Philosophical Multicore

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

Thought Experiment

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 17, 2011

This is a thought experiment on philosophical Libertarianism: the position that people own themselves and no one has a right to violate anyone else’s self-ownership.

Say there is some action the government can take that will universally reduce everyone’s liberty, but will also universally increase everyone’s happiness. The happiness will not go away over time: the government’s action will continue to make people happy for as long as there are people. In addition, the happiness is not mere short-term pleasure: it is a true sense of enlightenment and connection with the universe.

Should people be willing to give up a little freedom in order to become happier, more enlightened, and more connected to the universe? Or, going the other direction, should people refuse to accept a little more liberty at the cost of becoming unsatisfied with their lives? If you think they should (as I believe any sensible person would think), you are not a philosophical Libertarian.

Some may protest that there is no universal restriction of liberty that could make everyone happier. However, such a thing need not exist for this thought experiment to work. If it did exist, and you would be willing to make the trade-off, it means that you support self-ownership not for its own sake, but because you think it will lead to the greatest possible happiness. Therefore, your ultimate end is not self-ownership but happiness, and Libertarianism is purely your means of maximizing society’s well-being.

It is arguable that the concept of self-ownership does increase people’s happiness and make society work better, but it is important to recognize that self-ownership is not an end in itself. If everyone were free and miserable, that would be a far worse world than if everyone were restricted and happy.


4 Responses to “Thought Experiment”

  1. phynnboi said

    Assuming that the net change in each person’s happiness is indeed positive and noticeable, that the only way it can be had is by this government intervention, and that it lasts for as long as the government so acts, I don’t see why any rational person would turn it down.

    I’m unconvinced, however, that said acceptance means anything if the acceptor does not believe said action can exist. Indeed, it would seem that a belief that no such action can exist would be at the foundation of the decision to be a philosophical Libertarian!

    If a self-proclaimed atheist says, “If God came down and proved to me He exists, I’d believe in God,” but obviously believes that such an event cannot happen, does his admission defy his position, meaning that he’s really a theist? Or does it just mean he’s an atheist with an open mind?

    Also, if such actions did, in fact, exist, I think it reasonable to argue that, since every rational person would accept them anyway, they can safely be ignored in determining whether or not a person is a philosophical Libertarian. The consideration would be how a person feels about other actions that are not uniformly happiness-increasing.

    • There is a distinction here between valuing Libertarianism as its own end and valuing it for another end, and that is what my hypothetical scenario demonstrates. I refer to these two types of Libertarianism as philosophical and political, respectively.

      Someone who would take a decrease in freedom for a permanent increase in happiness cannot be a philosophical Libertarian because he does not value freedom as its own end, but only as a means to happiness. A philosophical Libertarian would not sacrifice a decrease in freedom for an increase in happiness, no matter what the circumstances.

      A philosophical Libertarian values freedom as an end it itself, while a Utilitarian values happiness in itself. Someone who would decrease freedom to increase happiness clearly values happiness over freedom, and therefore cannot be a philosophical Libertarian.

      A political Libertarian, on the other hand, is someone who believes that the tradeoff does not exist. A person could support Libertarian politics because she thinks it is the best way to improve a nation’s happiness, and not necessarily because liberty is valuable for its own sake. A political Libertarian could be a philosophical Libertarian or a philosophical Utilitarian, but a philosophical Libertarian could not be a Utilitarian.

      The difference with atheism is that atheism is not axiomatic. An atheist does not believe in God because he sees no evidence for God, not because he thinks that believing in God is somehow epistemologically superior. This analogy is a bit weird since Libertarianism/Utilitarianism is a question of values while atheism/theism is a question of facts, but I will do what I can to extend the analogy.

      An atheist is like a political Libertarian. He values rationality, and through rationality he sees no evidence that God exists. If God proved Himself (or Herself) to exist, the atheist would become a theist but either way he would be following rationality.

      A philosophical Libertarian would be like someone who values atheism for its own sake, and not because it is the rational conclusion of scientific observation. A “philosophical atheist” would continue to be an atheist even if God proved himself to exist, because he believes that atheism is an end in itself, regardless of where the evidence points.

      I think that analogy just made things more confusing. The point is, Libertarians often think they value freedom for its own sake, but in fact they only value it because they think it is the best way to maximize happiness.

  2. oneworldnet said

    I take issue with your last paragraph especially, but your whole post as well. Libertarians do not value freedom because we think it the best way to maximise happiness, it’s not an issue up for grabs in the way you posit, not to be trraded with anyone for any amount of Soma. You totally misunderstand libertarianism if you think it’s just a different take on getting one’s own best deal from the ‘boss’.
    Or are we talking at cross purposes here, and are you American and by philosophical Libertarian you mean a philosopher of the far right? Being British, Libertarian means Anarchist, and that’s neither right nor left, but possibly seen as left due to temporary alliances with left groups such as socialists and communists.
    But to me libertarian means you don’t accept your freedom from government, you already have it. Governments only control with fear. I too value rationality over all else, and that includes the imaginary friend syndrome.

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