Friday, July 08, 2005

Moral Goals vs. Side-Constraints

On the typical libertarian view, rights act as side-constraints on what a person may do. If an option open to you would involve violating someone's rights, then you should simply exclude that option from consideration. Rights serve to limit what is morally permissible. One might call this the 'deontological' interpretation of rights. As my name hints, there is an alternative, 'consequentialist', interpretation, according to which rights function as goals rather than constraints. The idea would be to try to minimize violations of people's rights. On this view, rights serve to inform rather than limit our moral decisions: they can tell us what to do, rather than merely what not to do. Further, it avoids absolutism: it might be moral to violate one person's rights in order to protect the rights of many other people.

I don't really understand why anyone would adopt the side-constraints view. It doesn't make sense to me. Perhaps the idea is grounded in the notion that some things (e.g. homicide) are really really bad and so ought not to be done (cf. Nozick). But then, as Cohen asks, "if such sacrifice and violation are so horrendous, why should we not be concerned to minimize their occurrence?"

The agent-relativity of deontological moralities leaves them at risk of being collectively self-defeating, as Derek Parfit has shown. According to such a morality M, our moral ("M-given") aims will vary from person to person. Perhaps each individual has an obligation to look after their family, and avoid violating others' rights themselves. We need not be so concerned about other people's families, or avoiding rights-violations committed by other people. This gives rise to a "prisoner's dilemma", whereby each of two people must independently decide between (1) meeting some of their own M-given aims; or (2) enabling more of the other person's M-given aims to be met.

(Perhaps both agents are currently on track to violate lots of rights. However, each can choose either to enable themselves to avoid some violations, or else enable the other to avoid even more violations.)

The agent-relative morality M tells us to choose option #1. But if everyone chose thusly, their M-given aims would be worse achieved than if everybody had instead chosen #2. (Each individual commits more rights-violations than they otherwise would have.) M is thus collectively self-defeating: if everyone follows it successfully, they each do worse, even by its own standards. And, as Parfit notes, "If there is any assumption on which it is clearest that a moral theory should not be self-defeating, it is the assumption that it is universally followed"!

I suppose the deontologist would respond that we have fundamentally misunderstood their morality. They do not have the agent-relative aim to minimize their own rights-violations. They do not understand rights as a sort of "goal" at all. Rather, as previously mentioned, they serve as side-constraints. If they further deny that we should have the moral aim of meeting these constraints, then they could dodge the above argument by denying that we have any "M-given aims" at all. Such talk of "aims" serves to illicitly smuggle in consequentialist premises which the deontologist would not accept. Or so one might argue. (I'm not entirely sure that it makes sense to deny that we have moral aims. It sounds very odd to me, at least.)

Perhaps, at the end of the day, all we can do is appeal to brute intuitions. It's just obvious that rights are not absolute. If the universe would be destroyed unless we sacrificed someone, isn't it quite clear that we ought to perform the sacrifice? Their death would be tragic, of course. But the death of billions would be even more tragic.

Understanding rights as side-constraints rather than goals is another case of prizing the merely formal over what has genuine substantive worth. Indeed, it seems to me that the very notion of rights is somewhat fetishistic. They lead one to value the (non-)performance of actions above actual human welfare. But the important aspect of a murder is the fact that a person died, not that someone else performed a rights-violating action. The moral status of an action does not alter its value, independently of facts about human welfare. It's the latter that really matter. It's not intrinsically worse to be killed by a person than by "natural causes". Either way, you've been harmed, and that's the tragedy.


  1. Richard, I think you are setting up a bit of a false dichotomy.

    Most Kantians nowadays would not, I think, accept either conception of rights.

    Rather, we think of rights as an useful way to describe the constitutive standards of agency (or personhood, practical identity etc).

    That's why it isn't right (usually) to violate rights in order to minimize rights violations. Normativity is founded in our first-personal practical difficulty of acting from reasons.

    Thus, rights are part of the constitutive standards of unified agency (or something similar). They are neither goals nor side constraints.

  2. I don't understand what that means.

  3. Richard, I think Nozick is quite clear (and makes good sense) why it is that rights serve as contraints and not goals. The reason" "Individuals are inviolable." I hate to quite Nozick at length here but here goes anyway,

    "There are only individual poeple, different individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others. Nothing more. What happens is that something is done to him for the sake of others. Talk of an overall social good covers this up. (Intentionally?) To use a person in this way does not sufficently respect and take account of the fact that he is a seperate person, that his is the only life he has (page 33 on most standard editions of Anarchy)."

    This is the reason that one's rights are constraints and not goals. As far as I am concerned the important notion here is that rights (whatever they are) "attach to" individual persons. They just are simply constarins on how I may treat you. They do nothing more and nothing and nothing less, but respect for rights cannot be shown by one's being a "rights consequentalist" Right are morally important becuase they protect individuals and not mrely so that they may be maximized in some fashion. Nozick is very clear about this point in 30-5 of Anarchy.

    Rights cannot tell one what is "the right course of action to take," but they can inform as to what is impermissible or what is simply put "not right." Now maybe one wants more out of there moral moral theory than a libertarianism that tells them what is wrong as opposed to telling them what is right. But this might well be just a fleeting hope. I actually suspect that it is. I am happy with a moral theory which has two boxes (so to speak) wrong and not wrong. The wrong actions are rights violations (those things which impermissibly cross the moral space of individuals.) And the "not wrong" actions are actions which are not rights violations. Obviously here there is are going to be usually many actions which fall in the "not wrong" category. Should I sit around and eat chips (not a rights violation) or should I develop my talents and read a classic (not a rights violation.) I cannot answer this question, all I can say is that neither action is wrong so have at it. Both actions fall in the category of "not wrong." We try, of course, to find reasons why sitting around and eating chips all day is wrong, but these efforts are to no avail becuase moral theory is impotent to provide such answers.

  4. Okay, we are faced with a particularly human dilemma: that of acting from the myriad of our desires. Acting according to reasons.

    I think most of the practical reasoning Kantians would say that rights come out of that scenario.

    Rather, respecting other people's rights is necessary to be acting from reasons at all, of being a particular kind of agent. Now, there is an elaborate story why this might be the case, not all of it self-evident, but let's assume that I can tell it.

    "Side constraints" implies that we determine what we want to do, or what we are going to do, but these moral constraints come out and say, "This action or that is (im)permissible."

    But those of us who follow a line like that Korsgaard don't think like that. Rather, rights are not limitations imposed on us by some outside standards but are a necessary precondition to acting (or having an identity) at all (in the appropriate manner). And most importantly, they are not "imposed" on us but arise from the nature of our deliberative consciousness.

    So, to say, "I have good reason to violate this person's rights in order to prevent other rights violations" is akin to saying something like, "I have good reason to act in such a way that prevents me from really acting from reasons at all."

    Is that at all clear?

  5. Thanks Patrick, that makes more sense. I'm skeptical as to whether such a "story" can be told, but I don't know much about Kantianism (you may have noticed!) so I'm happy enough for now to simply exclude Kantians from my current critique (which is more aimed at libertarians).

    Nevertheless, I do think the contrast I discuss here is a fairly standard one -- see, for example, Richard Arneson's notes on "Nozick vs. Sen" [PDF].

    Roark - I quote and respond to that same passage from Nozick on the linked post -- again, see here.

    You say that "Right are morally important becuase they protect individuals." But that's silly. Like I say in the main post, individuals can be much better protected by consequentialism. If we have to violate one minor right in order to protect many more rights of many more people, then your refusal to do so is not helping to "protect" them, is it!

    As for the latter half of the sentence:
    "Right are morally important becuase they protect individuals and not merely so that they may be maximized in some fashion."

    That's a gross misrepresentation of what consequentialism is about. We don't want to maximize rights for their own sake. (We leave such fetishism to deontologists.) The only reason we care about rights is insofar as they serve to benefit people. We "maximize rights" because in doing so we maximize the wellbeing of people, and that is what really matters.

    Indeed, I would say you have it exactly backwards. Rights are important (if they are at all) because they serve to promote human welfare (e.g. by protecting individuals), and not merely so that they can act as a constraint in some fashion. :P

    The constraint-theorist must take these constraints as being more important than human wellbeing. After all, if they really just valued human wellbeing, they would be maximizers instead. But they're not. Instead, they attach intrinsic value to the respecting of "rights" constraints -- quite over and above any real effect this has on human welfare. It's utterly fetishistic.

  6. "The constraint-theorist must take these constraints as being more important than human wellbeing. After all, if they really just valued human wellbeing, they would be maximizers instead."

    This line of argument presupposes that you can spell out what "human well-being" is without ever mentioning (say) justice or respect for persons as a constitutive part of the account. (If you can't, then saying that someone who just cares about human well-being should try to maximize it even if it means violating the side-constraints or not is rather like saying that someone who just cares about singing the Ode to Joy should sing it even if it means singing "and so say all of us" instead of "Tochter aus Elysium.")

    But why should you believe that? And why should you expect someone who is not already a consequentialist to accept the doctrine?

  7. Well, it just seems so much more plausible than the alternatives. Take the old ticking time bomb scenario, whereby the only way to save a city full of people is to torture the terrorist (or threaten his innocent family) into telling us the code to disarm the nuke. Do you really think that the citizens are made "worse off" by my unjustly torturing the innocent family, rather than letting the nuke go off? It's just wildly implausible to hold that abiding by side-constraints will necessarily maximize well-being. Indeed, we wouldn't even need the side-constraints then. "Truly" maximizing well-being would yield the same result, if non-violation of rights was constitutive of well-being (rather than merely being instrumental to the promotion of well-being, which I think is the obviously correct interpretation instead).

  8. What, so you are saying that the 'side constraints' you refer to are not absolute, but are dependent on the meaning of welfare for each individual and the steps that must be taken to acheive welfare? How does this differ from what Nozick says?

    Also, I agree that a lot of rights talk isn't coherent with notions of public welfare, but you seem to opine that rights could, nonetheless, exist. Have I understood you correctly? How do you reconcile these?

    Rights are surely human construct ,designed by whoever holds power, to ensure public welfare, or order, rather than some universal principle put in place at the beginning of time.

    That's what irks me about the UN declaration; they try to apply the same rights talk to eskimos as they do to university students; both have completely different modes of production, aspirations and measures of welfare.

  9. Richard: Most people don't distinguish very clearly or at all between optimal behavior, normatively legal behavior (for any given population), and optimal moral indoctrination. In practice, efforts to instill utilitarianism at such a level as to control people's actions don't seem to work very well. Efforts to instill moral constraints work pretty well. Intermediately effective are efforts to instill rational egoism or unquestioning obedience.

    Moral constraints lead to destructive moral fetishism, rational egoism to wasteful concentration of benefits and excess conflict, and unquestioning obedience to vulnerability to demagoguery, but mixes of these three positions constitute a workable basis for society, especially if a few people can sit back and take a Utilitarian perspective once in a while in the abstract when advocating laws which influence incentives according to those systems. We end up in occasional wars this way, because too few Utilitarians take it upon themselves to assassinate Hitler, but we get fewer Ted Kazinsky's too.

  10. Yes, I agree that side constraints are useful in practice (see: indirect utilitarianism).

  11. Came upon this post by surfing the links from your latest Web of Belief post. Happy New Year!

    You write: "It's just obvious that rights are not absolute. If the universe would be destroyed unless we sacrificed someone, isn't it quite clear that we ought to perform the sacrifice? Their death would be tragic, of course. But the death of billions would be even more tragic."

    It is obvious that we ought-all-things-considered to sacrifice one individual to save the universe; perhaps we even morally ought to. But it also seems obvious to me that it is morally wrong to sacrifice an innocent individual, and that the wrongness of it is not mitigated by the sheer magnitude of goodness or badness of the goal-state it happens to promote or avoid. The "rightness" of the action in terms of its consequences, and the wrongness of it in terms of the intrinsic worth of the individual, seems to me simply incommensurable (in part because of the Kantian-Rawlsian intuition that the intrinsic worth of one individual is not the kind of value that can be outweighed by the intrinsic worth of several).

    Talk of rights as side-constraints seems to (1) capture the intrinsic worth of individual persons as separate and irreplaceable, and (2) register the sense that in your example sacrificing one individual person to save the universe is a moral tragedy where doing something morally wrong is unavoidable.

    Talk of rights-protections or rights-violations as goal states to be promoted or minimized do not seem to me to serve the dual role of side-constraints very well, if at all. Let's say there is Kantian demon in your example threatening to violate the rights of billions to live by blowing them all to smithereens, unless we violate the right of one individual to live. Then, on the consequentialist criterion of moral rightness, we do the morally right thing by minimizing rights-violations. So, on that criterion, there is no moral tragedy here, where one cannot avoid doing what is morally wrong (just a non-moral tragedy where bad outcomes are unavoidable whichever way we decide). But it seems to me obvious that this is a moral tragedy, and so does Williams (in his short book Introduction to Ethics, I think), who criticizes the utilitarian criterion of moral rightness as one that rules out the possible existence of moral tragedies.

    Elsewhere you argue that consequentialism can capture the intrinsic worth of individual persons as separate and non-fungible. But if you hold the view that the constraints pertaining to personal rights can be incorporated into goal states to be promoted or avoided, and that the morally right thing to do is minimize rights-violations, then I am curious to know how you propose to avoid the conclusion that values of persons are comparable, that the combined values of many persons outweigh the value of one, and therefore that there is nothing morally wrong in violating one person's rights to promote the rights-protections or avoid the rights-violations of many. If one thinks there is something morally wrong with it, then it seems one has to incorporate deontological constraints as criteria of moral wrongness independent of the consequentialist criterion of it.


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