Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Does This Strengthen the Case for the Theory of Negative Moral Rights?

A slight proviso: This post is a bit more speculative than is most other stuff on this blog (which, I suppose, is quite often already rather speculative). I am really only wondering aloud whether the following works at all:

If somebody threatens to kill me unless I steal something of questionable significance (say, a peanut) from somebody else (who has never wronged me in any way), I believe most people's ethical compasses would indicate that it is up to me whether I should commit theft or suffer the consequences. Followers of deontological ethics are the ones who may disagree, but they may suppose one has an implicit contract with the peanut's owner and may compensate him later. If the demand were that I do something rather more objectionable (say, kill an unsuspecting family), I am less certain of how others would react. Some people would find my hypothetical murder defensible ("he acted in self-defence"), but others would not ("more deaths occurred this way"). But none of this is really crucial for the points I am going to make (if any!).
Now suppose it were known about me that I was a keen adherent of the theory of negative rights (or "deontological libertarianism"). My normative ethics would then tell me that I may do whatever I please with what is mine, but I may not interfere with the ability of others to do whatever they want with what is theirs. In this case, I believe very few people would object to my refusing to steal (and certainly to commit murder). Kantians sometimes confound my predictions about their attitudes, so I will restrict myself to how consequentialists (such as utilitarians and egoists) might reason. Utilitarians would, I think, reason that I am better off this way (at least that I believe I am better off this way; maybe I could not live with myself knowing that I had committed murder or stolen a peanut). An egoist should be OK with it since he is not affected. Thus, it seems it would be hard to argue that adherents of negative rights are wrong to refuse to steal (or kill). These adherents of moral theories different from that of negative moral rights would still oppose my normative ethics, of course, but that being what it is, this is how I think they would react.
Now blow up this example to some variant of the common "is it right to steal if it saves humanity"-problem. For instance, suppose an asteroid (which should really be called planetoid since they are more "like" planets than stars) is about to hit the Earth, and that some curmudgeon has invented a ray gun which could blast the asteroid to smithereens. There is no palatable alternative to using the ray gun: if it is not used, the Earth will be destroyed and humanity will cease to exist. The curmudgeon, true to character, does not want to share his ray gun with anyone and intends to let the asteroid hit the Earth.
Is it right to steal the ray gun from the curmudgeon? Well, suppose everyone on Earth was an adherent of the theory of negative moral rights. If no consequentialist has a problem with an individual's refusing to violate others' rights, why should the answer change just because now we are talking about many individuals making up their own minds to reach the same conclusion?
To object to many individuals' choosing not to violate rights requires, I think, that one in this example cares more about some notion of "humanity" than about the sum of its parts. But what is humanity if not the sum of its parts? I suppose one could argue that unborn generations would suffer from never getting to live, but then in the original example in which only I am affected by my refusal to violate others' rights, critics would have to argue that I am not at liberty to refuse to procreate.
The point here is that those claiming that the  asteroid problem shows that adherents of negative rights are wrong would, if I am correct, be OK with the world ending if everyone (or perhaps just most people, depending on how tolerant are the few utilitarians and how they rate their own utility in relation to the utility of the deontological folks) actually believed it right not to steal in this sort of situation. Again, there would be objections to these ideas about negative rights, but given that people have them, I don't think consequentialists would see a problem with the refusal to violate rights.

Notice that those who believe in negative rights do not have to interfere and attempt to protect the curmudgeon if someone else (say, a utilitarian) chooses to steal the ray gun and save the Earth. Why should they be prevented from doing what they want with their own time just because someone else chose to violate rights?

So here is where I end up: If man kind consisted of (almost?) only adherents of the theory of negative moral rights, consequentialists cannot use the asteroid example to criticize their lack of action in the face of looming disaster. If, on the other hand, there were any (or sufficiently many) consequentialists around, consequentialists cannot criticize adherents of the theory of negative moral rights, since their refusal to violate rights had no bad consequences. Either way, the asteroid example cuts no ice with the theory of negative moral rights.

No comments:

Post a Comment