[U09] Utility and rights



Module: Values


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Utility, rights and virtues are the three main factors to consider in determining the morality of action. Different moral theories have different conceptions of how they are related. Here we focus on some of the more basic points.

§1. Utility

Utility is a measure of the consequences of an action. A certain action might lead to a certain amount of happiness and a certain amount of suffering. The difference between the two - the net difference between the happiness and the suffering - is the utility of the action.

  • The utility of an action X depends on the happiness and suffering of every person (and creature) affected by X.
  • When a person performs an action X, the utility of X depends only on its consequences and not the intention of the person.
  • An action X can have a higher utility than another action Y even if X produces no happiness. This would be the case if X brings about a lot less suffering than Y, even though Y does bring about some amount of happiness.

Utility is obviously an important consideration in morality. When a government evaluates a certain policy, it would have to consider both the good and bad consequences of the policy. The utility to consider would include not just short-term utility but long-term utility. Rapid economic development might lead to a lot of happiness for the present generation, but in the long term a lot of suffering might result due to environmental pollution or valuable traditions being destroyed by market forces.

The moral theory known as "utilitarianism" says that in any situation, the morally right thing to do is to act in such a way to maximize utility. However, many philosophers argue that maximizing utility might not always be right, and might lead to rights being violated. Discriminatory policies against homosexuals might create a lot of happiness for the conservative majority of a population, but if those policies cannot be morally justified, then perhaps they should not be implemented even if they bring about more utility.

§2. Rights

Rights then, function as utility trumps. They serve to protect certain interests which we deem to be so important that, all else being equal, they cannot be violated in the name of bringing about more utility. Here are a few points to note about rights:

  • Some rights are supposed to be absolute and others are not. Freedom of thought is supposed to be an absolute right, in the sense that there should be absolutely no limitation on what people should think and believe. Most other rights are however not absolute and can come into conflict with each other. Having the right to free speech does not mean we have the right to talk loudly in a library or the cinema. Similarly, the right to life does not entail that our lives should be protected at all costs, even when we are harming other people.
  • Just because I have a right to X, it does not immediately follow that other people or the government should provide me with X. I have the right to leave the country if I want to, but it does not mean the Government should provide me with an air ticket to leave the country if I have no money.
  • It is generally thought that some rights are basic and common to all human beings. The UN declaration of human rights says that "everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person". But the existence of many of our rights depend on social conventions and the legal system. Independent of government regulations, there is no objective standard to decide whether we should have a right to 6 years, 9 years, or some other number of years of free education.
  • Rights in general can be divided into four kinds: claim right, liberty, power, and immunity. See the next tutorial for further discussion.

§3. Virtues

Morality goes beyond simply the protection of rights. We have the duty of not violating other people's rights, but morality also recognizes that there are things we ought to do even if we are not required to do them. Virtuous actions belong to this category.

Virtues are morally valuable character traits like courage, integrity, honesty, fairness, generosity, etc. We are not required to be nice or helpful, and failure to do so need not violate anybody's rights. If an old lady is carrying a heavy bag, it might be argued that I have no duty to help her. Even if I don't help her, I have not violated any of her rights. But if there is nobody around to help out, it would reflect very badly on my character if I don't help her. So being a virtuous person often involves doing more than what is required of us.

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