Why libertarians should embrace natural rights instead of utilitarianism

Several years ago I was studying the history of freedom and liberty through the Cato University’s home study course. Although the lectures are somewhat old, the voice actors who speak when quoting a certain writer or intellectual help make the material engaging. I highly recommend it.

It was then I became more aware of a philosophy known as utilitarianism. At its core, the philosophy promotes actions which maximize utility, or usefulness. It teaches that a morally good action is one that helps the greatest number of people.

In A Fragment on Government, Jeremy Bentham, wrote the following:

Correspondent to discovery and improvement in the natural world, is reformation in the moral; if that which seems a common notion be, indeed, a true one, that in the moral world there no longer remains any matter for discovery. Perhaps, however, this may not be the case: perhaps among such observations as would be best calculated to serve as grounds for reformation, are some which, being observations of matters of fact hitherto either incompletely noticed, or not at all would, when produced, appear capable of bearing the name of discoveries: with so little method and precision have the consequences of this fundamental axiom, it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong, been as yet developed.

John Stuart Mill, who wrote the book On Liberty, argued that freedom maximizes utility, whereas tyranny and oppression do not.

Utilitarianism is unique in that it does not accept the concept of natural rights.

When I was in college studying journalism, my professor gave a lecture on the concept of free speech. In it he included passages from On Liberty by Mill, and the arguments Mill gave were all based on the social utility of free speech. Writers like John Locke argued in his book Two Treaties of Government that people have rights to life, liberty, and property. The phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” originated from this concept.

Libertarians such as Murray Rothbard and later Hans-Hermann Hoppe also promoted the idea of natural rights. People own not only themselves, but that which they possess. Therefore, any violation of the NAP is a violation of one’s rights.

It is possible to be a utilitarian libertarian, as long as one conforms to the Non-Aggression Principle. The NAP is concerned solely with the appropriate use of force.

Utilitarians and natural rights advocates differ as to why people should conform to the NAP.

A natural rights advocate would say that the War on Drugs should end because it is a violation of one’s property rights in themselves. People have a right to put whatever they wish into their own bodies. Furthermore, the War on Drugs leads to the violation of other property rights, including one’s home by no-knock raids, warrantless searches, taxation to support law enforcement agencies who spend their time needlessly pursuing men who commit victimless crimes.

Laurence Vance argues in his book The War on Drugs is a War on Freedom, that the key issue is freedom, not which outcome is more preferable.

Practical and utilitarian arguments against the drug war are important, but not as important as the moral argument for the freedom to use or abuse drugs for freedom’s sake. The moral case for drug freedom is simply the case for freedom. Freedom to use one’s property as one sees fit. Freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor in whatever way one deems appropriate. Freedom to use one’s body in the manner of one’s choosing. Freedom to follow one’s own moral code. Freedom from being taxed to fund government tyranny. Freedom from government intrusion into one’s personal life. Freedom to be left alone.

A utilitarian, on the other hand, would argue that the War on Drugs should cease because the result of waging it produces more pain and far less pleasure. Additionally, they would point out that the war ultimately fails in its primary objective, which is to prevent people from causing harm to others by consuming certain drugs. Far greater immorality and crime results from the war than if there were no war at all.

They would offer the same evidence as a natural rights advocate to substantiate their conclusion, but the reason for why they do so is different. The evidence doesn’t prove that rights are violated; it demonstrates the immorality of an action based on the outcome.

In his magnum opus Human Action, Austrian economist and utilitarian Ludwig Von Mises makes the case against drug prohibition on utilitarian grounds. If you allow the government to outlaw substances on the basis that it is harmful for the individual, he argues, then why should the State not be allowed to ban newspapers or censor books that can also cause harm? Since it has already been established that censorship has less social utility than freedom of speech and press, then logically it follows that prohibition also possesses less social utility than allowing freedom of choice when it comes to drug use.

Self-styled “realistic” people fail to recognize the immense importance of the principles implied. They contend that they do not want to deal with the matter from what, they say, is a philosophic and academic point of view. Their approach is, they argue, exclusively guided by practical considerations. It is a fact, they say, that some people harm themselves and their innocent families by consuming narcotic drugs. Only doctrinaires could be so dogmatic as to object to the government’s regulation of the drug traffic. Its beneficent effects cannot be contested.

However, the case is not so simple as that. Opium and morphine are certainly dangerous, habit-forming drugs. But once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments. A good case could be made out in favor of the prohibition of alcohol and nicotine. And why limit the government’s benevolent providence to the protection of the individual’s body only? Is not the harm a man can inflict on his mind and soul even more disastrous than any bodily evils? Why not prevent him from reading bad books and seeing bad plays, from looking at bad paintings and statues and from hearing bad music? The mischief done by bad ideologies, surely, is much more pernicious, both for the individual and for the whole society, than that done by narcotic drugs.

Utilitarianism suffers, however, because social utility is the crux of their argument, rather than rights.

In On Liberty, Mill writes that it is acceptable for society to control individuals whose actions can interfere with the interests of others.

 As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question of whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion (underlining is mine). But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like (all the persons concerned being of full age, and the ordinary amount of understanding). In all such cases there should be perfect freedom, legal and social, to do the action and stand the consequences.

I will point out, that Mises’ version of utilitarianism differs from that of Mill and Bentham.

Here’s the problem: What if someone exercising their rights causes misery to others, or better yet, they claim he is causing them misery? They may be lying, but on what basis is this determined? What if a group of people decide someone must die because they have convinced themselves that if they do not this person will bring disaster upon them even though this person has done nothing wrong?

This “greater good” rationale was used by the Sanhedrin to justify killing Christ after he raised a man from the dead.

But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

Murray Rothbard was also critical of utilitarianism for the same reason. In his book Ethics of Liberty, he challenges the premise from which utilitarianism operated.

In brief, utilitarian social philosophy holds the “good” policy to be the one that yields the “greatest good for the greatest number”: in which each person counts for one in making up that number, and in which “the good” is held to be the fullest satisfaction of the purely subjective desires of the individuals in society. Utilitarians, like economists (see further below) like to think of themselves as “scientific” and “value free,” and their doctrine supposedly permits them to adopt a virtually value-free stance; for they are presumably not imposing their own values, but simply recommending the greatest possible satisfaction of the desires and wants of the mass of the population.

But this doctrine is hardly scientific and by no means value free. For one thing, why the “greatest number”? Why is it ethically better to follow the wishes of the greater as against the lesser number? What’s so good about the “greatest number”? Suppose that the vast majority of people in a society hate and revile redheads, and greatly desire to murder them; and suppose further that there are only a few redheads extant at any time. Must we then say that it is “good” for the vast majority to slaughter redheads? And if not, why not? At the very least, then, utilitarianism scarcely suffices to make a case for liberty and laissez-faire.

Natural rights advocates do not suffer from this because there is no ground for ambiguity. Everyone has natural rights to their property. One does not need to justify their freedom, and no amount of reasoning or argument can justify actions against other people who do not consent to it.

For utilitarians, this is not considered, because it does not provide for rights.

I cannot stress how important this is. If you do not have rights, and your philosophy is based on what produces the most social utility, then morality is not absolute. Social utility precedes morality.

So why should we care about social utility? What about individual utility? What if an action benefits me and me alone, while everyone else suffers? If my conscience does not forbid me causing harm to others, then why should I forgo my advantage for the sake of society?

Look no further than the sociopaths in D.C. to find such an attitude. One can argue on the basis of social utility that it is immoral for our government to run up such a large national debt. This debt will no doubt be left for future generations to pay off, while those who benefited from the debt will be dead without having suffered the consequences.

Furthermore, we can argue that undeclared wars of aggression overseas are immoral on the basis of social utility.

But for the sociopath politicians, why should they care if they stand to benefit? Individually, they have prospered from this system. They have amassed wealth, power, and security unparalleled in human history. They will die in luxury and comfort before any of these hardships arrive to bring harm on those who have had nothing to do with the debt, and many of these politicians already have. Military contractors couldn’t care less the social utility of war.

Only if an action affected individuals equally, which obviously it does not, could utility be used as a justification. Social utility is about the overall affect on a group.

Even then, we are faced with the problem of moral indifference. What is someone doesn’t care that their actions affect themselves negatively?

Utilitarianism presumes, or assumes, that morality springs from its social utility or whether or not it brings about the most overall benefit.

Serial killers and school shooters who intend to kill themselves after the crime are not interested in living and therefore the consequences of their actions afterwards are of no importance. A killer does not worry about the social utility of his actions or that if he kills he will suffer.

We see this often in everyday life, whether we choose to admit it or not. The world is filled with sociopaths who have absolutely no empathy for other people, nor do they have any qualms exploiting them for any perceived gain. Because they are exceptionally gifted liars, deceivers, and swindlers, they are capable of fooling people into doing what they demand. The absence of a conscience enables them to succeed in their careers and in other areas of life. They suffer no negative consequences. In terms of utility, their lack of scruples brings them prosperity. It absolutely harms others, but they themselves do not suffer, because they feel no regret or guilt for their actions.

A sociopath like this, when confronted with the utilitarian argument against their actions, would ask a very rational question: Why should I behave differently for the sake of social utility, unless I personally stand to benefit by changing? As Bill Clinton put is so frankly in an interview about why he had an affair with his intern, “Because I could.”

If you can do something and get away with it, why not?

Bob Murphy believes this is the critical flaw of utilitarianism. Writing in his review of Ethics as Social Science: The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation by Leland B. Yeager, he says:

The fundamental problem with utilitarianism is this:  Despite a succession of ingenious proponents, its advocates have yet to explain why the individual should behave morally.  The fact that we are all better off if we all behave morally is utterly true and utterly irrelevant.  (Such an argument violates the cherished Austrian precepts of marginalism and individualism.)  The truly difficult moral issues resemble the familiar Prisoner’s Dilemma; regardless of everyone else’s behavior, the individual does better by exploiting others.  It is true that a society suffering from widespread theft would be intolerable, even from a thief’s point of view, but any individual robbery has very little impact on the overall level of crime.

I also happen to disagree with utilitarianism where it comes to matters of morality. Mises argued in Human Action that morality is a social phenomenon, and right or wrong are based on their social utility.

I believe the opposite is true; utility is based on morality. To use an analogy, pear trees produce pears, but producing pears does not make a tree a pear tree. The tree precedes the fruit. The pear tree was a pear tree before it ever produced fruit, and it cannot ever be anything else but a pear tree. In the same way morality precedes its social utility and was always moral and can never be anything but moral.

But there is another aspect of utilitarianism that alarms me, and ironically enough it has little to do with the philosophy itself. Utilitarians promote maximum freedom. My consternation comes from the basis on which they make their case; social utility.

I would argue that the idea of the promoting the greatest social utility is the prevailing rationale for government action in society today. By advocating for freedom on the basis of social utility, utilitarians tacitly grant that if social utility determines morality, then anything proven to have the greatest social utility is morally correct.

What is wrong with that? you may wonder.

It provides an opportunity for a discussion that would never be allowed on the basis of natural rights. With natural rights, certain proposals or ideas are immoral and can never be anything other than immoral. You cannot believe in natural rights and then entertain the idea of a central bank or a military draft or putting people in internment camps during a war. All these are possible, however, if their social utility can be demonstrated; or, if people can be persuaded to believe so.

Utilitarians might be able to demonstrate how having a military draft offers less social utility than relying solely on volunteers. It still allows the possibility of a draft, nonetheless.

Let us also be realistic. In a democracy or any other form of government where the majority determines the rules, it isn’t about what produces the most social utility. It’s about convincing the majority of people that something has the most social utility, whether it does or not.

This is the present form of debate in America. We do not argue about free speech, censorship, national surveillance, war, taxation, gun control, regulations, nationalized healthcare, or anything else our government does on the basis of natural rights. If we did, there would be no discussion. The matter would have been settled long ago.

The dialogue revolves around social utility. What is best thing for the country? What’s in the best interests of the American people? What will keep us safer? What must be done for the common good, or the greater good? Which healthcare will be more affordable? Is gun control effective?

Social utility is the only way you can have so-called libertarians advocating State-issued parental licenses – the author states in another article he adheres to Mill’s view of utilitarianism. For a natural rights advocate, the idea is absurd.

The fact that utilitarianism, as understood by men such as Mises, advocates for maximum freedom and liberty, is beside the point. The underlying premise is that of social utility. Mises believed freedom was morally superior to tyranny due to its social utility.

The people on the other side of the coin argue against him, but on the same premise, and thus by arguing on the basis of social utility, utilitarianism makes available the possibility that something we regard as wrong or immoral now due to social utility could theoretically become morally justifiable if its social utility can be proven. It allows for a debate or discussion where none could be found if the starting point was a person’s right to their property.

If what Milton Friedman said is correct, Mises himself encountered the inevitable consequence of using social utility to determine morality during a discussion about a progressive income tax and on what grounds it could be justified. Mises allegedly got up from the discussion and said “you’re all a bunch of socialists” before he left the room.

A natural rights advocate would simply say it is a form of theft against people’s property and therefore not tolerable.

Social utility can never be justified to violate an individual’s rights. The NAP does not come with an asterisk next to it saying “unless it’s for the greater good.”

When you argue on the basis of natural rights, there is no room for maneuvering or manipulation. Your opponent must either respect your rights or attempt to violate them, at which point you may use violence to defend yourself. You are not arguing on the social utility of your actions, so any attempt to prove the superior social utility of violating your rights fails. You are not required to prove anything to them or win an argument or persuade them to see things as you do. All you must do is assert your rights.

Unlike morality based on social utility, there is simply no way for them to get around this without resorting to coercion or aggression. No matter how far they go to prove the social utility of their actions, if you do not consent and insist upon your rights, sooner or later they must acknowledge that and stand down, or they will declare you do not have those rights (or don’t care) and proceed to violate them. Either way, they are openly committing actions against you without your consent.

This is why libertarians should embrace the concept of natural rights instead of utilitarianism. A utilitarian may believe in the NAP, but because their reason is based on social utility, not rights, it leaves a terrible temptation to violate the NAP on the basis of “the greater good.”

Nevertheless, utilitarianism still has value if employed properly. As Vance stated, the social utility of an action is an effective way to convince people the failure of political policies. However, the social utility cannot ever be the reason for why it is immoral. The lack of social utility is the evidence that such a policy is immoral.

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8 Responses to Why libertarians should embrace natural rights instead of utilitarianism

  1. SalvaVenia says:

    Isn’t that rather shortsighted? I mean, at the end of the day it would mean the terror of the strong against everything weaker, wouldn’t it?


    • The Question says:

      Agreed. That’s a great summary of the problem with the philosophy. Social utility only works when using it as evidence to prove something is moral. It can’t be the reason why we should do something.


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