Saturday, July 09, 2005

L&S: Utilitarianism and Rights

James just said "Utilitarians don't believe in rights." Glen and I just grunted in unison. It may be that utilitarians don't believe in natural rights, but one can be a utilitarian, in the broadest sense, and still argue that a particular set/bundle of rights will lead to the greatest good, or put better, will have consequences that (virtually) all will think are good. Or put somewhat differently, it may be that a system in which individuals have very strong rights is a system that generates the best consequences (i.e., is best from a utilitarian point of view). The rights, and their strength, are derived from the consequences they generate, which requires significant dollops of empirical/historical evidence about what "works" and what doesn't.

James just got pretty close by saying that utilitarians might believe that people should act "as if" they have natural rights if such rights, empirically, lead to the maximization of happiness. Why not just say people have "rights" (strong rights) rather than pretend "as if" they are natural?


Gil said...

I wonder what sorts of things James thinks natural rights are...

Does he think they exist physically?

Are they written on some God-given tablet?

How are they different from what you describe: logical constructs that our moral system leads us to conclude we should respect based on the nature of people and how they flourish?

Glen Whitman said...

"Generally, "rights" indicate something to which a person is entitled by virtue of citizenship (or even humanity)." The same would go for rights justified in a utilitarian fashion. By virtue of your humanity, your interests are included along with everyone else's in considering what sort of rules are best.

"To go further, in what sense are these rights real?" In what sense are any rights real? You can't touch them or detect them with instruments. Whatever one's philosophical approach, rights are products of our reason -- that is, they are normative conclusions based on philosophical reasoning about humans and their relationships to each other and the world. And the same goes for rights derived from a utilitarian framework.

Geoffrey Allan Plauche said...

I left this comment over at L&P as well: "What do you mean by 'rights' and strong rights exactly?"

I would agree that (natural) rights do not exist physically in the sense of being some sort of metaphysical essence or substance, nor were they created by some supernatural being. I would also agree with the application of logical to them, but I would not call them constructs. The term 'constructs' in logical constructs implies they were created by someone or a group of someones. Rights were not invented and they are not social constructs; this would lead us down the road of cultural relativism. Yes, rights have instrumental value, but I would say that natural rights have their foundation in the logical structure of reality and human nature and that they can be discovered through the exercise of reason. Laying natural rights on an explicitly (neo-)Aristotelian foundation - as Rand, Sciabarra, Long, Den Uyl, Rasmussen, and others do - allows one to transcend the false dichotomy of deontic and consequentialist categories of ethical theories. Each of these categories only tells part of the story. In this sense rights are real and a requirement of man's nature. There is, however, to borrow a phrase from Adolf Reinach, nothing dark and mystical about them.