More about Consequentialism

In “‘Natural Rights’ and Consquentialism” I attacked (with logic) the concept of natural rights, and observed that

rights — when properly understood as man-made bargains — are consequentialist to their core, arising as they do (in part) from empathy and (in part) from self-interestedness.

This observation squares with something I said in “Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State“:

Liberty — rightly understood as the universal application of negative rights — is possible only when the Golden Rule is, in fact, the rule. The Golden Rule, which is the quintessential social norm, encapsulates a lesson learned over the eons of human coexistence. That lesson? If I desist from harming others, they (for the most part) will desist from harming me.

It seems that these observations, which I have made in one way or another in many posts, put me in good company. Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek, notes that

Adam Smith … [i]n The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) … wrote that “Our continual observations upon the conduct of others insensibly lead us to form to ourselves certain general rules concerning what is fit and proper either to be done or to be avoided.”

Just as workable economic arrangements are not, and cannot be, designed and imposed by a higher power, so too, Smith explained, workable morality itself is the product not of any grand design but of the everyday actions, reactions, observations, and practical assessments of ordinary people going about their daily business.

Which is not to say that I am necessarily right just because I am on the same wavelength as Adam Smith (in this and other respects). For, as The New Rambler says,

we have a chicken-and-egg problem. We must measure consequentialism against some value outside itself to see if the results we get are what we want. At the same time, any ideal must be tested by everyday experience to see if it is worth pursuing or in what way we can best attain it.

I admit that when I argue in favor of consequentialism, I am arguing for it (in part) because I believe — with justification (e.g., here, here, and here) — that the consequences of ordered liberty are superior to those of its alternatives: statism (even the statism of our supposedly benign “soft despotism”) and anarchy (which necessarily devolves into something worse than “soft despotism”). But, at the same time, liberty is a value unto itself (an ideal), which can be attained only under a political system with the following characteristics:

  • the general observance of evolved and evolving social norms and, accordingly, their enforcement through social censure
  • an accountable, minimal state, dedicated to the protection of its citizens and the enforcement of those social norms — and only those norms — that rise to the level of statutory law (e.g., acts that are generally recognized as fraudulent, coercive, and aggressive)
  • voice, the opportunity for dissent from social norms and laws (though not the right to have one’s dissent honored)
  • exit, the right to leave without penalty.

Those, of course, are the characteristics of civil society operating freely under the aegis of a minimal state, which is what I mean by ordered liberty. Whether rights are pre-existing entities or social bargains unshaped by the state (but sometimes enforced by it), they will emerge and flourish under ordered liberty.

In sum, The New Rambler‘s “chicken and egg” comment has led me to a reconciliation of natural rights and consequentialism. Liberty is to be sought for its own sake and because of its consequences, among which is the emergence of rights — whatever their source — whose exercise redounds to the benefit of the people who share in those rights.