A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Sunday, 8 August 2021

Rights as Warning Lights

 It is sometimes suggested that utilitarianism is apt to inadequately value people as individuals. If we are aiming to maximise utility across all people, then the welfare of one individual can be sacrificed indefinitely so long as this produces greater benefits to others. In order to avoid this conclusion, people posit human rights which stand prior to the existence of society and the state.

This depends upon a view that rights are “trumps” – that when activated, they invalidate or outweigh other political considerations such as efficiency or equality. I think this is mistaken – rights are more like warning lights. The “warning lights” view of rights is not intrinsically tied to utilitarianism or consequentialism, but they go well together – my introduction to this way of thinking was a podcast in which Philip Pettit argued that itresolves some problems for consequentialist views.


Is it right to sacrifice the life of one person in order to save five? For example by turning a trolley? By pushing a man off a bridge? By killing a man and redistributing his organs? By triaging patients in a military hospital? The only honest answer to the original question is “it depends” – you can’t give a universal answer, you have to attend to the particular situation which you face. These are difficult questions, and abstract theory should not give us easy answers – but it should at least identify which are the hard cases and which are the easy ones. (See also - in the case of a pandemic, should we restrict the movement and association of millions of people in order to avert a certain number of deaths?)

Treating rights as trumps is frankly a very glib way of responding to these questions. “The one person has a right to life” is a simple answer, not a serious one. Ronald Dworkin might redefine his position to “the one person has a right to life, but only in those situations where the five people do not,” but that just becomes an outright evasion of the question.

What about the “warning lights” picture of rights? We say that the one has a right to life, and so we will want to deliberate carefully before we violate that – but in the end we may recognise that the situation merits overriding the right. Or we might decide that in this case, the one should not be sacrificed.


This hasn’t really discussed utilitarianism as such, so if you believe utilitarianism fails to adequately respect individuals then this shouldn’t persuade that it does. What I hope this does show is that if you hold that view, invoking rights is not the solution.

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