Natural Rights and Consequences

Glen Whitman discusses natural rights vs. consequentialism in his own always unique and enlightening way. I couldn't find a simple little snippet to quote so just go read the whole damn thing.

The gist if it is the rehashing of the argument that if natural rights philospophy meant clutching to them as the earth implodes in anarchy, maybe it isn't such a good philosophy. I think it's pretty fair to call Glen a consequentialist from his post.

As far as I go, I'm kinda in no-man's land. I was swayed to libertarianism by natural rights, and I find appeals to the moral righteousness of natural liberty very persuasive. However, I have a good feeling that when it's all said and done, consequentialism is what carries the day. But here's what makes me hesitant.

Natural rights justification is fairly easy. You have rights and nobody else can touch 'em. And don't tread on others'. Sure, there are hard problems, like abortion, to name one. But most things take care of themselves. Consequentialism is a little different. Every aspect of society become open to some sort of analysis of whether it's "good," be it cost-benefit analysis or some other type. The problem with this, then, is: who gets to make those analyses, who gets to judge the science, who gets to determine fact? Most of the parts of government that libertarians object to are institutions that violate natural rights, though they exist for "consequential" reasons, even when we're pretty sure that any cost-benefit analyses argue for cutting them down.

Take the drug war, for example. Nobody argues for it based on some natural right to live in a world free of drugs. No, it exists because the powers-that-be have convinced us that benefits of prohibition exceed its costs. That drug use is bad because it's problems exceed its use. Of course, we know this to be absolutely wrong (I mean, how much evidence do we need?) - but that doesn't stop it from being policy. And it certainly doesn't stop a lot of really bad science from making the rounds. (And it means those in power actively try to stop any science by those who might come to different conclusions). There is a never ending list of ways the govenrment restrains our rights for consequential reasons in the face of really good evidence to the contrary. I'm just not so optimistic that the "right"argument always wins.

So it is possible that natural rightsists (that's more fun to says than deontologists) would defend natural right into the bowels of hell. But maybe it's possible that consequentialists would defend their justification in the face of...bad overall consequences. One would reply that the consequentialist would see the bad consequences and then go to natural rights for consequential reasons. Buy maybe, because of the abuse of "reason" and "analysis" we will have reached a point of no return where the consequentialists have lost control of their consequences.

Man, I just split the difference and hope David Friedman is right.

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I fully agree that allowing

I fully agree that allowing people (and governments) to make every decision on consequentialist grounds would, paradoxically, result in terrible consequences. That's why I said, in the post you linked, "Performing a quick cost-benefit analysis in every moral, legal, or political situation would be a prescription for disaster (in cost-benefit terms!)." I think rights are a useful concept precisely because they provide a bulwark against facile and often biased applications of consequentialist reasoning.

That said, I think there has to be some consequentialist reasoning involved in the characterization of what rights people have in the first place, as well as the situations in which the concept of rights even applies. The absolutist natural-rights position ends up being unpersuasive because of the kind of bizarre consequences I suggested in my post. And in order for natural rights to have their beneficial effects, they must be persuasive enough to carry the day in most polical/legal discussions.

My mind's not always in the

My mind's not always in the gutter, sometimes it comes out to feed...
The Word for the Day is: "The Reformationative President" Last DailySpam! til after the holidays. Enjoy, and Merry Xmass! ;] Heh. Stoller's Law: "No matter how unethical you expect the Republican Party to be, they will not only be worse, but they w...

I'm with Glen. I see natural

I'm with Glen. I see natural rights and consequentialism as existing in a kind of reflective-equilibrium process; since both our moral and our consequential reasoning abilities are imperfect, we need each one to serve as a check on the other. If you go through a consequentialist reasoning process and you find yourself with strong moral objections to the conclusion, that tells you your consequence analysis was probably missing something. Likewise, if your moral reasoning appears to lead to bizarre consequences, you probably need to refine your moral premises.

Thus "Are you a deontologist or a consequentialist?" is almost entirely a false-dichotomy question.

Well technically

Well technically consequentialism still requires normative judgements as to which consequences are more desirable than others, so there is no such thing as a human who's a pure consequentialist. For instance someone who treated equality of lifestyle as their most desirable goal would think little of impoverishing everyone if it meant making them all equal. Or someone who's only value was their own physical pleasure would think nothing of using other people in all kinds of awful ways if he felt he could do so without punishment. So I agree that "consequentialism" in itself is potentially more dangerous than natural rights and such, but that doesn't make natural rights any less a load of bollocks. Science is more dangerous than religious dogma, but does that mean we should be afraid of science?

If someone is pushing bad science, it is incumbent upon everyone who knows what he's talking about to debunk the balloney. Consequentialist ethical arguments are no different. If you're not able to convince anyone that a policy is bad on consequential grounds, then they probably have different normative standards than you and are probably not going to be persuaded to change them.

I guess what this comes down to is difficult truths versus useful fictions. I am far too comitted to the former to make cynical use of the latter.

(BTW, I have no idea why you think that the drug war is being sold on consequentialist grounds. It isn't. The whole thing rests on a "drugs are bad" dogma that hardly ever gets questioned in mainstream politics, and the odd time that it does get questioned the law enforcement bureaucrats start howling. There's hardly ever any reference made to consequences such as prison overcrowding or whether or not the War on Drugs actually makes any of us any safer.)

One more clarifying note on

One more clarifying note on consequentialism vs. deontology - Glen and Nicholas are correct in stating that this is actually something like a false dichotomy. Most people (sane, rational ones anyway) follow certain principles because following those principles tends to beget desirable consequences. What you guys are talking about is basically rule-utilitarianism, only without the unmeasurable "utility" to screw us up. (I wrote about this a while ago.)

Now you've got me thinking about evolutionary game theory again...