Can Utilitarianism Ground Human Rights?

3. Human Rights and Human Consequences

Book cover: Introduction to Ethics by Fred Feldman

From our five case studies, it seems clear that our national and international human rights declarations and conventions were borne out of the need to prevent future human suffering. These agreements are the practical result of resistance to abuses by various forms of government; from monarchies to theocracies to fascist dictatorships. We can see each of these rights instruments as articulating the foundational principles upon which to build societies where individuals may attain maximal happiness. These principles constitute the minimum requirements that any society must meet if it is to enable human flourishing.

Now, for what I mean by 'happiness', you are free to substitute your own preferred term here for the sense of human fulfilment I am referring to. You may prefer to refer to 'satisfaction' or 'welfare' or 'well-being' or 'flourishing' or other such similar term.[6] All of these terms are broadly consonant with the way goods are defined in relation to utilitarian principle that what counts is the sum total of human well-being for all of a nation's citizens, as well as globally. Whichever term you use, the key idea here is the same. The moral significance of human rights rests upon the good consequence of recognizing and enforcing these rights. And that is that recognizing human rights and abiding by them enables to the greatest extent possible the opportunity for human beings to lead satisfying lives. On the flip side, the consequence of not recognizing and enforcing these rights is the diminishing of human happiness and the increase in human suffering.

How does enforcing rights do that? I think it accomplishes that noble aim in two ways. Firstly, by preventing the active thwarting of basic human needs (negative rights) for various kinds of freedom. And secondly, by fostering the social conditions for satisfying basic human needs (positive rights) for growth and fulfilment. (Here, I refer readers back to the two basic kinds of rights mentioned in the Introduction.)

Let me illustrate this needs-based approach to human rights by referring again to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [United Nations (General Assembly) 1948]. It consists of 30 Articles. Each stipulated right enables the satisfaction of at least one of these two types of needs. So, for example, the following Articles articulate the negative rights to freedom:

Article 3: right to life, liberty and security of person

Article 4: prohibition against slavery and servitude

Article 5: prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment

Article 9: prohibition against arbitrary arrest, detention and exile

Article 13: right to freedom of movement and residence

These Articles prevent the state and other citizens from interfering in a citizen's activities.

Other Articles require the state to enable the satisfaction of positive rights for growth and fulfilment. These Articles include the following:

Article 22: right to social security and development of personality

Article 23: right to work, fair pay and conditions

Article 24: right to rest and leisure

Article 25: right to adequate food, clothing, housing, medical care and social security

Article 26: right to free and compulsory education for the full development of the human personality

So, my claim here is that enforcing human rights fulfils the minimum necessary conditions for any state to enable the satisfaction of the basic human needs of its citizens.

Our current system of human rights is a human construction analogous to how the game of chess was thought up and developed over time to meet certain human needs. Each of the two practices is defined by a set of objectives and a system of rules, roles and penalties. For the game of chess, the objectives were to create interest for fans, to be challenging for the players and for the rules to be comprehensible. For our human rights instruments, the central motivations, as I have tried to show, are to minimize suffering, to maximize the potential for human flourishing and for the specification of each right to be easily understandable. While the game of chess has undergone significant revisions throughout the centuries, as with our human rights practices, the central core of the game is constant. What remains fixed throughout the changes is that the game is played by two opponents in a segmented geometrical space and with discrete pieces, each with their own permitted moves within the space. Changes in the game of chess came about because the revisers thought the new rules would better achieve the shared objectives. So, over time, new rules were introduced to make the game more relatable, faster, more dynamic and fairer for both opponents. (For a brief history of chess, see Soltis [2023].) Likewise, with our human rights practices, our conception of specific rights develops as our knowledge of what minimizes suffering and enhances human welfare changes and grows.

Lest anyone misconstrue what I am saying, I'm not suggesting our system of human rights is a game. Far from it. I'm simply proposing that our system of rights is socially constructed with certain human aims in mind. As with the history of the game of chess, there is no metaphysical mystery to our shared understanding and development of human rights. We see the development of the game of chess as a human-driven process. Our understanding of that development neither requires us believing that the rules of chess have a divine source or that there is some 'natural law' to which the game fulfils or that in determining the rules of chess we are using some special 'intuition' to peer into some realm of non-natural properties. In fact, all of these metaphysical theories only cloud our understanding of our basic humanity. They shroud in mystery what we all have in common; our universal regard for each other. And where human rights proponents (and their opponents) subscribe to a different deity or appeal to different supernatural 'intuitions' or discern a different 'natural law', unresolvable divisions are created between people of good will. Our recognition of human rights is simply borne from the basic human needs that are common to us all and that are an indispensable part of our human nature.

Let me put to bed another potential misunderstanding of my argument. In proposing that our human rights instruments arose historically from the desire to avoid suffering borne of repression, I am not saying that the people who developed and fought for the notion of human rights were card-carrying utilitarians. Of course, not all of them were. Many of them acted in their own interests and in the interests of their partisan group in fighting to remove the shackles of domination. What I am saying is that their focus on alleviating suffering and promoting well-being on the one hand and the progressive expansion of the circle of concern to all peoples, no matter their situation, attributes or class, are key characteristics of the utilitarian outlook.

On this account, we can more formally define a human right as follows:

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.

Furthermore, on this account, human rights declarations and covenants are seen as institutional arrangements for the recognition and enforcement of a class of human rights. They set the minimal set of obligations on governments for the establishment and maintenance of social and legal institutions that guarantee a set of rights for the purpose of preventing human suffering and the furtherance of human happiness and well-being for all. I shall develop this idea further in the next section.


  1. [6] Researchers have identified three separable components of happiness (or subjective well-being): life evaluation, positive feelings and negative feelings. See, for example, Tay and Diener [2011: 355] and Helliwell [2023: 25].

Copyright © 2023

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