The Ethics of Human Rights (43): Human Rights and Utilitarianism

You often hear the claim that human rights and utilitarianism don’t mix. And indeed, at first sight they are rival and incompatible moral theories that have radically different prescriptions about what we should do in order to do good.

Utilitarianism tells us to do what maximizes “utility” (in whichever way “utility” is understood: pleasure, happiness, wellbeing etc.). We should, in other words, try to act in such a way that our actions produce as many good consequences as possible, and that the aggregate of those good consequences outweighs – in terms of “utility” – the aggregate result of whatever different combinations of actions are possible. We should try to maximize utility regardless of whether rights are respected or violated while doing so. The good is prior to and independent of the right or duty. Something is a right or a duty only when it contributes to overall utility, and only when it does so to a higher extent than violating that right or duty.

Conversely, human rights tell us that we can never do certain things, not even if doing those things would maximize overall social utility (happiness, pleasure etc.). Some human rights theories provide exceptions to this rule and don’t use the qualifier “never”. For example, in a situation of extreme danger for the whole of society, these rights theories provide the possibility that some rights are temporarily suspended. However, they typically provide a very high threshold, otherwise it would become difficult to speak about “rights” and the theory would collapse into utilitarianism (if rights can be suspended regularly, they are no longer rights).

For example, even if it were the case that capital punishment has an important deterrent effect, it would not be permissible. Executing people for crimes as a means to diminish the occurrence of future crimes is just not something one can do to people. It instrumentalizes people in an unacceptable way according to most rights theories. The right to life is just too important and a deterrent effect doesn’t lift us above a threshold of suspension of rights.

People have rights, even if the outcome of those rights is suboptimal and more overall utility could be achieved when some rights are violated in some cases. Only when the utility of violating rights is very high do some rights theories allow those violations. These rights theories are threshold theories that allow utilitarian or consequentialist considerations to “kick in” when a certain threshold is reached. For example, they allow torture if a very large number of lives is at stake, even though generally and under non-marginal conditions people have a strong right not to be tortured.

That already shows that human rights and utilitarianism-consequentialism aren’t necessarily incompatible. Of course, some rights theories claim that they are. Those are the non-threshold theories, which are more extreme rights or duty theories that allow no exceptions. An example is Kant’s infamous argument about not lying to a murderer inquiring about the whereabouts of his intended victim – “fiat justitia et pereat mundus“.

Compared to utilitarianism, human rights theories – both strong and threshold theories – have the advantage that they are able to protect strong interests of minorities and individuals against the weight of aggregated and possibly weak interests of large majorities. It’s intuitively appealing to have a theory that protects individual rights against aggregate social utility. Utilitarianism – in its crudest forms – has often been accused of not taking the differences between people seriously and of not caring about individual suffering as long as the total advances.

We don’t even have to look at extreme threshold cases to see that many human rights theories have consequentialist or utilitarian features. Obviously, there is no human rights theory that holds rights hostage to case-by-case utility accounting or that claims that all human rights have optimal consequences all of the time. And yet, most human rights theories claim that human rights are necessary because they generally produce good consequences and promote certain important values. Maybe not happiness, but peace, prosperity etc. (See here). For example, there’s a strong argument that free expression promotes knowledge and that religious liberty promotes communal peace.

Claiming that respecting human rights is generally optimal from a utilitarian perspective doesn’t mean that it’s always optimal. You could argue that even if it’s not always optimal to respect human rights we still should do so, because we’re unable to distinguish between cases in which it is or is not optimal to respect human rights (perhaps because our predictive powers aren’t good enough to judge the suboptimal consequences of rights), or because violating rights once will diminish their authority and will ultimately destroy them, making it impossible to reap the generally positive benefits of rights.

More posts in this series are here.

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12 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Rights (43): Human Rights and Utilitarianism”

  1. Thanks for your blog. It’s being really useful to understanding the works of Bentham and Dworkin (specially Bentham, whose work is a never ending and complex rambling on). Feeling less hopeless about my Social and Political Theory final exam on Monday.

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  2. […] Usually, we see a kind of threshold consequentialism rather than a pure consequentialism at work in such arguments: if torture can produce one more unit of “utility” (wellbeing, life, etc.) than the refusal to torture, most consequentialists wouldn’t allow torture. The good consequences of torture must far outweigh rather than marginally outweigh the harm it clearly does. Hence the hypotheticals in examples such as the ticking bomb, in which it’s posited that very many lives are at stake. We are allowed to supersede the deontological rule that one shouldn’t torture only beyond a certain threshold of harmful consequences that would result from sticking to the rule. As someone has said, lost lives hurt a lot more than bent principles. Strict moral absolutism, whatever the possible consequences, can indeed land you in all sorts of problems. […]

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