We Are Bound To Promote Human Rights, Since We Are The Progeny Of
Self-Interested Rational Utility-Maximizing Homo Sapiens
Who Have Genetically Survived In Us
© Edip Yuksel, J.D. 1997
“The captain was innocent of the charge but the judges and the generals agreed that the doctrine of ‘utilitas populi’ must prevail.” (Lukes, Steven. “Five Fables About Human Rights.” On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1993. Ed. Stephen Shute and Susan Hurley. New York: Basic Books, 1993. p. 22)
Steven Lukes, in his lecture “Five Fables About Human Rights,” evaluates five main moral theories in fictional lands named Utilitaria, Communitaria, Proletaria, Libertaria, and Egalitaria, in relation to human rights. He suggests to keep the list of human rights short and reasonably abstract. This conclusion comes from his observation that the principle of defending human rights is “accepted virtually everywhere. It is also violated virtually everywhere, though much more in some places than in others.” (p. 20). A short and realistic list, according to the author, has “a prospect of securing agreement across the broad spectrum of contemporary political life.” (p. 38). He abruptly ends his article with a passionate invitation to stand against barbarian Serbs who are committing “ethnic cleansing”. Journey to Egalitaria can be resumed only through defending basic human rights in real world.
Since I am a resolute proponent of Utilitarianism, I will briefly summarize his criticism of other four theories and later deal with the author’s evaluation of Utilitaria.
Communitaria, according to the author, is plagued with the problems resulted from friction among subgroups struggling for recognition and from incompatibility created by the ideal of relativistic multi-culturalism. Communitarians do not need to determine human rights since they have faith in “abstract perfection” which according to a Communitarian orator Edmund Burke is their “practical defect.”
Proletaria, is a dream land far from the reality of human nature. A problem-free society is not possible when some people has to allocate resources or occupations for others. Proletarians are not aware of the fact that power corrupts. Proletarians reject the human rights as “ideological nonsense” and “obsolete verbal rubbish,” created by bourgeoisie to hamper the class struggle against enemies of proletariats. Human rights are needed only in imperfect, conflictual and class-ridden world. Proletaria, of course, does not need such rights since the dicta of working class allegedly will make it unnecessary. A wishful thinking!
Libertaria, on the other hand, recognizes the need for human rights, nevertheless, their achievement is left entirely to market principles. Individual’s right to own property and profit from his labor will achieve human rights through cost-benefit analysis. Public welfare is reduced to minimum because of strong belief in the merits of social Darwinism. Human rights, according to the author, is not taken seriously in Libertaria since despite its theoretical rhetoric, all people do not have equal power to organize and access to legal process or compete with the media owned by the rich.
Egalitaria too does not provide hope for human rights, since they are, like libertarians, extremely concerned to achieve maximal economic growth. The adopted Libertarian economic ideal is in conflict with egalitarian ideal. In cultural sphere Egalitaria suffers from communitarian constraint. The suggested “veil of ignorance” by Professor Rawls to achieve social harmony is not practical, since it cannot answer why should people make moral decisions behind “veil of ignorance” if it might result in sacrificing their immediate self-interest. Nevertheless, the author thinks that we can reach Egalitaria if we all agree on a short and reasonable list of human rights and work for it.
As for Utilitaria. . .
The author, in his evaluation of Utilitaria demonstrates his misunderstanding of utilitarianism, a theory that is based on reason and reality of human nature. “Life in Utilitaria has its hazards. . . The problem is that no one can ever know for sure what sacrifices he or she may be called on to make for the greater benefit of all.” (p. 22). He claims that innocent people will be sacrificed if their sacrifice will make the majority happier. He sees the doctrine of “utilitas populi” a dangerous tool in the hands of technocrats, bureaucrats or judges who might hurt innocent people based on their cost-benefit calculations.
The author, like many other critics, has missed the entire point of utilitarianism. One of the famous illustrations of this misunderstanding was expressed by Dostoyevsky. I will reject Lukes’ criticism of utilitarianism by using Dostoyevsky’s famous hypothetical question:
“Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last. Imagine that you are doing this but that it is essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature? That child beating its breast with its fist, for instance? In order to found that edifice on its unavenged tears. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me. Tell me the truth?” (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 226, quoted by Legal Ethics p. 9).
I call my personal moral philosophy “evolutionary intelligent utilitarianism.” I am sure that those who are not familiar with utilitarian philosophy will erroneously second-guess the utilitarian response to Dostoyevky’s mischievous question. They might say: “to achieve happiness for millions of individuals a utilitarian would of course torture a single child.”
First, Dostoyevky’s famous question has a deceptive language and a twisted logic. The language is deceptive, since it only tends to create sympathy with the pain and suffering of the presumptive sacrifice, but not with the pain and suffering of millions of children and adults who would be saved from all kinds of torture. The question could reduce our ethical resistance against sacrificing a child had it shifted sympathy towards those who would be saved from all kinds of painful tortures. (Just as I did it here).
Second, it is twisted since it is as a hypothetical question far from reality. Real life presents no choices between torturing a child to death or saving the world or others. This question carries an inherent contradiction if it is applied in real life: you can never save a person by torturing another similarly situated person. To demonstrate the latent problem twinkling under the Dostoyevky’s tricky question, here are some other questions:
- Would you spend 10 dollars to make 1000 dollars?
- Would you deprive a 70 year-old patient of a vital organ transplant to save a 30 year-old patient?
- Would you deprive a 30 year-old patient of a vital organ transplant to save a 70 year-old patient?
- Would you cut the public funding for an exotic and scarce medical technology that benefits a few rich people to allocate more funds for low-cost but desperately needed basic technology to save the lives of many middle-class and poor people?
- If you had two options, letting the burglar who robbed the bank go with the money or stealing the money from the burglar and keeping it for yourself, which one would you pick?
- Would you kill yourself to save your life?
Answering the first question is easy, especially in America. Your answer to the 2nd and 3rd questions might differ, though they are two identical problems stated in different ways. Your answer to the fourth question might differ not based on your ethical considerations but purely based on the interests of the class you belong at the time. Your answer to the 5th question might differ if the very same case was presented in a slightly different language: “if you had two options, letting the burglar who robbed the bank go with the money or taking the money from the burglar and keeping it for yourself, which one would you pick?” Probably, your answer would differ if the money did not belong to a bank; but to your neighbor. The size of their wealth to absorb their loss might affect your answer.
As for number 6, I think, it is the closest to Dostoyevky’s question (assuming that the meaning of “life” will not be construed according to the teachings of religions which promises life after death). Yes, my last question is a simplified version of the same problem presented in Dostoyevky’s question. I would not kill myself to save my life, and I would not torture a child to death to save other children’s life.
You might object by citing the famous utilitarian principle: “those actions are right that produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.” Well, I do abide by this principle and for the same reason reject the torturing of a child or punishing an innocent person to (supposedly) save others. Inconsistent? Not really.
If I were God, as Dostoyevsky craftily wants me to pretend without explicitly telling me, then, in that case I would think and act like humans. In other words, even hypothetically, I as a human being, can never put myself in the position of God, since I can never mentally isolate myself from the human intelligence which has evolved through natural selection. As the product of natural selection, I am inherently concerned about my survival and the survival of my decendents. My ethical problems are peculiar to humans and for humans. God, might have different ethical standards towards humans. For instance, we Homo Sapiens, do not treat our own species and animals the same. We might find it an easier decision to kill animals to save a human, though we will find difficulty with the notion of torturing animals. The reason is simple: torturing animals, in our evolutionary experience, does not have a utiliteran value; but killing them does.
Those who survived, in other words, those human genes who survived in us were those intelligent animals that happened to discover the power of being a member of a pact. Those who became a member of a pact or a community became superior against their solitary rivals. They also learned very soon that they could not stick with each other as a community unless they cooperated and trusted each other. Therefore, their survival depended on their level of trust to each other. Those who cheated others were cheated by others and became extinct species. Only those who were intelligent enough to understand the connection between the level of their commitment/loyalty to the common objectives and their existence survived. There were and are always some anomalies, but they usually get rid off each other. Those anomalies who survived were eliminated or neutralized by the society via mobilization of shame, ethical sanctions or criminal law.
Our ancestors were evolutionary-intelligent-utilitarians. They discovered, probably after witnessing the costly blunder of their neighbors, that the principle of “greatest happiness for the greatest number of people” could not be achieved by sacrificing a law abiding or innocent member of their community, since it would be contradictory. They were intelligent; they knew empirically that contradictory actions would inflict them with painful misery and disasters. They knew that they came together to survive, not to kill each other. If they killed an innocent member in their community to please the majority, then, who could assure each of them that they would not be the next victim. They saw the disastrous slippery slope of such an action. For their own future security, each individual had to protect the rights of other individuals. The security of any individual was ultimately a guarantee of security for the other. Therefore, the security of an individual was equivalent to the security of the whole, and vice versa.
As their progeny, I inherit the same utilitarian intelligence, and therefore I advocate human rights for all people since it is also a guarantee for my own rights and my children’s as well. Oppressing minorities constitutes a danger to the well-being of the majority in the future, since the slippery slop of oppression cannot be stopped. Oppressive majorities will always be pregnant to new-born sub-classes or minorities. Being insensitive towards the pains of the members of the same species creates unreliable, irrational monsters. The members of oppressive group eventually become enemy to each other. Obviously, “self-interested rational utility maximizers” will not put their own future into jeopardy.
I believe that the prime reason that ended slavery in this country was the physical and emotional interaction of masters and slaves which resulted in the creation of an interracial minority. Those hybrid “brown” children, as a new group of minority, triggered and alarmed the intelligent members of the majority regarding their own future.
In a world that is becoming smaller and smaller by the dramatic advance of modern technology and inter-continental nuclear missiles, we are compelled to be concerned about the plights of those who live in other countries. We are intelligent and experienced enough to fear from the tyrannical governments that treats their subjects badly. We know very well that dictators are not intelligent and trustworthy; they harm their own people, themselves and others. Equal rights for every single human being is the ultimate goal to live in a peaceful world.
In brief, we should promote human rights for our own security and self interest. We need to remind each other to use our God-given intelligence since it is what has elevated us to the top of food chain. The atrocities committed by those less intelligent ones should be stopped by those who are more intelligent. We are marching, walking, crawling, slithering or being pushed towards Utilitaria. Those who resist this evolutionary movement will ultimately lose power and become extinct. Like dinosaurs. Utilitaria is the manifest destiny of our evolutionary adventure.
I cannot resist of quoting a verse from the Quran, the holy book which is abandoned by most of the sectarian Muslims. It articulates this evolutionary intelligent utilitarian principle in few words:
“We decreed for the Children of Israel that if anyone who murders a human being who did not commit murder or a horrendous crime, is as if he murdered all the people. Anyone who saves a life is as if he saved the lives of all the people . .” (5:32).