Utilitarianism is a theory focused on the consequences of the actions, while rights are claims justified by ethical principles. These two concepts can be juxtaposed, as utilitarianism denies the absolute nature of ethical rights and proclaims universal happiness as the only worthwhile goal. The idea of universal human rights is essential to modern democratic societies, while the concepts of utility attract a lot of criticism for ignoring humanitarian ethics. However, most prominent philosophers of 19th-century utilitarianism promoted liberal ideas that society accepted as universal human rights only several decades later. Therefore, it would be wrong to assume that these two theories contradict each other entirely despite the apparent differences.
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For instance, utilitarianism promotes the ideas of equality that are central to the agenda of modern rights activists. Mill notes that humanity continuously advances towards universal equality (74-75). John Locke, who contributed significantly to the rights theory, argues the importance of equal rights in his Second Treatise of Civil Government as well. However, the argument for equality is based on different grounds in utilitarianism and rights theories. The former takes into account all the interested parties and defines equality as the best outcome. Locke believes the concept of equality follows the rules of nature. Ultimately, both philosophers come to a similar conclusion, even if they motivate it differently.
Positive rights are an essential part of the contemporary concept of rights. Based on the negative rights, positive rights provide a fail-safe mechanism to society and embody the idea of social justice. On the other hand, utilitarianism is often criticized for dismissing justice as irrelevant to the views of the movement. Hairy shows via the McCloskey case how the arguments of utility fail to respond to the demands of justice adequately (78-80). Executing an innocent person to prevent further violence is not only a violation of a fundamental human right to live but also a gamble that does not necessarily benefit the majority in the end. For instance, if the information about the murder of the innocent is exposed, it might result in grave consequences for the community. This case reveals another problem of utilitarianism – inaccuracy of the assumptions based on the concept of “greater good”. The ability to define the exact outcomes of the decisions made is crucial to the utility concept. However, as utilitarianism claims that the interests of all parties have to be taken into account, it makes such equations in the age of globalization extremely unreliable.
COVID-19 epidemic is a perfect example of the rights-utility conflict in the modern world. As medical care systems around the world have collapsed following the first few months of the pandemic, some governments are forced to adopt a utilitarian approach. In a situation where medical facilities are insufficiently equipped, only the patients with a higher chance of survival are accepted. This policy directly contradicts the universal positive right to medical treatment, but easily fits into the concept of Unitarianism.
As human rights movements have a significant influence on the contemporary political agenda, Unitarianism has minimal potential to become a new official ideology in the Western countries for the next few decades. The failure of Unitarianism to adapt to the demands of modern society makes it an unattractive alternative to the rights theory. As previously noted, these concepts have certain similarities, but major differences in argumentation set them apart.
Hayry, Matti. Liberal Utilitarianism and Applied Ethics. Routledge, 2013.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. BookRix, 2019.
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