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Utilitarianism vs. Consequentialism

In a facebook note, Quee Nelson writes about Mises the Utilitarian (appended below). I wonder if he was more of a consequentialist than a utilitarian. Below I collect some points I’ve made along these lines before:

As I noted on p. 50 of my Knowledge, Calculation, Conflict, and Law, reviewing Randy Barnett’s Structure of Liberty:

Barnett’s aim in this ambitious book is to determine the type of legal system, laws, and rights which are appropriate, given the widely-shared “goal of enabling persons to survive and pursue happiness, peace, and prosperity while living in society with others” (p. 23). Happiness, peace, and prosperity are fine principles to select and quite compatible with libertarianism, but Barnett does not attempt to try to justify these basic norms or values. His argument is thus hypothetical and consequentialist, though not, he maintains, utilitarian (pp. 8, 12, 17–23, esp. 22–23).

See also Barnett’s Of Chickens and Eggs—The Compatibility of Moral Rights and Consequentialist Analyses.

From my What Libertarianism Is:

The libertarian seeks property assignment rules because he values or accepts various grundnorms such as justice, peace, prosperity, cooperation, conflict-avoidance, and civilization.[14]

From my post Only Technology (and Economic Education) Can Save Us:

Manuel Lora’s recent article highlighted the importance of economic education. I’ve long believed the single most important thing we can do is to foster liberty is to promote economic literacy. (I made this point in Why are Austrians Libertarians? and in this interview by Alberto Mingardi.) Why are economic education and economic literacy so important? The basic answer is we can never have a free society–libertarian civilization–without large-scale voluntary respect for others’ rights. The degree of civilization we currently have is made possibly only because most of us, to some degree, would not steal from our neighbors even if we would not get caught. If human nature were such that everyone were totally corrupt, and had no empathy for others and placed no value on others’ well-being, no type of civilization would be possible. That it is demonstrates that there is a significant, systematic, widespread degree of voluntary respect for others’ lives. In other words, stark criminals are in the minority.

Most of the majority are not consistent in their respect for others, however, which is why socialism in various forms–institutionalized aggression–persists. Therefore, it seems to me that we can approach a freer society only if the “decent”, civilized among us achieve greater understanding of the effects of the socialistic policies they tend to consent to and favor. This, of course, requires economic education or understanding. It is my view that if the bulk of humankind who view themselves as civilized, and who do care to some non-trivial degree for the welfare of their fellow men and overall civilized progress, had a good understanding of even basic economics, they simply would not favor most socialistic policies in force today, such as minimum wage, wage and hour legislation, socialized medicine, progressive tax rates, and so on–becase they would then realize these policies are incompatible with the more basic civilized norms they really favor–harmony, peace, prosperity, cooperation, etc.

And yet, how can there be economic education of the masses? As an immediate, or practical, matter, there are groups like the Mises Institute and the Foundation for Economic Education, who seek to promote sound economics. Groups like these–in particular, the Mises Institute, since it explicitly devotes itself to the truly sound school of economics, Austrian economics, not just “free market” economics in general–are therefore critical and essential.

But it remains true that most people are not academics or autodidacts. If nothing else, they have no time for personal enlightenment on the level of reading Hazlitt, Mises, or Rothbard. They are too busy with their careers and families. Moreover, those that do embark on such studies encounter much mainstream soft-socialist economics implicit or explicit in what they seek to read, creating yet another obstacle to sound economic understanding.

But given the lack of time for or interest in personally economic enlightenment, how can we ever hope to have a populace economically literate enough so that significant societal shifts towards freedom happen naturally? I believe that, if it can happen, it can only happen over time and because of technology and capitalism. If we reach a point where the riches and prosperity of capitalism permit people to work, say, 10 hours a week, and retire (or have the ability to retire) at 40, we are likely to see a blossoming of autodidacticism. Such prosperity can only be achieved by capitalism and various technological advances that help us to prosper despite being hampered by state controls.

Moreover, the increasing digitization and instant access to written works will catalyze this. And two other factors should be noted. First, even though there will in the future be both socialist and capitalist economics and politics to choose from, as we achieve greater prosperity and harmony in our increasingly commercial and capitalist system, there will be a greater natural awareness of the validity of the free market way of thinking, just as the fall of the USSR has led to a sort of background awareness of the superiority of capitalism over socialism that did not exist twenty years ago.

Second, free market economics is true; whereas socialist political and economic theory is self-contradictory, pseudo-scientific, and bankrupt. We can only hope that, in the long run, the basic decency of most people, combined with their ability to learn given a chance, and increasing economic prosperity due to capitalism and technological advances, and ready access to insights of free market thinkers, will lead to an eventual enlightened populace that throws off the chains of statism as incompatible with the basic values of civilized people.


Quee Nelson’s facebook note:

Mises the Utilitarian
Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 3:04pm
“If Capitalism improves the economic position all round, it is of secondary importance that it does not raise all to the same level. A social order is not bad simply because it helps one more than another. If I am doing better, what can it harm me that others are doing better still? Must one destroy Capitalism, which better satisfies from day to day the wants of all people, merely because some individuals become rich and a few of them very rich?”

“Since action is never its own end, but rather the means to an end, we call an action good or evil only in respect of the consequences of the action. It is judged according to its place in the system of cause and effect. It is valued as a means. And for the value of the means the valuation of the end is decisive. Ethical, like all other, valuation proceeds from valuation of ends, of the ultimate good. The value of an action is the value of the end it serves. Intention, too, has value in so far as it leads to action.
…Philosophers had been arguing about this ultimate Good for a long time before it was settled by modern investigation. At the present day Eudaemonism is no longer open to attack. In the long run all the arguments which philosophers from Kant to Hegel brought against it were unable to dissociate the concept Morality from that of Happiness. Never in history has more intellect and ingenuity been expended in defending an untenable position. We are lost in admiration of the magnificent performance of these philosophers. We might almost say that what they have done to prove the impossible elicits more admiration than the achievements of the great thinkers and sociologists who have made Eudaemonism and Utilitarianism a permanent possession of the human mind. Certainly their efforts were not in vain. Their gigantic struggle for anti-eudaemonistic ethics were necessary to expose the problem in all its wide ramifications and so enable a conclusive solution to be reached.” (Mises, Socialism, 1922, J. Kahane ed., p. 359.)

“The weakest part of Kant’s system is his ethics. Although they are vitalized by his mighty intellect, the grandeur of individual concepts does not blind us to the fact that his starting-point is unfortunately chosen and his fundamental conception a mistaken one. His desperate attempt to uproot Eudaemonism has failed. In ethics, Bentham, Mill, and Feuerbach triumph over Kant. The social philosophy of his contemporaries, Ferguson and Adam Smith, left him untouched. Economics remained foreign to him. All his perception of social problems suffers from these deficiencies.

In this respect, Neo-Kantians have made no better progress than their master. They, too, lack insight into the fundamental social law of the division of labour. They only see that the distribution of income does not correspond to their ideal, that the largest incomes do not go to those whom they consider the most deserving, but to a class they despise. They see people poor and in want, but do not try to discover whether this is due to the institution of private property or to attempts to restrict it. And they promptly condemn the institution of private ownership itself, for which they—living far away from the troubles of business—never had any sympathies. In social cognition they remain bound to the external and symptomatic. They tackle all other problems without a qualm, but here timidity restrains them. In their embarrassment, they betray their underlying bias. In social philosophy it is often difficult for thinkers who are otherwise quite open-minded to avoid all resentment. Into their thoughts obtrudes the recollection of those more prosperous than themselves; they make comparisons between their own value and the lack of it in others on the one hand, and their own poverty and the wealth of others on the other. In the end anger and envy, rather than reason, guide their pen.

Socialist North Korea
This alone explains why such lucid thinkers as the Neo-Kantians have not yet clearly thought out the only salient problems in social philosophy. Not even the rudiments of a comprehensive social philosophy are to be found in their works. They make numerous unfounded criticisms of certain social conditions, but omit to discuss the most important systems of sociology. They judge, without having first made themselves familiar with the results of economic science.

The starting-point of their Socialism is generally the sentence: ‘Act in such a way that you use your being, equally with the being of anyone else, always as a purpose, never merely as a means.’ In these words, says Cohen, ‘the most profound and powerful meaning of the categoric imperative is expressed; they contain the moral programme of the modern age and of all future world history.’ And from that to Socialism, he seems to infer, is no great distance. ‘The idea of the purpose preference of humanity becomes transformed into the idea of Socialism by the definition of every individual as ultimate purpose, an end in himself.’

Socialist famine, USSR, 1933
It is evident that this ethical argument for Socialism stands or falls by the assertion that in the economic order based on private ownership in the means of production all men, or some men, are means and not purpose. Cohen considers this to be completely proved. He believes that in such a social order two classes of men exist, owners and non-owners, of whom only the first lead an existence worthy of a human being, while the second merely serve. It is easy to see where this notion comes from. It rests on popular ideas on the relations of rich and poor, and is supported by the Marxian social philosophy, for which Cohen professes great sympathy without, however, making his views about it clear. Cohen completely ignores the liberal social theory. He takes it for granted that this is untenable, and thinks that it would be a waste of time to criticize it. Yet only by refuting the liberal views of the nature of society and the function of private property could he justify the assertion that in a society based on private ownership in the means of production men serve as means, not as ends.
For liberal social theory proves that each single man sees in all others, first of all, only means to the realization of his purposes, while he himself is to all others a means to the realization of their purposes; that finally, by this reciprocal action, in which each is simultaneously means and end, the highest aim of social life is attained—the achievement of a better existence for everyone. As society is only possible if everyone, while living his own life, at the same time helps others to live, if every individual is simultaneously means and end; if each individual’s well-being is simultaneously the condition necessary to the well-being of the others, it is evident that the contrast between I and thou, means and end, automatically is overcome.” (Mises, Socialism, 1922, J. Kahane ed., p. 388-390.)

“In a saying of Kant: ‘Man may be as ingenious as he will, yet he cannot force Nature to accept other laws. Either he must work himself or others for him, and his labour will rob others of as much of their happiness as he needs to increase his own above the mean.’

It is important to note that Kant cannot base the indirect rejection of private property which lies in these words otherwise than on a utilitarian or eudaemonistic view. The conception from which he proceeds is that through private property more work is laid on some, while others are allowed to idle. This criticism is not proof against the objection that private ownership and the differences in the amount of property do not take anything from anyone, that, rather, in a social order where neither were permitted so much less would be produced, that the per capita quota of the product of labour would amount to less than what the propertyless worker receives as income in a social order based on private property. It collapses as soon as one disproves the statement that the leisure of the possessors is bought by the extra efforts of those without possessions. Such ethical judgments against private property also show clearly that all moral evaluation of economic functions rests ultimately on a view of their economic achievements—on that and nothing else. To reject on “moral grounds” only an institution not considered objectionable from the utilitarian standpoint is, if we look more closely, not the aim of ethical considerations. Actually, in all such cases the only difference of opinion is a difference of opinion about the economic function of such institutions.

Socialist famine, USSR, 1921

That this fact has been overlooked is because those who tried to refute ethical criticism of private property have used the wrong arguments. Instead of pointing out its social significance they have usually been content to demonstrate the right of ownership or to prove that the owner, too, is not inactive, since he has worked to acquire his property and works to maintain it, and other arguments of this nature. The unsoundness of all this is obvious. It is absurd to refer to existing law when the problem is what the law should be; to refer to work which the owner does or has done when the problem is, not whether a certain kind of work should or should not be paid for, but whether private property in the means of production is to exist at all, and, if it exists, whether inequality of such ownership can be tolerated.

Therefore, from the ethical point of view, one is not permitted to ask whether a certain price is justified or not. Ethical judgment has to choose between a social order resting on private ownership in the means of production and one based on common ownership. Once it has arrived at this decision—which, for eudaemonistic ethics, can be based only upon an opinion of what each of the two imagined forms of society would achieve—it cannot proceed to call immoral single consequences of the order it has selected. That which is necessary to the social order it has chosen is moral, and everything else is immoral.” (Mises, Socialism, 1922, J. Kahane ed., p. 393.)

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • lucie June 3, 2010, 10:50 am


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