Thursday, March 27, 2008

Morality and Consequentialism

The text for this post comes from Freespace:
...Many [libertarians] are purely consequentialists—that is, they believe that morality simply cannot be the subject of disciplined inquiry, and that all that a libertarian can talk about is practical reasoning. In other words, they can’t argue that liberty is morally right; they can only argue about how as a practical matter free social and economic networks are organized. I have argued that if consistently followed, this practice will lead them to default on the responsibility of moral judgment, and ultimately they [will] fall into ... cultural relativism....

I have argued in many posts that libertarianism properly understood must be based on an objective, universal morality....
The aim of this disciplined (albeit brief) inquiry is to show that "objective, universal morality" is a philosophical delusion. It follows that libertarianism must justified by its consequences.

First, Some Words about Philosophical Moral Absolutism and Religion

I cannot resist observing that philosophical moral absolutism seems to be a religion-substitute for libertarian moral absolutists, who tend to be atheists (e.g., the authors of Freespace, A Stitch in Haste, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and various of the bloggers at The Panda's Thumb).

Libertarian moral absolutists, especially so-called libertarians of the Left, exude a "more moral than thou" attitude. I take it as a way of saying "Look at me, I'm an atheist but I'm a moral person, my religion-bashing notwithstanding." As I say here,
[i]t is disheartening ... when libertarians join the anti-religio[n] chorus. They know not what they do when they join the Left in tearing down a bulwark of civil society, without which liberty cannot prevail....

[A]s time passes the moral lessons ... older Americans learned through religion will attenuate unless those lessons are taught, anew, to younger generations.

Rather than join the [anti-libertarian] Left in attacking the Judeo-Christian tradition, libertarians ought to accommodate themselves to it and even encourage its acceptance -- for liberty's sake.
See also this post and the links therein.

Philosophical Moral Absolutism as a Logical Fallacy

Returning to the matter of philosophical moral absolutism, let us consider murder: the taking of a human life, absent the motive of self-defense (be it individual or communal). According to proponents of natural rights based on self-ownership (i.e, philosophical moral absolutists), murder is wrong because it is a denial of the natural right to life (the ownership of one's own life). (As I discuss below, it is an inconvenient fact that not all libertarian absolutists agree about the specific implications of their absolutism.)

But the argument from natural rights is both circular and consequential. It is circular in that it seeks to prove that murder is wrong by citing the unprovable axiom that humans possess natural (innate) rights, from which (the absolutist argues) the wrongness of murder flows. The argument is consequential (albeit circular) because the wrongness of murder is characterized in terms of its consequence: the denial of a natural right.

In fact, philosophical moral absolutists are hard-pressed to avoid invoking consequences. The author of Freespace, for example, says that
the framers were right to believe that government is limited by our natural rights, and that our natural rights protect our right to act so long as we harm no other person. This last observation was hardly new or unique to Mill; it is in Locke’s Second Treatise, for instance....
Putting it negatively ("our natural rights protect our right to act so long as we harm no other person") is just another way of saying that natural rights do not include the right to harm another person. The writer would be quick to add, of course, "except in self-defense or in the course of preventing harm to a third party."

And, for another example, we have the author of Dispatches from the Culture Wars asserting that
[u]nder libertarian standards, each individual is free to live their [sic] life as they [sic] see fit as long as they [sic] do not impose harm on another person against their [sic] will.
"Harm" is to "consequence" as apple is to fruit. That is, "harm" just a more specific (though still vague) term for an act's effect on another person or persons. Philosophical moral absolutists, having conceded that libertarianism rests on the harm principle (whether Mill's or Locke's) have conceded that it rests on the consequences of acts.

It is impossible to label a specific act as an immoral one merely by stating that it is a violation of natural rights. Instead, the libertarian absolutist is forced to confront the consequences (actual or potential) of the act (event if he does so inwardly).

In sum, a libertarian absolutist's invocation of natural rights is a ritual: an intellectual genuflection, if you will.

The Indeterminacy of Philosophical Moral Absolutism

It is telling that libertarian absolutists cannot always agree that an axiomatic principle translates into a unique set of moral judgments about particular acts. For example, some absolutists not only claim that there are natural rights, but that those rights lead to the certain moral prescriptions; for example: preemptive war is wrong; abortion is a justifiable act of self-ownership; and income redistribution is just in that it "actualizes" the otherwise theoretical liberty of its beneficiaries. (These are just examples; not all absolutists claim the same three things.)

The problem, for absolutists, is that a given axiomatic principle can be interpreted to justify almost any act, depending on the judgment of the individual who espouses that act. I could, for example, assert that I believe in self-ownership or natural rights and thence argue to the following conclusions: preemptive war is just when it averts an attack on innocent civilians; abortion is an unconscionable act, legally distinguished from murder only by the instant between gestation and birth; income redistribution harms its intended beneficiaries by making them dependent on it and by penalizing growth-inducing activities, such as invention, innovation, entrepreneurship, and capital investment.

My assertions would be no less valid than those of any absolutist, and might (as a set) even coincide with the assertions of some absolutists. How would those concurring absolutists know that I am not of their ilk, except by my own admission? They wouldn't.

Q.E.D.: Philosophical moral absolutism is indeterminate.

Philosophical Moral Absolutism as a Semantic Illusion

The consequential aspect of morality tends to be overlooked because words for heinous acts (murder, rape, etc.) merely imply the consequences of the acts to which they refer (consequences such as involuntary death, involuntary sexual intimacy, etc.). It is that semantic subtlety which allows philosophical moral absolutists (usually deontolgists and Objectivists) to believe -- mistakenly -- that they are morally superior to consequentialists because they (the absolutists) have an a priori method for deducing morality.

In denouncing certain acts, philosophical absolutists are in fact denouncing the consequences of those acts, as I have discussed. Absolutists delude themselves by proclaiming that such denunciations really flow from an axiomatic principle, such as natural rights.

The Psychological and Sociological Sources of Moral Judgments

Concepts such as self-ownership and natural rights are, at best, after-the-fact justifications of one's moral judgments about particular acts. Less charitably, they are shibboleths spouted by sophomoric pretenders to philosophical profundity.

Jim Manzi of The Corner puts it this way:
Any ... moral argument, however, will ultimately rest on a set of beliefs that could be characterized as being “coughed up by an unconscious emotion”. We might call these, in a less loaded term, moral axioms. You don’t get a free pass out of this game [as a libertarian absolutist] by just saying you favor any non-coercive behavior, because either the restriction on coercion must itself be a moral axiom, or it must, in turn, rest upon some other more fundamental moral axioms.

The funny thing about axioms is that if they are so basic that pretty much everybody agrees with them, then reasoning from them to conclusions about specific policies will often lead different people to very different conclusions. If, on the other hand, they are highly developed, then lots of people won’t agree that they are axioms.
So, in the end, we are left with judgments about acts whose consequences repulse us, not free-floating universals that exist apart from human nature. Those judgments often are instinctive, and also are "built into" evolved social norms, which reflect accrued knowledge of the consequences of various acts. Thus:
We (most of us) flinch from doing things to others that we would not want done to ourselves. Is that because of inbred ("hard wired") empathy? Or are we conditioned by social custom? Or is the answer "both"?

If inbred empathy is the only explanation for self-control with regard to other persons, why is it that our restraint so often fails us in interactions with others are fleeting and/or distant? (Think of aggressive driving and rude e-mails, for just two examples of unempathic behavior.) Empathy, to the extent that it is a real and restraining influence, seems most to work best (but not perfectly) in face-to-face encounters, especially where the persons involved have more than a fleeting relationship.

If behavior is (also) influenced by social custom, why does social custom favor restraint? Here is where consequentialism enters the picture.

We are taught (or we learn) about the possibility of retaliation by a victim of our behavior (or by someone acting on behalf of a victim). In certain instances, there is the possibility of state action on behalf of the victim: a fine, time in jail, etc. So we are taught (or we learn) to restrain ourselves (to some extent) in order to avoid punishments that flow directly and (more or less) predictably from our unrestrained actions.

More deeply, there is the idea that "what goes around comes around." In other words, bad behavior can beget bad behavior, whereas good behavior can beget good behavior. ("Well, if so-and-so can get away with X, so can I." "So-and-so is rewarded for good behavior; it will pay me to be good, also." "If so-and-so is nice to me, I'll be nice to him so that he'll continue to be nice to me.")

Why do we care that "what goes around comes around"? First, we humans are imitative social animals; what others do -- for good or ill -- cues our own behavior. Second, there is an "instinctive" (taught/learned) aversion to "fouling one's own nest."

Unfortunately, our aversion to nest-fouling weakens as our interactions with others become more fleeting and distant -- as they have done since the onset of industrialization, urbanization, and mass communication. Bad behavior then becomes easier because its consequences are less obvious or certain; it becomes a model for imitation and, perhaps, even a norm. Good behavior then flows from the fear of being retaliated against, not from socialized norms, or even from fear of state action. Aggression -- among the naturally aggressive -- becomes more usual.
Social Norms (Including Those Inculcated by Religion) Are All That We Have

The Millian concept of harm, so blithely invoked by philosophical moral absolutists (among others), is a chimera. Harm, as an act of one person against another, cannot be defined by individuals; it can be defined only by social agreement.

The philosophical moral absolutist would like to find something "better than" social norms. Thus the accusation that one defends murder, rape, slavery, etc., if one rejects philosophical moral absolutism. It is as if morality cannot be grounded in human nature. But it can be, and it is.

Murder and other anti-social acts arise from human nature. Murder and other anti-social acts are condemned almost universally because of human nature. It is human nature that makes such acts easier to commit when social relations become less personal and more anonymous.

To the extent that human actions are influenced positively by religious precepts (and they are, on the whole), the general goodness of human beings testifies to the mostly benign influence of religion on human behavior.


In sum, consequentialist libertarianism is not a kind of moral relativism. Rather, it is based on realism about (a) the non-existence of philosophical moral absolutes and (b) human nature. It accepts the morality that has arisen from human experience (as influenced by religion), while rejecting absolutists' Platonic mysticism. Consequentialism is therefore the only possible form of libertarianism, in the real world:
The virtue of [consequentialist] libertarianism ... is not that it must be taken on faith but that, in practice, it yields superior consequences [e.g., here and here]. Superior consequences for whom, you may ask. And I will answer: for all but those who don't wish to play by the rules of libertarianism; that is, for all but predators and parasites.
That is,
predators ... would take liberty from others, either directly (e.g., through murder...) or through the coercive power of the state (e.g., through smoking bans and licensing laws).... [P]arasites ... seek to advance their self-interest through the coercive power of the state rather than through their own efforts (e.g., through corporate welfare and regulatory protection).
Liberty, in the real world, is freedom (however elusive and episodic it may be) from predators and parasites. That freedom is to be found not through the invocation of philosophical moral absolutes (or anarchy), but through politics, policing, and war -- as befits the circumstances.

Related posts:
"The Origin and Essence of Rights" (01 Jan 2005)
"A Non-Paradox for Libertarians" (15 Aug 2005)
"The Paradox of Libertarianism" (05 Jan 2006)
"Liberty as a Social Compact" (28 Feb 2006)
"This Is Objectivism?" (01 Mar 2006)
"Social Norms and Liberty" (02 Mar 2006)
"A Footnote about Liberty and the Social Compact" (06 Mar 2006)
"Finding Liberty" (25 Mar 2006)
"The Source of Rights" (06 Sep 2006)
"The Fear of Consequentialism" (26 Nov 2007)
"Pascal's Wager, Morality, and the State" (09 Oct 2007)
"Religion and the Inculcation of Morality" (12 Nov 2007)
" 'Family Values,' Liberty, and the State" (07 Dec 2007)
"On Prejudice" (28 Feb 2008)
"In Search of Consistency" (12 Mar 2008)
"Objectivism: Tautologies in Search of Reality" (14 Mar 2008)

Related reading:
"What's Right vs. What Works" (an undated colloquy on objective morality vs. consequentialism, with Charles Murray, David Friedman, David Boaz, and R.W. Bradford)
"Religion, Government, and Civil Society," by Arnold Kling (21 Feb 2007)
"Is Atheism Only a Bundle of Sentiments?" by Mike Adams (24 Mar 2007)