With my first post as an official member of BHL, I’ll take a big picture approach and briefly explain why I think utilitarianism should be attractive to bleeding heart libertarians. There have already been several excellent discussions of utilitarianism on BHL (see here, here, and here for instance) and I’d like to contribute my two cents.
As most of you probably know, utilitarianism is the moral theory that tells us that maximizing utility is the right thing to do. There are different ways of understanding what exactly “utility” is, but I’ll go with preference satisfaction. I should say up front that I don’t have settled convictions about whether utilitarianism is the correct moral theory, but I’d say I’m less persuaded than most by the standard objections to utilitarianism.
So, why utilitarianism? One standard way of determining whether you should accept a moral principle is by seeing whether it can make sense of the particular moral judgments that you accept. Utilitarianism fits quite nicely with many of the judgments that bleeding heart libertarians endorse:
1. Consequences Are What Ultimately Matter, Not Intentions. Utilitarianism cares only about the consequences of institutions, not the intentions of their designers and participants. If a law intended to help the poor actually harms them, utilitarianism would oppose it. On the other hand, if self-interested activity serves the public interest via the invisible hand of the market, utilitarianism would support it.
2. (Anti) Paternalism. Utilitarianism explains why the state has no business interfering with the private acts of informed and consenting adults. It doesn’t recognize any perfectionist standard that would justify prohibiting acts that satisfy the preferences of those involved.
3. Social Justice. The distinctive feature of bleeding heart libertarianism is its claim that economic institutions should prioritize the alleviation of poverty. Utilitarianism agrees: utilitarian institutions will prioritize gains to the poor because of the diminishing marginal utility of wealth. An extra dollar is worth more to the person who earns $1 a day than to the person who earns $1,000 dollars a day. (Which institutions do the best job of alleviating poverty is an empirical question on which utilitarianism takes no stand.)
4. Basic Income: The sort of redistribution that best satisfies utilitarian standards is probably something like a guaranteed minimum income or a negative income tax rather than the in-kind provision of goods like healthcare or education. Information problems are going to make it very hard for governments to determine the utility-maximizing allocation of resources. What if I prefer $5000 worth of healthcare and $3000 worth of education, whereas you prefer $3000 worth of healthcare and $5000 worth of education? It’s better to just allocate $8000 worth of cash to each of us and let us buy the goods we want on the market.
5. Open Borders. Utilitarianism gives equal weight to the happiness of all persons, so the happiness of people living outside of our borders matters just as much as the happiness of people living inside of our borders. Utilitarianism would therefore reject nationalist arguments for immigration restriction and recommend opening America’s borders to immigrants.
Why, then, do so many libertarian philosophers (and philosophers in general) reject utilitarianism? There are plenty of objections, but I’ll focus on what’s probably the most common one: the separateness of persons.
Matt and Kevin have each explained the separateness of persons objection to utilitarianism before (here and here). The basic idea is that utilitarianism only cares about maximizing welfare; it doesn’t matter how it’s distributed. But it should: you have goals and projects that shouldn’t be sacrificed simply because your sacrifice provides even greater gains to others. Maybe you’re justified in cutting off your gangrenous arm to save your life, but society isn’t one big body such that we can dispose of one part to benefit the rest. We aren’t morally permitted to harvest Bob’s organs to save the lives of Catherine and Daniel.
Rawls is probably the most famous proponent of the separateness objection to utilitarianism and he thinks the solution is to endorse something like a mutual acceptability condition: coercive institutions have to be justifiable to everyone. And since those people made worse off by the state are the people who have the least reason to accept it, the state should make the worst off as well off as possible. Thus, we arrive at the difference principle which tells us to maximize the income of society’s poorest.
The problem is, the difference principle can violate the separateness of persons too. As Rawls himself notes, the difference principle implies that a single penny ought to be distributed to the poorest person or class even if everyone else in society (including people who might be very poor in absolute terms) must forgo billions of dollars to provide that penny. Not only is this implication extremely counterintuitive, it violates the separateness of all persons outside of the poorest class: they are required to make enormous sacrifices to their own life projects to provide that penny, the very projects that the separateness of persons is meant to prize and protect.
A Rawlsian could of course depart from Rawls and reject the difference principle. Maybe we should privilege, but not maximize, the well-being of the worst off. At some point, gains to the worse off can be outweighed by gains to the better off. But now we’re back to utilitarianism, which, as we’ve seen, preferentially allocates income to the poor because of the diminishing marginal utility of wealth. So despite their differences in principle, utilitarianism and Rawlsianism could be very similar in practice.
For the record, Rawls’s own reply to the counterexample is that it’s unrealistic. He’s right, but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If we’re discussing what is realistic rather that what is possible, then the utilitarian is back on solid ground. While it is possible for utilitarianism to recommend organ harvesting, hospitals that expropriate organs would not contribute to a happy and peaceful society in the real world.
Utilitarianism has much to recommend it to bleeding heart libertarians. Worries about the separateness of persons shouldn’t convince you otherwise.