June 16, 2024

No matter how many times you have read a book by Ludwig von Mises or Murray Rothbard, you will find new insights if you read the book again. I found this to be true when preparing for Rothbard Graduate Seminar (RGS) this year. One of our readings was Rothbard’s For a New Liberty, and this year some of Rothbard’s arguments that I hadn’t concentrated on before attracted my attention. Usually, if you are looking for Rothbard’s views on ethics, Ethics of Liberty is the place to go, but there are some points in For a New Liberty that are different. I’m going to discuss some of Rothbard’s arguments in this week’s column.

One of the most interesting of these arguments is this:

The utilitarians declare, from their study of the consequences of liberty as opposed to alternative systems, that liberty will lead more surely to widely approved goals: harmony, peace, prosperity, etc. Now no one disputes that relative consequences should be studied in assessing the merits or demerits of respective creeds. But there are many problems in confining ourselves to a utilitarian ethic. For one thing, utilitarianism assumes that we can weigh alternatives, and decide upon policies, on the basis of their good or bad consequences. But if it is legitimate to apply value judgments to the consequences of X, why is it not equally legitimate to apply such judgments to X itself? May there not be something about an act itself which, in its very nature, can be considered good or evil?

Rothbard is arguing in this way: Utilitarians take “good” to be the fundamental concept of ethics. You should act to achieve the greatest good possible, and utilitarians “cash this out” in terms of which of your actions has the best results. “Best” in this context can be specified in various ways (e.g., results in the most pleasure, maximizes preference satisfaction, etc.).

Rothbard’s question is this: With what justification do utilitarians limit the determination of what is good to consequences? Why not ask about the goodness or badness of types of acts in themselves? In determining what to do, we would not just ask what the consequences of a particular lie would be, but also add the badness of lying to the calculation.

It’s important to distinguish this view from a more familiar position. According to this position, when considering whether you should lie, you need to take account not only of the consequences of the particular lie in a given situation but of the consequences of adopting lying in such circumstances as a general practice. (There are all sorts of complications involved here that I won’t go into now.)

But Rothbard is talking about the intrinsic goodness or badness of types of acts. A utilitarian might think that in a given case, killing someone would have beneficial consequences, even though he has added the badness of killing to his calculation. But this utilitarian calculus leaves unaddressed the question of whether killing is permissible at all.

Rothbard deserves great credit for seeing this issue, and in fact “pluralist” utilitarians have incorporated the goodness or badness of types of acts into their calculations in just the way his question suggests. As Walter Sinnott-Armstrong notes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Pluralism about values also enables consequentialists to handle many of the problems that plague hedonistic utilitarianism. For example, opponents often charge that classical utilitarians cannot explain our obligations to keep promises and not to lie when no pain is caused or pleasure is lost. Whether or not hedonists can meet this challenge, pluralists can hold that knowledge is intrinsically good and/or that false belief is intrinsically bad. Then, if deception causes false beliefs, deception is instrumentally bad, and agents ought not to lie without a good reason, even when lying causes no pain or loss of pleasure. Since lying is an attempt to deceive, to lie is to attempt to do what is morally wrong (in the absence of defeating factors). Similarly, if a promise to do an act is an attempt to make an audience believe that the promiser will do the act, then to break a promise is for a promiser to make false a belief that the promiser created or tried to create. Although there is more tale to tell, the disvalue of false belief can be part of a consequentialist story about why it is morally wrong to break promises.

Although Rothbard’s question is a good one, it isn’t clear how damaging it is to utilitarianism. Utilitarians need to figure out what to include in their calculations, but to say this is not to establish that they cannot do so in a reasonable way.

Another of Rothbard’s arguments, though, does wound utilitarianism severely, and possibly mortally:

Suppose a society which fervently considers all redheads to be agents of the Devil and therefore to be executed whenever found. Let us further assume that only a small number of redheads exist in any generation—so few as to be statistically insignificant. The utilitarian-libertarian might well reason: “While the murder of isolated redheads is deplorable, the executions are small in number; the vast majority of the public, as non-redheads, achieves enormous psychic satisfaction from the public execution of redheads. The social cost is negligible, the social, psychic benefit to the rest of society is great; therefore, it is right and proper for society to execute the redheads.” The natural-rights libertarian, overwhelmingly concerned as he is for the justice of the act, will react in horror and staunchly and unequivocally oppose the executions as totally unjustified murder and aggression upon nonaggressive persons. The consequence of stopping the murders—depriving the bulk of society of great psychic pleasure—would not influence such a libertarian, the “absolutist” libertarian, in the slightest. Dedicated to justice and to logical consistency, the natural-rights libertarian cheerfully admits to being “doctrinaire,” to being, in short, an unabashed follower of his own doctrines.

I think it would be very difficult for a utilitarian to escape from Rothbard’s conclusion that utilitarianism would justify murdering the redheads. The attempts to do so generally emphasize the bad consequences (from a utilitarian standpoint) that doing this might lead to in other areas. Philippa Foot used to say that when a utilitarian is presented with a counterexample, he will immediately talk about side effects.

There are, unfortunately, utilitarians who will “bite the bullet” (i.e., accept the consequences, no matter how implausible). The economist Robin Hanson has said that the reason the Holocaust was bad is that there weren’t enough Nazis. If there had been a sufficiently great number of them, the happiness they obtained from the Holocaust would have outweighed the pain of the victims. Some people don’t recognize a reductio ad absurdum when they see one, but the rest of us will see the force of Rothbard’s example against utilitarianism.