Friday, April 28, 2017

Choice Magazine Book Review of: Mizzoni, John. Evolution and the foundations of ethics: evolutionary perspectives on contemporary normative and metaethical theories. Lexington Books, 2017

Reviewer: White, Ronald F. Mount St. Joseph University      

This ambitious, interdisciplinary work explains how evolutionary ethics might elucidate recent philosophical debates over alternative normative and metaethical theories. It is conveniently divided into three parts: Part I. Evolution and Metaethics (Error Theory, Expressivism, Moral Relativism, and Moral Realism); Part II. Evolution and Normative Ethics (Virtue Ethics, Natural Law, Social Contract, Deontology, Utilitarianism, and Care Ethics); and, III. Evolution and Ethics (Conclusion).  The predictable conclusion is that that evolutionary ethics neither confirms nor disconfirms any one metaethical or normative theory. Critics will observe that this book focuses more on ethical theories than evolutionary ethics; and that there’s an over-emphasis on 20th century evolutionary scientists such as Dawkins, Wilson, and Gould. Consequently, there’s much more to be said about state-of-the-art evolutionary ethics; most notably, evolutionary leadership theory, cultural evolution, and the “mismatch theory.” Despite the above limitations, this is a good, broad-based introduction to the interface between moral theory and evolutionary ethics. It provides and especially lucid summary of twentieth-century moral philosophy. It will be most useful for evolutionary scholars (and upper level/grad students) who have never studied ethical theories, in depth. For a more concise textbook in this genre, check out Scott James’ An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics (Wiley-Blackwell: 2011).

Friday, April 21, 2017


In classical economics, the price a corporation charges its customers for a product is the total cost of investment plus normal profit. Stakeholder theorists often argue that some corporations that exorbitant prices are unfair to consumers. The question of price fairness, however, cannot be examined apart from a theory of justice.

Any unjust pricing structure violates the formal principle of justice which states that we are obligated to "treat equals equally and unequals unequally." In any economic relationship, an unfair price structure effects both the buyer and the seller. If either the buyer or the seller receives more than what is deserved, than the other naturally receives less. A fair price, then, is one in which both the buyer and the seller receive exactly what they deserve. This formal principle, however, does not provide insight into which individuals are equal and what it is that they are entitled to as a matter of fairness. Hence, the formal principle requires a material theory of distributive justice.

Any material theory of distributive justice, attempts to establish rules that govern the distribution of pains and pleasures connect the properties or characteristics of persons and the morally correct distribution of benefits under specific conditions. There are two broad kinds of material theories of justice patterned theories and unpatterned theories.

Patterned theories, which are usually espoused by stakeholder theorists, judge the fairness of a distribution procedure based on the distribution pattern evident in the end-state after the distribution actually takes place. Traditionally, material distributions based on utility, need, merit, and equality fall into this category. Today two patterned theories seem to dominate the literature: egalitarianism which espouses an equal distribution of at least some social goods in the end-state; and, utilitarianism which promotes distributions that maximize the public good in the end-state. Hence, the difference between these "patterned" theories is reflected in the kinds of end-state patterns that are deemed morally preferable.

Unpatterned theories of justice, such as defended by libertarianism, reject the notion that any particular distribution found in the end-state is any more fair any other distribution. Unpatterned theories, therefore, focus on the fairness of the procedures that produce an end-state. Hence, any end-state that is generated by a fair procedure is deemed just or fair, regardless of how the benefits and burdens are distributed in the end-state. Stockholder theorists tend to defend unpatterned theories. The idea is that fair distributions are determined by blind market forces and not by beneficent (or malevolent) persons acting as empowered distributors. If you believe that you are being short-changed by the designated distributer, you can claim that that person was being unfair. If things are distributed based on impersonal market forces, there is no one person to blame. Market-based distributions can be unfortunate, but not unfair.

Worldwide, this basic philosophical distinction between patterned and unpatterned distribution schemes has spawned two opposing political philosophies that relate to how governments might regulate corporations: the unpatterned free market model and the patterned regulatory model.


Stockholder theorists embrace the unpatterned free-market model of pricing of everything: products, services, labor etc. The unpatterned free market model espouses laissez faire economic theory, where government intervention in markets is justified only to the extent that it enhances competition. As long as the selling price is determined by free market forces, the price and the resulting end-state distribution is deemed fair. Hence, stock holder theorists who endorse this model pursue procedural justice in public policy. Some libertarians are also committed to opportunity-based and risk-based pricing policies. Opportunity-based pricing sets the price at the highest possible level that buyers are willing to pay, without increasing production volume to the point where it diminishes total profit. In some markets some buyers are

inevitably priced out of the market as the result of opportunity-based pricing. However this is not deemed unfair, since unfairness is thought to arise only under imperfect competition.

Risk-based pricing takes into account the financial and market risk that a company takes by exploiting an economic opportunity in a given market: the greater the risk that a company takes in marketing a given product or service, higher the expectation for profit; and conversely, the lower the risk taken, the lower the profit expectation. Under a risk-based pricing policy, an unfair price violates the formal principle of justice when prices are set higher than the risk exposure can justify. Both opportunity-based and risk-based pricing are blind to the end-state pattern (the actual distribution of their product among consumers), therefore it is impossible for pharmaceutical companies to exercise any social obligations toward price sensitive patients. Moreover, both pricing policies require a bare minimum of governmental interference in the market's natural mechanisms.

Although, according to stockholder theory, corporations exist solely to generate profits and therefore have no direct obligation to serve the public good. They often argue that the public interest is best served by free competition in the marketplace and that at least some temporary monopolies are morally unacceptable.

Stockholder theorists argue that there are two different kinds of monopoly: Natural Monopolies and Artificial Monopolies. Natural monopolies arise when business drives all of its competitors out of the market by offering superior products, more efficient operation, or lucky supply sources. Sometimes natural monopolies arise because of a contagion of incompetent competitors. The only condition here for natural monopoly is that has been forcibly prevented from entering the market. Artificial Monopolies, in contrast, arise where the sole provider of the services or goods gains a favorable market position because the government won't allow anyone else to enter that market to compete with them. Stakeholder theorists often create artificial monopolies where they believe market failure is inevitable, most notably in medicine and education.

Pharmaceutical companies are artificial monopolies that enjoy the benefits of imperfect competition. Libertarians generally reject this kind of tampering with markets and believe that artificial monopolies are the progeny of misguided patterned distribution schemes. Price unfairness in pharmaceutical markets occurs most often when the sellers profit more than could be justified under perfect competition.

Defenders of the patterned regulatory model argue that one cannot evaluate the fairness of a drug pricing policy apart from how it affects both sellers and the buyers in the end-state. Indeed, many distributions that result from opportunity-based and risk-based pricing policies end up depriving, at least some buyers of necessary, life-saving drug treatment. The Patterned Regulatory Model holds that in the distribution of essential goods and services (needs) unpatterned pricing policies are amoral, and therefore are irrelevant to the question of fairness.

Patterned theorists, therefore, prefer cost-based pricing policies which take into account a company's total investment in development, testing, manufacturing, and marketing of the product and then profit margin is set at a certain "reasonable" percentage. Here much depends on how one arrives at this percentage and how one defines a reasonable profit. It is generally agreed, however, that a reasonable price is one in which the price does not greatly exceed the full cost of researching, developing, manufacturing, marketing, and distributing the products. Costs might also a reasonable return for investors.

The inherent problem with cost-based pricing is that companies own this basic information, which sets up legal access barriers. Behind this wall of protection corporations are prone to manipulate costs in order to justify higher profits. So the first step toward instituting cost-based pricing for pharmaceutical products marketed in the United States would be for the government to gain legal access to the records of pharmaceutical companies.

In the United States, where corporate records are regarded as private property, this has been a difficult task. But it is important to acknowledge that pricing policies serve rationing mechanisms for products and services. As a result, products and services in the United States have been, in effect, rationed by the private decisions made by corporate leadership. Corporations typically justify high prices by arguing that they are entitled to be rewarded for the economic risks they assume for investing in research and development. However, many companies have resisted pressure from interest groups and the government to reveal their actual costs.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Health and Safety in the Workplace

The moral questions associated with health and safety in the workplace typically involve the harm principle and therefore are very complex. Ideally, one would expect companies to provide a healthy and safe working environment for all employees. But unfortunately, some occupations are inherently more dangerous than others, such as: steel work, police and military work, and lion taming. Although the workplace of a policeman or steel worker will never be as safe as that of a college professor, one might argue that companies ought to spare no expense in reducing those known risks. But providing a healthy and safe work environment always has a cost. Libertarians are fond of pointing out that government could make our interstate highways 100% safe by instituting a 25 MPH speed limit. But of course, that won't happen because the loss in terms of travel time is not worth the lives it would save. (What do you think about that one?) Similarly, most modern safety measures designed to protect policemen, such as well-equipped police cruisers, state of the art defensive weapons, cameras, bullet-proof vests, and well-trained police dogs all cost money. An idealist (usually a stakeholder theorist) might argue that the life of one policeman is more valuable than any amount of money, and therefore communities ought to spare no expense to insure the safest possible working environment. Although this may appear to be a sound moral position, I would argue that we must also take into account other principles such as utility and liberty.

A utilitarian would apply cost-benefit analysis and provide only those safety measures that are cost effective and most likely to actually protect the valued policeman from the most probable threats. Hence, if a small-town policeman rarely encounters armed bad guys, community leaders might justifiably decide to forego the bullet-proof vests and the AK47s. Some communities might decide to issue bullet proof vests and AK47s to their public school teachers.

Sometimes corporate enforcement of safety measures violates the liberty of its workers. Suppose a construction worker prefers to not wear a hard hat on the job, even though it substantially reduces the risk of head injuries. Should the company force him/her to wear that hard hat? Should policemen be forced to carry guns? Should college professors be forced to wear bullet proof vests? Self-interested utilitarian companies have no moral qualms with forcing employees to abide by health and safety standards. The liberty of its workers is always secondary to the "greatest happiness principle." They might deal with our risk-taking employee as follows: "Look! We spent thousands of dollars training you. If you get hurt on the job, it will hurt the company and we’ll have to train someone else to do your job. We won’t take that risk. Therefore, put on that damn hard hat or you’re fired!"

Paternalistic companies routinely violate the liberty principle in order to protect its workers from self-inflicted harm. They might say: "We realize that you would prefer not to spend $100 on a hard-hat, but it’s in your best interest to wear one. We’ll buy it for you. You wear it!" Of course, modern corporations must also deal with third-parties, especially insurance companies and paternalistic government regulators.

Libertarians, however, elevate personal self-interest over communal self-interest. They would simply require that companies warn workers of all known job-related risks and perhaps provide access to safety equipment. But in the end it is the worker alone that has the right to decide whether to use it or not. Of course, this means that if a worker suffers a head injury on the job because she didn’t wear her hard hat, she alone is responsible for the injury, not the company. The libertarian boss would, however, exercise his/her liberty and hire someone to replace our risk-taking, brain-damaged libertarian worker. Hence we have the classic moral tension between utilitarian policies which violate the liberty of individual workers by forcing them to work safely in order to promote the "greatest good," and, liberty-based policies which avoid force, protect the liberty of both employers and employees, but sometimes sacrifice utility in doing so.

Stockholder Theorists argue that workplace safety standards, like wages, ought to be market-based, voluntary and contractual: set by personal decisions forged between employers and employees based on market forces. If a company has unsafe working conditions, rationally self-interested workers will either demand higher wages or gravitate toward other jobs that offer better working conditions. Moreover, if a worker is injured at an unsafe workplace because he/she chooses dangerous work at higher compensation level, then that worker himself would be responsible for the injury and not the company or the government: unless he earlier chose to purchase workman’s compensation from another corporation.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Principle of Justice

The principle of justice is deeply rooted in Western thought. Traditionally, it reflects our notoriously vague notions about "fairness." In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observed that there are basically two spheres of justice: "justice in retribution" and "justice in distribution." However, both spheres are subject to a single formal principle of justice, which states that "equals should be treated equally and that unequals should be treated unequally," or in other words, "we ought to receive, no more, nor less than we deserve." Whenever we develop moral arguments about retributive or distributive justice, we naturally invoke the formal principle. This formal principle obviously leaves us in the dark concerning which individuals are, in fact, equals and how much pleasure or pain they deserve.

Material principles of justice link the formal concept to the real world. In the history of ethics, there are several recurring material principles, or patterns that human beings invoke when they justify one distribution rather than another. These patterns are: merit, equality, need, and social utility.

The principle of merit says that a just society is one where the best people get the most, and the worst people get the least. Meritocracy, therefore, implies hierarchical social arrangements, where the best persons occupy the higher rungs and the lower persons the lower rungs. All societies distribute at least some things based on merit, such as: Superbowl rings, doctoral degrees, driver‟s licenses, and merit scholarships. Even if we wanted to, it would probably be impossible to separate merit from our idea of justice. Unfortunately, merit can mean many different things to different individuals and societies. We are all egoists, therefore, all tend to believe that we as individuals, our families, and our friends, are best and deserve to occupy those higher rungs.

The principle of equality states that at least some things in life ought to be distributed equally. Under normal circumstances, we usually divide up a pizza based on this principle. Egalitarianism implies that at least some social goods ought to be distributed equally. The problem lies in determining exactly what social goods ought to be redistributed equally, and what social goods ought to be distributed based on some other pattern such as, merit, need, or social utility. Clearly some things should not be distributed based on equality:

The principle of need states that resources ought to be distributed to each person according to individual need. Hence, rather than divide up that pizza equally, or based on merit, we might decide that it‟s fair to give most of that pizza, or all of it, to a friend (or stranger) who hasn‟t eaten in a week. We usually try to distribute things like chemo-therapy, welfare checks, and some scholarships based on need. There are some that will argue, unpersuasively, that everything should be distributed based on need. But that‟s extremely messy. The underlying assumption is that we can objectively determine who is truly in need. Of course, one might argue that the fact that you are in need, may or may not be a good reason for others to fill that need. It may or may not be unfair if you are currently in need because of your own bad decisions. If I‟m in need of food because I spent all of my money on lottery tickets, it probably doesn't make much sense for me to claim that my hunger is unjust. But then again, one might argue that gambling is a disease and that the Ohio Lottery generates need. Libertarians are usually willing to help fulfill the needs of others, but not unconditionally. If someone is in need because of forces beyond their control, libertarians might be willing to provide temporary assistance. But, as I stated earlier, they are loath to set up a public system comprised of beneficiaries supported by benefactors.

The distributive principle of social utility holds that we ought to distribute at least some things in such a way as to maximize a favorable balance between pain and pleasure in the whole community. Hence, we might decide to immunize all inner-city children in Cincinnati against certain diseases, regardless of merit, equality, or need, in order to minimize the long term social costs associated with treating them for preventable diseases later on.

Of course, the basic problem of justice is how to determine which material principle, or pattern, is relevant to the distribution of which particular resource. If I were to offer a scholarship to attend the Mount, should I award it based on social utility (cost-benefit), equality (have a lottery), merit (administer a test), or need (check your annual income)? Of course, different persons will benefit from the scholarship, depending on which material principle is invoked. So in the final analysis, one might ask: "Who really deserves that scholarship?" Libertarians argue that society ought to refrain from all redistribution schemes (equality, need, utility, merit) and allow the free market to do the distributing. In a free market, I can own a Mercedes Benz automobile, or perhaps more likely, a Gibson ES 335 electric guitar, if I am willing to pay the market price for it.
 Justice in retribution embraces the familiar notion of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," otherwise known as the principle of proportionality. We are morally obligated to praise and blame others in proportion to what they deserve. Justice, therefore, requires that we get no more, nor less, than we deserve. Justice in retribution involves the familiar concept of payback. When we think about justice in retribution we most often apply it to our response to wrongdoing, and reduce it to the familiar maxim: "the punishment must fit the crime."

Justice in distribution carries with it the idea that there are better and worse ways to distribute pleasures and pains within a community. Again, it says that we ought to get "no more, nor less than we deserve." Hence, we suffer from an injustice when we either get more or less than we deserve. Of course, we don‟t often complain when we get more of a good thing than we deserve or when we get less of a bad thing than we actually deserve.

When philosophers and economists talk about distributive justice, they usually distinguish between various classes of things that are subject to just or unjust distribution. One such distinction differentiates between human wants or desires, on the one hand, and needs, or primary goods, or resources, on the other. The principle of justice in distribution is only applicable under conditions of scarcity. When everyone has as much of something as they need or want, they usually do not complain of injustice. If Charles Darwin was right, we can expect a biological world characterized by scarce resources and competition between organisms to possess those resources. For human beings and some animals, possession of resources generally brings pleasure and the lack of resources, pain. Nature distributes resources based on "natural selection;" (John Rawls calls it the "Natural Lottery") the strong get the resources and the weak generally do not. Is that fair? Is Mother Nature fair in her dealings with human beings? The principle of distributive justice comes into play when we humans decide collectively not to live under Darwinian rule, but instead, decide to redistribute resources and the pains and pleasures associated with them, based on justice.

The Liberty Principle

Liberty is the principle of self-direction. Liberalism is the Enlightenment political doctrine that values liberty above other principles, such as beneficence, utility, and justice. There are two strands of Western Liberalism: egalitarianism and libertarianism. The differences between these two stands will be discussed in the next section.

Both egalitarians and libertarians believe that human beings ought to be able to do, pretty much, whatever they want. Many philosophers follow John Stuart Mill's idea that utility and liberty are mutually supporting principles. A happy society is nothing more than a society that has a lot of happy individuals. How do we become happy individuals? Simply put, in order to be happy we have to have a certain percentage of our needs and wants fulfilled. But who has a more accurate of idea of what those needs and wants might be: a.) we ourselves as individuals, or b.) someone else? More importantly, does government really know how to make you happy? If we as individuals know what kinds of things make us happy, and if we are more likely to know how to attain those things, then any society that aspires toward collective happiness must protect an individual's right to pursue those things. In my mind, that is a simple empirical truth. Now this is not to say that we as individuals have perfect insight into what makes us happy. In fact, most of us tend to discover happiness over the course of our lifetimes via trial and error. My sole hypothesis here is that rational competent adults are better judges of their own personal happiness than government, and that the collective happiness is proportional to personal freedom.

But the liberty principle does have its own fair share of philosophical controversy. Obviously, some critics argue that human beings are neither rational nor do they possess something that resembles free will. Admittedly, that might be true. But if it is true, there is no sense talking about morality apart mere convention or politics. So my view is that moral responsibility implies rationality and free will. If I'm wrong, the whole libertarian agenda makes no sense. I think I'm on solid ground.

There are problems too. As we have already seen, the pursuit of pleasure by some individuals often conflicts with the pursuit of pleasure by others. After all, it is virtually impossible to live in a modern society without interfering with another individual's pursuit of pleasure. Here, there are varying degrees of conflict. For example, my elderly neighbor finds her pleasure working in the tranquil and serene confines of her garden. I enjoy playing electric guitar at a near-deafening volume level, but my elderly neighbor complained that my playing is both physically and aesthetically painful to her. Another neighbor experienced pleasure from raising vicious pit bulls, while my children derived pleasure running around the neighborhood playing "Capture the Flag" on warm summer evenings. Any society committed to the private pursuit of pleasure or happiness and the liberty necessary to sustain it, must provide for the resolution of these types of personal conflicts. So over the years, philosophers have proposed a variety of liberty limiting principles, which include: harm to others, harm to self, harm to public institutions, offense, legal moralism, and social utility. Libertarians recognize only harm to others, and under limited conditions, harm to self.
All libertarians recognize one liberty limiting principle: that is, harm to others. The formula says: "You can do whatever you want as long as you do not harm anyone else in the process." There are two objective ways to harm others: by forcefully seizing their property (the fruits of their labor) or by killing or injuring their bodies. The distinction between harm to others and harm to self, however, implies other distinctions; most notably a distinction between self-regarding acts (that do not harm others) and other-regarding acts (that harm others); and a distinction between acts and speech. Libertarians argue that a liberal government may regulate other-regarding acts, but they may not regulate self-regarding acts.

First of all, it takes "thick skin" to live under a libertarian society. My children and I must tolerate my neighbor's vicious barking dogs, unless I can prove that their enclosure is inadequate. Of course, if my dog-loving neighbor's pit bulls escape and bite my kids, then the government could justify regulating his actions (or the actions of his dogs). My elderly neighbor might occasionally have to tolerate my guitar playing, barking dogs, and screaming kids. She might consider wearing headphones or wear earplugs when she works in her garden. I might build a fence around my yard to protect my kids from wandering pit bulls. At any rate, unless there is objective harm to others involved, libertarians argue that these kinds of disputes are best resolved by rational individuals engaged in one-on-one bargaining, "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours!" Simply put, don't want to employ the coercive power of government to solve all of our disputes.
What are some examples of these self-regarding acts that are obviously protected by the liberty principle? Let's start off with things that we all do at home. Clearly I should certainly be able to sleep in the new boxer shorts that I bought at Wal-Mart, read a book purchased on Amazon, pick my nose, or eat spaghetti with my hands. Clearly, none of these acts harm anyone. They don't even harm me. I would also add, sharing a bottle of wine with my wife. Of course, if I decided to go out joy riding afterwards, that might be a problem. I might harm others in a car accident. But the problem here is how to determine exactly how much alcohol consumption it takes to impede judgment. Laws in the United States are disproportionately influenced by powerful industries. In the case of the regulation of drinking and driving, on the one side we have the alcohol industry and its distributors that want us to be able to drive to a bar or restaurant and have a couple of drinks, without having to worry about getting arrested. On the other side, we have the insurance industry that would prefer that we not only drive stone cold sober, but also that we drive only armored vehicles on the highways at 25 miles per hour, to avoid property and personal injury claims.

The real problem here is repeat offenders; that is lifelong alcoholics that repeatedly get drunk, get behind the wheel, crash, and harm others. Libertarians argue that DUI laws ought to focus on getting these people off the road. We all know that taking their licenses away does not deter them, nor do the modest court fines or brief jail. Libertarians would certainly support long jail sentences for alcoholics that repeatedly get into accidents. They will not support the expenditure of tax money to pay for rehabilitation either, even if those programs were proven to be efficient.
But the most basic problem is that the defenders of personal liberty must deal with a growing number of misguided Americans that want our highways to be as safe as our living rooms. While this might seem to be a worthwhile public policy goal, where does this quest for universal personal safety end? Do we want to live in vacuum sealed, risk free society, if it means giving up most of our personal pleasures: beer drinking, smoking, meat eating, sky diving, race car driving, or pot smoking? It's this very mindset that has fueled not only the ongoing wars on drugs, alcohol, and tobacco; but also the war on terror. Perfect security requires is  incompatible with personal liberty. For thousands of years, despots have used the pursuit of security as an excuse to usurp personal liberty. Do you really believe that the same government that planned and executed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the responded poorly to Hurricane Katrina can be trusted to efficiently insure our security? Do you currently hold any stocks in one of those security conscious airlines?
There is also a longstanding puzzle that arises in the context of speech. Of course, we have a legal right to freedom speech, but how far does that right extend? Libertarians consider speech to be (almost always) self-regarding, in the sense that words rarely "harm" other persons. Remember when we were kids we used to say, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!" Admittedly, I don't enjoy being told that I'm a jerk, ass hole, idiot, or creep. Occasionally in the exercise of their free speech, students say bad things about me that, frankly, hurt my feelings. The problem here is how to deal with these hurt feelings in a free society. Some libertarians, like John Stewart Mill, defend free speech, in general, on utilitarian grounds by saying that by leaving speech unregulated we are more likely to find the truth in a diversity of expressed opinions. When students point flaws in my teaching, I try to fix those flaws. Trial and error implies feedback!
But clearly, some forms of speech do harm others. As Mill suggested, if I falsely yell, "FIRE!" in a crowded theater, and if I know that there really is no fire, my words may unnecessarily harm others. Sometimes in the exercise of free speech, we harm others by making false or derogatory statements or by verbally threatening to use violence. But today, there is an ever-growing list of things that we cannot say to others. If you ask a coworker to go out on a date, be careful. You might be contributing to a hostile work environment and be prosecuted for sexual harassment. Libertarians defend a rather narrow definition of harm by restricting to physical harm, or threats of physical harm.

Many argue that "harm to self" can sometimes be invoked as a liberty-limiting principle. Acts of paternalism involve violating a moral principle, usually liberty, in order to provide an unwanted benefit or prevent someone from a harming themselves. Hard paternalism is when you either provide an unwanted benefit or remove harm from a rational person. Soft paternalism is when the unwilling target of our beneficent acts is irrational. Paternalism can be exercised toward individual adults, or groups of adults. Paternalistic intervention can be exercised by either: individuals, groups, or the State.

Of course, not all acts of paternalism can be morally justified. Libertarians reject all forms of hard paternalism because they are against the use of coercive force against competent adults. At least some libertarians support weak paternalism; that is they are sometimes willing to violate the liberty of some individuals in order to protect them from self-inflicted harms. The following conditions must be met before paternalistic intervention can be morally justified:
Competency Requirement: The target of paternalistic intervention must be incompetent. Paternalism can never be justified on behalf of a competent person.
Harm Requirement: The target of paternalistic intervention must be either suffering from a major harm or facing an immanent harm. Paternalism cannot be justified merely to provide an unwanted benefit. It must aim to remove a major harm.
Redounding Good Requirement: The proposed intervention must obviously do more good than harm. Paternalism cannot be justified if the intervention is likely to do more harm than they are already experiencing, or may experience.
Least Restrictive Alternative Requirement: If several interventions are possible we are obligated to employ the least restrictive one.

In sum, libertarians regard all forms of paternalism as problematic.
Another liberty-limiting principle that is often invoked in modern societies is the offense principle, which states that I am at liberty to pursue my own private interests as long as I do not "offend" others in the process. The difficulty with applying this principle is the fact that we all have different levels of sensibility. Some people are offended very easily. For example, some thin- skinned individuals are offended when they see mothers breast-feed their children in public places. They insist that it ought to be done only in private places. But if we regulate public places in such a way to avoid all possible sources of offense, our collective liberty would be severely curtailed, and our public places would not be much fun for anyone. What I consider to be offensive might not be offensive to others. At least some people are offended by rap music, public nudity, burning the American flag, Rush Limbaugh's radio show, and houses painted pink. Therefore, the widespread use of the offense principle as a liberty-limiting principle will invariably lead to a pretty dull public sphere.

Now libertarians do not object if you choose to regulate your own personal behavior based on the offense principle. There are many things in life that I simply will not do because I do not want to offend others. I'll never use offensive words in reference to racial or ethnic groups.  Problems arise, however, when government attempts to enforce legal limits on speech based on the offense principle. That's because it requires some objective, mutually agreed upon standards.
First of all, libertarians argue that the concept of a public sphere is philosophically incoherent and a threat to personal liberty, and therefore, argue that that all places ought to be private places. If you call me "whop" (or any of the five or six ethic slurs that might apply to my background) when you are visiting my home, I might ask you to leave and I probably won't invite you over again. That's easy enough, right? But how would we go about applying the offense principle in public places?
Suppose the city decides to purchase lakefront property to construct a public park and beach. The idea is create a place that everyone owns collectively. But whenever, any place is designated "public" (beaches, golf courses, libraries, cyberspace, television, radio etc.) there will always be those thin-skinned individuals that want to minimize their own exposure to behaviors that they find offensive. This means that public officials will always be placed in the unenviable position of having to set rules that limit offensive behavior. And, as the old saying goes, "The squeaky wheel gets the grease." That means that the threshold of offensiveness will usually be set at the lowest common denominator. No skimpy bathing suits, thongs, rap music, or Irish beer drinking music allowed. Many public places in the United States are so sterile that they are no fun.
We might argue that public acts that offend a majority of people can be restricted? Let's just vote? Others might argue that the main problem with offensiveness, is when it's involuntary; that is, only if, those offenses are imposed on others without their consent. For example, if you voluntarily attend a public art exhibit knowing that it contains homo-erotic material, then you cannot subsequently claim to be offended. Logically, you cannot be voluntarily offended! But enforcing voluntariness alone doesn't seem to solve much. Will Wal-Mart have to post signs that warn customers that they might encounter breastfeeding mothers, obnoxious children, obese customers, violent video games, condoms, birth-control pills, and racy tabloids?
Libertarians argue that the only way to avoid the sterility of an inoffensive culture is to limit the acquisition of public property, which will also limit the government's ability to regulate those places. But in the final analysis, we'll just have to learn to be more tolerant of how others pursue pleasure.

Other forms of speech might harm public institutions. For example I might make a public speech in which I advocate tax evasion as a means of protesting tax policy in the United States. However, if we accept "harm to public institutions" as a liberty-limiting principle, many morally repugnant institutions (such as slavery) might never have been repealed.
In the United States, one of the goofiest debates I've ever encountered has been over whether or not to legalize gay marriage. First of all, whether we like it or not, marriage in the United States has become a public institution regulated and controlled by federal, state, and local governments. It serves as a means of distributing resources, especially in terms of child welfare, health and life insurance. There are tax advantages and disadvantages attached to marriage. Now once something is designated as a "public institution" there is a tendency to assume that it universal and eternal, and therefore, immune to revision. Remember that slavery was at one time a public institution.
By both tradition and legislation, marriage in the United States is assumed to be between males and females. Critics of gay marriage argue that allowing gay couples to get married undermines the institution of marriage. From a libertarian perspective, this argument is incomprehensible, if not laughable.
First of all, there is an unstated premise that institutions ought to support nature, and that lifelong marriage between males and females is "natural." But there is a difference between pair-bonding and marriage. Pair-bonding among human is natural, standing up in front of a public official declaring "till death do us part" is a cultural practice. So is getting divorced, which also requires going before a judge (usually an old man) and paying for a lawyer to file the papers. My take on all this is that marriage is simply a contract between two individuals. Whatever conditions they agree upon is their business. I am also willing to admit that marriage is a religious event, in the Roman Catholic Church it is regarded as a sacrament. In that case, those individuals choose to be Catholics, and choose to say their vows before a priest. They may or may not choose to use artificial birth control. If you choose to be a Catholic, then you must deal with the fact that as an institution, it does not support gay marriage. You can choose to try to reform the church or you can choose to join another church that is more hospitable to gay marriage.
But once marriage becomes a public institution that affects the distribution of resources, that's when it becomes suspect. So why not leave government out of whole marriage issue. Whoever you choose to be your marriage partner is your business. Your choice does not harm anyone else. If a gay couple chooses to adopt children or have children via in vitro fertilization, that's their business. They are as likely, or as unlikely to be good parents as anyone else. Just because you have a marriage license doesn't mean that you will be a good or bad parent. Just because you have a license to cut hair doesn't mean that you are a good or bad hair dresser.
So harm to public institution is a notorious bad justification for violating personal liberty.
The liberty-limiting principle known as Legal Moralism holds that civilized society can justifiably enforce rules of morality. Hence, advocates of this principle believe that the liberty of individuals can be justifiably limited by a moral code imposed and enforced by government, even if there are no harms or offenses committed. For example, I cannot buy beer or wine on Sunday morning in Cincinnati. What's the justification? The city cannot reasonably argue that buying beer either harms others, harms me, or offends others. Apparently the law exists because the city simply believes that it is immoral to purchase beer at that time when you ought to be in church. Some forms of legal moralism also encroach upon the private, self-regarding sphere. Laws against, polygamy, fornication, and sodomy might be good examples.

The basic problem with using the power of government to enforce morality is determining whose moral principles to enforce. Given the variety of moral convictions expressed by the numerous religious groups practicing in the United States, legal moralism could also make for a very restrictive public and private life.
Libertarians believe that morality arises out of the interaction of individuals in communities. They argue back and forth and arrive at some basic rules of conduct. Legal moralism takes the onus of control away from individuals and places it in the hands of public officials. That's how we end up with laws against polygamy, and blue laws that restrict the sale of alcohol on Sundays. If you want to marry 3-4 other persons go for it: as long as everyone involved is an adult and as long as everyone agrees. One would have to prove that polygamy harms others in order to make it illegal. If I'm right, you can't justify its illegality by arguing that it undermines the institution of marriage, or that others find it offensive either. So I support both gay marriage and polygamy. But then again, I also believe that marriage is personal and religious. We don't need government to tell us who to marry. Politicians are not marriage experts and they not especially good at it themselves.
In summary, there have been many proposed liberty-limiting principles. The more the government limits liberty in public and private spheres, the less room there is for individuals and groups to pursue happiness as they see fit.

Terms to Know: Liberty Principle, Liberty-Limiting Principles, Harm to Others, Harm to Self, Paternalism, Offense Principle, Legal Moralism. 


The Principle of Non-Maleficence

The principle of non-maleficence says that, in general, it is morally wrong to inflict harm on others. That sounds simple enough, but it turns out to be enormously complicated given the fact that assisting others often consists in the infliction of a lesser and/or improbable harm in order to avoid a major immanent harm. Let’s call these often unknown harms "side-effects." Hence, the best definition of non-maleficence is probably the following: "Do not cause other persons to die, suffer pain or disability, or deprive them of their most important interests, unless you have a good reason."

It is a timeless and universal Truth supported by both morality and legality that harm to others requires a good reason, or justification. There is a consensus among all human cultures at all times and all places that self-defense provides ample justification. In fact, we don’t have to be taught to defend ourselves. We do it quite naturally, thanks to that selfish gene. However, we can be taught to do it more efficiently. But self-defense as a justification for harm to others is contingent upon true beliefs, namely that there is (in fact) a threat present, and that killing, inflicting pain, or disabling the alleged aggressor is the most efficient way to escape that threat. Of course, we can easily make mistakes about the degree of threat, the necessity for inflicting varying degrees of harm, and even the identity of the purveyor of a threat.

When I was a child, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a strange man sleeping in the bed in the bed next to mine. I went downstairs and told my parents. Of course, they didn’t believe me because I had a longstanding reputation for sleepwalking and confusing reality with dream states. (Some say I still have that problem.) Anyway, my mother finally sent my father upstairs to prove to me that I was only dreaming. When he opened the door, there was a stranger asleep in my room. As it turned out this guy was no threat. He was just a drunk that had stumbled into the wrong house. (We didn’t lock doors back then.) My dad, being a big strong man, picked him up by the seat of his pants and his shirt collar, carried him down the stairs, and threw him out the front door. He really didn’t hurt him. As I look back, I’m sure that he could have inflicted serious harms on this guy. He could have beaten the guy to a pulp, or even killed him. He could have also called the police, which probably would have meant jail time for the guy and/or a hefty fine.

We never heard anything about this guy again. He probably lived somewhere in the neighborhood in a similar house. To this day, I’m not sure if dad did the right thing or not. He made a quick decision, decided that the intruder was no threat, decided that violence was unnecessary, and he decided not to get the police involved. But he could have been wrong. This could have been an armed serial killer that intended to kill all of us. He could have been a lifelong alcoholic with a history of spouse abuse that would have benefited from police intervention. The point here is that when we act out of self-defense we do not always have all the information that we need in order to make a perfectly rational, legal and/or moral decision.

Non-maleficence is often violated under the guise of preemptive strikes, which are notoriously problematic, not only at the individual level, but at the collective level. In general, I’m in favor of laws that permit individuals to carry concealed weapons, but I’m also well aware that not everyone is well-skilled at assessing threats.  In short, pre-emptive strikes in the service of self-defense can often violate the principle of non-maleficence.

Finally, the principle of non-maleficence, invariably conflicts with other principles, especially: beneficence, utility, liberty, and justice. For now, we’ll move onto the principle of liberty, but keep in mind that morality often involves multiple principles that often conflict in the real world. If anyone tries to tell you that ethics is easy, don’t listen.

Principle of Beneficence

To many philosophers, beneficence and non-maleficence are almost synonymous with morality. In ordinary language, the term beneficence (or sometimes called benevolence) indicates an obligation to "advance the most important interests of others and remove harms;" that is, to perform acts of mercy, kindness and/or charity. Exercising beneficence can consist in either providing a person(s) with something good, preventing something bad, or the undoing of something already bad. It is usually construed as a teleological principle calling upon us to increase pleasure and reduce pain in others. In order to perform an act of beneficence you must expend something on behalf of another person, usually time, energy or resources. The principle of non-maleficence (or, the harm principle) refers to the moral obligation not to unjustifiably harm others. Before we can make much sense of these fundamental principles, it is essential that we examine the two concepts that are a part of their common conceptual framework: that is, the concepts of interests and harms.

As Joel Feinberg has suggested, interests are "anything we have a stake in." Obviously human interests can be of greater or lesser value. In fact, philosophers often distinguish between interests that are mere wants (or desires) and needs (or essentials). Harms consist in the invasion of an interest, which suggests that harms can also be evaluated as greater or lesser. Although I may want a new electric guitar, to add to my collection, it’s not really a need. Why? Because I am not really harmed very much if I do not get one! On the other hand, if I was a professional guitar player and my only guitar was stolen, I’d need to get another one. Why? Because, everyone has a substantial interest in earning enough money to meet their needs, and a guitar player cannot make a living without a guitar. Admittedly, there is a certain degree of malleability involved in drawing the line between wants and interests, but we really do all share a common set of needs. As Bernard Gert has argued, generally speaking, we all have a major interest in staying alive; being relatively free of physical and psychological pain, and being relatively free of disability. Conversely, we all agree that death, pain, disability and loss of pleasure are harms, and that all rational persons seek to avoid these harms, unless they have a good reason not to avoid them. The moral principles of beneficence and non-maleficence require a relatively clear philosophical distinction between wants and needs.

The principle of beneficence implies that assisting others in securing their most important interests (needs) and removing harms is good. It is also nice to help secure their less important interests (wants), but generally speaking, we are not morally required to help others secure mere wants. So I don’t have a moral obligation to wash your car this weekend as an act of beneficence, but if you show up at my house hungry, I’ll gladly feed you! But it probably won’t be "surf and turf."

If some interests are greater than others, then obviously, some harms are greater than others. Rational human beings naturally seek to avoid suffering major harms by risking lesser and/or improbable harms. For example, I got the flu shot this year. It hurt for a couple of days. It took about a half hour of my day that I could have spent reading or playing guitar. But it was a rational decision. Why? Who wants to be sick for two weeks? An irrational person, however, often risks high probability major harms, for reasons that most rational people do not find particularly convincing. Suppose I know that I get the flu every year but I refuse to get the shot because I’m afraid of needles. Is that a good reason? Is it irrational? Is it irrational for a person to knowingly have unprotected sex with a person infected with the AIDS virus? Hint: Does it make sense to risk contracting a deadly, highly contagious disease in order to experience a few seconds of intense pleasure?

So all human beings take risks in order to realize their most important interests and avoid major harms. Rational persons take into account the magnitude of the interests at stake and the probabilities of suffering harm. Irrational persons have unprotected sex with strangers and risk contracting a life-threatening disease, in order to experience a rather intense experience of pleasure for a few seconds. It’s easy to talk about needs and wants in the abstract, but the fact of the matter is that we do not always know what our own interests are, nor do we necessarily know how to attain them. If we do not always know what’s in our own best interests or how to attain those interests, we know even less about the interests of others and even less about how to attain those interests.

Now, what does all this say about beneficence? Given the fact that we are often confronted by individuals who find themselves in need, (or at least they believe that we are in need), how much of my time, effort, or resources am I morally required to risk (or sacrifice) in order to fulfill those needs? Are there times when I might be morally required to impoverish myself (and my family) in order to fulfill the needs of others? Suppose that I meet a street person downtown, and discover that he/she is desperately in need of expensive dental work. Let’s say a root canal. Am I morally required to provide it, even if it means taking out a loan? Am I a bad person if I do not help out? So what are the limits of beneficence?

As it turns out, this issue is enormously complex. Some philosophers follow Kant and differentiate between perfect duties and imperfect duties. Perfect duties are duties that are absolutely morally binding and require one specific action in order to be fulfilled. For example, I have a perfect duty not to unjustly kill other human beings. It requires one specific course of action: NOT killing another person without a good reason. Imperfect duties are also absolutely binding, but their fulfillment is subject to our own individual circumstances and choices. Hence, in the case of the homeless person with a toothache, I might fulfill the requirements of beneficence by referring that person to an appropriate governmental agency; or, in the very least I might decide to buy him a bottle of Tylenol. If I were a successful dentist, I could choose to provide those services as an act of personal charity, or refer him to a friend that does pro bono dental work. But is it immoral to do absolutely nothing?

Once you discover that this homeless person has dental problems, it dawns on you that others might have that same problem. Are you morally required to canvass the city looking for others in need of dental work? What do you do if you discover that there are fifty homeless persons with serious dental problems? Does knowledge of needy persons, automatically require beneficence? How much of your personal time, energy, and resources are you morally required to expend? If you cannot help everyone, how should you decide who to help? How would you decide? Would it be unfair to help some and not help others? And finally, what if someone has a life-threatening tooth infection but they refuse your offer of assistance? In other words, does the exercise of beneficence require other principles such as utility, justice, and liberty?

There’s also a coterie of other well-known problems associated with beneficence: most notably its tendency to generate unanticipated consequences. Here’s a basic question for you. If you are in need and if you have a choice between: A. Expend your own time, energy, or resources to meet that need; or B. Expend a benefactor’s time, effort, or resources. Would you choose A. or B.? When Hurricane Katrina struck the gulf coast, armies of beneficent volunteers flocked to Louisiana to help with the cleanup. If your property was damaged, would you rather pay an unemployed person from Louisiana to help clean up, or get a bunch of beneficent high school students to do it for free? What would you choose? Duh…Let me guess.

It is a well known fact that at least some acts of beneficence foster habitual dependency upon benefactors. When offered assistance human beings, naturally, reallocate their own time, energy and resources. That is inevitable when your act of beneficence saves someone time, energy, or resources. But you may not agree with their reallocation. They may choose to spend their savings on more cigarettes, alcohol, or lottery or tickets. At least some persons on Food Stamps buy unhealthy foods: pop, snacks, and foods high in saturated fats. On the other hand, they might also donate their savings to their church or another charity rather than stave off future dependency.

Human beings form habits. Once we accept the assistance of a benefactor, we reorder our lives and form new habits. Let’s face it! Unemployment can be habit forming, especially if you are unskilled: so can watching television and hanging out with your unemployed friends. In short, sometimes we need an incentive to work, and sometimes beneficence undermines those incentives. On the other side of the equation, there are some highly beneficent individuals that expend an extraordinary amount of their time, energy, and resources doing charitable work. Sometimes charitable work can interfere with other obligations toward one’s own family and work. Is it really good to spend all of your time at the food kitchen when your children need help with their schoolwork? Sometimes when you expend your time, effort, and resources in pursuit of beneficence, at some later point in time, you may find yourself unable to meet your own needs. Therefore, beneficence can at least sometimes, contribute to future dependency and reliance on benefactors.

There is also a cluster of problems associated with knowing exactly what to do in order to exercise beneficence. Are you really helping an alcoholic if you give him money? Does unwittingly contributing money to an inefficient charity really constitute beneficence? How much research effort should I expend before contribute to any given charitable organization? Similarly, how well should I know the person that I’m attempting to help?

In general we tend to exercise beneficence toward our relatives and friends much more often than we exercise it toward strangers. We’re all egoists at heart. Hence, we all are more likely to spend our time, energy, and resources padding the wants and desires our relatives and friends, than we are likely to expend our time, effort, and resources in meeting the needs of strangers. Therefore, it’s pretty difficult to acculturate beneficence toward strangers, especially when they live on the other side of the world and do not look like us or act like us. Unfortunately, some of the neediest persons on earth live on the other side of the world in places where it is extremely difficult and expensive to provide assistance. So sometimes, beneficence conflicts with utility.

Nevertheless, we still teach our children to be more beneficent toward strangers. Indeed, that’s why the major religious traditions teach us to "love thy neighbor." But are there limits to what we can realistically expect out of acculturation? Even if we could manufacture a society of generous benefactors, would that necessarily, be a good society? Do we really want to live in a society of dependents supported by benefactors? Does the mere presence of benefactors spawn more and more potential beneficiaries? If so, is the elimination of poverty by encouraging beneficence a viable long-term strategy for the elimination of poverty.

The libertarian view on beneficence is fairly clear cut. Since we are all owners of our time, energy, and resources, it’s up to us individually to decide how we allocate those things. Ownership trumps everything. I own my body, which sometimes provides me with an advantage in the pursuit of my interests, and sometimes it provides a disadvantage. Sometimes my interests do not match up very well with my natural advantages. Even though I’m only 5’9’’ I suppose I could have pursued a career in the NBA, even though I’ve never exhibited one ounce of natural ability in that area. I have some natural talent for playing music, but I’m not anywhere near as talented as most professional musicians. If I had chosen to spend my life in pursuit of playing guitar, rather than teaching college, I would be competing under a decided natural disadvantage, and consequently, I would probably be unable to meet my own needs, let alone the needs of my family.

It is important to emphasize that libertarians have an optimistic view of human nature. All of us are endowed with natural advantages. It’s up to us to choose to compete in areas where nature has given us a leg up. In short, poverty can be often traced back to bad decision-making: failure to discover, develop, and/or cash in on our natural endowments. Unfortunately, some of us have natural talents, but choose not to develop those talents. But again, it’s your life.

It is also true that some of us are also saddled with profound disabilities that prevent us from cultivating our abilities. At least some of these persons will be dependent upon beneficiaries for their entire life, such as some quadriplegics, and persons with profound brain damage. (Human being in comas may or may not be persons.)

There will always be a few persons that really need our help, primarily children and persons suffering chronic disease. Libertarians, like everyone else, are willing to donate their time, energy, and resources in order to advance their most important interests. The main difference between libertarians and everyone else is that they are more likely to exercise beneficence more efficiently, and try to help out only those who really need help. They are also profoundly averse governmentally-funded beneficence, which is notoriously inefficient and less likely to serve those who are truly in need.

So libertarians are free to discuss beneficence with one another and make suggestions to one another as to which individuals need help and how to help them. They can choose to form or participate in collective acts of charity. For example, we might decide to pool our resources and form a charitable organization to provide dental care to the needy. On the other hand, you might decide to give to a college or university, hoping to reduce future dependency.

Again, libertarians have a lot faith in human nature. Although we are programmed by selfish genes, human beings are also biologically programmed to experience feelings of sympathy toward other that are in need. Therefore, as individuals most of us are both selfish and fairly beneficent. But we are not unmitigated altruists either. We do feel good when we help out others. Libertarians also acknowledge that there is a darker side to human nature. We can’t deny the indisputable fact that many individuals simply do not need our assistance and that many charities are bogus and/or inefficient. That’s why it’s never a good idea to give to charities that contact you over the phone or over the Internet. Some of them might be worthwhile, but you have no easy way of knowing which ones are legitimate. I think morality calls upon us to exercise beneficence toward individual persons that we know something about, and that we ought to support charities that we know something about. We should also be mindful that charities target different beneficiaries. The Special Olympics, Make a Wish Foundation, and the International Red Cross all try to do good things for different populations. Even if these charities were equally efficient (which is not the case), it would not be easy to decide which one to support. But if you choose to spend your time, energy, or resources in the service of persons (or non-persons) that are not in need or if you choose to support inefficient or bogus charities, you can do that too.

Every year I give a modest sum to my Alma Mater the University of Kentucky, because I know that it does a lot of good by providing educational opportunities. It’s probably not as efficient as a private university, but I am confident that it is pretty efficient. But in the end, the fact is I own my money. I also donate old clothes to several charitable organizations, but honestly I don’t really do it out of beneficence. I’m mostly interested in getting rid of unwanted garments that don’t fit any more. I don’t pat myself on the back, or brag about it. I don’t deduct that stuff from our income taxes.

Human beings form a wide variety of organizations to serve a wide variety of purposes. We often pool our resources and form beneficent organizations. Local, state, and federal governments also provide beneficent assistance via Medicare, Medicaid, and Food Stamp programs. Local governments provide, things like free health clinics, etc. Libertarians believe that, in general, private individuals and organizations are more efficient providers of beneficence. Most governmental attempts at providing beneficence are wrought with inefficiency and fraud. The most salient reason for this inefficiency is that governments spend other people’s money and therefore are less likely to demand efficiency. Private charities are also inefficient, but are less likely to be inefficient for very long. When the inefficacy of private organizations is exposed, benefactors naturally withdraw their money and invest in other charities. When was the last time you withdrew your tax dollars? Governmental inefficiency is well documented. Look no further than FEMA’s less than beneficent response to Hurricane Katrina or the government’s less than beneficent efforts to rebuild Iraq. Libertarians do not argue that government ought to steer completely clear of charity. Government can certainly help the rest of us by exposing deceptive and/or inefficient charities and by prosecuting fraudulent charities.

So the libertarian vision of beneficence is that American society is better off with a wide variety of privately beneficent organizations that compete with one another for our donations, rather than one single governmentally supported monopoly, like FEMA or even the Red Cross. In fact, when we pay taxes to support these governmentally funded organizations, we often mistakenly believe that we’ve fulfilled our moral obligation toward those in need. But all we’ve really done is perpetuate these notoriously inefficient monopolies that waste tax money. And unfortunately, there is also another unanticipated consequence. The more we rely on government to serve the needy, the less inclined we are to contribute to private charities. The higher the tax rate, the less disposable money we have to invest in pursuit of our own self interest and the interests of others. In other words, governmental beneficence not only wastes money, but it also has the unanticipated consequence of undermining private beneficence. But then again, let’s not assume that beneficence is a worthwhile social virtue. It may be the case that, over the long run, it causes more harm than good.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, sometimes the best thing we can do for others is pad our own interests. What do you think would do more good for New Orleans? A. Spending a week sleeping in a tent, eating bologna sandwiches, drinking bottled water, and volunteering to clean up debris from the streets: or, B. spending a week staying in expensive hotels, eating in restaurants, gambling, drinking in bars, attending concerts, and buying souvenirs? I think many ideal altruists have a rather distorted view of economic activity. Most economists would agree that the best thing we can do for New Orleans is come down and spend our hard earned money in support the local businesses. In short, self-motivated acts can generate a lot good for others. So go to New Orleans and buy lobster tails, and perform an act of beneficence toward local fishermen.

Key Concepts: Beneficence, Non-Maleficence, Interests, Needs, Wants, Public Charities, Private Charities.

The Principle of Utility

The principle of utility states that actions or behaviors are right in so far as they promote happiness or pleasure, wrong as they tend to produce unhappiness or pain. We can apply this principle in the context our own individual lives, and in the context of our collective social lives. Libertarians generally encourage you to invoke the principle of utility when it comes to managing your personal life, but they generally do not endorse social utility.

The Principle of Social Utility is usually defended in reference to the empirical fact that we are social animals and that morality in this context requires a degree of altruism; and that collective happiness requires a degree of self-sacrifice. Social utilitarians argue that an action is right to the extent that it produces "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" and it is wrong to the extent that it produces "the greatest unhappiness for the greatest number." This sounds wonderful until you begin to look at it a bit closer.

Recall that both individual and social utility are grounded in teleological moral theory. Therefore, we’ll encounter some of the same issues of associated with hedonism and consequentialism, as discussed in the earlier section on Teleological Theories. A hedonist believes that the Good Life consists solely in the pursuit pleasure or happiness. The feelings of pleasure and pain are biological events that involve our central nervous systems, which are controlled by our cerebral cortex. We all obviously experience feelings of pleasure when we perform certain acts that fulfill biological functions such as eating, drinking, and having sex. We also experience pleasure when we perform certain intellectual activities, such as reading philosophy books, playing guitar, or drawing a picture. We sometimes, but not always, experience pleasure when we exercise beneficence toward others. Conversely, we experience pain when these functions are left unfulfilled, and sometimes we experience pleasure at doing the wrong thing.

Again, in order for utilitarianism to be applicable in the real world, pain and pleasure would have to be demonstrably objective and quantifiable. If a hedonistic calculus is possible, it would probably apply to our own individual decision-making. Traditionally this has involved the quantification of variables such as: intensity, duration, fecundity, and likelihood. Although I doubt that these variables can be precisely quantified, I do think that when it comes to ordering our personal lives, our brains go through hedonistic logarithms of some kind. Sometimes these are conscious processes, sometimes unconscious. Not only are we genetically programmed with many our own particular interests, we are also programmed with a set of genetically-based interests that we share with other members of our species, and even other species. And of course, many of our interests are culturally bound and acquired via teaching and learning.

One fallacy of utilitarianism is the underlying assumption that both our collective goals and individual goals are best realized by advancing collective goals. Unfortunately, in the real world, the realization of collective goals often conflict with individual goals. Libertarians, therefore, argue that the most efficient way to realize collective goals is to advance individual goals.

Recall that if you are a hedonist, the most important question is: "Whose pleasure counts the most?" Social utilitarians are altruists to the extent that they believe that the standard of right or wrong is not the agent's own personal greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Therefore, good behavior increases the number of persons experiencing pleasure among members of a specific group. Bad behavior increases the number of persons experiencing pain. But there are many hidden complexities associated with this.

A few years back, Cincinnati government officials had a referendum on whether to use the proceeds from a proposed sales tax increase to build two new sports stadiums for the Reds and the Bengals. A social utilitarian would have to examine how the costs and benefits would be distributed throughout Cincinnati, Ohio, the United States, or even the world. Let’s just focus on Cincinnati.

First let’s look at individual or personal utility. If I had a choice, how would I allocate my finite personal income in regard to going to sports arenas? Generally speaking, I attend one or two pro baseball games a year. I buy the cheapest seats. I’ve never attended a pro football game. I watch baseball and football on television, only because it’s free, (Call me a "free-rider!") and that’s only because it’s usually more pleasurable than watching what is usually on television. I also listen to games on the radio when I’m traveling or doing some other task: again, only because it’s free. If I had to pay to watch or listen to a football game or baseball game I wouldn’t do it. However, I would willingly pay to hear a live band. In fact, I would spend a lot of money to hear one of my favorite European bands. In short, I allocate my personal funds based on my interests and I’m more interested in music than sports. If I had a choice between A. going to a sporting event at an arena for free; or, B. watching the game at home for free, I’d choose B., and stay home. In fact, in the past, my wife and I have been given free Reds tickets, but we didn’t use them.

Libertarians acknowledge the unfortunate fact that we all pay taxes. But the higher my tax obligation, the less personal income I have at my disposal. The stadium tax alone probably doesn’t add up to much in terms of my total tax contribution, but I’ve never actually figured it out. I’m sure that the city of Cincinnati cannot guarantee that every penny of that tax goes directly into the stadiums. Anyway, if someone could have convinced me that the money we spent on stadiums actually served the "public good," I might have supported it. But there are several conceptual muddles at work here too.

First off, I’m not sure that anyone knows exactly what the term "public good" really means. I have an imperfect concept of my own "personal good," in the sense that I have a pretty good idea of what makes me happy and what makes my family and friends happy. But admittedly I am occasionally wrong. I was surprised to discover that I like Indian food! But I’m not sure what it means when someone claims that something makes the whole city of Cincinnati happy. Why? Well, first of all, a city is a composite entity that includes a wide variety of conflicting individual interests. Some people benefit and others suffer as a result of all publicly funded projects. But there’s another pernicious conceptual muddle at work here too.

All teleological reasoning involves both ends and means. It is one thing to say that an end is "good" and it’s another thing to say that the means to achieving that end is "good." Social utilitarians tend to confuse these two variables. One might indeed argue convincingly that airports, sewers, gas and electric, police and fire protection, mail delivery, public transportation etc. are all public goods. It might, in fact, be true that a majority of the population benefits from each of these services. But that doesn’t mean that the most efficient way to provide these services is through government. I’m not sure exactly how much of my tax obligation goes toward provision of any of these services. I don’t think the city of Cincinnati knows either. So if spending tax dollars on any project can be justified based on social utility, its advocates would have to demonstrate, not only that the benefits to the community would outweigh its costs, they would also have to prove (or at least provide compelling evidence) that government offers the most efficient way to provide these benefits.

Now back to those sports stadiums. First of all, let’s admit that it is more difficult to argue that sports stadiums serve the public good than sewers, clean water, and other public health related goods. If stadiums are, in fact, public goods, one would have to argue that there is positive cost-benefit ratio. The benefits outweigh the costs. But that’s really not enough. It would have to be shown that the most efficient way to pay for this construction is with tax money.

Now in order to justify the use of tax money on stadiums, it would have to be shown to serve the public good. Now objectively speaking, the primary beneficiaries of the larger more modern stadiums would be the wealthy team owners, wealthy players, fans, perhaps a few downtown restaurant owners, hotel owners, parking lot owners etc. One could argue that the public good would also be served by increased tax revenue. If the levy fails, at least one of the local teams would probably move to another city. That would cause pain to those primary beneficiaries. Now the rub here is that the Reds and the Bengals asked the city to pay for these stadiums because the owners, players, leagues, and fans had already decided it wasn’t worth it for THEM to pay the costs of building these stadiums using their own money. But note that they thought it was worth it to spend everyone else’s money. In short, it’s always better to benefit if you can get someone else to pay the cost. That’s Human Nature in a nutshell!

The fundamental problem for utilitarianism is the fact that governments, forcefully, take tax money from one class of individuals and give it to another class. Since, I do not attend the games played at the stadium, and will not benefit from its revenues, why should I want to contribute to either project? Social utility requires that at least some members of the community involuntarily sacrifice their own interests for the interests of others, even though they may not benefit personally. Again, it is often the case that what is represented as the public good, often conflicts with the private interests of some individuals. So why serve the public good rather than one’s own private good?

Sometimes, it is possible to provide a large amount of quantifiable pleasure for a minority at a small cost to everyone else. Suppose, for example, that we have a small, but significant number of homeless children that could be helped by providing a shelter for them. Suppose we decided to accomplish this by imposing a small tax on everyone in Cincinnati. A utilitarian would not be able to justify imposing that tax, unless it could be shown that more people would be helped than harmed. One way to get around this would be to count not only the number of persons that experience pleasure and pain, but also weigh the intensity, duration, fruitfulness, and likelihood of the pains and pleasures involved. Hence, we might argue that if we weigh the amount of pleasure that homeless children experience, as the result of providing them shelter, against the minimal pain that tax payers experience, then we might rationally justify building that shelter at public expense.

But in the case of sports stadiums, we are not really talking about disadvantaged populations. In fact, another real world problem with social utility is that, in the United States, there is a culturally-based tendency to confuse the interests of the wealthy and powerful with the public good. That’s because the rich and powerful have access to the media, lawyers, marketing expertise, and lobbyists. This tendency is manifest in what critics call "corporate welfare."

Suppose it is true that only the primary stakeholders really benefit from building expensive stadiums, and suppose that tax levy would be very small, could we justify building the stadium for that wealthy team owner at a small cost to the majority? If so, on what basis could we also justify building the shelter? So the basic problem here is that it is always preferable to have someone pay for the fulfillment of out interests. That’s why we appreciate gifts so much! Therefore, once the city decides to underwrite professional sports, you can expect others to follow the leader. Indeed, that’s how cities end up subsidizing orchestras, art museums, swimming pools, parking garages, and hospitals. How about a tax to buy a new Volvo for every philosophy professor in Cincinnati? Obviously, the more of these tax supported projects that a city takes on the more expended tax revenue. The higher my taxes are the less money I have to pursue my individual interests. When I can no longer afford to attend music concerts, why not petition government to build a concert hall and a guitar museum? I could craft some convincing arguments in support of the idea that it’s a public good. "Just think about the tax revenues that these venues would bring in!" If enough guitar players rally behind my proposal, some self-interested politician will eventually champion its cause. Although this sounds utopian, can everyone’s needs and wants be met this way? Where does it all end?
Another social utility-based issue has been the growing use of the eminent domain principle to seize private property to serve the public good. Historically, this legal principle has been used, primarily, to acquire the land we needed to build roads, sewage treatment plants, and court houses. But now, local governments have begun seizing private property in order to build shopping malls, and arguing that more people benefit from a mall than from a private residence. Local governments bolster their argument by saying that the tax revenue is also greater for a mall than for a private residence. So here we have a prime example where the perceived public good conflicts with the private good. But seizing private property for the public good always sounds better when someone else’s property is being seized. Utilitarianism’s tendency to advance the public good at the expense of individuals and minorities invariably contributes to the "tyranny of the masses."

Now even if x is deemed a public good that does not necessarily mean that government is the best vehicle for providing it. Libertarians argue that the most efficient way to serve the public good is through the free market; that is to say that the best way to serve the public good is to maintain a political structure that supports individual enterprise and reciprocal altruism. That means government ought to make it easier for individuals to pool their resources in pursuit of their mutual self-interest. Libertarians argue that governmentally funded projects are paragons of inefficiency. That’s because there are few, if any, incentives for public officials do anything efficiently. Politicians are price-insensitive when it comes to spending tax dollars. All of their incentives are set by the "bring home the bacon" principle. This means that when politicians build stadiums using tax money, they, invariably, make sure that as many of their constituents get a slice of that bacon as possible. This leads to padded budgets and cost overruns. Politicians, therefore, make sure that local contractors and laborers get most of the jobs, even if they are more expensive.

We are all better stewards of our own time, energy, and resources. If we are not, we tend to lose those things. If the price-sensitive Bengals and the Reds were to build their own stadiums, with their own money, you can bet that the owners, players, fans, and leagues would insist on efficiency. After all, they would be risking their own money, not ours! "Bang for the buck." not "Bring home the bacon." Suddenly, out of state contractors and cheaper foreign labor suddenly look much more appealing. Suddenly, the teams would become more competitive and actually win a few games.
 On the surface, the "greatest happiness principle" carries with it a lot of intuitive plausibility. Collective beneficence carries a lot of persuasive force when it is employed in a social context. Critics of the gradual expansion of government are demonized when they object to publicly-funded projects that are presented as serving both the needy and the public good, such as: social welfare, schools, mental health agencies, health clinics, and alcohol treatment programs. But the principle of social utility is wrought with philosophical and moral chicanery. There are several well-established lines of criticism.

First of all, it is notoriously difficult to predict the consequences of our actions over the short-term or the long-term. Therefore, there is a lot of uncertainty in our dealings with how our moral decisions affect individuals, and even more in uncertainty in our communal decisions. We often just don't know whether one act or policy will promote more pain than pleasure, and we don’t know how those pains and pleasures would be distributed over the short-run or the long-run. So what do we do when faced with those many cases where we just aren't certain? Do we guess? Given this complexity, social utilitarians tend to resort to intuitionism or some other principle, other than utility. Public policy issues such as sports stadiums, capital punishment, abortion policy, are all wrought with mind-boggling complexity and uncertainty. Libertarians argue that the best strategy for serving the public good is to let individuals decide, rather than empower government.

Most deontological theorists argue that utilitarianism often conflicts with our moral intuitions. Social utility has a built in bias against individuals and minorities. What happens when it seems to be in the public interest to inflict extreme hardship on an individual or minority in order to advance the public interest? For example, based on utilitarian reasoning, Japanese Americans were hoarded into detention camps during World War II because the government feared that some of them might support Japan and perhaps engage in terrorist activities. Indeed, the greatest happiness principle has often been used in support of totalitarian schemes in which the price paid for collective happiness has been personal freedom. The institution of slavery has often been justified based on social utility. That’s why there is a consensus among contemporary philosophers that utilitarianism cannot operate without other principles, especially justice.

Rights-based libertarians believe that we have a right to private property that we acquire through the fruits of our labor and through voluntary exchange with our neighbors. Libertarians are against the use of physical force, by individuals, groups, and government in pursuit of individual and collective interests. There two exceptions: the application of physical force in acts of self-defense and the application of physical force in returning property that has been previously seized. Therefore, libertarians are against anyone (including government) seizing another person’s property, even if those takers believe they can do more social good with it. As we will see in the next chapter, liberty almost always trumps beneficence and social utility.

Involuntary taxation is the handmaiden of social utility. But, for libertarians, it is very problematic in so far as it requires the coercive power of government. Although a certain amount of taxation is necessary to protect us from criminals and foreign invaders, libertarians are minarchists (advocates of small government) that seek to limit the power of government to self-defense. On the other hand, if you want to expend your own time, effort, and resources in pursuit of your own vision of the public good, you are certainly free to do that.

In summary, libertarians are deeply suspicious of the principle of social utility. The most troubling problem with social utility is its conceptual ambiguity, which can be easily manipulated by powerful individuals that would like the rest of us to pay for the realization of their private interests. But even if we could clearly differentiate the "public good" from the "private good" of powerful individuals and groups, we would still have to establish whether government is the most efficient provider. Serious social utilitarians, therefore, would have to compare the costs and benefits of both public and private provision. Libertarians argue that about the only things that government can do more efficiently than private initiative is provide an army, and a criminal justice system. Deontological libertarians argue that taxation violates property rights and therefore any utilitarian projects beyond internal and external defense cannot be justified.

In the final analysis, the basic problem with the principle of social utility is that it assumes that it is possible to make unambiguous, objective statements about the public good. Unfortunately, there are not many things in life that are good for everyone. Typically, those who set themselves up as the cultivators of the "public good" turn out to be cultivators of their own "private good;" and also the "private good" of their relatives and friends. This is not to say that all social utilitarians are hypocrites. But I would say it’s a lot easier for do-gooders to serve the interests of others when they are spending everyone else’s time, energy, and resources.