Utilitarian voluntarism vs. natural rights libertarianism

I haven't been following debates about philosophical differences of libertarian perspectives for years. Instead I've been trying to focus on stuff that is more practical and will benefit real people in real life, like blockchains.

But I guess I could sometimes write a little bit about my own perspective on governance of societies. Probably the best way to describe my political view is "utilitarian voluntarism".

Utilitarian property rights

I'm a utilitarian because I find all "natural right" theories lacking something. "Natural right" refers to a conception of humans having innate right to freedom. But where does that freedom come from? If you are a religious and believe that the freedom of individual comes from a higher power, it makes sense. But what if you are not?

This is a problem because freedom is not simple. Especially when we include property rights to it, like libertarians do.

It's pretty much impossible to define property rights well from the natural right standpoint. There are several gray areas, like air, water, pollution, light, sound and IPR. You can say that "everybody can do whatever they want as long as they don't harm others", but how do you define "harm"? It's very subjective concept that means different things to different people.

This is where utilitarianism comes in handy. It basically just admits that there will be need to analyze different situations in different times to see what are their real consequences to people. Then try to maximize the well-being as much as possible – admitting, of course, that perfection is never easy or even possible to achieve, but it should always be the goal.

The main goal is to minimize violence in a society

The voluntarist part of "utilitarian voluntarism" refers to the most important goal: non-violent society. But remembering the utilitarian part, it's more "minimizing the violence", not a moral obligation like natural right theories imply.

Anarchist, minarchist or what?

Utilitarian voluntarism can be applied in any situation. You can think utilitarian voluntarism as a rule of thumb that can be used pretty much in all governance questions. If you follow the principles, you will end up in wealthy and healthy society.

Utilitarian voluntarist society can be anarchist or minarchist. It depends mostly on what kind of culture the society has. If everybody can trust each other easily, life without state is possible. But because the world is fucked up place and very few places have good culture, most practical solution is probably a central authority that will force the rules according to utilitarian voluntarism.

Easy to explain and (probably) more persuasive

Telling somebody that they are morally wrong doesn't make them change their minds. Usually the better way is to tell that their plan is not going to work because it has some fundamental flaws. Don't question their intention, it makes them very hostile against everything you say. "You are just a fundamentalist who doesn't understand how things really work", they say.

But utilitarian voluntarist understands how things work, usually even better than the person who he is criticizing, because he can point out potential risks that the other hasn't even thought. "I understand what you are doing but I think it's not going to work, you will just cause more harm than good."

Other ideas that relate very closely to utilitarian voluntarism

I'm not going deeply into these now, but you might want to check this stuff to get wider understanding of how the world works.

  • Transaction cost theories by Ronald Coase: Everything will work better if you minimize transaction costs.
  • Public choice theory: Great tool to analyze how governments and other large institutions work (and fail). It helps to design better governance systems.
  • Taoism: Laozi (Lao-Tzu) was the world's first utilitarian voluntarist. Tao The Ching has many references to ideas that basically say "leave people alone because the society just works better that way". He clearly wasn't natural right theorist because he didn't talk people having some kind of innate right to individual freedom.

Naive utilitarianism can be ignored

I can already guess that many people will come to comment something like: "Utilitarianism doesn't make any sense, because it let's you take money from one rich person and give it to everybody else because it makes people better on average."

Yeah, that's true, but only in that one case. And guess what? The real world doesn't consist of individual cases.

In the real world where everything is connected to everything. There are always trade-offs, especially in the long run when laws and rules accumulate.

A true utilitarian has to take into account what happens with the rule not only in one case, but in all cases when it's applied. Usually there are unintended consequences that are not seen in advance.

It goes even deeper than just individual laws and rules with their consequences. The question is also how the laws and rules should be made, because that has really big effect on the end result. If the institution responsible for law-making is bad, it will create bad laws, no matter how good are the intentions of law-makers.

So please, just ignore the naive interpretation of utilitarianism. It's not applicable to the real world.

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Hi @samupaha, very nice article. I'm not sure whether we can call Daoism utilitarian. Daoists, to me, seem to me to be negating the conception of utility - or at least, utility for society in general. This is well exemplified in the story of the tree and the carpenter.


I'm not sure whether we can call Daoism utilitarian. Daoists, to me, seem to me to be negating the conception of utility - or at least, utility for society in general.

Good point. I should have made it more clear that mean is only the political side of taoism. It's very well aligned with utilitarianism because it references to the consequences of actions.

This is well exemplified in the story of the tree and the carpenter.

You probably mean this story? http://www.zoomdout.com/home/chuang-tzu-the-dream-of-the-carpenter-and-the-oak-tree

For me it actually represents pretty well the dangers of naive utilitarianism. You can't just look at the immediate and easily seen benefits – there are always consequences that won't be seen. There are trade-offs that are not evident until later. World is complicated place.

For politics this means that non-action is very often the best action – if you don't do anything, at least you are not making an effort to change the situation to worse.

While googling the story, I also happened to find this blog post which had some interesting points: http://uselesstree.typepad.com/useless_tree/2008/02/is-the-tao-te-c.html


Thanks for your comment @samupaha. I like how you define naive utilitarianism. I look forward to read more philosophical articles from you and can already see some great future discussions between us on Steemit. It would definitely help enrich the Steemit platform. :)


I like how you define naive utilitarianism.

Trolley problem is another good example of that. It deals with only one situation, completely separated from real life. I'm much more interested in philosophical thinking that can help to understand real life with real people with all its complexities.

I look forward to read more philosophical articles from you and can already see some great future discussions between us on Steemit.

Yeah, it's great to see some taoist thinking here!

I haven't yet got very deeply into it, just reading about it every now and then. I think it was @limitless who introduced me to The Drunken Taoist podcast, and from there I found Bolelli's Taoist lectures, which I listened to and enjoyed.

Do you happen to have any good book (or other media) recommendations to learn more about taoism?

It´s a new world now, with blockchain technology. Things used to be clear to me: the problem is fiat currency, and it´s fractional reserve. Now comes this truth machine that is a great promise of freedom... but is fractional reserve itself!

Good read. Following.

I'm a Buddhist and the fundamental building block/the root of it is Actions and Consequences. That's where I stand; a simpler version of Utilitarian voluntarism that has greater applicable use. If you can control actions you control future. Anything can happen as long as you can cause it.

It's much like programming. If you can code it, you can make it happen. In this case we reverse it and think what actions do we need to take to get the desired outcome.

This is what my whole philosophy of life is based on. But if I be more specific politically I'd say say the governance system of Dash is what I expect real world governance to be based on.

As someone who is deeply utilitarian morally but also politically voluntarist, I enjoyed reading you synthesize the two together. I reckon that being utilitarian while having a firm grasp of history leads inevitably to voluntarism or similar liberty-oriented philosophies.

Are you familiar with John Rawls and the "veil of ignorance" thought experiment?