The Ethics of Human Rights (76): Human Rights and Desert

James Nickel has written a highly interesting paper (draft) in which he attempts to broaden the moral base of human rights. As he points out, the notion of desert doesn’t figure prominently in discussions about human rights and he may be able to open a promising line of inquiry. However, at this point I remain unconvinced by his arguments. He briefly mentions two problems with his attempt, an ontological and a political one, but seems to give them less weight than I would. Both problems deserve more attention and may prove to be fatal to his approach.

Regarding the ontological problem, I think desert is similar to love: we’ll never know for sure if there is such a thing, both in the abstract and in particular human beings. And if we want to limit the rights of undeserving people, we’d better be as sure as possible that they are really undeserving. At one point, Nickel argues that negative deserts are the reason why we put criminals in prison and restrict their freedoms. Not so long ago, a majority believed that certain people deserved to be slaves. Why should our current beliefs about desert be necessarily a lot better than theirs? Prudence is required when judging people’s deserts, especially given the likelihood that future advances in genetics, psychology and sociology will show that what we now call bad behavior or lack of virtue is in fact caused by things outside an individual’s power.

The political problem is linked to the ontological one: given the difficulty of finding and judging desert and the importance of getting it more or less right we’ll need lifetime monitoring of individuals’ private lives, possibly even their thoughts and motivations if one day that will be possible. I don’t have to spell out the possible consequences for human rights.

Furthermore, we don’t really need desert. Limitations of the rights of prisoners for example don’t need to be based on desert; the fact that these limitations are necessary in order to protect the rights of others is a sufficient justification. Rights are constantly in conflict with each other and the normal way of dealing with this is to determine the lesser evil: limiting some rights of convicted criminals is acceptable if that is necessary to preserve important rights of potential victims. The same is true for privacy and speech, speech and physical security etc. If you insist on using desert as a justification for incarceration, you’ll also have to deal with the thorny problems of retribution and proportionality. And I think that’s a dead end. (See here and here for instance).

Similarly, using desert as a positive justification for human rights is not necessary, given the many types of justification that are available (see here). Not only is it unnecessary, it may also be dangerous given the risks I cited above. For example, the right of the innocent not to be punished can be based on the fact that they don’t deserve punishment (although, as I’ve argued, the fact-status of this claim may (turn out to) be dubious). But it can just as well be based on their other human rights. Taking the latter option allows us to avoid the ontological and political problems linked to desert.

In short, I have no visceral dislike of the attempt to use desert as a basis for human rights – the more justifications for rights the better. I see some problems, but I’m open to the possibility that I overstate them.

More posts in this series are here. This post is a rewrite of an email I sent to James some time ago, replying to his mail offering me a draft of his paper.

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