Two Cheers For Utilitarianism

Libertarians who like to talk in terms of natural rights often bash utilitarianism, but it's worth remembering that it is a lack of utilitarianism which leads people to the wrong answers on immigration and sweatshop labor standards.

dclayh comments at Patri's blog:

I think people who hate sweatshops are anti-utilitarians who see an important difference between causing suffering and allowing suffering. Viz., they would say that we have a much greater degree of control over the citizens of our own country than, say, Cambodia, so we we have a correspondingly stronger moral duty to our poor than to the poor of Cambodia (and moreover that a "sweatshop" is some kind of absolute evil regardless of the alternatives).

I would call that a nauseating example of tribalism.

Will Wilkinson, distilling the takeaway from Lant Pritchett, makes the same point:

There is ample evidence showing that there is no single policy that would increase the welfare of the world's poor than a small increase in openness to immigration among the world's wealthy countries. The net effect of this to the wealthy countries is mildly positive -- not even a net cost. You can try to argue that it is not immoral to forgo a huge costless gain in human liberty and welfare, but you'll fail and leave people wondering what kind of person you are.

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Lack of Catholicism leads people to commit human sacrifice

Same logic. Utilitarianism is better than tribalism. Catholicism is better than Aztec worship of gods who require human sacrifice.

So:

Atheists who like to talk in terms of reason and logic often bash Roman Catholics, but it's worth remembering that it is a lack of Roman Catholicism which leads people to sacrifice their captive enemies on the altar of a feathered serpent.

Is it easier to appeal to

Is it easier to appeal to someone's natural empathy for their fellow human, or get them to agree to an axiomatically and/or evolutionarily derived system of natural rights. Either method, if successful, leads to the same conclusion, but which is more likely to actually be successful? Pointing out that millions of people are needlessly dying or living needlessly miserable lives all because of government policies that would be nearly costless to eliminate seems a much more promising path than arguing about the minutiae of self-ownership, the process of legitimate initial property acquisition, and so on.

My face is prettier than your ass

Is it easier to appeal to someone's natural empathy for their fellow human, or get them to agree to an axiomatically and/or evolutionarily derived system of natural rights.

You are presenting different sides of the two theories - crudely, the face of utilitarianism and the ass of natural law. You could just as easily have said, "is it easier to appeal to someone's natural sense of right and wrong, or get them to replace that sense with a system of calculation which adds up "utiles" and then recommends the course of action which yields the greatest total sum of "utiles", without any regard for who is helped and who is hurt?" - presenting the face of natural law and the ass of utilitarianism.

Pointing out that millions of people are needlessly dying or living needlessly miserable lives all because of government policies that would be nearly costless to eliminate seems a much more promising path than arguing about the minutiae of self-ownership, the process of legitimate initial property acquisition, and so on.

A rights-based approach need not go into any minutiae, any more than a utilitarian approach need go into minutiae. The porous border of the United States is porous because a lot of people are behaving in accordance with natural law. Immigrants are flowing in. Americans are hiring them. Neither action violates natural law. The government is violating natural law and people are protecting themselves from that violation. The people involved in being an illegal immigrant or hiring illegal immigrants know who they are, they know they are good people, they know they are not doing anything wrong. They are in no way likely to rape, rob, or kill. (Obviously, there is always some small minority of any population that does, in fact, commit crimes, but the vast majority, I have no doubt, are not criminal.)

The same can be said of people who use recreational drugs. The typical person who has a stash of weed is no more likely that the next person to break into someone's house, rape someone, or kill someone.

Nobody needs to go into any minutiae for these people to distinguish between hiring an illegal and committing murder or assault or vandalism or any number of actually criminal acts. But the basis of the distinction that these people make is surely not utilitarianism. A person does not have a stash of weed because he believes that it will increase global utility. Someone sneaking across the border is not trying to increase global utility. Someone hiring an illegal is not trying to increase global utility. These people are not applying utilitarianism in their actions. They do not know, and do not think they know, the global impact of their actions. They are adhering to natural law, and applying what is, in fact, a sense of natural law.

If someone doesn't share

If someone doesn't share your position on immigration/sweatshop labor regulations, I can see a few possible reasons:

  1. This person doesn't share your conception of self ownership, initial property aquisition, etc.
  2. This person doesn't fully grasp the concept of comparative advantage and the astronomical potential gains from trade.
  3. This person has a strong sense of tribalism, and places much greater importance on the welfare of people within the tribe than outside the tribe.

Given these three possibilities, I see #2 as the easiest and most likely path to lead to successful persuasion. The only response to #3 is shaming and ridicule. #1 has many points of failure, as the chain of argument is lengthy and complex, and many links in that chain are extremely weak without resorting to some sort of consequentialist underpinnings. For example, "how [could we] justify any institution that recognizes a right to exclude"?

The way Judith Thomson puts it, if “the first labor-mixer must literally leave as much and as good for others who come along later, then no one can come to own anything, for there are only finitely many things in the world so that every taking leaves less for others”

[...]

Original appropriation diminishes the stock of what can be originally appropriated, at least in the case of land, but that is not the same thing as diminishing the stock of what can be owned. On the contrary, in taking control of resources and thereby removing those particular resources from the stock of goods that can be acquired by originally appropriation, people typically generate massive increases in the stock of goods that can be acquired by trade. The lesson is that appropriation typically is not a zero-sum game. It normally is a positive sum game. As Locke himself stressed, it creates the possibility of mutual benefit on a massive scale. It creates the possibility of society as a cooperative venture.

The argument is not merely that enough is produced in appropriation’s aftermath to compensate latecomers who lost out in the race to appropriate. The argument is that the bare fact of being an original appropriator is not the prize. The prize is prosperity, and latecomers win big, courtesy of those who got here first. If anyone had a right to be compensated, it would be the first appropriators.

This is the argument for property rights. This is the only good argument for property rights. At it's base, it is a consequentialist argument. If property rights were not the precondition for good consequences, they would not be justified.

So dealing with problem #1 requires dealing with problem #2. Why not just cut out the middle man and start from economics?

This is the argument for

This is the argument for property rights. This is the only good argument for property rights.

Begging the question. You start by affirming that the only good argument for property right is utilitarian and conclude in your new blog post that natural rights is really utilitarianism. Did you come up with that all by yourself ?

The only good argument for property rights

This is the argument for property rights. This is the only good argument for property rights.

I used to think approximately that (though I wasn't quite so dogmatic about it), but eventually I realized that my own respect for property rights had not, in fact, arisen as a consequence of utilitarian considerations. The vast majority of people who become moral, I am pretty sure, do not get there by the path of utilitarian reflection. Utilitarianism is, rather, a rationalization of morality, one which utilitarians think seems to satisfy certain criteria which they think need to be satisfied by morality. For example, utilitarianism seems to give you a method by which you can calculate right and wrong, and that seems to satisfy the ideal which Leibniz expressed with these words:

The only way to rectify our reasonings is to make them as tangible as those of the Mathematicians, so that we can find our error at a glance, and when there are disputes among persons, we can simply say: Let us calculate, without further ado, to see who is right.

Utilitarianism is by and for that sort of person. The average man in the street has no need of it. However, utilitarianism is a false hope, for reasons which would take a long time to argue about (but some of which were argued about a couple of years ago in this blog).