Human Rights and Negative Utilitarianism

nuclear explosion

nuclear explosion


Lots of people define human rights – mistakenly as I argue below – in a strictly negative sense: you can’t torture me, you can’t silence me etc. The duty bearers in such a system of human rights have exclusively negative duties: abstain from doing what harms my rights, and omit actions that go against my interests or diminish my dignity. The only positive thing that duty bearers are obliged to do is to protect us against others who fail to abstain or forbear in ways that are required by my rights.

In this view, rights serve to avoid the terrible rather than achieve the best. They put limits on what people can do, rather than allowing them to do things.

Hence the temptation to link human rights to so-called negative utilitarianism. Instead of maximizing overall happiness, pleasure or preference satisfaction as in traditional utilitarianism, negative utilitarianism seeks to minimize pain, harm, suffering and preference negation for all. However, we should avoid linking human rights with negative utilitarianism. While this type of utilitarianism avoids some of the problems of other, more “positive” incarnations of utilitarianism – for example, the problem of accepting the pain of some or inflicting pain on some if that produces a larger quantity of happiness for others – it runs into problems of its own making: e.g. the total destruction of humanity, even if very painful, would no doubt reduce human suffering when this suffering is aggregated over a sufficiently long period of time (very long periods of time when the aggregate suffering is very small). And in any case, negative utilitarianism doesn’t solve other problems inherent in all types of utilitarianism, such as preference adaptation (minimize your suffering or maximize your happiness by being modest and ascetic), objectification and instrumentalization of human beings (kill people that cause some annoyance to others in order to advance the happiness of others or reduce their “suffering”) etc.

Of course, human rights are indeed negative rules of the kind described above. But they’re more than that. They’re not just limits to the depths of evil and inhumanity; they also provide capabilities necessary to reach higher forms of humanity. Free speech rights, for example, counteract censorship and silencing of all kinds, but they also promote the good that comes from liberated discourse and argumentation. (One good being better thinking).

Also from a purely procedural point of view is it wrong to focus only on the negative character of human rights. All rights, even the most “classical” “freedom rights” such as speech, freedom from slavery and torture etc. require both abstention and active assistance. The state not only has to refrain from practicing censorship; it also has to protect its citizens against censorship by other parts of the state or by third parties. And it has to create conditions in which the risk of censorship and of other impediments to speech is minimized. For instance, an educated citizenry is more likely to enjoy its speech rights than one which hasn’t had the benefit of state sponsored education. You need to have things to say in the first place.

This should clear up another misconception in human rights theory, this time about economic human rights. If all rights require both action and forbearance, the supposed distinction between freedom rights and economic rights becomes are lot less clear. More about this here and here.


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