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Vegan Outreach Enewsletter  •  May 7, 2001


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Guest Column

by Gaverick Matheny

In last week's edition of Spam!, we raised the issue of positive and negative rights. One traditional view of rights focuses on negative rights – that is, rights against something, like a right against being interfered with, being killed, being robbed, etc. Along with these negative rights come negative duties – don't interfere with others, don't kill, don't rob, etc. This view neglects the role of positive rights and duties – rights to something, like food, health care, or education; and duties to provide these goods to others. Such positive rights and duties have been included in the various human rights charters of the United Nations and have gained increasing currency in contemporary moral philosophy. This week we'll discuss why we should take positive rights and duties seriously, and what happens when we do.

Before we begin, it's necessary to distinguish two views about the creation of rights and subsequent duties. Consequentialism is the view that the goodness or badness of an act is measured by the consequences it produces. Consequentialists generally believe that rights are an invention of society to protect humans (and nonhumans), in order to produce the best consequences. Whenever the term 'rights' is used, it is used as shorthand to describe the consideration that all individuals deserve. Non-consequentialism, on the other hand, is the view that the goodness or badness of an act is measured by some other criteria besides consequences. Non-consequentialists generally believe that rights are not an invention of society, but are something endowed by god or nature to each individual, just by virtue of having come into being. An individual is born with certain rights, and only through individual consent can these rights be waived or altered. Although the consequentialist view of ethics tends to be the dominant view among ethicists, we will discuss the issue of positive rights from both the consequentialist and non-consequentialist perspectives.

For the consequentialist, the argument for positive rights is clear and direct. At every point where one is deciding to follow one of many possible courses of action, one should choose that action which produces the best consequences. For instance, if I am walking by a shallow pond and see a child drowning, I can either continue walking by or save the child at no risk to myself. Most people would agree I would be wrong in walking by, as this decision would result in bad consequences – the child's death. Should I decide to save the child, I would get wet and lose time on my walk. But these concerns are of less moral significance than the child's life. We might disagree on what kind of blame I deserve for walking by – did I commit the moral equivalent of manslaughter, criminal negligence, or just selfishness? In any case, most of us would agree that I decided unethically. 

For the consequentialist, how strong is this positive duty to help others? As strong as the duty not to harm others. According to the consequentialist view, there is no intrinsic moral difference between killing someone and consciously 'letting someone die.' Although this may be counterintuitive, it helps if we give a real-world example. Often in medicine, a patient who is comatose and has no prospect for recovery is allowed to die without intervention. The doctor withholds the usual treatments to prolong life and the patient dies as a result. This is referred to as 'passive euthanasia.' Should the same patient have been given a lethal injection by the doctor, instead, this is referred to as 'active euthanasia.' In either case, the consequences are the same – the patient dies. There is thus said to be no intrinsic moral difference between killing someone and letting someone die or, more generally, between acts and omissions.

One common objection to this argument is that equating 'acts and omissions' discounts the role of intentions in ethics. For a  consequentialist, however, it is not clear what role intentions play in the determination of good choices. According to the consequentialist view, when one decides among several possible actions, and is conscious of the consequences of all those actions, one is responsible for the consequences of the action one chooses. For instance, say I am driving recklessly on my motorcycle, conscious that my driving will likely kill someone. My intentions are good ones – I just want to enjoy the ride. But in the process I kill a pedestrian. Have I done nothing wrong? Most people would say that I have done something wrong, by not taking the probable consequences of my actions seriously. This is not to say that I have committed the moral equivalent of murder. Intentions or motive may play some role, but in any case they do not excuse me for my reckless act.

A second objection is that such a view of acts and omissions discounts the role of direct responsibility or causality. Some libertarians, for instance, often claim that one is responsible for helping only those people one has injured in the past. For example, a libertarian may believe s/he shouldn't have to pay taxes to help the homeless if s/he was not the cause of their homelessness. Unfortunately, it's impossible to determine what share of responsibility for a problem any one individual has. All individuals affect distant individuals in unpredictable ways. My decision to vote for one politician and not another may have had some role in the increase in homelessness. My effect may be as small and indirect as a vegan's effect on the meat industry, but this is an effect we do not discount. Likewise, any moral system that takes a strictly causal view of events is going to have an impossible time determining the proper share of responsibility for each individual. I can never know to what degree I was the cause of a particular problem. However, if I understand the problem, I'm still responsible for choosing an action that brings about the best consequences.

Having argued that the consequentialist should accept positive rights and duties that make significant demands on us, I will now argue the same is true for the non-consequentialist. Most non-consequentialists believe in following rules that prevent doing harm – violating rights, doing injustice, or breaking promises – without exclusive regard for the consequences. However, for most non-consequentialists the injunction to prevent harm applies only when nothing comparably significant is at stake. Few non-consequentialists would argue, for instance, that it would be wrong to tell a lie when a lie could save thousands of lives. Thus most non-consequentialists believe, like consequentialists, that we ought to prevent what is bad and promote what is good. Their dispute with consequentialists lies in the belief that this is not the sole ethical principle. 

For the sake of argument, what kind of rule might a non-consequentialist adopt that would not provide an injunction to help others? One such rule might be, "Do no harm," without any mention of "Do good." In rights language, this would be a 'negative right' against being harmed. On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable rule. However, if one followed this rule to its logical end, one would need to commit suicide, as one's life inevitably harms other animals. Even the most compassionate vegan is financially supporting the production and distribution of food and industrial goods, as well as the pollution from these processes, each of which causes harm to surrounding wildlife.

What if we qualify the rule, as is often done in favor of self-defense, and say, "Do no harm unless one's survival is threatened"? First, survival does not seem to be its own moral justification. If I had a rare medical condition that required I eat human flesh to stay alive, few people would argue that I would be justified in killing people to save my own life. Secondly, if survival is all that's necessary, then we would still be obliged to live according to some very minimal pre-industrial lifestyle that did the least amount of harm. Most people are not so persuaded by either of these rules to begin with. This is in large part because the rule 'do no harm' places value only on the rule, not on that which the rule is meant to protect. Why is it bad to do harm to someone? Presumably because it causes suffering; and suffering is bad. But if suffering is bad, then it's not just bad when someone is harmed, it's also bad when someone is not helped. Suffering is bad, regardless of whether the suffering was precipitated by an action, or allowed to continue by an omission.

Standing alone, the rule "do no harm" is not consistent with the belief that suffering is bad, independent of how the suffering was caused. A more reasonable rule, then, would accept that our existence inevitably causes suffering but also allows us to alleviate suffering. Such a rule thus involves some positive duties we are obliged to offer in order to at least balance the harm we do. This view is not only more in line with our intuitions about suffering being bad (and alleviating suffering being good), it also creates a more symmetric argument. Wherever rights are supposed to come from, why would there be negative rights without any positive rights? Why would there be a right against being harmed, without a right to being helped? Why would there be a right against being murdered, without a right to living? Such asymmetry appears not to be the consequence of logic, but of legal convenience. Nearly all secular and religious laws take a negative form. That is, laws require that someone not do something – not steal, not murder, etc. Laws that require positive duties are much harder to prescribe and enforce. Should I be arrested for not helping as many individuals as I can? Part of the appeal of negative rights was thus 'reverse engineered' from the practice of law. But morality and law are distinct institutions, as something that cannot be prosecuted in a court may still be bad. (It is also worth noting that there are a number of Good Samaritan and criminal negligence laws on the books – laws that oblige individuals to help others – though they are often morally inconsistent and differ considerably from state to state and nation to nation.)

I have argued that both consequentialism and nonconsequentialism support a view of positive rights and duties that demands much of us. Putting more effort into helping others may detract from some of the things we currently enjoy. However, when weighed against the suffering of those in need of our help, we will probably find that what is lost is of less moral significance than what is gained.

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Vegan Outreach is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the suffering of farmed animals by promoting informed, ethical eating.

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