SORITES ISSN 1135-1349

Issue #01. April 1995. Pp. 46-50.

The «Right» Approach

Copyright (C) by SORITES and Ronald A. Cordero.

The «Right» Approach

Ronald A. Cordero

Arguments for social change are very often based on references to human rights, but I want to maintain that there is a problem with talking about rights, especially human rights. And I want to suggest that the purpose of improving society might be better served if we were to talk less about rights. I do not want to deny that people have rights or to propose that people be relieved of their rights. I simply believe that we can make quicker progress toward what we want to achieve if we conduct our discussions in a vocabulary other than that of rights. What vocabulary that might be, I shall try to indicate shortly.

First, however, let me describe the problem that I see with discussions conducted in terms of human rights. It has become extremely common for those wishing to advocate improvements in society to do so in a way that involves references to human rights, or basic human rights, or absolute rights of human beings. If, for example, I want to advocate a change in laws restricting what can be said in the press, I can refer to the public's right to know what is going on. If I want to argue for programs designed to reduce malnutrition, I can do so by invoking the basic right to a minimally acceptable diet. And if I want to support improvements in the treatment of employees by their employers, I can base my position on a reference to a fundamental right of each person to be respected by others. The outline of such appeals to human rights is fairly familiar. The existence of certain rights is asserted, and it is argued that because these rights are there, the rules and regulations of society must be altered in a certain way -- in order to conform with the rights. It is as though we were pointing out rocky outcroppings on the map of a territory to be settled and saying, «Here, because these outcroppings are placed as they are, we shall have to run our roads like this and lay our fields out like that.» Like the rocks, the rights are there; and the problem is to arrange human society in harmony with them.

So far so good. But now comes the problem. At the practical level, we do not always agree on what rights there are; and when we do agree about the existence of certain human rights, we do not always agree about their relative importance. It is as though -- to continue the earlier simile -- we had different maps of the new territory. We are not in complete agreement either as to how many outcroppings there are or as to how large they are. Examples are all too easy to find. Some humans are convinced that one of the sexes has a fundamental right to rule over the other. Others are just as sure that no such right exists. Some maintain that women have the right to have an abortion; others deny it. Some hold that adults have a right to find sexual pleasure with willing partners of either sex; others disagree. We may agree that there are both inheritance rights and a right to a fair share of the earth's resources, but we may disagree on which is to take precedence. We may agree that indigenous populations have a right to their traditional way of life and that settlers have a right to theirs -- without being able to agree as to which is more important.

And cases such as these do not even tax the imagination. We are used to people making claims of rights within certain boundaries of custom and tradition. But what if those boundaries are surpassed? What if someone claims that we have no right to use animals for food? Or that the other sex is really the one that has the right to rule? The problem presented by such cases is that all too often people accustomed to thinking in terms of rights will not know what to say to such claims -- except perhaps, «You're just wrong.»

Put more generally, the trouble with practical discussions involving references to human rights is that they cannot have recourse to any generally accepted method for the rational resolution of disagreements. The rights are asserted to exist and to have a particular degree of importance, but there is no agreement on what might count as proof that such and such a right does or does not exist -- or that it does or does not have a certain level of importance.

If we really were discussing rocky outcroppings in a new territory and found that our maps were at variance with each other, there would be no such problem. We would all know how to go about settling our disagreement: the area would simply have to be surveyed. Now, might it not be that disagreements in practical discussions conducted in terms of rights could be resolved in an analogous manner? Just as we could call in expert surveyors to settle the disagreement about the outcroppings, could we not settle disagreements over rights by calling in experts in the appropriate field -- presumably social philosophy? In fact, we should be able to do so. The problems that beset discussions of rights at the practical level ought to be susceptible of resolution through work at the theoretical level. Unfortunately, that does seem to be feasible. What we find at the theoretical level is more disagreement -- although now it is disagreement over the kinds of things that rights are and the ways in which their existence and relative importance might be established. There is no shortage of theories, to be sure; but there is a shortage of agreement on the essential points. The expert surveyors, as it were, are not even in agreement on what it is for something to be a rocky outcropping -- or what it is for someone to talk about one.FootNote 51

At this point I should be careful to emphasize that I am not denying the possibility of a correct theoretical analysis of rights or talk about rights. I definitely believe that one is possible. I am not ready to defend Jeremy Bentham's denial of existence to all but legal rights.

There are no other than legal rights; -- no natural rights -- no rights of man, anterior or superior to those created by the laws. The assertion of such rights, absurd in logic, is pernicious in morals.FootNote 52

Nor am I willing to concur with Alasdair MacIntyre's caustic characterization of belief in natural or human rights as «one with belief in witches and in unicorns.»FootNote 53 All that I do wish to deny here is the likelihood of any rights theory being agreed upon by social philosophers at any time in the near future. Accordingly, I shall not argue here for what I take to be the correct theory of rights.FootNote 54 To do so would only be to add to the theoretical disagreement, and I can see no present practical value in doing that. Perhaps I am being overly pessimistic, but the history of theoretical disagreements in rights theory does not inspire much optimism.

The nature of the trouble I see with basing advocacy of social change on a reference to rights should now be clear. When differences arise over the existence and importance of rights, there simply is no means at our disposal of resolving them in a rational manner. And inasmuch as the need for social change in many areas is absolutely imperative, I submit that we would be well-advised to find a basis for advocacy that is more readily amenable to rational agreement. It may not be a case of Rome burning while the theorists theorize -- and then again, it may be even worse than that.

The next question then is whether it is possible to discuss the improvement of society in a vocabulary that does not include rights. Can we deliberate about changes in the social order without referring to rights as the bases for the changes advocated? I submit that we can -- and that this should involve no great difficulty, since it has been done before.

The classical Greek philosophers, if you will remember, were not given to framing their theories of the ideal polis in terms of rights. It is not, of course, that they could not speak in those terms. Plato, for example, certainly seems to be using the concept of rights when he describes, at Republic 549, the kind of father likely to produce a timocratic son...

a brave father, who dwells in an ill-governed city, of which he declines the honors and offices, and will not go to law, or exert himself in any way, but is ready to waive his rights in order that he may escape trouble.<1>Foot note

The point, though, is that the classical Greek social theorists did not tend to phrase their own political ideas in terms of rights. And in fact we today have little difficulty in explaining their theories on the improvement of society without invoking that concept. They tended rather to think about political matters in terms of an end in view. Aristotle thinks of the polis as having the particular purpose of enabling people to achieve eudaemonia -- and proceeds to reason out how things ought to be ordered with that end in mind. And Plato identifies «our aim in founding the State» as «not the disproportionate happiness of any one class, but the greatest happiness of the whole... .»<2>Foot note

Perhaps it would not be wise to dwell on the Greeks, for many of us today might want to reject certain of their specific suggestions about the arrangement of society.<3>Foot note There is, however, no need to suppose that their method of approaching the problem leads inexorably to their particular conclusions. We might even be able to argue against certain of their proposals on the grounds that these can now be seen not to be conducive at all to the end in question. But be that as it may, the possibility clearly exists that we can conduct our own discussions about improving society as they did -- with reference to some end in view that is not specified with reference to rights.

If we could agree upon such an end, then we would be able to reason empirically about how to obtain it. The question of whether or not a particular change in the arrangement of things in society would be conducive to that end would be a factual question of the sort we know how to handle. With a certain amount of determination and a lot of trial and error, we could find out whether a suggested change would be an improvement or not.

The major problem here, of course, lies with the specification of the end. Is it possible -- if we cannot agree on basic human rights -- that we can find some description of society which we can all accept as what we would like to see? If there are many different lists and rankings of human rights, are there not likely to be just as many different conceptions of the kind of society toward which we are working? I believe that, in fact, most of us do already share such a conception of the end in view. We may have widely divergent notions about the specific steps essential to reach it, but I think we agree -- at a sufficiently high level of abstraction -- on what we are trying to attain.

Suppose, for example, that we learn in some way of the existence of a small planet inhabited by intelligent beings somewhere in the far reaches of the galaxy. Suppose we learn further that the inhabitants of Planet X have arranged things in their society in such a way that they are able to lead extremely satisfying lives. The present generation there rates their society as a smashing success, and there is every reason to believe that succeeding generations will be equally satisfied. Suppose now that we know nothing else about this society -- nothing whatsoever about the particular nature of their social arrangements -- their customs, laws, and regulations. All we know is that because of whatever arrangements they have, they are heartily satisfied with their existence.

The interesting question now is whether knowing this and nothing more we might consider going to Planet X to help improve things. Improve things? I submit that the fact that most of us will find this question odd is a strong indication that most of us do in fact agree on a basic description of the end in view for society. Simply put, most of us would be quite happy with the realization on earth of the sort of society just described for Planet X. Those of us who want to see existing societies on our own planet improved do in general want to see them changed in the direction of the hypothetical society on Planet X.But could not a question be raised about the moral advisability of steering by reference to Planet X? If we seek ways to approximate a society whose members lead satisfying lives, and we do so without reference to rights, can we be sure of being on the right track morally? This question may well strike certain sorts of consequentialists as more than odd, since some of them may wish to maintain, for example, that any course which leads to the greatest number of happy lives in the future is by definition the moral course. But deontologists may be less quick to dismiss the question. Some of them, even without phrasing their concerns in terms of rights, may wish to object that steered in such a way, our course might well veer into immorality. In the course of establishing social arrangements under which the members of society could have satisfying lives, might we not permit or even require certain immoral actions?

I do not wish to dismiss this question as pointless, because I do not wish to reject all deontological moral theories outright. Nor do I want to claim that the end-in-view approach to social improvements will automatically avoid immorality. What I do want to maintain is that this approach is in fact more likely than the «right» approach to lead to arrangements which, while satisfying the requirements of morality, will enable the members of society to lead satisfying lives. A full explanation of how I conceive the harmonization of moral requirements with the realization of the end in view would necessitate a basic discussion of the nature of morality and so cannot be attempted here.

The prima-facie attractiveness of the hypothetical society on Planet X is significant. It indicates that we already have an end with respect to which proposals for social improvements can be empirically evaluated. If a change is proposed in some existing social practice, the question to ask is whether or not the institution of that change would constitute a step forward toward a situation in which all members of the society in question would live satisfying lives. And that is the sort of a question which can be answered by trial and error if nothing else. The answer to such a question does not have to await the resolution of theoretical philosophical questions which may or may not be achieved in another hundred years.

Moreover -- and this may be even more important -- if reasoning about improvements in society is conducted with reference to such a generally accepted end, the results of field research become applicable. And field research is one of the things at which humans are rather adept. If we want to achieve a society in which people live highly satisfying lives, we can certainly obtain valuable knowledge by studying the correlation of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with existing social arrangements. If some small society somewhere already has better arrangements with respect to the end in view, we ought to find out what they are.

What sort of field research might be profitable? Obviously it could involve direct questioning of populations about how satisfied with life they are.FootNote 55 Comparative data on this question for different societies around the globe could be quite instructive. The question could be asked in various ways: «Would you leave this society if you had a good chance?» «Do you hope your children will lead the kind of life you have?» «Would you advise someone to settle in this society?» Other kinds of data that could prove useful include comparative information on suicide rates, stress-related physical and mental problems, and certain types of crimes.

To be sure, caution would have to be exercised in the analysis of data resulting from any such research. In particular, in cases in which different groups within a single society showed significantly different levels of satisfaction, special study would be required to determine whether the satisfaction of some might not be causally related to the dissatisfaction of others. If we are interested in discovering social arrangements which will enable all members of society to have satisfying existences, then presumably we are not interested in arrangements that produce satisfaction for some in a way that has to produce dissatisfaction for othersÄ«marvels for the rich but...privation for the worker» for example.FootNote 56

In time, rights theorists may reach agreement on the nature of rights, and the «right» approach to the resolution of crucial social problems may become more productive. Until then, I advocate an end-in-view approach because I am convinced that it is a swifter and surer way of resolving problems that cannot wait to be remedied.

Ronald A. Cordero

The University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh