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Anarchist Ethics: A Utilitarian Approach

category international | anarchist movement | other libertarian press author Monday December 18, 2006 07:35author by - Report this post to the editors

Although anarchists do not usually like to define their beliefs in terms of ethics, the anarchist emphasis on the need to maximize individual freedom can be seen as fundamentally rooted in utilitarian ethics. If one is interested in minimizing global suffering or maximizing global happiness or maximizing the number of individuals who achieve self-actualization and creative fulfillment, as utilitarians are, it seems clear that one must first seek to maximize individual freedom. No one is better equipped, at any given time, to take action to reduce an individual’s suffering, increase an individual’s pleasure, or increase an individual’s feelings of self-actualization than the individual himself, because no one else can completely know the individual’s intimate desires or psychology. .

Although anarchists do not usually like to define their beliefs in terms of ethics, the anarchist emphasis on the need to maximize individual freedom can be seen as fundamentally rooted in utilitarian ethics. If one is interested in minimizing global suffering or maximizing global happiness or maximizing the number of individuals who achieve self-actualization and creative fulfillment, as utilitarians are, it seems clear that one must first seek to maximize individual freedom. No one is better equipped, at any given time, to take action to reduce an individual’s suffering, increase an individual’s pleasure, or increase an individual’s feelings of self-actualization than the individual himself, because no one else can completely know the individual’s intimate desires or psychology. Anarchists take it to be an empirical fact that people who exercise the greatest control over their own affairs are the happiest and most fulfilled, and that community life is richer, more meaningful, and more pleasurable when everyone individual is autonomous. Anarchists believe that man’s greatest good—be it pleasure or fulfillment—can only be realistically achieved by individual autonomous action, and so, the pursuit of individual freedom must be the central concern of any ethical community which wants to increase global aggregate happiness and reduce global aggregate suffering.

The need to maximize individual liberty and global happiness informs all anarchist thought about political, economic, and social issues.

Anarchists oppose the state (defined as an organization with a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force in a given country) because the state exists for the sole purpose of limiting human freedom and imposing the will of a certain group of people (usually a tiny minority) on the rest of a nation’s citizens. Because of the state, millions of people are incarcerated—mostly for nonviolent and “victimless” offenses—and forced to live in totalitarian conditions in which they have absolutely no control over their own situations. Because of the state, untold multitudes are forced to alter their behavior for fear of enduring punishment and incarceration if they act autonomously. Because of the state, millions of people die in wars and genocides, and millions of others are forced to live under foreign occupation in which their liberty is severely restricted. It is obvious that, so long as the state exists, human beings can never attain maximum freedom or maximum happiness, and so, utilitarians and anarchists should oppose the state. While autonomous individuals certainly have conflicts of interest, these conflicts can be dealt with through compromise and consensus, rather than through institutionalized violence. In extreme cases, an antagonistic individual ought to be banished from a community, rather than incarcerated and deprived of his autonomy.

Anarchists also oppose the existing economic situation, which they see as presenting another major barrier to the maximization of individual freedom and global happiness. In the existing system of industrial capitalist production, most laborers are treated as tools and are expected to follow orders at all times, and are prevented from engaging in any sort of autonomous decision-making. For as long as they are at work, they are owned by their employer, and nearly every aspect of their life is controlled: what they wear, what they do, and what they say. Some employers even attempt to control the personal lives of their employees: witness drug-testing at workplaces. Employers show no regard whatsoever for the dignity and autonomy of their employees, but because of the extremely centralized control of property in capitalist society, most workers are forced either to endure the pain of wage-slavery or the pains of crushing poverty.

In a just economy, workers would be completely self-managed and self-employed. All workers would participate in decision-making at their workplace, and all workers would have the freedom to work in different sectors of the economy at different times and to split time between intellectual and physical labor. Productive property would have to be collectively owned, for if it was privately owned, the owner would inevitably place conditions on the right of workers to use the productive property, limiting worker freedom and autonomy. An autonomous worker, freed from the humiliating constraints of wage-slavery and completely in control of his own work experience, would reap all the fulfillment and enjoyment from growing food or building a house or making clothes that the poet reaps from writing a poem and the scientist reaps from discovering a new principle.

The anarchist project to maximize freedom and global happiness extends to nonhuman animals as well. At present, billions upon billions of animals are forced to live lives of unceasing torture in factory farms, fur farms, and laboratories to produce nonessential consumer products. Nonhuman animals clearly have the capacity to feel pain—this much is scientific fact—and there is no reason to believe that the benefit a human derives from having the freedom to live as he chooses is any more profound than the benefit an animal derives from having the freedom to live as it chooses, so the liberation of animals from the cruel exploitation of the factory farm, the fur farm, and the laboratory must be an integral part of the anarchist project. Animals have as much a right to live autonomously and pleasurably as any human being does, so the enslavement of animals for nonessential purposes must be viewed as completely illegitimate, as it significantly reduces aggregate global happiness.

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