Rights and Game Strategies – §C

Stephen Boydstun's picture
Submitted by Stephen Boydstun on Fri, 2006-12-01 13:44

C. Utility of Rights


Russell Hardin (1986) sees rights as strategic protections of people against people. Rights shepherd the interests of individuals not by directly securing outcomes, but by securing or denying individuals certain choices or actions.


Rights of ownership and rights of voluntary exchange are strategic protections: one person having a car and another having money, each preferring to have possession of the other yet preferring even more to have both car and money, are players in a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma. The right of ownership is protected by blocking the outcomes in which one takes the possession of the other while yielding nothing in return. The right of voluntary exchange is protected by blocking interference with the move from the outcome in which each keeps his prior possession to the outcome in which each yields his prior possession.


Ownership rights and voluntary exchange rights are commendable on utilitarian grounds because voluntariness of possession and exchange can be reasonably taken to indicate preferences and thus, presumptively, enhanced welfare. It is reasonable to suppose that individuals are generally the best judges of their own interests. In addition, securing such rights gives incentive to anyone capable of doing so to enhance the well-being of all or many of us by creating new wealth.


Should one then conclude that a social system in which full liberal property rights are instituted is the best arrangement for overall welfare? Both Hardin and Sugden are dubious of that conclusion.


Remember that for Sugden (1986) property rights are conventional rules that originally evolved spontaneously out of social conflicts. According to Sugden, a convention that emerges spontaneously for some recurrent situation serves the interests of the participants, but it is not necessarily the rule that would best serve those interests. Since his demonstration of this latter clause proceeds only in terms of abstract hypothetical rankings of outcomes for the players, it really only demonstrates an abstract possibility. A concrete historical example would carry more weight.


Although we cannot say for sure whether spontaneously emergent conventional rules are always the best possible for the people who originally generate them, we can be reasonably sure that such conventions are not always the best for people who later get stuck with them. They are essentially “stuck with them” because changing an established conventional rule is always costly.


Nevertheless, a change of convention may sometimes be worth the cost. It was apparently worth it for the Swedes when they switched to driving on the right side of the road, back in 1967, to reduce accidents with increasing numbers of foreign drivers.


The coordination rule “drive left” that had emerged virtually spontaneously more than 200 years earlier could not in 1967 have been reformed spontaneously without mayhem. Recoordination was directed by the government, an institution which is itself something of a convention (Nozick 1974). Hardin, the utilitarian, would sanction interventions of modern governments to resolve new problems of coordination.


Hardin (1988) takes such activities to be peripheral to the state’s primary coordination functions of regulating situations of inherent conflict, situations exemplified by Prisoner’s Dilemma. Only coordination rules for these situations are addressed in the idiom of rights.


In addition to simple individual rights, Hardin speaks also of “collective rights” and “group rights.” Collective rights protect members of a class, on average, against individual members of that class. Group rights specially protect a class or group against members of another class. Collective and group rights are individual rights in the sense that they are possessed by individuals. They are distinguished by the fact that they are justified mainly from consideration of collective or group welfare.


The task of assessing the degrees to which various rights protections, various strategic limitations of choice, would secure benefits to all concerned is exceedingly difficult. Hardin is sharply aware of the difficulties and their sources.


We are limited in our knowledge of current conditions and causal relations, including strategic interactions; future generations and individual preferences are uncertain. We are limited in time for calculation; the search for solutions must eventually be halted. Such limitations also encumber the pursuit of one’s rational self-interest.


One stringent limitation on our ability to assess overall social welfare is our severely limited ability to make interpersonal comparisons of utility. That is, we usually cannot say whether the degree to which I prefer outcome A over B is greater or less than the degree to which you prefer B over A. Indeed many distinguished economists have held that all such statements are meaningless.


On the other hand, the obstacles to a coherent theory of how to make interpersonal comparisons of utility must also be surmounted in any complete theory of how individuals make comparisons of their own utilities over time (March 1978; Nozick 1977). Nozick has noted also that we need a theory of interpersonal utility comparisons to construct a sound scheme of retributive criminal penalties. He has crafted a theory of how to make interpersonal measure-comparisons of utility (Nozick 1985).


Nozick, Hardin, and Sugden have all noticed that at the level of common sense we do seem to be able to make interpersonal comparisons of utility in very simple cases. “Who needs a bowl of rice more, you or a starving peasant in Ethiopia?” (Sugden 1986, 100). There are contexts in which it would be obviously true, to take another example, “that my mosquito bite is less harmful to my welfare than your broken hip is to yours. Presumably you would not disagree . . .” (Hardin 1988, xix).


Collective rights protect interests that are subject to problems of collective action. Hardin treats as collective rights cases in which one party to a possible voluntary exchange or contract for exchange is a member of a larger class of people who seem to have a common interest in not being able to enter into such exchanges. Hardin thinks that workers constitute such a class. Through the option to bargain individually with employers, workers are pitted against each other in an n-player Prisoner’s Dilemma. We might coordinate our n-fold individual negotiations, but roughly speaking, the larger is n, the more difficult will be coordination. We end up worse off than we would be were we denied the option of bargaining individually (Hardin 1988; 1982).


Here Hardin stumbles on the particulars of the case. By his own standards, it is very doubtful that the overall bargaining position of workers is improved when all possible workers are considered. It is possible that any apparent gains by workers are actually offset by shifts in capital structure. Even if the position of workers were improved, at the expense of resource owners and entrepreneurs, by collective bargaining rights, it is not at all clear that the overall welfare of the population would be enhanced.


Other collective rights upheld by Hardin on utilitarian supports are those secured by barring entry into voluntary slavery contracts and into duels to save one’s “honor.” It seems that the utilitarian case for these collective protections is valid, at least if one is willing to restrict just a little what may pass for human welfare.


A good example of a “group right,” a right that protects members of one class against those in another, would be the right of a certain population to self-government. Unfortunately, Hardin exhausts his attentions on subsistence rights, whose characterization as group rights is highly contrived.


To bolster the utilitarian case for rights to subsistence, effected by governmental transfers of wealth, Hardin switches our focus from consumption preferences (as revealed in voluntary transactions) to interests. He observes correctly that we trade off our consumptions with our interests. He then supposes that we use the notion of interests as a proxy for alternative consumptions, possibly not yet determined nor even considered; interests stand to consumptions as money stands to goods. When estimating the welfare of people in large groups, we can speak sensibly at least of their interests and resources, of their possibilities for consumptions (Hardin 1988).


Could we enhance overall welfare by siphoning a trickle from rich to poor? Hardin would like to think so, but considering the offsets, we reach no clear answer (ibid., 96–99, 123–37).


Our interests, at any rate, are not entirely reducible to consumptions, actual or potential. There are things that can and should matter to us besides our consumptions or experiences. Nozick invites us to enter his magical Experience Machine, the machine that can henceforth give us every experience we might want, and asks why we hesitate. Because we want to be authentically connected to the world (Nozick 1974).


One circumstance weighing against a thoroughly utilitarian value theory and rationale for rights has not been broached by Hardin. We know well enough what kinds of entities there are above the level of organisms in the biological hierarchy of nature. There are real organic entities, real working systems, at the population level, at the ecosystem level, and at the biogeographical level (Salthe 1985). But aggregations of organismic utilities are not manifestly valuable to entities at those higher levels. Where is the entity for which transpersonal aggregations of utility are valuable? Perhaps such aggregations have value only to us individual organisms. Perhaps they are only elaborations of our most general affections for human kind and life. Those affections could have rational, adaptive value. Utilitarian assessments could have a part in, yet not be the whole of, rational morality.

( categories: )

Hardin on Hume

Stephen Boydstun's picture

Russell Hardin has a new book:

David Hume
Moral and Political Theorist
(Oxford 2009)


Here are the links to §A and §B of this essay.


Stephen Boydstun's picture

I wrote “Rights and Games Strategies” in 1988. It was published in Nomos magazine in 1994. I have placed the References for the entire article at the end of §B in the presentation here at SOLO.

In addition to those works referenced in the article, the following more recent works should be noted:

Sugden, Robert. 1993. “Thinking as a Team: Towards an Explanation of Non-Selfish Behavior.” Social Philosophy & Policy 10(1):69–89.

Hardin, Russell. 1993. “Liberalism: Political and Economic.” Social Philosophy & Policy 10(2):121–44.

In the fifth chapter “The Genealogy of Ethics” of Nozick 2001, see pages 240–67, spanning these sections:

“Coordination to Mutual Benefit”

“Coordination via Ethical Norms”

“Evaluation of Systems of Coordination”

“The Core Principle of Ethics”

Nozick, Robert. 2001. Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World. Harvard.



Alexander, J McKenzie. 2008. The Structural Evolution of Morality. Cambridge.

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