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Can Utilitarianism Ground Human Rights?

12. Conclusion

Book cover: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker

A common criticism of utilitarianism is that it does not do justice to human rights. The complaint is that utilitarian moral theory validates the persecution of minorities and the sacrificing of innocent individuals where the interests of the majority are better served. In this essay, I have tried to turn the tables on these critiques. Far from utilitarianism ignoring transgressions against basic human rights, I have argued that utilitarianism is the best moral theory for explaining our support of human rights and the content of our various human rights instruments.

I began this essay outlining what different human rights theorists agree on: human rights are claims on others, characterized by their high priority, inalienability, defeasibility and universality. Also, human rights are of two kinds; liberty rights (negative rights) and social rights (positive rights). I offered two criteria for evaluating the adequacy of any theory of human rights. First, that it adequately grounds human rights, and second, that it can adjudicate in a principled way between conflicting rights. I ended the opening section with the contrast between utilitarianism, as a consequentialist theory, and deontological theories of rights based on principal duties. I also mentioned 'act' and 'rule' variants of utilitarianism that affect how human rights are seen.

To support the first of three aims for this essay, showing that human rights instruments arose from the need to prevent human suffering and promote well-being, I provided historical case studies of five key human rights declarations and conventions, examining their origins and social impact. First, I showed how the Magna Carta (1215) addressed grievances of barons against a capricious king and codified the rights of serfs. The Bill of Rights 1689 (England) protected against the painful excesses of King James II. The U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) served as an antidote against the miseries wrought by the British Empire, influencing the later abolition of slavery and the women's rights movements. The Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) arose from increasing social and economic inequality during the French Revolution. Finally, the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) emerged as a response to Nazi atrocities during WWII. These historical documents reflect evolving human rights thinking, rooted in real deprivations and sufferings of people. The content of human rights instruments became more comprehensive over time, extending rights to newly recognized subjugated groups.

These instruments articulate foundational principles upon which societies minimize suffering and enable human flourishing. I likened the social construction of human rights to the development over time of the game of chess. Both are a natural system of rules, roles and penalties devised to meet certain human objectives.

On this account, I formally defined a human right as:

A human right is a basic human need (physiological, psychological, social) potentially borne by all human beings, the satisfaction of which minimizes the chance of suffering while maximizing the chance of happiness and well-being, and expressed in the form of a moral obligation on others to act or desist from acting in ways that thwart their satisfaction.

In the next section, I turned our attention to identifying those needs that human rights instruments serve to satisfy. I summarized how modern research on psychological models, such as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Alderfer's ERG Theory and Carl Rogers' Theory of Personality Development, support the identification of physiological, safety, social, self-esteem and self-actualization needs as basic to human beings. Furthermore, happiness surveys, such as the World Values Survey and the World Happiness Report, corroborate these findings, identifying factors such as physical and mental health, human relationships, income, personal freedom and lack of corruption as determinants of happiness and well-being. To demonstrate an example of the intrinsic connection between human rights and human well-being, I mapped the specific human rights enunciated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to these fundamental needs. This alignment underscores the notion that human rights are inherently tied to promoting happiness, thereby minimizing misery and enhancing overall human well-being.

Moving to my second key objective for this essay, I argued for a key advantage of a utilitarian justification for human rights. This needs-based approach allows for a rational method of decision-making when individual rights clash, ensuring the greatest overall well-being. Working through four case studies, I provided numerous examples of conflicting rights in situations where public safety, security, health and order are under threat and illustrate how international covenants address these conflicts based on the principle of utility. Despite occasional references to a divine source, the authors acknowledged the importance of satisfying human needs and promoting well-being in their pursuit of establishing human rights. The UN General Assembly Resolution emphasizing happiness as a fundamental human goal makes this objective even clearer.

My final aim was to respond to some key objections to the idea that human rights are grounded in minimizing suffering and promoting happiness. To the objection that considerations of utility alone overlook the significance of autonomy, I showed how autonomy and happiness are interconnected. Psychological theories highlight autonomy as a basic human need, essential for self-esteem and self-actualization. International happiness surveys also link autonomy to well-being.

To the second objection that focusing solely on human happiness and suffering neglects the dimension of human dignity inherent in the notion of 'human rights', I noted that while the definition of 'dignity' is complex, it aligns with respecting privacy, autonomy, and worth. These three elements are integral with utilitarian principles, thereby bridging the gap between the utilitarian ethic and the importance of human dignity in framing human rights.

The third objection I considered is that utilitarianism overlooks the requirements of justice in the formulation of human rights. To this, I showed how act utilitarians and rule utilitarians can respond with some success to commonly offered counterexamples, such as the Transplant Case, Sheriff Case and Rationing Case. The best response is from the most nuanced form of utilitarianism—rules in practice utilitarianism—that explains how pre-established broader social systems, such as human rights instruments, are evaluated in terms of their overall utility. A second kind of response to this objection is to point out that a fundamental principle of justice—equal consideration of interests or the principle of impartiality—lies at the heart of the utilitarian ethic.

For the fourth objection concerning utilitarianism permitting the persecution of minorities, I examined two historical case studies. Against the first case study involving the Roman torture of Christians, I applied a standard method for quantifying pleasure and suffering to conclude that the suffering of the persecuted Christians far outweighed the pleasure of the Roman persecutors. In dealing with potential objections to my calculations, I drew upon the well-established economic law of diminishing marginal utility and the psychological asymmetry between pleasure and suffering. Rules in practice utilitarianism provides an additional barrier to any system that arbitrarily abuses minorities for the sake of the majority, further establishing utilitarians' credentials for underpinning the notion of human rights.

In response to the second case study highlighting the purported role of utilitarian thinking in the Nazi eugenics programme, I exposed how the critics wrongly confused utilitarian universalism and welfarism with the Nazi's fanatical nationalism and disregard for human life. The Nazi's consequentialist 'usefulness to society' criterion starkly contradicts utilitarians' prioritizing the well-being of every person for itself.

Book cover: Moral Rights and Political Freedom by Tara Smith

The final objection, that happiness cannot be measured, is multi-faceted. To the claim that happiness and suffering are too different to be compared on the same scale, I pointed out how we all routinely make trade-offs between discomfort and future happiness. Responding to the criticism that assigning degrees of happiness cannot be objective as these judgments are coloured by valuations, I noted how reports of subjective valuations can still be objective. On the positive side, I cited research showing how self-reports of happiness align with outward, objectively discernible indicators, demonstrating that happiness can be measured.

Utilitarian theory not only has the resources to answer objections convincingly, it can help us further articulate human rights and moral rights more broadly moving forward. From the classical period in the seventeenth century, utilitarians have been at the forefront of expanding the boundaries that limited who is afforded basic human rights. As we have seen, utilitarians historically advocated for expanding rights to slaves, children, women, the poor, homosexuals and prisoners. Today, utilitarian thinking is pushing us even further in granting rights. Some notable examples include conferring rights on the terminally ill (right to voluntary assisted dying), homosexuals (right to marry), prisoners (right to humane treatment), indigenous peoples (right to land, treaty), immigrants (right to refugee asylum) and to non-human sentient creatures (right against suffering, factory farming, medical experimentation).

The utilitarian frame of mind also continues to help us adjudicate on an objective basis when rights conflict, prompting us to weigh risks to public health, order, safety and security against personal rights to privacy and autonomy. Restrictions on movement during the corona virus pandemic and on government and social media gathering of personal digital data are recent examples.

As our scientific understanding and technology advance, utilitarian thinking will also assist us in granting new moral rights to previously ignored life forms. With the advance of neuroscience and ethology, we are gaining a greater understanding of which species on the ladder of evolution have the capacity to suffer, and therefore fall within our circle of moral concern. At the other end of the spectrum, our development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is advancing rapidly. At what point in this technological progress will machines be owed moral rights? The utilitarians' criterion of moral worth hinging on the capacity to experience dissatisfaction gives us an objective yardstick. Although, at this stage in our understanding of consciousness and of neural networks, it remains an inordinately difficult question of just when this capacity will arise in artificial intelligences.

Into the future, the utilitarian moral framework will continue to give us the most illuminating and productive way of understanding universal human rights and moral rights more generally. The objectivity of the utilitarian view continues to demonstrate substantial advantages over the more idiosyncratic methods of intuition and appeals to a divine realm in determining which human rights we have and how we resolve conflicts between them.

I am grateful to Danny Klopovic, Debbie Hoad, Vince Giuca and Philip Khalid for their many corrections to and comments on the pre-release version of this essay. I remain wholly responsible for any errors and omissions in the published version.

Copyright © 2023

Initial draft release Aug 26, 2023
First published       Sep 8,  2023

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