Human Rights: Consequential or Deontological View? Consequential ethics and deontological ethics (DE) mutually maintain that there is a right action that we morally ought to do. However, these normative ethical theories differ in the derivation of what is valued. In the case of human rights, both accounts are supportive of human rights, but for different reasons. Deontological ethics has as its basic thrust, the concept of a duty to do what is right. For one’s actions to be in accordance with DE, those actions must be realized out of a “notion of right (that) is not derived from a prior notion of good”, as explained by Illies (Illies, 2011, p. 107). A person should choose to perform an act solely because it is the right thing to do, irrespective of the act’s outcome or the consequences thereof. According to Illies transcendental argument, human beings have, by their nature, the inherent ability to distinguish between, the concepts of good and bad.
Humans possess the capability to have an “active pro-attitude” toward good, as well as the freedom to act toward the same (Illies, 2011, p. 108-109). This translates to the concept of moral freedom in that the ability to perform free action toward this good specifically is simply, and unarguably, inherently good. Because of this fact, one should purpose, as it is one’s duty, to promote the moral freedom of another unequivocally, regardless of whose moral freedom one is promoting or as importantly, from a DE viewpoint, what the resulting potential outcome might be. Illies does stress that it is imperative to obtain as much information as possible surrounding the facts as to why a certain peoples’ rights are being suppressed, in order to promote those rights in the most lasting and efficient manner (Illies, 2011, p. 114).
When one examines human rights, the concept of personhood is of paramount importance. DE calls for the treatment of others as an end and not as a means. This requires the respect of persons for whom they are as individuals and never as conduits through which one might accomplish a goal or achieve a benefit on their own behalf. In this light, one who holds to the DE concept of human rights has at his imperative the treatment of all individuals with equal respect, and the duty to promote their freedom with an “active pro-attitude”. Why does one do this? One does because this action, an “active pro-attitude” is good and the action of good is inherently good. As opposed to the deontological account, the consequentialist believes in the prior conception of the good.
If something is good then it is right to promote something good according to consequentialism (Lillehammer, 2011, p. 90). Moreover, the actions with the best end results or consequences are what are to be evaluated as good. It must be clear that good intentions are not, at all, of value to consequentialists. Further, it is important to note that in decision-making, a consequentialist must hold to the demands of impartiality. Consequentialism upholds the idea that no one person is worth more than another (Lillehammer, 2011, p. 90). As we read in “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” Singer asserts that suffering from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad. If we accept this assumption, and if we can, by our actions, prevent this bad from occurring, we are morally obligated to do so unless in so doing we sacrifice something that is of “comparable moral importance” (Singer, 1972, p. 500).
Not all consequentialists agree with giving to Singer’s suggested “level of marginal utility” but there is basis for supporting human rights in consequentialism. According to consequentialists, human rights should be promoted because the rightness of supporting those rights is what is best for the world. It is clear that suffering is bad, and if we can alleviate suffering by supporting human rights then we clearly should promote them. If the consequence of the action is resultant from an actor who is promulgating the purist sense of consequentialism, it very well has the potential to be counter to his own individual interest. For the consequentialist, the overall consequence of an action is of primary importance. Consequentialists view impartial importance so “the good of everyone should count for everyone, no matter their identity, location, or personal and social attachments, now or hereafter” (Lillehammer, 2011, p. 92).
This view supports the notion that the human rights of those who are far away are just as deserving, and just as valid, as the rights of those who are near. Furthermore, the universe will be better off by the rightness of supporting human rights. Maximizing the good is required from the consequentialist perspective. As noted earlier, consequentialist and deontological accounts differ from one another from their foundations. While consequentialists focus on the good being promoted only as in relationship to its overall effect on humanity as a whole, deontologists view principles affecting individuals’ actions. Rules guide the deontological approach and the best consequence for most people is the consequential concern. For example, a consequentialist would look at the issue of child labor differently from the deontologist.
The consequentialist would evaluate the overall outcome of allowing young children to be employed in a factory full-time, with little pay. In a poverty-stricken country, these children may bring home much needed monies in order for their families to survive. The deontologist would view child labor as unethical in that children working long hours for little pay is unarguably wrong. Another illustration of their differing views is that of the U. S. drone attacks in Pakistan that killed innocent civilians. The consequentialist would say that sending those drones to kill an Al-Qaeda leader is the best outcome to thwart the attack of US citizens. The deontologist would say that the killing of innocent civilians is never justified as this violates their individual human rights. In the realm of human rights, the problem with adopting a consequentialist approach is that one cannot truly determine what is to be the proper or preferred result of a specific act on a group of peoples; even though, with all good intentions, it may be supposed.
Although a good and moral outcome may be realized from an action, to base that action solely on the intended consequence of that action, rather than the inherent goodness of the action, one does not insure that the action will result in result in, truly, what is best. Moreover, when the best possible outcome is the preferred result then individuals’ rights can be violated. The deontological account offers worldwide moral support of (individual) human rights. That is what human rights require. As asserted by Robert Paul Churchill, “The grounds for human rights remain the same as long as human beings, or moral person exist. The inherent worth of humans does not cease to justify certain forms of respect due to them, and thus human rights do not cease, even when addresses are genuinely unable to fulfill correlative obligations and therefore have legitimate excuses” (Churchill, 2011, p. 12).
Choosing an action because it is right and good, without looking downstream at the resultant consequences of that action, allows one to make decisions on the duty to act based on purely the rightness and goodness of that act, and nothing more. Now, this assumes that those making these decisions possess the proper moral compass to know a right act from a wrong one. In support of the deontological approach, I maintain that one will “get it right” when they choose an action because the action is right, more so, than when they try to determine what the consequence might be from that action and work backwards in order to make the “right” decision.
Churchill, R. P. (2011). Global human rights. In M. Boylan (Ed.), The Morality and Global Justice Reader (7-25). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Illies, C. (2011). How to think about global duties. In M. Boylan (Ed.), The Morality and Global Justice Reader (103-126). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Lillehammer, H. (2011). Consequentialism and global ethics. In M. Boylan (Ed.), The Morality and Global Justice Reader (89-102). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Singer, P. (1972). Famine, affluence, and morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(1), 229-243.
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