Utilitarianism = Totalitarianism?

Back on the dearly departed Positive Liberty, we once had a tête à tête with a commenter (whom, regrettably, we had to ban for ill-behavior), part of which concerned the question of utilitarianism. Said commenter claimed that utilitarianism was not a legitimate goal because it was instrumental, rather than having intrinsic value. It was also claimed, although I don’t remember if by him or someone else, that utilitarianism was suspect because it tends to lead to totalitarianism. Hitler and Stalin, it was claimed, were utilitarians.

I’ve wanted to write a thorough response defending utilitarianism ever since, but a truly thorough response is not likely, for various uninteresting reasons, to be forthcoming anytime soon. So for now, here is a non-thorough defense, an argument that utilitarianism does not lead to totalitarianism, at least when my approach to utilitarianism is followed. (If that sounds weaselly, keep in mind that even a natural rights approach, when mis-applied, can be used to justify authoritarian policies.)

The general logic of utilitarianism leading to totalitarianism is that in seeking the greatest good for the greatest number, the totalitarian will try to order society toward that end, and then anyone who contradicts that ordering must, by definition, be obstructing the pursuit of maximal utility. Of course it’s entirely contradictory that assuming totalitarian control over people can lead to human happiness, but dictators aren’t famous for their philosophical coherence.

But it is only possible to think that a particular ordering of society can result in the greatest utility if one makes the fundamental error of assuming utility can be objectively measured. Economists define utility as subjective, as in the concept of “subjective expected utility.” I would think that any libertarian would also define utility this way, and so I am puzzled as to why utilitarian thinking is not more popular among libertarians. That is, I understand why natural rights thinking is more popular, but I don’t understand why utilitarian thinking seems downright unpopular.

After all, what libertarian would deny that utility is subjective? Isn’t it a basic tenet of libertarianism that I can’t determine what goals you ought to pursue, or what your particular pleasures should be?

And when we recognize that utility is necessarily subjective, that the idea of an objective measurement of utility is a contradiction, what purchase can would-be totalitarians gain? Their ordering of society is an effort to make each of us meet an objective standard. Only the one best way of leaving each to follow their own path, a non-ordering (or spontaneous ordering) of society, can maximize subjective utility. Totalitarianism isn’t just ultimately contradictory to subjective utility, it is initially contradictory to it.

As I have frequently noted before, I would like to believe in natural rights. In my gut, I accept the idea of natural rights, and to each authoritarian outrage I instinctively feel that it violates people’s rights because they have a natural right to just be let alone. But intellectually, I just can’t find my way to a considered belief in natural rights. I am sympathetic to my colleague Jason Kuznicki’s approach to natural rights, which is not the nonsense-on-stilts of Bentham, but a belief that there are values we humans naturally tend to see as rights. That’s an intellectually more defensible position, because the rights are based on something, rather than just being plucked from the sky. I’m just not persuaded that most humans do believe in those rights. Certainly most religious fundamentalists don’t, nor do those who desire power over others. As an approach to rights, it depends upon collective agreement that may or may not be found, so it seems more tenuous than I would like.

But human happiness is a defensible standard, regardless of others’ agreement. And it can only be achieved by allowing people to follow their own paths in life. And that, not coincidentally, is achieved only by policies that are mostly congruent with the concept of natural rights.


About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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7 Responses to Utilitarianism = Totalitarianism?

  1. James K says:

    Nicely said James.

    Libertarians could probably do with being exposed to Ordinal Utility Theory a bit more widely. Unlike Cardinal Utility, which thinks of utility as “points” that can be added up, ordinalists just see utility functions as a mathematical way of describing someone’s preference ordering. If there are three mutually exclusive alternatives available to a person (A, B and C) and you know they prefer A to B to C, then any function that returns U(A) > U(B) > U(C) is a valid utility function so if U(A) = 3, U(B) = 2, U(C) = 1 then that works, but U(A) = 1000, U(B) = 100, U(C) = 10 works just as well.

    For this reason you can’t directly compare ordinal utility functions, there no common basis for comparison.

  2. Gretchen says:

    After all, what libertarian would deny that utility is subjective? Isn’t it a basic tenet of libertarianism that I can’t determine what goals you ought to pursue, or what your particular pleasures should be?

    My sleep-deprived response:

    A libertarian would want to grant that what makes a person happy is subjective, but not that the pursuit of happiness itself is subjective. That is, that everyone has the right to pursue their own goals. Likewise, if you say that the value of life is subjective, then the right of determination over one’s own body and end of life is called into question. A libertarian would want to declare deontologically that it is not okay to automatically subvert the interests of the few to the interests of the many even if it increases the general happiness, and the fact that what causes happiness is subjective doesn’t seem to change that. I see this rejection of utilitarianism not as a fear of totalitarianism per se, but of mob rule and the subversion of individual rights. However much or little you may value your life and property, they are still yours. Seeing appreciation of life as subjective doesn’t change my views on how to answer the trolley problem, for example. If we want to maintain that certain rights are inherent, it seems to me that we must assume that they are equally valued by everyone, even though quite plainly this isn’t true. Killing a suicidal person is still wrong if he/she didn’t consent to it, even if it makes everyone else happy.

    Now, my utilitarian belief is that rights are derived from human nature, and as such the universal acknowledgment of those rights leads to greater flourishing in a society– any society, so long as it is made up of humans. So I defend human rights in service of a utilitarian interest. This is important because if I don’t maintain this, any politician is free to step in and say “I don’t think people really are happier with those rights acknowledged. Let’s have a social experiment in which I take them away, because I don’t think you need them. And if I’m wrong….well, I’ll be out of office anyway and not have to deal with any repercussions.” Thanks, Mr. Lobbyist; I’m sure the greater happiness has been served by your restricting the rights of sex offenders so that they now have to live under a bridge.

    So my rejection of utilitarianism is by no means absolute. I just think that a principled libertarian defense of our presumed inalienable rights is rendered effectively meaningless by declaring those value of those things to be subjective. Hopefully this comment made a bit of sense.

  3. Gretchen says:

    P.S. Yes, I know lobbyists aren’t elected. In that case I was referring to Ron Book, the lobbyist who advocated for laws that restricted the movement of sex offenders so much as to force some to take up residence under a bridge in Florida. Those laws came directly out of a desire to avenge his own daughter who had been abused and for the sake of similar cases across America, but ultimately only succeeded in elevating human misery.

  4. Pingback: Does the Constitution Incorporate the Declaration of Independence? Why Does It Matter? | The One Best Way

  5. James K says:

    I think you make a good point here that I’d lake to do a quick tangent on. People traditionally think of lobbyists as being driven by (and therefore tainted by) money, but there are a lot of reasons why people lobby the government, and money is not the only thing that can warp someone’s point of view. Groups seeking to ban smoking or restrict alcohol (to cite 2 big examples in my country) are often driven by a sincere agenda, but that can still induce biases in their thinking.

  6. James Hanley says:

    James K,

    When I teach my students about interest groups (I ban the term “special” interests, but allow “specialized” interests), I tell them you can generally break them down into two groups: economic interests and ideological interests. The economic ones are the money driven ones, of course, seeking economic protections or subsidies, while the ideological ones, such as the ones you mention, are driven by strong belief in an issue.

  7. Michael Drew says:

    An ass-kicking, wonderful post, even if it doesn’t get me all the way to utilitarianism (as it is not intended to do). Wonderfully gentle but firm with natural rights.

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