What Are Human Rights? (38): Means or Goals?

The justification of human rights is perhaps the most important problem in human rights theory. Why do we need human rights? Why should people respect human rights? Why are these rights so important? Or are they? I think there are essentially three ways to try to answer these questions.

  • There’s the non-philosophical way of pointing to tradition: you could argue convincingly that human rights or at least the values embedded in human rights have always been a part of the world’s major cultural traditions, implicitly or explicitly. I’ve looked at that option here. However, this approach is fraught with problems. For example, it’s not obvious that you can escape Hume’s naturalistic fallacy: you can’t simply go from “is” to “ought”. It’s not because something is the case that it ought to be the case. Hence, you’ll end up with a pretty weak justification of human rights if you go about it this way. That’s why I’ll focus here on the two other options.
  • Human rights can be justified using a consequentialist approach: rights should be respected because that brings about good consequences, for example respect for rights brings about peace, prosperity and truth.
  • Or they can be justified using a so-called status approach: human beings have certain attributes that make it necessary to ascribe rights to them. For example, a person’s body and mind are hers and hers alone. Therefore, it’s up to her to say what may be done to them. Allowing anyone else to decide would be a grave indignity to her. A right to free speech is the only respectful way to treat people with a mind of their own. Status theories say that rights should be respected, not because of the consequences, but because it is fitting to do so. Rather than focus on the consequences that rights can bring about, rights are constraints on the types of consequences we can pursue. Robert Nozick is a well-known proponent of this approach. The status approach is linked to the tradition of natural rights (certain aspects of human nature make certain rights appropriate) and is evident in the famous Jeffersonian phrase about “men being endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”.

I’ve personally used the consequentialist approach in some previous posts on the justification of human rights:

  • there’s one here focusing on the role of rights in the pursuit of truth
  • here is one about political rights
  • here about free speech
  • here about property rights
  • here on rights in general and
  • here on religious liberty.

(I also discussed consequentialist arguments against human rights, here for instance). One of my posts defending the status approach is here.

The consequentialist justification of human rights views these rights not as goals but merely as means. It’s instrumentalist in the sense that it justifies rights as particularly good instruments or means for the achievement of some other goals (peace, truth, prosperity etc.).

The main disadvantage of this approach is that it only provides a weak and contingent justification. If it turns out that, in certain circumstances, other means are more appropriate for the stated goals, then rights may be violated according to the consequentialist approach. The main disadvantage of the status approach is exactly the opposite: it may prove too much. The status approach makes it difficult if not impossible to limit certain rights or balance rights against each other. It’s hard to see how you can argue for limitations of certain rights or tradeoffs between rights without pointing to certain consequences. Because the status approach grounds human rights in attributes that are fundamental to human beings, it’s likely that limitations of rights have to be seen as attacks on fundamental attributes of human beings, and that’s obviously out of the question. And yet, we limit rights all the time in everyday life. We have to, since different rights are regularly in conflict with each other. Hence, a theory that can’t accommodate this normal feature of morality seems incomplete, to say the least.

A combination of the two approaches is therefore more promising. There’s no reason why human rights can’t be means and goals simultaneously.

More posts in this series are here.

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.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (10): Why Do We Need Democracy?

Regular readers will know that I see democracy as a human rights issue. The standard human rights texts (declarations, treaties and constitutions) all provide a right of the people of a nation to take part in the government, choose representatives in free elections etc. As with human rights in general, many people are in favor of democracy, but are unable to say why, or are unable to agree on the reasons why they are in favor. Some people may not have a particular reason to favor democracy, apart from a pragmatic one: it has worked quite well, especially compared to other forms of government that have been tried before, and it’s such a fuss to change.

Those who have reasons can be divided into two “camps”: those who view democracy as the best means to an independently valuable  goal, and those who view democracy as intrinsically valuable. The former group is the most numerous (and includes me). An instrumental justification of democracy can take many different forms, depending on the ultimate goal that is supposed to be promoted by democracy. The most common forms are:

  • Democracy promotes prosperity, economic growth and poverty reduction.
  • Democracy promotes peace (internally and externally).
  • Democracy leads to better political decisions.
  • Democracy leads to less repression and more respect for human rights.

I believe all of these statements are very persuasive, and taken together they form a very powerful justification of democracy (although we may need to agree on a very specific definition of democracy in order to be convinced by these statements – but that’s another discussion).

The non-instrumental justification, the one that says that democracy is good, not because of what it produces, but because of what it is, is also very interesting and persuasive. It focuses on what happens to people when they participate in government, what happens when democracy takes place, not what happens after it has taken place. So instead of pointing to beneficial consequences of democracy – more prosperity, more peace etc. – it points to the benefits of community, association, participation, self-government, self-determination etc. and how these things improve people’s characters, virtues and happiness. Read more here.

The only problem I have with this non-instrumental approach in which democracy is an end in itself, is that it tends to collapse into the instrumental approach: if democracy improves people’s character, then it’s also instrumental. It’s only an end in itself in the sense that it’s product doesn’t appear afterwards (like peace follows from democratic rule), but is simultaneous with it (people’s characters and virtues improve because of democracy, but only as long as democracy “happens”).

However, often it’s quite irrelevant which type of justification of democracy we prefer, and how successful (or not) the chosen justification is. Such exercises can be no more than “preaching to the choir”, intellectually interesting but practically irrelevant. People who already accept democracy don’t need a philosophical explanation of why democracy is so wonderful. And people who don’t accept democracy are often immune to rational justifications or to philosophy in general. Good luck approaching the Taliban with a philosophy paper on the benefits of democracy… (In fact, good luck approaching them at all).