Philosophical Multicore

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Archive for the ‘Libertarianism’ Category

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.

Posted in Ethics, Libertarianism, Utilitarianism | 4 Comments »

Murray Rothbard’s Critique of Utilitarianism

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 10, 2011

Murray Rothbard, a 20th-century economist and prominent Libertarian, offered the following critique of Utilitarianism:

The first, and most important [change], occurring in the early to mid-nineteenth century, was the abandonment of the philosophy of natural rights, and its replacement by technocratic utilitarianism. Instead of liberty grounded on the imperative morality of each individual’s right to person and property, that is, instead of liberty being sought primarily on the basis of right and justice, utilitarianism preferred liberty as generally the best way to achieve a vaguely defined general welfare or common good. There were two grave consequences of this shift from natural rights to utilitarianism. First, the purity of the goal, the consistency of the principle, was inevitably shattered. For whereas the natural-rights libertarian seeking morality and justice cleaves militantly to pure principle, the utilitarian only values liberty as an ad hoc expedient. And since expediency can and does shift with the wind, it will become easy for the utilitarian in his cool calculus of cost and benefit to plump for statism in ad hoc case after case, and thus to give principle away. Indeed, this is precisely what happened to the Benthamite utilitarians in England: beginning with ad hoc libertarianism and laissez-faire, they found it ever easier to slide further and further into statism. An example was the drive for an “efficient” and therefore strong civil service and executive power, an efficiency that took precedence, indeed replaced, any concept of justice or right.

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Self-Ownership for Nations

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 22, 2011

Individual liberty makes sense as a means to collective gain: allowing individual persons as much freedom as possible can benefit the greater good. How does the concept of individual liberty apply to countries?

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Pleasure, Liberty, and Brave New World

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 31, 2010

Our world is not the same as Othello’s world. You can’t make flivvers without steel — and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. Which you go and chuck out of the window in the name of liberty, Mr. Savage. Liberty! Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! And now expecting them to understand Othello! My good boy! (p. 149)

I recently wrote about the choice between freedom and happiness. Coincidentally, I also just finished reading Brave New World, the complete text of which may be found online. The novel features an intriguing investigation of the choice between liberty and pleasure.

If you haven’t read Brave New World, I highly recommend it. If you don’t want to, then at least read the summary on SparkNotes or Wikipedia so that you may better understand this essay.

Brave New World appears to be, if nothing else, an explication of the difference between pleasure and freedom. It illustrates a world of maximized pleasure but limited freedom, and this prospect is made to look frighteningly unpleasant. Although this is ostensibly true, reality is to the contrary: pleasure, despite what Huxley may have us believe, is liberty’s master.

In this fantastical world, higher pleasures have been eradicated. Shakespeare is banned because people could not understand it, because they are conditioned not to be able to understand it. People’s freedoms are restricted in the most absolute sense when they are conditioned to want certain things. The problem here is not the idea of conditioning itself. In fact, everyone is conditioned, all the time, and this is completely unavoidable. What makes the conditioning in Brave New World so abject is that it conditions people not to like higher pleasures. On the surface, it appears that liberty is sacrificed for happiness; but in truth, higher pleasure is sacrificed for lower.

This sacrifice is made in the name of stability. One character told a story of a social experiment in which a group of Alphas, the most intelligent and highest-class members of society, were placed on an island to govern themselves. What was the result?

The Controllers had the island of Cyprus cleared of all its existing inhabitants and re-colonized with a specially prepared batch of twenty-two thousand Alphas. All agricultural and industrial equipment was handed over to them and they were left to manage their own affairs. The result exactly fulfilled all the theoretical predictions. The land wasn’t properly worked; there were strikes in all the factories; the laws were set at naught, orders disobeyed; all the people detailed for a spell of low-grade work were perpetually intriguing for high-grade jobs, and all the people with high-grade jobs were counter-intriguing at all costs to stay where they were. Within six years they were having a first-class civil war. When nineteen out of the twenty-two thousand had been killed, the survivors unanimously petitioned the World Controllers to resume the government of the island. Which they did. And that was the end of the only society of Alphas that the world has ever seen. (p. 151)

The sacrifice here is not liberty for pleasure, but rather higher pleasure for stability. This quotation is one of the best pieces of evidence for the superiority of Huxley’s world; notwithstanding, it still relies on a few fallacious premises. The most obvious flaw here is that this is a work of fiction; although the quotation paints an interesting picture, we cannot know that an island of Alphas would find their situation to be hopeless and petition to rejoin the “normal” government. More importantly, we must ask what peoples of a different caste would do were they in a similar situation. Alphas serve to benefit more than any other caste by rejoining society, as they have the best prospects for experiencing higher pleasures. Castes lower than Alpha never get a chance at leadership or even remotely intellectual pursuits, so they do not know if they would like them. If people of the lower castes were given a choice between stability and the opportunity to experience higher pleasures, we do not know what they would choose. But their choice is far more important than the choice of the Alphas, who are already on top by default and whose statures are only lessened by the removal of the lower castes from society. If you created a world full of kings and ask them if they would rather have that or a feudal society, of course they would choose the latter. But create a world full of peasants and ask them the same question, and the answer will be quite different.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the society in question is a problem that is never consciously admitted by anyone in the book, although it is alluded to in a few places. It appears from all sides that the trouble with this society is its emphasis of happiness over freedom — or, after deeper analysis, its choosing lower over higher pleasures. But why does it prefer lower pleasures to higher ones? This society does not desire lower pleasures simply because they are pleasurable; rather, pleasure is only a means to an end. The ultimate ideal of civilization is stability. This is repeatedly mentioned in the book, although it appears that stability is meant to serve happiness. On the contrary: happiness is meant to serve stability. Why?

If you think about it, a society with stability as the ultimate goal will eventually win out over any society that emphasizes liberty, pleasure, or anything else. The truth of this becomes obvious after a moment’s thought. No society will be as stable as one that holds stability as the ultimate goal; all other societies will change, and will eventually reach an equilibrium in which stability is the greatest virtue. This is unfortunate when ethics demands that happiness be the highest goal.

David Pearce, a modern Utilitarian philosopher, wrote a critique of Brave New World. He argues that Huxley’s world fails as a satire of modern society and of the desire for happiness because the people in it are not truly happy. He makes a particularly strong case against soma:

As perfect pleasure-drugs go, soma underwhelms. It’s not really a utopian wonderdrug at all. It does make you high. Yet it’s more akin to a hangoverless tranquilliser or an opiate – or a psychic anaesthetising SSRI like Prozac – than a truly life-transforming elixir. Third-millennium neuropharmacology, by contrast, will deliver a vastly richer product-range of designer-drugs to order.

For a start, soma is a very one-dimensional euphoriant. It gives rise to only a shallow, unempathetic and intellectually uninteresting well-being. Apparently, taking soma doesn’t give Bernard Marx, the disaffected sleep-learning specialist, more than a cheap thrill. Nor does it make him happy with his station in life. John the Savage commits suicide soon after taking soma [guilt and despair born of serotonin depletion!?]. The drug is said to be better than (promiscuous) sex – the only sex brave new worlders practise. But a regimen of soma doesn’t deliver anything sublime or life-enriching. It doesn’t catalyse any mystical epiphanies, intellectual breakthroughs or life-defining insights. It doesn’t in any way promote personal growth. Instead, soma provides a mindless, inauthentic “imbecile happiness” – a vacuous escapism which makes people comfortable with their lack of freedom. The drug heightens suggestibility, leaving its users vulnerable to government propaganda. Soma is a narcotic that raises “a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds.”

Huxley’s novel depicts a world that values not happiness but stability. Liberty is restricted in exchange for stability, and the higher pleasures in life have been stripped away. Huxley’s world is a dystopia, there is no doubt about that. But it fails to effectively show that a world based on happiness is a dystopian one. Not only does this world favor less desirable pleasures over more sophisticated ones, but its ultimate goal is not even pleasure but stability. This striving for stability over all else is what inevitably corrupts mankind.

Perhaps I am not giving Huxley enough credit. Perhaps his novel was meant to show that the happiness from liberty is greater than the happiness from stability. If so, then Huxley’s novel only reinforces my point: that maximizing pleasure is the greatest virtue, and that higher pleasures should be emphasized over lower ones. One may not necessarily draw this conclusion from Brave New World, but it is the best conclusion to be had.

Despite that reality may appear to be to the contrary, a world in which happiness is the highest virtue would be the best of all possible worlds. Although liberty can provide great pleasure and is thus valuable, it is not more important than pleasure itself. Furthermore, stability is hardly an ideal goal. At times it can be pleasurable, but causes myriad problems when taken to its natural conclusion. It is imperative that our eyes not stray from society’s pinnacle desires, or the higher pleasures will inevitably come tumbling down.

Quotations from Brave New World come from the edition published by Bantam Books, 1968.

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Freedom or Happiness?

Posted by Michael Dickens on June 15, 2010

The foundational tenet of morality is to do the most good for the most people. The individual, while important in some sense, is only relevant in terms of the community as a whole. But similar to the question of individual versus collective happiness is the question of happiness versus liberty.

It shall go without saying that the moral thing to do is to try to make the world better — more specifically, to do the most good for the most people. After that, the natural question to ask is, what is “good”? Two very important ideals of goodness (which unfortunately are sometimes in conflict) are freedom and happiness.

What is happiness? Moral philosophers have been asking this question for a while, and John Stuart Mill was one of the first to provide some really good answers. He proposed the concept of higher and lower pleasures. Some sorts of pleasure, such as that derived from reading great literature, is more desirable than other sorts of pleasure, such as eating very delicious cake. Happiness, to put it simply, is a quantification of desires, with preference given to higher pleasures.

Freedom is comparatively simple to define. Freedom may be defined as the ability to dictate one’s own actions. (I use the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ interchangeably).

Both of these are important things to have, and highly valued by nearly everyone. But the question arises: which is more important?

Unfortunately, we sometimes have to make that choice. Brave New World paints a picture of a future in which liberty is restricted and voluntarily relinquished in order to maximize happiness; it makes a pretty convincing case for choosing freedom over happiness.

On the other side of the spectrum, consider the prospect of absolute freedom. Imagine that no one restricts the actions of anyone else. Greed and selfishness will rule. When given complete freedom, you get Lord of the Flies.

A thoughtful analysis reveals that happiness is the ultimate ideal. Freedom, much like individualism, is useful as a means to happiness and therefore can appear on the surface to be more important than happiness. This illusion is further reinforced by the elusive nature of happiness. The most obvious form of happiness is physical pleasure, which is fun but leaves no lasting impression and is generally not considered a “higher” pleasure. However, this is not true happiness. Although physical pleasure or other low-brow forms of happiness grant a great deal of immediate pleasure, they do not provide as much long-term satisfaction as accomplishing a difficult task, or reading a great novel, or studying philosophy. If we expand how we think of happiness, we may find that it is more important than freedom.

Even if you are being forced to be happy, the happiness is not as complete as if you had found it on your own. Forced pleasure cannot measure up to free pleasure.

It was Benjamin Franklin, one of the great proponents of freedom, who spoke those eternal words: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” These words may seem to be making a compelling argument for liberty over happiness (a.k.a. safety); however, this is not so. Notice usage of the words “essential” and “temporary”: the happiness potentially provided by essential liberty will far outweigh the short-term pleasure obtained from temporary safety. In this case, liberty is a means to happiness, but still not important in itself. Franklin may have disagreed with this last point, but Franklin would have been wrong.

Freedom may seem terribly important, but it is only so as a means to happiness. Often freedom is chosen over happiness, and this is indeed a wise choice; however, this freedom is used to ensure long-term happiness and is thus far more valuable than a short-term comfort such as safety. Freedom on its own is of no importance. Let loose in the universe, with no means to happiness, life would have no meaning. But when one has the deep satisfaction that comes from growth and accomplishment, now the world has a purpose. Higher pleasures are not possible without a certain degree of liberty, and thus we find ourselves striving for freedom; but freedom, if these higher pleasures did not lie behind it, would be empty and meaningless.

In a future post (and possibly more after that), I will further discuss the dilemma of freedom and happiness. I invite discussion on this critical issue, and propose the following questions:

Which is a more important goal — freedom or happiness?

How do you define freedom? What about happiness?

Is true happiness possible without freedom?

Is true freedom possible without happiness?

How important is it (if at all) to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures?

Is freedom or happiness perhaps not the ultimate goal? What else could be?

Please do not restrict yourself to these questions. Any discussion regarding freedom and happiness is welcomed.

Posted in Ethics, Libertarianism, Utilitarianism | 9 Comments »

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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