Utilitarianism vs. Liberty


A utilitarian will favor a certain policy if a comparison of its costs and benefits shows that the benefits exceed the costs — even though the persons bearing the costs are unlikely to be the persons who accrue the benefits. That is so because utilitarians are accountants of the soul, who believe (implicitly, at least) that it is within their power to balance the unhappiness of those who bear costs against the happiness of those who accrue benefits. The precise formulation, according to John Stuart Mill, is “the greatest amount of happiness altogether” (Utilitarianism, Chapter II, Section 16.)

Consider, for example, the relationship between guns and crime, in particular, John Lott’s controversial finding that

allowing adults to carry concealed weapons significantly reduces crime in America. [Lott] supports this position by an exhaustive tabulation of various social and economic data from census and other population surveys of individual United States counties in different years, which he fits into a large multifactorial mathematical model of crime rate. His published results generally show a reduction in violent crime associated with the adoption by states of laws allowing the general adult population to freely carry concealed weapons….

In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences conducted a review of current research and data on firearms and violent crime, including Lott’s work, and found that “there is no credible evidence that ‘right-to-carry’ laws, which allow qualified adults to carry concealed handguns, either decrease or increase violent crime.” James Q. Wilson dissented from that opinion, and while accepting the committee’s findings on violent crime in general, he argued that all of the Committee’s own estimates confirmed Lott’s finding that right-to-carry laws had an effect on murder rate.[19]

Referring to the research done on the topic, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that while most researchers support Lott’s findings that right-to-carry laws reduce violent crime, some researchers doubt that concealed carry laws have any impact on violent crime, saying however that “Mr. Lott’s research has convinced his peers of at least one point: No scholars now claim that legalizing concealed weapons causes a major increase in crime.”[20] As Lott critics Ian Ayres and John J. Donohue III pointed out: “We conclude that Lott and Mustard have made an important scholarly contribution in establishing that these laws have not led to the massive bloodbath of death and injury that some of their opponents feared. On the other hand, we find that the statistical evidence that these laws have reduced crime is limited, sporadic, and extraordinarily fragile.”[21]

Suppose Lott is right. If more concealed weapons lead to less crime, then the economically efficient policy is for governments to be more lenient in the issuance of concealed-weapon permits. The cost of concealed weapons is borne by the persons who own the weapons (and, presumably, carry them). The benefit of allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons is diffuse, in that it flows not only to persons who carry weapons but also to persons who don’t carry weapons — because of the uncertainty (in the minds of criminals) as to whether a prospective victim is carrying a weapon. The benefit also flows to law-enforcement agencies (and thence to taxpayers)  — in jurisdictions that readily allow concealed-carry — because of lower crime rates.

In sum, the aggregate benefits of concealed-carry outweigh the aggregate costs of concealed-carry, which is all that a true utilitarian needs to know. The bottom line — for the utilitarian — is that concealed-carry permits ought to be issued readily.

Moreover, strict utilitarianism requires that all decisions — not just governmental ones — must yield “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” For example, if I fail to take your happiness into account when I buy a new car, I might make you less happy by my acquisition (because it makes you envious). And, in the utilitarian calculus, your unhappiness might outweigh my happiness. Ergo, less happiness altogether.

The foregoing example make it easy to see how modern “liberalism,” with its strong appeal to envy (among other unattractive traits), is an outgrowth of utilitarianism. (For more in that vein, see “Inventing Liberalism.”)


A libertarian* looks at governmental and personal decisions quite differently. A libertarian would say that self-defense is in the realm of personal decision-making, and should not be subject to the utilitarian calculus (which, at any rate, also is invalid for legitimate governmental decisions). Therefore, according to a libertarian, the decision to carry a concealed weapon for self-defense belongs to the individual, who (by his decision) accepts responsibility for his actions. The role of the state in the matter is to deter aggressive acts on the part of gun-carriers by (a) making it known that such acts are verboten and (b) prosecuting persons who commit such acts.

The libertarian perspective reveals the disconnect between utilitarianism and liberty. In fact, utilitarianism compromises liberty because it accords no value to individual decisions about preferred courses of action. Decisions, to a utilitarian, are valid only if they comply with the views of the utilitarian, who feigns omniscience about the (incommensurable) happiness of individuals. Agreement among various utilitarians about the desirability of a particular course of action signifies nothing more than a shared prejudice about the way the world ought to be.


The core assumptions of utilitarianism are that

  • the happiness of the whole can be measured (at least roughly, in the mind of the person doing the “measuring”), and
  • individual actions must be tailored to maximize the happiness of the whole, regardless of their effect on the welfare of particular individuals.

Libertarians hold that there is no such thing as the happiness of the whole, and that it is up to each of us to make his own happiness, according to his own lights. Making one’s own happiness doesn’t mean doing one’s own “thing,” regardless of the consequences for others. Thinking libertarians — as opposed to reflexive ones who just want to be left alone — recognize that liberty is “peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.”

At what point does an individual’s pursuit of happiness become truly destructive of the happiness of others? The answer to that question is found in the principle of actionable harm, which I will discuss in my next post (here).



* Libertarianism, by my reckoning, spans anarchism and the two major strains of minarchism: left-minarchism and right-minarchism. The internet-dominant strains of libertarianism (anarchism and left-minarchism) are, in fact, antithetical to liberty because they denigrate civil society. (For more on the fatuousness of  the dominant strains of “libertarianism,” see “On Liberty” and “The Meaning of Liberty.”) The less-common right-minarchist is both a true libertarian and a true conservative.