Liberty Matters

Consequences without Consequentialism

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Commonsense moral thinking is sensitive to consequences without being consequentialist. A consequentialist moral theory holds that the rightness and wrongness of actions is determined at a fundamental level entirely by the consequences of those actions. (Act consequentialist theories say every individual act is to be evaluated individually, while rule consequentialists say that moral codes are to evaluated as a whole.) Most moral theories hold that consequences matter; they just aren’t all that matter. So, for instance, Adam Smith thought that part of what justified the system of natural liberty, the division of labor, and free trade were the consequences of the attendant moral norms, and he also was worried about some of the potential negative consequences. (For instance, he worried that the division of labor might stultify workers.[30]) But Adam Smith rejected utilitarian theories -- he didn’t think consequences were all that matter.
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What justificatory role do consequences play in a classical-liberal theory? For some classical liberals, consequences are the whole story. But for most, consequences are at least part of the story. So, for instance, to simplify Locke a little, part of what justifies a system of private property is that it can be expected to be for the benefit of all. To remove items from the commons and claim them as our own, we must leave enough and as good for others. But, Locke thinks, the system of private property, under the right institutions, can be expected to leave more and better for others, not merely enough and as good. For most classical liberals, if they became convinced that their favored institutions would have disastrous consequences from a humanitarian point of view, they would stop advocating those institutions.
If consequences matter, why not say that only consequences matter? I once heard John Yoo make the following argument:
  1. Almost everyone agrees that some rights can be overridden or trumped in order to prevent catastrophic moral disasters.
  2. Therefore, deep down, everyone is an act utilitarian.
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Of course, 2 doesn’t follow from 1. And one reason for that is that if you care about consequences, you don’t want people to live by an act consequentialist moral code. So, for instance, John Stuart Mill argues that if you want good consequences -- such scientific progress, advancement in the arts, cultural progress, peace, and feelings of mutual respect -- then you need to allow a wide sphere of free speech regardless of the consequences. This may sound paradoxical. However, Mill says, the policy of only allowing beneficial speech has no history of being beneficial. The policy of allowing speech only when society judges that speech to be in its best interests has no history of being in society’s best interests.
I agree with David that consequentialist concerns are usually not enough to ground basic moral rights. But I also think it’s important that living by classical-liberal principles (including principles of rights) should be expected, under normal circumstances, to produce good consequences in general. Otherwise, we would see morality and justice as a kind of curse, rather than as a system that helps us live together in peace and prosperity.
Principled or Ad Hoc?
With that in mind, I have a question for George Smith. As he notes, few of the classical liberals he discusses were what he would call libertarian. They advocated some state regulation, state provision of certain so-called public goods, state-subsidized or state-provided public education, and certain welfare-state and social-insurance programs. So, my question: Do you see these as ad hoc concessions to commonsense politics, inconsistent with the various classical liberals’ fundamental moral principles? Or do you see these positions as consistent with their fundamental moral views?
[30] See Dennis Rasmussen, The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society: Adam Smith’s Response to Rousseau (College Station: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008).