Deontology versus Consequentialism: The Great Libertarian Divide

I am not a philosopher. In fact, the two courses I took on philosophy in college (Honors courses on ancient Greek ethics and modern ethics) were the two courses where I received my lowest grades ever in college (B+’s). Nevertheless, I have been thinking about the great divide within libertarianism regarding the concept of ‘rights’.

I don’t want to delve into the concept of ‘rights’ here, largely because I have only a superficial understanding of the notion, but for the sake of non-libertarian readers I’d like to briefly explain that, within libertarianism, there is an argument about whether or not deontological ethics (wiki) or consequential ethics (wiki) is the proper framework with which to analyze the world.

Deontological libertarians argue that each and every individual has natural rights and that any sort of aggression upon these rights is inherently immoral. Consequentialist libertarians argue that the initiation of force is not as important as whether or not a policy makes everybody better off. In some ways, you can see these tensions being played out here on the blog.

Under these strict definitions I am a consequentialist, but I don’t think it’s quite right to label me as such. I think that the two ethical systems are complimentary more than they are antagonistic. For instance, I think the deontological framework is important because the urge of those in power to “do something”  for the greater good is often immense. Deontological ethics plays an important role in establishing boundaries that those in power have to respect. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward provides a clear-cut example of what happens when power is unrestrained in the name of a greater good. Ethnic cleansing, famine, and poverty can all be attributed, in one form or another, to the lack of respect for deontological ethics.

On the other hand, deontological ethics is too dogmatic. It is impossible to have a society based completely upon the foundations of non-aggression. Free trade is a perfect example of this impossibility. Deontological libertarians support free trade because in the absence of coercion free trade would be the natural outcome. Yet this does not seem right to me. Free trade is good because it lifts up the overall standards of living for everybody in a society, but there are short-run losers when it comes to free trade. In fact, losers are a natural part of the marketplace as a whole. Without losers there could be no markets. We should all be thanking as many losers as we can, whenever we can (you can start with me; I recently set up a Tinder account).

Free trade, and the losers that it produces, has harmful short-run effects on some individuals and their property. Competition destroys fortunes and job skills alike. Free trade also creates verifiable prosperity for societies, and even the losers – eventually – become better off under free trade. Even the underlying structure of the capitalist order is based on aggressively protecting that “bundle” of individual rights that is so integral to freedom and prosperity (this does not mean that states are a necessity, but only that aggression is unavoidable in social relations).

I am off-base here? Am I knocking down a straw man? It seems to me that the consequentialist position – which is already very deontologically-friendly to begin with – is the better route to take, philosophically, politically, and rhetorically.

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4 thoughts on “Deontology versus Consequentialism: The Great Libertarian Divide”

  1. God I hate mobile devices…starting over.

    I’ve become somewhat partial to consequentialism of late. But there are no intersubjective comparisons of utility. One man’s good consequences may be another man’s bad consequences. The only preference that everyone seems to have in common is referring their own respective preferences. This is why allowing people with (dis)similar preferences to (dis)associate on a voluntary basis is so important. Tribalists. Still others may be tolerant even of those with whom their interests don’t align. Cosmopolitans. Not everyone would be happy with such an arrangement, of course. Plunderers and busybodies. But that’s as it should be.

  2. It is not clear what the policy consequences are regarding those who lose out due to competition. If we are free to choose our friends, there will be losers who lose someone’s friendship. Should we be forced to stay friends with those we no longer like? If not, then such a loss has no policy implication. Such incidental injuries have less damaging consequences than a law that prohibits ending a friendship. Thus the deontological and consequential effects are complements: Likewise, the consequences of prohibiting economic competition are worse than the losses due to competition. And entrepreneurs should know that the system is a profit and loss system, and anyone in business is vulnerable to losses. The losses due to competition are not torts and they are not coercive harms. They are injuries not deliberately inflicted but incidental to individuals and firms pursuing their happiness.

Please keep it civil (unless it relates to Jacques)

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