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.