Human Rights and Deontology

The average person today is a deontologist, even though it wouldn’t immediately seem that way.

In your typical moral philosophy class, you’ll be told that there are generally three philosophical approaches to ethics, one being deontology (which is focused on rules and duties), another being utilitarianism (seeking the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people), and the third being virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is the odd one out, in a way, because it focuses on the moral status of people more than on the moral status of actions.

At first glance, it might appear that the average person today must be a utilitarian. Whatever makes you happy. Minimal rules, maximal freedom. I stay out of your way while you make yourself happy, and you stay out of my way while I define and pursue my own happiness. Of course there’s a legal system, with all its rules, to stave off total chaos, but other than the laws laid down by the state, our morality really does have the appearance of pursuing freedom, to ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Appearances can be misleading, though, and I don’t believe this is the most accurate way of seeing things.

Our most fundamental moral conviction today is that human beings have human rights. That’s precisely why we leave one another alone to make our own happiness — because we think that’s what is required to respect human rights.

And human rights are the mirror image of human duty. You can’t have rights without duties. When people say, “I have a right to …” they are always also simultaneously communicating, “you owe it to me that …”

So if human rights are our moral bedrock today, then we are fundamentally deontologists.

Well then, why do we always speak of rights, rather than of duties and rules?

I think this reveals the baseness of the modern approach to moral matters. In the modern world, a workable social system has been built on vice. For instance, Hobbes constructs the theory of the state upon cowardice (fear of violent death), and capitalism appeals to greed as the engine of increasing abundance.

That’s not to deny that these vicious motives were at play in the ancient world, and even in a central way, but the moral rhetoric of the ancient world urged that these and all other vices must be fought and transcended.

In the modern world, it’s not so much a question of vices and virtues, but of socially destructive vices in opposition to socially beneficial vices. We celebrate the greedy people who benefit economies, and the cowards who keep society rolling smoothly along.

It seems to me that “rights” talk follows in that same vein. We are able to speak of duties, yes, but we must think of them firstly as things owed to oneself, to myself. Duties must fundamentally take the form of rights. And then in a secondary way, I am able to recognize that if I want others to respect my rights then I will have to respect theirs. Framing duties, even the very limited duties required in modern regimes, as rights, makes them more palatable to our stunted moral capacities.

We’ve got to start with, “what’s in it for me?” because no one buys the unbelievable ideals of altruism or saintliness or moral heroism anymore.

And it is very effective, as a social and political system. Machiavelli promised that when we plan societies on the basis of what we know people will do, rather than what we think they should do, our plans are much more likely to succeed, and there is something to that.

It’s astonishing to me, though, how human rights, as the mirror image of duties and deontology, is so much less noble than deontology, even though in one way it is almost the same thing.

I am all about virtue ethics, but I truly do think that deontology is a beautiful approach to the world. The true deontologist will say, I cannot do that something which is wrong, no matter the consequences. Even if I and everyone I love would die, even if the entire world would have to burn, I shall not do what I know to be wrong. That is heroism.

It’s an approach to ethics that is deeply admirable. Our own is not. I wonder if there’s a way to get from here to there.

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