Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Are We All Utilitarians Now?

Besides my disagreement with their conclusions, there is something similar in Tyler Cowen's recent defense of the Paulson Plan, and Roger Koppl's defense of Ted Kennedy. Both eschew arguments from natural rights or principles, and justify particular instances of the growth of the federal government by speculating on its possible net benefits. As I say, I disagree with them that their utilitarian calculus is correct, but my point here is to underscore that they don't even acknowledge the big philosophical move they're making.

For example, here's Tyler on the efficacy of the bailouts, and why the TARP should have been more pleasing to libertarians than non-TARP:
For insolvent banks...the alternative to those bailouts is calling in deposit insurance and the bankruptcy courts, both of which are, for better or worse, forms of government intervention. In particular today's bankruptcy procedures are ill-suited for disposing of a large financial institution in a timely manner and this can be considered a form of gross government failure.
So if you're "opposed to financial bailouts," as a libertarian, you're not for the market. You're saying that one scheme for governmental disposition is better than another. [Bold by RPM]
Other people have done a good job rebutting this claim; see Pete Boettke and Steve Horwitz. (Also David R. Henderson sets the record straight regarding Tyler's questionable assertions about Milton Friedman's position on bank bailouts.) But I want to focus on Tyler's assertion that I've put in bold above.

Even if Tyler's predictions about FDIC etc. were correct, it doesn't automatically follow that he gets to tell bailout opponents that they are "not for the market." That step involves a very dubious philosophical commitment that goes far beyond one's economic theories.

Let's change the context. Anyone who took an intro to philosophy class probably heard the thought experiment (apparently based on a true story) of the American tourists getting captured by South American guerrillas. The rebel leader lines up a bunch of villagers who are opposed to his group's criminal activities, and then the leader puts a gun in the hands of one of the terrified Americans. "It's your lucky day," the rebel leader says. "You get to shoot these traitors to the cause. But if you don't, I will order my men to shoot not only them, but also their wives and children. Your choice."

Now this is a very complicated problem, and of course everybody tries to weasel out of it by saying, "I'd shoot the rebel leader!" etc. But when it comes down to it--what if you have to choose between shooting some innocent people, or allowing them plus even more people to die?--a lot of people say they wouldn't pull the trigger. And you know what? I think many philosophers think that's a dandy answer.

So notice in his discussion, not only does Tyler say you should pull the trigger (or at least, you should root for the American to pull the trigger), but he spends all his time focusing on what happens if you don't. He doesn't even feel the need to discuss the philosophical point that it's correct to support a violation of rights if you think doing so will prevent an even greater violation of rights.


Roger Koppl does a very similar thing when praising Ted Kennedy for supporting the Civil Rights Act. When in the comments I pointed out that a lot of libertarians don't endorse the Act because it involved an expansion of federal power, he answered:
Anyway, I’m not a libertarian, so I guess you and I won’t have the same opinion about which bits of civil rights legislation were and which were not infringements on liberty. Fair enough. Still, I would have thought the restrictions on liberty caused by Jim Crow were so huge, deeply unfair and inequitable, and of such great material importance to black Southerners that killing Jim Crow alone outweighed the negatives, before we even get to stuff like women’s rights or the conditions of blacks in the rest of the country. OTOH you seem to doubt...I confess, I don’t quite “get” that. I don’t quite see where the doubtful points are in assigning relative weights here even when I defer to you on what bits are pro-liberty and what bits are anti-liberty.

One issue you raise is centralizing power in Washington. That’s an issue for me too. But in my mind you’ve got to trade it off against the risk of arbitrary local authority. Local authority was arbitrary and discretionary for black folks and the civil rights movement improved that situation greatly. (Didn’t fix it by long stretch, but that’s a separate matter.) Hayek teaches (rightly IMHO) that the big enemy is arbitrary authority rather than, say, size of government. Liberalism is against power. Well, black folks under Jim Crow were subject to lots of arbitrary authority. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a pretty fair representation of how it really worked under the old system. Actually, it was worse than her story represented as whites might literally get away with murder if the victim was black.

Thus, we’re talking about life and death stuff, basic raw arbitrary power, and similar core issues. I’m not getting the intuition for why stuff like obliging restauranteurs to serve all races or shifting some power from state to federal government overwhelms that. [Bold by RPM]
Again, I don't here want to argue whether the Act "on balance" contributed to more or fewer rights violations. I'm just pointing out that Koppl doesn't even "get" the notion that someone could be opposed to an admitted, systematic violation of rights, even if the object is to prevent other people from having their rights violated.

Is it a little weird that even among very philosophical, classical liberals, we are so casually assuming that the ends justify the means? Can we at least talk about this? I'm pretty sure the philosophers aren't settled on the matter, and in fact, I think a lot of them say the answer is a resounding, "No!"

I agree with you.

Quote from Roger Koppl: "Liberalism is against power."

But apparently 'liberals' are all for power for themselves.

Do you know if/do you think Koppl would say he was glad that the 'Civil War' happened? After all, slavery was such an evil, it was 'worth' the death, destruction and carnage of the Civil War to get rid of it, right?

Isn't that how he's arguing? Yeah, you know it sucks Atlanta got burned to the ground but there were no more slaves on plantations. Libertarians should cheer that!
The utilitarians should come to Detroit and see the utilitarian result of the loss of strictly enforced property rights due to civil rights legislation, public school district laws, drug laws etc. and taxation for do-gooder projects.

Bob the fact is anybody who supports government in anyway is a utilitarian. The Necessary evil in their minds is just saying its evil, but we would be better off, because everybody can agree that if government didn't exist, we'd still be alive, and not vanish from the face of the earth.
Some would say they use natural rights as a guide line or rule of thumb, and thus consider themselves libertarian, like David Friedman.
I've always thought calculating utilitarianism made no sense though since it fails to account for what could happen in future generations. Take for instance abortion, assuming there is at least any happiness for the child, or their grandchildren and so forth, wouldn't that suffice a case saying that abortion reduces overall happiness in future generations. Which might also lead to forced sexual encounters for the same reason, and then rape. But i full heart-ably agree with your point, that almost everybody really is utilitarian. How many people do you know would say "yeah policy X would make society better off, but I support Y, b/c of natural rights." How many anarchist think society would be happier with a government?

You sent me an email inviting me to respond. Okay, I admit I can't resist. That's vanity for you. Vanity is something you Christians disparage as I understand. I'm with Ben Franklin who gave it “fair quarter” (if I recall the quote) and said it is often productive of good.

So here is my response: Huh?

You say I “don't even acknowledge the big philosophical move [I'm] making.” Um, dude, natural rights is a minority position not the default view. Independently of that, there's nothing to “acknowledge” here any more than I do not “acknowledge” that I'm eschewing Nietzschian ethics, deontology, and intuitionism. Gheez. BTW: I haven't written much on such topics, but in one of my earlier publications I did come out explicitly for a form of utilitarianism, although it's a tricky word that Hayek avoided even though he was pretty much an “indirect utilitarian.” Here's the cite to that early publication:

“What is the Public Interest?” in McGee, Robert, edited, Business Ethics and Common Sense, Westport, Connecticut: Quorum Books, 1992.

I took more or less the same line in a later publication as well:

“The Policy Implications of Complexity: An Austrian Perspective,” in Colander, David, ed. The Complexity Vision and the Teaching of Economics, Edward Elgar, 2000.

So, you know, it's not like I'm hiding anything here.

Even spotting you natural rights, however, I can't “get” you're POV. You have a legal system that violates “natural rights.” Within that context you have a law or policy and you ask whether it improved liberty. How can you do that without making a “utilitarian” weighing pros and cons? Your comment at Thinkmarkets did not tell me to eschew such an exercise; instead it suggests that I'd gotten my weights wrong. How is that comment consistent with your post here?

You say I don't “even 'get' the notion that someone could be opposed to an admitted, systematic violation of rights, even if the object is to prevent other people from having their rights violated.” Again, your comment at Thinkmarkets didn't say that I should eschew the utilitarian weighing of pros and cons. Is that what you are now advising me to do? Don't enter into the messy business of making, like, you know, actual poltical choices where the lives and liberties of real people are at stake? Just stand on the sidelines and declaim against the evil in the world? Is that it, Bob? I imagine you'll deny that you take such an attitude. If so, good! But how, then, do you avoid weighing tradeoffs, which, as economics teaches, is what choice is all about?

@ geoih: So I am power mad because I appreciate someone else's legislative achievement in lifting the oppressive hand of arbitrary state power from off the backs of a large number of suffering persons? Sure, let's go with that . . .

@ Taylor: If the issue had been slavery pure and simple, the federal government could have simply bought out the slaveholders. That's pretty much how the slaves of the British West Indies were freed in 1833. The Civil War was incredibly bad and awful. As far as I know you couldn't really have predicted how bad it would be at the beginning of the war. Apparently, the war had pretty much all the awful characteristics later repeated in WWI, including trench warfare and massive causalities. That surprise just goes to underline how completely bad it is for nations to go to war. We should all read Twain's great satiric work, “The War Prayer.”

@ Bob Roddis: I thought you were sincerely slamming utilitarianism and Matt thinks you were defeding it. Either way, I think it helps greatly to go beyond the usual distinction between act and rule utilitarianism to recognize the idea of indirect utilitarianism. The best defender of that view is probably my teacher Leland Yeager. See his 2001 Elgar book, “Ethics as Social Science.”
I think MAtt is on the right track. Utilitarianism breaks down for the same reasons Communism breaks down. It simply isn't possible to calculate with precision. We've seen countless numbers of government programs that were way over budget, way under utilized, or unexpectedly corrosive. This is not from a lack of talent, brains, or proper ideology, it's simply an impossible task.


Even in your example of the partisan fighters, questions started to pop into my mind of "Is the killing of women and children a credible threat? Is the promise not to kill the women and children a credible threat?" I wouldn't shoot because I can not calculate the true utilitarian answer.

'Utilitarianism breaks down for the same reasons Communism breaks down. It simply isn't possible to calculate with precision. "

Great comment. That's why you gotta make the move to indirect utilitarianism IMHO. Some people would tell me I'm not a utilitarian at all because I am so sensitive to the calculation problem you raise. Okay, call me a "consequentialist" then.

Whatever the label, you are looking to consequences, but you recognize that we can form passable judgments only upon rule systems. Personally, I go a tad further and say that we can really only judge marginal changes in inherited rule system. In Karl Popper's lingo, we can only to "piecemeal social engineering." That's Hayek's view as well. As I said, Hayek rejected the label "utilitarian." (A rose is a rose is rose.)

I get into the problems of calcualting consequences in "Computable Entrepreneurship."
actually, the American Tourist - Rebel conundrum was told by my philosophy teacher with the much more interesting twist that the tourist would be shot AS WELL should he refuse to kill the captives.

May be that's not the real story, but I don't see how it is a conundrum otherwise.

I'll agree that rule utilitarianism is better. It's agreeing on those rules when the rules don't achieve the individual ends of the participants, where it has it's own problems. But, it's the best of the lot. I haven't heard the term "indirect u-ism", so I'll look that up.

Tyler, however, seems to be embracing the act utilitarianism.
Here's a good place to start, Brian:

"It's agreeing on those rules when the rules don't achieve the individual ends of the participants, where it has it's own problems."

I'm not sure what your after here. I wonder if you are thinking of rule choice as some purely rational decision arrived at by "us" when "we" sit at a table somewhere. We have inherited a set of rules -- a decidedly complex set of rules BTW -- from our past. So we really debate and choose among a restricted set of options.

Or maybe you think we need to make personal sacrifices for the sake of "society" or something like that. Is that it? I would go with what Mises calls the "Ricardian Law of Association." Here is something I just wrote on that:
This “law” is the familiar notion of gains from trade. In Mises' hands, however, it is also the foundation of society itself. “If and as far as labor under the division of labor is more productive than isolated labor,” Mises explains, “and if and as far as man is able to realize this fact, human action itself tends toward cooperation and association; man becomes a social being not in sacrificing his own concerns for the sake of a mythical Moloch, society, but in aiming at an improvement in his own welfare” (Mises 1966, p. 160).

To paraphrase you:


I know the Civil War was awful. Did you just agree with my point but try to sound like you weren't?

Maybe if the Civil Rights Act was JUST about ridding the legal system of Jim Crow type things where, as you say, white people could get away with murder if they killed blacks, that might be one thing. But it wasn't just about enforcing negative rights for all people (ie, I have the right to not be killed by you, as a black person, just because you are white), it was also about enforcing positive rights (you can't discriminate against hiring me because I am black).

Your point seemed to be "wasn't the CRA a good thing for libertarians because, yeah it enforced new positive rights (a bad for libertarians) but it also enforced old negative rights (a good for libertarians) and according to my values, the good outweighed the bad?"

And so I asked you if you'd use the same logic to say, "wasn't the Civil War a good thing for libertarians because, yeah it killed a lot of people, resulted in rampant taxation and inflation, conscription, property damage and destruction, rape, incarceration, etc. etc. (a bad for libertarians), but it also resulted in the end of slavery in America (a good for libertarians) and, according to my values, the good outweighed the bad?"
"Or maybe you think we need to make personal sacrifices for the sake of "society" or something like that. Is that it? "

I have never been so offended in my life!

Kidding aside, while I personally advocate a rights or rules based system, I just don't think it's sustainable. It will work beautifully if the participants agree to it, but they won't, at least not for long. You'll get some Neitzschean manipulator who will convince us poor saps to make exceptions for him and his government. I am less interested in what people ought to do and more so in what they actually do, and the societal adherence to the axioms of Mises, Rand, etc.. is obviously limited.
Great point, Bob. A few points:

1) I find Eliezer Yudkowsky's criticism of teleology to be the best. In short it's: "The ends do justify the means, but not among humans, because your ability to calculate the ends is skewed in a very self-serving direction

2) The problem with contrived moral dilemmas is that people will decide based on subtle assumptions theys make about the scenario, which are based on subtle cues. It is typically these "background assumptions" that they, as well as the philosophers, are relying on for their judgments. I really don't think it's simply an issue of "having a philosophical opposition to bad acts that promote the greater good". Link to a long thread where I make a lot of related points. (Check out the parent posts too.)

3) In the scenario you gave ... come on. A rebel leader is sadistic enough to put someone through this kind of stress, but I'm supposed to believe he'll keep his word and show restraint if I do as he says? Not very good for making a point.
@ Taylor,

Oh, I get it, you want to make me squirm. Oh, I am so nervous.

Look, in the first place it's not really the same at all. While slavery was an underlying issue for various reasons it is simply not true that the Civil War was initiated to rid the country of slavery. Such a claim would be factually incorrect. Thus, the analogy just doesn't get off the ground.

I suppose, you could do a mental experiment in which we enter the WayBack Machine with Sherman and Mr. Peabody and get to choose whether to start the war or not. That would transform a real historical event into a game of lifeboat ethics. But what is the counterfactual here? Is my "buy them out" option on the table? How do I know what the choices are? If we are armed with the knowledge possessed at 1860, then I have no expectation that war will free the slaves. And so on. You just can't nail it down precisely enough to get the game going.

One of the problems with lifeboat ethics is precisely its artificiality. We are but rarely put in the bizarre circumstances imagined in such mental experiments. Thus our intuitions and our most careful deliberations may easily fail us. This point underlines an earlier point: we can do "piecemeal social engineering" reasonably well, but we're not good deliberating larger changes.

You cannot really work out a coherent counterfactual to play your Civil War game. You would have to decide how long slavery continues in the US (forever?), how many slaves there are at each moment, precisely how productive the economy is with slavery present, how slavery influences monetary policy after 1865, and so on. If you somehow could, however, then logic of weighing of pros and cons would apply, yes. But which way the weights fall depends on all those choices about counterfactuals that you have not bothered to make.

In other words, stop playing childish games.
Like Silas Barta said.
You're entirely too pessimistic, Brian! That's why we have a tradition or, as it is sometimes called, "culture." Sure, there's lots of cheating. Cheating can be part of the rules, actually. And of course it ain't perfect, which is why we have courts and legislatures, and ethical discourse. But we live waaay better and more peaceably than our historical and biological ancestors. Be of good cheer!
And of course there are various versions of "the trolley problem".

I helped edit and write a book by John Fischer collecting the philosophical literature on this stuff.

It can make your head ache.

Note well that this literature develops out of the work of modern Catholic philosophers on the "killing and letting die" problem raised by the principle that it is OK to let a baby die to save the life of a mother, but it is not OK to kill a baby in order save the life of a mother.

Tough stuff.
The trolley problem:


Go ahead, make your head ache.
Good article Dr. Murphy.

The rebel ethical dilemma reminds me of the 'schindlers list' scenario I heard Block tell in one of his lectures at Mises U. this summer.

Is it 'right' to work at a nazi concentration camp and kill only a fraction of the # of Jews that would have been killed otherwise, if someone else had your job? So in a sense you're working there would decrease the # of people dying, but still requires that you kill some people...

I would have to say No Way, you are still committing atrocities. Doesn't matter that it's in the name of preventing more atrocities.

I didn't realize the INTENT of the CRA-writers or the CW-wagers played a role in utilitarianly comparing costs and benefits?

If I intend to build a Mustang and instead I build something akin to a Pinto, does that change the costs and benefits of my project? If so, how? What is intent "worth" to a utilitarian?

Your response leaves me confused as to what your original argument meant. Are you saying the positive-rights creation of the CRA should be weighed not only against the negative-rights enforcement but also the stated intent of the CRA? If there were no negative-rights being enforced, but the intent was 'humongous,' could that negate the ill effects of the positive-rights creation and net out to a utilitarian win?

Am I being childish for being confused by this? Someone help me who doesn't feel the need to scold my youthful mind!
Oh, aren't you too clever, Taylor? You know I actually gave you a serious reply even though I did not hide my scorn. It's all there in my scolding comment if you look. But you'd rather play games. Well, other readers of this blog can judge for themselves whether my reply address what little substance there might be in your comments.

Jesus man I don't know why I ticked you off so much. I'll re-read your comment and see if my idiotic little mind can wrap itself around the unfathomable leaps of logic contained therein.

You're right. I don't get it. The point I tried to make was that you as a utilitarian might try to argue that the Civil War, despite the bad (and regardless of intent) was a good thing because the result of it ending slavery more than compensated for all the evil, similarly, the CRA, despite the bad (and regardless of intent) resulted in a good thing because it ended Jim Crow, which more than compensated for the new positive-rights it granted.

You can't value these things objectively. If you try to (on whatever practical grounds you think you may have to do so) you are not dealing with subjective value theory anymore, at which point I stop listening to you.

I'll accept that I am an idiot because I can't follow your sudden introduction of historical revisionism/prophesizing and 'lifeboat ethics' or how they're relevant to the point I was making in response to your original argument. But I am fine with that because I also know you're an idiot for thinking you can make an appeal to pragmatism as a justification for insisting that your subjective values posing as objective values is the standard I must conform to on this topic, and thus, utilitarianism.

"Because some people in society will ignore subjective value theory and insist on imposing their subjective values as objective and just, therefore it follows that I am correct to engage in attempts at utilitarian comparisons." Your logic astounds me!

You said, "The point I tried to make was that you as a utilitarian might try to argue that the Civil War, despite the bad . . . was a good thing because the result of it ending slavery more than compensated for all the evil"

Now I had already said,

"You cannot really work out a coherent counterfactual . . . . If you somehow could, however, then logic of weighing of pros and cons would apply, yes." So are your really saying that this answer is not clear to you?

You said, " . . . at which point I stop listening to you." Now we're gettin' down to brass tacks and the root of the problem. Me, I favor, you know, listening. Mill's "On Liberty" and all that.

How subjective value theory enters is indeed beyond me.

But now I've gone and responded to you when I told myself I wouldn't. Alas!

Thanks for responding. (My parents are in town so I'm just now looking at this on Tuesday night.)

Most important: I think you and Taylor both dislike the Civil War. So maybe you guys should argue about something else? :)

I don't think I was trying to do a bait-and-switch. I agree I didn't come out and say, "Rights violator!!!" at the other site, but when I brought up the downside of the federal government growing and doing "bad" things, that was my point: Yes, the CRA stopped some abuses, but only by allowing other, new abuses.

I don't think I said, "And so on balance, it hurt society more than it helped." My point was, it brought on new abuses, and that's why some libertarians can't support it.

Then, you right away said you couldn't understand how someone could possibly think the balance of the rights violations came down in favor of "no CRA."

At that point, I made my post here, pointing out that you simply assumed it was an issue of the balance of rights violations, as opposed to, "I cannot endorse a rights violation, period."

I might be in the minority, but I don't think I mugged you. Do you agree, now that I've given my spin on things?

And I don't have anything else profound to say. You ask something like, "What are we to do, just sit on the sidelines and register our complaints?" Well YES, that is what we are to do. It seems better to me than sitting on the sidelines--by which I mean, uselessly blogging on ThinkMarkets or, even more uselessly, on Free Advice--and saying, "I endorse what these guys in DC are doing."

If we were senators and could actually influence these things, your point would make more sense to me. But we have no power over any of this anyway. So why wouldn't I say, "I would really prefer it if the government stopped violating rights altogether"?
I'll throw my two cents in:

1. The CRA violated the rights of people to use their property as they wished and to associate with whom they wished.

2. The CRA ended pernicious forms of government intervention that restricted the legitimate rights of African-Americans.

Both 1 and 2 are true. In my view, the gains of 2 were worth the losses of 1. That's not an a priori truth of libertarianism, but an applied judgment in the world of the second best. It also reflects my own values about different kinds of rights/freedoms.

I think the net total of freedom was increased by the CRA, even as some freedoms were lost. That's a very debatable proposition and a matter of judgment, not a priori truth.
I dunno, Bob, I looked back at your Thinkmarkets comments and it sure looked like you were doing what you now say you weren't. OTOH, I don't think you were, like, duplicitous or something, so that's probably enough chatter on the topic.

You completely go for the position I assumed you would reject:

You ask something like, "What are we to do, just sit on the sidelines and register our complaints?" Well YES, that is what we are to do.

That doesn't work for me, Bob. I am indeed a utilitarian or, at least, "consequentialist." I hope to act in ways that improve the welfare of my fellow humanity. My political choices form a part of that picture. I don't think it helps my fellow humanity if I adopt your attitude. I mean, aren't you putting your purity of mind (immaculate conception?) ahead of good works? But people's lives and liberty's are at stake! I don't see how you could discriminate between Nazis and social democrats if you really stuck to the principle you seem to assert here. Is that really the way you want to go, dude? If not, then how can make such discriminations?
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