Books and Code · A Miscellany

Deontological or Utilitarian?


Something I’ve been mulling over for a few months is whether libertarianism is deontological or utilitarian.

On the one hand, libertarianism can be seen as “freedom maximization.” That is, it seems to propose a sort of rule utilitarianism whereby individuals are free to do anything as long as their action does not initiate harm against another individual (or by extension, his property). I prefer this interpretation. However, though any libertarian would agree with the above, in practice many are not consistent with this view. In my experience, libertarians are eager to uphold an individual’s right to be stupid (vices are not crimes…), but are critical when someone makes what they consider socialistic choices. They confuse free cooperation with forced government conformity.

I think this criticism stems from a deontological view of libertarianism that is a jumble of Objectivism, social darwinism, and efficient market theory. The outlook is that since the market is efficient and we should be free to act in that market, then the correct actions each person should be taking are those which maximize his own exploitation of that market. The syllogism makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, but is faulty because it eliminates the freedom people should have in such a society to act irrationally or self-destructive if they want.

In my opinion, the deontological strain of libertarianism can be dangerous because it tends to justify inequality when it seems to be a result of market forces. Further, it requires all participants to adhere to the same ideology by presupposing that such an ethical system is already some kind of mystical truth that is somehow exempt from the requirement of “proof by market optimization.”

This is why the Libertarian Party is the “party of principle” instead of a party of significance in national politics.