Re: Utilitarian Contradiction ?

Daniel Fabulich (
Sat, 23 May 1998 16:32:55 -0400 (EDT)

On Sat, 23 May 1998, Ian Goddard wrote:

> IAN: You say that utilitarianism is anti-
> thetical to "me first" and you also said:
> >...I am a libertarian: because it is the direct
> >logical conclusion of utilitarianism.
> IAN: I agree that libertarianism results in
> the greatest good, but I detect a contradiction
> in saying that utilitarianism is antithetical
> to "me first" AND implies libertarianism.

They are not contrary at all, if you agree with me that libertarianism is
more conducive to net utility than any other political scheme (except
possibly anarcho-capitalism, but I believe anarcho-capitalism will arrive
at a libertarian system of laws).

> I think it's indisputable that market activity
> is defined by a "me first" principle. Yes, people
> do things for others, like provide services for
> them, but they do it for "me first." Let's be
> realistic, nobody (or close enough thereto)
> opens a business because they want to in-
> crease the "greater good," they do it to
> make money for me-first and my family.

True! A capitalist economy can withstand people acting completely in
their self interests with no thought for other people's utility. How?
Well, in order to get what you want in a capitalist economy, you have to
help people in some meangingful way. If somebody feels that something you
could do for them would increase their utility, then they will pay you for
it, maximizing the utility of both parties, despite the fact that this was
neither person's intent.

As an economic principle, voluntary transactions necessarily lead to an
increase in utility for both parties; otherwise, the parties would not
participate in the exchange. This ultimately leads us to agree with
Smith's assertion of the "invisible hand:" that rational self-interested
agents acting in a free market economy maximize the utility of all those
within the economy, despite the fact that nobody was trying to do so.

For this reason, I endorse capitalism. I endorse libertarianism because
it allows capitalism to work the most smoothly. I endorse anarcho-
capitalism because I believe that it will work better still.

> Ayn Rand has very accurately, in my opinion,
> mapped the me-first nature of libertarianism.
> In effect, the greatest good is served by the
> me-first principle with the only constraint
> being the prohibition of the Initiation of
> Force, Theft, and Fraud. So we could say,
> I believe, that the logical utilitarian
> principle is: "me first" + (-IF.T.F.).

It would be clearer if you simply replaced "Force, Theft, and Fraud" with
the broader category of "coercion." From this perspective, people acting
in a "me first" way, who at the same time fail to coerce one another, will
maximize utility.

Now, keep in mind that the acting participants in this economy are NOT
utilitarian, or at least, don't have to be. Simply by virtue of the fact
that they act according to egoism and yet are constrained from coercion,
the optimal utilitarian consequence results. However, this is NOT true
from the perspective of the egoist: if I were an egoist, (that is, if I
considered an action morally right if and only if it maximized my own
utility; this is different from Rand's definition in a meanginful way) I
would REJECT libertarianism, and instead struggle to become king: to
steal, cheat, and defraud others in any way necessary to get what I want.
Though this would make others worse off, it would make me much much better
off, and THIS would be the optimal egoist consequence.

Rand makes an argument which I don't find convincing: that having honesty,
integrity, etc. is actually in one's own self-interest, because in order
to be rationally consistent, one must not prevent others from acting
morally, that is, one must not prevent others from seeking their own self
interest. I disagree wholeheartedly: An effective king will be much
better off than an honest capitalist, despite the fact that others will be
made much worse off under the king than they would under capitalism; if
this prevents others from "acting morally," SO BE IT, because our moral
code doesn't say anything about OTHERS, only about maxmizing our OWN
utility. If preventing others from acting morally would maximize one's
own utility, then egoism DEMANDS that you prevent others from acting

Take this thought experiment: You have the opportunity to steal something
you want; you know that you will not be caught. Your utility will
increase if you steal it, while the owner's utility will decrease more
than yours increases. An egoist, acting to maximize agent utility, will
steal; a utilitarian, acting to maximize net utility, will not steal.

> >THIS is the philosophy you have so maligned....
> IAN: I believe that any given philosophy
> or proposition must be tested by seeing
> how far it can stretch, such as, "Does
> it support Nazism?" being an agreed
> upon worst-case point of reference.

And while we're at it, egoism WOULD endorse the slaughtering of others, if
you liked that sort of thing and could get away with it. Utilitarianism,
however, obviously does not endorse slaughter, because it would not
maxmize net utility.