The Ethics of Human Rights (75): Should We Economize on Virtue?

There’s a lot we can do to raise levels of respect for human rights without appealing to people’s sense of altruism, benevolence and humanity. Since virtues like these are often in short supply, this is a good thing. We can get somewhere even if we can’t make people more virtuous. For example, we can reduce global poverty by removing trade restrictions. That’s a lot easier than asking people in wealthy countries to pay higher taxes for higher levels of development aid. More examples like this are here.

We can sometimes even use people’s vices in order to further the cause of human rights. For instance, if people cherish their own rights – as most of them do – then it may be wise of them to cherish the rights of others because they can reasonably hope for reciprocity. Selfishness can then lead them to involuntary benevolence (much like in other “invisible hand theories). Other examples of selfish reasons to respect human rights are here.

This strategy has been called “economizing on virtue“. It has a special appeal to economists because it means getting done more with less. Realists about human nature – often conservatives – are also fond of it, for obvious reasons. And perhaps it is indeed all we can hope for at the moment. The obvious risk, however, is that people will start to believe that we don’t need virtue at all. Maybe we can go a long way without virtue, but I don’t believe we can go all the way. After all, if automatic mechanisms and undemanding policies would allow us to protect all human rights of all people all of the time, how come we’re not there yet? Also, let’s not forget that virtue is also intrinsically valuable, apart from its possible role in raising levels of respect for human rights. Hence, we have two good reasons to try to foster not only beneficial self-interest but also virtuous behavior.

More posts in this series are here.


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