Battlepanda: Utilitarianism and Rights


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Utilitarianism and Rights

Richard of Philosophy Etc. comes up with a thought experiment to demonstrate, as he elegantly puts it "rights cannot be morally fundamental because it's a contingent matter what rights will promote human welfare".

The thought experiment, briefly restated, goes like this: Imagine you live in a village ruled by a god that demands one random person of his choosing to be sacrificed every month. If that particular person isn't killed in a day, the god will instead kill 30 random people in the village. Assuming that the god is omnipotent and truthful, the choice is between violating the right to life of one person and the certain death of thirty. Would you like to live Village A, where an unlucky schmuck is monthly done away by their fellow villagers, or would you like to live in Village B, where your right to life is absolutely respected, and god spontaneously combusts 30 people monthly? I would choose Village A. Big surprise. I'm a utilitarian. But let's be honest here: who's going to choose Village B? Is moral clarity really worth 29 lives a month?

Something about the scenario struck me as familiar -- villagers forced to offer up sacrifices to a malevolent force... Isn't it like The Seven Samourai and just about every other Western ever made as well as many sci-fi plots? In fact, I believe that it is the beginning of one of those stock storylines that comes up over and over again because, for some reason, it strikes a deep and resonant chord within the human psyche. Always, a stranger arrives or is sought. There is a struggle between the forces in the village that want to stay with the old system and those who want to stand up and fight. There is often a pivotal scene in which the stranger delivers a "wake up call" -- convincing the villagers that sacrificing individuals among them for the greater common good is still immoral, and shaming them into action. In the end, the entire community pins its hopes on the stranger and decide to take a fantastic risk rather than continue to placate the malevolent force.

Given the choice between Village A and Village B, we chose instead the hidden option C -- deciding that the god is not so omnipotent after all and rebelling against it. While it is the most dramatically satisfying option, it tells us frustratingly little about utilitarianism versus natural-rights based philosophy despite the tantalizing tension in which those ideas are often held at some point during the story. The outcome of the narrative arc is inevitably one where the villagers are better off both from a utilitarian and rights-based philosophy point of view by the end of the movie. The hidden message seems to be "do the right thing by the standards of absolute morality and somehow the utility will maximize itself."

Some thoughts:

1) In the long run, rights-based morality and utilitarianism often converge
Sure, "do the right thing and you'll end up OK in the end" seems like wishful thinking at first glance, but it is also true on many levels. It's hard to gauge on an event-by-event level whether telling the truth will maximize utility, but if one believed that telling the truth is the right thing to do and therefore does it regardless of immediate reprecussions, one is likely to maximize utility over the long run. In short, even though I am a utilitarian, I am not against using the language of rights to guide behavior. Not only are societies with respect for rights more pleasant places to live in, I personally have deep emotional investment in many rights. However...

2) When you've got two rights, who's wrong?
At the crassest level, what happens when the "woman's right to choose" conflicts with the "right to life"? Soon you'll have a angel-on-head-of-a-pin argument with both side screaming that their right is more fundamental. At that point in the argument, the only productive thing to do is to pull back a little and try and remember what those rights stand for; what they do for us in terms of promoting human welfare.

3) Is the illusion of absolutism all bad?
People seem to have a need to believe in rights as an absolute rather than a helpful construct. I wonder if this is a tendency that can be overcome with rationality, or whether the need for absolutism is absolute, as it were. Going back to the example of the village. Sure, I believe most people would choose the Utilitarian Village because the risk of death is lower, but I wonder whether people would lead slightly happier lives in the Rights-philosophy village. Their risk of dying is 30 times higher, but they don't have to face this sense of the collapse of their moral system and the constant knowledge that their neighbor could be their executioner and vice versa.