Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Individual Liberty as Means to Collective Gain

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 31, 2010

There is a common political and ethical debate between individual freedom and collective gain. Libertarians, for instance, argue that personal autonomy — the idea of self-ownership — should be valued above all else. The philosophy of collective gain, argued by Utilitarians and reflected in socialist politics, is that overall good is more important than individual gain. These philosophies may seem to be in conflict; in an absolute sense, they are. But it is possible to use individual liberty as a means to collective gain.

People are inherently selfish. People aren’t selfish all the time, of course; we have been known to be generous and helpful. But we are selfish as well. In a perfect world, we would all cooperate perfectly, and be willing to sacrifice our own happiness to any extent if it were for the greater good. But the problem is, people don’t work this way. We cannot be expected to cooperate all of the time. And this is why the concept of individual liberty is a useful one.

By itself, individual liberty makes no sense. By definition, anything other than an attempt to maximize collective happiness will end up with less than optimal happiness overall, which means each individual has a lower expected happiness. If everyone supports individual liberty, then people will be less happy. At least, in theory.

In practice, the situation is quite different. People don’t always work together. The concept of individual rights is a rather ingenious response to selfishness and egoism, spawned for the purpose of protecting society from those who would selfishly take advantage of a perfectly collective culture.

How is this possible? The concept is simple: it is impossible to isolate society from the selfish people because everyone might be selfish. The natural response is for every individual person to be protected from everyone else.

One of the most impactful effects of selfishness is a reduction in the freedoms of others. Theft and murder are extreme examples of this. So the way to prevent this harmful selfishness is to ensure that individual liberty remains intact. People are protected from theft by the concept of property ownership. If goods were owned collectively, there would be very little stopping a greedy person from taking more than his share. But if we introduce the concept of ownership, people are able to definitively claim certain items as their own. Consequences can be enforced for anyone who tries to take those items. This can create hunger and poverty for those who are not able to get enough goods for themselves, so the system is less than perfect. But it is still very useful, and is better overall than allowing a few greedy people to simply take everything.

Similar to this is the concept of rights. In an ideal world, there would be no rights. Everyone would simply do what was best for each other. But in this world, we need protection from the malicious, and this is what rights provide. The right to life protects us from murderers. The right to liberty protects us from slavery and unjust imprisonment. The right to property protects us from theft.

In a perfect world, individual liberty would not be a priority. But our world is imperfect. In order to maximize collective gain, as paradoxical as this may seem, enforcing individual rights and freedoms is a powerful strategy.

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