Posted by: Kenny Pearce | March 11, 2010

Deontic Utilitarianism, Liberty Utilitarianism, and Deontologism

(Cross-posted from

I just came across the following passage by J.J.C. Smart in Smart and Williams’ Utilitarianism: For and Against:

What Bentham, Mill and Moore are all agreed on is that the rightness of an action is to be judged solely by consequences, states of affairs brought about by the action. Of course we shall have to be careful here not to construe ‘state of affairs’ so widely that any ethical doctrine becomes utilitarian. For if we did so we would not be saying anything at all in advocating utilitarianism. If, for example, we allowed ‘the state of having kept a promise’, then a deontologist who said we should keep promises simply because they are promises would be a utilitarian. And we do not wish to allow this (p. 13).

This line of thought is horribly confused. A similar confusion is manifested in Amartya Sen’s Inequality Reexamined (incidentally also p. 13), where he says that libertarians such as Robert Nozick are centrally concerned with equality of liberty or of rights. Let me try to clarify this muddle. Deontologism is the view that some actions are right or wrong independent of their consequences. An essential feature of libertarianism (especially of the Nozickian variety) is the view that there is a deontological prohibition on the violation of rights – i.e., the violation of rights is always wrong irrespective of the consequences. Now consider the following views:

  • Deontic Utilitarianism: Agents ought to act in such a way as to maximize the total number of morally good actions, and minimize the total number of morally bad actions.
  • Liberty Utilitarianism: Agents ought to act in such a way as to minimize the number and severity of violations of individual rights/freedoms.

Deontic utilitarianism is not a form of deontologism, and liberty utilitarianism is not a form of libertarianism. (If, as Sen does, we switch to speaking of equalizing rather than maximizing, the situation will not change.) In order to deal with both at once, assume that the deontic utilitarian believes that violations of the right to free speech are morally bad. Now consider the following scenario:

Joe intends to give a speech (on his own property and at his own expense) to which the general public will be invited. In his speech, Joe will rail against Islam, using emotional appeals to persuade his audience that wherever Islam is publicly promoted terror and violence follow. Joe will not promote violence against Muslims in his speech. Sarah knows of Joe’s intentions. She further knows that if Joe gives his speech, it will (very likely) start a political movement which will (very likely) result in a ban on the publication and distribution of (peaceful) Muslim literature. However, she also knows that Joe’s speech is very unlikely to lead to violence in any form. Sarah is able, by coercive force, to prevent Joe from giving his speech. By violating Joe’s free speech rights just once, she can protect the free speech rights of all the Muslims in her country (there are a lot of them) for the foreseeable future. She knows of no other way she can accomplish this. What should she do?

A genuine deontologist (such as myself) would counsel Sarah to refrain from acting: the ends do not justify the means. But a deontic utilitarian or a liberty utilitarian would counsel Sarah to prevent Joe’s speech. It follows that deontic utilitarianism is not a form of deontologism, and liberty utilitarianism is not a form of libertarianism.


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