Can Utilitarianism Ground Human Rights?

5. Happiness and Human Rights

Book cover: Moral Rights and Political Freedom by Tara Smith

In the previous section, using the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as a case study, I showed how the human rights identified in our national and international human rights instruments are designed to enable the satisfaction of basic human needs that then lead to happiness. In this section, drawing on four case studies I will go on to establish how this essential function of human rights instruments is recognized by the instruments' authors themselves. That is, I will make evident how actual human rights declarations and covenants justify human rights by an appeal to fundamental human needs and human happiness.

The four examples I will draw on are:

  1. U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776)
  2. Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789)
  3. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)
  4. American Convention on Human Rights (1969)

5.1. U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776)

The drafters of the U.S. Declaration of Independence [U.S. 1776], John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman, included as a Preamble the following:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. [emphasis mine]

For the authors, the purpose of the rights principles enunciated is 'to effect' citizens' safety and happiness. In addition, and congruent with our knowledge of fundamental human needs, the Declaration authors also expressly link 'the pursuit of Happiness' with 'Life' and 'Liberty'.

Some critics will point out that human needs and happiness cannot be the whole story about what motivated the authors as they explicitly reference a 'Creator' as the originator of human rights. It is true that the authors appeal to a divine source for human rights. However, we need to recognize fully the social and political circumstances giving rise to the revolt against the British Empire (as summarized in §2 above). As was customary, appeal to a divine being to advance a group's cause was a favoured method of giving credence to that group's interests. If the development and implementation of the notion of human rights can be fully explained by natural means and without recourse to supernatural explanations, then those supernatural explanations are moot.

5.2 Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789)

Following long and bloody battles with the French monarchy and drawing upon the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the revolutionaries penned the following Preamble to the Declaration of the Rights of Man [National Constituent Assembly 1789]:

The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected, and, lastly, in order that the grievances of the citizens, based hereafter upon simple and incontestable principles, shall tend to the maintenance of the constitution and redound to the happiness of all. Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen: [emphasis mine]

The motivations of the French revolutionaries in 1789 is made clear in the Preamble to the Declaration, its explicit purpose being to prevent future 'public calamities and of the corruption of governments'. Congruent with modern studies in psychology and the results of world-wide happiness surveys, the authors recognized how preventing the corruption of governments and acting on the 'grievances of the citizens' leads to 'the happiness of all'. This insistence that the role of government is the securing of the happiness of all is, of course, a mirroring of the utilitarian principle of universal regard for all peoples.

5.3 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [United Nations (General Assembly) 1966] is the instrument that legally binds all United Nations signatories to the human rights enshrined in it. The fourth paragraph of the Preamble to the Covenant states:

Recognizing that, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ideal of free human beings enjoying civil and political freedom and freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his civil and political rights, as well as his economic, social and cultural rights . . . [emphasis mine]

Here again, the authors emphasize the purpose of recognizing human rights as the practical prevention of human misery in the form of 'fear and want'. In addition and congruent with our knowledge of human needs and of the factors that promote happiness, the authors identify how essential human freedom is to the successful pursuit of happiness.

5.4 American Convention on Human Rights (1969)

The American Convention on Human Rights [Organization of American States (OAS) 1969] is legally binding on most North, Central and South American states. The second and fourth paragraphs of the Preamble read as follows:

Recognizing that the essential rights of man are not derived from
one's being a national of a certain state, but are based upon attributes
of the human personality
, and that they therefore justify international protection in the form of a convention reinforcing or complementing the protection provided by the domestic law of the American states;

. . .

Reiterating that, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ideal of free men enjoying freedom from fear and want can be achieved only if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social, and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights . . . [emphasis mine]

Especially noteworthy here is the recognition that human rights are grounded in human nature, echoing the utilitarian's focus on satisfying basic human needs. As with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights referenced above, the authors similarly attribute the purpose of the Convention to achieving 'freedom from fear and want', a central goal of the utilitarian ethic.


From these four case studies, we can see how the authors of the declarations and covenants were not only prompted by the desire to minimize suffering and promote happiness, but that they expressly recognized that motivation in the documents themselves. This is manifest even though on occasion they supplemented this basic grounding with the religious or metaphysical language that was the custom of the day.

To bring this section to a close, I offer a fundamental objective of the international organization that gave us the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that encapsulates succinctly the guiding role of the pursuit of happiness. In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 65/309 [United Nations (General Assembly) 2011] recommending the search for 'a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and well-being of all peoples'. The Resolution emphasized how the General Assembly is 'Conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal'. (For a review of how one country is incorporating subjective well-being data into a broader suite of measures of economic prosperity, see Lancy and Gruen [2013]. For measures and reports on national well-being, see International Institute of Management [2018]; OECD [2020]; Social Progress Imperative [2022]; Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies [2023].)

This concludes my support for the first of my key objectives for this essay. That is, to demonstrate how human rights are justified by appeal to the minimal set of social conditions required for the prevention of human suffering and the enabling of human flourishing.

Copyright © 2023

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