I mentioned yesterday seeing property rights as the set of rules generated by an underlying, foundational ethos of utilitarianism, the desire to maximize happiness for all relevant agents.
And since just asking people to wing it and make off-the-cuff predictions about what would increase happiness would likely produce chaos, we rule utilitarians look for rules that, when consistently enforced, seem most likely to yield the greatest happiness for the greatest number — those rules, I would argue, being property rights for the simple reason that they minimize the need to read each other’s minds in order to calculate happiness (something we couldn’t do even if we concluded it was morally necessary, of course, though all government edicts implicitly try). With property rights and markets, we simply look at what people are really willing to pay for things, their revealed rather than merely proclaimed preferences.
To people who ask “Why utilitarianism as the underlying ethic, though?” I am tempted to say, “Have you got a better idea?” — but experience suggests they’ll say yes, however incorrectly, so let me just say briefly (though this topic could easily consume a whole “Month of Utility” and possibly squelch a month’s worth of utility in the process) that if happiness doesn’t seem like something worth fostering (as most of us know it to be from direct experience of it and by instinct), it’s hard to see why anything else would be. For any metaphysical set of rules ostensibly put forward as something that demands the sacrifice of human happiness, we are logically capable of asking, “Why — won’t this create misery?” But no such regress of questions and justifications is necessary or even logically possible with happiness itself.
By comparison to happiness, all the other posited metaphysical yardsticks — whether Commandments taken on faith, rights asserted in the name of the proletariat, or a vision of humanity intuited by Ayn Rand or Kant — are on shaky ground once descended from the metaphysical heavens and attempting to command our allegiance, as would be extraterrestrials who arrived on the Earth and assumed we should obey them in all things because they are so shiny (shiny, to their minds, equaling great).
Now, I realize few people are consciously utilitarian (though most people and creeds crudely fumble in that general direction even if they don’t intend to), so rule utilitarianism, in a slightly recursive fashion, entails actually having to defer to likely audiences’ receptivity regarding various possible utilitarian rules — which is different from just taking a poll (and radically different from simply doing what makes oneself happy, though some smart people who should know better — such as Jonah Goldberg — have accused utilitarians of holding that selfish view). So rather than simply saying “utility now and junk all other ethical thinking,” we need to espouse those familiar-seeming rules that are most likely to move things in a positive, utile direction in the real world, over the super-long-haul. To a proper utilitarian, there is nothing gained from “being right” in the rules you espouse if no one listens and a riot breaks out that causes widespread misery instead.
In other words, if espousing social democracy in the twenty-first century were actually the best historical route to the world eventually becoming libertarian and property-respecting in some later phase, I’d espouse social democracy. In fact, though, I think the way to go is harnessing American individualism, of the responsible and bourgeois kind rather than the kooky-free-spirit kind that leads to getting stoned and trespassing on the bourgeoisie’s lawn.
And one measure of how far we have to travel in popularizing utilitarianism as an ethos, my core mission and moral foundation, is the fact that my damn spellchecker doesn’t even know the word “utilitarians.” At least not in its plural form. Sadly, “There can be only one” is not a core rule-utilitarian rule.