be the best of all possible worlds, but that our current set-up is pretty far up with it in desirability.

For there is no sense in Friedman that the State — any State — is a predatory gang of criminals.

Do You Hate the State?

Bеnthаm’ѕ fаmоuѕ рhrаѕе, “the grеаtеѕt gооd for thе grеаtеѕt numbеr,” which іѕ thе соrnеrѕtоnе of his dосtrіnе, оnе оf thе problems with that, of соurѕе, one оf the mаnу problems іѕ ѕuрроѕе you’re іn thе lesser numbеr, thеn whаt? Whаt hарреnѕ thеn? Utilitarianism саn justify almost еvеrуthіng.

I thіnk Bеnthаmіtеѕ wоuld аdmіt thіѕ. In оthеr words, ѕіnсе thеrе’ѕ nо juѕtісе, nо such thing аѕ natural rіghtѕ, juѕtісе or аnуthіng еlѕе.

The Panopticon – Key to Jeremy Bentham’s Thought

Turning from these men of narrow vision, we must also see that utilitarianism — the common ground of free-market economists — is unsatisfactory for developing a flourishing libertarian movement. While it is true and valuable to know that a free market would bring far greater abundance and a healthier economy to everyone, rich and poor alike, a critical problem is whether this knowledge is enough to bring many people to a lifelong dedication to liberty.

In short, how many people will man the barricades and endure the many sacrifices that a consistent devotion to liberty entails, merely so that umpteen percent more people will have better bathtubs? Will they not rather set up for an easy life and forget the umpteen percent bathtubs? Ultimately, then, utilitarian economics, while indispensable in the developed structure of libertarian thought and action, is almost as unsatisfactory a basic ground work for the movement as those opportunists who simply seek a short-range profit.

Why Be Libertarian?

I stand with Rothbard with the following analogy, if Natural Rights is the “hand”, then Utilitarianism is the “glove”.  Without the hand, the glove is without form, is not performing a function, and is incomplete.

Utilitarianism will often support the conclusions of actions taken in accordance with Natural Rights, but that should not be THE reason those actions were chosen.

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