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Can Utilitarianism Ground Human Rights?

7. Objection: Autonomy

Book cover: The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics by Peter Singer and Katarzyna De Lazari-Radek

In these final sections, I will address the most common objections to the idea that the notion of fundamental human rights is grounded in the minimum socio-political structures required for a society to minimize the suffering of its citizens and to enable their happiness. The five objections I will deal with here are that considering only consequences:

  1. ignores the importance of autonomy
  2. ignores the importance of respect for persons and human dignity
  3. ignores the importance of justice and fairness
  4. supports the persecution of minorities in some cases
  5. mistakenly assumes that happiness can be measured

So, dealing with the first objection, it can be phrased as: 'Sure. Considering the consequences for misery and happiness is important for identifying human rights and deciding between conflicting rights, but that's not the whole story. The autonomy of each individual is a good in itself, independently of whatever balance of misery and happiness may ensue from allowing them to make their own decisions. We think it good to allow each person to make their own decisions about their life even when they are likely to make mistakes.'

Freedom to do as we choose and self-determination figure prominently in the human rights instruments considered in this essay. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [United Nations (General Assembly) 1966] has as its first Article 'the right of self-determination'. Articles 1 and 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [United Nations (General Assembly) 1948] profess the same liberty. This focus on the moral significance of autonomy is admirable and I have argued for its importance in many places and times. The question, however, is this: Is autonomy a good in itself, or is it only good to the extent that it contributes to happiness and human welfare?

From our previous explorations, we have seen that autonomy and human happiness are not divorced from each other. Firstly, the psychological theories of human needs evidence how the need for freedom to make one's own life choices is a basic human need. When this need is left unfulfilled, a person does not reach their full potential for life satisfaction. The self-esteem and self-actualization needs identified by Maslow require this freedom for them to be satisfied. In Alderfer's ERG Theory, his growth needs follow suit. Carl Rogers' Theory of Personality Development likewise considered self-actualizing and freedom a basic human need driving our behaviours. Other research psychologists who I have not included in this essay (because their focus was on behaviour in organizational settings) came to the same conclusion. Psychologists such as David McClelland and Frederick Herzberg investigated how employees given autonomy over how they do their jobs experience higher levels of engagement and work satisfaction. The clear message from decades of research is that without autonomy, human beings do not achieve their optimal well-being.

Secondly, the international happiness surveys summarized in this essay draw the same conclusion. The World Values Survey Association's 2021 survey [World Values Survey Association 2023] linked the level of people's perceived 'free choice' to their 'levels of happiness'. The World Happiness Report [Helliwell et al 2023: 17] arrives at the same conclusion that people being 'free to make important life decisions' contributes to 'higher well-being'. The report [Helliwell et al 2023: 19] goes on to emphasize that 'to guarantee minimum human rights (including food, shelter, freedom, and civil rights) . . . is an integral component of the happiness agenda'. (See also Ortiz-Ospina and Roser [2013].)

As a final point on the relation between autonomy and happiness, I ask you to reflect on your own personal experience. Think back to those times in your life when you had little control over your work or your social environment or your life overall. How did you feel during those times? I suspect that your sense of life satisfaction suffered under those circumstances.

The conclusion here is that autonomy is a key enabler of human happiness. Without some control over how we live our lives, dissatisfaction is the result. So, far from autonomy being a problem for an attempted utilitarian grounding of human rights, it seems utilitarianism explains simply and neatly why human freedom figures so prominently in human rights instruments.

Copyright © 2023

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