Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Contingent Right to Life

Last night's post argued that rights cannot be morally fundamental because it's a contingent matter what rights will promote human welfare. I want to establish this point as strongly as possible by showing that even the right to life itself is contingent. I will describe a (highly fantastical) hypothetical situation in which a society would be morally required to limit the right to life, and sometimes actively kill innocent people. [Non-philosophers are reminded that this in no way implies support for government killings in our (very different!) situation. Please take care to understand the argument before hurling insults.]


Badland: The people of Badland are haunted by an evil deity named 'God', who shows every indication of being omniscient, omnipotent, and truthful, though he has a taste for human sacrifice. God installed a magical lottery machine in the town centre, and explained to the townsfolk that, once a month, the device will pick one of their names at random. They are expected to sacrifice this person to God, and if they do so then God will leave them alone till next month. However, if the chosen person remains alive after 24 hours, then the furious and spiteful God will wreak havoc and cause thirty random townsfolk to spontaneously combust.

Naturally enough, the folk of Badland weren't too happy about this deal, and initially ignored God's threats. So thirty of them died. Another time they tried to trick God by holding a mock sacrifice. Being omniscient, God saw right through this, and another thirty died. Eventually the villagers learnt their lesson, and reluctantly amended their laws so that the unlucky lottery winner must be killed within the day. (They still held out hopes that the situation might one day change, but alas, they had no chance.)

All the reasonable folk agreed to this new law, because they could see that it was in everyone's best interests. Granting an inviolable "right to life" would make each of them far more likely to die. Better to grant a more limited right, which protects against everyday violence, of course, but nevertheless allows that the unfortunate lottery winners may - nay, must - be killed.

There were some unreasonable folk who thought that their imagined natural rights were more important than real consequences. Thus sixty deontologists left to create their own society, though God made another lottery machine and informed them that they were bound by the same rules. Half of them died in the first month, and the others -- finally comprehending their impending doom -- crawled back to the indirect utilitarian society.

Others agreed to the new institution so long as it didn't cost them anything. But when their name came up on the lottery machine, they became newly concerned about their "right to life", and would try to bribe officials so that they were not bound by the same laws as everyone else. One time a very rich man managed to buy his way out of the system. In consequence, thirty other innocent people died in his place. The folk were outraged, and vowed never to let their institutions be so corrupted again. Justice requires that the randomly chosen innocent be killed, and it would be gravely immoral for them to not follow through on this.

As time passed, the institution become more embedded in the society, and the folk resigned themselves to it. To be chosen by God's lottery was seen as just another natural cause of death, like cancer or poverty (*cough*). Most went willingly, recognizing that it was just their bad luck to be chosen now, and that this same institution might well have saved their life in other circumstances. They blamed the evil God, of course, for creating this lamentable situation in the first place. But given the situation, they could all see that their society's response to it was entirely appropriate, and indeed morally mandatory.


That's the story. You might be intuitively tempted to apply the practical guidelines appropriate for our context on to that very different one, and hence conclude that the society was wrong to pacify God by instituting human sacrifice. You might think it indiscernible from "murder". But then, I think, you would be failing to take into account some very morally relevant differences. When you consider the scenario in its own terms, rather than ours, I think critical assessment of the situation inevitably leads to the conclusion that the society was correct to limit the right to life as they did. That's exactly what morality and justice required in response to their lamentable situation.

If any right is absolute, then it is surely the right to life. But we have seen that the right to life is not absolute, but rather situation-dependent. (Needless to say, it's a very important right that ought not to be compromised in our situation.) So rights are not absolute. And for less vital rights, like the right to property, we should consider various institutional options, since it may well be that a limited version of the right (allowing for some taxation and redistribution) would save lives and promote human flourishing in our situation. That's an empirical question. My moral/theoretical argument establishes that this is an empirical question we need to look into. You can't settle the debate merely by saying that "taxation is theft". Such conceptual confusion betrays the superficiality and inadequacy of the propertarian's politico-moral theory. It is superficial for its failure to distinguish internal violations from external assessments of a legal/institutional framework. And it is inadequate due to its bull-headed insensitivity to morally relevant empirical facts.


  1. My personal ethics are a sort of sophisticated consequentialism with many different consequences being considered valuable, with the value of different consequences being agent relative and there being an acknowledgement that there is no possible general rule for weighing one set of consequences against another. I disagree with your thesis that rights are just a means to a utilitarian end, I think the respecting of rights is a good consequence. Hence I can accommodate the case you present without ( fully) accepting your conclusion. How would you respond to this possibility?

  2. Sure, I have no objection to rights-consequentialism here.* Instead, I take myself to be addressing deontologists who take rights to be absolute side-constraints on action.

    * = (Though I do think it's misguided to think that rights have any fundamental significance, for reasons explained in the other comments thread.)

  3. It seems to me that things like war, the death penalty, and abortion, for example, already imply that the right to life isn't "fundamental." We go to war knowing there will be casualties. We justify the death penalty for whatever reason. And we justify abortion saying that a mother's right to have control over her own body is more important than the right of her child to live. I don't see the need to make up fantastic stories.

  4. > Justice requires that the randomly chosen innocent be killed, and it would be gravely immoral for them to not follow through on this.

    The thing that would concerns non utilitarians is that it WOULD be possible (in a utilitarian society) to "buy your way out" in a sense because a smart utilitarian society would make sure not to kill it's most important members (and probably would also be rewarding its most important members with money! and consider saving their life to offset the need for so much of a reward).

    For example lets say NZ was the society - we could probably find a murderer or someone else we could "do without" but if it was the prime minister every time the country would stop functioning properly (and if that person was popular it might undermine belief in the system).

    There is also a question regarding if it is "naive utilitarianism" (maybe not your definition) in that it doesn’t seem to have long term outlook regarding habits etc. You’re playing a game with god here and you can’t be sure if he is really willing to take it to the final conclusion (i.e. killing everyone). Just like a slave can’t be sure resisting slavery will result in a beating forever.

  5. isn't the point in this scenario that the the individual so chosen is the one that must be sacrificed? so you can't buy your way out.

  6. I'm never sure how to understand rights talk, but I doubt your post will convince anyone who's not a consequentialist that 'their society's response to it was entirely appropriate, and indeed morally mandatory'. I'm not inclined to accept that.

    Yet even if, for the sake of argument, we agree that it is permissible to kill the lottery winner, this still doesn't show that the right to life is contingent. You've described a case in which killing the lottery winner maximises welfare, and ex hypothesi, killing the lottery winner is permissible. But this only shows that the right to life does not apply to their society if it were true that:

    If the right to life was not contingent, then killing the lottery winner would be impermissible.

    I'm not sure if that can be taken for granted. Clearly, the right to life is not such as to render all killing impermissible (e.g. death sentences, permissibility of unplugging violinists, etc...), so some further argument would be needed on your part. An alternative: you could reply that the only plausible grounds for so circumscribing the right to life is because of the large welfare hit society would take if you didn't. So perhaps you could get the following weaker conclusion: any non-contingent right of life must be such as to allow killings in some cases in which it would result in a large increase in welfare (just re-read your post - you switch from 'contingent' to 'absolute' - maybe you only want the weaker conclusion?).

  7. Macht, a lot of people would say that criminals and soldiers are not "innocent", and that fetuses aren't persons yet. They would still want to insist that an innocent person is inviolable. The story I describe is important because it serves as a counterexample to this.

    Russ, I'm talking about the contingency of the particular (seemingly absolute) right to life that is recognized in our society. The government is not allowed to shoot innocent people in our society. I've described a society where they rightfully may (in special circumstances). Hence the right to life in Badland is different from the right to life in our situation. That's all I meant by the claim of "contingency" (as should be fairly clear from the context, and application to limited property rights, etc.).

    Clough -- That's right, but I think Genius is proposing that one Prime Minister might be more important than thirty other random folk. I'm not convinced of that myself. (Besides, death from God's lottery is still rare compared to other causes of death, and it's not that difficult to simply elect a new PM on the rare occasion that one dies mid-term.) Even if true of some people (perhaps a remarkable scientist about to discover a cure for cancer), there's no way to tell this reliably, and any system for exceptions would inevitably get abused by the rich and powerful. So I think the best institution here would not allow for any exceptions, contra the naive utilitarianism G. advocates.

    G. - "you can’t be sure if he is really willing to take it to the final conclusion (i.e. killing everyone)"

    It's part of the story that God has given every indication of being perfectly truthful. He has also gone through with the killings every time in the past when they've failed to make the sacrifice. Perhaps once a generation the people would want to test it just to make sure. But when the mass killing starts, they'll go back to the single human sacrifices pretty quickly!

  8. When you consider the scenario in it's own terms, rather than ours, I think critical assessment of the situation inevitably leads to the conclusion that the society was correct to limit the right to life as they did. That's exactly what morality and justice required in response to their lamentable situation.

    It isn't clear to me why you are so easily dismissing the Romantic response to the scenario -- i.e., that the right and rational thing to do in any such society would be to rebel. The rebellion is Promethean, since it's a (necessarily) losing cause; but a Romantic would say that resignation would be another way of losing, and another way of being morally culpable -- for complicity with terrorism, for quisling collaboration with the oppressor merely because of his power.

    In fact, the scenario you outline is very much like the Promethean view of our world that some Romantics have found enticing: the only thing it adds is certainty that this view is right. But such Romantics draw exactly the opposite conclusion: if Zeus is a tyrant, Prometheus, not Zeus, is the hero, even though Prometheus is certain to lose.

  9. Perhaps that's just my consequentialist intuitions kicking in. How could it be right to knowingly make the world a worse place? The monthly death of an innocent person is pretty bad, for sure, but not so bad as to warrant (what would effectively be) mass suicide. We accept worse, e.g. from car crashes, and the enforcement of property rights against the hapless poor. Agency and evil intentions might be relevant from the perspective of private morality, but public policy should plausibly take a more purely consequentialist perspective.

    In any case, I think we could revise the scenario to make 'God' a wholly natural and impersonal force, so there would be no room for concerns about "complicity with terrorism". His agency doesn't play any essential role in the scenario, it just makes it easier to describe.

  10. Clough,
    Yes maybe you are right, I have to admit that at the random 30 person level it is hard to imagine that level of differentiation between even the president and the people except maybe in a time of war etc so the example makes it pretty hard to make the point. I really shouldn’t get involved in arguing the details of this sort of case since the examples are usually designed as a trap for people to do that. 30 people not 2 random machines not optional selection etc. But I’ll nail Richard on his response anyway.

    You are using the wrong sort of analysis to evaluate my post.

    I was not saying that that is what you would do, I was saying it was POSSIBLE that is what you would do. If you deny the possibility then you are a deontologist posing as a utilitarian as opposed to an indirect utilitarian. (Please come back to us! Soon you’ll be telling us you have become Catholic!!)

    As far as how that possibility might eventuate - there is a possibility that you could create a rule that is not subject to much abuse but is more effective that the rule that is provided us largely by evolution and religion. For example police might be given the right to shoot people in some additional situations than members of the public are or maybe in less cases or just different cases.
    that doesn’t mean as I note to clough that the sort of thing I hinted at is LIKELY or a useful foundation for those rules, it was just a vague hint at the sort of thing - I probably shouldn't use such vague examples around here since you’ll charge of half cocked

    Anyway these are questions to be reviewed in a quiet moment of contemplation. Since they are presumably the highest level questions.

  11. Oh, fair enough. I'll grant that anything's possible ;-)

  12. "Macht, a lot of people would say that criminals and soldiers are not "innocent", and that fetuses aren't persons yet. They would still want to insist that an innocent person is inviolable. The story I describe is important because it serves as a counterexample to this."

    But, still, if you add the "innocent" (or "person") qualifier, that makes the right to life non-absolute.

  13. Richard,

    On the Romantic view I think simple acquiescence would be considered a way of knowingly making the world worse, because it means shutting down everyone's Promethean potential. So that's where I think the analysis diverges, and where your consequentialist intuitions are kicking in ; someone who has a different view of what would make the world worse will tend to come up with a different analysis.

    I should say that I don't think the impersonal force changes much for the Romantic view, either -- after all, the Romantics who have held something like it have often been atheists. They would still hold that you can, and should, rebel against such an impersonal force -- the way we have a natural inclination to rebel against death, disease, and other impersonal forces that threaten our existence or liberty. And while its being impersonal might make acquiescence less bad from the point of complicity, it makes it worse from the point of view of being something that you can overcome, since impersonal forces, unlike Gods, are not omnipotent, and can be (eventually) circumvented in various ways.

    Of course, I'm not a Romantic myself; I just wasn't sure why it was immediately out of the picture.

  14. It seems to me that whatever one's preferred ethical viewpoint, two (or thirty) people dieing is worse than one person dying, so one would have a duty to minimize the amount of life lost.

  15. I imagine within a truely utilitarian society there would be a "department of utility investigation" (a DUI or possibly several DUI and a review bodyetc to prevent corruption via structure) doing analysis on vast numbers of policies and determining variables in an impartial manner. (maybe in universities?)

    It could do surveys and subtle policy tweaking to test easy things like the effect of immutable rights on the psychology of groups, or the effect of otherwise optimal policy vs the effect of immutable rights, another one would be the effect of having a DUI.

    then you dont have to assume anything.

  16. My point, I guess, is that "not being picked by the lottery machine," in that society, is going to come to mean something similar to "being innocent" or "being a person" does in our society. People won't view "being picked by the lottery machine" as being an exception to the absoluteness of the right to life.

  17. Macht - thanks for clarifying, I think that fits in nicely with the last paragraph of my story. Note that what's important for my purposes isn't whether people view a right as "absolute" (whatever that means), but simply whether it is in fact contingent in my sense of having different limitations in different contexts.

    What I want this for is the analogy to property rights: drawing on your claim, perhaps we shouldn't view taxation as a violation of the "absoluteness" of the right to property. Again, it really depends what one means by "absolute". But at least we can distinguish internal violations ("theft") vs. the institution of a more limited right to begin with. Which is what I've been saying in my previous few posts.

    Brandon - fair enough. I'll just have to assume I'm not addressing any romantics here :-)

  18. Richard - It seems to me that the success of your analogy requires an assumption that most "rights proponents" would be unwilling to grant. Namely, that slavery can possibly be properly characterized as a "state of nature."

    I think that at least some "rights" proponents would argue that "states of nature" (such as cancer, death, not-having-wings, etc) form the proper context within which rights may be determined precisely because they are "nature", and not the result of any agent action. IOW, nobody decides that I get cancer, or that I don't have wings; that's just the way it is.

    Once you introduce agent action as a determining factor of the "state of nature" the idea of "rights" (or more properly "natural rights") has gone right out the window. Seen through this lens, it's still the case that individual rights are being violated; God is violating them (in your scenario). The response of the citizens of Badland (aptly named!) is understandable but it doesn't necessarily indicate that they consider (or that we may draw a conclusion that) natural rights are contingent. They are simply faced with two horrible options and choose the lesser of two evils.

    By violating a fundamental right to self-determination, the "God" in your scenario has virtually eliminated the possibility of a truly moral choice consistent with a natural rights foundation. This, I would suspect, is also the type of thinking that underlies the "romantic" scenario Brandon outlined. Dostoyevsky expressed a similar notion in The Brothers Karamazov:

    "Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.’"

  19. What if we strip God of his agency, stipulating that "he" is really just an unstoppable force of nature?

  20. Hi Richard, I know this post is ancient, but would you consider China's one-child policy to be a real-world example of a limited right to life?


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