Higgs on the Consequences and Moral Power of Consequentialism and Deontology

by Don Boudreaux on December 28, 2012

in Civil Society, Complexity & Emergence

Bob Higgs’s latest post is a must-read.  It’s powerful and moving.  Here are some selections (but do read the whole thing):

In any event, after the more recent decades of my libertarian journey, I am now struck by a different aspect of this longstanding debate, which has to do with our strategy for winning people over to libertarianism. Strategy 1 is to persuade them that freedom works, that a free society will be richer and otherwise better off than an unfree society; that a free market will, as it were, cause the trains to run on time better than a government bureaucracy will do so. Strategy 2 is to persuade people that no one, not even a government functionary, has a just right to interfere with innocent people’s freedom of action; that none of us was born with a saddle on his back to accommodate someone else’s riding him.

If we are ever to attain a free society, we must persuade a great many of our fellows that it is simply wrong for any individuals or groups, by violence or the threat thereof, to impose their demands on others who have committed no crime and violated no one’s just rights, and that it is just as wrong for the persons who compose the state to do so as it is for you and me. In the past, the great victories for liberty flowed from precisely such an approach—for example, in the anti-slavery campaign, in the fight against the Corn Laws (which restricted Great Britain’s free trade in grains), and in the struggle to abolish legal restrictions on women’s rights to work, own property, and otherwise conduct themselves as freely as men. At the very least, libertarians should never concede the moral high ground to those who insist on coercively interfering with freedom: the burden of proof should always rest on those who seek to bring violence to bear against innocent people, not on those of us who want simply to be left alone to live our lives as we think best, always respecting the same right for others.

Here’s a question, the answer to which I genuinely do not know: If Jonathan Haidt’s Humean thesis is correct – that our reason is chiefly the servant of (for lack of a better term in this short space) our priors, rather than our reason being chiefly the guide to which we turn in our search for an unbiased understanding of reality – does this fact mean that consequentialist arguments will have greater persuasive effects than will deontological arguments, or vice-versa?  I suspect the latter – and I believe that Bob in his post agrees.  But my suspicion is no more than merely that.

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