Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What are moral rights? The basics of a rights-like view[1]:

I. The basic concepts:
If an individual has (basic) moral rights, then:
(1) Others are not morally free to harm that being by taking his or her most important goods (e.g., his or her life, bodily integrity, liberty, etc.). [contractarianisms deny this]
(2) Benefits that others might derive from harming that individual do not, cannot, justify harming that individual. [utilitarians deny this]

(1) and (2) we can see as a consequence of respect: to treat an individually respectfully requires that (1) you not harm that being by taking its most important goods and (2) you do not harm that being to try to achieve benefits for others.

Saying that the concept is instantiated, or that some beings have the property of having moral rights:
To say “humans[2] have (basic) moral rights” is to say that
(1) “humans should not be harmed by taking away their lives, violating their bodies, restricting their liberty, etc. and
(2) that benefits that others might gain from doing so would not justify those kinds of harms.”
Respecting human beings requires this treatment.

Basic ways to deny this:
(1) Denying (1): No, others are morally free to harm individuals: harming individuals in these ways is not wrong.
· Two options, among many: egoism: “No, morally, I can harm you if doing so will benefit me more than anything else I can do.” Nihilism: “Nothing is right or wrong, good or bad, so harming you in any way is not wrong.”
(2) Denying (2): No, if there are enough overall benefits to be gained by harming individuals, then it’s morally OK to harm them.
· One option, among many: utilitarianism: “Acts are morally permissible when, and only when, they produce the greatest overall utility/intrinsic goodness. If achieving that requires harming you greatly, that’s morally permissible.”

II. So, for those beings that we (1) should not profoundly harm and (2) shouldn’t do this even if there were great benefits from doing so, what is it about those beings that makes this so?

The pattern:

1. Identify some candidate rights-making property (or properties). Get clear on what the property exactly is since, sometimes, the meanings of the terms used are not clear (e.g., human, person, “moral community” etc.”


2. Think about whether this seems true, in light of possible counterexamples (i.e., is this property a sufficient condition for having rights, i.e., _____________ ):

If an individual has this property (or properties), then we (1) should not profoundly harm that individual and (2) we shouldn’t do this even if there were great benefits from doing so.

3. Think about whether this seems true, in light of possible counterexamples (i.e., is this property a necessary condition for having rights, i.e., _____________):

We (1) should not profoundly harm that individual and (2) we shouldn’t do this even if there were great benefits from doing so only if an individual has this property (or properties).

4. Think about whether the property (or properties) seems to be the ones that make harming someone wrong: there must be some [essential] connection between this one and harm.

Patterns of Critical responses:

“No, morally we can profoundly harm this individual (especially if (2) there were great benefits from doing so) because this individual lacks this property (or properties): _________________.


[1] Important details about this account are provided in CASE Ch. 8. For many hard questions about this account, answers are given there.
[2] What’s being referred to when we speak of ‘humans’ and ‘human beings’ is not often clear. Here are some possibilities: (1) anything that’s biologically human, has human DNA, (2) anything of the species homo sapiens, (3) anything biologically human that’s living, (4) anything biologically human that’s living and would pretty easily “naturally” develop into a conscious individual, (5) anything biologically human that’s living and, in some sense, could develop into a conscious individual, (6) anything biologically human that’s living and has a mind (i.e., is conscious, can feel, etc.), etc.

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