One of my commenters recently speculated in an accusing tone that I might be a natural-rights libertarian. He was wrong, but explaining why is a good excuse for writing an essay I’ve been tooling up to do for a long time. For those of you who aren’t libertarians, this is not a parochial internal dispute – in fact, it cuts straight to the heart of some long-standing controversies about consequentialism versus deontic ethics. And if you don’t know what those terms mean, you’ll have a pretty good idea by the time you’re done reading.
There are two philosophical camps in modern libertarianism. What distinguishes them is how they ground the central axiom of libertarianism, the so-called “Non-Aggression Principle” or NAP. One of several equivalent formulations of NAP is: “Initiation of force is always wrong.” I’m not going to attempt to explain that axiom here or discuss various disputes over the NAP’s application; for this discussion it’s enough to note that libertarians take the NAP as a given unanimously enough to make it definitional. What separates the two camps I’m going to talk about is how they justify the NAP.
“Natural Rights” libertarians ground the NAP in some a priori belief about religion or natural law from which they believe they can derive it. Often they consider the “inalienable rights” language in the U.S.’s Declaration of Independence, abstractly connected to the clockmaker-God of the Deists, a model for their thinking.
“Utilitarians” justify the NAP by its consequences, usually the prevention of avoidable harm and pain and (at the extreme) megadeaths. Their starting position is at bottom the same as Sam Harris’s in The Moral Landscape; ethics exists to guide us to places in the moral landscape where total suffering is minimized, and ethical principles are justified post facto by their success at doing so. Their claim is that NAP is the greatest minimizer.
The philosophically literate will recognize this as a modern and specialized version of the dispute between deontic ethics and consequentialism. If you know the history of that one, you’ll be expecting all the accusations that fly back and forth. The utilitarians slap at the natural-rights people for handwaving and making circular arguments that ultimately reduce to “I believe it because $AUTHORITY told me so” or “I believe it because ya gotta believe in something“. The natural-rights people slap back by acidulously pointing out that their opponents are easy prey for utility monsters, or should (according to their own principles) be willing to sacrifice a single innocent child to bring about their perfected world.
My position is that both sides of this debate are badly screwed up, in different ways. Basically, all the accusations they’re flinging at each other are correct and (within the terms of their traditional debates and assumptions) unanswerable. We can get somewhere better, though, by using their objections to repair each other. Here’s what I think each side has to give up…
The natural-rightsers have to give up their hunger for a-priori moral certainty. There’s just no bottom to to that; it’s contingency all the way down. The utilitarians are right that every act is an ethical experiment – you don’t know “right” or “wrong” until the results come in, and sometimes the experiment takes a very long time to run. The parallel with epistemology, in which all non-consequentialist theories of truth collapse into vacuity or circularity, is exact.
The utilitarians, on the other hand, have to give up on their situationalism and their rejection of immutable rules as voodoo or hokum. What they’re missing is how the effects of payoff asymmetry, forecasting uncertainty, and decision costs change the logic of utility calculations. When the bad outcomes of an ethical decision can be on the scale of genocide, or even the torturing to death of a single innocent child, it is proper and necessary to have absolute rules to prevent these consequences – rules that that we treat as if they were natural laws or immutable axioms or even (bletch!) God-given commandments.
Let’s take as an example the No Torturing Innocent Children To Death rule. (I choose this, of course in reference to a famous critique of Benthamite utilitarianism.) Suppose someone were to say to me “Let A be the event of torturing an innocent child to death today. Let B be the condition that the world will be a paradise of bliss tomorrow. I propose to violate the NTICTD rule by performing A in order to bring about B”.
My response would be “You cannot possibly have enough knowledge about the conditional probability P(B|A) to justify this choice.” In the presence of epistemic uncertainty, absolute rules to bound losses are rational strategy. A different way to express this is within a Kripke-style possible-futures model: the rationally-expected consequences of allowing violations of the NTICTD rule are so bad over so many possible worlds that the probability of landing in a possible future where the violation led to an actual gain in utility is negligible.
My position is that the NAP is a necessary loss-bounding rule, like the NTICTD rule. Perhaps this will become clearer if we perform a Kantian on it into “You shall not construct a society in which the initiation of force is normal.” I hold that, after the Holocaust and the Gulag, you cannot possibly have enough certainty about good results from violating this rule to justify any policy other than treating the NAP as absolute. The experiment has been run already, it is all of human history, and the bodies burned at Belsen-Bergen and buried in the Katyn Wood are our answer.
So I don’t fit neatly in either camp, nor want to. On a purely ontological level I’m a utilitarian, because being anything else is incoherent and doomed. But I respect and use natural-rights language, because when that camp objects that the goals of ethics are best met with absolute rules against certain kinds of harmful behavior they’re right. There are too many monsters in the world, of utility and every other kind, for it to be otherwise.