Do Consequences Matter?

Silly question, right? Of course, consequences matter. More precisely, how do consequences affect one’s ethical beliefs? We hear all the time how there is a dichotomy between how one should act and how one must act to satisfy his or her best interests.

After looking at the deontological (or rule-based) and the consequentialist basis for libertarianism, both sides make convincing arguments. In consequentialism’s favor, how bizarre would it be that libertarianism made for such beneficial outcomes but in no way did those consequences validate the case for libertarianism? This is a point Roderick Long makes. From the deontological side, applicable ethics derived from human nature make setting codes of rational conduct more or less uniform. One Misesian point is that a person cannot reliably achieve his ends by disposing of principles whenever there is an occasion where it might benefit to do so. Long points out that when someone is treating principles, regardless of why they are doing so, as ends in themselves, then those principles are ends of their own.

While the source and content of human nature is hotly contested, the fact that all humans have the same nature means that no one has a superior or dominant claim over others. As highly conceptual beings, our minds must be free to create and refine complicated abstract thoughts. I’m not saying this is the most accurate or complete case for libertarianism. From there, the secular and religious strains of deontological libertarianism split ways.

The consequentialist argument is more straightforward. The idea is that no matter what human nature is, a libertarian society would still produce better results than a statist one. Even if human beings were brutes or were highly evolved beings with a collective conscience, an environment without a dominant structure in place to institutionalize violence would still be preferable to a society with such commands and controls. So even if all men were good, no government would be necessary. If all men were evil, then having a government would make things demonstrably worse since those evil men would have a greater number of resources at their disposal to act on their evil. If some men were good and other evil, then evil people would be drawn to that power more so than good people. That is why libertarians, for the most part, support pluralizing political power, if not eliminating it altogether.

But consequentialists share more in common with the deontologists than they usually care to admit. On purely consequentialist grounds, it would be best to have firm codes of conduct in place in order to maximize the happiness or pleasure of society. For people to most effectively plan, they need to know the rules of the game and how they are administered. Since human life can span decades, those norms are manifested in the formation of property rights.

You could not just say that everything goes, and let the chips fall were they may. If people had no adequate reassurance that their property claims were respected by others in society, everyone in society would be geared toward immediate consumption, and the incentive to save and invest in long-term capital projects would be sunk. A consequentialist society would need hard-set rules in place that could not be overturned on a whim. So a consequentialist would have to practice as a deontologist.

As a matter of ethics, consequences do matter. And an Randian theory of rights incorporate consequences.

Ayn Rand said a right is a principle that defines the proper actions for an individual to take within society. By “proper,” she meant that which is necessary to serve an individual’s ultimate end, which is an individual’s own life. The primary necessity is to remain living, obviously. So each individual has a right to his or her life (self-ownership), a right to act in order to preserve that life (or liberty), and a right to the consequences of those actions (or property). It follows that it would be moral to enforce these right to prevent their breach. Those rights extend only so far as to include the force necessary, and nothing more, to protect those rights.

Long points out elsewhere that the right to life (what he called self-ownership) is the most fundamental right of all. He said,

For if there were such additional rights, then there would be claims other than self-ownership that could be legitimately enforced, which would mean that refraining from invading the self-ownership of others would no longer be sufficient to exempt one from liability to coercive interference. But self-ownership, as defined above, just is exemption from liability to coercive interference.

He added that there “cannot be rights in addition to self-ownership, but must instead be specific applications of the self-ownership right itself.”

There is no dichotomy between the ethical and the practical. It is only by surrendering ethics to the arbitrary that such a split forms and some find excuse to rule over others.


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