The Ethics of Human Rights (89): Anti-Consequentialist Consequentialism

There are two words in “human rights”. “Rights” are claims that override the claims, wishes or welfare of a government, a majority, or even the totality of a population minus one. In other words, they are claims that need to be respected whatever other claims are present, such as the claims of law, morality, welfare, religion etc. Rights should be respected irrespective of the law of the land, of someone’s legal status, of someone’s religion, race, gender, citizenship, country of residence or moral conduct. That’s where the other word comes in: all “human” beings have rights and these rights should be respected simply because human beings are human. No other reason is required. No law, no conduct, no welfare consequences. These two words – “rights” and “human” – are connected: both are about priority, overriding importance and lack of conditionality.

This would seem to imply that human rights are the ultimate anti-consequentialist morality. We are not to enslave, torture or murder one person even if that would increase total welfare. Forcibly removing one eye from a series of two-eyed people in order to give blind people one eye would clearly increase overall welfare since the gains for the blind are greater than the losses for the others. And yet human rights prohibit coercive organ transplantations. However, it’s not entirely correct to view human rights as anti-consequentialist. Human rights are also, and somewhat paradoxically, consequentialist. In two ways:

  • First, the welfare of the majority or of the “society” can to some extent be defined as respect for human rights. Torturing one terrorist in order to discover and defuse a ticking time bomb would allow us to safeguard the right to life and bodily integrity of a large number of other people or even of society as a whole. Rights need to be balanced against each other, and when more rights or more important rights for a large number of people can be safeguarded by way of a violation of the rights of one, then that’s the result or the “consequence” we should favor over the alternative, which is protecting the rights of one to the detriment of the rights of many. The balance is clearly in favor of the many, and that’s a consequentialist calculus. (I have to say here that these are not, in practice, the only alternatives and ticking time bomb arguments are often very misleading. But as a theoretical example it will do. I have a separate discussion of the limits of this kind of calculus here).
  • Second, human rights are means to achieve some goods or values. We don’t have rights because it’s good to have rights. We have them because they have good consequences. I need a right to free speech because having free speech results in certain things that are good for me: knowledge, self-development etc.

There’s considerable tension between the consequentialist and anti-consequentialist strains in human rights. It’s a tough problem. I’ve tried to come up with ways to relieve this tension in some older posts.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (84): Aggregation Across Persons

Is aggregation across persons – making a decision that some people should bear losses so that others might gain more – ever permissible?

On the one hand, studies have shown that people faced with trolley problems would often sacrifice one person in order to save several others. Ticking bomb arguments – in which a single terrorist is tortured so that millions can be saved from an impending explosion – can also count on the agreement of large majorities.

On the other hand, an exchange like this one leaves most of us shocked:

Ignatieff: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created [in the USSR], the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?
Hobsbawm: Yes.

The thinking in both cases is plainly utilitarian – that it’s acceptable to trade off the lives of some so that others can benefit. And yet our reactions to the two cases are polar opposites.

What can account for this difference? In the former examples, the good is more obvious, namely the saving of lives. The good that could – perhaps – have come from communist tyranny is rather more vague, more uncertain and less immediate. Trolley problems and the ticking time bomb scenario also present a balance between the good and the harm that supposedly needs to be done in order to achieve the good that is more clearly in favor of the good: it’s typically just one person that has to be sacrificed or tortured, not millions as in the case of communism.

So there’s a clear, immediate and widespread good that is supposed to come from the trolley sacrifice and the ticking time bomb torture (I say “supposed” because the hypotheticals don’t tend to occur in reality), and the harm that needs to be done to achieve the good is limited. This suggests that we favor threshold deontology: things which we normally aren’t supposed to do are allowed when the consequences of doing it are overwhelmingly good (or the consequences of not doing it are overwhelmingly bad). This theory is different from plain Hobsbawmian utilitarianism in the sense that it’s not a simple aggregation of good and bad across persons resulting in a choice for the best balance, no matter how small the margin of the good relative to the bad. A crude utilitarianism such as this does not agree with most people’s moral intuitions. Neither does dogmatic deontologism which imposes rules that have to be respected no matter the consequences.

However, threshold deontology creates its own problems, not the least of which are the determination of the exact threshold level and the Sorites paradox (suppose you have a heap of sand from which you individually remove grains: when is it no longer a heap, assuming that removing a single grain never turns a heap into a non-heap?).

The moral problems described here are relevant to the topic of this blog because the harm or the good that needs to be balanced is often a harm done to or a good done for human rights.

Other posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (60): Absolute Human Rights and Threshold Deontology

There’s this difficult contradiction between two moral intuitions about human rights. On the one hand, we tend to feel very strongly about the extreme importance of a particular subset of human rights. Especially the right to life, the right not to be tortured and the right not to be enslaved are among those human rights which are so fundamental that their abrogation or limitation seems outrageous. Other rights, such as the right to free speech or the right to privacy, are hardly ever considered to be absolute in this sense – which doesn’t mean they are unimportant (something can be a very important value without being a moral absolute). Some restrictions on those rights are commonly accepted.

On the other hand, the horror that is provoked by the mere thought of limiting the right to life or the right not to suffer torture and slavery doesn’t preclude the fact that there are few consistent pacifists. Most of us would decide not to submit to a Nazi invasion and to fight back. Hence, the horrific thought of abrogating the right to life does not stop us from conceiving and actively engaging in killing. There’s also the Trolley Problem: experiments have shown that most people would sacrifice one to save many. The same is the case in ticking bomb scenarios.

True, there are some consistent pacifists, as well as some who oppose torture under all circumstances, whatever the consequences of failing to kill or torture. But I’m pretty sure they are a small minority (which doesn’t mean they are wrong). The more common response to the conflicting intuitions described here is what has been called threshold deontology: faced with the possibility of catastrophic moral harm that would be the consequence of sticking to certain rules and rights (catastrophic meaning beyond a certain threshold of harm) people decide that those rules and rights should give way as a means to avoid the catastrophe.

Threshold deontology means that there are very strong and near-absolute moral rules, which should nevertheless give way when the consequences of sticking to them bring too much harm. Threshold deontology can also be called limited consequentialism: rules may not be broken whenever there’s a supposedly good reason to do so or whenever doing so would maximize or increase overall wellbeing; but consequentialism is the only viable meta-ethical rule to follow when consequences are catastrophically bad or astronomically good.

If this is correct, then why not simply adopt a plain form of consequentialism? Do whatever brings the most benefit, and screw moral absolutes – or, better, screw all moral rules apart from the rule that tells us to maximize good consequences. This solution, however, is just as unpopular as strict absolutism. We don’t torture someone in order to save two other people from torture; and we certainly don’t torture someone if doing so could bring a very small benefit to an extremely large number of people (so that the aggregate benefit from torture outweighs the harm done to the tortured individual).

Unfortunately, threshold deontology is not as easy an answer to the conflict of intuitions as the preceding outline may have suggested. The main problem of course is: where do we put the threshold. How many people should be saved in order to allow torture or killing? It turns out that there’s no non-arbitrary way of setting a threshold of bad consequences that unequivocally renders absolute rights non-absolute. At any point in the continuum of harm, there’s always a way to say that one point further on the continuum is also not enough to render absolute rights non-absolute. If we agree that killing or torturing 5 for the sake of saving one is not allowed, then it’s hard to claim that 6 is a better number. And so on until infinity.

We can also think of the threshold in threshold deontology not in terms of harm that would result from sticking to absolute principles, but in terms of harm done by not sticking to them. The threshold then decides when we can no longer use bad actions in order to stop even worse consequences. For instance, we may verbally abuse the ticking bomb terrorist. Perhaps we can make him stand up for a certain time, of deprive him of sleep. At what moment should our near-absolute rules or rights against torture kick in? At the moment of waterboarding?

However, the same problem occurs here: a small increase in harm done to the terrorist can always be seen as justifiable, as long as it is very small. Again no way of setting a threshold because of the infinite regress that this provokes. Also, how should we evaluate the following case, imagined by Derek Parfit: a large number of people inflicts a small amount of harm on the terrorist, who is in immense pain as a result, and it’s impossible to tell whose infliction of harm has resulted in the pain threshold being passed. His absolute right not to be tortured is violated, but no one is responsible. This also sucks the power out of our moral absolutes.

Still, the problem of setting the threshold in marginal cases doesn’t mean that there are no clear-cut cases in which harmful consequences have clearly passed a catastrophic threshold. Nuclear annihilation caused by a ticking bomb is such a case I guess. That’s a catastrophe that may be important enough to abrogate the near-absolute rights of one individual terrorist.

However, this means that threshold deontology is useful only in a handful of extreme cases, most of which will fortunately never occur. In the real world, beyond the philosophical hypothetical, most cases of harmful consequences don’t reach the “catastrophe” level. Hence, in the case of a number of rights simple deontology is often the best system, at least compared to threshold deontology – which is most often irrelevant – and plain consequentialism – which would make a mockery of all rights and sacrifice them for the tiniest increment in wellbeing (see here). If we want to protect the right to life and the freedom from torture and slavery in day to day life, we might just as well pretend that they are absolute rights and forget about the catastrophic hypotheticals.

I should also note that although I rely here in part on the ticking bomb case in order to make some which I believe to be important points, the case in question is a very dangerous one: it has been abused as a justification for all sorts of torture with or without a “ticking bomb”. (After all, once you can establish that torture is not an absolute prohibition in catastrophic cases, why would it then be a prohibition in less than catastrophic cases? See the difficulties described above related to the threshold in threshold deontology). And not only has it been abused: one can question the practical relevance of the extremely unrealistic assumptions required to make the case work theoretically.

More about threshold deontology here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (51): Human Rights and Universal Moral Grammar

It seems that human morality is to some extent ingrained in the human mind and that humans possess an innate moral faculty which we can call Universal Moral Grammar (UMG). “Innate” here refers to

cognitive systems whose essential properties are largely pre-determined by the inherent structure of the mind, but whose ontogenetic development must be triggered and shaped by appropriate experience and can be impeded by unusually hostile learning environments. (source)

Perhaps it’s evolution that has wired moral grammar into our neural circuits. Social living requires constraints on behavior and those constraints can be favored by natural selection because of their survival value.

This theory is similar to the linguistic claims made by Chomsky about universal grammar and about the fact that even very young children seem to have the ability to apply grammar rules that they obviously haven’t been taught. Analogously, we know moral rules without having learned them, and this knowledge is universal across cultures.

For example, 3–4-year-old children use intent or purpose to distinguish two acts that have the same result. They also distinguish ‘genuine’ moral violations (e.g. battery or theft) from violations of social conventions (e.g. wearing pajamas to school). 4–5-year-olds use a proportionality principle to determine the correct level of punishment for principals and accessories. 5–6-year-olds use false factual beliefs but not false moral beliefs to exculpate*. (source)

Indeed, even animals have feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity.

The UMG can help to explain some universal and cross-cultural intuitive judgments in moral thought experiments such as the Trolley Problem (almost universal acceptance) or Fat Man and forced organ transplant (almost universal rejection). These universal judgments are best explained by the existence of stable and innate intuitions and tacit knowledge of rules and concepts because the judgments are quick, unreflective, difficult to justify and identical across demographic groups (including children).

Many people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction [between these moral dilemmas] …, a sign that it is being made at inaccessible levels of the mind. This inability challenges the general belief that moral behavior is learned. For if people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction, how can they teach it? (source)

None of this excludes the possibility that a lot of what we think we know about morality comes from teaching, nurturing, our own reasoning or even our self-interest. Furthermore, innate dispositions, if they exist, can be developed or blocked. Hence, the UMG theory is not necessarily deterministic or self-sufficient, and can accommodate other types of moral cognition as well as the less than universal factual morality of mankind (if UMG were all that mattered and if it were as deterministic as it often sounds, then there wouldn’t be immoral acts).

What does all this have to do with human rights? Those rights are outside of the UMG, partly because they are too specific. UMG is more about very abstract and general rules, such as intent, proportionality, people as ends instead of instruments etc. However, some human rights may be a part of UMG: do not kill, rape or steal are universal moral rules and are part of the UMG that even children know, and they are also translated into human rights.

More importantly, however, the existence of a UMG belies cultural relativism and can support the construction of a detailed universal morality. And finally, elements of UMG, such as the notions of intent and proportionality in moral condemnation and of moral exculpation based on false factual beliefs, have important ramifications for criminal justice and hence for human rights. Human rights restrictions on criminal punishment can be independently supported by UMG.

More posts in this series are here.

* For example killing someone because you mistake the person for a deer, as opposed to killing someone because you believe killing is OK.

What Are Human Rights? (24): Absolute Rights?

One of the great puzzles in human rights theory is the possible existence of absolute rights. It’s commonly accepted that most if not all human rights are “relative” in the sense that they can be limited if their exercise results in harm done to other rights or to the rights of others. Freedom of speech for example doesn’t offer “absolute” protection for all kinds or instances of speech (see here).

If there are any human rights that do offer absolute protection without exception, the right to life, the right not to be tortured and the right not to suffer slavery would be good candidates. Whereas it seems quite reasonable to silence someone when he or she incites violence or hatred, it’s much harder to imagine cases in which it’s reasonable to kill, torture or enslave someone. I’ll focus here on the right to life.

How would you go about justifying the absolute nature of that right? First, you could claim that life is the supreme value. Life is indeed supreme in one sense of the word: it’s lexically prior as they say. It comes first. You can have life without freedom or equality, but not vice versa. (Of course, there are also other more or less promising ways to argue for life’s supremacy in the universe of moral values. I won’t go there now, and neither will I point to the fact that people often sacrifice their lives for a higher purpose. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that the lexical priority of life suffices, in general, to ground life’s supremacy in the system of values).

If life is the supreme value, that means that no life can be sacrificed for an inferior value. You can’t go about killing poor or handicapped people for the sake of aggregate wellbeing. And neither can you execute criminals in an effort to deter future attacks on people’s security rights.

So life is then the supreme value in the sense that it can’t simply be traded against another inferior value. That already makes a lot of potential limitations of the right to life unacceptable, and the right to life therefore moves a significant distance towards absoluteness. However, if life is the supreme value, it’s still theoretically possible to trade the lives of a few for the lives of many others. So not life as such, as an aggregate or abstract concept needs to be the supreme value, but individual life. If individual life is the supreme value, the lives of some can’t be put on a scale to see if their sacrifice could protect a higher number of other lives. Robert Nozick gives the following example to make this point salient:

A mob rampaging through a part of town killing and burning will violate the rights of those living there. Therefore, someone might try to justify his punishing [i.e. killing] another he knows to be innocent of a crime that enraged a mob, on the grounds that punishing this innocent person would help to avoid even greater violations of rights by others, and so would lead to a minimum weighted score for rights violations in the society. Robert Nozick

So, if you accept the argument made so far, does this mean that you have established the absolute nature of the right to life and that this right therefore can never be limited? It would seem so. If life is the supreme value, it’s hard to find a reason to limit it, since this reason would then have to be a superior value. And if individual life is the supreme value, you can’t play a numbers game to conclude that the sacrifice of some is necessary in order to save a higher number of other lives.

However, categorical claims like this always seem to me to make things too easy. Something else is necessary. Take four cases in which lives are commonly sacrificed without universal or often even widespread condemnation:

  • individual self-defense
  • war as national self-defense
  • capital punishment and
  • the murder of a terrorist (and perhaps his hostages) about to kill many others (e.g. the shooting down of a commercial plane hijacked by terrorists and about to be used as a weapon).

In all these cases, the lives of some are sacrificed for the lives of others (assuming that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, which is probably not the case). If the right to life is really absolute, none of these actions would be morally or legally acceptable. In order to make them acceptable, there has to be something more than a mere quantitative benefit in terms of numbers of lives saved. I believe the sacrifice of life is acceptable if in doing so one doesn’t violate these three rules:

  • we should only sacrifice life in order to save life, and not in order to promote other values, and
  • we shouldn’t treat other people as means, and
  • we shouldn’t diminish the value of life.

In the case of one of the four actions cited above, namely capital punishment, we do treat other people as means and we diminish the value of life. Murderers are used as instruments to frighten future murderers. Capital punishment is supposedly intended to further respect for life, but in fact normalizes murder. (See here for a more detailed treatment of this issue). In the three other cases, we don’t necessarily use people as means or diminish the value of life. Hence these case can be acceptable limitations of the right to life.

So the right to life is only quasi-absolute: limitations are possible but extremely rare because a number of very demanding conditions have to be met:

  • you can’t kill for the promotion of values different from life
  • you can’t generally count lives and kill people if thereby you can save more lives
  • and if you do want to kill in order to save lives, you have to do it in a manner that doesn’t instrumentalize human beings or diminishes the value of life.