The Ethics of Human Rights (61): Human Rights and Rule Consequentialism

In a previous post, I’ve argued that deontology, when compared to consequentialism, seems to be more amenable to human rights because consequentialism – or at least some forms of it, such as act consequentialism and utilitarianism – tends to focus on the maximization of good consequences (be it welfare, utility or whatever) at the expense of rules, including rules on human rights. Rules, according to consequentialism, are useful only when they maximize the good, and can be put aside when they don’t. Hence they aren’t really rules at all. Conversely, human rights – which really are rules – tell us that we should not do certain things to indviduals, not even if doing those things would maximize overall social utility.

However, in that older post I also pointed to some elements of deontology that are problematic from a human rights perspective. An example: many but not all deontological theories tend towards moral absolutism. Human rights are not absolute rules, for different reasons but mainly because different rights are often incompatible and need to be balanced against each other. This absolutism is a problem that can be overcome by threshold deontology. However, this modified form of deontology creates other problems.

And yet, I forgot to mention the main argument against a marriage of human rights and deontology, namely the fact that human rights are typically justified in a consequentialist manner and that deontological justifications of human rights are extremely unconvincing. When we want to sell human rights to those among us who believe that they are superfluous or perhaps even nefarious we usually cite the good consequences that follow from (or would follow from) respect for human rights. I myself am heavily invested in this effort (see previous posts here).

If you want to justify human rights without reference to their good consequences – if, in other words, you’re looking for a deontological justification – then you’ll have an extremely hard time coming up with something interesting and non-tautological. The claim that humans have human rights simply because of their humanity is true enough (in the sense that humans don’t have to deserve their human rights and don’t have these rights bestowed upon them by their benevolent rulers) but it won’t get you very far persuasion-wise.

Take, for example, the right to free expression. You might argue that free expression is good in itself – whatever the possible consequences (such as epistemological progress) – because humans are essentially expressive beings. However,

Self-expression can take an indefinite number of forms beside speaking, and a deontological right to do whatever we want as a matter of self-expression is ridiculous. The basic reason it is so is because our acts of self-expression can affect others, and often deleteriously. (source)

Consequences are hard to ignore. They tend to creep into all efforts at justification. So, the conclusion of all this seems to be that human require or are a form of rule consequentialism. This is a modification of the original form of consequentialism, also called act consequentialism. Rather than regarding morality as a matter of selecting acts that produce the best overall consequences (good consequences minus bad consequences), rule consequentialism is about selecting rules in terms of the goodness of their consequences. It’s those rules that determine whether acts are morally right or wrong, not the consequences of acts. Of course, the conjecture is that the chosen rules will generally promote acts that produce good consequences. And yet, even if they don’t or won’t in certain cases (or if we think they don’t or won’t), we better stick to the rules anyway because violating them for the purpose of a small benefit can lead to greater long term disadvantage.

Rule consequentialism avoids some of the pitfalls of act consequentialism and simple utilitarianism, such as the tendency to dump rules when a small benefit can be produced by dumping them (e.g. torturing one to save two others from torture); the calculation problem (consequences are hard to assess and compare, especially when the time frame isn’t limited, and it shouldn’t be); the information problem (consequences are difficult to predict, especially for people who lack knowledge of a certain area or who are in a hurry); etc.

I won’t claim that rule consequentialism is without problems (there’s an overview of criticisms here), but compared to act consequentialism, utilitarianism and deontology it sure looks promising from a human rights perspective,

Note that I’m revising here my older opinion on rule consequentialism as I have expressed it in this post.

More posts in this series here.

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