The Ethics of Human Rights (50): Human Rights and Deontological Ethics

Compared to utilitarianism (see this previous post), deontological ethics – or deontology/deontologism for short – seems to be a moral theory that is much more amenable and receptive to human rights. Deontology, after all, focuses not on the consequences of actions but on the duties (“deon”) we have; and one man’s rights are another man’s duties. Deontology does not accept that good consequences override our duties; for example, we have a duty not to torture, even if torturing would yield certain beneficial consequences. The right thing to do is more important than increasing the good in society. And the right thing to do is to act according to a moral duty translated into a moral norm. So the right thing to do is typically encapsulated in rules, as is the case for human rights.

However, the choice of moral theory for a human right activist isn’t as clear-cut as that. Deontology, and especially those forms of deontology that look a lot like moral absolutism – and that’s a big temptation for deontology in general – have been accused of accepting catastrophic outcomes for the sake of respect for rules and duties. The infamous Kantian rule not to lie to a murderer asking about the whereabouts of his intended victim comes to mind. And we’re not just talking about philosophers’ mind games. The oath taken by German soldiers to be loyal to Hitler was a case of an uncontroversial deontological rule – keep your promises – that has arguably cost millions of lives. The power of duties and rules often borders on the absolute.

Of course, deontology doesn’t have to be moral absolutism. It’s not because there are rules and duties that we must always respect them. So-called threshold deontology allows for rules to be overridden once a certain level of bad consequences is reached. Beyond the threshold, deontology is replaced by consequentialism. Granted, the threshold of exception must be high, otherwise it would be futile to speak about rules and duties at all.

Such a deontological theory is not absolutist, and it is more in line with human rights. The system of human rights isn’t absolutist either. Rights can be limited, for example when different rights clash with each other. There are very few if any absolute human rights, i.e. rights which can never be violated. (The right to life is a possible candidate).

However, threshold deontological theories are not without problems either. First, even if we use thresholds, some duties and rules will still be strong enough to produce, in some cases, violations of human rights. And second, there’s the problem of the exact level of the threshold. It has to be high, but how high? Take the case of torture: threshold deontology would argue that torturing a “ticking time bomb terrorist” is an acceptable deviation from deontological rules and duties if the consequentialist gains are high enough, for example when this torture will allow us to save a large number of lives. But what is a large number? 100? 1000? And won’t we create perverse effects? (E.g. having a torturer put some more lives at stake as a means to legitimize his torture?). Deontology seems to collapse into consequentialism if it adopts a system of thresholds, because reducing the threshold value by 1 unit (one life in this case) never seems to invalidate the choice of suspending rules or duties. And yet, after a certain number of reductions by 1 unit, there’s no rule or duty left.

More posts in this series are here.

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