What Are Human Rights? (31): Instrumental and Not Fundamental Moral Principles

It may come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog, but human rights are not fundamental moral principles. That doesn’t mean they are unimportant. On the contrary. There’s a difference between important and fundamental. I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I believed that human rights are unimportant, but nothing written here is incompatible with the claim that they are not fundamental. The place of human rights in morality is at the level of subordinate principles: they are instruments for achieving or realizing other values; values such as peace, wellbeing, prosperity, freedom, equality etc.

The reason why this is the case, is made clear by the lack of meaning and usefulness of the contrary argument. Suppose that human rights are fundamental moral principles. We would then have to adopt some kind of rights deontology or rights utilitarianism:

  • In rights deontology, rights are to be respected in all or most instances (deontology is a type of morality that judges an action based on the action’s adherence to a rule).
  • In rights utilitarianism, the goal is to maximize overall rights protection (utilitarianism is a type of morality that judges an action based on the action’s good consequences).

Both rights deontology and rights utilitarianism demand that rights are protected, not because rights serve some other value, but because rights are the fundamental moral values. Now, this is both meaningless and unhelpful.

  • It’s meaningless because in everyday conversation and thinking, we don’t view rights in this way. I have never seen anyone making a convincing case that people need freedom of speech because freedom of speech is a fundamental value. The common argument is rather that we need that right because it allows us to realize some other values (political freedom, rationality, truth etc.). The claim that a violation of our right to free speech is wrong does not express a fundamental or axiomatic moral principle. It’s the result of complex arguments about the importance of other values and about the ways in which this right protects those other values. (The latter point obviously depends on non-philosophical and empirical claims as well). The opposite claim, that protecting rights has value even if no other value is advanced, has a distinct emptiness about it.
  • Placing rights at the basis of morality is also unhelpful in the sense that it doesn’t tell us what to do in difficult moral cases. In general, we should of course consider human rights as strong rules that we should respect, and we should also arrange our society in such a way that rights protection is maximized. But what should we do when different rights are in conflict with each other and are mutually incompatible? That happens quite often, and neither rights deontology nor rights utilitarianism are of any help when it does. You can only resolve a conflict between rights when there are certain more fundamental values at stake. When two conflicting rights are understood as instrumental values serving the realization of other, more fundamental values, then we can try to ascertain which one of the conflicting rights does a better job. For example, when a tabloid journalist hacks a politician’s cell phone in order to dig up some lurid details about his or her sex life, then one can argue that the politician’s right to privacy should prevail over the journalist’s right to free speech, given the fact that the right to privacy is in this case protecting more important values than the right to free speech. Privacy, intimacy etc. are more important than sensationalism or voyeurism.

Does all this mean that human rights can and should be ignored or violated if doing so maximizes the values that they normally protect? Yes. Rights are not absolute. However, because it’s generally not the case that ignoring or violating human rights maximizes the values that they normally protect, and because rights normally do a very good job protecting those values, it is best not to cast them aside every time a modest or marginal improvement in fundamental values can perhaps be achieved by doing so. Otherwise we would demote rights and decrease their importance in the general culture. And that would be detrimental to our fundamental values in the long run. Hence, it’s probably not a good idea to argue the case that human rights are instrumental rather than fundamental. If the general public is convinced that they are fundamental, then that is beneficial for our really fundamental values. Hence, maybe you shouldn’t have read this post.

Hence, there is a consequentialism inherent in rights, but it’s not a consequentialism of rights – we should arrange society in such a way that certain values are promoted, not that rights are promoted. Yet, arranging society in such a way that rights are promoted is a good proxy for a society in which values are promoted.


3 thoughts on “What Are Human Rights? (31): Instrumental and Not Fundamental Moral Principles

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