Rule Libertarianism

November 14, 2008

[followup to: Empirically Libertarian]

I’ve always thought Rule Utilitarianism was a bit of a “weak sauce” philosophy. If you want Utility, why not go for the gold? But, maybe there’s something more to it than I thought. And maybe it’s the only hope for Libertarianism.

The basis for Rule Utilitarianism is epistemological. Its claim to validity is that when it comes to morality, we just cannot predict the consequences of our actions. In this, it’s an odd mix of Kantian deontology and straight Utilitarianism. Kant basically said you’ve got to assert your personhood; there’s no honor in falling to the ground at 32 ft/sec/sec, and similarly, there’s no honor in lying to bring about good consequences. That’s using a person (yourself) as a mere means to an end, which is morally not good. Of course, this implies that you can’t lie to the Gestapo about the Jews you are hiding in your attic. Result: more dead people (probably). Utilitarianism is usually thought of as going to the other extreme. It says you can lie, cheat, steal, and murder all you want, as long as it brings about more good than harm, on net. The drawback is that this philosophy justifies a lot of crazy stuff, for example lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering.

Rule Utilitarianism tries to split the difference by admitting that we’re not crazy Kantians, we actually do perform acts in order to achieve good in the world. Consequences matter. On the other hand, we feel squeamish about murder, so we don’t want our moral philosophy to tell us it’s okay, when it clearly isn’t. Rule Utilitarianism says that we truly can’t predict the consequences of our actions, so we can’t know, in any individual case, what will produce more good than harm. But since we can analyze past actions in this way, we should just follow a general moral rule that, if followed by everyone in all circumstances, would produce more good than harm. So the Rule Utilitarian answer to “Why not just go for the gold?” is “Because we can’t just go for the gold. We can only go to the river where we’ve found gold in the past.”

So this is the kind of Libertarianism you are left with when we admit that we care about all liberty, not just negative liberty. A wimpy, compromised Libertarianism. A “Rule Libertarianism,” if you will. We are going for both positive and negative liberty, but positive liberty is something we don’t know how to get, directly. All we know is that, in the past, attempts to create a powerful entity that would restrict our negative liberty for the purpose of furthering total liberty have failed at furthering total liberty.

Like Rule Utilitarianism, it’s pretty weak sauce. But it may be the only sauce possible.

Note: The description of Rule Utilitarianism in this post was influenced by this post at Overcoming Bias. Though I seem to recall that I wrote a paper for a freshman philosophy course that was basically the same idea.

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