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.